Thoughts on Design: Story Part 2 - A Double-edged Sword

by Dr Taliesin Coward

In the first half of this two-part series, we examined storytelling in games, as well as the use of 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.

Narrative Arc

For want of a better term, a Narrative Arc (or full-blown story) attempts to tell a complete story, from beginning to end. This is by far the most complex form of storytelling to be found in games, and employs as many tricks (including premises and backstories) as it can in order to do so. Games in this category include the likes of Quantum Break, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Batman: Arkham Asylum, to name but a few.

A tightly scripted, well executed story imparts an undeniable sense of drive and impetus, with each of the three games above having the capacity to keep people playing just in order to see what happens next. In no small part, this is because the games follow the basic scene structure pointed out by McKee, with each ‘scene’ (usually an objective in the game) taking the situation from negative to positive, immediately followed by another event which pitches it back into negative again. The rescue of Commissioner Gordon in Batman: Arkham Asylum is an excellent example of this. Having lost the Joker, Batman turns to Commissioner Gordon to seek help, only to find he has been kidnaped by a treacherous guard (negative). Whilst trying to rescue the Commissioner, the game continually throws additional challenges, until he is finally located and save (positive). However, where the rescue occurs puts them directly next to the villain Bane, who then breaks free and attacks Batman (negative). These cycles of negative → positive → negative and so on, continue throughout the entire game, driving a sense of focus and urgency.

Two important things about the narrative construction in Batman: Arkham Asylum should be noted. Firstly, there is never a straight path between a negative event (Commissioner Gordon’s kidnapping) and its positive resolution (Batman saves the Commissioner). Rather, things are continually spiced up by the old story trick of asking ‘what goes wrong’. For example, upon Batman reaching the elevator, the lift mechanism gets blown up, forcing him to climb the lift shaft. This obstacle having been surmounted, then a new one (armed goons) has to be bested. And then players find out that the traitor they have been tracking (using Batman’s technological wizardry to follow the vapour trail left by the traitor’s flask of bourbon), has been killed as the Joker realised that’s how Batman was tracking the Commissioner. Not only do these give story excuses for gameplay (whether its traversal, sneaking around and taking down rooms of baddies, or just to engage in good old-fashioned fisticuffs), it also gives the player the sense that the game (or more accurately, the game’s villains) are personally trying to stop them, by continually and deliberately throwing obstacles in their way.

Secondly, player actions lead to the ‘scene’ resolving in a positive way. This is an important point: the game/game’s villains are responsible from turning the situation from positive to negative, whilst the player’s actions return the situation to positive. In order to see just how important this actually is, one merely has to turn to Gears 5 where, right at the end of the game, the player is put in control of the antagonist and has to choose which of the protagonist’s companions, captured in grasp of the antagonist, will be killed. That’s right: suddenly the player is taken out of control of their character, put in the shoes of the villain and forced to make a choice which runs directly contrary to their character’s goals. Not only is this jarring and a sloppy piece of design, it is also, and this is the whole point, not fun.

As one might guess, it is with the full Narrative Arc that games experiment the most, and also potentially suffer from the most pitfalls. Some of these can be regarded as purely generic issues with storytelling. An example of this is the cheap emotional manipulation and non-sequiturs of the Tirailleur missions in the WW2 game Battlefield V. The moment you find out that your character’s brother has a wife and child, you know he’s going to get killed in battle, and your character will be responsible. This is then followed up by a totally illogical sequence where you are being overrun by Nazi forces, and then, inexplicably, you’ve captured their now empty fortress. These are simple flaws of storytelling, and would be evident in whatever medium they were told. (It should be noted, in all fairness to Battlefield V, that it also contains the brilliant, story-and-gameplay-wise, ‘Last Panzer’ chain of missions.)

Similarly, a game may indulge in the temptation for extended – and boring – sequences of exposition (something that Horizon Zero Dawn is occasionally prone to). While this belongs to the class of generic storytelling flaws (especially for a visual medium), it also likely results from a lack of clarity, or poor decisions, as to whether story or gameplay should take precedent.

One such example of this is the relaunch of the Tomb Raider series. Whilst the second game in the series, Rise of the Tomb Raider, is, to my mind, one of the greatest cinematic-style games around, the first game, simply called Tomb Raider, goes to great and excruciating pains to give a story justification for every item and ability Lara Croft acquires during the course of the game, whether it’s a jury-rigged pickaxe, or a bow and arrow. While the reasons for doing this are clear (the game is following the transformation of Lara from a naive young lady to a toughened survivor), it does feel more often that you are watching an interactive movie, than actually playing a game. That is, story has been given precedence over gameplay and fun.

The balance between story and gameplay, and the conflicts between the needs of these two, require careful consideration to resolve. Sometimes, this may mean changing the story, or how the story is told, other times it may mean superficial changes to the game. Two such example of this can be found in Horizon Zero Dawn. In the first example, the player character, Aloy, was supposed to find her ‘Focus’ (a high-tech earpiece which also served to project an information-filled display) later in the game. However, this would have caused gameplay problems as it would have resulted in their being no HUD to help the player navigate the game world. Rather than have no HUD, or no diagetic justification for having a HUD, it was decided to rewrite the story so that Aloy finds the focus right at the very beginning of the game. In another instance, considerations of story resulted in an aesthetic change: the game went from having horses, to horse-like robots which the player could ride. While this change was made to accommodate the story, it should be noted that it seems to have had minimal impact on the actual gameplay itself as a horse-like creature is still in the game.

It should be noted that, ultimately, both of these examples were resolved in favour of gameplay and player enjoyment. As what is being created is a game, this perhaps makes the most sense. Also note that such changes did not introduce story-design flaws which would result in a ‘poor story’ which could ultimately damage the player’s experience.

Another example of resolving tension between the needs of the game and of the story can be seen in the 2016 relaunch of Doom. According to Doom’s creative director, Hugo Martin, the game was originally to have more of a story focus, following tried-and-tested formulas such as having the bad guys take something off the good guy to establish the relationship (and enmity). Also, the player character would gradually become aware that the monsters they were fighting were not aliens, but demons. As Hugo tells, it soon became clear that this simply would not work, with the resultant story ideas being cheesy beyond belief. Their solution: start the narrative part-way through with a basic premise: within minutes of starting the game, the player sees a screen which informs them “Demonic Invasion in Progress”. Rather than revising the game to fit the story, they changed the story to support the game.

It is also the case that some flaws of storytelling result directly from the nature of the game itself, and in particular player agency. In Fallout: Vegas, for example, quest stories had to be designed in such a way that there was a ‘player-shaped hole’ in the world, in order to accommodate the vast array of choices players had when creating their character, resulting in some of the stories feeling impersonal and generic.

Another example of such an agency-related problem, stemming from a failure to properly integrate story and gameplay, is readily seen in nearly any game which has an open world structure, where players can access main missions (which cause the main storyline to progress), and side-missions. Invariably there comes a point in the main story where one mission finishes with something urgent lurking on the horizon. However, the player is free to totally ignore this and puddle around in the world, finishing unrelated side-quests or mundane tasks for as long as they wish (especially as most games reward completion of these activities). As can be appreciated, this totally destroys the impact, flow and immersion of the main storyline (having played the otherwise brilliant Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I am determined to play it again, but totally ignoring all side-missions and activities).

The games I have seen which successfully avoid this, create deliberate lulls in the main storyline. For example, the player completes the mission and instead of being given the next inciting incident (to use McKee’s term), is instead told that ‘so-and-so wants to talk to you, contact them when you’re ready’ or something similar. This allows the player to explore the game world at their leisure, and only once they have returned to the main questline are they given the next inciting incident. In storytelling and game-design terms, the principle is simple: if completing an objective is cast as urgent, do not split it off into a separate mission.

Lastly, there are issues that stem directly form the story reacting to the player choice. While this can increase player immersion, not only does it massively increase the work for the story designers (who have to accommodate for the possibilities), it can also result in player detachment and reduced fun (ironically), and what McKee would regard as a poor story structure.

An example of the former can be supplied by The Witcher 3, which was noted for the ‘grey’ area most of the stories occupied. For example, in one instance players are faced with the choice of whether to help a lady who has received a mortal wound from a griffin’s claws. The players can either choose to let her die, or attempt to save her using a potion usually reserved for Witchers (mutated humans with far higher resilience than their normal counterparts), knowing that it may painfully kill her. In gameplay terms, should players elect to administer the potion, that is where things end. However, a text popup appears, telling players the outcome (in this instance, the woman survives, but at the cost of her mind).

In storytelling terms, this is a simple trick of just choosing when to stop a story line. As noted by Sir Terry Pratchett, the moral of a tale is determined not only by where you start, but where you end. Using the fairytale of the Emperor’s New Clothes as an example, he observes that by stopping the story a bit later, instead of “The Story of the Emperor Who Had No Clothes”, you had “The Story of the Boy Who Got a Well-Deserved Thrashing from His Dad for Being Rude to Royalty, and was Locked Up.” In terms of gameplay, while this approach did win critical acclaim (perhaps owing to how unusual it is in games), it could ultimately detract from the fun of the game and lead to players disengaging from what were supposed to be difficult choices. After all, if the outcome of a decision ultimately appears unclear, then not only does choosing cease to be fun, one may as well pick at random (with randomness and ignorance being roughly equivalent in terms of decision making).

With regard to poor structure, examples of this can be drawn from just about any game which has multiple endings ranging from positive to negative. Not only can this lead to a negative → negative scenario, which can leave a bad taste in players’ mouths, unless the second negative is far worse, it simply won’t work as an effective ending. That is, it runs the risk of failing both in terms of gameplay, and narrative. This is often compounded when it is not clear there are multiple endings, or what conditions lead to which ending being selected (something which Sekiro is particularly guilty of). One possible solution to this was tried by Quantum Break, which interspersed gameplay with live-action cut-scenes. While the major arc of the cut-scenes remains unchanged, the details of the actions within these scenes (from what props are available, to which characters do what, and even which characters survive) reflect choices made by the player during the gameplay sections.

Another solution is to make manipulating the story the game itself. Detroit: Become Human is an example of this. Each scenario in the game offers the player a variety of choices, with the story unfolding based directly on which choices were made. While the game recommends playing all the way through the first time, players can access a graph which clearly shows where story-altering decision/actions were, or were not, taken (though without showing the outcomes for choices not already made). Not only does this massively increase player engagement and encourage repeated tinkering, it also places the player in the roll of the story director. Furthermore, by making the player’s roll in constructing the story so explicit it also shifts responsibility of the quality of the story to the player. While this approach is intriguing, and seems particularly suited to video-games, only time, and further experimentation will tell just how far into less story-driven games it can be extended.

It is clear that narrative design in games, despite its youth, is already a huge and fascinating field, filled with both opportunities and hazards for game developers. While these articles could do little more than scratch the surface, it is hoped that they may serve to stimulate curiosity and further investigation. ■


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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