NOTE: This article was originally published on Gamasutra on 02/03/2016.
Since the dawn of gaming, developers took advantage of advancing hardware and experimented with it to explore several avenues for grabbing and holding the player's attention in the long term, including online gaming, progression systems, and open-worlds. Such gameplay incentives have made games more appealing over time, but they weren't the only components that enhanced the value of video games. In fact, there was another game aspect that, although initially a huge part of a few genres like the text adventure and role-playing game, would spread to nearly all kinds of titles with each passing gaming generation and elevate the medium to new artistic heights: interactive storytelling.
Developers recognized early on the potential of contextualizing the onscreen action in order to further solidify player investment and make in-game scenarios more meaningful to gamers. Throughout the 1980-90s, designers incorporated some kind of a story into their games, with revolutionary titles like Monkey Island, Final Fantasy VI and Half-Life paving the way for more engrossing, narrative-driven experiences in the following millennium. Once a medium that sustained itself purely on action to keep players immersed into the sensory experience, gaming added interactive stories to its repertoire of immersion-enhancing components.
When it comes to stories, video games are in a unique position that presents some interesting opportunities and challenges. Opportunity-wise, games are capable of delivering stories that rival those of literary works and films in terms of depth and drama while also harboring the added advantage of player interaction that can make the tale feel personal to the participant who is put at the center of the action.
Challenge-wise, games must also make room for game mechanics and other major aspects of the package, which can limit the designer's ability to convey a game story as clearly as other entertainment mediums. But such challenges aren't merely roadblocks: they also serve as reasons for the developer to experiment and actively seek the best possible way to tell their tale with little to no compromise.
I'll prove my point by providing you with six tips and tricks to take into consideration when trying to make your narrative more meaningful and valuable in your game. For each piece of advice, I'll include an example of a game that gets that particular storytelling aspect right.
NOTE: Since I'm going to be looking at several game stories, expect some spoilers here and there.
1-Give your characters and plot time to develop
One of the first tenets that every developer should strongly abide by when crafting a game story is to ensure that their title dedicates enough time to character and plot development in order to make them interesting and deep. This is a critical component of good storytelling since evolving character arcs and plotlines contribute greatly to the feeling of progress that players embody as they journey onwards. Like the gameplay, the story has to be dynamic for it to remain riveting and worthy of the player's attention. Otherwise, players won't get the impression that they are on a grand adventure, which greatly hampers the immersion factor.
Persona 3 is a good example of a title that gives its narrative the time it deserves to become fully fleshed out. Despite being a game of two halves (one half role-playing game and one-half life sim), Atlus' 2007 classic is filled with the right amount of drama and exposition whose quality remains consistent throughout the lengthy experience. From the deaths of major characters to the player's ever-evolving relationships with their fellow squadmates/classmates, Persona 3 delivers an emotional rollercoaster ride that will leave the player both flabbergasted and teary-eyed by the conclusion of the adventure.
Like a well-cooked steak, a great game story is one that gets to spend enough time in the oven to come out as a meaty and stupendous pièce de résistance that'll leave the participant satiated once fully digested. With this advice in mind, the game designer has to figure out how to foster character and plot development without disrupting the flow of the experience (or as little as possible). By balancing gameplay and narrative while giving both components enough time in the spotlight, the game designer can craft a well-developed story that gamers will pay attention to without feeling like they haven't had their fair share of action.
2-Set the tone early on to ensure a consistent story & kick things off
When it comes to steering the tale and ensuring that it remains consistent throughout the experience, tone is one of the most important components the developer has to keep in mind. As the main modifier of a game's general attitude, tone acts as a guide for the game designer to determine the best kinds of scenarios to include in the game, and when it's appropriate to incorporate more tonally unique events. But in order to gain access to that storytelling compass, the designer has to first establish the tone early on in order to give the narrative a clear direction that the developer can control to the best of their ability, and start on a high note.
One game that solidly establishes its tone from the get-go is Tales from the Borderlands. Telltale's adventure spinoff of the "role-playing shooter" series by Gearbox Software presents players with a simple-sounding premise that smoothly morphs into an engaging and madcap escapade in the first episode alone, immaculately kicking things off and opening the door to zany and poignant scenarios in later chapters. By effectively solidifying the tone early on, Tales from the Borderlands hooks the player from the very start and delivers a consistent adventure that's made all the more entertaining by the playful (and customizable) banter and relationships between Rhys, Fiona, and the rest of the cast.
Ensuring that the tone of the game is well-established early on is a particularly tricky endeavor that the designer has to undertake since that narrative component serves as the main vehicle for the events that will unfold throughout the game. This means that the developer has to ensure that the tone doesn't change erratically or clash with the scenarios they come up with (failure to do so can lead to "mood whiplashes", i.e. sudden, immersion-breaking tonal shifts). But when done right, a well-tweaked tone can lead to a smooth experience that hardly suffers from dissonance while still making room for potential offbeat moments that act as refreshing palette cleansers and not as narrative obstacles that can throw the player off.
3-Embody themes in a way that’s deep and understandable
One of the great things about stories in general is that they can act as more than just a series of events that succeed one another. They can also serve as platforms for the author to incorporate several concepts and themes that can enhance the work's universe, characters, and plot points, and provide compelling insight into a particular topic that can form the backbone of the story. The same principle applies to video games, which come with the advantage of being a visual medium, meaning that the designer is presented with multiple opportunities to pack narrative depth into the experience.
2007's BioShock presents the player with a mysterious tale that's bolstered by sundry ideological and philosophical themes. This spiritual successor to System Shock 2 manages to craft a compelling story by incorporating elements from Objectivism and stem cell research which influenced the game's setting, Rapture, and the conceptualization of the Little Sisters, providing each aspect of the game's lore with a deep history that's easy to understand. By enhancing the game's story with thought-provoking themes, BioShock invites the player to ponder its many facets and visualize an interconnected chain of impactful concepts that form the rich narrative.
Themes are powerful inclusions to a game's story since they can potentially turn characters into multidimensional beings and make the scenarios that unfold throughout the experience all the more impactful. That being said, the game designer has to be careful not to overload their games with too many underlying concepts since that could muddle the message that the game is trying to convey. Instead, the developer has to treat their narrative as a puzzle that they have to complete by combining the right themes and concepts, which can lead to a concise but substantial story that's both meaningful and worth analyzing.
4-Try to seamlessly marry the narrative with the gameplay
As an interactive art form, video games give players the opportunity to interact with the game world and its inhabitants, and leave their mark on the adventure through their in-game actions. This idea of a personalized experience can be applied to nearly every facet of the game, including its story. While a linear, handcrafted tale and moral decision-making moments (a la Mass Effect and Walking Dead) are by no means bad design choices, letting gamers make small but incremental choices during regular gameplay that subtly affect the plot and characters can make the experience feel less "gamey" and more organic.
Metro: Last Light is the kind of game that not only presents a grim and unforgettable narrative, but also seamlessly marries said narrative with the game mechanics. Throughout the game, the protagonist encounters several scenarios in which he can make a choice with subtle consequences like killing/sparing a surrendering Nazi and listening to/ignoring conversations. Because the game never does a "hard split" between its gameplay portions, the boundaries between decision-making and first-person shooting are not that apparent, allowing the player to stay focused on the core gameplay while still influencing the course of the adventure in some way.
One of the most unique traits of gaming is that it is a multilayered medium whose components (gameplay, presentation, etc...) can enhance and intermingle with one another, making the experience more immersive and cohesive as a result. Armed with this knowledge, the game designer can come up with various ways to combine their title's narrative with the game mechanics, which can lead to some fascinating and clever results. By finding the parts that connect gameplay and story and tinkering with them, the developer can experiment with sundry storytelling techniques/modifiers and find the one that best suits their game.
5-Build big moments up to maximize their impact when triggered
Similar to the issue of giving the plot and characters enough time to ripen and become intriguing, the big moments and sudden revelations that spice up a game's narrative and influence the player's perspective of the story need to have some kind of a buildup preceding them in order to hit players hard when the storytelling apex has been smoothly reached. The game designer can achieve this effect by setting up a plot element (e.g. introduction of a character/object of interest) that will serve as the root of the buildup that will slowly rise over time before reaching the aforementioned summit and unleashing the showstopping moment onto the player.
Starbreeze Studios' The Darkness pulls no punches when it comes to surprising the player with twists and turns, and it does so through narrative momentum. Early in the game, the player character, Jackie Estacado, gets to spend some time with his girlfriend, Jenny, on the eve of his 21st birthday. It's a tender moment that leads up to the shocking murder of Jackie's love interest by a crooked mafia boss, catching the player off-guard and leaving him unable to fathom the atrocity that unfolded. By allowing the gutpunch to be "cooked" in the metaphorical storytelling oven for long enough, The Darkness manages to leave its emotional mark on the player, a byproduct of a proper narrative crescendo.
Such a crescendo can only be masterfully achieved and released onto the participant if the game designer embodies a "quality over quantity" mindset when it comes to big moments. Since a game has a finite amount of time (compared to movies and books) to make a memorable impression on the participant with its narrative, the game developer has to pick and choose the right story aspects to include, emphasize and develop before coming up with the big moments. Since the quality of those events can greatly impact the player's perspective of the story, the developer has to give special attention to those plot points in order to properly astonish the participant.
6-Present your story in a unique and creative format
Of course, it's not just the content of the story that can make the narrative intriguing and worth paying attention to. How it's told and presented can also leave a lasting impression on the player. This is where the game designer can take serious advantage of the medium's visual and interactive nature with regards to storytelling. While the linear, chronological structure of most game stories is serviceable and simple to use, the developer can go the extra mile and utilize an unorthodox storytelling method to make the story that much more interesting and head-turning in its presentation.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a great example of a game with a creatively told tale. In this Western-themed FPS, the story is told as a recollection of past events by the protagonist Silas Greaves, who narrates the player's every moves and adheres to the classic "unreliable narrator" archetype. As the player is making progress through the flashback levels, Silas' saloon audience constantly challenges the lies and inconsistencies in his tales, forcing Greaves to revise his story which in turn modifies the game environments (such as the sudden appearance and disappearance of an Apache army) and repeats scenarios from differing perspectives. Both the malleability of the narrative and its correlation to the gameplay contribute to Gunslinger's unique character and playful nature where storytelling is concerned.
Malleability is also something that applies to the presentational aspects of games in general. Developers are capable of making their games look like movies (Beyond: Two Souls), TV shows (Alone in the Dark), books (Valkyria Chronicles), and even theatrical plays (Puppeteer) simply by tweaking a few components, including the way in which their stories are told. By ensuring that there's little to no conflict between the content of the game's narrative and its storytelling format, the game designer can craft an experience filled with fascinating scenarios that are expertly and inventively presented to the player.
Writing a genuinely engaging game story that immerses players into the experience and fascinates them with its scenarios and character interactions, all while coexisting with the gameplay mechanics and other core aspects of the game, is a particularly intricate process. But with every challenge comes an opportunity for developers to plan accordingly and deliver a compelling tale. With the pieces of advice that I've given, the designer can craft a well-constructed narrative that is filled with interesting characters and exciting scenarios, and takes advantage of the medium's interactive nature.
Let me know what you think of my article in the comments section, and feel free to ask me questions. I’ll do my best to get back to you as promptly as possible.