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Storytelling in games & books
It's a matter of perspective
I used to write about games more than I do now. Most of my time is taken up with my own fiction and writing about writing, but I think I’ve always been a frustrated game designer at heart.
Several years back I gave a talk at Access Creative College about storytelling in games. This article is based on that talk, though I’ve significantly updated it because games design never stands still.
A couple of caveats: I’m not a game designer, much to my chagrin, so this is all coming from a player observation perspective. I’d love to hear from game devs about whether I’m talking nonsense.
Games are interactive!
It’s easy to think that interactivity is the key difference between games and literature. Video games are evidently ‘interactive’, in that the player can affect what happens to a greater or lesser degree. This is what makes them unique as a form. It’s an easy statement but in the context of stories misses the point that all forms of storytelling are interactive.
Storytelling is conversation
There’s no such thing as a one-way story. The moment a story is told, it is immediately interpreted by the audience and becomes something new. That’s true whether the story exists on the page, as an audiobook, on film, around a campfire or in a game. The life experiences and opinions of every reader, viewer, listener or player collide with those of the creator, in the process generating a new shard of the story with each telling.
Games excite me because they’re still figuring out their form, pushing at the boundaries and experimenting with the art and technology. Despite being several decades old, it’s still an immature medium in the best way possible, like cinema in the mid-20th century. There are many surprising and wonderful stories still to be told by movies, but the form and language of cinema has largely been explored, just as prose fiction did in an earlier time. They are ‘settled’ in terms of their fundamentals.
In other words, we know what movies and books are. But we’re still not entirely sure where video games start and end.
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There’s a shared thematic language between most mediums of storytelling. Games are no exception and you’ll frequently find the following genres and sub-genres:
These all exist in movies, books and comics, though they’re unusually prominent in gaming - and especially historically. Go back to the 90s and 2000s and you’ll be hard pressed to find games which aren’t in one of those core genres. It’s no coincidence that all of these genres are naturally action-focused — by which I don’t necessarily mean action sequences but more literally scenes in which you can take actions. They easily provide opportunities for players to have some form of agency.
The quest-heavy structure of traditional fantasy lends itself to player motivation and goals. Science fiction and cyberpunk makes it easy to introduce gadgets and unusual interfaces for the player to use. Action thrillers and war games have combat and the immediacy of interaction via weapons. Horror games benefit from a visceral level of immersion and fear, and are well suited to both combat and stealth.
Until relatively recently, there have been notable genre absences in games:
Romance: basically didn’t exist as a specific genre, though you would find ‘romance’ storylines within other games (role-playing games especially). This has changed in the last decade, in particular with the emergence of the visual novel.
Comedy: there have always been games containing humour, but overt comedies like you find in movies have been rare.
Crime: criminal activity shows up in a ton of games, but it’s surprisingly rare for it to exist in the same way as the crime genre in books or film.
Literary fiction: the least action-oriented of genres didn’t really exist in gaming until the arrival of Dear Esther in 2012.
All of these are huge genres in movies and literature, yet are exceedingly rare in gaming. Comedies are big business in movies. The crime fiction genre is immense in the book world. And romance powers most of the indie publishing scene. Yet in gaming they are almost entirely absent.
Comedy is hard in games, perhaps, because player agency is directly at odds with traditional concepts of comedy timing and structure. To clarify, while games are frequently funny, it’s very unusual to have a game whose primary intent is comedy — at least, not since the days of early 90s LucasArts. Even then, the comedy is usually told to the player, rather than created by the player.
The most surprising omission is crime. While criminal activities are a frequent occurrence in games such as GTA, it’s unusual to have games which could be thought of as specifically crime fiction. LA Noire was a notable experiment back in 2011, and Heavy Rain a year before; since then, we’ve had Her Story. There are occasional isolated attempts, then, but it remains a peculiar oversight, given that crime fiction would seem to offer all the action based storytelling needed by games.
I suspect the problem resides in finding ways to make the player feel like the detective: with story-heavy games being heavily authored, how can the player ever feel like they were the one to solve the crime, rather than simply walking the game designer’s pre-prepared route? That was Her Story’s genius, being entirely clue-based and leaving the analysis and conclusions entirely to the player.
Shadows of Doubt is an early access game currently experimenting with the detective story, using procedural generation to layer in the complexity required to make investigations feel real and organic. It feels like an area where AI might actually be interesting or useful too, if we can get past this current tech bros hype phase.
Literary fiction is always a tricky one, in that it’s notoriously difficult to define in the first place. For decades there was no real equivalent in gaming, until Dear Esther arrived on the scene in 2012. An elegiac wandering across and beneath a Hebridean island, the game resolutely refused to give the player any specific tasks or goals, other than proceeding through the vague narrative. Treated with suspicion by some traditional players, who declared it to not be a game, it spawned the wittily named ‘walking simulator’ genre. In truth, ‘walking simulators’ are gaming’s literary fiction: hard to classify, reluctant to explain itself, often obtuse, frequently fascinating and exquisitely composed.
Dear Esther launched a sub-genre of sorts, with fascinating projects such as Firewatch, What Remains of Edith Finch, Gone Home, Tacoma and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture exploring what can be done in games when you strip away combat.
The mechanics of genre
Once you can read one book, you can read any book. At least in terms of the raw mechanics of consuming, the act of reading a sequence of words remains the same across all book genres. Your capacity or willingness to understand and interpret will vary massively, of course.
Oh, and as an aside, turns out reading isn’t as simple as reading from left to right (or right to left depending on where you are), as the inimitableexplains here.
That’s not the case for games, which have a multitude of ways to transfer information to their audiences. Enjoying the story in a particular game does not mean you will be able to handle the game’s mechanics. Being accomplished at one game does not guarantee that you will be able competent at others.
Non-gamers might not be familiar with the idea that alongside the story genre there is also the mechanical genre. In other words, the stuff that you do in the game. Some examples:
First person shooter: you see through the eyes of your character, run around and shoot things. This entire type of game didn’t really exist until the advent of 3D in the mid-to-late 90s, which is a good example of form being driven by emerging technology.
Third person shooter: you see your character’s body and navigate them around.
Fighting games: inspired by wrestling, boxing and martial arts, these tend to be 1v1 fights presented in an arena.
Puzzler: focused around solving puzzles, which could mean pretty much anything with any style of interface. Often more ‘relaxed’ and not requiring fast reflexes.
Action adventure: typically an Indiana Jones-style, cinematic romp involving exploration, climbing and combat.
RPG: taking cues from Dungeons & Dragons, role-playing games tend to be long, deep and complex and emphasise player choice. There are many variants.
Interactive fiction: text-focused, so the closest to prose, but with a heavy emphasis on player choice and branching narratives.
Platformer: all about navigating an obstacle course, often in a side-on 2D presentation.
Racing: emphasising speed, and ranging from arcade to simulation.
Simulator: aims to recreate a convincing simulated version of something, such as a plane or a car or a truck.
That’s just a random selection. There are many more.
This is what I mean about gaming being a form that is still developing and in flux. Think of how cinema was revolutionised with the introduction of sound, and then of colour. While there have been many innovations since such as visual effects, better cameras suited to specific situations, new audio recording tech and so on, none have had the same seismic impact. Cinema looks broadly similar now to how it did in the 30s.
Books are even simpler. Ink on a page now is much the same as a century or two centuries back. The binding has improved, the paper quality is better, but it does the same core job. Even ebooks aim to recreate the same functions rather than adding something new to the reading experience.
Think back to those first three decades of cinema: that’s where games have been since the 80s. And they’re still in that early period of massive innovation. I mentioned above that the introduction of widespread 3D in the 90s led to the creation of entirely new game types. Virtual reality is the same. Motion controls. Large scale multiplayer. Even the core advances in computer power have opened up new types of game: simulations have more detail, for example. A game like Outer Wilds with its microcosmic solar system couldn’t have existed twenty years ago.
And so it goes. These mechanical approaches each require different skillsets from players, both in terms of navigation and interaction. This poses an interesting conundrum for designers: if a player is unable to successfully operate the viewpoint camera in a first person game, then it doesn’t matter how good your carefully crafted story is, as the player will never be able to access it.
Even the relaxed and low threat games like Dear Esther still require the player to navigate a 3D space in a first person perspective. That is inherently much harder both conceptually and practically than watching a movie or reading a book.
Choosing the mechanical genre with which to deliver a narrative is therefore critical. There have been cases of narrative games attempting to shoehorn themselves into inappropriate mechanical genres, forcing players to engage with unfamiliar or unwanted systems — Dreamfall’s failed attempt to integrate combat into its puzzle storytelling, or Grim Fandango’s ill-fated shifting of the traditionally 2D point-and-click adventure genre into a primitive 3D, third person viewpoint that only served to put barriers between the core player audience and the content.
If the creators of Dear Esther had chosen to tell the same story in the form of a third person, cover-based shooter, or as a tricky platformer set on a series of side-on Hebridean islands they would have encountered significant player dissonance. While there is always some crossover, much of the audience for a game like Dear Esther will not possess traditional gaming skills.
CD Projekt was known for making third person role playing games in the Witcher series, but for their 2020 game Cyberpunk 2077 made the deliberate decision to go first person. This remains a point of contention among players, but the developers didn’t make that choice lightly. Just as readers will sometimes prefer a particular narrative style or perspective, so do gamers.
Where this gets interesting is in the entitlement of some gamers to demand the designers change their decisions, or even to hand over control to the player. Games are unique in being technically able to offer players a choice of first person or third person viewpoints, but a game’s perspective is every bit as important as a novel’s. Authors do not idly choose their story’s perspective and neither do game designers. The notion of a book including a toggle switch, enabling readers to pick their preferred narrative point of view, would be considered disrespectful of the author’s intent (unless it was done for specific experimental reasons); the same goes for games, at least when story is concerned. This ‘toggle’ is, in fact, exactly what Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls games offer, such as in Skyrim.
The complication here is in that collision between mechanics and story. Giving a player (or reader) control over the narrative viewpoint makes little sense; but in the case of games, what happens if a player simply lacks the skill to engage with your chosen mechanics, or experience motion sickness when playing a first person game? They are immediately locked out of the entire story, in a way that doesn’t happen in literature. A book might be described as ‘hard work’ or ‘challenging’ or outside of a reader’s comfort zone, but the words are still words, one after another. A film keeps playing, scene after scene, regardless of the viewer’s level of comprehension: there’s no challenge to the technical act of encountering it.
Prioritising mechanical or thematic genre
The best games find ways to fuse mechanical and thematic genres, such that they enhance one another.
To return to CD Projekt, for their Witcher games they opted for a third person, hack-and-slash style approach. The Witcher games are based on novels by Andrzej Sapkowski and are told in the third person, from multiple points of view: primarily following monster hunter Geralt of Rivia or his ward, Ciri. By using the third person perspective, CD Projekt emphasise that Geralt is a defined character, with his own attitudes, past, morality and appearance; players can influence him, nudging him in particular directions, but at no point is he going to behave in a way that betrays the character’s roots. That slight distance also enables the story to shift to Ciri at key moments without breaking immersion.
Switching to what sounds to be a loose first person perspective for Cyberpunk 2077 was accompanied by a fundamental change to the player character, which can be created by the player and more heavily customised in appearance and behaviour. There’s still authorial intent in the story and player character’s dialogue, but the player is afforded far greater agency. The first person perspective provides a more intimate and personal way of telling the story, enabling players to inhabit a fresh, as yet undefined character.
This kind of customisation doesn’t have to be first person, of course. Bioware and Larian have long histories of third person games with emphasis on choice and designing your own character, taking heavy inspiration from Dungeons & Dragon - not least the recent and highly acclaimed Baldur’s Gate III.
Some of my favourite story-heavy games are the Mass Effect trilogy, an old school sci-fi-space-fantasy romp in which you very much make the character your own, while moving through a heavily scripted and branching storyline. The character you create in the first game carries through to the sequels, which lends them an unexpected resonance - much like seeing a favourite actor return to a role. I still half expect to see ‘my’ Commander Shepard show up in other games, playing other roles, like an actor moving on to a new project.
‘First person’ in games versus literature
In prose, be it fiction or non-fiction, a first person perspective is usually synonymous with certain characteristics:
Intimacy with the protagonist
Access to the inner thoughts of the narrator character
A story that is character-focused, rather than plot-focused
Deep insight into the narrator’s personality
A strong empathic connection with the reader
In games, a first person perspective means something very different.
Generally, it means this:
Intimacy in a first person game usually means getting close enough to something in order to shoot it in the face
Here’s a closer look at DOOM’s design, from an old video of mine:
DOOM aside, there’s no getting around the fact that another revered first person games, featuring an ‘iconic’ gaming character, spends exactly zero time exploring its protagonist’s inner thoughts.
I’m referring, of course, to Gordon Freeman, of Half Life fame. As a prototypical geek avatar — scientist, glasses, beard, male, unable to use a microwave, probably socially inept — he is presented as an entirely empty vessel, even to the extent of having no dialogue during scenes which would normally lend themselves to conversation. The intent was to enable players to fully ‘inhabit'’ the character as they played through the story, rather than being forced down a particular authored alley. The story is instead told through its supporting characters, resulting in a first person perspective with exclusively third person characterisation. Half Life and Half Life 2 use other narrative techniques, which we’ll get to in part 2 and which also relate to my post from last week:
Dear Esther, Firewatch and (especially) What Remains of Edith Finch are more traditional first person perspectives. They explore their protagonist narrators, in the process offering deliberately subjective and unreliable narrations. The player is abstractly piloting the narrator, but has no say over the story.
Structure and pacing
Game designers — and players — have unique hurdles which aren’t concerns for novel writers. Prose fiction tends to have a rigid structure, along these lines:
Defined duration: you know how long the book is because you’re holding it in your hands, or you can see the page count of your ebook
No progress gating: technically, you can’t get ‘stuck’ in a book (though you can, of course, encounter stories and writing styles which are challenging, or uninteresting)
Books end at the end: when you read the final page, the book is done
Chapter-based: these provide natural pause points
Carefully controlled pacing: this is defined entirely by the author (though reading speed is an influencing factor)
Fixed story: the words on the page will not change once they have been published, though they are of course open to divergent interpretations from readers
Only requires a single skill: if you can read one book, you can read any book
Games aren’t nearly as simple, introducing a myriad of complexities and uncertainties for storytellers:
Flexible duration: the same game could take 10 hours for one player to complete, 100 for another — some genres, such as RPGs, are especially susceptible to this flex
Gated progress: if a player lacks certain skills, or the difficulty curve has been poorly implemented, player progress in the story will halt in a way that is unlikely to be sympathetic to the beats of the story itself
Ends when victory conditions are met: these may or may not by in sync with the story’s natural conclusion
Level- or quest-based: games tend to have hundreds of micro-tasks, pulling the player’s attention in multiple, potentially conflicting directions
Non-linear and changeable: many games are not fixed, allowing the player to directly influence the path and pacing of the story
Requires multiple skills: being good at one type of game does not mean you will be good at all types of games
Optional content: this is genre-dependent, but games often have chunks of content and story that are hidden or optional to some degree, or which can’t all be experienced in a single playthrough
Why games writing is hard
Being an accomplished writer of comics, novels or scripts does not ensure success in the realm of games. Games are complicated for writers, who have to surrender much of what they take for granted in other mediums and throw out many of the established rules:
The player controls the pacing, not the writer
Individual player skill impacts on story intent
Mechanical busywork and incidental action will distract from the story’s critical path
It’s difficult to apply 3-act story structure to a 10–150+ hour experience
Games are made by massive teams, and your writing is not going to be the top priority
Is it even possible to tell a heroic story if the player is rubbish at playing your game? If Frodo was killed at the start of The Lord of the Rings because he didn’t know how to jump over a tree root and forgot which button to press to enter stealth mode, it’d be a very different experience. And even when players are good at playing games, they’ll still do everything they can to subvert and destroy tone, atmosphere and emotion, either deliberately or inadvertently.
How do you capture the Hero’s Journey, when the hero dies fifty times on the way to the finale, or simply can’t figure out how to defeat the villain, or deliberately stands on top of tables and balances buckets on the love interest’s head?
This is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of the challenges;
Probably not what Nintendo had in mind.
OR WAS IT?
Control and manipulation
Talking of journeys, the game Journeytakes an interesting approach. It offers a deliberately very restrictive set of player verbs, even in the context of its multiplayer interactions. Anonymous players who find themselves exploring the world together can communicate only via chirrups and whistles, while the light challenge of the game is all about movement, jumping and gliding.
The game’s fiction is matched directly to its mechanics, and even in multiplayer the atmosphere remains unbroken. The invasion of your single player story-based game by an anonymous player from somewhere else in the world would ordinarily spell disaster, but Journey’s verb set ensures that players can’t do anything which would disrupt its tone.
Whether this is clever design or overly prescriptive and cynical depends largely on your point of view. It conjures an engaging experience, but leaves little room for player expression or any kind of depth.
Spec Ops: The Line and Bioshock both attempted to comment directly on player agency back in the day, exploring how it intersects with authorial intent, neither of them quite following through on their points even while being interesting, fourth-wall-demolishing meta-narratives.
Do, don’t tell
The mantra of ‘show, don’t tell’ applies to all forms of storytelling, including games. In the context of games, though, it becomes about player agency and mechanical design. If a game’s story is being told only through cut-scenes, expository dialogue, on-screen text, then you can argue that it’s missing out— those are all storytelling techniques from other mediums, such as film, or literature.
Delivering a game’s story via player actions is what unlocks the true potential of the form — that’s why the DOOM remake’s efforts to align the protagonist’s character and the action mechanics are so successful, in that they support one another. The game has scary monsters, but through the actions available to the player and the presentation of the lead character it becomes clear that you shouldn’t be afraid of them: the monsters should be afraid of you.
It’s easy as a writer to look at the lack of narrative control, structural vagueness and player meddling as reasons to steer well clear of games writing, but that would be missing the vast rewards and exciting challenges available to writers who dare to give it a go.
Writers in other forms don’t generally get to deliver branching narratives and explore multiple versions and threads of the same story; they don’t get to engage with the audience as an active participant, rather than as a passive interpreter; even if all forms of storytelling are inherently an act of interpretation between creator and consumer, it’s only in games that the delivery of the work can be customised for each audience member.
There’s lot more to say - obviously - and it’s been interesting going back to this article which was originally written in 2018. Five years is a long time in games development. The games scene is even more exciting and interesting now than it was back then: more diverse in both content and creators, more daring in many ways, more self-aware.
If you found any of this interesting, I highly recommend followingand subscribing to . Mark’s video back catalogue is worth every minute of your time.
Given that this is already well over 4k words I think it’s time for me to stop typing. So, tell me: what’s your experience of games, and games storytelling? Are you a fan, or have you never played a single game in your life? Perhaps you’re a developer and have direct experience of working on projects?
See you down in the comments.
This, of course, has many benefits. A solid foundation to the form gives artists a stable platform on which to innovate and create - which is why new books and films can still be exciting to discover.
Even if that agency doesn’t go beyond ‘shoot a gun’.
These traditionally blokey genres also align with the male-focused and teenage nature of gaming in the early days. Players of games are much more diverse now (and have been for a while), as are designers.
This is assuming a base level of literacy to start with. Young kids, curiously, are able to navigate in Minecraft before they can competently read. Adults who have never played games, on the other hand, find the challenge reversed.
It’s telling that more recent entries into the puzzle adventure genre, such as Return to Monkey Island or Unavowed, have returned to a 2D perspective (even if they’re rendered in 3D). Just because you can render your game using fancy technology doesn’t mean that you should.
The first version of this article was published many years ago. I’ve updated it for this newsletter, with new examples, but this Journey bit still feels useful and relevant, even though it’s now an oooold games.
I’m a bit less prescriptive on this now than when I first wrote this paragraph: there are many amazing games that use all of these techniques in their storytelling. Whatever works, man!