Thoughts on Design: Story Part 1

by Dr Taliesin Coward

When it comes to games, story can be a double-edged sword. Yes, a good story, a ripping, rollicking, roller-coaster of a tale can elevate a game possessing otherwise mediocre gameplay to new heights and levels of immersion. The flip side of this is that a poor story, or a badly told one, can and will damage a game. Even (or perhaps especially) those with otherwise stellar gameplay. In the first part of this two-part series, we shall briefly (and incompletely) examine the history of storytelling in games, as well as look at two common storytelling approaches: premise and backstory. For the second part, we will examine full-blown narrative, as well as some of the common flaws and solutions evident within games.

Stories and video games have had something of a patchy relationship, and, really, it’s one which is only in its infancy. The vast majority of early games (and even a fair amount of the games around today) have only a passing nod to storytelling. And, let’s face it, why would they do anything more? They’re games. We don’t look for deep and meaningful character development or motivation in a game of hopskotch, tag or ludo. We play them because they’re fun, and at the very most we may give them a simple premise. And this is the exact approach taken by most of the early games. Any story – if there even was one – did little more than establish a basic premise for the gameplay. In Space Invaders, players are trying to fight off an alien invasion. In Donkey Kong an jumping carpenter (yes, Mario was not originally a plumber) is trying to rescue a princess from a giant gorilla which is standing atop of what looks like a gigantic Mechano kit. In Doom (the 1993 version, not the 2016 relaunch), a space marine is fighting his way through a demon-infested base on mars. Perhaps one of the best examples of this approach to story can be seen in Commander Keen: Marooned on Mars, where the protagonist is simply trying to recover parts of his spaceship which have been stolen by the local aliens – a story which took Tom Hall around 15 minutes to create. Indeed, this entire approach was neatly summed up by fellow Id co-founder John Carmack, who likened the story requirements of a game to that of an ‘adult’ film: expected, but really not necessary.

That’s not to say that stories weren’t being told. In 1993, the same year that the smash-hit Doom was released, another, very different smash-hit landed on the shelves: Myst. While the ‘active’ story part of the game (that is, what happens to the player character) is fairly simple and straight forward, Myst featured stories galore in the incredibly detailed back-stories that players could find and piece together, helping to explain the strange world that they found themselves in. Then in 1998 came the ground-breaking Half-Life. In retrospect, and being bluntly honest, the story of Half-Life is not much to write about, and would comfortably sit alongside most B-Grade sci-fi flicks. What really rocked the boat was how it told the story: cinematically. The opening train-ride, keeping the camera in the player-controlled first-person perspective, did so much to establish the feel and world of the game, and had such an impact, that it’s been continually referenced by modern game creators (Metro: Exodus, being a good case in point).

Skipping forward to the present, it’s not uncommon for AAA game studios to employ dedicated story writers and directors. While it was not that long ago that the job ‘games writer’ didn’t even exist (with any story being done, by one of the devs and often as an afterthought), it is now the case that the work of these people can have a massive effect on a game, not just in terms of story as we may think of it, but in world design, gameplay, and various mechanics. For example: why are there no horses in Horizon Zero Dawn, when early builds clearly showed Aloy (the player character) riding one? The answer: story consistency.

While story is becoming more and more prevalent (and expected by players), it is clear that there is a lot of experimentation going on within the industry – not only with regard to what type of stories can be told, but how to tell them. Just as a novel can’t be directly translated into film medium, neither can the forms developed for novel, film or theatre be simply ‘copied across’ to games. The mere presence of concerns about actual gameplay, player interaction and agency, raises a whole host of issues which can, and often do, impact story (which then can, in a circular relationship, impact game design). That said, there are a number of clearly identifiable approaches being employed (and experimented with), each with their own considerations, advantages and drawbacks. There are also a number of commonly repeated errors and flaws, arising sometimes from poorly crafted stories, but more often from unresolved tensions between story and gameplay needs. In the next two articles, we’ll take a look at a few of these. On the next few pages you’ll see a number of categories. These categories are fairly loose and vague, and often a game’s approach to storytelling will cross multiple categories. Rather, these categories are simply there to help aid the discussion.

Types of Story Telling

1. The Premise

As already indicated, this is perhaps the oldest form of storytelling employed in video games. In its most basic form, it provides nothing more than a premise for the game taking place, and perhaps a little thematic material to flesh out the game world (but usually not). Such stories are usually paper-thin, and not meant to provide anything more than the barest context to the action that’s taking place (again, who needs a detailed story to play tag?). Indeed, in terms of pure-structure, these are what may be called by McKee, one scene stories: there is a negative situation (for games they invariably are), which has changed to positive at the completion (the player has won).

This type of story is ideally suited for, and can often be found in, arcade-style games. In these types of games, not only is a large, in-depth story not expected, it is also unlikely to be welcomed – with arcade games featuring quick, and quickly repeatable challenges. The lack of depth and simplicity of such stories – arguably their main weakness – is also one of their advantages: they are very easy and quick to create (see Tom Hall).

1.1 Extended Story via Premise

While the one-scene story is the most basic use of the premise, the use of premise can be more sophisticated. In fact, it is possible to structure premises repeatedly to result in a deeper, more extended story. Two good examples of this are the ‘mission briefing’, and ‘quest assignment’ approaches. Mission briefings are fairly common amongst Real-Time-Strategy games, flight sims and similar. A briefing, in text or video (or even voice-over at the start of the level) will set a scene, and several objectives. Once the mission is completed, a new briefing is given. Quest assignments (common in Role-Playing-Games), operate in a similar fashion: the players receive a to-do-list, achieve it, then are given a reward (either by returning to the quest-giver or automatically). That is, the quest provides a context or excuse for a particular type of gameplay (the most notorious being ‘kill’ or ‘fetch’ quests, which require players to kill or collect x number of x things).

By employing the structure of premise –> gameplay –> new premise –> gameplay and so on, it is possible to construct quite a deep narrative. Homeworld, with its grand space-opera setting is one example which employs this narrative structure. This approach has certain strengths and weakness, both stemming from the fact that, in most instances, it separates narrative development out from gameplay.

In the first instance, it renders the task of the story-teller fairly simple as the narrative itself is largely divorced from what happens in game. Upon succeeding, the player is simply moved onto the next set-up and so on, until the game ends. However, this can lead to an artificial or poor sense of ‘flow’, and comes at the expense of interaction with the player, which can lead to a level of player disengagement, and an awareness that what they are playing consists of ‘game’ and ‘story’, (which is perhaps why so many games let you skip cut-scenes).

2. Storytelling via Backstory

This is a favourite way to flesh-out a game’s world. Storytelling via Backstory essentially allows the player to discover bits of information which explain why things are the way they are. Often, it involves finding recordings, files, books and similar scattered throughout the game. While games like Myst and Riven used this as their primary means of storytelling (the player character adding little to the story for the most part), this method is now virtually ubiquitous, and can be found in many of the major games. The Arkham series of games are littered with pieces of lore about the world and characters, in Control, players can find research notes and files on The Oldest House and the entity known as The Hiss which is invading it. Even Doom (2016) and Doom: Eternal feature extensive bestiaries, weapon guides and ‘lore’ sections, each adding to the richness of the game world.

Storytelling via Backstory has a distinct advantage: it is revealed by the actions of the player (by finding a recording, uncovering a newstory and so on). As such, it can lead to the joy of investigation and far greater engagement on the part of the player. That said, the world itself has to be, at first glance, interesting enough that the player is curious about it (not something which all games achieve). Also, as this mode of storytelling concerns the backstory of the game’s world, by necessity it does very little to further the overall progression of gameplay and narrative. Indeed, driving players for most of Myst and Riven was a desire to see what happens next, or sheer curiosity and a desire to explore the strange worlds, rather than narrative progression. In fact, in both games, real narrative progression only occurs at the very last sections of eacg game.

While premise and backstory have long and well established usage within games, exciting work and experimentation is being done in telling complete, integrated story-arcs, which the second part of this series will address. ■


Bibliography

A. Books

Demaria, R., & Wilson, J. L., High Score! The Illustrated History of Electronic Games (New York: McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2002).

Kent, S. L., & Id Software, The Making of Doom 3 (New York: McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2004).

Kohler, C., Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life (NP: BradyGames, 2004).

Kushner, D., Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture (London: Piatkus, 2003).

McKee, R., Story (New York: Harper Collins, 1997).

Pratchett, T., Thief of Time (London: Corgi, 2008).

Taleb, N. N., Fooled by Randomness (London: Penguin Books, 2007).

Wolfe, R., Writing Comedy: A Guide to Scriptwriting for TV, Radio, Film and Stage (new edn., London: Hale, 2003).

B. Audio/Video

Hugo Martin on the Creativity Behind DOOM (Youtube: NoClip, 2016), accessed 15 Jan 2021.

The Making of Horizon Zero Dawn (NoClip, 2017).
available at

The Future of the Videogames Writer: Rhianna Pratchett at TEDxTransmedia (Youtube: Tedx Talks, 2013),
accessed 15 Jan 2021.


C. Games

Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady, 2009).

Batman: Arkham City (Rocksteady, 2011).

Batman: Arkham Knight (Rocksteady, 2015).

Battlefield V (EA Dice, 2018).

Control (Remedy Entertainment, 2019).

Detroit: Become Human (Quantic Dream, 2018).
Donkey Kong (Nintendo, 1981).

Doom (Id Software, 1993).

Doom (Id Software, 2016).

Doom: Eternal (Id Software, 2020)

Gears 5 (The Coalition, 2019).
Half-Life (Valve, 1998).

Homeworld Remastered (Relic Entertainment, 2015).

Horizon Zero Dawn: Complete Edition (Guerilla, 2020).

Metro Exodus (4A Games, 2019).

Myst (Cyan, 1993).

Quantum Break (Remedy Entertainment, 2016).

Rise of the Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamix, 2015).

Riven (Cyan, 1997).

Sekiro (FromSoftware, 2019).

Shadow of the Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamix, 2018).

Space Invaders (Atari, 1978).

Super Mario (Nintendo, 1985).

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (CD Projekt Red, 2015).

Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamix, 2013). 

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