Twice-told Tales in Gaming

Successful storytelling is difficult to pull off in videogames because — unlike movies, TV, and books — most games actually have two separate stories: the story being told to the player by the game’s writers and the story the player is creating through gameplay.

Sometimes, gameplay trumps plot. Sometimes, plot trumps gameplay. Sometimes, both stories are excellent, but largely separate. And, once in a while, a developer gets it right and realizes that maybe there shouldn’t be two stories at all.

Gameplay Story Quality > Game Writers’ Story Quality

From what I can remember about the PS2 Strategy-RPG Gladius, the game’s plot is about a young barbarian girl and an aristocratic soldier teaming up to fight an evil that threatens the world. It’s been a few years since I played, and I’m fuzzy on the details of the characters and the great evil. The plot, as written, just didn’t stick with me.

When I think about the game, I think of a different story — one I remember clearly. There was one battle in which I was down to the last hit points of my last character, a weak, javelin-throwing guy named Daryn. Through some unorthodox strategy and a heap of luck, Daryn single-handedly defeated a horde of faster, stronger attackers. When I won that battle, I shouted, fist-pumped, and high-fived Kathy (all of which we also did instead of exchanging vows at our wedding).

Daryn’s story wasn’t written by the designers of Gladius. It was all a result of gameplay. Yet this battle had a greater impact on me than anything scripted for the game. The plot, as it often is in games, was just connective tissue between battles, there to give a feeling of narrative progression.

Gameplay Story Quality < Game Writers’ Story Quality

By contrast, there are games like those in the Xenosaga series, which are loaded with story. The gameplay, however, often seems like little more than a device for killing time between the cutscenes. I loved the Xenosaga games, but I hardly felt like an essential participant in what was happening. In fact, I was as happy watching Kathy play as I was playing it myself.

Gameplay Story Quality = Game Writers’ Story Quality

And then there are games like those in the Uncharted and the Final Fantasy series, which have plenty of story to tell and oodles of gameplay, though the two don’t always mesh. I enjoyed the political intrigue in Final Fantasy XII’s cutscenes, but the politics were often a distant abstraction for the characters I was playing — and had nothing to to do with most of the game’s countless battles with random monsters. Uncharted’s cutscenes were hilarious, and its gunfights were exciting. But the humor rarely bled into the gameplay, and the action wasn’t as stirring during the movie sequences, because I wasn’t controlling it.

The Gameplay Story Is the Story

I love all the above games: those with great gameplay and little story, those with lots of story and average gameplay, and those that are strong in both categories.

But the best console game I’ve played has only one story. In Shadow of the Colossus, the story is the gameplay — except for bit of narrative framing at the beginning and end (and one mean trick the game plays on you before the final battle). The story is about a character who travels around and fights giant creatures in an otherwise empty land, and that’s what you, as the player, do.

When talking about Shadow of the Colossus, I don’t say things like, “And then Cloud fought Sephiroth.” I say something like, “And then I jumped onto the colossus…”

This sense of it being me starring in SotC is exemplified by the mechanics of riding the game’s horse, Agro. I’ve heard many players complain that Agro was a bitch to control. And it’s true. He doesn’t always move exactly how you want, when you want.

He’s not supposed to.

In most games, when a character rides a horse or steers a vehicle, the player controls the vehicle directly. At this point, you are no longer playing as the game’s main character. You are (temporarily) playing as the vehicle, itself.

In Shadow of the Colossus, you are always playing the main character, even when riding your horse. The reason Agro is slow and erratic in his responses is because you are not controlling the horse. You are controlling a character who is trying to control his horse. You can spur him on and tug the reins left or right, but Agro’s responses are — like a real horse’s — not always immediate or completely predictable.

In the 1980s, Electronic Arts ran an ad asking, “Can a computer make you cry?” My old boss at EA, Neil Young, has spent most of his career trying to create games that do just that. And even Steven Spielberg is trying to prove himself up to the challenge.

But Spielberg will have fight the moviemaker’s urge to tell his story to the audience/players. There’s a strong temptation to make the emotional gaming moments things that are acted upon the characters — or things that the characters do in cutscenes, without player interaction. In Shadow of the Colossus, the emotional hooks come from the actions the players take.

For the most effective storytelling in games, the player shouldn’t be told the story. The player needs to be the story. It’s a simple concept, but too few games trust their game design (and their audience) enough to attempt it.

Postscript: Here’s an easy test to see if any game you’re playing (or making) tells one story or two. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is this game about?
  • What do I do in the game?

If the answers aren’t the same, then the game has two stories.

For a brief, in-browser example of an emotionally effective game whose story matches its gameplay, try ImmorTall.


2 thoughts on “Twice-told Tales in Gaming

    1. It’s great, isn’t it? It’s [spoiler] an inversion of the usual tactic game devs use when trying to tug at the heartstrings: having one of your character’s companions make a noble sacrifice to help you. That’s telling the story _to_ the player.

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