Ask Bobduh: Storytelling and Videogames, Part One

Management: I mentioned back in… uh, May or something that I was planning on compiling/archiving some of my more worthwhile answers into miniposts on Wrong Every Time. I’ve been distracted by a variety of things since then, but have finally gotten a few together that seem worth keeping, and so here’s the first of them. Enjoy!

Maybe you’ve already answered something like this, but what’s your favorite example of video game storytelling?

Just little things here and there. The mood Shadow of the Colossus creates, for one – that feeling of majesty, resignation, and guilt. The moment in Bioshock when you realize half the things you’ve been taking for granted because “this is how videogames work” were actually functioning narrative devices. The finale of Braid. The way Demon’s Souls makes you feel legitimately afraid of the next room because there are legitimate stakes involved. How in Katawa Shoujo you actually get to Rin’s route by being so tone-deaf, apathetic, and antisocial that no one else wants to hang out with you.

Basically when gameplay actually generates human narrative, which is an incredible, incredible rarity, and something extremely hard to engineer. I do not envy game developers the future task of cultivating these moments, and shifting them from glimpses of a better medium into a fully realized art form.

When it comes to reviewing a video game, how important do you think gameplay should be when evaluating a game? I would personally rank gameplay above all else, for me no amount of good storytelling can save a game if I find the gameplay abysmal.

See, I think this whole way of separating “games” into pieces isn’t really conducive to the kinds of “evaluation” that would work for a medium as strange and unique as interactive media. How do you evaluate gameplay in the context of a production that’s trying to say something? Whether it’s “fun” or not? What if the “game” isn’t trying to be “fun” – what if it’s trying to make you feel powerless, or desperate, or guilty? What if it’s trying to make you feel in general?

You can evaluate whether a game’s vehicle of interactivity coherently works for the experience it’s trying to create so far as you can parse that intent, I suppose. But I feel that when you’re separating a game into “gameplay” and “story” as if those aren’t linked categories, you’re already talking about games as collections of disparate experiences. Which may be fine, and is certainly indicative of the history of the medium, but I could also say “because this game’s gameplay is not reflective of its narrative intent, it fails as an experience.”

That may seem like a high bar to pass, but personally, I think we’ve also been setting really low bars for interactive media up to this point. And we’ve also been evaluating them in narrow channels – for example, how would you evaluate the “gameplay” of a guided story with choices like Katawa Shoujo? Would you say that’s not a game? I’d counter that it contains the one thing most important to creating emotional resonance in interactive media (player agency), and that this very clearly empowers its dramatic intent, and thus it’s in very important ways more successful as a game that abuses the medium than a shooter where you run down a corridor and never make an important decision.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for stuff like Mario, where the value is just the sheer joy of how well you can manipulate a character – how tight and enjoyable the core gameplay is. There’s definitely room for stuff like that! But that shouldn’t be the only way we think about these things. And even there, what if stuff like “how well you can control this character” was actually tied into some core narrative point – what if you were hobbled, and then suddenly could run, could fly, and that was actually a narrative revelation of some kind? Couldn’t you see that being a more powerful experience than just good controls in a vacuum? Mirroring gameplay and dramatic intent holds faaaar more potential than what is currently being expressed, and I’m excited to see what the future of “game design” really holds.

30 thoughts on “Ask Bobduh: Storytelling and Videogames, Part One

  1. The problem with vidya game storytelling is the disconnect between the narrative and what’s actually being played. A lot of games get around this by having much of what you do only be possible through the narrative. Stuff like Blazblue though make you sit through 10-20 minutes of VN-like sequences before giving fights that you could easily replicate on VS. mode. That’s no way to present lore.

    • Don’t forget the initial entries in the series that also had you save constantly at every turn lest you fail and have to reload at that point in the characters plot…for every character….for every ending….. god now I recall why I put that first game down.

    • Some games are in a pretty tough spot that way. Like, BlazBlue is a fighting game – the vast majority of its development resources are dedicated to making an engaging, relatively balanced competitive game with a great deal of depth and style. I don’t think we can reasonably expect all/most games to care about the kind of design holism I’m talking about here, because games just have too many disparate goals for that.

      • Fair enough, there are just some genres that don’t really have much of an affinity for storytelling to begin with. I don’t think anyone should get on Dr. Mario’s case for not having a deep plot.

        As for BlazBlue, I think I’d rather just fork over money for DLC characters rather then have to trudge my way through all the story routes.

  2. Have you ever tried playing The Last of Us or Bioshock Infinite? I find their stories to be captivating especially TLOU’s. It’s set in a dystopian United States after a cordyceps infection hits. I know that it’s another zombie story but I personally found it to be a touching story when you look past the burning bodies and snarling runners. Have you ever played it?

    • I played Bioshock Infinite, but felt that game had a tremendous, kind of game-ruining disconnect between its narrative and gameplay – I actually wanted to just fast-forward through the tedious gameplay to see the rest of the story. I still haven’t played The Last of Us, but I’m definitely planning on it.

      • I’m kind of falling into the same habit as well. I’ve actually been watching a lot of youtube videos that edit together just the story bits of games. If you’re interested, I’d personally recommend you check out Assasin’s Creed Black Flag (because pirate-ninjas are awesome). I got tired of the gameplay a few releases ago in the series, but the premise for this one meant I had to still check out the story. Just search for the game name + “movie” or “all cutscenes”.

        Of course, there are some

    • Metal Gear is extremely interesting, but I’m unfortunately not really an expert on it. It’s definitely a series ripe for analysis from a “storytelling/meaning in games” perspective, though.

      • Usually the story in Metal Gear Solid games aren’t connected to the gameplay: it’s just a game inspired by an old MSX game – with the same structure – plus cutscenes. But sometimes, like in the end of Metal Gear Solid 3, it does some things that are only possible in videogames.

        I’m not particularly interested in the evolution of storytelling in videogames. What motivates me to play them is nostalgia; i’m not really interested in the future. I’ll always have Dragon Quest V. 🙂

        P.S.: I’m from a non-english speaking country, and rarely have the opportunity to write in english. If what i am writing doesn’t make sense, sorry! Ah, and this is a great blog!

  3. ‘I could also say “because this game’s gameplay is not reflective of its narrative intent, it fails as an experience.”’

    Oh man. I agree with what you’re saying in this post Bobduh, SO MUCH, but that line riles me up. I had a similar reaction to PBS IdeaChannel’s recent video about game mechanics, where the host complained about how “too big a focus on mechanics can prevent us from appreciating the narrative and themes of a game”.

    And my response to this is, look guys, LOOK. If you are just trying to tell a linear narrative, there are all sorts of perfectly good ways of delivering it that aren’t games: books, movies, comics, etc. What makes games games IS THE INTERACTION. So don’t give me this crap about “man it would be a whole lot easier to appreciate this brilliant script if I didn’t have to shoot somebody every five seconds.” No. The interaction, the mechanics, should be the primary method of conveying meaning. What the developers allow/prohibit and encourage/discourage IS the message of the game, not whatever the half-baked plot is. In other words, if you want to make a game where it is really fun to kill your friends, don’t saddle it with a narrative about how awful war is, Call of Duty. But if you actually want to say something about violence, maybe you should make it less fun (see SpecOps: The Line).

    Okay, maybe this doesn’t work for EVERY game. You can’t really say ‘gameplay is king’ for interactive fiction like visual novels or twine-based interactive fiction. Maybe it makes more sense to look at interactivity as a gradient, with movies on one end then books and eventually interactive fiction, and way on the other end a pure sandbox experience, like an actual sandbox, or a big bucket of Legos. Most video games would be somewhere in between.

    But still! If you are making something that allows audience choice, those choices should be considered a fundamental part of imparting meaning, not just something to keep people busy in between cutscenes.

    Again, not really disagreeing with you, just wanted to get that off my chest, and your post gave me an excuse to vent.

    Relevant: “Every MMO is a political statement. I should know, I designed them that way.”

    • I’m actually also fine with the idea of “broken games” – games that aren’t cohesive, that have weird tangled ends of narrative or gameplay or whatnot. And I’m fine with games that are just fun, and I’m fine with (and very excited to see more of) games where the gameplay is part of the narrative/emotional intent. This post is really just about one particular perspective on games, one I’d like to see more often rewarded in the future.

  4. Your answers remind me of Jim Emerson’s essay about No Country for Old Men, where he talked about how people always try to split form and content in movies when really it’s all different kinds of manifestations of ideas that form the whole.

    I like that video games are still fairly recent, especially since we’re starting to see more games that use gameplay as language the way movies use cinematic language. It might be a big exaggeration to say this, but sometimes I think playing Journey or Dark Souls is the closest I’ll ever get to having seen something like Seven Samurai the year it first came out.

    • Hah, yeah, we’re still in the infancy of the medium at this point. Honestly, I think things are gonna be getting a lot more interesting in ~10 years or so, when we’ve gained both more understanding of the tools and more mainstream respect for games that try to embrace them, but there’s certainly some interesting stuff happening right now.

  5. Boy, do I like video game talk! If we’re talking about games taking advantage of our taking for granted “how things work”, have you played Spec Ops: The Line? To me it’s probably one of, if not the best games I’ve played this year and it’s a great example of using medium’s interactivity to convey your message. If you’ve never played it, I highly recommmend it!

      • If you’re into PC gaming it’s currently on sale on Steam, and might drop even lower for a day or two in a couple of days, in case you’re interested 🙂

  6. Heh, I think I left a comment on your about this, but if you’re looking for a more atmospheric, story/character driven game, I’d highly recommend Kentucky Route Zero. It’s sadly not very well known, but it’s honestly brilliant. A surreal ‘ghost story’ of sorts set in Kentucky, exploring people burdened by debt and struggling to make ends meet. It’s very poignant.

  7. As a professional game programmer, it’s interesting to see you write about this. The prevailing opinion in the industry is basically: Good story-driven games are those that are able to blend gameplay and story together, but if you can’t do that, don’t let the story get in the way of the gameplay. (Which is not all that different from what you suggest, but most game designers I’ve met tend to see gameplay as more important than story). This is just my experience though, there are certainly other schools of thought.

    It’s interesting that you mention Braid, because aside from the final act, most of the game had kept the plot and gameplay totally separate. You actually had to stop, and read the books to understand the story, and then the gameplay was only really related to it in a vague, largely metaphorical sense. While I thought Braid was brilliant, and would probably put it in my personal top 10, I would say that this divide between gameplay and storytelling was probably it’s single big flaw.

    I also think you miss the mark a bit at the end with your comment about Mario. Not every game should be story driven. There are games like Dwarf Fortress, completely lacking in narrative, that still manage to be a work of art.

    Keep in mind that the roots of this medium are in traditional games, like Chess or Go. It’s strange to think of these games as works of art, and I don’t really feel qualified to speak one way or another on the subject, but my gut feeling is that they are.

    • Yeah, Braid definitely wasn’t graceful in its integration outside of that last standout sequence. I get the feeling Jonathan Blow is trying very hard to do better at that in The Witness – he strikes me as one of the current developers most interested in bridging this narrative-gameplay divide.

      I don’t disagree about not all games having to be story driven, incidentally. Though the question of “art” versus, I dunno, “sport” or “competition” or some other word is kind of a murky one, and really depends on what specifically you’re defining as key to the “art experience.” I feel like something like a fighting game is more like a conversation than a steady experience, and I’m not sure what you’d call a device that simply facilitates such experiences.

  8. I heard/watch somewhere than you actually remember less the plot, and more your actions in a video game. You could be cynical, and says that the game play is the only important thing, but what it really accentuate is that Video games are their own form of narrative, that are actually quite different from cinema. (I also watch a program after dialogue in video game, that accentuated this difference.)

    Which actually proves your point. Gameplay is important, because it’s your main way of conveying your story. It doesn’t even have to be particulary complex. Just exploring an environment “freely” (or at least with some impression of freedom) can be a great experience.
    Actually every aspects of the game design can be important, and says something. Maps are the second most obvious example.

    Video games have untapped potential.
    It( can makes you experiment life differently.
    That’s why there is such debates about sexsm, racism, or diversity in video game : they can have permeate ino your mind far more than a movie (where you’re entirely passive), or even a book.
    And that’s also why there are complaints about Video games being just FMV with QTE : it tries to imitate movies without using video game’s potential.

    • Yeah, games in general have been extremely messy in tapping that potential in direct narrative ways. It’s pretty exciting to think of how “memorable” whatever future experiences they think up will be – the potential’s almost frightening. Art will be moving closer to “lived experience” in a very strange way.

  9. “what if you were hobbled, and then suddenly could run, could fly, and that was actually a narrative revelation of some kind”

    Were you thinking about Child of Light here ? It was a pretty well made game.

    I think that the fist time I saw how much gameplay and story could be linked and enhance each other was Fire Emblem Thracia 776. The Fatigiue system, Capture and the escape mission where you can lose your allies behind (You can later find them again in prison) all works with the narrative, and this atmosphere of urgency, dread. You’re constantly fleeing strngest forces, and the gameplay reflected this pretty well.

  10. Have you played 999 or Phoenix Wright? I think those games do an excellent job of combining gameplay and narrative.

    It is hard to talk about what is making 999 such a great piece of storytelling in videogames without spoilering, but it certainly has one of the best twists I have seen using something very rarely used before, to it’s fullest extent. The last few moments of gameplay of the true ending is very memorable to me and was executed perfectly. An amazing soundtrack playing along to the puzzle you have to solve while being flashed by one of the best twists feels just amazing. If you play the game, you absoluetely have to play to the true ending (you might want to use a guide) because every other ending is setting up for it.

    Phoenix Wright may be really linear, which I think is quite sad, but I think the story is good and is supported by good characters as well. What makes it an interesting example of storytelling in videogames is that the gameplay is part of the story, just like the story is part of the gameplay. If you want to get further in the game you have to follow and understand the story. While the gameplay mechanics may be simple and have flaws at times (I only played the first game so I don’t know about the others), it is still a very unique experience. The first real case was a very memorable experience in gaming for me as well. The first time hearing the awesome “cornered” soundtrack while knowing you have the culprit with his back at the wall, only to realise he still has one ace in the hole that you have to solve was incredible.

    There is also the Souls series which does the combination of gameplay and narrative almost perfectly, and is not afraid to let people miss it’s awesome lore (which admittedly I did before realising there is one and watching the many youtube videos dedicated to the lore). Having to find out and piece the story together with help of ingame mechanics such as item descriptions, the way character models or weapon models look and how you fight with them, or the way the world is structered or all the small details hidden in it.

    If you know of any other interesting games which do a great job at combining gameplay and narrative, please let me know. I really love those sort of games.

  11. Have you played Majora’s Mask? It, I think, takes the combination of narrative with gameplay pretty far, and doesn’t pale in comparison to most recent games in that regard even though it’s almost 15 years old.

    From the very beginning, you start as a glorious hero who’s just finished saving the world (in Ocarina of Time), and then you lose everything. The loss is both narrated and translated into gameplay with the awkward and helpless form you’re given.

    One of the core narrative devices in the game is the wide variety of masks that you can acquire, some of which transform you literally while others open doors and make people treat you very differently. Many of them also give you different gameplay abilities that tie into the narrative.

    With the Deku mask you’re treated as a child, with the other transformation masks as an adult and an actual person with an identity. Movement with the Deku mask is very awkward but the others make you feel really powerful. The Keaton mask serves as a secret signal that makes you an insider in certain circles and gets people to open up about very personal issues (as do many other masks, but with different people and at different times). Almost all of the masks are deeply tied into the storytelling, as tokens of relieving someone of their burden or regrets, letting them metaphorically or literally take off those masks.

    Then there’s the ocarina and all of its uses, the way that the three-day cycle affects everything from gameplay to narrative, events like defending the farm with Romani, etc…

    The game is, overall, a glaring exception in Nintendo’s output. I recommend trying it either with an emulator, or if you have a 3DS then there’s a port/remake coming out in spring 2015 with spruced up graphics and some gameplay improvements. If you play it, definitely try to finish all of the side quests in the Bomber’s Notebook that you get early on.

  12. Note: Bobduh, I’m speaking from a layman’s perspective since I have no credentials in videogames or narrative craft. Also, this response began as an argument against your post, but at some point it changed into a question, as I know little of what I am writing about. Correct me if I get anything very, very wrong. Please skip to the bottom if broken, stuffy high-school writing bores you.

    Perhaps videogames can display aspects of narrative, but as the industry develops, I have doubts as to whether games we see can function as “narrative” in the way we know it today. Games can tell stories, but maybe these stories won’t even be the stories we are familiar with.

    A game like Minecraft would be a good example. It lacks an overtly central narrative–heck, its biggest plot points can be virtually ignored the entire game. There are themes of a sort though, and a lot of those themes that come from minecraft are done in an extreme version of “show don’t tell” that isn’t really comparable to cinema or literature, to generalize all this. Sure, we as players do react to our experiences playing Minecraft, as we do with narrative. But, the same could be said for art. My question then, would be how Minecraft works as a narrative, or whether Minecraft can be considered a a narrative at all.

    I could get more into background about narrative as a whole, but part of narrative (correct me if I’m wrong) is that it’s rhetorical. The narrator tells a story to a passive audience. But videogame audiences aren’t passive, and this sort of clashes with my concept of narrative. I could say that videogames are simply an extension of a trend we’ve been seeing for a while–narratives that demand more of the viewer’s attention to understand. Or, maybe videogames are more like paintings–which is a great medium to be fair, but it has limitations in that it’s difficult to convey the passage of time in visual arts, which brings my other conception of narrative, that it happens over time.

    Now, videogames can convey this time aspect very well, but it is certainly not rhetorical. Folk tales are passive, books are passive, and movies too, even most forms of art–not most games, however. Games can work without narrative, as you yourself said bubduh.

    Not because narrative is bad. I’m not arguing against narrative in gaming at any rate. I’m responding in part because of how I perceived your post. I thought you were framing it as a narrative and gameplay conflict. You mentioned how separating the two from each other is counterproductive in looking at good games, and it started me on the fishshit you read me ranting on above. There’s much more to gaming than what was mentioned here (well duh!), and maybe this can be addressed more in Part 2. You could say that I’m concerned about the meta-aspect of gaming and how it fits in context of everything around it.

    But back to my burning question:
    Can we really see videogames in the same way we do books and movies? Are videogames forms of narrative? If not, then what might it be?

    • I might as well quote something you wrote in another thread:

      “Art will be moving closer to “lived experience” in a very strange way.”

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