70 Comments

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.

Expand full comment
author

It's no real surprise, I suppose, given that video games in general have only been seen as a serious art form (or even commercial form) relatively recently. Take an under-appreciated medium and then look at the aspect that is most often under-appreciated even by the people working in the medium. :D

It does feel very different now to a decade ago.

Expand full comment

As someone who got a degree in Animation Art & Design way back in 2006, I've always been amazed to see people in the same profession look down on the artistry of storytelling. Game coding, fighting system dynamics, graphics, all of it can be stunning and wonderful ... but with a boring story, what's the point?

Expand full comment

Some people just like good gameplay. Story is optional. Some games can be like moving the character through a playable movie. I don't see why we can't have both and some games pull this off, but it usually requires adhering to the linear format otherwise the story, no matter how good it is, ends up all over the place and pacing becomes nonsensical.

Expand full comment

That's a good point. There are quite a few games with open worlds or the gameplay itself is the purpose, but even then I feel like there was effort put into the background story setting up the world and atmosphere. It's a tricky balancing act of having an open world and a solid storyline- Typically because of what you said about losing coherency, and the pacing issues. In those places, you have MMORPGs, and they typically have their teams of writers and massive releases of whole new playable worlds with their own legs of the story.

Expand full comment

It's fine if you don't mind jumping around from side story to side story after hours of fetch quests! But IMO, the story flow attained in something like The Last of Us can't be beat even though I prefer other games when it comes to overall enjoyment of gameplay and strategy etc.

Expand full comment

The Last of Us gets all the praise and its own HBO TV series adaptation for obvious reasons, but I strongly remember being captivated for months on end by the more simplistic, cliched, long, drawn out storytelling in classic RPGs and titles such as Final Fantasy VII.

Expand full comment

HBO adaptation of Chrono Trigger when?

Expand full comment

And Metal Gear Solid? And Mass Effect? I guess we had a recent attempt at Dungeons and Dragons which wasn't too bad, but I'd really like to see these aesthetically pleasing titles brought to TV with a decent budget to do them justice. The Witcher started off OK but seems to have lost its way. Super Mario seems to have done well. Tomb Raider is always worth a watch. Uncharted looked a bit shoddy if you ask me. We need to break the video game to TV curse and get more titles the writers and treatment they deserve.

Expand full comment
author

The problem is often that the player agency is the best thing about a game and what makes it unique. The Uncharted games are great fun, but remove the ability to actually play Drake and you're left with a fairly generic Indiana Jones story, but set modern day.

Big, world-building games like Mass Effect might work better, especially because a TV/movie adaptation wouldn't have to follow the story of the game itself. Making a Mass Effect movie about Commander Sheperd I think would be a mistake: set it during the broad events of the games but from a completely different point of view and it could be cool.

Expand full comment

Yes, I really like the idea of taking a game universe and allowing writers to create unique stories within them. That would definitely be the best approach.

Expand full comment
author

It also acknowledges the game as the primary, rather than the film/TV show pretending to be 'superior' in some way. Instead, they complement each other and work together to create something larger.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment
author

Overboard is a great example, and I own Paradise Killer but have yet to play it. I've heard very good things about it.

As I've got older and have had less time to play, I've gravitated towards shorter games. Just recently have thoroughly enjoyed Subsurface Circular.

In terms of branching, The Witcher 2 is an interesting example. After the game's first act, you have to make a pivotal choice. This then slings you off on one of two paths, defining your location, quests, allies and more. It's a bold move. In a series known for its hard choices, it really reinforces the idea that decisions matter.

Expand full comment
author

Coincidentally, GMTK posted a video about detective games. Haven't watched it yet, but seems pertinent! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7q363Ic26o&pp=ygUEZ210aw%3D%3D

Expand full comment

I saw that and thought of you. Also in that video he announces that GMTK is now also on substack.

Expand full comment
author

What! I must immediately subscribe.

Expand full comment

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!

Expand full comment
author

I suppose my focus here was more on the more heavily scripted end of games, rather than on the more free sandboxes. Witcher, Cyberpunk, Zelda are all big games with lots of emergent gameplay and stories, though my personal focus tends to be on the scripted moments.

Two games that have a really interesting angle on non-scripted or semi-non-scripted stories are Invisible Inc and FTL. The latter is a Star Trekkish jaunt through space that plays out differently and is heavily generated, albeit from handmade pieces. It's brilliant(ly hard).

Invisible Inc is a turn-based stealth game that is very light on story, especially in the actual levels, but manages to create moments that are as good as anything in a Mission: Impossible movie. Incredibly tense and engrossing, and primarily player-driven. It's best when you make a mistake. :)

Expand full comment
Aug 21, 2023·edited Aug 21, 2023Liked by Simon K Jones

X-Com --- turn-based, nail-biting intensity on steroids!

Expand full comment
author

Yes! I played a lot of the more recent(ish) X-Com. Though I did find some of the RNG stuff frustrating, especially when it seemed to break the story/setting (ie, an expert marksman missing at point blank range for no obvious reason other than a percentage dice roll). Something I really liked about Invisible Inc is that it presents all of its information up front and doesn't hide anything, so it feels more like chess in a way. Into The Breach does a similar line, also very good (and with an interesting very light-touch bit of story).

Expand full comment

Ha! I was going to mention the RNG. Looks to be something most gamers find annoying yet the developers choose to keep it in.

Expand full comment
Aug 22, 2023Liked by Simon K Jones

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 👌

Expand full comment
author

That feeling of seeing a medium evolve before your eyes is very exciting. Must have been like going to the movies in the early 20th century, or maybe reading comics in the 70s and 80s?

Expand full comment

Totally. Exciting times 😁

Expand full comment

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!

Expand full comment
author

I interviewed Greg Kasavin a couple of years back who is an amazing games writer. Podcast is well worth listening to if you're interested in the nuts and bolts: https://open.spotify.com/episode/3RYkpIsI7sLt2i4c3AFz1P

Expand full comment

Fantastic! Thank you!

Expand full comment

Metroidvanias ftw

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

The controls and user interface in early Assassin's Creed games were poorly designed by any measure! Other than that, they are some of the most beautiful game environments I've ever played in with some of the best writing and musical scores to be found in any medium.

Expand full comment

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

Expand full comment
author

Aaah, the good ol' cognitive dissonance. Or ludonarrative dissonance, was it, that someone coined for games? The Uncharted games suffer from that even more: you're supposed to be playing a rogueish but likeable scamp of an adventurer, yet spend most of the game murdering people on foreign lands.

Watching my son play Tears of the Kingdom, I can't help but think that Link is a violent mass murderer who goes around wiping out bokoblin settlements, when all they're doing is having parties and enjoying barbecues.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment
author

I still play games! Though not nearly as much as I did in my teens and 20s. Since having a child (and being an adult in general) I've had to re-prioritise things. When I might have been able to watch a movie, play a game, read a book AND go to the pub of an evening, once my son was born I basically had to....pick one of those things. The result is that I watch fewer movies than I used to, but I still find time for games.

Writing my own stories I think scratches a similar bit of my brain. Writing is puzzle solving for me, and figuring out the best way forward through my ideas. In some ways it's like picking the branching narrative choices in a Bioware game, except it's my own story. Can I pick the best canonical route through my own head, that will maximise the reading experience for most readers?

Expand full comment

I watched a nephew play Elden Ring on his Macbook connected to his Playstation 4 running in another country this summer break. I guess he was giving me a little tech demo! Thing is, nothing about the game or gameplay caught my attention. It just looked like more of the same, stuff I've seen a million times over the decades, just slightly upgraded graphics, but nothing that impressive. It would take a LOT to impress me these days, and even then I probably wouldn't have the required energy to overcome the slump of retiring from AAA games. I would watch the cut scenes on YouTube though if the story is worth it.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment
author

I never played Galaxies as it was before I had a stable internet connection, but I heard and read a lot about it. Sounded like a special thing. It's a shame it wasn't more influential, as everything pivoted into the WoW model after that.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

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 :)

Expand full comment
author

Completely agree - I did caveat that bit about 'read one book, read any book' by noting that comprehension of the book and quality of interpretation is a whole other thing. I do still maintain that the core technical activity of reading remains the same: you can still progress from one word to another, even if you're not fully understanding them. The comparison there was that in a game, you literally can't proceed if you're no good at the game. Less to do with comprehension of the story, and closer to suddenly finding yourself unable to physically turn the page of a book.

Expand full comment

Ahh, a more foundational issue than I thought you were getting at. If you can't beat a boss then you have to ask a friend or watch a Let's Play to continue the story. A Let's Play is a different way of experiencing a video game story though.

Expand full comment
Aug 22, 2023Liked by Simon K Jones

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.

Expand full comment
Aug 22, 2023Liked by Simon K Jones

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.

Expand full comment
author

Ha, thanks! We must have all the same cultural touchpoints..

Expand full comment
Aug 22, 2023Liked by Simon K Jones

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.

Expand full comment
author

This is a very good point! If a film comes out, anyone can go see it at the cinema, without needing specialist equipment. That's complicated when watching at home, in that you need a DVD/blu-ray player, or a streaming subscription and TV capable of accessing those services - but in general, it's easy and cheap.

Games, yes, require a console or a PC of some sort. Phones have definitely brought more people to games, but a lot of it is trash as you say (though there are some real gems in there, too). The Dear Esther example of being Steam-specific did indeed assure that most players would be fine with navigating it: but I think my point still stands generally, even if not specifically. ;)

I think devices like the Nintendo Switch and the Steam Deck will further help make a broader range of games more accessible to more people, which is fab.

Expand full comment
Aug 22, 2023Liked by Simon K Jones

Yeah, definitely, it's certainly becoming much more accessible as a hobby, plus it's really lovely to see Devs turn more of those focus to accessibility features now, too.

(And sorry, I didn't mean to imply you were wrong there 😅 just wanted to offer up my thoughts that there was something of a barrier to entry.)

Any pointers for some gems on phone?

Expand full comment
author

I haven't played much on phone for a while, so this is probably quite an old list, but I think all of these are worth checking out: Monument Valley (1 and 2), The Room series, Marvel Snap, Reigns, Alto's Odyssey, 80 Days (for sure!), Sorcery! series...

Some of those are also on console/PC these days, but I think they originated on mobile. Mostly before it settled into a microtransaction hellscape, mind you.

Expand full comment