On Storytelling in Video Games

Written by Joseph

On Storytelling in Video Games | bluchickenninja.com

I like to play video games. I play quite a few different genres, and I prefer science fiction and fantasy. But I have pretty much one rule for whether I’ll enjoy a game or not — it has to have a good story.

As a creative writer I suppose I have some kind of storylust, some instinctive need to seek out compelling tales. Some of my favourite video games are hugely story based; I love Dragon Age and Mass Effect. And one of my favourite genres is the ‘interactive story’ type of games, which have recently seen a surge in popularity. I’m talking about the choose-your-own adventure type of things here, like Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead and DontNod’s Life is Strange. I find these games have more unique and gripping stories than many other traditional titles, and even the action often offers more excitement.

I bought Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us in the Steam summer sale the other day (oh, my poor wallet!) and I played it from start to finish today. It lacked some of the heart-wrenchery of The Walking Dead, but I was surprised by how fast my pulse raced during the action scenes. Many games have dialogue-based choices that affect the plot, but it’s rare to see a story where missing a punch can result in the entire story taking a new turn. I was pleased that the climax (minor spoilers here) was a battle of dialogue rather than fists (or in Bigby Wolf’s case, claws), and it’s so satisfying to win by crafting a brilliant argument when you know the whole plot might be for nothing if you lose.

With the rest of my day I played another game, one of my favourites ever, which reminded me why I love videogames as a storytelling medium almost as much as I love books. The Stanley Parable is a triumph of player choice in video games, highlighting the expectation — the ‘real story’ — and contrasting it with the player’s freedom to do whatever they please. The Narrator, fantastically acted by Kevan Brighting, narrates, berates and conflates Stanley’s story, sometimes playing omnipotent god, sometimes playing a crying, bumbling fool. The whole premise of the story is summed up in one of the first rooms you encounter. A blank room with two doors, the narrator says ‘Faced with two doors, Stanley went through the door on the left.’ The brilliance of this is that you of course have the choice to either do as he says, or disobey and take the right door.

And this is what I love about stories in games — you can explore metanarratives and branching stories in a way you could never do in text form. Games can have brilliant stories, but the player can stand still, letting their immortal character languish in some hellish purgatory. You can make a story where there isn’t one, or ignore the story that’s given to you. There’s a reason novels and text-stories remain popular, but I think we don’t give enough credit to new media forms of storytelling, especially when they can bring us so many innovative ways to tell our tales.

Thanks for reading
🙂

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32 Responses to “On Storytelling in Video Games”

  1. Charlie

    I haven’t downloaded The Wolf Among Us. I will be on Friday. I can’t wait since it’s based on my favorite comics. 🙂

    Reply
  2. that scribbler

    “You can make a story where there isn’t one.”

    Completely agree. And this is something I most often do. Playing out my own version in my head gives a satisfying sense of power!

    Reply
    • Joseph

      Yeah I always do this sort of thing, especially in games like Skyrim where there’s so much freedom.

      Reply
  3. mithrril

    I totally agree! All of my favorite games are very story heavy. Dragon Age is my favorite game series of all time and I also really enjoy Mass Effect. I have The Wolf Among Us but I haven’t played it yet. But I loved The Walking Dead! I’m always looking for new games with great interactive stories.

    Cayt @ Vicarious Caytastrophe

    Reply
    • Joseph

      You should definitely play Wolf 🙂 The mystery is really well-crafted, I got sucked right in 😀

      Reply
  4. wickedpixiegirl

    I totally agree ! All my favourite video games have a good story. I’m playing Life Is Strange at the moment which enables you to play with time in a way that is impossible in a written narrative.

    Reply
    • Joseph

      Exactly, it’s stuff like that that I love 🙂 Life is strange is amazing, such a brilliant story.

      Reply
  5. Magpiemakingdo

    Dragon Age is seriously the greatest. I must admit that discovering the series had ALMOST as much to do with my absence from the blogosphere as my anxiety. So few games have the kind of awesome storycrafting that Dragon Age and the Wolf Among Us have.

    Still haven’t tried the Mass Effect games…. I’m not great at games you have to aim a gun/laser/phaser/whatever. The mechanics just don’t work for me as well as a sword for whatever reason. One of these days I’ll bite the bullet and try…

    Reply
    • Joseph

      One of the great things about mass effect is that it has a ‘story’ difficulty (I think that’s what they call it), which makes the combat fun and easy, letting you focus on the storylines and decision making. ME is so well written, and the implementation of save transfers really helps the feeling of an epic story.

      Reply
    • bluchickenninja

      Have to admit I wasn’t impressed with Dragon Age. I picked it up during one of the steam sales but only played about 5 minutes of it. Mass Effect was very meh. I’ve finished the first and started the second, but again wasn’t that amazed by them.

      Reply
    • Joseph

      hnnnggg i know right. It looks so pretty… and I’m dying to know who the person in the N7 armour in the trailer is!

      Reply
  6. MidnightBanshi

    To me, if a game doesn’t have a good story, I lose interest in it quickly. Some of my favorite games that tell a great story are the inFamous series, Watch Dogs, Sleeping Dogs, and Assassin’s Creed – great stories!

    Reply
    • Joseph

      I found I really enjoy the assassins creed games up to a point… when the game mechanics get in the way of the story I tend to lose interest… I still haven’t finished any of them haha

      Reply
  7. Ann

    As a voracious reader, I also look for a great story in a game. I think the most compelling thing about video games is that you become a part of the story. When you read a book, you are an observer, but in a well-designed game, you’re a part of the action.

    Reply
    • Joseph

      I totally agree… for example I rarely get scared by horror movies or books, but games absolutely terrify me. Something to do with being able to change the course of the action (or not as the case may be)

      Reply
  8. DibblesandDabs

    I see Skyrim prominently displayed on your shelf 🙂 … one of my all-time favorite series of games! I share your interests in the type of games I like, and I am particularly fond of those that draw you in with a gripping story line or whisk you off into a land of make believe. Thanks for sharing some of your favorite titles.

    Reply
  9. Hiner Spees

    Couldn’t agree more. I very much enjoyed the Wolf Among Us and Mass Effect I probably have played now about seven times and I am still discovering new details. And every time I see some of these silly dicussions about how good or bad the graphics supposedly of a game is (now again with Fallout 4) I just have to shake my head. The true immersion is created by the richness of the world and a good story will accomplish this much better than any “realistic” graphics. All of the Telltale games (like the Wolf and Walking Dead) prove this over and over.

    Reply
    • Joseph

      I totally agree. Graphics being high tech or ‘realistic’ has nothing on graphics being suitable for the game. That’s what works so well for the Telltale games, the graphics are gorgeous without being high tech, but most importantly they’re the perfect fit for what those games are trying to do.

      Reply
  10. avsongbird

    I’ve always loved a good story, and as more and more movies come out rehashing old ones, and with horror movies foregoing story for the sake of gore and torture porn, it’s pleasantly surprising to me to find that there are still so many video games out there with real stories behind them. I love Sci Fi and fantasy and more and more it seems that to find good stories in horror you almost have to turn to video games any more.

    Reply
  11. Nthato Morakabi

    A great article and I find that I am the same with the Sci-Fi fantasy, which is why I enjoyed the Final Fantasy and Star Ocean games which blended the two really well with both story and gameplay action that made them fun.

    I’m still a big sucker for those types of games.

    Reply
  12. silverbullethead

    Because of that I might buy The Stanley Parable. I hear it’s got some great breaking the fourth wall moments too. I love comedy, especially in games.

    Reply
    • Joseph

      It kind of breaks the fourth wall, in as much as the narrator talks to Stanley about how he’s constructed the story. I don’t think there’s any points where it acknowledges that there is a player controlling him though. It’s bloody hilarious, Brighting as the narrator is utterly brilliant. Definitely recommend 😀

      Reply

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