Chris Tihor moderated an intriguing PAX Prime panel featuring Cameron Harris, Marc Laidlaw, Richard Dansky, Tom Abernathy, and Toiya Kristen Finley. These people are experts in the art of storytelling in video games, making them perfect candidates to debate an interesting question: is storytelling the most important element in games?
The general consensus of the panel is that storytelling is important, but the level of its importance varies based on genre: “When we put narrative and gameplay in this false opposition,” said Richard Dansky during the panel, “is when we run into trouble.”
Dansky went on to further qualify that both narrative and gameplay are parts of the “gamer experience.” Both are important in all games, but the levels in which they are present must be tailored to the game. He noted, for example, that a tower defense game doesn’t need an incredibly detailed backstory, just enough of one to draw in the player.
How important is story to gamers?
Tom Abernathy cited a study showing that, once gamers had been sorted into various demographics based on how they game, almost half of the demographics ranked storytelling as the most important element in games. The other half ranked it in the top three most important elements, and every demographic ranked it above gameplay. According to Abernathy, “if you don’t have gameplay, you don’t have anything.” However, gamers want story, and they value it above almost everything else that makes up video games.
The story of a game is something we continue to experience even when we’re not playing the game anymore. When Toiya Kristen Finley asked the audience if they had ever actually dreamed about games, hands shot up all over the room. In Marc Laidlaw’s words, storytelling is “a part of the game that keeps playing in your mind”.
Narrative, however, must be integrated and work cohesively with the rest of the game. As Dansky noted, “not only does narrative touch every other aspect, every other aspect touches narrative.” A game that just has a story taped onto it as an afterthought won’t have the same meaning to a gamer as one where each little detail of the world and gameplay is related to the story of which the gamer is now a part. The same holds true for a game with an incredibly story but poorly executed gameplay and mechanics. Both are required for a game to be great.
But what about agency?
The panel touched on how agency works in relation to mature themes such as interrogation and general violence.
“Every artist has a responsibility to be thoughtful about the work they’re doing,” said Dansky. However, he does not believe that they should have to shy away from mature themes in games with high sense of agency. Rather, in his opinion, these games must simply “approach material respectfully.”
“What players who value story want [is] to be at the intersection of agency and meaning,” noted Cameron Harris. From her perspective, these gamers want their actions to have meaning. They desire to be important and change the world they’re experiencing. What they really want is for the game to say “you exist” and “you matter”.
Storytelling is ancient and comes naturally to humans. We use it to explain and connect dots. “We naturally impose narrative,” said Harris. Gamers care about story in games because we care about story in general. While storytelling is not the only thing a game needs to be successful, it’s clear that its presence is vital to all games in some form.