Games and Storytelling: Is Story in Video Games Necessary?

Games need stories equal to that of the game play. Know the game you are trying to make and the story will come in the form it needs to be.

Is story in video games necessary?  

It depends  

A long in depth look at a character and their background is not always needed.  Sometimes the less that is known, the better.  Other times a game that has little story at all is best as it only serves to make a reason for an awesome game to exist.  

Then there are the rare ones where the story is the game.  Not only must you immerse yourself into the world but this may be something you will need to create a fresh pot of coffee and dedicate a weekend too.  

All of these are perfectly valid ways of setting up or telling a story for a game.  I also do not claim to be a literature major (I am far from it really...) but I want to look at some different forms of story telling in games and really get into the nitty gritty of why each can be effective.

Basic Stories

First off, Lets get into the basic stories.  The best examples of this come from games like the original Doom or Wolfenstein 3D.  They were not tour de forces when it came to story telling but it didn't need it.  The short snippet that you would read in a little manual was plenty.  

Hell opened up on Mars and now you need to shoot the hell out of some demons?  Sure, let's do this!

I was a POW in a Nazi castle and now need to hunt down Hitler? Freak'n sweet!  Where is my gun?

That small amount of set up gets you in the mind set of what is to come and that is really all someone needs when it comes to a game where you need to run and shoot up enemies.

We could have gone in and explored Hitler's intentions behind seeking out dark arts to rule the world with his Master Race® and how William "B.J." Blaskowicz suffers from PTSD and grapples with the guilt of the death of his best friend because of his own carelessness... But that just seems silly and would most likely come off as a ham-fisted attempt at making character depth and building on something that never needed to be there in the first place.  

You character's last name is Blaskowicz; what the hell more do you want?

Doing it wrong: Dishonored

On the other hand, many games can suffer from not enough building on a character.  

Dishonored really bummed me out on how bland it was: You failed as a body guard, the queen was killed, her daughter taken and you get blamed.  I MUST HAVE MY REVENGE!  

Really?  That's all?  I mean, that is the entire set up?  You don't even show more of the influence the queen had on her subjects and more so how much this little girl meant to you other than a short sequence of hide and seek with her?  Not only do I not care for these other people, why do I seem to want revenge so bad?  

This kingdom, the people in it and the ones plotting against you were all introduced in about 15 minutes of the start of the game.  Take your time and make me feel something for this before throwing me in expecting me to connect with the main characters mind set of seeking this self serviced justice.

Epic Tales

Now we get more into the games that present a very in depth tale of not only a developed world but also the people that inhabit it.  These generally are RPGs and most likely can require a time sink of a whole week end if not months depending on how you play them.

Immersion in these types of games is key.  A good example of these types of games are Planetscape: Torment or Max Payne.  Both have interesting locations we might already know or the developer builds an entirely new world for us to learn the ins and outs of.

Torment thrived on the focus being on the story.  The characters and locations so rich with lore and a universe so fascinating you can just read pages of text on how things work and why they were there. In fact, the combat in the game seemed more of a mean to fill time in between story elements.

Max Payne is a good example as well; the first two games in the series had such an interesting, dark way of telling the tale of a cop's family who is murdered and his life that only seems to spiral out of control from there.  The comic book "cutscenes" as well as the colorful monologue of Max always left wanting to hear more.  Also, the TV shows you could watch in games would tell stories that seemed quite similar to yours but always leave off with some form of foreshadowing.

Also, another topic I want to address in story telling is choice: some games do it well and others make you feel like you are simply picking a candy bar from a vending machine.

Getting it wrong: Mass Effect

The analogy of the vending machine might be a bit harsh, but it is pretty reflective of how most modern Bioware games tend to handle moral choice.  Like it really bothered me in Mass Effect that you need to max out your Charm/ Intimidate stat or Wrex dies.  What is preventing me from saving him otherwise?  I was too dumb before to tell him the same thing I did with the stat maxed?  

Now, there is nothing wrong with giving someone clear options on what you can choose to interact with or not.  Some games need that very clear choice to continue the story but then some games present you with options that you don't even know you were clearly given.

Let's create a quick example:

Indirect Choice: What if in Fallout: New Vegas you entered a small town and a store owner tells you of the shotgun he has under his desk if you try to steal anything.  Being the sneaky bastard you are, you go and steal this gun and it turns out to be a pretty strong weapon.  The next day, however, if you return you find the store closed and a few people surrounding the store.  You ask them what the hubbub is all about and learn that last night a bandit killed the owner and ran off a bunch of supplies.  The store owner could not defend himself and thus was killed when he most likely reached for his gun that was no longer there. Because you stole it. 

This is my idea of indirect choice.  Don't make me choose an option like

"Steal the owners gun while he is not looking? Y/N"  

That is an immersion breaker to me that triggers something in my brain that says,

"Hold on... why would it be giving me a clear option unless this will have some impact later?"  

This is especially bad when everything in the game pauses until you make a choice.  I can sit there for an hour with my gun to a characters head before actually choosing to pull the trigger.

Doing it right - Deus Ex: Human Revolution

In recent memory I remember Deus Ex: Human Revolution having a story beat where my boss tells me to get to a hostage situation and debunk it.  Instead, I stuck in the office and dicked around for a good while.  Because I did not leave in a timely manner, I arrived the the scene with tons of dead hostages.  I didn't even realize they could be saved until a second play through by responding immediately.

These sorts of choices tend to had a larger impact on me then anything that I have direct control over.  I felt regret and actually contemplated going back to an earlier save.  This makes you actually live with a choice you made without knowing you even made it.  You must come to terms with that choice and move on to the next challenge knowing these things.

Recommended Playing

For some ideas on how some games can have surprising depth and detail check out:

  • Spec Ops: The Line
  • Binary Domain
  • Deadly Premonition

Most of these have been talked about to great lengths by people bigger and more authoritative then I so I will just recommend you check them out. Also seeing as the Director's Cut of Deadly Premonition is right around the corner, I might give that a whirl and see what they have changed.

So in conclusion:

What makes a good game story?

The answer: Depends on what you are trying to tell.  

There are so many different ways to tell a story and really it depends of many factors.  Your audience, the tone, the setting and even the way a character is meant to act.  If you find that thing that drives the creative process for the rest of the game, run with it.  Sometimes even an award winning author can enjoy writing a straightforward story just so he can write about some dude punching helicopters out of the air.  Not everything needs hidden depth or meaning.


I like video games so I talk about them! Works for me!

Published Apr. 18th 2013
  • Mat Westhorpe
    Featured Columnist
    This was a great, thought-provoking read. Thanks for stirring the pot, it has evoked so many opinions and ideas I couldn't do them justice in a single comment. I may have to sink my teeth into this topic later. :)

    One thing which immediately sprung to mind was the self-defeating nature of video game storytelling as shown in your Deus Ex: Human Revolution example:

    "Because I did not leave in a timely manner, I arrived the the scene with tons of dead hostages. I didn't even realize they could be saved until a second play through by responding immediately."

    I think that exemplifies both a strength and a problem with video game storytelling. The fact that the player is the protagonist should provide the capacity for a much greater degree of immersion, facilitating a much more advanced form of storytelling than is possible through other media. However, the fact that you were unaware of your true influence in your example shows that, as consumers of narrative, we tend to assume that the experience is on rails, because that is what we're used to. Because so few games offer this level of interaction, its power is often lost on us.

    Which is a real shame.

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