Thanus Mohanarajn and Diego Valdivia 1) Introduction
Storytelling has existed in its most primitive form since millennia ago. Over the course of history, stories have developed into rich experiences of retelling events, both real and imaginary. They appear in classical poetry, religious and mythological text, playwrights and novelists. With the advent of technology, media has provided another outlet for storytelling, and the newest form is in video gaming.
Unfortunately, as with anything, things didn’t start well and video game storytelling has a long way to go if it wants to achieve literary status like novels and scripture.
2) Why Put Stories in Games?
There is still debate on whether or not stories and narrative elements are necessary for video games. Examples of games that don’t need stories include Tetris, Asteroids, and Pong. However, these games have one thing in common; they were developed during the early stages of gaming. This is known as the ‘Great Debate’. Modern games need the complexity of narrative in order to compete with the complexity of gameplay and environments.
Stories are put into video games for various reasons: enhance entertainment/replayability value, attract a wider audience, keep gamer interest and marketing.
i) Enhance Entertainment
Games require a contextual environment in which a player needs to partake and believe in. This is necessary to provide a sense of progress and accomplishment, rather than mundane dissatisfactory competition.
Examples: Sports Games – Exhibition vs. Regular Season vs. Playoffs vs. Championship Game
RPG Games – Spawning Characters vs. Final Boss
ii) Attract Wider Audience
The inclusion of a story will ensure more gamers; gameplay will automatically draw in gamers but an added incentive of a “good” story will attract more gamers who might have dismissed the game beforehand. Besides an increase in budget, modern games should incorporate some sort of narrative (with the exception of mini/pulp games like Crazy Birds).
iii) Keep Gamer Interest
As an extension from a wider audience, story can push gamers to play their games for longer durations of time. Smaller games that involve only high scores may not entice gamers if they had complicated stories, but to reiterate, any modern game that doesn’t fall in that category needs a narrative.
Gameplay isn’t easily marketable and advertised, so the inclusion of characters, taglines, synopsises, or environment artwork will be required to get potential gamers to buy their games. All these elements are necessary for stories to exist.
The appropriateness of including a story depends on the genre of game. Mentioned earlier, games like Tetris, Space Invaders and Pong don’t need a story to garner any success, and can serve as a distraction.
Ultimately, the following design rule needs to be followed:
Gameplay Comes First
A successful game needs to find a balance between story and gameplay, without one overshadowing the other.
Factors To Determine The Level Of Inclusion Of Narrative:
i) Length – Shorter games don’t need a story, just a context to play the game in. Longer games will need a story to keep longevity of gameplay and player interest.
ii) Characters – If the game is avatar-based, or there are central characters, back stories and a narrative are required to invest time in the game.
iii) Degree Of Realism
The level of abstraction to a game or its realism can affect the type of narrative used in the games. Characters usually decide what level of story is necessary: racing games are realistic but don’t really require a story (bad examples include Midnight Club), and smaller games like Ms. Pac Man can have a story or plot (list other games).
iv) Emotional Richness
This is more relevant to single player games, as one who plays these games is willing to invest their own free time to care about playing the game. Simple achievements and gameplay tension (will be discussed later) are not enough for players to continue playing the game; characters and story are tried-and-true components that keep people interested.
4) Key Concepts of Storytelling
Definition: retelling or an account of a series of events (fictional and non-fictional)
Three components to a story are required in order to define a series of events: credibility, coherency, and dramatic meaningfulness.
The accuracy of a non-fictional retelling (with exceptions like sensationalizing or inserting dramatic scenes to increase emotion and depth) and the believability of a fictional story are criteria that need to be met by game designers. This is associated with the term “suspension of disbelief”, where the viewers, or in this case gamers, have to accept the “reality” they now live in without overanalyzing and critiquing the validity of its potential existence. A good writer will set up the world in a way so the participant is integrated into the experience and not just an external bystander. In addition to this, characters that have three dimensions to their back story and personality would help gamers to relate or emote with the characters, creating the illusion of purpose and consequence with virtual beings.
The thematic structure of a story and its elements must be relevant to each other and not seem arbitrary. For example, a story about the Apollo space program should not have any scenes that are irrelevant to the theme at hand, like a flashback to Ancient Egypt. This extends to an appropriate tangent, where a scene involving the birth of astronomy is acceptable.
iii) Dramatic Meaningfulness:
With more relevancy to characters, this technique details the importance of a story that has relatable characters that the gamer will come to care about. The empathy should not be forced (aka melodrama) but there are cases where writers will use this to get easy reactions. An accepted form of empathy should come through naturally through the story development, as the gamer will set the tone for their experience and not be force fed how to feel. The events of the game should lead players through a journey of introduction, rising action, denouement and conclusion. Similarly, thematic elements of the story not connected to its characters can be used as dramatic meaningfulness, but is harder to execute due to human tendencies to best emphasize when other humans are involved.
Definition: a story that the player interacts with by contributing actions to it, and despite the player’s action inability to alter the plot direction, the story can still be interactive
The time setting for games is in the present, as the player has an interactive role in the story development and progress of the game itself. This active role differs from a reader or a viewer of film or TV, as they are passive agents. Three types of interactive story events are the following:
i) Player Events:
They are actions that the player performs that are separate from the gameplay, and have an affect on the story. Examples of this include the RPG genre where the playable character has to interact with NPCs to get information not known by the traditional storytelling methods. They are actively getting information that wouldn’t be mandatorily provided to them to advance the plot.
ii) In-Game Events:
These are events that are part of the game, and not directly available for the player to alter. The actual relationship can either be indirect or non-existent. A player action can trigger an event that would happen always due to its built-in existence in the game mechanics. Examples of this include walking guards in Metal Gear Solid, or the player moves an item that triggers the trap door to fall.
iii) Narrative Events:
This will be explained in the Narrative section, but is defined as events that the player has no control over. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the player will witness them; this goes hand-in-hand with game progression and overcoming certain obstacles.
Traditionally, a narrative cannot be considered interactive due to its passive nature and the fact that it is linear. The ability to change the plot direction and its events is called ‘agency’. However, video games provide an added dimension of interactivity as their contribution to the story progression creates that experience. This idea will be further outlined in the presentation, and will be more transparent with regards to its purpose. Basically, video games allow the player to approach an obstacle in many different ways. The start state and end state of an objective may promote linearity, but the events in between them that enable the player to move from the start to the end is non-linear; they get to choose how they get to their destination.
It is important that events in an interactive game story should not depart from its thematic nature. This violates the principles of a good story (coherency, credibility, dramatic meaningfulness) and such examples include charitable actions in Grand Theft Auto.
Definition: text or the discourse produced by the act of narration (retelling of a story by an overseer, or external agent), it is non-interactive and the player has no influence in the events to come
Video game players will not have any control of the narrative; it is pre-determined and cannot be prevented. All players that want to progress in the game must go through the journey of the narrative development. The events that don’t happen with the avatar present can be shown to the player, but the principle of pre-determinism still stands. Its purpose is to contextualize the environment that player will participate in and give a sense of urgency and background necessary to delve into that mindset.
Narrative blocks are used to present narrative to the game player. Depending on the context of the genre and the type of narrative, different methods are used to convey information to the player. The four types of narrative blocks are as follows:
The introduction to the story of the game and sets the stage for the player entering the foreign environment. A proper introduction should be designed because the information provided in this brief (and sometimes not too brief) sequence will need to be enough to persuade the gamer to continue to play the game.
ii) Ending Sequence:
Similar to the opening sequence, the ending sequence wraps up any storylines after the game has “finished”, and possibly introduces potential storylines in the form of cliffhangers, or open-ended conclusions. This technique is heavily applied for sequels, with the modern trend following the ways of Hollywood (for the most part), where the sequel hopes to continue the story and character development naturally. This can make or break a game, much like a third act, as a forced sequel cliffhanger may throw off gamers from purchasing a second game, since it will likely be a derivative instead of a natural continuation of narrative. On the other side of the coin, more of the same is a bigger trend, and customers unfortunately have shown interest in sequels, despite much criticism on its necessity.
iii) Interlevel Sequence:
This is usually used as a setup for the following challenge or level; it only provides enough information to give some background for the events to follow. A variation of this sequence is a cut-scene, where its purpose is to develop the narrative and show possible character development. The emphasis on literary devices is prominent and its inclusion in the game is important, as in many cases, this is the only part of the game where narrative progress can be made. The length of the sequences vary on genre; fast-paced games have shorter sequences of up to 5 minutes, while slower-paced games like RPGs will spend more time on these sequences.
Design Rule = Noninteractive Sequences Must Be Interruptible
The forms of narrative that are included in games are prerendered movies, cut-scenes using the graphics engines (interactive but not manipulative), text-based and voiceover. Rarely used, unlike in plays and film, is the monologue, but is certainly used properly given the appropriate storyline and situation.
Forms that are not considered narratives include consequence-based actions, like talking to a non-playable character. These characters have pre-deteremined dialogue and is triggered by whatever input you provide (usually a line of dialogue) as the avatar. Due to this detail, they are not considered narrative devices; however a long monologue given by an NPC is considered a narrative.
Finding a balance between gameplay and narrative is challenging; too much narrative and too little gameplay can alienate gamers as they are non-active for the better part of the game, while too much gameplay and too little narrative will disrupt a flow and may come off as lazy or uninspiring. The argument can be made that the latter situation is not one to worry about amongst gamers, but from a narrative perspective, this will result in an emotionless, non-purposeful game. Narrative ensures that gamers can get some sort of satisfaction, conclusion and experience out of a game. The key part to gaming is interaction; to make the player feel like they are actively affecting the outcome of the game. This illusion is necessary for any possibility of enjoyment; if the balance of narrative and gameplay is not found, the illusion will be broken. Film editing can be used as a comparison to video games and what structure it should strive for. The exposition of characters and events should be properly organized with the faster-paced, less expository scenes. If this balance, or editing, does not feel right, it can detriment the video game’s success. There are exceptions to the rule of course, but as a general rule, this should be followed. Each game genre will have its own acceptance of what balance is required, so using the film methods as a guideline will help game designers immensely.
Design Rule: Do Not Seize Control of the Avatar.
5) Dramatic Vs. Gameplay Tension
Dramatic Tension – This is a by-product of proper usage of literary techniques such as cliff-hangers, plot twists, conflict and rising action. It is important for any type of narrative to have dramatic tension, as it leads to desire and anticipation of any future (or past) revelations. Games that use these techniques with excellent results are:
GTA: Vice City
Gameplay Tension - The actual playing of the game leads to gameplay tension, where the gamer is stressed due to in-game challenges and obstacles, and the potential of success and failure. This tension is heightened in certain parts of a game, including boss battles, timed challenges, puzzle-solving and seemingly impossible tasks. Programmers allow gamers to experience this by increasing the difficulty of the game, or incorporating near impossible difficulty levels in the game. Some games that use this technique to create the most stress include:
1) Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening (non Special Edition) – The difficulty was supposedly very unconventional for an action/adventure; Easy Mode in this game was equivalent to another game’s Hard Mode. This led to the re-release of the game as a Special Edition, and decreased the level of difficulty and introduced another easier level. Also, more checkpoints were added to ease the progress of gameplay. -> Dante Must Die Mode
2) Demon Souls
3) Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty – European Extreme Mode
- One Hit Kill (especially with bosses, thugs take 2 or 3 hits)
- Game Over when caught or when guard see you
6) The False Analogy
The two tensions should not be considered to be related or share the same qualities with respect to video gaming. Two terms that differ in meaning when applied to these tensions are randomness and repetition.
Dramatic tension cannot abide by these two terms; the narrative has to have a “purpose” or logical structure conceived with the beginning, middle and end in mind at the creation of it. Likewise, the repetitiveness of storylines within an overarching narrative of a game, and relatively, in sequels of games (sequelitis) bogs it down and makes the gamer disinterested. Exceptions to this rule are variations on randomness and repetition, to remove the sense of sameness or lack of originality. Gameplay tension, however, can rely on these two terms. Great examples include Poker, Tetris, and RPGs. The spawning of many enemies and simple game components (blocks in Tetris) can lead to heavy tension in gameplay, which can be both good and bad.
7) Storytelling Engine
It is the module of the game that organizes the narration and execution of the story events, and keeps track of player progress during the story to trigger the appropriate event response. It is active in the sense that it is constantly tracking player progress, but it can also be seen as only reacting to triggers in the core mechanics. The designers of the engine are responsible to ensure that the story in continous and follows the principles of a good game, while weaving the story elements together. The engine has to work with the core mechanics to enable a single experience, and the responibilities are divided amongst the two: storytelling engine handles narrative events and the core mechanics deals with player and in-game events.
The relationship between the two modules is two-way, meaning that communication and updates about the game status are sent back and forth. An example of this relationship is the event where a player has finished a level and the core mechanics sends that update to the storytelling engine to continue the story from that checkpoint. Once the story has progressed via narrative cut-scenes, it returns a message to the core mechanics to continue the gameplay. Game designers have to plan where these checkpoints or trigger points are located within a game’s timeline and must explicitly define all of their properties to ensure continuity.
8) Linear vs. Nonlinear Stories
A linear story refers to the inability of the player to alter the story and its events (pre-determinism). However, this does not exclude the possibility of interactivity, as gaming provides the in-between actions that can be a subset of an infinite amount of actions to get from checkpoint to checkpoint.
- Linear stories require less content than non linear ones due to pre-determinism
- Storytelling engine is simpler due to less management
- Lower budget and less time intensive
- Less prone to bugs and absurdities, and is relatable to film continutity errors
- Greater emotional power due to controlling nature of the story
- No player agency, which can argue that it is less realistic than its non-linear counterparts
- Can limit the story length and its complexity
A nonlinear story refers to the ability of the player to alter the story and its events (freedom of choice). This implies that there are multiple story paths a player can partake, depending on their choices during their time in the game. The two major types of nonlinear stories are branching and foldback stories.
9) Foldback Stories
Compromise between linear and branching -> limited agency
Variety of inevitable events within a narrative, combined with branching nonlinear events
Illusion of agency provided to player; overall narrative remains “linear”
Ensures writer can establish emotion and character development without too many tangents
Most used method of storytelling in modern games, due to the illusion of complexity
Critical turning points (cliffhangers, plot twists) should be designed as inevitabilities
Possibility of multiple storylines and experiences depending on player actions
Storytelling engine keeps track of the decisions players make and works with the core mechanics
Branch point – “fork in the road”
Two influences: overcoming challenges or story making the player choose their fate
Immediate: branching occurs right away (easiest to implement)
Deferred: branching occurs a while after the player action has been made (e.g. the dog in Resident Evil 4)
Cumulative: multiple actions have an effect on the upcoming branching of the story
Important: consequences of choices must be made clear by the game designer (eg. RPGs and character choices) and must be rational
Buildup of choices can lead to story influences as well as change character interactions
Tree with nodes representing potential story events and branch points, multiple sub trees due to branching
Can only go forward in progress, and repetition in story is not recommended
Branching is not exclusive; some sub trees may intersect
One or more start points, and definitely more than one ending
Heavy use of agency provided by the designer
Expensive to implement: branches and branch points need their own narrative and gameplay, can lead to combinatorial explosion
Tree Uniqueness: branching introduces restrictions on future events; merging or intersection cannot occur if the branch point will introduce continuity errors
Game repetition: the player will have to play through the game again if they want to see the alternate storylines
11) Story Endings
Book and film, endings mark an important conclusion to the story, also in video games it can be seen as the most emotional moment, in which the hero reaches the end of his quest and finds closure to his adventure. Video game writers may choose to adopt different closure styles that should complement the video game genre being played. Like most things in life each style has its own set of fortes and risks. There must be a level of satisfaction and accomplishment obtained when successful beating a game, and video game endings must do their job to portrait those feelings.
Single/Closed Ending Stories - Usually used in linear straight forward storytelling, the hero kills/neutralizes the villain and saves the princes. What can be effective about this approach is the power given to the writer to tell the story his way, and like a book he can end it how it seems appropriate and therefore create the "best" ending scenario for that particular storyline. After all, we wouldn't want our plumber hero to fall short of saving peach and finding out she dies a most slow and painful death, right? The downside is that players might get bored of seeing the same routine over and over again, so for this approach there must be a franchise/fan club backbone the story can fall back to for support. Metroid_franchises'>Mario, Zelda and most Metroid franchises are examples of games that have been continually successful despite their repetitive and sometime predictable endings. The bad ones may be opinion based, depending on how much each user liked the story. Furthermore, this style may also choose to display to you your achievements, like time completion or amount of deaths to give you more sense of accomplishment. To avoid disappointed game developers will avoid emphasizing choice making, if they plan on making a closed ending.
Multiple/Open Endings - Naturally this approach is used when developing a story that has more than one path, therefore making it a non-linear story. The user may be encountered with many choices throughout the game that will affect the final outcome. Reflecting the players’ dramatic choices. The power behind Multiple endings is the rewarding feeling of accomplishment when the character you watched grow really has an effect on the story and not just playing along a script. How unsatisfying would it be when during the game you are asked to fill out questions regarding personality traits and asked to choose between good and evil and yet have no impact on the actions that your character will take later on? Some games that have succeeded in implementing this style are Knights of the old republic, Bioshock, Chrono triggermeanwhile games that may have failed at this approach are GTAIV (all are unfulfilling no matter which decision you make). Heavy rain has been reported to have 18 different endings, (guides can be found online to individually achieve all the endings). Dramatic freedom required for open endings.
12) Challenges & Choices
A story isn't required for an open ending, even on multiplayer or competitive game like COD match statistics and awards are given at the end of each match, if you lose a screen displaying "defeat" will appear instead of a "victory". In general players might expect to be rewarded if they met all the games challenges and hidden feature, for example in Metroid if the game was beaten fast enough, then Samus would reveal her appearance at the end of the game. To avoid disappointed game developers will avoid emphasizing choice making, if they plan on making a closed ending.
Simple, the ratio of gameplay vs. cut scenes in a game and how they flow with each other. This section of Storytelling I personally think is crucial to the development of a good story. Narrative Blocks are sections that the game has reserved for cinematic and player independent cut scenes, if a game has a very rough transition between narrative block and game play blocks then the game might feel too much like a procedure and not a game experience. Coarse granularity is used to describe a low frequency and big size narrative block. For example take the game Black, it has lengthy introduction scenes before each missions, and then almost complete quiet during the mission itself, giving it a feel of “story -> game -> story -> game” instead of a nice harmony between the two.
This kind of granularity is adequate if you are looking to only entertain the user for a small period of time, for example a phone app. Small games with little story but fun/addicting gameplay like plants vs. Zombies. But larger games have the capacity to support bigger stories more complex stories so developer strive to accomplish harmony between the blocks, a good example of such game is Bastion, The following game implements a continuous narrator whom tells the story and describes the actions being executed by the player, called infinitesimal granularity. This games truly captures harmony between the storytelling and gameplay, there isn't a obviously marked line between the blocks. A less extreme example is defined as fine granularity where the game displays a decent harmony between narration and gameplay. Each game genre is prone different granularity, but it is up to the creator work on this important concept of gaming. Most parody movies have coarse granularity, in which they focus on making individual scenes of the movie really funny, but may fail to bring it all together as a movie and not just a compilation of funny clips, there is YouTube for that. Epic movie, Date movie, and others.
14) Mechanism for advancing the plot
When media is present in the form of a test/dialogue box, the story can only advance as fast as the user reading it or the display speed. In the video game realm story telling has a similar effect, but it story can also be trigger by certain events or key checkpoints, maybe mission completion. Triggers vary by game genre, mostly in action games like God of War, story is triggered by reaching a certain point in the level. Meanwhile in World of Warcraft, story may only advance once the player chooses to enter a certain area or interact with a specific game character. Like Endings, each approach has strengths and weaknesses that complement the game genre and story. Three sections are Story as a Series of Challenges or Choices, Story as a Journey and Story as Drama.
Story as Series of Challenges is usually not affected by time, time and story advances are proportional to the completion of missions or challenges presented. This approach works well for games like Star Fox and Fast and Furious. Again this concept revolves around mission based games, like real-time strategy or fighting games but also includes RPG, for example Elder Scrollswhere choosing to join a guild or have a partner ex. Lydia (amazing storage system) or flying solo will alter the events and the story development. If a challenge completion based trigger is used too often on a Finely Granulated game like Elder Scrolls then game might feel jerky and straight procedural.
Story as Journey revolves around more avatar centered games, like final fantasy XII where game is free to explore, but stretch yourself too far and areas will be restricted and later unlocked once a certain obstacle is overcome or character level has been achieved. Like Pokemon Red/Blue's and HM 01 - Cut will open new paths that could not be previously accessed. Advantages of this concept are the following:
Novelty: player experiences new areas, weapons, enemies, etc as he advances forward in the game. Experience remains fresh and not repetitive.
Pace Control: Player can choose to advance at their own speed, maybe level up more so you can comfortably beat a certain boss. (Brock with Charmander). Or stop to think what strategy or party of characters you will be using in the next area. Some games may also limit how slow a player can advance through a game, for example a checkpoint that does not allow you to return to the previous area. Usually a locked door or cave collapsing that prevents player from returning or escaping the story, this mechanism make the game more linear but it guarantees the plot to move forward, making it less of a chance for a player to get stuck in the game.
Story as Drama are games where the plot moves forward with or without the player, and sends triggers to the core mechanics to indicate when it's time to give gameplay, this mechanism includes most real-time games, and multiplayer games. Façade put the player in the role of a friend of Grace and Trip (Main characters and Hosts of party), on a pre-party scenario, as a player you aim to be a guest, but if player does nothing, the game will advance and Grace and Trip will react to players silence. Also the game Night Trap (given in text book) has a Story as Drama mechanism.