The Nature of Narrative in Video Games

This Essay is posted in Opinion.

Disclaimer! This is completely an Opinion based upon 25 years of playing narrative-driven video games and 10 years of creative writing. Please be respectful in the comments if you disagree. Trolling and viciousness will not be tolerated.

Video Games as Narrative Devices

I don’t post about video games often, and part of the reason is that the narrative structure in video games is very often superfluous to the experience of actually playing the game, and as such it doesn’t fit the nature of this blog 99 out of 100 times. But I have a long and storied history with the video game, as I was born the year before the Nintendo Entertainment System released stateside. I was the perfect age to grow up alongside the burgeoning medium, and I took to it like the aliens from Signs took to water. Wait, I mean the opposite. For as long as I can really remember I have owned a video game console, and one of the types of video games I played throughout my adolescent years was the Role Playing Game, or RPG, which have had a heavy emphasis on story since the early days of the NES.

Shining Force II on the SEGA Genesis was my first introduction to storytelling in games that went beyond “go here and save this” – even though a lot of that was present. It had a lively cast of characters, some of whom actually had story arcs and character development beyond “I’m here to join the party!” It had my first tearful reaction to a game when a character joins you, grows as a person, leaves you to further their journey, and comes back unexpectedly to betray you later. You have to defeat him in battle and saying goodbye was impossibly hard for my ten-year-old self. It’s not the smoothest or the most well-written thing to ever happen in storytelling, but it sure was effecting to me as a kid.

It is with that frame of reference that I tell you I have deep respect for video games that attempt to tell a story inbetween or through the game mechanics instead of tacking on a story for the sake of it. From Final Fantasy to Shining Force to Legend of Zelda to more recent outings such as Max Payne, Alan Wake, the Halo franchise, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, The Last of Us, Ni No Kuni, Bioshock Infinite, they try to tell interesting stories in interesting worlds instead of just having a basic premise that allows for fun gameplay. Some of them even explore interesting political, philosophical, moral, and ethical themes.

It is also with that frame of reference that I am very judgmental of storytelling in video games, for two reasons.

1. Many developers view an interactive experience as a way to tell a story, but it is counter-productive in a couple of ways. Telling a story removes player agency from the game. Player agency is giving the player of your game the freedom to make choices that actually matter. If your character always, no matter what, has to walk through this hallway, experience this cutscene, kill this enemy, then the act of doing these things is not as fulfilling because there is no real choice in the matter. It feels hollow. But if there are five different ways to approach that hallway and get through it alive, you have a lot of gameplay agency as regards game mechanics but still very little plot agency because you still have to go through the hallway and you still have to watch this cutscene and you still have to kill this enemy. You can explore both elements with video games, and it’s incorrect to assume that one way is correct and the other is not. People like different things.

This concept that an interactive game that prevents you from doing anything more than watching a story play out for large portions of the game means that the game is no longer fulfilling its premise as an interactive experience. It is a partially-interactive visual story. When people play video games, they are expecting feedback in response to their actions, followed by more actions and more feedback in a continual loop. When a player finishes a really difficult puzzle, or beats a really difficult boss, and their reward is to sit back and watch a scene that they cannot interact with, the continual loop is broken. It defeats the point of the interactive medium like a video game. Your brain has to then shuttle between ‘pure intake’ and ‘intake because of output’, effectively causing a bit of dissonance in the experience. It’s not always easy to switch between “watching” and “playing”. Different parts of the brain are activated when engaged in one or the other, and for this gamer that means I get fidgety when I’m playing and then am subjected to a long cutscene for story; I feel like I should be doing something instead of watching. The inverse is also true, when the long cutscene finally ends and I regain control, it’s a struggle to go back to active participant versus passive viewer. Again I’m not saying that it’s wrong, necessarily. But it does, in my mind, defeat the purpose of interactive storytelling.

By way of an example, take Resident Evil 4, one of those universally-acclaimed video games of two console generations ago. There are plenty of cutscenes in this game, and then there are also plenty of pseudo-cutscenes in which Quick Time Events (QTEs) occur, requiring split-second button presses at a sudden and unexpected prompting onscreen. I’m not 100% sure on this, but I seem to remember that early in the game there are no QTEs during cutscenes, effectively splitting “playing” and “watching” at different sections. Then right in the middle of a cutscene somewhere around midway through the game, just when you’ve settled into “passive viewing” for a cutscene, BAM! QTE comes your way, and you miss it and die before you can even register that you’re supposed to be “playing”. So then, for the rest of the game, you’re ready to hop into “playing” even in the middle of a cutscene because it established a precedent that it might do so. This was actually detrimental to me in a different way, because now the game expected me to take in narrative and dialogue – nuance of story and character – while still being engaged enough in the possibility of “playing” that I could never immerse in the story being told during a cutscene unless I was sure I wouldn’t be interrupted by a QTE. And to be sure of that I have to have played the scene before. So in order for me to fully engage in the cutscene I have to do it twice, which I’m probably going to have done anyway because of fidgety, split-second QTEs.

My point is that it’s hard to play a game and experience a traditional story at the same time without some kind of dissonance between the two parts occurring.

2. Because, by their very nature, video games are interactive, the kinds of storytelling one can do are, at their core, very different from non-interactive storytelling mediums. And we’re only just beginning to really explore this space of non-traditional storytelling with games.

In some cases, such as the game Flower for PlayStation, there is no real story being told, but it is an interactive adventure that evokes emotion from the player with visual cues brought on by that player’s actions. A player is responsible for the journey in Flower, and that is what makes it so compelling to so many people. This cannot be recreated in a non-interactive medium without losing the essence of WHY it works as an experience.

Speaking of journeys, another game by the same studio that did Flower is Journey. The story being told is very subtle, and very different. It prevents common means of communication with your multiplayer partner, delivering the context and the emotion of the story in a very passive way, without dialogue or traditional narrative structure.

Braid, one of the more critically-acclaimed indie titles, tells a story through less visual means (with narrative literally popping up on the screen in certain parts of the game), but what made Braid so compelling was that the story being experienced was complemented by every aspect of the gameplay and the world in which the character plays. It was a very beautiful cohesion of the narrative and the elements that made up the world and the entities in it. To a slightly lesser extent, Silent Hill 2 had already done this by making sure the elements of the story being told and the elements of the game being played were halves of the same coin.

The point is that we’re telling what might be the wrong kinds of stories in our video games. AAA, narrative-driven, Hollywood-blockbuster style stories are, at their core, defeating one of the most beautiful aspects of interactive video games: making our presence in the story matter, personalizing the experience.

Which brings me to the next object of discussion:

Narrative in Games via Illusion of Choice

Bioshock Infinite had a lot of problems, and it was as self-defeating as it was an interesting treatise on choice or the lack thereof. I won’t go into detail on account of spoilers. Suffice it to say that it was a flawed experience, but its thoughts on player agency were intriguing and for that reason alone I view it as an important game of 2013. Not one of the best, but important nonetheless. Playing it last year is part of what made me start dwelling on these concepts. A game that makes you think, even if it is to point out how wrong some aspects of its story were, cannot be all bad, can it?

The Illusion of Choice (in more psychological circles known as the Illusion of Control) is a construct known well in video games. The Illusion of Choice states that when you are given multiple options, you are convinced that you have, as a player, some manner of control over the actions your character takes. The story often changes based on the choices you make, and outcomes vary depending on the overall strata of decisions you are given in the game as a whole. The reason that it is known as an Illusion of Choice is simple: no matter how you approach a video game that gives you choices in how to proceed with story or gameplay, you can never make an outcome that isn’t pre-planned by the game developers actually occur. All choices you make are scripted choices, and you are only choosing which version of a story or scene you experience no matter how indepth the choices seem.

Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fable, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, The Elder Scrolls, Telltale’s The Walking Dead. These and others all have claimed to have dynamic and changing worlds based on your actions and decisions, but you’re still working in a framework, no matter how loose, of pre-planned events and outcomes. Mass Effect, somewhat infamously, used the concept that all the of the hard choices and gameplay decisions you made throughout the first two games would somehow dramatically affect the story in the third game. It, according to many, failed miserably to deliver on its promise, and I would agree with that as far as story is concerned. That’s to say nothing of how people reacted to the original ending, but that’s neither here nor there in this discussion. Despite the failings of their Illusions of Choice, Mass Effect 1 and 2 continue to be some of my favorite narrative-driven video games, because even though my choices ultimately did not change the broad strokes of the story, they changed how I felt about the story.

That isn’t to say that the Illusion of Choice is necessarily a bad thing. In giving a player the illusion that their choices matter – that they decide who lives and who dies, which empires fall and which ones rise up, who is punished and who is exiled – video games personalize the story and gameplay, in effect helping the player form emotional bonds with the fake people they interact with, or giving them a sense that this town they go out of their way to protect really does owe them a debt of gratitude. The Illusion of Choice is, in many contexts, actually a way for the player to relate to the story being told, whether their choices effect large or small things or truly none at all. It is not the story that truly changes, but your emotional connection to it. See my above example for Mass Effect to better understand the context of this concept.

So games like Mass Effect, Fable, and The Walking Dead are doing some pretty good things with interactive storytelling. They aren’t doing what they advertise – not quite – but they’re fulfilling an aspect of interactive storytelling that I hope to see more of in the future. They use player choice to engage player emotion. Even if the stories they tell are cliché and riddled with tropes, they make me care.

And isn’t that what telling a story is all about?

When Gameplay Breaks Narrative

This might be a more specific example, but not all games are as cohesive in melding the narrative with the gameplay mechanics as Braid or Silent Hill 2. Sometimes the game is The Last of Us. Sometimes the game is Heavy Rain.

Let me explain. Heavy Rain has an exceptionally strong focus on its narrative. The story is as important to the game as the mechanics of the game in delivering that story to you. David Cage of Quantic Dream, creator of Heavy Rain, has a very specific goal when it comes to the future of video games, and it is making them as realistic as possible. Hyper-realistic graphics enable games to transcend their boundaries as games. I’m of the opinion that graphics are just another in a vast arsenal of tools to enhance a game, and when used correctly, even low-grade graphics by today’s standards can elevate a narrative.

The problem with Cage’s focus is actually less in making the games as real as possible (though the Uncanny Valley does want a word with him), but in forcing gameplay mechanics on the most mundane of tasks. In Heavy Rain, you can be expected to do simple things like turn knobs in the shower, open drawers, carry groceries, brush your teeth. But simple, mundane tasks in video games have a way of seeming redundant, incalculably cumbersome, and mentally limiting when “close drawer” requires a button press and then an animation lasting five or six seconds before you regain control of your character. Heavy Rain focused so heavily on the mundane that it was a chore just to play the game. That and being saddled with a bunch of stilted dialogue and only a passing decent story, it didn’t even need poorly-implemented gameplay mechanics to bog down the narrative.

I talk in length about The Last of Us in another spoiler-heavy post, but I will mention this: the disconnect between the gameplay and the narrative in The Last of Us is pretty stark. For some it was limiting and made the game weaker. For me, because I loved the gameplay mechanics, it didn’t overall detract from my enjoyment of either the gameplay or the story, but I still recognize that there is an acidic barrier between the two. It makes me wonder how much stronger The Last of Us could have been in the narrative department had it not been a video game and instead a movie.


Do you have an opinion on storytelling in games? Have I left out any critical games that support or destroy any of my opinions? I welcome the discussion!

One thought on “The Nature of Narrative in Video Games

  1. Pingback: ‘THE LAST OF US’ Should be a Movie | Panning For Clouds

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