Story – What is it good for?

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Do videogames really have to try to tell stories? Are they not just better off focusing on interactive systems and gameplay? In this post I argue that stories are fundamental to the play experience by supplying context. This story context is crucial in order for videogames to engage and make the gameplay easy to grasp.

For ages there’s been an argument going on about what part stories should play in videogames. Over time stories in games have gained more acceptance, but the discussion still continues. For instance, Ian Bogost recently wrote this article where he asked why you should make a game out of a story when you might as well make a movie or write a book.

This “go write a book instead” attitude isn’t new. One of my favorite articles on the subject is Jesper Juul’s “Games Telling Stories?”. Interestingly, I pretty much agree with all of the points that Juul raises, but reject most of his conclusions. I think that video games are very well suited for telling stories and that there is no inherent conflict. Where I fully agree with Juul is on the argument that if you just take stories as we normally see them on film or in books and apply them to games, there will be a lot of friction. In order to make stories work in games you need to consider them in a different way.

The “go write a book instead” response is usually provoked by the fact that a game’s attempt at storytelling disrupts the flow of the game. The most common example of this is when you need to watch some lengthy cutscene before you can continue playing. Problems also arise when juxtaposing gameplay and story gives rise to ridiculous inconsistencies, such as characters that can take hundreds of hits in-game being easily hurt in a cutscene. But this isn’t evidence of stories being inherently unsuitable for games, these are just examples of sloppy implementation.

Stories are, in fact, crucial for videogames, and this has been the case almost since the earliest days of gaming history. They provide something vital to the experience: context. You can clearly see this in cabinets of early arcade machines, for instance this one for Asteroids:

You instantly think of the shapes as having intentions and personalities. Our brains are wired to do so, and the cabinet art of Asteroids taps into that. It also raises an interesting question: if humans are so prone to see stories in abstract shapes, do we really need any actual story content at all? This might seem a tempting conclusion, but there are a number of reasons it’s misguided. For example:

  • It provides the player with an idea of what the game is about before they even start playing. Explaining Asteroids using abstract systems is non-trivial. Saying “you control a spaceship that has to avoid or blow up incoming asteroids” makes immediate sense.
  • It puts the player in the proper mindset from the get-go. This way we don’t have to wait for a bunch of gameplay to unfold in order for the player to shape a suitable fantasy for it.
  • The fantasy is more likely to be coherent with the actual gameplay. If you just leave everything to the player’s imagination, there may be later aspects of the game that contradict this, causing big problems as the player’s mental model would contradict the concrete implementation of the game’s systems.
  • While people are good at constructing fantasies it doesn’t mean they don’t need any help. Story-based context acts as a very potent catalyst for the player’s inherent capabilities. If delivered properly, the result is a much deeper fantasy than the player could have made up on their own.

However this doesn’t mean that you need to fill in all the blanks with story context. In fact, by leaving certain bits to the player’s imagination the result can be even better. The trick is to know which parts to leave blank and which ones to fill in.[1]
It isn’t just shooters with basic polygonal graphics that benefit from story context. Even adventure games, known for their strong story focus from the get-go, have similar roots to that of Asteroids. The first adventure game, Colossal Cave Adventure, started out as a simulation of a cave. In order to make the experience more interesting, Dungeons-and-Dragons-inspired events and puzzles were added to the mix. Again, the story was there to provide context to the basic experience – in this case exploring a cave system. Instead of just randomly wandering through a cave the player was now on a mission to search for a treasure and to avoid dangers that lurked in the darkness. This not only makes the experience more engaging, it also makes it easier to understand.

The case I want to make is that stories are incredibly potent for setting up play. Story is not just optional window dressing. By telling the player a story it makes it much easier for the player to engage. We as humans also grasp problems a lot more easily when they are presented as a narrative [2]. It enables us to use various built-in mental faculties to approach the problems and to figure out solutions. Understanding the dynamics of two factions that are at war comes naturally to us. When you pose the same problem in the form of mathematical equations it might require years of study to grasp the basic concepts involved. Human relationships come naturally, maths doesn’t. This makes story context an indispensable part of game design.

Asteroids can get away with a really simple story because it is such a simple game. But games haven’t stayed that simple, and as they grew more complicated, the story context needed to become more complicated as well. If you want the player to play as a spy infiltrating an evil organisation, simple polygons and cabinet art will not be enough. You need to add more details to your story context in order for the game’s actions to make sense, be engaging, and easy to grasp.

Story isn’t just something that has been slapped onto games because videogame designers have hidden desires to be film directors or novel authors instead. They are there there because they are crucial to the end experience. Sure, there are games that have pretty much zero story content – Tetris is a prime example. But these games are also very straightforward and possible to grasp based on very little play time.  The moment you want anything more complicated, story context comes naturally and becomes an ubiquitous part of conveying the game’s intentions and forming a coherent experience.

It’s similar to how kids play. Give them some sticks and stones and they will instantly use them in some sort of story context. Sure, they could just build stone and stick structures for the inherent enjoyment of it, but it’s much more fun to think of them as castles, soldiers and a grand battle taking place. This is inherently human and permeates many more areas than just videogames and child’s play. For instance, it’s common to show backstories of the athletes before a sporting event in order to make the actual competition more exciting. News reporting also follow a similar pattern. Whatever the area is, the reason for having stories is the same: it provides context that makes the actual activity or content more exciting and relatable.

The idea of stories as context for play is even true for a game like The Walking Dead. In this game the player has little actual gameplay, and most of the time you just sit and watch. However, the hours of cutscenes are really just there to give context to the choices that the player eventually has to make. This might sound a bit weird, but if you think about it from a gameplay perspective it makes a lot of sense. The abstract systems that power the dialog selection wouldn’t have much meaning if it weren’t for the cutscenes preceding them.

You can even say that The Walking Dead requires the cutscenes for its gameplay to work. The gameplay in this case is simply making selections from a set of options that pop up on the screen. It’s quite clear that abstract shapes and some cabinet art will not do the trick here. Your story context must be quite elaborate for the player to intuitively grasp and feel engaged by a simple “select the right option” process.

The same thing is true for games like the recently released What Remains of Edith Finch (which Bogost bases much of his argument around in his article). Much of the content in this game can be seen as the context for the character vignettes that you play from time to time. Without all of the intricate setup that the game has, these playable sections would have been a lot less engaging and harder to understand. In fact, it’s actually quite likely that making these vignettes of gameplay was one of the major cornerstones in the game’s development process. A similar process was at least true for SOMA. We started the development of it with the intention of making a few distinct scenarios playable. Much of the game was then built around that goal.

So when I say that the cutscenes in The Walking Dead are just context for the choice scenes, I am not just making a silly argument. In many cases, this is really how it works. Obviously, development is by no means this rigid, nor do I think many developers think consciously about it. Reality is always way more messy than theory. But that doesn’t mean that this division is untrue. I think it’s a really valuable way of looking at gameplay versus story.

It’s also really important to note that this doesn’t mean that context is just a superfluous aspect of the game experience. The story context can be engaging in its own right, and it is almost always beneficial if it is. But that doesn’t take away the fact that the story content is there to provide context for the play. In fact I think it is crucial that we realize this as it clears up a lot of confusion around video game storytelling.

  • Story is not just plot, a sequence of events; it is whatever story content that provide context to the play experience. The setting, characters, themes and so forth all have part in this. In order to create a proper context there may be a need to tell a certain sequence of events, but it is by no means a requirement. This is where storytelling in video games and film/novels/etc. diverge and it is crucial to keep this in mind.
  • When it feels like a game has poor storytelling, it’s not the same as it being unnecessary. The question to ask is: “Could there have been a better way to provide story context?”. The problem is not that the game tries to focus on its characters, the problem is that the game is bad at providing the necessary context in an efficient and engaging manner.
  • Games are not trying to “tell deeper stories” compared to film or novels. They are trying to provide deeper thematic play. A core part in achieving this is by putting more focus on the story context. This is a very different goal from that of other media and to say “you might as well write a book” is to gravely misunderstand the challenge at hand.

Obviously context and play aren’t simply two separate things. Context very often has a big part in influencing what sort of gameplay is best suited to it, and there may even be gameplay created with the sole purpose of influencing a certain bit of context. 
For me the most interesting question at this moment is: when it comes to evolving storytelling in videogames, what is the relationship between context and play? How can we set up context in such a way that it’s the play that does the bulk of the actual storytelling?
I think this is a problem in many story-heavy games. There may be a lot of well-told story in them, but it’s delivered in the form of cut-scenes, dialog, written notes, and so forth. I don’t get to actually play it. This is also where I think seeing story as context comes as handy. It makes it evident that “classical story” in games is not an end goal in itself, but a framework, there in order to enhance the experience of play. To be better at understanding how this works and how to build experiences around it is where I see the future of interactive storytelling.

[1] I will go deeper into this in a future blog post.
[2] Here is a really good example of this.