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The Brain That Couldn't Die: Active Storytelling in Video Games
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The Brain That Couldn't Die: Active Storytelling in Video Games

November 30, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Over the past few years, there's been no shortage of discussion about using video games as storytelling media -- how to do it, how not to do it, how it's ruining games and should never be done. Almost of all the discussion starts with the same basic assumption, that "video game storytelling" is the uneasy combination of two fundamentally opposing elements: story and gameplay.

The idea is that story -- defined here as the developer's narrative -- is inherently passive for the player. Gameplay, on the other hand, is inherently active. Since the defining characteristic of interactive entertainment is interactivity, it would seem that story and gameplay aren't just in opposition, but downright antagonistic.

That hostile environment is the cause of the start-and-stop storytelling so pervasive in games. Most single-player, story-driven games still follow the same model: interactive segments punctuated by non-interactive sequences.

As cinematics get more sophisticated and interactivity more streamlined to appeal to mainstream audiences, the result is players feeling like they're running down long, narrow corridors separated by cutscenes.

But the clear division between "active" and "passive" is based on overly simplistic assumptions about how traditional media works. These assumptions fall apart once we stop looking at storytelling as one-way communication from creator to audience, and instead see it as an active dialogue between creator and audience.

The idea of story as conversation, with the audience actively engaged with the storyteller as the story's being told, isn't a particularly new one. And it's not unique to video games, either. There's an entire genre of traditional "passive" media -- horror and suspense movies -- that depends on this type of interaction to work at all. In fact, it's so ingrained in the genre that a lot of really bad movies get it right without even thinking about it.

Full-Duplex Storytelling

Before getting into a discussion about how horror movies will save video games, it's important to establish why game developers should be looking to film for inspiration at all. After all, developers and players are quick to point out, it's the clumsy attempts to duct-tape movies to games that have caused that disconnect in the first place. Games don't work like traditional media, so they shouldn't be directly emulating traditional media. The most extreme version of this argument says that games aren't media at all.

But the problem isn't that traditional media and interactive media have nothing in common. The problem is that we've gotten skilled at aping specific techniques of traditional media, but not at merging them into a unified experience. We can present stories to the player like traditional media does, but we don't keep the player engaged in those stories like traditional media does. To borrow a term from telecommunications, video games still operate in "half-duplex" mode. The developer can speak, and the player can speak, but only one at a time.

When we follow the typical cutscene/game level/cutscene model of storytelling, the player feels as if his actions have little bearing on the story that's taking place in the non-interactive moments. When we compensate by turning more control of the narrative over to the player, he can feel as if he's telling a story to himself. Players have the freedom to tell whatever story they want, but quickly realize that no one's listening.

For a player to feel like an active participant in the storytelling, the game needs to operate in "full-duplex" mode. Throughout the game, both the developer and the player are both speaking and listening, and both at the same time.

That's why it can be useful for game developers to look to traditional media like film for inspiration. A filmmaker has to maintain a constant level of engagement with the audience throughout the story, but unlike a game developer, he doesn't have the luxury of relegating the audience to a walled-off sandbox, where the audience's version of the story can't interfere with his own.

Good filmmakers appreciate that watching a film isn't a completely passive experience. If it were, there'd be no complaints that a plot twist came out of nowhere, or that the story was too predictable. Audiences are constantly questioning what they're being shown, forming connections with what they've been shown before, and making predictions about what they're going to be shown next. The best filmmakers aren't just aware of this kind of audience engagement; they exploit it.

The Calls Are Coming From Inside the Ice Level!

Horror and suspense films are most relevant to developers making storytelling games -- any storytelling game, not just survival horror -- because the ways that audiences interact with horror stories are similar to the ways players interact with video games:

Challenge. There's something of an adversarial relationship between creator and audience. Audiences often challenge a horror movie to scare them. Players describe completing a story game's narrative as "beating" the game.

Experience vs. Narrative. Horror and suspense movies are often compared to roller coasters or thrill rides. The narrative isn't necessarily ignored, but it isn't the main draw, either. Audiences are more interested in the experience itself.

Rules. Horror films, especially slasher movies, tend to use certain tropes so often than they've surpassed cliché and become rules. The core gimmick of the Scream series was making those rules explicit, and then carrying them out.

Any character shown being promiscuous will be killed soon after. Saying "Thank God it's over" or "I'll be right back" invariably results in death. Minority characters are typically the first to go. The most obnoxious character in the cast is the second-to-last to be killed, usually after betraying the others in order to save himself.

Iterative Systems. Along with the rules, many horror films, slasher movies, and monster movies follow a common structure. The characters are introduced and taken to a remote location. A monster/serial killer/genetically-altered insect swarm is tossed into the mix. Once the engine has been primed, the rest of the film plays out like a state machine, killing off characters in scenes with minor variations until the supply of available cast members is exhausted.

Gaming the System. Since these films so often follow a predictable set of rules and systematic sequence of events, audiences inevitably try to game the system. They make predictions about who's going to be killed, and in what order. They form theories about the rules of the system, and they continue to test those theories: how can the zombies be killed, what are the vampires' weaknesses, what's the identity of the killer in the hockey mask.

Audiences are never completely immersed in the narrative, but are actively engaged in the "game" of figuring out the narrative's structure before it completes.

Rhythm. Most importantly, gaming the system isn't just an unfortunate side effect of horror movie formula. It's a crucial part of how these films work. Horror and suspense films, even more than other genres, depend on a rhythm of tension and release.

The moments of tension work not because of what the audience is being shown, but because of what the audience predicts it's about to be shown. That type of interplay between creator and audience is most relevant to game developers, because it's the type of constant engagement and interplay that storytelling games achieve only intermittently.

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