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The Situation with Video Game Stories
by Mark Filipowich on 02/02/13 03:10:00 pm   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.


A former professor of mine once told me that for a story to be a story, it must consist of a character being changed by events. Stories may be layered and make use of a gamut of literary devices and tropes, but everything is built on the foundation of a character being changed by an event.

It is not enough to put an alcoholic in an ambulance with his dying mother or a rogue AI in a law firm run by God or an amnesiac engineer in a haunted sandwich shop. Those aren’t stories; they’re situations. They may be interesting situations with interesting people thinking and saying interesting things, but they’re just situations.

And a situation, this professor stooped to tell us, is not a story. Something has to happen, and someone has to change because of it. A story has transparent motion between a distinct individual and their specific circumstances.

Of course, like most rules of literature, the rule disintegrates upon closer inspection. Kafka’s entire body of work is about people not changing under the reader’s watch; even Hemingway was more interested in his unique brand of musing than in laying out what happened to whom and why it should be important.

But I imagine that this professor of mine was just trying to break down a complicated world into manageable chunks for a new batch of undergraduates. Even if the “character-changed-by-stuff” criteria for the written word is imperfect at least it’s somewhat useful in understanding how literature functions. Games, on the other hand, do not fit this criterion at all.

Game narratives aren’t built on stories. Even the most linear, plot-heavy games focus not on what happens, when, and to whom, but rather everything around the events that help to set them up. The circumstances that make the plot possible are far more interesting in games than the plot itself. If literature is a growth chamber where a character is altered when stimulus is applied, then games are a big open room covered in clues, often occupied by fascinating people and explored by a stranger.

It isn’t just that world-building is more important than creating a plot, as argued by Nick Dinicola on [PopMatters], nor is it that the player must feel responsible for creating movement in the plot—although both are still necessary for the narrative to carry any weight—it is that a game’s situation, not its plot, is at the foundation of video game narrative. By narrative, I mean the sum of plot, world, character, scenes, environments, sets, dialogue exchanges, and anything operating in the mechanical system that could be said to evoke a feeling or thought (including the mechanics themselves).

Not to discount any of the great writing or directing authored in games past, but everything is built on a core situation. A player is dropped into a starting environment and everything is experienced through their exploration, deduction, and play. Even when the player has no authority over the game’s events, at the core the narrative is built on each new bit of atmosphere that the game establishes. Whether it’s a change from the Brecilian Forest to the deep roads, hopping out of a warthog and into a banshee, or just lining up four lines to clean up a once log jammed Tetris board, every mood and atmosphere is framed by a situation.

Think of how most levels begin: there may be a cutscene or even just a brief dissolve that wipes to a new screen, but ultimately a level puts an avatar into a world and leaves the player to explore—even if it is just in one direction.

Even in adventure games, in which the player basically figures out how to move from one conversation or cutscene to the next, the narrative is built on the player moving their avatar or their screen or even just closely examining the elements of the world, until each puzzle is solved. Nothing happens until the player has explored the game enough to understand its context. In a novel, you don’t hear about how the character enters a room, approaching each piece of furniture in every new room just to see what they could do with it and what reasons that it could possibly be there (unless it’s a Henry James novel, amirite?).

Everything from “1-1 MARIO START” to the most dynamic cutscenes just establish context, put the avatar in an open space, hand the controls back to the player, and then leave things unresolved. Even if the resolution of a plot is unaffected by player input, most of the narrative substance (the artwork, music, character design, the effort required to move from A to B, the personal and statistical growth and changes in characters) all happen when the player is just exploring the situation.

It’s why games will never—and should never—reach absolute verisimilitude. Because even while it isn’t natural for a hero to take twenty minutes away from a main quest because they thought they might have seen a neat-looking shark from a coastline or for villagers to greet heroes that barge into their homes or for people to repeat the same speech at every prompt or for enemies to walk and attack in the same patterns or for death to be an annoying setback instead of an absolute state, they facilitate exploration of the enormous situation, which is at the core of video game storytelling.

The plot doesn’t matter as much in games because it doesn’t exist until the player moves it. However, the situation is always there, and in the best games, it’s always interesting. Even in games stripped almost entirely of story like in a Mario game or where it’s irrelevant such as in a World of Warcraft raid or a League of Legends multiplayer match, the situation dictates the thoughts and feelings that become the story.

Being clearly outclassed by an enemy leads to anxiety and desperation, resulting in carefully choosing the location of battle or baiting enemy aggression. Ultimately, exploring the game’s context leads to the story of a glorious come-from-behind victory or a humiliating defeat. The point is that the emotive and rational experience is dictated by what situations the game establishes.

The reason I believe why most players don’t finish games isn’t that games are too challenging or even that players get bored with their games. It’s that games lose their impact after too long a string of unpalatable, limited, or repeated situations. The problem is that as a game nears its conclusion fewer unexplored locations remain, fewer long-term goals need maintenance, and fewer characters are left with unresolved arcs. The more progress that the player makes, the more constrictive the overarching situation becomes.

Essentially, there are fewer big open “rooms” left to explore and flesh out. How many players quit a 40 hour campaign right before the final boss just because it’s the last possible thing that they can do? By the time that the final dungeon opens up and the side quests are all wrapped up, the only situation remaining doesn’t need to be explored to understand: “I will beat the boss, or I will reset until I beat him and get the ‘good’ ending.”

For literature and film, plot is everything. Without moving events that shape (or fail to shape) the characters, there is only setup with no direction. We engage with these stories to see what a person will do and how the things that happen will shape them. But games, at the core, are setup. They create a place to wander and figure out for one’s self. All the story that may happen afterward results from play in an open space, the boundaries and significance of which is understood through experience.

Originally posted on PopMatters.

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Joseph Elliott
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I disagree about your last statements when it comes to plot and film/literature, but I think you've pretty much nailed narrative in video games.

This line is at the core of it, "The plot doesn’t matter as much in games because it doesn’t exist until the player moves it." Not to discount plots role in video game narrative, but a game that doesn't allow the player to explore the situation (even in linear game), is missing out on one of the most unique and profound aspects of video games as a story telling device.

Perhaps that's a big part of why I couldn't get very far into Final Fantasy XIII.

Kujel Selsuru
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Yes, 1000 times yes!

Great piece BTW.

Darren Tomlyn
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Although I'll point you towards my blog - (so you can realise what the words story and narrate/narrative truly represent in relation to each other and games) - there's still more to the problem than I've currently written, so everything there is currently incomplete - (though hopefully will still help):

Bart Stewart
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A very simple but maybe useful way of looking at this is that plot is "what," while story is "why." A story requires reasons -- maybe logical, maybe emotional -- for what happens to people. Those reasons might be exposed (as in most stories), or they can be hidden and only hinted at by the author (as in Kafkaesque storytelling), but the effort to understand and drive events is what turns plot into story.

The writer Gene Wolfe expressed this in a neat way. To paraphrase him slightly: "The king died, then the queen died" is a plot. "The king died, then the queen died *of grief*" is a story. Story is about meaning.

I suspect that applies to games, too.

Darren Tomlyn
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I guess no-one's interested in reading my blog, and not understanding what all these words truly represent in relation to each other:

A plot is a more specific application of a narrative, which is an application of narrate, which is behaviour (a thing that happens) - (represented by the word tell) - applied to an intangible THING (form/arrangement of information) we call a story.

Story = A form/arrangement of information of or about a series of events.
Narrate = to tell a story.
Narrative = A story being told/the property or attribute of a story being told.

(Not sure how best to describe plot in relation to narrative.)

Story != narrative or plot.

The word story is treated by the language independently of the act of telling - (used as separate words in combination, just like door and open etc.) - which is why the words narrative and narrate exist and are used in addition - to describe such a combination.

The reason why people problems using such words to describe games, is that although games are about STORIES, they're not about NARRATIVES.

Games are about the behaviour of WRITING stories - not telling them.

Story: A form/arrangement of information of or about a series of events, (created and stored inside (a person's) memory).

The word story represents something FAR more fundamental than people realise, and all human behaviour can be described in relation to such a thing, often in a far more suitable and consistent manner:

Things people do 'for themselves' = writing (their own) stories
Things people do 'for others' = telling stories (narrating/a narrative)
Things that happen to people = stories they are told

Guess what we really need to be able to describe and teach in order to understand what types of activity, actions and states words such as game, art, puzzle and competition all represent in relation to each other?

To use story instead of narrative or vice-versa is to break the basic rules of English grammar...

Daniel Accardi
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Third paragraph, first sentence: "Game narratives aren’t built on stories." We all know narratives and stories are different things; that was implicit in the argument. What Mark is saying is that the act of narration in a game is not motivated by the designer's content, but by the action of the player; the state is designed, but the sequence of events is player-driven. (Of course, narrative design in game terms usually means creating content which gently forces a specific sequence of events, but for formal purposes it's clearer to state it thus.)

This was basically the gist of my undergraduate thesis, although I relied more heavily on post-structuralist theory for it to work. (Your version is, of course, more succinct than mine.) If you haven't already, rather than thinking of games like Mario, Wow or LoL, take a stab at Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, where most (if not all) narrative information is contextual.

Serious question. Ultimately, I think it comes down to formulating a proper goal for your game. It's true that Drake solving a narrative problem is not equal to the player solving a game-system problem. But is that problematic in and of itself? Drake is only "saving the world" in a representative fashion; there is no Drake and he's not murdering people, jumping on planes, running around, etc, it's all illusory but we accept it as part of the conceits of gaming (and of narrative generally). In the same way, solving a larger (save the world) or smaller (internal character issue) problem is just as illusory as jumping over the wall, so I think it's acceptable to consider that the character's actions, intentions and arc are not precisely mapped over one another.

Conversely, if you want your player to actually think or feel something, it's a different issue. You can actually motivate a *real* process, but again, it doesn't require that the specific tasks performed in-game line up with the total situation; it only requires that the representative system is understandable to the player.


Joseph Elliott
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"I guess no-one's interested in reading my blog, and not understanding what all these words truly represent in relation to each other"

I think this statement might sum up why nobody went to your blog. You're being condescending by acting like an absolute authority, implying that we couldn't meaningfully discuss a topic without first studying your thoughts on the matter.

I don't want to deter you from contributing, because I'm sure you have a lot to offer, but being condescending, especially on the internet, is not a very good way to start a discussion.

Darren Tomlyn
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It's hard to reply without sounding condescending when such fundamental mistakes are being made.

I'm afraid that my blog IS everything we have on this matter currently. I know it's currently incomplete, but there are reasons why it's taking me so long to finish the updated version - (because the problems we're dealing with here are symptoms of possibly one of the biggest, most fundamental problems we've yet to recognise even exists - with our very recognition and understanding of language itself, (which is why my blog is everything we have)).

And if no-one reads it, (even if it is incomplete), then they obviously arn't interested in knowing any better, are they? In which case, who is being condescending?


ALL narratives are applications of stories. The question is not WHAT story or narrative, but WHOSE, how and why, and how and why can, are, and should they be related.

Luis Guimaraes
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@ Darren

No, the problem is it's way too wordier than it needs. You should, re-factory a lot of it using more formatting.

As Jay said above: "Your articles have interesting content, but it is buried under too many words and semantics. It reads like a manifesto instead of a fun game design article."

You need more than one level of titles/subtitles, a few lists and pictures. And very important, it's also too abstract, add some examples of real world analysis and application.


When it's made-up, it's a story. When it happens, it's a history. The story formed by the plot (timeline of made-up/linear events) of a game is just a story. The one that emerges from the player's actions is an (although virtual in part) history.


This one is your most readable post in a long while. The first one in this comments tree.

"ALL narratives are applications of stories. The question is not WHAT story or narrative, but WHOSE, how and why, and how and why can, are, and should they be related."

What does this even mean?

Darren Tomlyn
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@Luis & Jay

Legibility was the main reason I was re-writing my blog post to begin with, before I had a moment of insight and then, finally, truly saw and understood how the basic problem is affecting our perception and understanding of (at least the English) language, ('joined all the dots together'), including the words game, art, puzzle and competition, (which has allowed me to leave some of the current content out, since I now know it to be superfluous). Either way, either you haven't read it all (at least the parts that matter), or you didn't understand it at all?

This is all a matter of language, specifically related to the English language in this case. Since it can be further specified as a problem with how the language is being perceived, recognised, understood and then taught and described, it can even more specifically be described as a matter of linguistics.

How we use (the) language to describe itself, is the basic problem we have, because of such a perception etc..


The rest of my reply can all be found in my blog, but if I have to repeat myself, (and maybe add a bit more, since I'm re-writing it), then so-be-it.

"When it's made-up, it's a story. When it happens, it's a history. The story formed by the plot (timeline of made-up/linear events) of a game is just a story. The one that emerges from the player's actions is an (although virtual in part) history. "

This is wrong, since it is inconsistent with how the word story is used, and therefore the basic rules of the language (grammar) within which the information the word story is used to represent, exists, (and not just words themselves, which are neither the subject or cause of grammar).

Either the information is wrong, or the basic rules of (English) grammar are wrong - take your pick.

However, the reason why we're having problems, is because the latter - (the basic rules of grammar) - are NOT fully recognised and understood - hence why my re-write is so important.


""ALL narratives are applications of stories. The question is not WHAT story or narrative, but WHOSE, how and why, and how and why can, are, and should they be related."

What does this even mean?"

Obviously your understanding of the English language is too limited - so let me spell it out for you:

Story: This word is used to represent a piece of information that is only used in a manner that is consistent with it representing a THING - an intangible thing - a form/arrangement of information, that causes it to be used as a type of word we call noun.

According the basic rules of grammar, any other type of information that is applicable to such a thing (such as any behaviour or properties/attributes) must be represented by additional words used in combination. This is demonstrably the case - e.g. the information represented by the words tell and write, short and long etc..

If the word story was NOT a thing, and instead belonged to either of the two other concepts that causes words to be used in the same manner as things are, (which are NOT currently recognised to exist!) - (applications of things that happen and applications of properties/attributes - related to/derived from concepts used as verbs/adjectives), then the words write and tell AND the words short and long etc. would not all be used in combination, at all.

Describing the word story as anything other than a THING, is therefore breaking the basic rules of grammar, and is therefore currently a problem, (as a symptom of not understanding the rules of grammar in the first place).

Narrate: This word is used to represent information of a thing that happens, that causes it to be used as a type of word we call verb.

Narrate is a thing that happens to the thing we call story - to describe the behaviour of telling a story or telling the story of something. The word tell is therefore never needed to be used in combination, (unlike the word story itself), since it is the basic thing that happens that the word narrate happens to represent.

Narrate therefore does not exist without a story to be narrated, (told).

Narrative: Although narrative is also used to represent the property/attribute of telling a story, that causes the word to be used as an adjective, the main problem is the use of the word to represent the APPLICATION of telling a story, which causes it to be used as a noun, (as an application of narrate).

Although the information the words narrative and story represent cause them to be used in a similar manner (as nouns, belonging to the same type of - (of what? is a very good question)), they do NOT belong to the same concept, and therefore cannot be the same thing, and, as such, are not used within the same context. (We never use the word tell in combination with the word narrative, since the information it represents is superfluous - i.e. tell a story that is being told).

Narrative is an application of narrate, which is a thing that happens to a thing we call story. So narratives are ultimately an application of a thing we call story, as I said.


But where things get REALLY interesting is to fully understand the ramifications of what the word story must represent, and how and WHERE it must exist in a manner that is consistent with its use - (independently of telling/being told).

In order to understand this, we must first recognise what a story is, as a thing.

But after working on my new blog post, since my last reply here, I've realised that my old definition of story, (in my previous reply) still isn't fully consistent, because of how things are perceived that we use the language to represent. (So yes, not only is my current blog incomplete, it's also inconsistent aswell, but not in a manner that would currently be recognised.)

A story is an intangible thing - a form or arrangement of information, either real or imaginary, (that merely CAN be told, and which we describe its creation as and by the word write). The only truly consistent manner to describe what information its an arrangement of, I now realise, is as 'things that happen' rather than the word events.

So where do we find arrangements or forms of information of and about things that happen, that arn't being told, but CAN be?

(A person's) Memory.

EVERYTHING that happens in relation to such people, (or even entities, depending how far you wish to cast the net for memories in relation to animals/computers and other things), is therefore a story - EVERYTHING, including states, and not just events, which is why my old definition is a problem.

This is why the basic types of things that happen, in relation to the person or thing that is behaving, as I described above, can therefore be described in relation to the story it creates - using the words write, tell and told.

History is a description (do I need to describe what?) of merely part of what the word story represents, nothing more, and is beneath the word story in the taxonomic hierarchy, just like narrate and narrative, regardless of origin and type.


The word story therefore represents something extremely fundamental, and can be used in a very important manner:

As an objective representation of a person/entity, as and by which their basic behaviour can be described.

And this is why recognising WHOSE behaviour the word story is being used in relation to is very important.

Games usually involve TWO types of story - those of the PLAYER(S), and those of the CREATOR(S) (including any indirectly involved, on behalf of the medium/ai/setting etc.)).

The stories on behalf of the player(s) are WRITTEN.

The stories on behalf of the creator(s) (even indirectly) are TOLD - (i.e. narrated/as narratives).

Games are DEFINED as and by an application of behaviour on behalf of the PLAYER(S), NOT the CREATOR(S)!

Games can therefore be defined as:

Game: an activity in which people compete in a structured environment (involving rules) by writing their own stories.

If an activity does not involve (competing with) a written story, (e.g. interacting with a story being told, (a puzzle), competing to be told a story (a competition), or merely perceiving a story being told (as a work of art)), then it cannot be a game.


So what the OP is trying to talk about, is video game narratives, not just stories in general.

If you want to understand games, then study the behaviour (things that happen on behalf) of the players, and relate, recognise, understand and describe everything to and by such a thing, because it's the only thing that matters for the definition of a game, both in isolation and in relation to puzzles, competitions and art etc..

Luis Guimaraes
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1) The part you said I was wrong (story/history), you didn't explain why it was wrong, and didn't tell what is right in comparison.

2) The part I asked you what I meant, you explained the wrong part. I was actually pointing out the confusing sentence, not asking the meaning of the words. This:

"but WHOSE, how and why, and how and why can, are, and should"

3) I'll take another look at the blog now that you rewrote it.

Darren Tomlyn
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I re-writing it as we speak (so it's not finished yet).

Let me re-phrase that sentence:

..but WHOSE (stories), how and why (they exist and are of those particular people), and how and why can, are, and should be related (to each other) - (mainly in relation to the stories of the creators and players of games - (though if you don't understand that already, then you've got problems regardless)).

If you do not already know that history describes things that happen of the past (tense) and factual, when stories can be of any tense and either factual or imaginary, and can see how they are then related, then...

Roger Tober
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I think games are not finished because the overarching story has become secondary to smaller tasks that can be chosen by the gamer. We've gotten sidetracked by giving the player almost unlimited choices which aren't very important to the story. Although this gives players more freedom, it also subtracts from the long term goals presented by the main story. I would very much like to see studies that show which games get finished the most often. My guess is that these would be games where the main story took more precedent.

Joseph Elliott
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While I can't verify these statistics for certain, they seem to be popping up pretty consistently with a few google searches. Sorry for the IGN link, but like I said, the stats are consistent with other publications.

Heavy Rain was apparently completely by 72% of players, while the average game completion rate (doesn't specify platform or give sources, so take this with a grain of salt) is 20-25%. Heavy Rain is clearly a game with a heavy focus on storytelling, so it makes sense the audience would want to see it through. IGN also compares Heavy Rain's 72% completion rate with that of Mass Effect 2, which is supposedly 50%. While Mass Effect 2 has a substantially lower completion rate, it's still at least double the average. Mass Effect, again, is a game focused heavy on it's story.

Obviously that's in no way conclusive, but I found it interesting nonetheless. I'd like to see if these stats are consistent with other story based games, but if I had to guess, I'd say there's a good chance they are.

Joshua Darlington
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Games can include various types of top down story, bottom up story, computational story, and socially mediated story. If you balance multiple story engines, there will be trade offs.

Top down story is the easiest way to introduce dramatic emotional motivation into game play (for single player). However, if you are too heavy handed in your top down story, it will restrict bottom up emergent player generated story.

Imposing top down character flaw and character arc is going to be tough balance if you let the player drive important plot decisions. Morality systems are one way to turn this dramatic device into a game element. The most sophisticated game system I know of this type of storytelling is in the pen and paper RPG Burning Wheel.

Ozzie Smith
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Interesting read. I've always looked it at like this: games are a catalyst for players to create their own stories within. All narrative that designers put into games are not actually part of the "game" part, they are just aesthetic rewards/reactions for players completing tasks. IE a player in Bioshock finds an audio-recording and is "rewarded" with some dialog. Generally I think narratives are good for explaining concepts and rules to players (imagine how hard Monopoly would be to learn if it was completely abstract), but I think when games try to focus specifically on the narrative experience they are completely missing the point of the medium.

I think the only interesting way to use the medium to tell specific, designer-intended stories would be with Interactive Narrative-type games where players (or rather "users" I guess) are influencing the story with choices (like in The Walking Dead or Heavy Rain). Although personally I don't care for such experiences too much, I think they are using the medium much better than games that focus on telling a linear story and inter-cut it with gameplay that is not related to the narrative at all.

Although I think when you make an interactive narrative, you need to think about what sort of message you are making by making the narrative interactive. By myself I can't really think of anything meaningful unless you consider "things happen differently when you make different decisions" to be meaningful. "The medium is the message" is I guess what I am saying.

I'm not saying non-interactive narrative games have bad stories per se, I'm just saying that a game probably isn't the best format for them. But then Shadow of the Colossus is one of my favorite games ever and that game is all about a linear story, so maybe when the gameplay mechanics reinforce the story it works out better? I don't know maybe I'm just full of shit.

Joseph Elliott
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I think you nailed it in the end (not the full of shit part!). A game where it's mechanics reinforce the story, or in the case of Shadow of the Colossus, present the entirety of the narratives subtext, are a beautiful blend that really showcase the power of the medium as a story telling device.

That said, I grew up playing Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger on my Super Nintendo, and those characters and stories have stuck with me my entire life. The gameplay and the story have no direct connection, but having a good story makes me want to play the game all the more, and rewards me deeply when I succeed (or, in turn, hurts me when I fail).

Is Chrono Trigger a bad representation of the medium, or a bad game? To a lot of people, the answer is a firm "no", but the disconnect between story and game mechanics is worth noting.

Consider film making. Many films are quite direct adaptations of plays and literature, relying more heavily on the strengths of those mediums than on the unique ones that are inherent to the film image. Are they bad movies? Not necessarily, and in fact many of them are loved and praised universally. Do they represent the maximum potential of what is uniquely cinematic? No.

I don't really have a succinct point I'm trying to make (which is probably obvious), but if there is such a thing as a type of story telling that is the most true and representative of the medium's potential, it won't, and shouldn't be, the only type of story telling utilized. There are many ways of telling a story, and they all have their benefits.

Enrique Dryere
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Very insightful piece! I tend to agree with concept of the value of plot in games. During my work on the script of Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages, I had very similar ideas in mind. I began with a setup, eventually offering the players an entire universe to explore and discover themselves in the process. In the end, I'm not sure I was successful because let's face it, saying it is one thing, accomplishing it is entirely another.

However, there's one aspect of story in game that I think is commonly overlooked is the sort of drama that develops in most sports or simply through human association. I don't hesitate to say that the most memorable "story" I've ever experienced in any video game is the drama that unfolded on my World of Warcraft server as multiple guilds pushed towards the opening of Ahn' Qiraj. And as Joseph noted above, there was a complete disconnect between the game mechanics and the story that developed, yet both were enjoyable and added weight to one another.

The takeaway from this is that the higher quality the mechanics and venue of play you offer, the more valid the stories derived from these experiences will appear to those involved, and perhaps just as importantly, for observers as well.

Joshua Darlington
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Sure reflective introspective complex characterization is a strong tradition in post St Augustine western literature. But game stories in their present form are more like the Illiad, or action oriented heroic epics with a lot of fighting.

Artists with a background/emphasis in other literary traditions can have trouble digesting new game writing structures such as "map as narrative," "graph as narrative," "probability as narrative" and the new directionality of directive narrative rather than retrospective narrative.

There are artistic traditions that match the directionality and collaborative fictions of games such as improvisational theater. However, I'm not aware of any formal university programs that teach being a GM. I just did a random Googles and found this: Of course being a computer game writer is more complicated than being a game master due to technical, business, and org structure limitations.