Stories in games are a battleground, especially in digital & video games. I’ve had a couple of tangles in the past with folks who think games can’t tell stories, that good stories and good games just don’t mix, and that games built around stories don’t sell; others say that all games have a story of some sort, even if only an experiential one, and that narrative’s essentially built in to all games.
Reality, as ever, is somewhere in the middle, and a bit more nuanced than that. Zombies, Run, Gunpoint and Gone Home, to name three at random, are excellent examples of narrative built in to digital games from the ground up; Tetris, Super Hexagon and Peggle are excellent examples of games that don’t need narrative at all. Most games do try to tell a story, but the most successful ones let the player do the telling themselves, and give them agency over the narrative – or at least acknowledge the primacy of their play over authored and scripted elements.
Gone Home, Day Z and Minecraft, despite their many differences, are all about creating a world and letting players explore it. Each lays out the bare bones of their worlds and invites exploration, asking players to make their marks on the experience, by creating their own niche within the world or by uncovering the mysteries and reaching conclusions the game’s creators left behind. The difference is in scripted vs unscripted narrative, the difference between imposing an authorial vision on the player vs instructing and equipping them to make their own.
Cut scenes in gaming are, to be blunt, godawful ways of telling a story. So are journal pages left scattered around a landscape – pointless objects supposedly created and discarded with not even the most cursory nod to believability or the internal credibility of the game world. Players are asked too often to suspend their disbelief, not in a “this giant underwater city is (a) real and (b) full of drug-crazed libertarians” way to buy into a grand narrative, but in a “my character’s arch-enemy would definitely communicate privately with themselves through tapes strewn randomly around corridors and cafes” way that denies the internal consistency of the characters within a world. Players are asked to tolerate having control taken completely away from them by an invisible hand, for the sake of a plot point or two. They’re asked to carry out all the action most of the time, but remove themselves and watch passively when it matters most.
Sacrificing believability for delivery undermines a story, and taking player agency away mucks about with consent and identification in ways that most games don’t bother to consider (the first Bioshock game is the obvious exception here). Game stories that use the medium well are incomplete without a player – they require play as an intrinsic element of their enaction, not as a way of filling in the gaps between cut scenes, and they don’t subvert played choices with authored ones (see also: LA Noire, Nico and the prostitute in GTA4).
For instance, The Last Of Us succeeds as a story not because it is a revolutionary approach to narrative, but because it is decently written and because its play elements accord with its authored ones. It makes the player complicit in a combined act of authorship as the game is played: it doesn’t force conflict between the experienced and the authored story.
So much of the perceived conflict between game stories and game mechanics comes from an arbitrary approach of pushing story out on its own – whether it’s seen as more or less important than mechanics in a game, it’s the fact it’s seen as separate that causes problems. Sometimes it’s a decision by studios to keep story creation separate from gameplay. Sometimes it’s a broader production approach that considers them as two separate elements, when – at their most successful – they’re inextricably intertwined. Too many games fail to integrate story into the game at the mechanical level, breaking both the story and the game in the process.Story doesn’t work if it’s limited to spaces where the player no longer has agency, or where their agency is strictly limited by things like dialogue trees or morality systems with the subtlety of a bludgeon.
One of Douglas Adams’s lesser-known games, Starship Titanic, relies on both adventure-game point-and-click mechanics and on freestyle text inputs that let you converse with the robots that inhabit the ship. It was released in 1998, and has more than 10,000 potential responses coded into its conversation engine. Making the characters robots is a smart choice that lets the game get away with repeated scripted responses, and making it possible to talk to them – to say anything at all – is still revolutionary. At one point you have to persuade a bomb (played by John Cleese) to stop counting down. There’s no list of standard responses, no ‘persuade’ options, no raw skill numbers to test against. There’s you, typing, and frankly it’s some of the best games dialogue ever written.
What’s the story? The story’s a collaboration. The author’s not dead, but she’s a shifting entity made up of many others: the designers, the writers, the game’s creators, and its players too. Game makers have to give players the tools they need to do their part of the job without going against anything that’s come before. Video gaming is at heart a performative medium with at least one actor, often more akin to theatre than to cinema. Storytelling in a game is not a broadcast act with a teller and a receiver. It’s an act of authorship that’s incomplete until it’s played.