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Story in games, what we can learn from other story telling media
by Xing Wang on 04/11/14 11:33:00 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.


The importance of story in games is often controversial, especially in F2P games and GaaS. The decision of adding stories or not to a F2P game often pits designers against Product Managers (PM’s) on the same team. However, the debate usually focuses on story vs. no story, instead of on how the story is used and deployed. 

Data vs. Instinct

From memories of when we are playing games as children and internet forums on certain games, seems what we remember most after playing a game is the story in it. Often the main reason we want to continue to play a game was because we want to find out what happens next in the story. We are even willing to put up with very grind-y and repetitive parts of a game to find out a story’s conclusion. So based on our instinct, we would think that story in games should lift retention. (Since most GaaS is very metrics driven, almost all features should have a metric goal.)

So designers write the story, and PM’s set up the experiment. Often the story is told in a video or a comic strip at the beginning and between chapters. Sadly, in multiple games across different genres, we see a big drop in the FTUE (first time user experience) funnel at the point when the story video/or comics strip is displayed. FTUE completion and D1 retention are highly correlated. Day 1 (D1) retention for the version with story is also much lower. Since the Retention curve ultimately is a funnel as well, it follows D7 and D30 retention would be lower also. Even if the story indeed reduces the decline of the retention curve (takes a lot longer to get statistically significant data), it may not compensate for the initial loss of the D1 users.

Furthermore, when we have option for skipping video or comic strip between chapters, surprisingly large amount of people do skip it. 

So how do we reconcile this data with our instinct? 

Learnings from Novel Writing: Exposition vs. Action

When I was writing an novel that was later published under a pen name, I often received advice from experienced writers to avoid Exposition and use more Action

Exposition is when you are telling user information. This could be character background (including backstories), explanations of science or technology, descriptions of the fantasy world, or history.  Action is what is actually happening: the main character slams a door, a ninja star is thrown, or a hero leaps across a building. 

The Star Wars Movies started with exposition; remember those big yellow letters flying away telling you the back story? Nowadays, you almost see no movie that does it. Why? Because people’s attention spans are shorter. To many people, exposition is boring. 

Many of the intro videos at beginning of a game trying to explain the backstory are just expositions. For a fantasy game, it could be, “600 thousand years ago, a demon arrived on earth, and the world is split into 3 factions. Blah blah..”

In games, the analogy is that your gameplay is the “Action”, and anytime you pause the “Action” to show a video or comic strip to explain backstory is basically Exposition. If you look across the entertainment industry, novels (other than literary novels), movies, or TV shows, they all start with Action: a mysterious man is murdered, James Bond jumps out of a plane, etc. 

The hypothesis for the cause of the drop in D1 retention and FTUE funnel: it is not the story; it is the exposition.

Techniques to borrow from modern TV/Movie writers. 

Should we avoid expositions all together? No. Exposition, through world building or a character’s background (e.g. the hero is protecting this little girl he just met because his own daughter died years ago), can add a lot of depth to a story. Sometime, it is even absolutely necessary if some science or technology is instrumental to the plot of your science fiction world. Thus, almost all stories has exposition. 

Again, we can learn from many modern novels, movies or TV shows on how they make expositions less obtrusive and more interesting. 

One technique is often deployed is using conversations. CSI does this a lot (and often laughably obvious.) Some clueless detective ask a dumb question, and the CSI agent goes on this long explanation. There are plenty of movies and TV shows that deploys this technique a lot more subtly. We can having backstory revealed through conversations between the characters in your game that players care about rather than this long disembodied narrator telling the player. 

The slow reveal is another technique. In many movies, the background story is not revealed until 1/3 or 1/2 way into the movie, like when the heroes escaped the initial danger. So once your user got into the game, and familiar with the game mechanics, you can start tell user the background story. This will add interest and depth to the gameplay at this point. Users don’t want to learn about backstory when he is still trying to learn about how to play your game.

Another technique is having backstory in very small doses, and interlaced with action, i.e. gameplay. Example, you after defeat a boss, a tidbit of the backstory is revealed; as part of a quest description, add a sentence on why you are killing 20 wolfs; In a card battler, when you collect a new card, a tidbit about the story is card description. Key challenge is to keep it cohesive. This is when a story bible helps. Write out all the backstory, and then drop a sentence here or there through out the game. This would make your dry instructions, prop objects, and quests more colorful.

Another one is to make user want to find out what the background story is by introducing mystery or name dropping. For example, when you find a piece of crystal (perhaps a premium currency), say “congrats, you found a piece of crystal that was shattered during the War of Magicians.” But do not go into what the War of Magicians is right away. When user see enough mention of this so called, “War of Magicians”, the user will seek out the back story on it, perhaps trying to find out why this piece of crystal is such a valuable currency. 


Some modern console games or paid games still start with a long intro sequence with back stories. A veteran game designer who I respect greatly once told me this analogy: console games are like movies, you already paid for the ticket, so even if beginning of a movie is boring, you are going to stick with it; F2P games are like TV shows, where people are flipping through the channels quickly.  If you don’t grab their interest right away, you lose them.  Modern players’ attention spans are very short. We are competing against a lot of media. In terms of story telling, other media do a much better job. So we should learn from their techniques. This article just scratches the surface. Story is good and can add a lot of value, but just have to be used properly.

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Christian Nutt
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A lot of console games use video to tell stories without understanding the language or pacing of film at all. Really, really terrible stuff. The most recent Castlevania game is the latest in the long line of games that do this: Interminably long videos with no focus whatsoever. A sequence of events hamfistedly presented, lacking all storytelling technique.

James Coote
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The Total War series does a really good job of this with it's historical facts and tidbits (analogous to story/world-building). It's all there and easily accessible just below the surface for players who want to get a bit more immersed in the world, but still doesn't get in the way of those who just wanna have epic battles.

Edit: Also, for GaaS, if you're running one off in-game events (things like "collect x silver coins before the end of the weekend and get a free limited edition item!"), then I'd expect you could boost engagement by giving that a shiny storyline wrapper

Xing Wang
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Yes, for events, we do have storylines, especially for Raid and Tower events, it is quite easy to lay in stories. Like when you reach certain level of a tower, we'll have more of the storyline revealed. This keep player going as they want to find out what happens next.

Lore Gon
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It should be the goal of the game writer to be seamless in their story development. The story should be the gameplay, essentially. Exposition is the problem a lot of Asian games fall into and the ultimate reason for their lack of popularity in American markets. These games are often guilty of bombarding us with backstory for up to 100% of the first 30 minutes of a game, a time that is crucial for getting the attention of the gamer. It seems counterproductive to push me out of gameplay during my initial bonding time with a game.

Theresa Catalano
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But thatcan also be a strength. For example, looks at the huge popularity of the Metal Gear games, despite the huge amounts of "story bombardment." Also, sometimes stories just need a lot of setup, like for example Persona 4. And of course, games like Phoenix Wright and Ghost Trick are all about storytelling, so it's not a problem when they start with long setups.

So you see, it's not as counter-productive as you think.

Xing Wang
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Again, I think analogy here is Movies vs. TV shows. For Metal Gear Solid, you already paid the $40 to $60 bucks for the game, you'll sit through the long cut scenes, especially if you bought the MGS for its reputation of long cut scenes.
For F2P, (where if you don't grab user's attention right away, you lose them, like TV shows), we did a lot of experiments, story cut scenes causes user drop offs, especially during FTUE.

Theresa Catalano
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Personally, I think these experiments can be explained by a near universal lack of quality in story cutscenes in any F2P game. With the right kind of story and cutscenes, I think it can definitely work. But of course, it might be easier to pursue other avenues. The path of least resistance can also lead somewhere good.

When it comes from learning from other media, I think a lot of game designers miss the mark. They don't see the forest for the trees and miss the most important lesson. Most of the best TV shows and movies all share something in common: they have something to say. They have a unique vision. That's something you'll never have if your biggest concern is market research.

Theresa Catalano
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One of the most important things that is often neglected (including by this article) is the importance of music in storytelling. Music has an incredible power to enhance a narrative, and make it more interesting. It can easily make up for subpar writing. For example, look at the Final Fantasy games, or the Kingdom Hearts games... legions of fans love the stories in these games, and it's not because of good writing, nor nostalgia, it's because they have a very rare high quality of music that enhances the story. Then you have something like Persona, which not only had fantastic, story-enhancing music but also has pretty good writing as well.

It's interesting that the importance of music in story-telling was so well grasped by classic, older games, but seems to be becoming a lost art in modern games. Most modern games seem content to just cut and paste a cliche hollywood soundtrack and call it a day. And I think that's one of the main reasons why nobody likes cutscenes in games anymore. There's still a few modern exceptions, certain games like Dangan Ronpa, Virtue's Last Reward and Corpse Party have excellent uses of music, but they are few and far between.

Xing Wang
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Yes, there are many story telling techniques and methods that this article doesn't cover. I am hoping the main take away from this article are two things:
1. Avoid long cut scenes in F2P games, especially at beginning.
2. Cut scenes are bad doesn't mean story is bad, and there are other techniques for story telling besides cut scenes. (you'll be surprised how often when you tell your team "let's add story to the game," the game designer/artists by default will start adding cut scene with a video or comic strip.)

Theresa Catalano
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To me, this sounds like you're advising people to throw the baby out with the bathwater. On the surface it may seem like good advice, because a lot of these cutscenes just aren't very good and people are bored by them for good reason. But your advice is basically "it's hard to do this well, so just don't try." I think it's too defeatist.

Jason Ettles
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Oof, parts of this article made me cringe. As a writer I find that anyone who says that attention spans have shortened is simply making excuses for the lack of value that their creation has in appealing to an open market. Yes, people are always looking for the next new thing, but holding someone's interest, and getting their attention are two completely different things. That, and I don't think you're doing yourself any favors by treating your audience as a form of market research. Either you dedicate yourself to building a quality product that people will want to buy, or your just looking to cash in on the latest craze.

Xing Wang
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I appreciate your dedication to your art. Besides working on games, I am a published novelist under a pen name. Going through the publishing process, (unless you are already famous writer), I know that if you don't hold their interest, most agents and publishers won't look past first 5 pages or your query letter. I don't think we devalue our art simply by trying to hold people's interest. In fact, many great writers/novelists are very good at holding reader's interest.

I don't think try to understand user behavior by looking at data (I think that is what you mean by "market research") and building a quality product are mutual exclusive things. Of course, agreed, overly rely on data has its detriments: sometimes data can be misleading; sometimes optimization based on data leads to local maxima instead of global maxima. Often, we need both understanding of data and intuition to make the best product.

This article is my attempt at reconcile intuition (stories should lift retention) vs. data (people drop off when story cut scenes are shown).

Perhaps, it is because of Therasa's hypothesis: all cuts scenes in all F2P games are bad quality. But I know there are a lot of people work on F2P games; I can't imagine all are talentless.

But my hypothesis, as stated in the article, is the "Action" vs. "Exposition" problem that we also face as writers.

Adam O'Donoghue
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I think there is a bigger issue: that business (Models, marketing, demographics) exerts control over game design (mechanics, systems, programming) which exerts control over game art (story, music, graphics). This results in an 'layered' product, and thus players can identify which layer they find interesting, and thus ignore the superficial layers not contributing to the core experience.

Consequently, if games rather had an integrated approach where art, mechanics, and business, were each considered equally and evaluated in their contribution to the over all game experience, then storytelling as a consequence would become much more engaging to players; instead of being merely justification, communication, or a form of demographic targeting. If a game cannot exist without its story then players will engage with that story.

Daniel Pang
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To go a little into the storytelling segment and less in the world of metrics and analysis on player retention...

The best stories spark the imagination of the readers/viewers/players, regardless of the medium. The human brain is conditioned to look for patterns and to try and make sense of whatever information we get through our senses.

The player's mind will fill in the blanks. Look at Dark Souls. That game has a bare minimum of exposition; the "story" or "exposition" - rather, context of the world - is slowly revealed to the player as they explore. Another example is the first Bioshock. The world and the setting of the game offers tantalizing clues as to what went wrong through items, environment design, and audio logs that fill in only part of the picture. and lets the player figure the rest out by themselves. By letting their own actions and imaginations fill in the blanks, the player has a greater experience with the story than they could have had if they were being told the story. Because they've had an active role in figuring out events, they react much more positively towards the story content. Whatever you come up with will never match what the players dream up inside their heads - it's personal, individual, and unique. The trick is to see in what ways you can subtly influence it.

When you master this, it's like a creepy cool version of mind control, or Nolan's Inception.

Also the reason why people tend to favor exposition over action is that action is the here and the now. Exposition is being told by a third party. There's a disconnect, and we're immediately asking questions as to the reliability of the exposition, it's source, etc. etc. Action is second or first person (especially in games).

That's without bringing up the issue of player agency, which isn't an issue in movies or tv.

Joshua Darlington
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Game writers come from several different mediums.

In general:

Game writers with a background in pen and paper RPGs come from a medium where the GM must set up every scene or encounter with a block of description.

Game writers with a background in novels (and especially fantasy writers with a foundation in Tolkien) come from a medium where they must describe everything to some degree.

Game writers with a background in Screenwriters focus on drama. So any and all exposition is part of dramatic conflict. Its a type of munition thats maneuvered strategically and used tactically in battle.