This article isn’t clean cut, it’s more of a sharing of many unfinished thoughts on storytelling and games. I think it’s time to spin some webs amongst those thoughts. I’m always open to discussion, especially on these kinds of articles. The writing that inspired these thoughts to come together is the following by Ian Bogost, and you should definitely read it, especially the last paragraphs.
For a while now I write short articles about writing for games in a series I call ‘Playful Narrative‘. Recently, someone commented on the articles overall, saying I seem to write more about narrative design for games than the actual writing of text for games. There are several reasons for that, the simplest being that my expertise lies a bit more in narrative design than concrete writing. It’s also easier to write more generally applicable tips and tricks on the larger process of designing a narrative than on the details in the writing itself, as many choices in the latter ultimately come down to personal style and preference. The most important reason for me though would be that I feel like games are stuck in a very uncomfortable place of not understanding their own medium when it comes to storytelling1. It’s that last feeling that was struck multiple times when reading Bogosts grand piece mentioned above. Below I will take some time to explore the origin of this issue and expand upon Bogosts thoughts.
I feel like games are stuck in a very uncomfortable place of not understanding their own medium when it comes to storytelling.
Bogost writes about what he dubs the ‘perpetual adolescence’ of game narratives and arguably to a lesser degree of many other popular cultural forms today. This adolescences he describes is characterised by a focus on power fantasies and centre of the universe thinking in stories, forgoing ambiguity, subtlety and nuance in the process. Games more than any other medium focus their narrative around epic action and grand heroic quests rather than the more subtle and nuanced aspects storytelling has to offer. Through this focus, games often miss out on invoking moral dilemmas and ambiguity like good literature, poetry or film does. Moreover, where the epic stories in the latter art forms often tended to strike a balance between tales of power and heroism on the one side and moral questioning and reflection on the other, the stories of most games simply don’t2. Most stories in games are shockingly shallow and one-sided. Bogost illustrates this superficiality strikingly when he speaks of “a steady diet of obliterating hell-spawn and saving kidnapped princesses” while talking about narrative themes in games of the past two decades.
The problem with this perpetual adolescence however is bigger than the big pile of games that don’t even try or pretend to try and address the issue. Taking a look at an example Bogost uses extensively, the ‘Bioshock’ series pretend to tackle moral dilemmas in their narrative but then fail to raise them to be more than a backdrop for their completely unrelated gameplay. This issue has been discussed a lot in light of the term ludonarrative dissonance, but that term focusses too much on the gameplay and too little on the bigger meaning of it all to completely do right to this particular discussion. For it is typical of games that try to expand their narrative qualities to fail hard on matching this with the gameplay. All too often, the two are seen as separable entities and the fact that studios attempt to fix the issue by hiring good content writers rather than good interactive narrative designers is telling. And it isn’t even the failing that is the problem here. It is the widespread denial that this should be labelled as such. Because what does it say about games as a medium when many in the scene consider using frequented themes like war, oppression or other forms of human tragedy as a mere backdrop to tell a flat story centred on heroism and power a good decision? Hollywood wouldn’t be surprised by the method but I wouldn’t be the first to think that this is unbecoming of a good story.
I would be the last to deny that it’s entertaining to watch a Hollywood blockbuster now and then. Few would watch one to look for multi-layered good narrative or powerful dialogue. That is fine, as long as there are good alternatives within the art form that do offer this. ARG designer Adrian Hon spoke in a talk years ago named ‘Why stories in games suck‘3 of the existence of poorly written works (low art) and well written works (high art) in every medium. That is fine, he continued, because for high art to exist, there has to be low art. And most of everything is low art.
Instead of aiming to make high art however, most designers simply don’t care to be in the low art category when it comes to narrative. There aren’t that many well written games out there, yet few in the industry aspire to improve this. Many would deny there is any need to, some going as far as to claim that narrative and writing have no real place in games. And even with Indies on the rise, the scene still looks at our blockbuster designers for guidance and improvement in the narrative direction even though they have proven to be stuck in a clueless gridlock on the matter for quite some time now. Plus, I’d like to give Indies credit for improving a lot of things in the industry, but there are very few of them out there that actually tackle this issue effectively and in the right direction. It says a lot about the medium when the latest Iron Man movie is less black and white than the story of the average game sold. We keep making games with narratives that differ from bad to horrible yet tell each other that ‘it’s ok’ because we still make enjoyable games regardless of this. Sure, there’s the rare storytelling pearl amongst the rusty bottle-caps, but you’ll be fishing for a long time to find it.
We keep making games with narratives that differ from bad to horrible yet tell each other that ‘it’s ok’ because we still make enjoyable games regardless of this.
So why is this? Well, one of the main reasons is the architectural focus point of games; the gameplay. When I need to explain to an outsider what game design is about, I tell them it’s the designing of behaviour. Especially for digital (video)games, the designer is in near full control of the moves the player can and cannot make. Gameplay is about what the player does, the way she can interact with the product. Progress in a game is often paired with more options or moves for the player and an increase in difficulty4. Both give the player more actions to perform and different settings to perform them in. Games focus on interaction and their architecture is designed to serve that rather than a story.
So narrative was made to serve and carry this idea and somewhere along the road most of us decided to keep it that way. We decided that Mario needed to save The Princess not because it was a good story but because it was a simple way to tell the player she had to get from A to B and jump on the bad guys. I’ve heard many theories as to why this evolved the way it did but none of them are conclusive, though the main culprit always seems to be gameplay combined with agency. Gamedesigners want the player to feel in control of everything about the game, to make it as interactive as possible. Interactivity is the holy-grail of gamedesign. On top of that, gamedesigners think in ‘activators’ and ‘targets’, cause and effect. If we need the player to do ‘X’ we need someone or something to tell him ‘Y’. I’ve written about this before with regard to character design (part 1, part 2). This is a very effective method when designing flow in a game but if you don’t make the next steps you’re stuck with some rather bad narrative. The story will basically be a themed in-game instruction manual5.
This nature of games works itself into another nasty problem with stories; we try to make them interactive. While that in itself is not a problem of course, the way we do it often is. First of all, making good interactive narrative is hard. Making good interactive narrative without active management by a gamemaster or writer is even harder. Videogames don’t have an easy road here. While a game with active management like tabletop Dungeons & Dragons requires little more than a qualified storyteller as dungeon master to be fully interactive, videogames would have to code hundreds of options and possibilities to even get close to this amount of freedom6. The holy-grail of storytelling in games has too long been modelled after the holy-grail in games overall: interactivity. But a game’s story doesn’t have to be interactive to be good. And when we try to craft interactive narratives for videogames, we shouldn’t focus too much on borrowing methods from other types of (live)games because live management and endless improvisation are not in the nature of videogames.
What we should do is explore ways to natively tell (interactive) stories with videogames, in a way that suits the medium. We should stop aiming for ways to tell stories that other types of games or even other forms of art are way better at. We can borrow expertise and tricks from our neighbours, but we can’t substitute raising our own storytelling voices and methods with this borrowing. Searching for such a voice won’t be easy and requires good design and a clear vision on both games and storytelling. But it has to happen. The years to come will hopefully be about those brave enough to embark on this quest and join the explorers that are rowing their boats through this vastly unexplored ocean right now.
What we should do is explore ways to natively tell stories with videogames, in a way that suits the medium.
But exploring better ways to tell stories is only one side of the coin. We also need to re-educate our players along with our designers. We’ve taught them over the years that it’s better to act than listen. We’ve told them to shoot or be shot. We’ve trained them to distillate clear targets out of our flavourful text rather than read the text. We’ve raised them to need and want action based power fantasies with black and white objectives rather than nuance and ambiguity. We’ve told them there is only winning or losing, allies or enemies, good or evil. That everything is about progressing rather than being. If we gave them options it was A or B, but usually even the options were superficial or fake. We then told them over and over again they chose A or B even though we forced them. We’ve punished them for thinking rather than acting, for trying to find nuance or exploring different options.
Yet we need to tell them7 there’s more. By serving them more, step by step. We need to expand options for players, explore other ways to allow them to progress than ‘railroading’ them through our stories and lamenting them for choices made along the way that were actually forced upon them. We need to devise better and smarter systems to measure the choices of players and their progress through a story. We need to create meaningful options and better link them to the narrative. We need to find nuance and subtlety in our storytelling. We need to accept gameplay and story can’t be seen as separate entities. We need to give renewed value to logical storylines and credible in-game ecologies.
But above all, we need to acknowledge we can do better, to ourselves and to our players.
- Let me note here for new readers that I don’t think games necessarily always need to have a (good) narrative or every game needs to focus on this. Narrative is also a much broader thing than simply the storyline or plot, it is the culmination of everything you tell with the game, be it through text, sound, visuals or gameplay. [↩]
- I say tended, for this balance seems lost or at the very least out of focus in the narratives of these art forms as well nowadays. I am unsure whether this is a bigger movement and games are simply flowing with the stream, or if this change of style in narratives for films and books was actually brought about by a pop-culture that copied this from videogame practice. If you look at the literature and films that are hyped today, they tend to overwhelmingly fit the power fantasy description. [↩]
- The presentation makes a couple very good points, and slide 56 is one to pin to your wall. [↩]
- As opposed to many narrative structures where options are usually more open at the start and narrow down more and more as the plot and events unfold. [↩]
- Many games are actually played with guides rather than reading the in-game text that tells you what to do and where to go. This is because designers often create lengthy flavour text (that is often rather random and one-in-a-dozen like) to brush up on the fact that they are actually telling the player to go from A to B or do X with Y. The most ridiculous situations arise when designers subsequently realised that this might leave the player with hazy instructions because of the length and poor nature of the text, so they serve the player summarized ‘do this’, ‘go here’ journals or quest markers to fix the problem they created one step before. [↩]
- There are of course other design methods and tricks to do things like this in videogames. Most of them require the game to give other players a certain amount of control over the story, and even this can be very difficult and labour-intensive technically but also in design. This is a greatly under-served and unexplored corner of interactive video-game narrative. [↩]
- And ourselves just as much. [↩]