The interactive story misconception

Yesterday I was at Control Gamelab in Amsterdam, an event with short talks about games and gamedesign, this time centred around storytelling in games. The day after, this post appeared online on Gamasutra. Both illustrated to me once again how very misunderstood the narrative and story of games appear to be to most designers. I have been thinking about doing an ‘x points to remember when writing for games’-styled post for quite some time now, but while working on it I thought of so many points and material that it would never fit a single post.

So that’s where ‘Playful Narrative’ comes from, as a series of short posts each focused around a single lesson or point to remember when writing for games. Note that this does not mean you necessarily have to be a writer to find these posts instructive. Many writing aspects for games are traditionally (and sadly still) done by game designers with little experience in actual writing. Also, as a game designer and writer I like to seek the middle ground between the two to find out why many conceptions about storytelling and writing in games are what they are and how we can improve them. And last but not least I try to convince the scene out there that it is long due time that qualified writers became a core member in a development team.

The interactive story misconception

The point I will start with is a commonly raised issue in the discourse about stories and games and how they should relate to each other. It is mostly coined by people inexperienced with actual storytelling and writing, though not exclusively, and believed to be just by many industry veterans. I have dubbed this issue ‘the interactive story misconception’ and it is at the base of many misconceptions about storytelling in games. It can be described as follows: Because games are rooted in interactivity, stories in games must be interactive too and cannot have a predefined plot. Players must be able to influence the story.

Many game designers still think the ultimate quest is to take tabletop roleplaying freedom in story interaction  to all digital games. But why?

Many game designers still think the ultimate quest is to take tabletop roleplaying freedom in story interaction to all digital games. But why?

This of course, is a wrong assumption. It is true that games thrive on interactivity, also dubbed meaningful interaction. This does not however mean that every single part of a game needs to be interactive in itself, it means that every part should as a rule of thumb support interactivity or at least not hinder it. To say that a story in a game can only be good if it allows the player to interact with it and influence/control (parts of) it, would be the same as saying that visuals in a game that are predefined and not influenced by the player are bad.

There is an extra dimension to this claim which makes it even more defect. It attributes the aspects of a game that define its architecture solely to the writing. However, in most games, other factors like gameplay and available development resources decide the architecture and in turn the story. The Gamasutra article linked earlier illustrates this assumption by using Mario as an example where the architecture would be dominated by the story of the princess that is captured, and force the player on a linear quest from castle to castle to save her. The point this misses though is that the story was only designed to justify the architecture of the game, which was in turn designed because this linear quest from level to level was the best way available to present the gameplay to the player. This gameplay and the available funds, time and manpower to create the game dictate that this is a good way to present it to players. The story is stuck onto it to make it perceivable as more than a system of rules and mechanics to the player. Would the player have been allowed more freedom in the narrative and as such the architecture of the game, the careful build-up in difficulty per level would have been lost, or the development team would have been forced to make excess amounts of levels or randomly generated levels to allow the player to choose his own path (or give the illusion of him doing so).


It is hard to image a classic Mario game with an interactive narrative. Does this mean the story of Mario is bad, at least in terms of stories for games? No. It means Mario is a game that is not served very well by an interactive narrative, like many games out there. Interactive narratives and games that give the players freedom to tell their own stories can be very interesting. But what game designers need to realize is that this is not the ultimate form of storytelling for games, there is no such thing to begin with. There is no one-size-fits-all story type for games. So a plot heavy linear story may be just as suited for one game as a completely freeform story that allows player control might be for another game. The type of the story doesn’t say anything about the quality of that story and the game, as long as the chosen form of storytelling suits the game in question.

It is true that a largely predefined story can cause friction in a game when the gameplay would allow the player other options but the story doesn’t respond to these choices, also known as the ludonarrative dissonance, but I will talk about this in another post.

This week’s point to remember

There is no ultimate type of story for games. The quality of a story depends on a lot of factors considering writing quality and suitability for the game it is made for. Stories in games do not have to be interactive to be good, neither are interactive stories automatically good.

Next week in Playful Narrative: Realize the player is playing a game.

Whether you totally agree with what I’m saying or feel like I completely miss the point, let me know in the comments or get in touch! See you next week.

6 thoughts on “The interactive story misconception

  1. Personally I never understood why game stories “must” be interactive at all to be fun… There are a thousand ways to tell a great story with a game whether they are interactive or not isn’t really the point. I didn’t find Braid’s story to be very interactive but it was still brilliant, while Mass Effect’s story felt very interactive and was equally well done.

    What does matter though is that adding consequences to the decisions of an audience is something games often do as apposed to movies or books. So making a narrative interactive can give an extra dimension to how we experience that story. It opens up an entirely new field of research, which I personally believe to be a nice addition. This doesn’t negate the fact that non-interactive stories can be great too though.

    I always found defining what media can and can’t be to be extremely useless. Some day someone will prove you wrong anyway and in the end art only evolves when people start thinking outside of the box instead of inside.

    I also wanted to know one thing. What makes a story interactive? Is a multi-linear story always interactive and a linear story always non-interactive? There are several multi-linear stories that are totally random and do not react on player choice but on a variable number in the code. That’s not really interactive right? While there are many linear narratives that do let you interact with that particular story but do not let the player influence its entire outcome. So yeah really difficult question and maybe only answerable on a case by case basis.

    • To comment on your last point, that is absolutely true. To a wider extend, is a totally responsive and interactive (player controlled) story without the player realizing this different than a non interactive story that feels like it is interactive? It feels like it isn’t, considering player experience at least.

      • Game design is make-belief if you ask me. Not everything has to be real (or can be for that matter) for the user to feel as if it is. This is also why I don’t believe in “replayability”. Most games should not be replayed to see all the other options, because when you do you’ll ultimately ruin your initial playthrough. Unless you understand that even in game design the possibilities aren’t endless and want to see what’s behind the magic of the system, only then I’d recommend a second let alone third playthrough.

        To many gamers are disappointing about the way an interactive multi-linear story works when they play it too many times. They effectively ruin the game for themselves as do designers who market the game as endlessly replayable.

        • Yes often finding the system behind it instead of seeing ‘the magic’ can ruin an experience.

          However I don’t feel like this is always the case. If it isn’t a simple choice of pick ‘A’ or ‘B’ but more a choice of which part of the story you as a player explore, replays tend to be quite enjoyable in my experience. A good personal example would be the relationships in Fire Emblem, where a replay with different characters would give me not only a different gameplay experience (different units) but also new dialogue and characters to explore, in a main story that remains roughly the same.

  2. That particular example can be quite fun yes. But I always hate the kind of people who endlessly complain when they find out that games aren’t these magical things that keep on generating endless story content. :P Its because a branching narrative can seem really complex the first playthrough that you can’t comprehend it thus have to call it “magic”. Though when some people find out how the system works then all of a sudden they say the game is “bad”. To those people I like to say: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthus C. Clarke

    So if you want to keep the magic, don’t try to comprehend the system.

  3. Pingback: Control Gamelab #8 – Vines | Zo-ii

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