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Storytelling in Videogames - it's trickier than it looks
by Jamie Mann on 09/06/11 05:43:00 am

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 subject of storytelling in games comes up quite a lot - most notably in a recent blog post - and it can occasionally be used as a weapon in the "are video games art" argument, too.

And for what it's worth, I think games can tell a good story; I'd hold up examples such as Star Control II, Fatal Frame, X-Com, GTA:VC, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Psychonauts...

However, I think there's an issue with the way stories are often told in games: they're either rammed down player's throats via cut-scenes and heavy amounts of text/dialog, or they're clumsily unveiled through "environmental" set-pieces: chuntering NPCs [*], overheard conversations and mysteriously scattered pages from a diary.

To be fair, these systems can work in games where there's no time pressure, such as in a turn-based RPG.  However, for most real-time games, these systems fail miserably for a simple reason: the player's focus is on the gameplay.

In fact, there's a very simple and apt analogy for this issue: driving.

Imagine you're sitting in a car and driving to a destination several hundred miles away.  There's a manual gearbox, so you have to watch the revs and change gears.  You don't know the route, so you have to keep one eye on your GPS system (unless you're old-school and have a map spread out on the passenger seat) and it involves a mix of roads - highways, country lanes, passing through busy towns, so you're constantly having to change speeds, change lanes, stop at junctions and interact with other drivers.

Now, how much attention can you spare, for a story?  The answer is not much - anything visual (e.g. a film) is pretty much out of the question, unless you want to find yourself crashing into the back of the car in front.  Even listening can be difficult: plenty of studies show that driving performance significantly degrades when the driver is trying to multitask.

Equally, when you're driving through a town, do you want to have to pull over for a few minutes, so you can listen to a potted history of the town hall?  When you pull into a drive-through for food, do you want to hear a poetry recital?  Or do you just want to get your food and drive on?

At this point, I think I'm starting to stretch the analogy a little too far, so it's time to park the metaphysical car and get out for a stretch.  But hopefully, it's gotten the point across: the story in a realtime video-game needs to be carefully designed to avoid an impact to the gameplay.  Personally, I'd tend to suggest the following for a real-time game:

  • the story should be told in small, light-touch chunks: the information needs to be easily absorbed while the player's focus is elsewhere
  • the story should not be overly deep or complex: not only does this make it harder to absorb, but video games are generally played over days, weeks or even months: are players really going to remember the intricate details of something they half-listened to a week ago?
  • the game should only stop and tell a story at natural break points - for instance, resting after a mission
  • the story should be integrated into the gameplay - character and object designs, costumes, posters on the wall, or have NPCs make comments about the scenery or unfold their tale as you escort them
  • emphasis key points.  Usually, the vast majority of a story is effectively optional: if something is genuinely important, then player attention needs to be drawn to it
  • remember that first and foremost, the player is there for the gameplay: the story is just one element of the equation

Admittedly, there's plenty of examples where these rules have been successfully broken - or even examples where these rules don't work or are too limiting.  But hey: if it were easy, then everyone would be doing it...

[*] I especially enjoyed Charlie Brooker's rant about Wolfenstein's humourless resistance force; after all, who hasn't started jumping around and/or trying to shoot droning NPCs while waiting to be allowed to move to the next chapter?  Who really cares what they're saying?

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Eric Schwarz
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Frankly, I don't think your driving analogy works too well, as it assumes that the player is going to be constantly occupied in equal measure - and even in an engaging sequence, there are still going to be ups and downs, small breaks in between, etc. to even things out and provide a better sense of structure. As you yourself mention, games need pacing, downtime to counter the action, etc. I don't think any sane developer would say it's a good idea to monologue exposition over an intense action sequence that requires the player's full attention, but I don't think I've seen a single successful game do that. Just as no driver is going to realistically be 100% occupied for hours on end, there are very few games which require the player to be on all cylinders at once.

That said, good observations on successful storytelling mechanisms. I find myself agreeing with all of them.

Jamie Mann
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Thanks for the response :)

As for the driving analogy, I still think it works well - the reason I made a point of describing "a mix of roads" was to try and get the idea that there would be several changes of pace along the way.

F'instance, to use a real-life example: I drove 100 miles last weekend, to see a chiptune gig. The journey started in a city (large, busy roads), where I filled up with gasoline and then went to pick a friend up; we then drove out of the city (large, quiet roads) and elected to take the scenic route, over the mountains (narrow, winding roads down the sides of valleys) where I got to do a bit of overtaking and also had to deal with some intense weather conditions; at one point, it rained so hard, I had to physically stop the car. We then stopped on the way to call in at a US-food importing shop to buy root beer and mountain dew, before then calling at the town where my brother lives.

While waiting for him to join us, we went to a restaurant which turned out to be having a 1940s re-enactment weekend, so we were treated to wartime music and the speeches of Winston Churchill during food. We then continued on the journey (highway with few cars), only to be led astray by the GPS - it turns out that there's two "Dale Roads" in Liverpool, and it took us to the wrong one, which necessitated a bit more driving, during which we saw several strange things, including a sofa hanging four foot off the ground, impaled on the railings of a park. And then we got to the gig...

To me, that's the sort of thing that I was thinking of when I was taking about driving: the slow, careful driving in town is in stark contrast to the fast and relatively simple driving on the highway, or the medium-speed driving up and down the mountain, where drivers have to balance the risk/reward of overtaking slower-moving vehicles. These all require differing levels of concentration and pacing. Then too, there's the stops on the way, to rest, eat and pick up supplies, the plot-twists of the timewarped cafe and the confused GPS system and the reward of finally making it to the destination.

All told, the journey was varied from both a mechanical and an "experience" point of view, which is what any real-time game should try to aspire to!

Josh Foreman
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I like this analogy. I agree with Eric's crit, but have this to add to it... Though there are indeed "downtimes" between fast and furious action in most games, if you take that downtime and cram it full of exposition you are probably defeating the purpose of having downtime. Kind of like taking your laptop with you and filling out paper work on the beach when you're on vacation.

Jamie Mann
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Cheers :) To be clear, I fully agree on the "cramming full of exposition during downtime" point - it conflicts with the first and second of my guideline bullet-points! Even (or especially) during downtime, any story progression needs to be short and light-touch.

To go back to the driving analogy:

When driving in a city during rush-hour, I'll actively ignore conversations in the car, or spoken messages on the radio (e.g. news reports): my focus is on driving the car and dealing with external elements (cars, pedestrians, traffic lights, etc). When driving on the motorway during non-rush-hour (i.e. minimal traffic, no turning, stop-lines or traffic lights, I'm happy to engage in conversations and/or listen to the news on the radio. But equally, I still have some of my attention engaged in driving, which means that anything more complex (e.g. arguing about story design in gaming!) has to be limited or avoided!