Designing game narrative

How do you tell a great story with a game? The answer lies not in the plot and dialogue, but in the very structure of the game design itself. In this article, we talk about why storytelling needs to revolve around the interactive nature of the medium. Come and learn how to identify great game narrative, and to understand the importance of interactive – rather than cinematic – storytelling.


Via HITBOX TEAM. 24/10/2014


(…) cinema was kind of like two-dimensional literature, the second axis being sensory input. Video games introduce a third-dimension: interactivity.

In books, depth comes from the words you read; in film, additional nuances emerge from hearing and seeing a scene. In games, you can discover further depth from doing the scene. With interactivity, you now get to experience the story firsthand. When you play as the protagonist, you have the opportunity to take on their motivations and emotions. You hear and see things via your own discovery, not from the guiding lens of a cameraman. We could say that video games communicate depth of narrative experientially, whereas cinema did it visually.

So, to adapt your story to a game, you do this: you take your amazing movie version of the story, cut it up into its individual scenes, and create a computer program that plays back the clips. You code some fun segments of gameplay that are tangentially related to some unimportant parts of the story, and then sprinkle them in between the movie scenes.

Well, despite having the best story, the best writing, and the best cinematic representation of it, the game again fails to take advantage of the medium of expression – it did not integrate the interactivity into the narrative. What about the fun gameplay sections you sprinkled in? Well, just like the Shakespeare sprinkled in your bad book, and the panoramic shots in your bad movie, those gameplay sections don’t do anything to advance the narrative. All you’ve done is segregate the game into its story parts and gameplay parts. No matter how fun the gameplay part is, no matter how good the story part is, if there is minimal overlap between the two, then you can hardly say that the story was successfully told through the medium of games. All you’ve done is staple gameplay onto a movie.

Now, people who play this game would laugh at how poorly the narrative is presented, right? Well, no, they wouldn’t.

You may be unsurprised to learn that almost all big-budget games present their narrative in that method — story, gameplay, story, gameplay, with minimal overlap.

Wait-a-minute: this method isn’t actually bad storytelling, is it? I mean, people love these games, don’t they? They sell well, and people always talk about how good their stories are.

Wait-a-minute: this method isn’t actually bad storytelling, is it? I mean, people love these games, don’t they? They sell well, and people always talk about how good their stories are.

Well, yes, I would say that it is bad storytelling. Now, that isn’t to say that the games themselves are necessarily bad, or even that their stories are bad. Narrative isn’t automatically a crucial component in games, as it often is in film or literature. Interactivity is the defining feature of games – and indeed, games that excel in their gameplay are most often great games. However, a large number of games appear to have serious narrative ambitions, yet they try to tell their stories by jamming together the mismatching puzzle pieces of cinematic control and interactivity.

It doesn’t matter how good your story is. What matters first is how good your storytelling is, and that’s defined by what medium you’re telling that story in, whether it’s a book, movie, or game. The aforementioned games with big narrative ambitions have great stories but bad storytelling.

So what makes storytelling good, and how do we identify bad storytelling? (…)

How to measure artistic quality

Before we talk about storytelling, let’s first talk about how to even identify good qualities in a game. One of the strongest indicators of artistic quality or good design is how effectively the individual elements work together to communicate the theme. In a good movie, everything should work to reinforce the thematic ideas, from the colors and the angle of the camera, to the music, acting, and makeup. If one of these elements instead contradicts the theme, then it sticks out and detracts from the power of the message, or at the very least, misses an opportunity to strengthen the message. (…)

A creative work made with this attitude feels elegant and consistent, because it manages to communicate many related ideas with few components. A less coordinated game instead feels unfocused, clumsy, and conflicting. If we want to identify weak storytelling, these are the attributes to look for, which we can detect by playing through a game and paying attention to see if our mind fills with dissonance.

Three kinds of dissonance

Cognitive dissonance – it’s an internal, mental conflict, and is usually quite subtle. It happens when you hold two conflicting beliefs or ideas in your mind at the same time. What kind of dissonance do we feel when we play these kinds of games? Here are three kinds that I’ve identified.

Conflicting experiences

The first – and most apparent – kind is ludonarrative dissonance. What does that mean? Ludonarrative dissonance is when you watch a game cutscene where the hero laments his distancing relationship with his family, and then in the next moment, you’re driving a car over a hundred people. Ludonarrative dissonance is when a great warrior ally monologues about how cunning and fearsome he is, only in the next moment, he’s running in circles, blocking your path annoyingly, and then gets shot dead instantly. It’s when what the story says and what the player does or experiences don’t match up.

This kind of dissonance happens quite often when you segregate the narrative and the gameplay, because the narrative is in the hands of the writer in one moment, and the player the next. It makes it hard to take seriously what the story is saying, because it conflicts with what we are actually experiencing.

“Who am I?”

The next kind of dissonance is a dissonance of identity. To explain this, let’s first back up a bit to the analogy of literature, cinema, and games as dimensions. Another way to look at this triplet is in their increasingly intimate point of view. Think about books: a lot of literature could be described as third-person storytelling: the events are verbally recounted to you by a third party – the author – and you interpret the words on your own. Movies, on the other hand, are second-person storytelling: you watch the events unfold before your eyes, seeing things directly as they are. Lastly, video games are first-person storytelling: you are the actor living out the story. Instead of simply being told what’s going on, or watching it happen, you’re experiencing it firsthand!



However, in poor game storytelling, we often have a big dissonance regarding your identity. In one moment, you are the protagonist, exploring the world and fighting enemies. In the next moment, you jump out of your body and watch your character interact with others without your control, walking and talking on their own. You’ve switched from first-person to second-person. Who are you? Are you the actor or the viewer? Games should be consistent with their point of view. It severely diminishes the importance of your actions if it constantly feels like the game distrusts you with making the important ones.

One of the basic principles in writing is to show, don’t tell. If you want to convey that a character is nimble, don’t explicitly say “Bob is nimble,” show it: “Bob dodged the falling boulder.” In games, the principle should be to do, don’t show. Don’t just show a cinematic of your character dodging a falling boulder, do it: have the player dodge the boulder himself. Now it is the player themselves who feels nimble, instead of just his avatar. This conversion of character development into personal development is the key to immersive storytelling in games.

The problem with cutscenes

The last kind of dissonance is the weird modal shift that happens every time the game awkwardly tries to switch between “narrative mode” and “game mode”. One minute you’re playing a game, the next you’re watching a movie. It breaks the immersion, reminding you constantly that you’re consuming a piece of media. Not only that, it strips away any tension and emotion that was built up during the gameplay. (…)

Explicit stories and player stories

We’ve talked a lot about what games are doing wrong. How do we improve our storytelling? To figure that out, let’s first take a look at the concept of narrative itself more deeply.

What even is narrative? Do all games have it? Do all games need it? Let’s lay down some definitions. First of all, there are two kinds of narratives in games: the first is the traditional kind, the kind we think of when we talk about plot, characters, and dialogue; and the second kind is the narrative of the player’s personal experience.

The first kind is what I call the explicit story. It’s what games are about. This game is about fighting off zombies. This game is about exploring the world and saving the princess. This game is about saving the world from aliens. It’s the aesthetic context of the game, explicitly stated by visuals, sounds, and words. Not all games have this kind of narrative, but it’s in most. RPGs, adventure games, and action games usually put a lot of emphasis on the explicit story. Other games eschew it completely, like many puzzle games and most traditional card games. Even a game like chess has a tiny amount of it: the game is loosely styled as a medieval war game.

The second kind of narrative is what I call the player story. It’s the player’s personal experience. As they play through the game, a lot of things happen in the player’s mind: they experience a variety of emotions, they develop perceptions and interpretations of characters and events, and they form relationships between their own actions and the on-screen results. These things all work together to create a different kind of narrative experience, one with its own pacing, characters, plot, and dialogue, separate from the explicit story. (…)

Unifying the two narratives

So how do we tell a good player story and a good explicit story together? By knowing this: the best game storytelling is when the explicit story is indistinguishable from the player story.

Ideally, when you play a game, you should never have to ask yourself, “What am I supposed to be doing?” In a good game, what you are supposed to do should intersect with what you want to do. If the emotions and motivations you feel while playing a game feel natural within the context of the game, then something amazing has happened. (…)

Linear, scripted, cinematic stories

(…) Maybe the linear, scripted, cinematic story just isn’t a great format for games. Some games with this format do a pretty decent job, at least in some aspects, but I doubt we’re going to see great advances in this style for a long time. It’s a style that is imperfectly adapted from movies, and it just doesn’t fit very elegantly in a medium about interactivity, choices, and personal experience.

I don’t think it should be the go-to format for game stories. What other formats are there? There are a few options, many of them experimental, but there’s one in particular I want to explore in this article: emergent narrative.

Putting the player back in control

We saw that the weaknesses with the linear, scripted, cinematic format all revolved around control. The writer in us wants to create a string of concrete events that unfold unvaryingly, but what if we loosened up on that desire? What if we gave up that strict control? A common thing we saw in those games is that they first created the explicit story, and then designed the player story around that. They have their script all written out, and then built the gameplay with the script in mind, trying to get it to match up. What if we did the opposite? What if we designed the player story first, and then built the explicit story to match that?

Now, I don’t mean to simply make a fun abstract game first, and then write a scripted story that makes sense with it. That’s certainly a great method to try out, but it’s not exactly what I’m talking about at the moment. What I mean is, instead of having any scripted elements at all, we let the explicit story describe the player story. We let the plot, climax, and characters all emerge from what the player experiences. In short, the story describes what the player did, instead of what the player needs to do.

What would that look like, exactly? Here are a few examples.


The first example is the game Journey. In the game, the explicit story appears to be very loose. When you start out, all you know is that you’re some sort of person or creature in the desert. That’s it. There are no explicit goals, motivations, plot, conflict or dialogue. However, these things naturally emerge, simply through the design of the game. Early on, you see a beautiful, gleaming beam of light on a mountain far in the distance. Either consciously or subconsciously, your goal becomes to get to that mountain, as it always seems to be in your view. Along the way, you encounter some characters. These are other human players, going through the same experience as you. You can’t talk to them with words, but you can communicate with body language and a singing ability. (…)

Dwarf Fortress

(…) It’s hard to describe Dwarf Fortress, but in short, it’s a detailed simulation of a kingdom of dwarves. It looks graphically primitive, but don’t let that fool you: the game is ridiculously detailed. This is a game that simulates everything from rivers cutting through canyons over thousands of years, to an individual droplet of rain on the eyelash of a child. It’s a sandbox game, and you try to build up your kingdom until a catastrophe naturally emerges through the complexity of the simulation, wiping everything away.(…)



(…) In Brogue, you are an adventurer exploring a procedurally generated cave, trying to reach the artifact at the bottom and bring it back up in one piece. It’s very difficult: death is permanent, and there are an infinite number of mistakes to make. The explicit story is minimal: all you know is what you’re looking for, and that the world around you is highly dangerous. Like Dwarf Fortress, the minimal visuals let the player form their own interpretations of the action.(…)

A new frontier


Emergent narrative is still a fairly unexplored technique, one that I think is particularly promising, since it delves so deeply into forming personal experiences. It’s one of many possible storytelling methods, and I think designers will have to first branch out in these areas if we want to discover the ideal form of game narrative. Until then, let’s remember to focus on the player story when building the explicit one.

Video games are a young medium of creative expression. Books have been around for millennia; cinema for a century. Video games became popular only just a few decades ago. We’re still just passing over the silent film era of games. I don’t think we’ve fully understood yet what it means to have great narrative in games, so we need to be open minded about different storytelling formats. We should stop looking to cinema as inspiration for our narrative, and start realizing that nontraditional structures can be a stronger storytelling technique than the ones in the biggest scripted and cinematic games. Let’s redefine game narrative to mean more than just plot and dialogue – what we really care about is the story that happens in the player’s mind.

Aquest extens article ha estat molt retallat per adaptar-lo a l’espai del blog. Us recomanem llegir-lo sencer aquí.

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