Narrative design, writing for video games, and the evolution of storytelling

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, experimenting with and researching narrative design theories for video games. Not just because it’s a fascinating topic, but because it’s kinda my job. Adding interactivity to storytelling represents an enormous shift in how humans develop and share tales. Reaching the point where games can be meaningful experiences doesn’t mean sacrificing any of the action, challenge or interactivity games are known for. It just means the way stories are built and games are designed will take a slightly different tack.

Thomas Was Alone

Storytelling requires two things: a storyteller and a listener. These roles are broadly defined as the one who knows the story and the one who doesn’t. It’s the former’s job to relay the tale to the latter, but the manner in which this occurs plays an important part in the listener’s experience. 1984 wouldn’t make a good rock opera and Ziggy Stardust would have made a terrible cave painting. But you know what? I might consider watching Twilight if it were a puppet show. A short puppet show.

With video games the role of storyteller is split into pieces. Instead of just the writer, we have the game’s pacing, environments, cutscenes and gameplay elements all contributing to the things the player will feel and experience. The role of the listener is suddenly an active one, no longer relegated to just sitting there with a pre-written tale. Players get to explore the storyteller’s world in ways that make movies and TV shows look boring. Along with this interactivity comes a new level of emotional involvement. The orphanage wasn’t destroyed by tanks rolling through the city. It was destroyed by tanks the player drove through the city. They didn’t read about it or witness it, they made the decision and they carried it out, step by step.

With this newfound interactivity comes layers of responsibility. It sounds boring, but I think it’s the most exciting part of creating a game’s narrative. Choice is a powerful tool in changing the player’s experience, and until now most game designers have been content with cutscenes and dialogue trees to get the job done. Setting the narration on rails in a video game is, in most cases, a very big mistake. If you’re going to force the player to watch an hour of cutscenes or read pages of text, why not make a movie or write a book instead? We sit in front of a game with a controller for a reason: we want interaction. So, in order for a game’s narration to have meaning, it must have interaction.

Final Fantasy Adventure

Too many choices in a game is a bad thing as well. We have almost limitless options in real life, so why would we want that in a work of fiction? Games and books and movies are ways we escape reality for a moment. To experience something new and fantastical, something we couldn’t experience in life. Tearing down this barrier by creating arrays of options only serves to dilute the emotional impact a game will have. The storyteller is effectively removed from the picture. Why would anyone care what happens to a character when each event is just one of a series of possibilities? Even poignant moments are ruined when it’s just another choice on a branching tree, and we won’t even get into saving/reloading to reach a better outcome. Imagine how Shakespeare’s plays would have went if the audience shared their input. Actually, no, don’t imagine that. It’s awful.

There’s a great deal of comfort in having a story told to us. There’s a certainty that everything will play out as it was intended. It doesn’t matter if it has a happy ending or a dramatic one, the fact that it comes to a close is what’s important. All we have to do is keep reading/playing/watching and we’ll reach it. With games that desire is unchanged, but the method in which it’s delivered is far more involved (and as a result more impactful). Real, meaningful choice isn’t the answer to the video game narrative design problem. Not as far as the story is concerned, anyway. The answer is to take a step back, look at the game, the story, the artwork and the experience as a whole, then zoom in and refine each point until it delivers the emotion you desire. It takes an almost simultaneous consideration of the game as a whole, the player, and each event on its own.

Xenoblade storytelling

What’s meaningful to the player and what’s meaningful to the storyteller aren’t always the same thing. The key is to determine what falls into the former category and expand interactivity in those points. Look at the actions players might take, then think about the impulses that arise in their mind when they take those actions. Why did they destroy the orphanage? Why did they want to? Did something make them mad earlier? Was it just the fact that a bunch of unguarded tanks were stored nearby? There are so many factors it’s almost impossible to consider them all, but a healthy amount of attention to both sides of the narrative goes a long way to improving both the story and the game.

In my short piece of interactive fiction Drowned Cavern, I went with a menu-based choice system for the interface. This eliminated the vague parser input that scares many players away. Now, instead of a dictionary full of possible words to type, the options are laid out right in front of their faces. Choices are made, the game’s world is explored, and several simple puzzles are solved, all triggering different events for the player. Normally all of this would add up to multiple endings. Not in Drowned Cavern. There was a story I wanted to tell, and I wasn’t about to let a branching choice system ruin the impact of the finale. Instead, the choices affect the climactic battle in the game, an event that is pivotal to the story but whose details aren’t as necessary to the narrative. In other words, the player’s choices were meaningful to the player without destroying the storyteller’s design. The element of “the story will go on” we need from fiction is preserved, but the player still gets feedback and personalization from his or her choices. It’s the best of both worlds.

I only touched on some of the more surface level issues of narrative design in this article. I could go on for pages and pages about this stuff. The takeaway should be storytelling doesn’t preclude interactivity and video games don’t preclude storytelling. Let the player explore, but let the storyteller tell his or her story. As long as the most basic desires of each party are met, the narration will be a constant source of wonder and fulfillment.