It's a matter of perspective
Video game writing is incredibly underappreciated, seeing as it's probably only been seen as a serious artform in the past few years ... despite having been engaging and cutting edge in storytelling and fiction for decades and decades now. Really appreciate this breakdown of all the varying aspects and works that personify it.
When talking about detective/crime fiction, I have to bring up Paradise Killer. While most murder mystery games are highly linear, Paradise Killer has you wander around the setting to find the clues and talk to suspects yourself to solve the mystery. You can start the trial at any time, so you need to decide when you think you have enough.
While other games like Ace Attorney or Danganronpa make their protagonist as clueless as the player, Paradise Killer's protagonist, Lady Love Dies, is as smart as the player. She'll make the obvious connection between two dots, while Danganronpa pauses the narrative to quiz the player on how many sides an octagon has.
Overboard! might also fit the definition of crime game maybe, it's a reverse murder mystery where the point is to get away with murder. It's a very simple game mechanically, just clicking on options, the difficulty is learning what you need to do across many short playthroughs. Not really sure about the definition of crime as a narrative genre.
With my own pseudo fighting game story serial, one thing I like is being able to invoke some of the gaming exclusive narrative tools. The notion of the character you pick becoming the main character is central to it. And I can make random NPCs give some exposition so that it's out of story scenes, plus extra content in profiles or win quotes. On the other hand, my prologue had to work as a starting point for each character, so that was especially difficult.
Fighting games are especially underexplored in terms of narrative if you ask me, for a while they niched down too hard into appealing to competitive players. Thankfully the big developers seem to be making an effort at narrative in fighting games again.
Another area I find interesting in terms of gaming and narrative are gacha games, which are defined by their payment system, where you need to gamble to get characters. In games like Pokémon Masters and the sadly out of service Dragalia Lost, each character comes with a short story for players to experience, and there are various limited time events with their own stories to explore different characters. Makes me wonder how to transfer the interesting story aspects to a game with a more stable set up.
I think games might be the best medium for ecological worldbuilding. The Pokédex in Pokémon and Piklopedia in Pikmin are two obvious examples. You get to interact with something directly before reading the details on it. Which also double for expanding on some plot points or characters. One of the final bosses in a Pokémon game gains a lot of nuance when you look at what the Pokédex says about their team and what evolution methods they require.
Games also lend themselves well to projecting narrative onto them. My family, and I've seen other people mention doing this, basically used Super Smash Bros like toys to tell stories. For some reason we made Peach the main villain. Some games are practically designed to encourage players to imagine their own narrative on top of them.
Want to keep talking but I'll make my last point. I think there's a sliding scale of length vs narrative variability. The longer a game is, the harder it is to make the story flexible for player actions. That's why Mass Effect choices never change the overall narrative structure, while a short game like Stories: Path of Destinies can make the plot go off in completely different directions (but still using the same set of stages). Mass Effect is a trilogy of full length games, a single playthrough of Stories goes by fast.
When I made a visual novel for a game jam I wanted to give it four distinct story paths. But the need to make the whole game in two weeks meant that after the branch point there was basically no input of any kind from the player, except for the last one where I put in a meaningless but funny dialogue choice. It's effectively four stories in one, and I did not have time for anything more.
I'll have to revisit this article again later - too much to think about, and I only got four hours of sleep last night, so, while there are a lot of half-formed thoughts starting to rattle around, I'm not quite capable at the moment of nuanced discussion.
My main coherent thought is, other than a brief mention of Minecraft, I'm a bit surprised you didn't do more discussion on the sandbox game, where a player is given a set of mechanics, a bit of background, and set free to make their own choices and narratives. Besides Minecraft, other good examples would be Elite, Sid Meyer's Pirates, and No Man's Sky. As I know you've delved deeply into No Man's Sky, I'm truly surprised that one didn't name check as a sandbox. GTA 3+ and the Playstation 2 Spider-Man 2 game are examples of games with core narratives where one can play the game for hundreds of hours as a pure sandbox... Then again, there are GTA games where you can spend dozens of hours of real-time merely watching the game's television programs...
(There has to be a special kind of hell for a writer creating dozens of hours of scripted in-game content 99.9% of players will never pay the slightest bit of attention to, but help explain why the game cost $100 million, or more, to create back in 2008. There's also a special hell for the writer who has to create a 90 minute cinematic which plays after the conclusion of the game, and its credit roll. Yeah, I'm looking at the Metal Gear Solid franchise. "Big Boss" actor Richard Doyle was nonplussed and bemused when I told him where that ridiculous movie-length cutscene was placed.)
Good sandboxes became my favorite type of game, since I, the player, had agency to set my own goals - thus, my own story. Like Elite, where I had multiple saves and which one I'd progress in that day depended on if piracy, mining, trading, or government contracts sounded more fun at the time. Or that run of Sid Meyer's Pirates where I decided to go full Imperialist Conquerer and take over the entire map for Brittania - notable because the "game narrative" wanted me to capture a Spanish galleon, but, having wiped the Spanish off the map there was only one Spanish ship left in the game! The one galleon which entered from off the map once a game year. I never bothered to track it down. I was busy devastating the Dutch. Good times.
Ok, I was able to cogently discuss the sandbox, but there's more to say later. God help you with my long comments!
I grew up on RPGs and so story and character, with player agency, are a core part of my love for games. I care less for fps genres and more for mental stimulation through story, character, exploration and puzzle (thought often not all at once 😅). I love having witness these medium evolve and push boundaries. It's only getting more and more impressive.
Great thoughts and summary in the article, Simon 👌
Love this deep dive! I have always been fascinated with and extremely curious about the process of game development. How do you write a video game? What is the process from idea to completion? Can’t wait to learn more!
I really appreciate your attention to the barriers to entry. I played side-scrollers in the arcade and loved them, but I was never good at them. I would sometimes watch over the masters' shoulders, as they beat Shinobi on a single quarter, or those beautiful laserdisc games like Dragon's Lair. It's like being literate, but barely literate.
I played that silly point and click Avengers Alliance game on Facebook for years. I could probably put in a thousand hours and become good at a first-person shooter or a MMORPG, but that's a thousand hours.
There was a brief moment when publishers played around with enhanced ebooks so try and take advantage of the new medium and creating something different. Suffice it to say, that did not stick. I still don’t think they’re stick in a traditional ebook. But now you have apps like Chapters that basically create a comic book out of the book that you can interact with. Or games like Switchcraft that are puzzle games, but when you complete those puzzles, you earn things to unlock the next chapter in the game.
I never got into gaming, especially once it started going 3D. I had my Nintendo, but stopped there. I tried getting into Assassin’s Creed, but the learning curve is so great for me, I just don’t want to do it. There are other things I want to do with my limited time.
Excellent points. My high water mark in video game storytelling has been Red Dead Redemption 2. But even that game suffers from the challenges you mentioned. Namely that the main character’s arc is less satisfying unless you play a specific way -- behave like a bastard for the first half of the game, and later repent.
If you try to be honorable for the whole game, it comes off as weird when the game stars throwing guilt trips at you.
The game makes an effort to address this, by forcing you to stare down the consequences of your earlier actions, specifically beating a man to death to reclaim a loan. But I already felt bad about those actions.
It needed a scene like the train robbery in firefly, where they pull off a heist and later find out they’re depriving a town of medicine.
RDR2 could’ve pulled this off, showing that a crime you thought was stealing from a big rich guy, actually destroyed a local town.
But I digress. Really good stuff on the challenges of an under appreciated medium
This is a very thorough overview of game storytelling. Definitely saving for later reference. Great work.
Do you miss playing games? Or has writing your stories pretty much fulfilled the desire?
I took a few years off games but jumped back in last year. I go back and forth if it’s worth it, but at the end of the day it’s the one hobby I have that I don’t try to mine for creative output or content or whatever.
I think the best game that I ever played was Star Wars Galaxies. You could start out as any class, then at set intervals, you could change class, progressing upwards. The ultimate progression, if you chose it, was to eventually become either a Jedi or a Sith. You had to work to get to where you were going.
The game stopped being fun, when the players bitched until they made Jedi a starting class. All the hours put into creating a unique character were gone, just like that, and suddenly the game wasn't as fun. I stopped playing it and haven't really played a game, other than Eve-online, since then.
I tried Dungeon&Dragons, Neverwinter, etc, but they weren't as fun. I couldn't explore.
I one of the reasons I've been such a stupidly huge fan of the Final Fantasy series is because of the story telling in the games. FF6, and FF12 are (IMO) the best of that.
Excellent article that could easily have gone for a whole book given the topic. This comment may also run a little long as I am an avid gamer and was long before I picked up reading and writing. When I first partook in NaNoWriMo I had read very little beyond Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Chronicles of Narnia, and a slew of comics and manga. I had played a lot of narrative heavy games, e.g. RPGs like Final Fantasy, Elder Scrolls, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (2 is better, Avellone is an outstanding games writer) that have lots of stories (side-quests) or a bulky main quest. I'd also watched a lot of film having been a teen in the days before streaming but when DVDs were '4 for £10' at HMV. Naturally I approached book writing like game and film writing and what I created was awful. There's plenty of cross-over in the foundations of story telling but not so in execution. (Perhaps I too am a frustrated game dev, haha).
I have always enjoyed the way Dark Souls tells the story and history of its world. Limited and dense dialogue mixed with a plethora of found item descriptions where the location of unique items also matters to the story being told. This is a story telling form unique to video games and is made all the more impactful by Miyazaki and FromSoft's willingness to NOT tell the player something. They allow the player the choose their own adventure in the world, find things how they want, and piece it together (ironically this requires a greater attention to detail). Sure we have lore channels like VaatiVidya but they take months and years to pull it all into a coherent narrative on YouTube. A lot of modern game devs, like Ubisoft, seem terrified of the player missing something but the whole point of a game is that you engage, actively, with it rather than being passively fed a map of icons to follow. The ability to find and miss things creates memorable stories, which leads me to the topic of skill.
You write, 'Only requires a single skill: if you can read one book, you can read any book'. I disagree. Assuming the book is in English and I know the words that does not mean I understand the substance of it. I remember when I first started to read fantasy I dove into Wheel of Time and was utterly lost a few hundred pages in and dropped the first book (I have since finished Eye of the World but was not enthralled). There are tropes to learn, styles, the way the story is conveyed, etc., all 'small' things that must be learned by the reader beyond merely the words. The more you read the more all of this will settle in your mind, much like playing a video game and learning the buttons, it must be learned through repetition. This is why there are lore channels like Preston Jacobs or Alt-Shift X for ASOIAF, a lot of readers miss an awful lot in those books because simply reading the words only goes so far in understanding what is playing out. But this is now about how the same book, game, comedian, or what have you, has different audiences that engage for different reasons and in different ways. A lot of people play Dark Souls ignoring all of the narrative, people read Game of Thrones because it is emotionally resonant and is more similar to a soap drama than a traditional fantasy story.
Great article! Thanks for posting :)
Borderlands stands out as an attempt at a "humorous" game since most of the quirky content and style is geared towards silliness and putting a smile on your face.
And I think Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell series should get a mention when it comes to immersion and strong storytelling in a realistic setting combined with some of the best stealth gameplay.
Finally got round to reading the entire article. As I was working my way down the post, I began planning my comment response... and as I kept reading... there they were... the points I wanted to make appeared one after another as if by magic! All the points and specific games that I wanted to mention. But I guess many gamers have a similar gaming history (more or less) and the same likes, issues, and gripes pop up.
I thought... will he cover Gordan Freeman's total lack of dialogue? And you did! Will he mention Mass Effect and the ability to craft a unique character that progresses across a whole series of games? And you did! So, there you go, can't complain. Job well done.
Partway through and just want to comment on the fly in case I forget what's in my mind. Great post Simon, enjoying this. It's a subject close to my heart.
Re: "While there is always some crossover, much of the audience for a game like Dear Esther will not possess traditional gaming skills."
I'd argue that's not 100% true. There is an inherent barrier to games and that is in actually having the hardware required (well, that's less so now with the ubiquity and power of phones, but >99% app store is trash). Unless I misremember, Dear Ester released solely on Steam at launch and so almost everyone in their audience would presumable have some degree of traditional gaming skills.