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Are you a game designer, or a fiction writer?
by Lewis Pulsipher on 06/09/14 09:04:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.


Especially in video games, many "designers" conceive of themselves as fiction writers rather than game designers.


Slides from Are you a game designer, or a fiction writer?:

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher



Question arises from the ECGC

East Coast Game Conference 2014 featured lots of discussion of story in games

Ken Rolston, keynote, called himself a writer

Mary deMarle talked about integrating story and game

Heather Albano discussed what amounted to same storyline but 3 or 4 quite different results from player’s point of view


Player’s viewpoint: Experience a story written by the game developers, or “write your own” story

Some writers clearly think they should decide how a game works, not the game designers

Which is a manifestation of the notion that all games (or at least, video games) are story

(My view is that there are three kinds of players/games:

Games are all math

Games are about people

Games are stories)


Why do people play?

Do people play a game for the story, or the gameplay?

I’m firmly in the gameplay camp

And the “games are about people camp,” with stories included because stories are about people

Stories don’t last.  Once you know the story, you’ll rarely want to experience it again

The smaller the game, the less room there is for story – unless you get to a few art games that are much more story than game (Journey,  Stanley Parable, etc.)


The Essential Difference

Game designer invites emergence, wants players to create the “narrative”

Game writer sets up a story (perhaps with variations) for players to follow

They’re trying to impose a passive experience on an interactive challenge – quite a challenge in itself

Not quite the same as a desire to “control the players”.  Puzzle designers control players.  Fiction writers often control players but many wish they didn’t have to.


Game designers like emergent behavior, up to a point

I especially like emergent objectives, where the player(s) find their own objectives, other than winning/beating the game, to pursue

They don’t like something that breaks the game

Fiction writers don’t like emergent behavior, their objective is to control the story

Though many are trying to find ways to provide 3 or 4 stories within one game

And sometimes fail, as in Mass Effect 3


Game formats

AAA video games are often about an “experience”, more or less a story

Tabletop games are usually “rules-emergent”, the game gives the players opportunities to write their own narrative or even story

That’s also true for many casual video games

Tabletop RPGs are the bridge between the two, and can be played either way


All kinds of games are moving more toward stories.  GenCon (50K participants) is a story convention as much as game convention.  The question is, what do you want to do, design games, or tell stories?

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Benjy Davo
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This is the ultimate conflict in gaming really can game design and story co-exist in a way that is more rewarding than what we currently have? I'd like to see more strategy game/story hybrids, like say X-com but with each character having a more detailed personality. See I think that this would work because creating more rounded characters isn't specifically storytelling as people in real life have distinctive persona's.

What is your view on more simtype games like say Thief 1 + 2 where there was a story but it wasn't in your face and let you play your way for long periods of time?

Ron Dippold
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'The smaller the game, the less room there is for story – unless you get to a few art games that are much more story than game (Journey, Stanley Parable, etc.)'

I would say they are examples of experience over story and game. I don't think most players could tell you what the story in either was, and anyone who claimed to know the story for Stanley Parable would be wrong (unless they're Galactic Cafe). They're both quite rigid in structure, but don't feel like they are.

Compare to Gone Home which is definitely telling a straightforward story and the experience is definitely traded off for that - you'll find nothing to compare to Journey's carpet run and you can tell you're on rails at all times. (They were on a tight budget and specifically chose the structure to limit costs, and they're frank about that).

As far as replayability it ends up being the same - once you've played it you're spoiled. But the experience type feels far freer, and I'd put it somewhere between.

This is not to diminish your main point, I just think there are better less ambiguous examples for the writer driven side, like Gone Home, Last of Us, or Analogue.

Matthew Thomas
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As a student, this is what I always see with my peers. A classmate will say he has a great idea for a game and upon asking him what the game is, they'll say "A hybrid of this and that theme" or "The story of guy doing thing". Then they'll be so set on the idea they have in their head that they are unwilling to compromise with the actual limitations of the project.

Lewis Pulsipher
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My teaching experience was that when beginners said they had an idea for a game, it was usually an idea for a story, with no actual game attached. When I pinned them down they couldn't articulate any game mechanics at all.

Rodney Emerson
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When I took to learning game design, and all the skills that it demands, finding myself awash in story ideas that had nothing to do with mechanical game systems was and is the first hurdle I'm struggling with. Getting control of ideas are hard, especially considering I'm so used to games as a solitary experience, rather than as a social one.

The games that are least reliant on story that I am accustomed to are arcade shooters (SHMUPS), and roguelikes, the latter I feel has the greatest benefit from the eschewing of narrative, and likely the best type solitary game to study for this purpose.

Slawa Deisling
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I really dislike this way of thinking from people who happen to work in a creative industry.
Who has the right to state what exactly a game should be like? I want to create games. Not write books. Not making motion-pictures. Games. And if someone wants to tell stories through their games, because that's the path they chose to express something, than so be it. Nobody (other devs, gamers, etc.) have any right to critizise that decision.

I don't say that stories are "king". I just hate it when devs from any of the "camps" (Gameplay-Camp vs. Story-Camp) try to force their "ideology" down someones throat.
Bein open-minded is key.

Scott Sheppard
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I feel like this is less about trying to shove anybody's methodology anywhere, and more about coming to an understanding about how to discuss the subject at all.

For example, in a comment above, Lewis talks of his experience cornering students about game mechanics for their idea and they don't have any. This is an important distinction to make for a few reasons.

The first is so that the student can learn that there is a distinction between the two. They need to understand that their passion or even role at a studio would be as a writer or creative director. Not as a designer.

The second is so that they can learn that they can only be the 'idea guy' up to a certain point. Someone needs to express that the game portion of the game needs to be made by someone infinitely more qualified to do so. In the exact same way that the story should be written by someone who actually cares for story... and not the gameplay designer. Game studios are team based for a reason.

So I don't feel there's much need to get defensive. Stories are in games for good. If nothing else, they're the Destiny's and Halo's that are easily understood by a wider audience, and therefore drive sales into the industry. You can make stories in games. Truly, the distinction is that fiction writers need to understand that they are not designers, and vice versa. There's a dedicated and important place for both.

Lewis Pulsipher
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To help people pin down a game, as opposed to a story, I developed the Nine Structural Sub-Systems of every game. Designers have to make a choice in each of the nine before they can say they actually have a game in mind.

This video ( uses the nine structures to help modify chess, though it isn't intended to be an explanation of the nine structures themselves (that's in my book "Game Design"). An older version is at "The Nine Structural Sub-Systems of Any Game" 17 Mar 09

Glenn O'Bannon
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It depends upon the game. I generally DON'T WANT TO play a game over and over again unless it's a casual game, a sports game or I'm playing online with friends. The games I love most have the experience of playing a great game (fun gameplay) AND a playing out a great story.

So I'm often climbing, sneaking, eavesdropping, interrogating, shooting all kinds of weapons, solving puzzles, using spells or tech-boosts. The world of action/adventure gameplay is fairly limited. And yet, if done right, I go back to it every time IF it has a great story.

And then I'm finished, quite satisfied with my purchase. And I may or may not play it again.

Some of my favorites:
The Last of Us
The Nathan Drake series
Splinter Cell series
Bioshock Infinite
Tomb Raider reboot
The Walking Dead
Mass Effect (most times)
Battlefield (sometimes)
Assassin's Creed (sometimes)
Elder Scrolls games (sometimes)

I'm sure I'm forgetting some.

Now you need great gameplay or it doesn't matter how good the story is. A case in point is Injustice. After some very cool cut scenes, I'm thinking, "Hey! This could be an awesome game!" But after the story intro? Mortal Kombat. Ugh. I couldn't wait to stop playing.

Bart Stewart
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Part of why this is an interesting question is because there is no bright line that can be drawn between these two emphases. There's overlap.

Design is mostly about organizing systems. Story is mostly about seeing human nature revealed or changed.

When you craft a story, you're constructing a specific sequence of particular events affecting one or more persons. That's a kind of design.

And when you choose and connect functional systems whose interactions enable emergent effects on people, you're creating the equivalent of a theater. You're building a place, with sets and props and dynamic effects, in which actors -- players -- can tell engaging stories.

This overlap can be bad news if it happens accidentally. That usually means either story or systems won't get the conscious attention they need.

But when you're aware of the overlap -- when you know the distinct value of both story and system and understand how they intersect -- then you can emphasize those intersections to deepen both systems and story so that both are more satisfying to more players.

That's a place where the Storybricks team has lived for a few years now. I'm as eager as anyone to see what players of EverQuest Next Landmark do with the AI story-systems that Storybricks technology is adding to it.

There's story, and there's systems... but it's probably in computer games more than anywhere else that the building of story-systems can be seen as a valuable specialization.

Jeff Spock
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Speaking as a game writer (I err to the writing side of narrative design, rather than to the design side), I think that this is more representative of the state of game design five or ten years ago.

"Especially in video games, many "designers" conceive of themselves as fiction writers rather than game designers..."

This does not remind me of game designers that I have worked with. What they may want to do is give the player a journey, or an experience, or have them consider a theme -- but they do it in the language of gameplay mechanics, not in the language of linear narrative.

"...Once you know the story, you’ll rarely want to experience it again.."

Absolutely. I have yet to meet anybody who has seen a movie or read a novel more than once...

Snarks aside, I think that games are even more compelling as they are interactive and experiential, giving you that "I did it!" buzz that books and movies never will. Finding loot, quests, NPCs, Easter eggs, etc. that you missed the first time around is something gamers love to do. How many times did people replay an RPG to try different classes? Max level multiple characters in an MMO? Replay a game on the stealth-only option? Try the Dark Side?

"...Fiction writers don’t like emergent behavior, their objective is to control the story..."

Let's put it this way: Designers who prefer linear narratives that remove player agency are not in great demand.

Some games are more story-oriented (AAA action stuff, adventure), some are more gameplay-oriented (strategy, sims), and some are more atmosphere-oriented. In that last category I'm thinking of games like Limbo and Journey, and maybe the entire category of survival horror -- do you play those for the story, the mechanics, or the chills?

Some games cover more than one of these bases. Constantly improving techniques, tools and platforms give them those possibilities, and studios are increasingly improving their ability to intertwine narrative and gameplay. Deus Ex? Hitman? Plague? The Banner Saga?

"...what do you want to do, design games, or tell stories?"

To present game design as a dichotomy, that you can*either* make games *or* tell stories is too much hyperbole for me. I don't see it that way either as a developer, or as a player.

Julien Dassa-Terrier
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Thumbs up !
Exactly my feeling when I read this blog.

I'd like to add that narrative design and more generally storytelling is not as constrained as many people seems to think. This idea of writers being obsessed with total control over the story arises from a lack of knowledge of this work. Even though the story you are telling in a book or a movie is technically "linear", the way the audience experiences it is not. A good writer will always offer several interpretations, several symbols, anything that will allow his reader (or viewer, or player) to craft his own interpretation of the story. It goes beyond just "So this is the story of X, and X decides to leave A to get to B and fights Y and wins and goes back to A". This is why so many people will read the same book at different times of their lives, the experience will be different because they will be different. Experiencing a story is not passive.

Obviously, this can be applied to video games. Of course, you might want to have several arcs to your story and give this agency to your players, but this is not compulsory. Linear story doesn't mean linear experience and it is certainly not opposed to an interesting gameplay. Think of the Last of Us, the story is absolutely linear, still everyone I know seemed to have experienced this story and this game in a very personal manner.

The challenge is huge not because the writer "loses control over the audience" but because writers are working with movies for about a century, and books for ages, while they have video games for only a few decades. This is still new. This gameplay/story war really doesn't make a lot of sense.

Lewis Pulsipher
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"Exactly my feeling when I read this blog." You only read it? I included the slide text on the advice of Gamasutra editors, but I'm finding that people only read the slide text rather than listen to the audiovisual, yet think they know what I said.

If you only read the text, which is merely the slide text from the video, then you don't really know the presentation.

Julien Dassa-Terrier
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Sorry for the poor choice of words. I've also listened the presentation.
Of course, I don't overrule the possibility I misunderstood what you said.

Ramon Carroll
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Sure, there's a real and legitimate conflict between game systems and narratives, but I think that conflict only becomes a significant problem when the development process doesn't fully respect the roles of both the designer and writer on an equal level. As our medium has evolved, they've both proved to have a valid and respectable place in game development. There are tons of games that blend systems and narrative together quite well. Dishonored is a recent example, and it's only one of many.

Again, there ARE real and legitimate conflicts, but I think it's our failures to integrate these two elements delicately that exacerbate the problem.

Lewis Pulsipher
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A short video presentation is inevitably going to be aimed more at beginners than at experienced people. As some of the comments indicate, it's a real problem for many beginners, hence worth presenting as a dichotomy even though, as we all know, dividing anything along a spectrum into two extremes will leave lots of in-betweens and what-about-this-es.

Also, I try not to be a "vidiot" when I make these presentations, I include tabletop as well as video games, casual as well as hardcore, the broadest view I can. It's much harder to focus on story in a board or card game than in a video game.

Julien Dassa-Terrier
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This is a good point. Having a compelling story in a board game sound like a challenge. Still, I would say that board games with a "good story" tend to be emergent. You probably never get to "follow a story which is told to you" in a board game like you would in a video game, or a movie, or anything. At least I don't think so, but I'd be happy to be proved wrong (which probably will happen). Still, when you spend a night playing "Diplomacy" you are building your own story from the setting. Isn't that what you also experience on most 4X games ?

I understand how you'd want to emphasise the dichotomy between gameplay and story to be clearer to beginners but I wonder if it wouldn't give them bad habits then ?

Lewis Pulsipher
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By the way: If I regarded myself as a professional story-maker, I certainly wouldn't use the word "narrative" to describe what I was doing. Everything humans do has a narrative, an account of what happened, but that narrative is rarely of interest to other people. Driving to the store and buying groceries has a narrative. Narratives - accounts of what happens - are often not good stories, not interesting unless you're the person it happened to.

A good story is a narrative, but one where the consumer cares about the characters, and where the plot is exceptionally interesting.