What Makes a Strong Game Narrative?
The main goal of this paper is to look at what makes a strong game narrative so difficult to achieve for large game developers. To fully cover this topic, we will first examine the main two techniques used to relay the narrative information to the player. We will then examine what techniques make a strong narrative, then what weakens a finished narrative. Afterward, we will look at what obstacles game designers face in the creation of a strong game narrative.
The industry of game design is one that has flourished since its creation, helping to drive this technology and medium to new heights with each passing year, and with this technology has come an unexplored facet of writing and storytelling. While the nuances of telling a story have been fully explored in media like books and movies, the introduction of interactivity that video games have brought with them is still largely unmapped by both the writers and developers.
In the early age of video games, the inexperience of game writers wasn’t important or even noticeable, as in many cases the story was not the main focus of a game. Console developed titles such as Mario and Sonic were extremely successful because of their innovative game mechanics and graphics while early PC games like Zork and Ultima used a storytelling style that drew a number of cues from the writing used in books. However, as time has gone on and the graphical capabilities of both the personal computer and the console have improved in leaps and bounds, the stories for the modern video game have started to receive greater scrutiny from their audience and have regularly been unable to stand up to that scrutiny. In some cases, this can lead to the game’s failure. While that may not be the only reason for a game’s failure, for the purposes of this paper, it will be our main focus.
What is Narrative:
Before examining why a game’s narrative has failed, We must first establish the definition. So, what is narrative? According to the Webster’s dictionary, narrative means a story that is written or told. For the game development community, narrative means all of the elements that come together to make a coherent story. These elements can include the art and music styles chosen for the game, the game mechanic, the linearity of the game, and the writing for both dialogue and in-game lore. By breaking down the various aspects of a narrative by how they relay information, we can examine the differences between implicit and explicit narrative techniques.
An implicit narrative is something that is suggested to the player by the providing of information through the art direction and style, the environmental storytelling of the levels the player goes through, and the game mechanics (Jenkens, 2004). An implicit narrative can inform the player of a character’s motivations and emotions using a character’s animated body language and appearance. Ideally, these elements would work together to explain the game setting and story without a word of written or expository dialogue while building the appropriate atmosphere for the player.
Examples of this kind of narrative technique can be found in many different games and used in many different ways. One way is through environmental storytelling which focuses on the space and environment the story takes place in. Henry Jenkens, in his paper “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” quoted Don Carso, a senior show designer for Walt Disney Imagineering, saying “The story element is infused into the physical space a guest walks or rides through. It is the physical space that does much of the work of conveying the story the designers are trying to tell... Armed only with their own knowledge of the world, and those visions collected from movies and books, the audience is ripe to be dropped into your adventure. The trick is to play on those memories and expectations to heighten the thrill of venturing into your created universe” (Jenkens, 2004).
The original Thief series used its level designs to show the character and status of the person you were robbing, as well as showing the city’s everyday mixture of the mechanical and the medieval. The Thief guard models helped reinforce this juxtaposition by being outfitted in chainmail, and tabards as they patrolled through rooms with mechanical doors and electric lights. Another example can be found in the way the art style, music, and level design of Bioshock shows the fall of Rapture without using an exposition cutscene just by letting the player explore its halls and draw their own conclusions. Another example of implicit narrative, is how the monster designs of the Silent Hill series act as clues to the kind of person the player character is, while the clunky frantic feel of the combat mechanics emphasize the character’s background as a normal, everyday civilian in over their head as the soundtrack builds tension in the player.
The explicit narrative, also called exposition, is much more straightforward, relying on the written word and dialogue to inform the player about how their character views the world and how the game world views itself, its history, and the beings that dwell within the game world. It can also provide information about what the player should do next.
Ideally, this technique should help inform the player about multiple topics at once to keep the lack of gameplay or control over the protagonist from boring the player. It should tell the player about the personality of the character relaying the information, it should give the player the knowledge necessary to learn about the game world, and to finish their task, all while using the least amount of words possible to do so. Some examples of this technique done well would be the audio diaries in Bioshock and the dialogue in the opening of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, as well as the comments from both the player and non-player characters (NPC) in the Thief series. Some games use in-game optional encyclopedias, like Mass Effect’s codex, to act as exposition dumps for players who want every detail about a race they just encountered and don’t mind reading through the information. For older role-playing games (RPGs), like Planescape: Torment or independently published games, like Shadowrun Returns or Thomas was Alone, this technique is used to a much greater extent since the player’s viewpoint is either set far above the game world or the art style makes it impossible for the player to draw any conclusions from an NPC’s body language. In those games, the explicit narrative includes details such as what the player-controlled character is smelling or hearing, the feelings the environment evokes, and what they think of the NPC they are talking to and interacting with.
A Strong Narrative:
Now, what makes a successful narrative? Successful, in this case, doesn’t refer to how well a game sold copies, as there are a number of games that have sold millions of discs and digital editions but have a weak narrative. Such games owe their success to the strength of their game mechanics and their massive fan bases. Instead, we will look at games who are best known for the stories they have told and how those stories were told.
One important step is understanding the main theme of your game, and how you want to communicate it. Having this decision as the basis for your game idea will give the development team a starting point in the creative process and allow an early understanding of what game genre might be the best fit for the theme. The second important step is to have a game writer on the concept team from the beginning. This will allow the game’s story to grow and change with each introduction and change of art style and game mechanics. It will also allow the writer to start planning the possibilities of the world building and help them in shaping the story so that it becomes a part of the game instead of a reason for the gameplay. Using the art style, mechanics, and writing together as a seamless whole will create a more solid experience for the players. The best examples of this strategy can be found in the older games like Planescape: Torment, Thief, and Deus Ex, or in the more modern independent games like Bastion, perhaps because the smaller development team allowed for a more rapid exchange of ideas and information.
Another way to strengthen a game’s narrative is by anticipating the expectations of the audience in the targeted genre, both so you can cater to their gameplay desires, and subvert or avert their expectations when needed. An example of a subverted expectation can be found in Bioshock. For the First Person Shooter (FPS), it is a normality in the genre to receive orders and instructions from a radio and to avenge a dead family, even when said family is not that of the player character, so players were quite unprepared for the visceral sequence of event that leads to the plot twist, revealing that the man your character had been working with had programmed the character to be controlled with a trigger word and had been manipulating the player for the entire game. Those moments were very memorable, remaining long after the player had finished the game.
A third technique for strengthening a narrative is creating solid characters who are well defined and well rounded, with motivations and personalities of their own. This strengthens both the player’s immersion and their investment in the narrative structure, helping them gloss over any minor flaws a game might have because they care for and are invested in the life of their favorite character (Crawford, 2013). Bioware has done an excellent job over the years, most recently with their Mass Effect and Dragon Age series, creating complex and interesting characters that fans adore and remember long after they finish their game. These characters live on in the art and fiction these fans create, spreading the word of Bioware’s games far beyond any marketing efforts they could create.
A Weak Narrative:
The question asked here is not, what is a weak narrative, but what weakens a narrative? While a strong narrative will make a game memorable and beloved, setting it above its counterparts in the minds of its fans, a weak narrative will not doom a game. It will still sell titles to the fans of the genre and may even make a small profit depending on how many gamers are supporters of its series, but the game will never become a classic. Instead, it will fade from the minds of the gaming community and history, joining the forgotten games of the past in the dustbins of history, while its narratively strong contemporaries will continue to be bought and played for generations. People remember games like Thief, Planescape: Torment, and NES’s Shadowrun despite them being up to thirty years old. We still play them, even when our hardware needs emulators or to be re-formatted to do so. A narratively weak game may be fun for a while, but they tend to only make money in the short term. Knowing this, we can focus on what weakens the narrative of a game? What factors break the player’s immersion, or distract from the game?
One of the first stumbling blocks seems to come when a development team starts designing a game without a clear idea of the main core of their game. Games made without a clear vision or those that suffer through a difficult development end up unfocused in both their story and game mechanics, which weakens their narrative. It is difficult to create the seamless blend of artwork, music, game mechanics and story that is vital to a strong narrative when those aspects are being ripped apart or scraped just as the game is about to be released. Examples of this include Duke Nukem Forever, a game criticized for being “... a collection of ideas, features, and mini-games were devised with no clear overarching objective in mind.” as Alac Meer said in his review for the gaming site, Rock Paper Shotgun. Or 2014’s Thief reboot, whose terrible dialogue and sound design would shatter a player’s immersion as they heard five guards repeat the same dialogue line, layered over each other, from the other side of the map.
Another problem comes when a game functions poorly on a mechanics level. This can be detrimental to a game in many ways. If the game is the first developed by a company it will taint the company's reputation, making potential customers wary of trusting it with their money. Games that do not perform well will not sell as well either, even if its story is well written. Instead, once the reviews have been posted, people will either wait until the game’s price has been reduced or not buy that game at all. Even worse is the possibility that, depending on the severity of the mechanic’s flaws, the poor functionality of the mechanics will kill the immersion that the team is trying to achieve and the narrative needs. Sticky controls, an uncooperative camera, or game breaking bugs will distract a player from the implicit narrative and break their suspension of disbelief, or in cases like Aliens: Colonial Marines, render a game unplayable. A wonderful story idea will mean nothing if the underlying mechanics driving the game are broken.
It is also important to communicate the game information clearly to a player. This is the case with both mechanics information or vital plot information. Leaving out information of the game mechanics will have the same resulting confusion and frustration as a broken game while muddled relaying of vital plot information will cause the player to become lost. They will find themselves at the end of the game, uninvested and perplexed by the ending since they are still trying to figure out, for example, who the main antagonist is and why he is the antagonist.
Another issue can arise is with a game’s characters. A game that lacks well rounded and interesting characters will, at best, be remembered for its other fine qualities while it’s characters fade from the player's memories, like with Skyrim, where the environmental storytelling of its various dungeons are better remembered than the inhabitants of its villages. If a game is relying on its characters to forward the plot or motivate the player, those bland or single-dimensional characters will cause the player to quit the game out of boredom and apathy (Green, 2004). At worst, if those characters are irritating, or badly programmed like in Amy, the player might become enraged with the game and it’s setting, ranting about their dislike to their friends.
Obstacles facing the creation of a strong game narrative:
One of the primary obstacles is due to the fact that the average writers lack any experience in developing the narrative for an interactive media. This problem was exacerbated by the industry's past tendency to hire writers with experience in comics, books, or movie scripts instead of writers with experience in game creation and then only bringing the writer onto the development team once the groundwork of art style and game mechanics have been already laid out (Crawford, 2013). This is particularly obvious in older FPS games like the Triple-A titles Bulletstorm and Kane and Lynch: Dog Days. This tacked-on feel of the game’s story and plot has become less noticeable as the FPS genre moved away from the use of in-game cutscene as exposition, started to use environmental storytelling more often, and, in cases like Spec Ops: The Line, focused on creating narratives that involve questions of philosophy and complex characters.
Another challenge of a development team and it’s writer are the differing narrative techniques that affect where their game will fall on the sliding scales of movie-like to book-like games, and fully linear to sandbox levels of player freedom.
A game that fits into the category of book-influenced gameplay relies more on text and narrative to communicate the story which can be more cost-effective for smaller developers, since they will not require voice acting and fully animated 3D models, and easier to build or code due to the control the writer has over the events and pacing of the narrative. While these games lend themselves to a much more structured story narrative, such games will require just as much finesse as a well-written book to keep the player invested in the game they are being led through. Well-written characters are needed, a well-timed pace of exposition, along with tight mechanics, are essential in this, with quality artwork being highly appreciated. Repetitive or dull environments and gameplay will leave the players feeling constrained by the game while a poorly written story or irritating and flat characters will remove any investment the player should have in the game’s conclusion (Green, 2004).
Such games can vary in terms of linearity depending on the genre. An aged RPG game, like Ultima, will give the player a very open world experience while describing its world and setting with text. A real-time strategy (RTS) game, like Command and Conquer, tends to allow for a great deal of personal freedom on the battleground, but will only have one of two results at the end of the level, depending on if the player won the fight. On the extreme end of such a spectrum are genres that have completely linear, with only one path and a set of actions available, though that does n’t necessarily detract from the sales. These games, known as the hidden object and adventure genres, remain successful because their audiences care more about the quality of the game's story and writing than they do about exciting game mechanics or choice.
A movie-like game refers to games that rely more on implicit and environmental narrative to communicate its story. These games all use a first or third person camera views and immerse us in fully propped 3D environments. Instead of hovering over a battlefield, directing troops from afar, the character and camera are in the thick of the fight. The player looks the NPC’s in the eyes and learns about their world by observing it. Because movie-like games need to both immerse the player in the setting and use as little explicit narrative as possible, the game finds itself needing to recreate aspects of the real world to increase a player’s immersion. This is usually done by using voice actors to bring life to the dialogue spoken in-game, by animating the body language of non-player characters, implementing a basic system of morality to enforce the social mores that players would be expected to adhere to in real life and use particle effects to simulate weather. Such movie-like games may incorporate explicit narrative, but use it in ways that try to add to the background history and lore of the game, such as creating a book for the player to find, or as an interactive cutscene, rather than describing what a character might be feeling emotionally or sensually because the player should be able to draw conclusions from their own observations. Some examples of these games would be Fallout 3, Far Cry 3, the Deus Ex series, Portal, Mass Effect, the Call of Duty series, and Half Life 2.
As with book-like games, a movie-like game can also vary in how much linearity they contain. Some movie-like games, such as Call of Duty, Portal, American Mcgee’s Alice and Spec Ops: The Line use a mixture of player freedom in combat as the player guides their character through pre-determined settings that show the setting and provide details of the linear story that is being told, in a similar fashion to the Command and Conquer example above.
On the other end of the spectrum, the movie-like genre of the open world gives the player almost complete freedom, making the traditionally structured story almost impossible to tell. This problem is usually solved putting an effort into creating a world that functions and exists independently of the player character to account for that freedom. The sandbox genre, such as Bethesda’s Fallout 3 and the Saint’s Row series, are examples of this method. These games use the world building of the development team, or the game’s source material, in crafting complex histories, cultures, and characters to increase the intricacy of the game world and to provide the meat of the game’s plot for the player to discover (Crawford, 2013). This technique of world building is often used in the planning of a book, where the author reveals the needed information to their reader in tiny portions and sprinkled throughout the written story. An open world game, instead, uses the environment’s implicit narrative and more overt information found from the comments of party members, as fits their characters, to inform the player about the world (Crawford, 2013).
Most difficult of all, however, is the understanding of what each game genre’s audience wants in the game narrative. The players of the racing or sports simulation genres are unlikely to care about the plot used in the game. These player’s main goal is the gameplay, to race cars or to win various sports games and the narrative complexities or ludicrous elements that would go unremarked in an RPG, adventure, or other story-driven game might be unwanted in this kind of genre. An example would be Driver: San Francisco, where the story of a man in a dream and astral projecting himself to take control of any driver in his city, would have been applauded for its originality by the audiences of the adventure or RPG/action genres, who generally prefer story to the intricacies of car simulation. However, the audience of the driving simulators found the story ludicrous as it was a huge departure from the style of the storylines in previous titles and were much more concerned with the quality of the game’s driving mechanics.
The creation of a solid narrative in a game is a challenging one, made worse by the development habits of the triple-a industry and the lack of solid techniques discovered for this medium. However, the number of games that have created solid narratives proves that is isn’t an impossible task. The writers of games learn more every day and the success of the independent developers has pushed the triple-a developers to increase the quality of their own games. With the desire to create complex stories and the willingness of teams to care about the details of their game worlds and characters, more games will are sure to reach for that elusive perfection that is a strong narrative.
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