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Does Your Game Have Story Cake or Story Frosting?
by Brandon Battersby on 08/22/10 07:47:00 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.


The implementation of story has taken on two distinctly different roles in videogames: the first is to supplement game play like frosting on a cake, and the second is to act as the mechanic of game play itself like an ingredient that helps make the cake what it is. Too often, story is an afterthought in game development and treated as frosting, but story can be a very beneficial pillar in any game if executed as a mechanic of the game play.

As games became more complex, developers utilized story to embellish the game mechanics, to give the players motivation and clear direction. Granted, the cooler the storyline, the more enjoyable the experience of playing the game will be, but the story isn’t a necessary proponent when frosting. A player can beat the whole game without experiencing the story, provided he understands the conditions of winning—which in most games is simply kill the bad guys.

Secondly, two players can play the game differently and still reach the same conclusion. Take Red Dead Redemption, you could be the baddest hombre in New Austin, without any moral implication on the plot of the game—the saint and sinner share the same story.

Problems: There is no innate value in this type of story implementation. In a way it’s like a porno. The story (as poor as it is) is simply funneling the characters into the inevitable position of having raw sex. Similarly, videogame story is constrained because it must inevitable funnel the characters into sequences of extreme action and/or puzzle solving.

When combat is your only condition for beating a game, it leads to underappreciated story content. Players become disinvested in reaching the end of the game, hence the other main components of FPS’s like Halo and action games like Ninja Gaiden are the extra game-modes: multiplayer, game-play difficulties, survival mode, leader boards, etc. Replay value is dependent on these modes.

Now if every developer considered story as a mechanic of the game in its own right, a lot of interesting things will happen. By a story mechanic, I mean a story that the players can interact with or influence, instead of just observe.

Pros: Player’s creativity and attention to detail can actually award them as the story progresses or add a new pillar of challenges by having right and wrong choice conditions. This can be as simple as Resident Evil’s interactive cut scenes with timed button mashing, to dialogue choices that could result in changing the direction of the plot or getting your character shot dead for having a bad attitude.

Secondly, a player invested in the direction of the story will have what-if-syndrome. This encourages him to replay the game for the necessity of seeing his story change. Knights of the Old Republic has this effect. I remember asking myself after my first run-through, “Could I have redeemed Bastila? How would the game have ended had I chosen the dark path?”  

Adding story as a playing mechanic doesn’t take anything away. It may mean adding a few cut scenes, new challenge mechanics, and designing a few new levels near the end, but ultimately you get a richer experience, more replay value, and acclaim.

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Taekwan Kim
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Great post Mr. Battersby! I hope I can contribute something to the discussion. (I apologize for not replying to your last comment on Mr. Miller's post; I didn't want to take up more space than I already had there.)

I had some similar thoughts as well after just recently having finished Alpha Protocol. I think an interesting way to consider "story as mechanic" is to think about it in terms of player agency and opportunity--this makes it easier for us to envision it ludologically. After all, the goal of ludic challenge is to provide opportunities for the player to experience agency by overcoming adversity. The obstacle in game narratives, then, is trying to get the narrative that you want out of the game.

In many games with branching narratives, the player is asked to indirectly choose, through narrative direction, between different, mutually exclusive ludic possibilities. The challenge comes in negotiating between the ludic opportunities and the narrative outcomes that one desires. And, like any ludic challenge, there are varying degrees of difficulty too. Some games have real opportunity costs for every narrative decision, while others are much more forgiving. You can harvest or rescue in Bioshock, and the game won't play significantly differently (particularly after the initial adam scarcity is overcome). But, if you have a run and gun type of build in Alpha Protocol, and pick all the discreet and professional dialogue choices which result in perks with ludic bonuses only to your stealth skills, well that's a pretty counterproductive thing which makes the game that much more difficult. You're losing out on a significant portion of your build.

And then there's the sort of blind dart toss in games like The Witcher in which challenge is introduced (albeit rather artificially) by removing the player's ability to make an educated guess about what will happen. This is somewhat dangerous in that the player might luck out and get an outcome they are happy with (which has a rewarding, jackpot! kind of feeling), or they might get one which is completely unsatisfactory and thus have a terrible game experience.

I think the thing is that we still haven't really figured out how to alert the player to the different possible ludic opportunities without spoiling the narrative (though Alpha Protocol does a better job of this with its perk system). A lot of times, at least for first time players, the ludic consequences are simply sort of tacked on bonuses that you get after the fact for a narrative choice--picking between the ludic consequences in such cases doesn't factor in to the narrative decision making process because the player simply isn't aware of them, which makes the activity less ludic.

I would argue, then, that actually story as mechanic does have the potential of taking away from the game experience if not handled carefully. The thing that made Alpha Protocol as a stealth game somewhat frustrating was the simple presence of the "One with the Shadows" perk. Since there are only a handful of missions in which the requirements for getting that perk can actually be fulfilled, it makes every one of those missions excruciatingly painful because you don't want to do anything which might make you miss that perk. The worst part is that there's no way to tell if you have actually fulfilled the requirements in a given mission until you complete them for all three required missions. An initial cautiousness, then, becomes a sort of pervasive superstition for the rest of the game because the player can't be entirely sure about if maybe there are hidden penalties for getting detected, etc.

It's kind of a similar thing with narrational navigation. Fear of hidden consequences and missing opportunities can sometimes really prolong or even paralyze the decision making process, especially if there are no indicators that you have missed them until a narrative has fully played out. If, for instance, in WoW or Torchlight (or any such game with skill trees) you had no way of telling what skills were available to the player and what they did until you actually purchased them, man that would make character building pretty frustrating. Now take away respec on top of that and you have a pretty good picture of narrational navigation in games. I feel, then, that the "what-if-syndrome" that you mention can actually be pretty off-putting at times--it really is a kind of syndrome in every sense of that word.

Hopefully I was able to add something with my (long-winded) thoughts here. And thank you for encouraging me to share my point of view on this, I really appreciate that.

Brandon Battersby
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Awesome, I'm going to have to sample Alpha Protocol to get the most out of this I think, but thanks for illuminating some of the potential the short comings for using story as a mechanic. Also, I agree with the idea that branches could lead to paralyzing the player. I read your article after posting regret ably. I remember playing open rpg like Baldaur's Gate and even slowing down when deciding which way to walk down a cavern, let alone their dialog trees often resulted in consequences so I would save before every interaction and take about 2 hours before reaching a branch I wanted. Like you said, "After all, the goal of ludic challenge is to provide opportunities for the player to experience agency by overcoming adversity. The obstacle in game narratives, then, is trying to get the narrative that you want out of the game." Maybe next time I will work on a post that goes into the right and dangerous way of implementing story as a mechanic.

Thanks again,

I look forward to sharing with you in the future.

David Hughes
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Taekwan-- great comment! I haven't played Alpha Protocol (I've just heard way too many negatives on the gameplay to justify buying it when I already have a lot of unplayed games) but my own experience with Mass Effect 2 is somewhat analogous. Unlike the first game, which used a relatively traditional 'loot drop' method of equipment upgrade, the second adds weapon research--but with several severe problems (in my book).

One, the tech tree is about as opaque as you can get. It's very difficult to get a sense of upgrades more than one or two levels beyond what you already have--if you see them at all. Two, upgrades--even if I have enough resources to build them--are conditional on items that ARE loot drops/gathered through missions. Why have a resource based upgrade system if it's still conditional on mission collected items? Three, the shooting (while somewhat improved over the first game) is still not as polished as a true shooter, which often makes it difficult to see the improvements that the research items supposedly give.

Michael Curtiss
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"story that the players can interact with or influence, instead of just observe."

This is definitely one way of doing things, and as you probably know there has been a great deal of material written on this subject (Chris Crawford's "Interactive Storytelling" immediately comes to mind). However, if you are arguing for a *general approach* to implementation of story in games, I would have to disagree with you.

I look at it this way: Games are formal systems that are composed of individual agents (like the player, the npc, the sword, the environment, etc). Because the player has to make choices that affects his/her place within the system, the player is constantly seeking to understand the system. This in turn implies that the player is actively attempting to recognize the relationships between the individual agents of the system as well as the relationship between him/herself and these agents.

From this point of view, story is not a single mechanic *necessarily* (it can be), but it is more generally an amalgamation of narrative agents within the system. That is to say, there are individual narrative elements within the system that affect the player's understanding of the system (i.e. the age of a character, or the mood of an environment, or some tyrannic regime). These story agents might or might not react to or impact other agents in the system; it all depends on how the designer wants the player to understand and experience the system.

This understanding would also imply that these narrative agents would have a stronger effect on the player if the player were to actually experience these narrative agents first-hand as part of a functioning system, rather than having these narrative agents dictated to them in a "matter of fact" manner. /run-on-sentence

For example, if the controlled character had his leg bitten off by a whale, have him walk differently than others. Or, you could take the "matter of fact" method and just depict the peg-leg without it having any effect on movement at all.

Brandon Battersby
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Thanks for the article recommendation. I'll look into that. And really strong argument. I never looked at a game's story as a system of narrative agents. I really like how you wrap up with that example. But this is what I am trying to get across. I think it is very important for the characters to experience these narrative agents first hand. Although this is more of a combat mechanic example, in Fable 2, losing in a fight resulted in getting scarred, which unlike in Fable, resulted in the world at least viewing you differently, seeing it as ugly or sexy. In Fable it was just an aesthetic quality with no effect on interactions (thank god, cause I got butchered). But it's easy to see how Fable 2's implementation of scarring was an improvement. But I would never make the argument for implementing story in games (period). I mean there is no grounds for story in games like Madden for example.

Tadhg Kelly
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Hi Brandon,

...Story can be a very beneficial pillar in any game if executed as a mechanic of the game play...

I challenge you to show how what you then go on to suggest as tools (like Resident Evil's quick-time-events) are game mechanics, secondly if they are any good as game mechanics, and thirdly what, if any, is the beneficial pillar here. Because to my experience QTEs and other story insertions are fun all of twice before becoming very very annoying after a short space of time because they're essentially coin-flipping in joypad form.

...Problems: There is no innate value in this type of story implementation...

I don't think this is a problem at all. It's only a problem is so far as game designers who think they should be making movies are running up against the reality of what games are. Your later analogy about plots in porn made me laugh, but is also true: Gamers do want to get to the playing.

The mistake is this: You're equating this mechanical aspect of games to the function of porn, and suggesting that they are equivalent. I saw this a lot recently in the other threads on story, the idea that games can't be art if they are just "mere" mechanics. It's stupendously fundamentally amazingly wrong-headed to think of games in that way, and I guarantee that if that is in fact how you see games then you will always be disappointed.

Games are not a storytelling medium. There is no such thing as a "story woven into game mechanics" as you describe, that's just playing with words. There's game mechanics, things you do and can do and extend. If they're rubbish, the game is rubbish. If the setting surrounding the game serves to reinforce the mechanics then you have a richer experience. On the other hand, when you cut-scene and branch-dialogue and QTE everything to try and MAKE PLAYERS FEEL then you're generally wasting your time producing expensive leaden pieces of "storytelling" to flatter your own ego.

The truth is that the content and context of story in a game just don't matter. Effective game writing isn't story writing: it's copy writing, asset writing and mechanic supporting. We make worlds in games, not movies with dirty game mechanics thrown in.

Ardney Carter
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I'd like to respond to a couple of assertions you make here, Mr. Kelly. Specifically where you state that "Games are not a storytelling medium." and also "The truth is that the content and context of story in a game just don't matter." But 1st, let me preface my remarks by stating that while I have been reading Gamasutra for many months now, I am neither a game designer nor a developer. I'm only a consumer.

To the 1st remark I'd say that that's a pretty broad statement and because of that also quite wrong. Games are, among other things, a means of communicating information and as such are inherently capable of being a storytelling medium in the same way that anything from the written word to cave paintings to smoke signals can be a story-telling medium. I'm assuming that you didn't mean the statement to be absolute and meant something more along the lines of "games are an inferior storytelling medium IMO" but if you truly meant the statement as written I'd ask you to expand upon that and tell me why you feel games cannot tell stories as I strongly disagree based on my own experiences.

To your second remark, "The truth is that the content and context of story in a game just don't matter.", I would also like to express disagreement. As evidence to back up my statements, I'd like to cite 3 game series that I personally enjoy very much but are also commercially successful and/or critically acclaimed namely : The Ace Attorney series, Fallout 1 and 2 (i've yet to play 3), and the Fire Emblem series.

The Ace Attorney games are entirely about their stories as the game mechanics are minimalist. The point is to explore the characters and events of the story and reach conclusions based on the information presented. In such an environment, context and content are EVERYTHING. They ARE the game and therefore their presence cannot be disputed as being necessary to the enjoyment of the player. Incidentally, you could also make the case that what takes place in these games is essentially what takes place in many (though certainly not all) mystery novels where the author is playing a game of sorts with his reader to see if they can determine what actually happened based upon the evidence presented in the narrative prior to the 'big reveal' at the conclusion. This would seem to be a point against your assertion that 'games are not a storytelling medium' since no one disputes that mystery novels are stories. If the mystery novel and the Ace Attorney game do the exact same thing, how can one be a valid storytelling medium and the other not?

My 2nd example has far more complex game mechanics than the 1st. Fallout has a robust character levelling system with lots of different skills and mechanics in place for utilizing those skills in the environment. Playing with these is enjoyable, but without the context provided by the game's story, would I care? I would argue that the answer is "no". Fallout does not tell a single, linear story in the way the Ace Attorney games do but it is very much about story all the same. It just happens to be a story that the designer and the player shape together. Without the setting and plot to ground the mechanics and provide motivation for moving forward I would not have enjoyed the game at all. Again, context and content ARE important for the enjoyment of the game.

Finally, I bring up the Fire Emblem series to show that even fun game mechanics can and do benefit from context and content provided by story in games. The Fire Emblem series plays very similarly to the Advance Wars series of games. Both are turn based strategy games that move units of varying abilities on a grid to do battle with their opponents, much like a better version of Chess. I play and enjoy both series but I consistently have more fun with Fire Emblem. Why? Because unlike Advance Wars where all the units are disposable and replaceable, Fire Emblem takes time to attach personality to its units and gives the player the opportunity to further develop these personalities by allowing for these units to form relationships with each other through unlockable dialogue events. In most of the games in the series these events grant small bonuses to the properties of the units but I find myself using the feature more as an expression of my agency within the unfolding story than anything else. And it adds to the enjoyment of the game. Again, context and content can and do matter to the consumer.

Let me take the opportunity to state as well that I don't feel that all games need a story (Tetris) or even a deep and coherent story ( Street Fighter, Jet Grind Radio, DoTA clones) to be enjoyable. Good game mechanics can and many times are enough to make a game worthwhile. But over the past month or 2 it's been interesting to watch people in the development community argue about and take such polar stances about story in games. While I believe that there are room for both approaches, it's often mildly disturbing to read the thinking of those in the anti-story camp as they tend to come across as more dogmatic and often lace their arguments with deriding remarks about developers who do attempt to tell or include a story of any kind in their games. The impression is given that they truly believe that gamers do not care AT ALL for the presence or quality of story in games and this isn't actually the case. The correct assessment is that gamers do not ALWAYS care about the quality or presence of story in games. Furthermore, the concern over story is not a binary proposition for all gamers. Sometimes I feel like experiencing/playing a story and sometimes I just want to blow stuff up. But the industry needs to continue to support and refine (and merge) BOTH approaches if it wants to continue to grow, because the market for both types of experiences is definitely there.

Apologies for the wall of text, but this is something that has been simmering with me for quite some time in recent weeks. I hope I've given decent food for thought, at the very least.

Tadhg Kelly
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No worries.

It's probably easier if I direct you toward the two threads where we talked at length on the subject. Well easier for me anyway. (That's not meant as a fob-off btw, I'm getting married in 4 days and somewhat busy with 1001 wedding prep things):
eveloping_Video_Games.php is where it started.
rative.php was an interesting piece written by Darby which sort of became an extension of the discussion in the previous thread.

Some specific answers to what you've written:

...I'm assuming that you didn't mean the statement to be absolute and meant something more along the lines of "games are an inferior storytelling medium IMO"...

You assume incorrectly. It is meant to be as absolute as it sounds. It's complicated to summarise, but my position is what I've taken to calling "worldmaking" rather than "storytelling". The threads above go into it in huge detail.

..."The truth is that the content and context of story in a game just don't matter.", I would also like to express disagreement...

Again, this is complex to convey in a very short form, but I'd distinguish general content (such as the puzzles of Ace Attorney) from deliberately story-esque acts, plots, time structures and so on of context.

...Playing with these is enjoyable, but without the context provided by the game's story, would I care? I would argue that the answer is "no"...

I would argue that that is the appeal of the game world. The number of people who never finish games is quite high, indicating that the "story" is actually not that attractive. Once any game has stopped offering interesting toys to play with, and players feel they have mastered the toys they have, that's kind of that.

...Because unlike Advance Wars where all the units are disposable and replaceable, Fire Emblem takes time to attach personality to its units and gives the player the opportunity to further develop these personalities by allowing for these units to form relationships with each other through unlockable dialogue events...

A hero character in a game like Fire Emblem tends to have a lot of value. It's natural to ascribe more value to them because if you lose them you feel the loss quite severely, both tactically and as a consequence of failure. Again, it's not "story" delivering that to you, it's "world". The precise arrangement of how it happens (context) matters a lot less, and the content (dialogue) is serving a means to an end, but often as not dialogue trees in games are just an exercise in permutation (keep trying new branches until you get the "correct" one). As mechanics, dialogue trees are pretty bad, always have been, and tend to be quite dull to actually play with as a result.

...Let me take the opportunity to state as well that I don't feel that all games need a story (Tetris) or even a deep and coherent story ( Street Fighter, Jet Grind Radio, DoTA clones) to be enjoyable...

Of course.

Except I'm going about eight steps ahead and saying no game does. What it needs is an enjoyable world. So fiction, portraiture, imagination, magic, music, extending mechanics, unlockables, rewards, etc? Yes. Often. "Story?" No. It's largely unnecessary. Red Dead Redemption (to take a random example) would be a much better game if it ditched most of the talking: It serves very little purpose.

Why they are included is Hollywood envy, lack of faith in craft, developer ego, narrative experiments, take your pick really. Just because they have been used for many years doesn't mean they actually work, or do so any better than they ever did.

Anywho, weddinging to do!

Brandon Battersby
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I am not under the impression that games are meant to be some literary art form. In fact, I state story is just another pillar being used in games. A game could stand on one less pillar easily. In fact, games originally were simple systems of rules and ludic challenges. Pong, Galactica, Pac Man, original racing games, Madden. My point is, when capable (financially, or for continuity sake) its best to implement story as a ludic challenge (mechanic of gameplay itself).

Also, I'm not trying to equate porn to videogames--although sex and violence (Dante's Inferno cough).... I digress. I was simply using the analogy to point out a relationship between the way story functions in both industries. I hope I didn't offend you.

I understand this article rests comfortably on the surface of much subject matter, so I accept your challenge and will be posting again very soon. :-)

I appreciate your comment.

Ardney Carter
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Thanks for the links. I confess to having skipped the 1st one since I wasn't particularly interested in Del Toro. As for the 2nd, I had seen it, but apparently left the thread before the bulk of the in-depth comments were made. I blame my job :P

At any rate, I was better able to understand your position and while I can't say that I agree with your ultimate conclusion, I feel you make several good points, specifically in regards to the importance of world buidling and the ways it can be effectively done . Any counterpoints I had to your primary assertion were expressed more eloquently in the comments from the 2nd link, so I won't attempt to add anything more which would ultimately have to rely solely on my personal experience as opposed to academic research.

Congratulations on your wedding and I wish you the best.

Also, apologies to Mr. Battersby for straying somewhat from the purpose of your blogpost. I did feel it was relatively on topic, but I understand it wasn't quite adressing the points you were making.

Tim Tavernier
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There's always one giant factor a lot of people seem to disregard when talking about story and videogames: People do not like implicit story in their videogames. Why? Well there's a quite long scientific behaviorlogical explanation for this and i'll try to keep it short.

When people play, they are under play-contingencies. Contingencies are cause-effect-result chains that people have been thaught aka human behavior is an action (effect) caused by external factors (cause) where the result of this action can lead to positive or negative reinforcement (result). Positive reinforement means that the chance of said behavior occurs under said factor increases. Negative reinforcement the reverse.

So, when people are under play-contingencies, implicit story-telling within a game (cut-scenes, dialog-text or trees and so forth) acts as a negative reinforcer for this play-behavior. Thisis proven by the fact that the games with strong implicit story elements are the vast minority of widely broadly succesfull games (games that sell around or more then 10 million copies in recent years). But you also have to be carefull with "story as mechanic" elements. These are far more subtle ways of conveying story but can also screw up the contingencies. When people play, they not only play within a set of game rules but also within a game-universe (be it Super Mario cartoonland, Modern Warfare...modern warfare or Red Dead Western). These are not settings as narratologists like to dismiss them,these are the actual experciences people have.

This game-experience also has to answer to people's contingencies, better known as expectations. Story as a mechanic can lead to game-developers putting stupid stuff inside their game that screw up these expectations and kills the universe/expercience. At that point, no one cares, except for bribed game-journalists, about how genius that mechanic is. If it screw with people's play-contingencies, it turns them off, it will be seen as a bad game.

Some simple play-contingencies are

-absolute play-control: the player can not have control taken away from him except during sequences he initiated (like talking to a NPC and even then). The play flow is not allowed to be interrupted, so no sudden cutscenes intercutting or animations of your character getting on something or whatever. Cutscenes will be tolerated at the start and/or end of a clearly ending/starting level, anywhere between is a negative reinforcer dangerzone.

Alternative methods from games: Half-Life (2) seemingly constant player-control, even when half a dozen people are talking to each other. The worse part about HL2 was offcourse the elevator ride. And then offcourse also the showing of story within the levels trough posters, graffiti and so forth.

Metroid Prime's scanning which has story the player initiated trough...playing. Short, interactive and non-compulsory.

Player-controlled story: players like constructing the story on their own. The greatest story-telling potential of videogames lies with its players and how games leave gaps for that to happen. This does not mean giving players dialog options or crap like that. Players know that this will force a story on them and works like a negative reinforcer. There's a reason why there isn't one game that uses a quite extensive dialog tree that sold as social phenomena as WoW, The Sims, 2D Mario, the Wii-series and many others. People do not like story to be forced on them, because they are under play-contingencies. Play primarily initiates story-creation behavior, not story-observing behavior like with books and movies.

Roberta Davies
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Surely it all depends on the type of game.

Me, I'm first and foremost an adventure gamer. An adventure game is primarily an interactive means of delivering a story, and it stands or falls mainly on the strength of that story. The challenge of designing an adventure is making it into a real game and not a linear novel-on-rails.

The role-playing genre also depends heavily on story. You can have a big open-ended RPG, and you might describe its overall design as "world building" instead of "story writing", but when it comes down to actually playing the game, there had better be a powerful dose of story driving the player along.

Josh Foreman
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Haha... funny coincidence about your porn analogy. I just used it a couple weeks ago.