Storytelling in Games

Table of Contents

Chapter 7


  1. The quick answer…
  2. The longer answer…
  3. Background
  4. Where we stand today
  5. One last example.
  6. Suggestions.
  7. Parting Shot.


The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see. – Winston Churchill


Trying to answer that question 20 years ago, I would have said ‘maybe.’  Now, with strong evidence from a lengthening history of interactive gaming, the answer is yes – as long as the game designer works to integrate storytelling theory with gameplay.



A game can never be a story in and of itself any more than a story can function as a game.  They each create two very unique and overprinted experiences.  One is passive; the other interactive.  One is where I root for the hero; the other is where I am the hero.  Like the division between comedy and tragedy, at its core the thing is either a story or a game – one or the other. The builder / designer / writer decides which, and then how much of the other to add.

Some games include several hours of cut-scenes, and it might be argued that these are really stories where the audience gets to work out a variety of scenes interactively.  At the other extreme, there are the massive multiplayer Internet games like World of Warcraft that never end, and for this reason pretty much ignore the structure of a story and mainly use story elements to create an engaging experience for the players.

If we are going to call something a game, then it is primarily an interactive experience. And if we are going to call something a story the primary experience will be to follow a line of events approximating the ups and downs of a storytelling structure.

A game therefore can tell a story as long as the basic story structure is embedded in some form ready to be discovered and followed in a way resembling storytelling all the way to a conclusion that proves the premise in a satisfying way.



There was a time when games did not tell us stories – or at least not in the way that I have been talking about in this series.  (In many games today, this is still true).  There are nonetheless vague story elements in Pac Man and even Pong.  As players of those games, we try to stay alive while we build up points.  We identify the adversary – the ghosts, or the other Pong player – but these early games are more about prolonging the experience, staying alive, and piling up points. And that is not much like a story at all.

Simulating real life bought us closer.  We could build places in Sim City and Sim Farm to see how they might work.  With Sim Copter we could play out emergencies.  And The Sims opened the door to interactions with other real people inside an imagined place.  Yet, simulated realism in and of itself is not a story – only a potential setting for a story – because it does not exist to prove a premise or establish the fundamental tension of a protagonist fighting for a central goal.  In fact, the whole point of The Sims is even less than that of Pac Man – to hang around with no real goal at all.

Early first person shooter games like Quake and Doom revealed goals and were populated with adversaries carrying guns who want to kill the player-character.  Some backstory was also present – though a bit hard to swallow – and the player gets to fight for goals, even if the reasons aren’t very deep.  Like the rising tension of a story the player face increasing difficulties.  But unlike a good story, we have little sense for why the characters are here and what the really want and why.  At the conclusion of these early RPGs, I felt more relieved than satisfied.



In the 21st Century, incarnations of Half Life, Halo, Doom, and a host of other third generation games brought a deeper backstory and level of complexity that draws players into these places.  The main characters have a plausible problem they must solve.  The places themselves speak about the nature of the troubles they face – whether confined to a reeking space colony, a crumbling city, or a strange world that defies description.  The main characters are more normal in their abilities and their goals are more about pursuing something personally meaningful, rather than simply winning points.

We have clearly reached a place where it is possible to make a game whose structure carries the player through a nonlinear experience interactively while revealing an embedded story more or less the way it might be felt in a nonlinear book or movie.  Yet, just because storytelling in games is now possible, it does not mean that every game is telling story – only that it can be done.

For example, I enjoy Solitaire purely as game and don’t expect to see a fully developed storyline with richly defined three-dimension characters.  Likewise, World of Warcraft is not trying terribly hard to tell a story – even though I see a ton of backstory and a fair number of story elements included.  The designers of WoW are focused on the never-ending multiplayer experience, not resolution.  Players of computerized golf gamed are recreating the sense of a real golf course.  Sending a hedgehog into orbit with a bungee cord has the pretext of a story, but it’s just a quick little Flash game.

In the end, no matter how a game is imbued with storytelling elements – it is still a game.   That can never change.  Yet, unlike a generation ago, we have the resources and experience to create a story-like experience if we want this to happen.

So, to repeat my short answer… a great story can be told in a game as long as the game designers decide to do this and work to align gameplay with a classical storytelling structures.



I’ve only answered part of the question.  Indeed stories can be told inside a game.  Yet, I really want to know if the audience will ever see that an embedded story id actually happening, that this is being experienced and felt at least as deeply as a great movie or novel.  It is one thing to build a story into a game.  It is quite another to ask I anyone is noticing.

Is this something that can happen from a player’s perspective?

I only had to see this once to be convinced…

At the heart of Thief: Deadly Shadows (TDS) the player-character is stripped of all workable power and must rely on wits alone to navigate the evil insane asylum known as Shoalsgate Cradle.  No horror movie I’ve ever experienced has instilled as much raw terror or induced such a complete storytelling immersion experience as ‘the Cradle’ because here I am as the player-character stuck in this place buried layers deep, and until I figure out the story, I can’t leave.

That is when I finally saw just how much storytelling can weave with gameplay to produce something that is greater than the sum of the two.  In the end, I remember mostly what the place was all about far more than the steps I took to escape.

The rest of TDS isn’t so great, and from this I also realize that storytelling in games isn’t going to happen automatically and this will require a deliberate effort.  But for now, if there is any doubt this far into the 21st Century as to whether or not great storytelling is possible inside a game – then buy a copy of TDS and work your way through the Cradle.

It will be an experience that you will never forget.


  • Instead of telling one linear story, build several multithreaded storylines that tell the same story from several perspectives – sort of like a Rashomon structure. While the player moves through the game, the story will be told no matter where the player spends his/her time.  The player will experience the story in a unique way, but the structure will remain consistent with storytelling theory.
  • Realize how a game is still a game, and that it needs to remain a game even after a story has been built into it. Just like how a drama can be ruined if too much comedy is injected, a game will still need to retain strong gaming elements so that it’s not overwhelmed by the story content.  Players want to play, and our goal is to have the story sneak up on them, not overtake the gameplay.
  • Give names to everyone in the place and create a backstory for them. These people (including humanoid aliens) may never get to tell their own stories in detail, but as a game builder, you will begin to see them as deeper characters and as a result you can have them behave accordingly when they do show up.
  • Give everyone in the story a good reason for being there. In the past, non-player characters were mostly slaves or soldiers who were there without much of a choice.  But it is much better if characters have their dreams and hopes, like pirates scheming for their share of the booty rather than pirates simply programmed to attach the player-character.
  • Create obstacles that are consistent with the characters and maintain a fundamental conflict between protagonist and antagonist. If you want this to feel more like a story, there can be no random exploding frogs and mind-numbing side-quests simply to level up.  Have the antagonists and their forces resist the player and fight based on who they are and what they think and believe and want.
  • Give the player the role of the protagonist complete with a richly understood backstory. Let him have a girlfriend, a rundown flat, money problems, a complex family history, and other realistic distractions. Don’t just pluck your hero off the street or from some asteroid mining colony with no memory of who he is or how he got here.
  • Make everything that can happen tie into the story. Perhaps the ship is falling apart because the antagonist is a cheap bastard – rather than simply because the game designer thought it would be cool.  Reeeeaaallly cool elements fit into the story, and they are not merely plopped at our feet.
  • Let the main character take a hit that produces a chronic disability. In order to fit the temperature of a storyline, the roleplayed protagonist must experience significant setbacks for legitimate reasons.  A constant disability is a great way to help make this happen.
  • Avoid pre-programmed rewards.  In fact, as much as possible, let the player’s own playing experience and growing ability as a game-player act as the leveling mechanism, rather than simply adding hit points and upping the damage-per-second rate at the end of each level. The most satisfying rewards are derived from person skill – not as an automatic upgrade.
  • As the game progresses, computer-controlled non-player characters (NPCs) must become much more intelligent based on the actions of the player-character and the events of the game – not simply based on an automatic upgrade. I know this is one of the hardest parts in game design.  Yet, nothing about the story can hold much water if the player is the only one in the game who is actually growing based on encounters with adversaries and events in the game.  If you want to build a game full of unpredictable adversaries, check out what is being written on the topic of genetic algorithms.



If you are a storyteller and if you are committed to the storytelling experience in your game designs – this will happen if you work to follow the rule of storytelling.  How well it works out, and whether or not you are satisfied with these results, will depend more on your ability and willingness work at making improvement than anything more I can write in this book.

Enjoy every minute of the process!



Table of Contents

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: