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On Stories & Games: Point-Based Storytelling, Implied Narrative & How Interactive Stories Work
by Alan Jack on 01/17/11 07:31:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Its hard to sum up just how games and stories work together.  It almost seems like we lack the language we’d need to explain it – the concept is simple, but when you try and sum it up, you end up with garbled Confucius-like phrases like:

The key to writing in games lies both in understanding how narrative exists in games, and how it does not.

A confusing sentence, for sure, but one I find myself drawn back to here because it sums up the only approach I can think of for explaining how I view narrative working in games.

Part 1: How Narrative Does Exist In Games

Every game has a story to tell, from the epic quests of adventure RPGs, down through the triumph and tragedy of sporting conquest, to the humble, bleak story of a blank screen that slowly filled with blocks until the player just couldn’t handle them any more. 

Every game can become a story – perhaps not always the most compelling one, but one that has all the great hallmarks of a narrative.  There is always a protagonist (the player), there is always something which that protagonist wishes to change, or achieve (the goals), and there is always something that stands in the way of their progress (the rules/opponents).

The thing to be remembered here is that we’re not discussing a story that is added in any way to the game – we are talking about the actual game itself.  Games don’t need to have a humanised avatar as a protagonist to have a story, just as a sport doesn’t require you to appreciate the backstory of the teams’ previous successes or personal issues in order for you to be swept away in the thrill of the game.  These things do not create the story, nor do they aim to do so – they aim to make the already existing story more compelling.

The subject of the compelling nature (or not) of gaming moments was part of a study I performed as part of my undergraduate degree.  In order to look at “Memorable Gaming Moments”, I asked people for a memory about a game.  Almost without exception, participants provided me with stories detailing the interactive sections of a game. 

Of these, the majority were divided amongst three distinct categories – emergent gaming moments in which the player created an unscripted event within a game environment, moments in which the player made a distinct choice within a narrative, and multiplayer moments in which the poignancy of the memory was bolstered by the inclusion of a third party (most commonly a sibling or parent). 

Only a very small outlying number of participants recalled non-interactive (cut-scene) elements of a game.  This implied that the most compelling storytelling takes place not in anything hung upon the gameplay, but in the gameplay itself.  There is something very compelling about interaction that causes it to overpower cutscenes and more “direct” storytelling.

Part 2: How Narrative Doesn’t Exist In Games

So we can see how narrative content exists in a game – or does it?  At what point does the narrative appear in a game?  How might we manipulate this for the sake of game design?  For the next point, it becomes important that we define what a narrative is, and how it exists in other media.

In written and oral storytelling, the point of the narrative’s creation is clear.  Whether written in first or third (or, lest we forget, the rarely-used second) person perspective, there is a clear orator of some description in traditional storytelling, and it is from this that we take the term “narrative” – a story told to us from a narrator.  Barring the inclusion of a voice-over, or old-fashioned story-cards, where does this narrative exist in cinema?

The answer – or the closest thing to a definite answer I can find – is simply that it doesn’t.  Cinema is not a direct narrative, but a series of carefully crafted and selected moving images which, when shown in the correct sequence, imply a narrative element.  The story doesn’t exist anywhere in the film itself – it is created by the viewer during the viewing.  This makes cinema a medium of “implied narrative”.

Where, then, do we say that narrative content exists in games?  In my case, I would argue that, again, it doesn’t.  Narrative doesn’t exist in the game itself, but in the playing of a game.  Just as a movie, when not viewed, loses its ability to have a story, an unplayed game has no story.

This is an important point in realising  just how we can create a more compelling game system.  We see that the aim, much like in cinema, is not to create a story with our game per se, but a system that implies a story.  More so in games, however, this has to be removed from directed storytelling, because what makes games different from cinema, and what creates the compelling and memorable experiences, is their interactivity, and their ability to let the player craft their own experience.

Part 3: Exploiting The System

One method by which we can allow this to happen is through what I call a “Point-Based Narrative”, and can be witnessed in action in Fallout: New Vegas.

In Fallout: New Vegas, the player is plunged into an open-ended free-roaming environment, with only a vague prompt towards the central story to drive them forward.  The player then simply stumbles from event to event, picking up “quests” as they explore their surroundings.  All these “quests” build to the final experience, but when examined from an academic perspective, the link between the events is vague. 

In truth, the player simply moves through a number of barely-connected events, but all of these feel like part of a larger story.  Much like the early avant-garde European filmmakers, the creators of Fallout: New Vegas exploit the weakness of the bonds between events as portrayed in their work to allow for a more compelling experience.

I refer to this as a “point-based narrative”, because it lacks a single line that one can draw through the story.  It is more truly interactive than the “side quest” system where a central storyline is augmented by secondary distractions.  It is interactive and responsive to the player, but without the developmental complexity or rigidity of the “branching narrative” system so popular in large-scale games today.

A “Point-Based Narrative” system would be one in which we do not set out to create a single story – we set out instead to create a number of smaller stories, and to drive and inspire the player to conjure, in their own mind, an overarching narrative.  We allow them to attack these points as they see fit, and to move freely between them. 

While we can feed points into one another, or have points which can only be accessed if and when other moments happen, we avoid creating bonds between points that are too obvious, in order to ensure the player feels that their own actions, and not the developer’s unseen hand, are driving the system.

Point-Based Narrative can (one might argue, must) be layered in the same way any narrative technique might be.  Any good storyteller will appreciate the fractal nature of a story – each chapter, each scene, and each moment follows the same structure (characters are introduced, a conflict arises, a resolution is reached) and pacing (rising tension to a denounement) as the whole story itself.  A single “point” of a point based narrative may then go on to contain multiple “points” of its own.

Resolving a Point-Based Narrative presents a challenge of its own.  Fallout: New Vegas attacks this by having an ultimately Point-Based conclusion to the story – the resolutions of certain important points in the game are read back to the player in a fashion akin to the “Where Are They Now?”-style endings of John Hughes movies in the 80s.  Dead Rising, a less purely-Point-Based system supported a “multiple ending” scenario by encouraging repeat playings.  A definitive example of how to do it has yet to be forthcoming.

In truth, it is worth noting that Fallout: New Vegas falls slightly short of being truly “point-based” narrative in that there is a defined central path – a player could feasibly play the game without experiencing anything outside the central story, and at times the game is reminiscent of a ”side quest” title. 

In my experience, however, I feel that the game’s developers have done such a great job of hiding this central narrative that this only becomes apparent through critical analysis of the play experience.  They have done this by loosening the bonds between the central story events, so that the player does not recognise them as any different from their other experiences, giving the illusion of a truly point-based narrative (perhaps, one might say, a further or deeper level of implication of the narrative).

Moving forward, then, we can see that games - while rich in narrative content - are, in a way, a medium twice removed from storytelling itself, but that isn’t to say that we can’t leverage this for narrative-driven entertainment.  To close this piece with the same kind of rambling, Confuscious-like statement I opened it with:

If books are about readers being told a story, and cinema about viewers being shown a story, games are about players being part of the story itself.

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Sherban Gaciu
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Any game article that challenges its readers to think of different methods of story telling is a damned good article in my books. Thank you for sharing your ideas. My one concern is that, without a main story thread, the drama would not have a good arc -- though this is a hypothetical argument, since, as you mentioned, no game has fully tried this method before. Definitely something interesting to think about.

Ernest Adams
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I'm afraid I disagree with this idea that every game has a story to tell. I see your point about protagonist, goal, and obstruction -- a common formulation in creative writing classes. But that alone does not make every experience feel like a story. If it were, then the act of peeling an orange is a story, and I hope we can agree that that is absurd.

I don't feel that a game contains a story unless the player role-plays a character -- even an unspecified one like Gordon Freeman. If the player is outside the world, a la Sim City, he's not role-playing a character.

Finally, it would have helped if you had defined how you mean the overloaded word "point" in "point-based narrative." Do you mean geometric points, as opposed to a line, as in Euclidean geometry? Or do you mean something to do with collecting points the way basketball players score points -- a narrative governed by core mechanics? Or do you mean that there is a point to the player's efforts, i.e. the player is undertaking something for a reason?

You can see that there are several ways of interpreting this ambiguous term.

Alan Jack
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I did mean point as in geometry, yes. I was thinking visually when I coined the term - a sea of unconnected dots as opposed to the straight line/branching diagram.

I'm afraid I disagree with you on your other point, though. Peeling an orange is a story, albeit - as you point out - an absurd one. One people wouldn't find memorable or poignant in any way. What makes a story a story is a technical issue - what makes a story compelling is artistic. Just because we don't like a story doesn't preclude it being a story.

I'll admit it baked my noodle for the longest time - which contains which? If a game is a story, is a story a non-interactive game?

The truth is that the only difference between the two is language. If we didn't have separate words for each, then they'd both just be "experiences", only in each iteration one would be static and the other interactive.

Simon T
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@ Ernest

What about a game like StarCraft? There is no character role-play, and there is most certainly story; both told and emergent.

To me the most telling evidence that story exists in all games is that some people see Tetris as telling the tale of communism.

A games dynamics can tell stories just as readily as characters or cutscenes.

Alan Jack
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I don't see Tetris as anything as deep as that - but I do see it as an abstract story. Its just the story of a blank screen, the shapes that fall into it, and the unseen hand that struggles to keep it all under control. In many ways, its a fascinating but tragic story that has all the hallmarks of something like The Wrestler, or even Romeo & Juliet. An inevitable downward spiral with rising and falling tension, laughter and sadness, fun and despair, all felt along the way.

Its a bit of a tangent, but what I've always been fascinated by is the shift from old arcade games to modern console games, because at some point we moved from tragedy to comedy (in the dramatic sense - drama with an upbeat ending). Tetris opens by showing us how we WILL fail (the limits of the game board) and giving us no option but to rally until we reach that point, whereas most modern games set a premise, give us a central goal, and give us no option of complete failure as an overall end-point.

Simon T
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I think you're taking the example of Tetris even further than me now! I can see why you would describe it as a tragedy, given that the entire game is centered around inevitable failure, but thats not really a tragedy. Aristotle described tragedy as being a reversal of fortune for the protagonist and should result in a cathartic experience. I think it's a real stretch to see either of those things in Tetris.

I think Tetris is a fantastically simple example of how the dynamics in a game can translate into a thematic story in some players minds. Personally, I don't see a story at all when I play Tetris, but the fact that others do, with differing interpretations, speaks volumes about the power of game rules to tell stories.

The challenge is to take that simple, elegant and powerful concept and apply it to games of much greater complexity.

Altug Isigan
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The point here is, in my opinion, that peeling an orange is not a story/narrative as long as it does not take place in a mediated fictional world. But when you peel it as someone who is being configured by the game as a fictional being able to peel a fictional orange through the mediation of controls, you already speak of something entirely different. I wouldn't deny then, that there is some sort of narrativity involved in the process. How is the presence of the orange narrated? How is our act of peeling narrated? Through text? Through iconic expression? Through sound? Does the game ommit parts of the peeling process? Does it extend parts of it?... The "telling" of the peeling might not meet our expectations of what we consider to be a good story, but at the bottom-line, this is narration, and as boring as it might look, the audio-visual presentation of how we peel an orange is a narrative.

Games revolve around fictional worlds brought to us via mediation. The thing here is that our own in-game presence is part of that mediation. As much as we feel that our actions are immediate, our input is transformed into an action within the game world and represented to us as such. You don't peel an orange really, you push buttons and watch an orange being peeled. We deal with the representations of a medium here, and narration lies at the heart of the process.

I think there is no game that allows us to avoid being subject to characterization. Games do not need us as exactly the persons that we are in the real world, but as people who are ready to communicate with an invented world through a code-of-action imposed by the game rules and other constraints that are part of the medium and the mediation. We always have to give up some of our qualities and abilities in the real world for the sake of those that we are configured to possess in the fictional world of the game.

Alan Jack
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Some very good points here. I had never really considered that, due to the abstract nature of the control systems, there has always been some level of implied storytelling in video games. I think maybe that stands up for all gaming - even in the animal kingdom, mating rituals and territorial combat is about simulated, non-lethal violence. They're implying to each other the story of what WOULD happen if it were to come to real combat.

And you're right about characterization. I'm drawn to the comparison of storytelling in Kurosawa's Hidden Kingdom - or Star Wars. In each film epic, sweeping events play out on a grand stage, but the story is brought to us (for the most part) by a pair of bumbling idiots, and it is those that affect the outcome in the end. Even in a game like The Sims, which purports to be about your in-game avatars, the story is really about the unseen hand of fate which guides the characters. That's something we could do a lot with - if we can fully understand the implications of reordering character roles, we could create some very interesting game-stories.

Alan Youngblood
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Insightful article and good name, sir!

These modes of "implying" story are interesting. I think ultimately the one that allows the player to decide his/her actions more freely is generally more fun. The game world will always apply some restrictions, but just like freedoms in real life you can be very creative within those restrictions. I also think it's worth examining closer those stories of interaction with a game or another player. That might be the crux of fun.

Overall this is a wonderful article to have people thinking of something that is too often overlooked and underestimated for importance: The human aspect of games and its affect on minds. If games are closed systems like many define them, within the "magic circle" that comprises the game are certainly elements like tactile/movement/haptics of input to the gaming system, but then it goes on to the people that are playing, the people that are watching and their interactions. It can't be sealed as a closed system until you get into the minds of those people, for much interaction takes place there. Especially with implied narratives rather than actual narratives. Much like Scott McCloud's concept of "closure." The comic reader's mind imagines what happens between the frames.

Shreerang Sarpotdar
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Interesting article, and a nice term: point-based storytelling. Is hub-based storytelling a better wording, given that each point is actually a cluster of narrative actions?

My issue with this type of create-your-own-story gaming is the absence of a central thread or threads that unite these points into a cogent whole. Typically, you'd end up, as you observed, with a "where are they now" ending. It works, but it loses the impact of the narrative-bound game. You could argue that this type of gaming doesn't need a central theme or themes, that the gameplay experience and the immediate result is the payoff rather than the denouement we expect from the narrative-bound game.

To really make this work, the developers would need to implement a kind of butterfly effect system where a decision taken in one 'point' spirals outwards to affect the reception the player gets at the other 'points'. The simplest version of this are the commonly used Alignment meters in RPGs; the more complex ones would employ a more specific mapping.

In passing, I believe Dragon Age 2 has a feature where the narrator tells an embellished version of every major fights, that you, as Hawke, participate in. It'd be interesting if the narration dynamically varies with the performance of your fights. Every time you played through, you'd end up with a different story.

Alan Jack
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I'm not sure about hub-based, because it implies a central point to which all the other points are attached. The point-based system relies on none of the points actually being attached to each other, leaving the user to create the connections in their imaginations. I remember making a footnote in the study on Memorable Gaming Moments that people's memories were unreliable - I never suspected that the key to creating memorable gaming moments might actually lie in that malleability of people's memories!

I can see your point on the central stories in games to date - but hopefully if we can identify how this type of storytelling works, we will have less of an issue in the future.

I'm a bit confused as to how to end these stories as well. There's been some great movies in the past that have revolved around seemingly unconnected moments in time (Crash & Babel spring straight to mind) where the ending is more of a revelation of the central theme than a general wrapping up. I've always thought developers were too quick to attack branching narratives with multiple endings - a better challenge would be to write a single, interpretive ending that suffices for all play stories.

Luis Guimaraes
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Shreerang Sarpotdar
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I think the approach is definitely interesting, but it relies on the player's attention to detail, degree of imagination, and attention span. I'd imagine it works very well for tightly scripted, short games where the player remembers what has happened within the past few hours. That's why movies can get away relatively easily with this.

For longer games, even if the game summarized what happened for me, it'd be really asking a lot of the modern player, who might be juggling various games in a busy playing schedule to remember what went on at the various points.

A solution might be to allow for different scenarios to play out at the different points in each play-through, keeping each play-through short yet integrated enough.

James Patton
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Sherban and Shreerang have both pointed out that it might be difficult to create a traditional narrative arc within this framework, since points are each self-contained stories. I see the difficulty, but I don't think it's impossible to overcome.

Take a work like Spenser's "The Faerie Queene". It was written in the late 17th century and is absurdly long, so don't go and read it, but the main narrative consists of a knight having lots of adventures. Which knight depends on which bit of the poem you're reading: it's divided into seven books, and each book has a different protagonist, so lets take the first book as an example.

The main character is St. George, and he has to slay a dragon. This is his long-term goal, and it's stated from the very beginning. But, he's not virtuous enough at the start of his journey to complete this quest (similar to how characters are too weak at the beginning of the game to go straight to the final boss). On the way to this goal, though, he meets and overcomes monsters with names like Error and Laziness (symbolising his own ability to overcome these impulses in himself and become a better person); defeats a trio of knights called Sans-Joy (joylessness), Sans-Loy (lawlessness) and Sans-Foy (faithlessness); and meets a recurring villain of the work called Archimago (ie. "Archmage") who kind of symbolises evil and the Catholic church. (Spenser was writing in late Elizabethan England, so Catholics were not much liked.) Eventually, having gone through all that, he confronts the dragon and kills it.

Each of these encounters is a separate event, much like in a point-based narrative. The knight has one encounter, experiences it as one self-contained event, and rides off towards the next encounter; in this sense, it's like the knight is taking part in a point-based narrative.

The poem still has a narrative arc, though: as the knight has more encounters, we get a sense of his increasing virtue and his impending confrontation with the dragon. And because the story is basically one of self-improvement, the encounters feel like they're all part of the wider narrative because each of the smaller narratives focus on self-improvement. Since each encounter is a miniature version of the overall story and contributes to it, we get a sense of logical progression.

Another idea would be to restrict the player's access to the more exciting points at the beginning of the game, and have them open up later on. So, if the player was on a quest to take down an evil tyrant, each point would focus on how the tyrant's actions affect the lives of NPCs; the points available at the beginning of the game might range from helping a poor farmer pay his extortionate taxes to smuggling a wanted family out of the country, and later points might include saving a revolutionary who's been sentenced to death or smuggling weapons into the country to be used in an uprising. That way, you would retain the freedom of a point-based narrative, but each point would (generally speaking) be at least as exciting as the previous point, giving rise to a narrative arc.

Alan Jack
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You've really nailed it with your reference to The Faerie Queene. That is essentially the story of something like Fallout, and the important thing to note is that there's nothing to drive the knight between the stories. The metaphor might be quite ham-fisted, but it sounds, from your description, as though the knight's personal growth is implied rather than outright stated.

What concerns me is the idea that the idea that you simply restrict players' access to later sections of the game leads to the game becoming a grind. This could happen in The Faerie Queen if the story was not implied, but explicit. If we knew outright that the only reason for the knight to be facing the lesser evils was in order to face the larger one, we would risk becoming impatient waiting for it to happen. In a game, we might even feel cheated, as though the designer had broken through the 4th wall to put us back in our place.

This is handled wonderfully in Fallout New Vegas. The player has, from the beginning, no real idea where the story is going, beyond the necessity to find Benny and the likelihood that this involves getting to the New Vegas Strip. There are hints along the way as to where, when and how the actual denounement will take place, but it doesn't become fully clear until we are close enough to it that we don't have to "work" to reach it any more. The general goals tend to be more implicit than direct, the reasons for undertaking the side quests more personal, and this makes the whole experience more compelling.

Ron Newcomb
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I disagree with the post as well. Who was the writer who, in response to the maxim, "A story is anything with a beginning, middle, and end," said, "My weiner dog has a beginning, middle and end, but that doesn't make him a story."

Granted, I've see the pointillist way of telling a story before. That spider-in-Bryce-Manor iphone(?) game springs to mind. So does most interactive fiction which has the player exploring someone's home while they're away. The technique works, but it's only one technique, and isn't appropriate to a lot of stories.

As for a game of Tetris telling a story of communism, [I summarily reject] that. Interactive storytelling (in a computer) is a hard problem, partly if not wholly a software problem, and attempts to solve that by merely re-defining what "story" means are not helpful. These people will have us seeing stories in our soup.

Simon T
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You reject the fact that people *have* interpreted Tetris as telling the tale of communism? It is not that all people have interpreted it that way, but that *some* have. That isn't something you can reject.

Just Google tetris + communism.

And I wouldn't describe a story as anything with a beginning, middle and end.

Alan Jack
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I agree with you about Tetris and communism, that's reading too much into it.

How we view stories is our own business. I'm not saying that every experience of playing a game is a story because every one of those stories should be compelling. I appreciate that its stretching the term "story", but I'm doing it to a purpose, to prove how we can use this medium to create more compelling experiences. In other words, I'm saying there's no Game Vs Story debate - they're one and the same thing.

If soup was the medium through which I was looking to tell a story, I'd damn well find a story in your soup.

I'm curious as to what you think I ought to be doing instead? Just continuing to hang cinematics on top of gameplay without truly understanding either of them?