Storytelling in Computer Games (Part 1 - Looking Back)

May 6, 2016

I’m part of a local game critique group. Every month we take a computer game, play it, and then meet to discuss the pros and cons of its design. Think book club but with games. Our most recent game was Her Story, which has a very unique take on telling a story in the medium of computer games. During the discussion that followed, the interesting question arose as to whether games should even have stories. This question stems from the fact that pretty well all game stories are terrible.

Disclaimer: What follows are, naturally, my views on the subject of storytelling in games. Additionally, one cannot write about the overall state of any creative medium – books, songs, movies, comics, computer games, etc. – without making sweeping generalizations. Yes, there are exceptions to my thoughts below and it’s fantastic they exist because they’re going to help move the medium forward.

Also note that just because stories in games don’t follow good storytelling practices does not mean they can’t be fun to play. :-)

The earliest story based game – at least, the earliest story based game that I’m aware of and have played – is the 1976 Colossal Cave Adventure. In this text adventure game the player enters the Colossal Cave hunting for treasure. Magic is said to work in the cave and before the player’s adventure is done they’ll encounter the seven dwarfs, a dragon, a djinn, and a thieving pirate among other creatures and characters. This game set the foundation for many game types including adventure games, computer role playing games, and roguelikes (according to the font of knowledge that is Wikipedia).

Now here we are forty years later. Forty years and in many ways games have progressed very little from what Colossal Cave established, at least from a storytelling point of view. In some ways, most games have even retrogressed storytelling-wise, but we’ll come to that.

Colossal Cave is fairly light on story. It’s basically a treasure hunt through a series of caverns that were modelled on the real world Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky. There’s no villain in the piece, no real surprise twists, but there is a narrative formed for the individual player by how they proceed through the cave.

That narrative is something that is continuously experienced by the player. The player types an action and they immediately get a response to that action. The player is constantly engaged. The story never cuts away to actions being performed by someone else. It’s the player’s choices that shape how the game proceeds from beginning to end. The player is given the goal of entering the caves, finding all the treasures, and escaping safely. The approach they take and the direction they choose to explore first is completely up to them.

The game is a text adventure, meaning all actions by the player are typed in as text and all responses by the game are displayed as text. This is important to note as it’s much easier, from a development point of view, to create an extensive cave system in text than it is to render it as a series of graphical game backgrounds or to model it as an entire 3D system as would be the case in more modern games. In other words, with text it’s easier to create a more expansive world to roam around in.

Speaking of points of view, Colossal Cave, is told from a second person point of view. From literature, most people are probably more familiar with first person points of view – i went to the grocery store. I bought groceries. – or a third person point of view – He went to the grocery store. He bought groceries. A second person point of view reads as You went to the grocery store. You bought groceries.

Second person is an odd point of view to use in something like a book or a movie. When the viewer of a medium is presented with a second point of view story that they cannot change – i.e. stories that proceed from beginning to end without any alterations possible by the viewer – then having that story relayed in a second person point of view is usually distancing, especially when the viewer says, “well, I would never do that.”

So, from more traditional storytelling media – books, television, songs, movies, etc. – there aren’t a lot of good second person point of view examples to draw upon. Second person is not strictly unique to games, but it is hugely more prevalent in them. And games are still struggling with how to tell stories in that mode. A lot of games that take place from a first person point of view (e.g. first person shooters) are actually second person narratives. Players (“you”) are directly making decisions and responding to the feedback presented by the game world.

Moving on in history, I next want to stop at an obscure game released in 1980: Pac-Man. Granted, when you’re thinking about storytelling in computer games, Pac-Man probably isn’t the first game that springs to mind. However, Pac-Man is a landmark game in the development of storytelling practices in modern games. The reason for this is because Pac-Man introduced cutscenes to the gaming world for the first time.

A cutscene is a non-interactive segment of a game that is most often used to advance the story in some way. In Pac-Man, cutscenes are used to show that when the player eats a power pellet then Pac-Man grows in size and is able to eat the ghosts that would normally kill him when they catch him. They’re used to illustrate and teach game mechanics. As games progressed, cutscenes were used more and more to advance the plot, show pivotal character moments, and, in general, do all the things that we associate with other storytelling mediums.

And therein lies a pivotal shift in games that has, in many ways, been holding games back as their own storytelling medium. Even today, in the most lavish of AAA game titles, when you break them down games tend to follow this pattern:

Intro cutscene

Player plays level

Story advancing cutscene

Player plays a level

Story advancing cutscene



Player plays a level

Final cutscene

In most games, the player is given an area to run around in and do things, but for the most part those things ultimately don’t progress the story forward. They’re churn. They’re busy work. The story is left for the non-interactive cutscenes, which are essentially movies interspersed between gameplay. They play by movie rules and they don’t have pesky players coming in doing unexpected things to mess up the narrative that the game design is trying to put across.

The thing with any storytelling medium is that for it to mature it has to figure out how to define itself on its own terms and not based on the definitions of other mediums. As an example, one of the earliest uses of films was to record stage plays. A camera would be set in a static position and an actual stage play would be performed before it. Imagine going to a play and sitting in your seat and only being able to look straight ahead at the action unfolding on center stage. You can’t watch any of the side actors, you can’t really take in the background scenery if that’s what you, as the consumer of that medium, want to do.

It took time for the film industry to get cameras off of static spots and to start moving them around, and then to do that with more fluidity on tracks or with steady cams. It took time to figure out how to effectively use close ups and wide angle shots. How to juxtapose images through editing for greatest impact. How best to create an audio presence where dialog, sound effects, and music all complement one another. In short, it took time for films to figure out how to tell stories as films.

Currently, most games are stuck in the same storytelling pattern they’ve been in since Pac-Man. They advance the story using non-interactive cutscenes. They use movies (A) because that’s a more familiar medium and (B) because that’s the way games have been doing it for over 30 years. It’s ingrained. I’d even go so far as to say It’s institutionalized with writers/design leads in most game development groups being separate people from the ones creating the technology to express those games. At best this leads to stories that contort to fit the technology they’ve been given (a first person shooter generally isn’t suddenly going to give you the opportunity to do jumping jacks to distract enemies). At worst, it leads to stories told entirely in cutscenes that are completely disconnected from any of the actual gameplay (a lot of the so-called “interactive movie” games of the mid- to late-nineties are guilty of this).

All of this brings me back to the initial question raised in my game critique group: should games even have a story to them? Given how poorly stories have been told in games to date compared to other mediums, it’s a fair question. To answer that question, let’s look at what a story is at a fundamental level.

What a story is, when you strip it right down to basics, is an idea. Every story has an idea it wants to convey, whether it’s an emotional idea, an intellectual idea, or a societal idea. Because of that, any medium, any medium that can be used to convey ideas can be used to convey stories.

Most storytelling mediums are quite obvious as storytelling mediums. Novels, movies, plays, radio dramas – these all relate stories in direct ways that we’ve all learned from such a young age that we take them for granted. Songs, too, are used to relate stories. The same with poems. Sometimes these forms are a little more obscured in metaphor and symbolism and so require a little more participation on the part of the consumer. Even paintings and sculptures and photos tell stories. They give you a snapshot in time, perhaps realistic, perhaps abstract. But what is it that led to that moment in time being captured? Stories, ideas exist there as well.

Turning our focus back to computer games. Computer games have visuals. Some games use static hand drawn or painted or rendered backgrounds, very much like paintings. Some games use 3D models, very much like sculptures. Some games use sound and music, very much like songs. Some games run in real time, providing motion and animation, very much like television or films. Some games, even today, rely exclusively on text, just like novels and short stories and other prose forms.

If all of these other mediums can tell stories and computer games can encompass all of these other mediums, then why would it be the case that games can’t tell stories? I imagine by this point, you’ll recognize that I contend that games can tell stories. However, games are still caught in this trap of trying to define themselves based on what other storytelling mediums do. And in trying to be like other mediums they aren’t telling stories in ways that are properly suited to them.

So how can computer games better tell stories? Well, that’s the topic for my next blog post, of course. Tune in next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.