Storytelling – the art of conveying a narrative to the player.
It’s the process of creating a story that can invoke emotion, teach valuable life lessons, or simply give you a unique concept to ponder on your free time. Oh, and it gives the player motivation to continue playing the game.
Or is that it? Perhaps we should hear an industry veteran’s opinion.
Come, dear reader! Let us listen:
Sakurai presents four main points in the video:
- Story can sometimes get in the way
- The story is from the main character’s perspective
- The main character must win
- Comrades must stick around
It sure sounds like he has been reading manga lately… either way, let’s dissect these points!
Story can sometimes get in the way
Sakurai: If your game has too many cutscenes, the player is stuck watching them and can’t actually get to play. If they skip them, they may feel like their missing out on important story details and then don’t know what’s going on.
Gheralf: The worst offender for this that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing is Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. MGS series is notorious for having many cutscenes and codec calls, but the fourth game especially likes to cut you off as soon as you start getting oriented with the controls and your surroundings. It wasn’t until the fourth or so playthrough that I felt like I was starting to understand what I was doing.
From the point you start controlling Snake to the moment the next cutscene begins is literally only a few seconds. And the next time you get control of him again (at around 8:00), the same thing happens! (At least the game is doing a good job telling you what kind of a game it’s going to be…)
But it could be even worse: imagine if the cutscenes were teaching you game controls. Not only will skipping them mean skipping story beats, but you might have no idea how to even play the game!
The story is from the main character’s perspective
Sakurai: In comics and other media, it’s normal to have lengthy backstory exposition from other characters’ perspectives. However, this often doesn’t fit into games.
Gheralf: A major unique thing about games, compared to other media, is that you’re controlling a character. Since you’re not just a by-watcher, but someone who is in charge, you’re likely to be very invested in your character(s). (Perhaps you even created a character’s appearance yourself!) And so, losing control of that character, or seeing that character act in a manner that doesn’t match your actions, is usually a negative.
Despite that, I’ve seen a bunch of games weave backstories and flashbacks to their storytelling quite nicely. Final Fantasy 6, 7 and 8 do this pretty well. I think the major reason why it works for those games is that you still get to play the game – just as a different character. And you get to return to your previous characters later.
So I’d say: don’t be afraid of long-winded backstories, as long as you let the player play and not just watch a cutscene.
The main character must win
Sakurai: Have you ever won a battle in a game, only to be followed by a cutscene that shows that your character actually lost? Negating player’s achievements through story writing can cause some real stress.
Gheralf: There are two things to consider here. Firstly, I don’t think that the main character always needs to win or even survive. Losses, defeats and struggles are part of good storytelling (and gameplay!).
But more importantly, if there is a fight where the player character can (or has to) win the fight, then the resulting cutscene should always reflect that! Out of all the points in this article, I believe this is the one that I feel no developer should never, ever break.
I’ve never seen a game where winning some fight and then having a resulting cutscene show me how I’m the one who actually lost didn’t feel absolutely ridiculous. I mostly remember seeing this trope in JRPGs, but it can also be found in fighting games like Blaz Blue: Continuum Shift. See how this player defeats the final boss without too much effort and simply gets mocked by him afterwards. (To be fair, there seems to be some kind of a “true ending” to the game if you meet certain criteria, but it doesn’t really excuse how the other endings are handled.)
Unlike the other points Sakurai makes, this isn’t really a “storytelling method that is being used in various media.” It’s just poor writing. However, due to the nature of video games, it’s easier for it to accidentally happen here.
Imagine reading a book where the heroes win a fight, and the next chapter starts with them having lost the fight. That would make no sense! But also, it’s such a glaring issue that there’s no way the writer would miss it!
With video games, it’s easier for the writer to disregard what happens in gameplay (or perhaps not even know what goes on in there).
Comrades must stick around
Sakurai: Your comrades can’t die or be removed from the story. This is an effective story technique in other forms of media, but in games it can throw off party balance or make the player lose valuable items.
If your game focuses around losing characters and progress, make it clear as soon as possible. XCOM: Enemy Unknown starts the game with a mission where you almost always lose a few soldiers. (And if you don’t, the game will try to do everything to make sure you do eventually). You then see their names added to a board of lost comrades, with a clear indication that there is plenty of room for more names to be added to that list.
If you want to have a character die off as a surprise, there’s still things you should consider:
- You can do this during the first hours of the game so the effect isn’t as detrimental. (Just note that this will also affect the player’s mindset for the rest of the game. They will now be under the impression that they may lose more characters in the future.)
- You can unequip the character, so the player won’t lose important items.
- You can design your game to not have a character-specific inventory system.
- You can give the player a replacement character that can use the same gear.
Games like The Banner Saga handle this by letting the player make decisions and then quickly showing them that their decisions can have dire consequences. There are several chances to feel the severity of those consequences, although losing a party member to a seemingly insignificant choice (that you may have made a long time ago) can still come as quite a surprise.
Storytelling in Video Games
Next, Sakurai continues by reminding us that it’s fine to disregard these points when it feels right: it may upset the players, but that feeling may also make the game more memorable for them.
It’s interesting that all the four points he made are ones that the Final Fantasy series really likes breaking (for better or worse). Sakurai doesn’t say it out loud, but maybe he’s trying to discourage people from trying to copy what Final Fantasy games do without understanding why those story elements work there?
Finally, Sakurai concludes with the biggest point that any game developer should understand:
Start with gameplay, not story
Sakurai: Avoid long-winded expositions in your prologue and just get right to the game. You can save the detailed story for later. In Kid Icarus: Uprising, I made it so that each stage starts straight away, and the story is told while you’re playing.
Gheralf: This point is what drove me to write this article. It’s because I think Sakurai misses a huge opportunity here… but before I dive into that, let me comment on the method he used in Kid Icarus: Uprising.
Personally, I’m not a fan of games where the characters are telling the story while you’re playing. It’s fine if the characters are bantering or giving each other simple commands (like “This way!” or “Good job!”).
But I can’t think of a game where giving story exposition during gameplay has been a good solution.
If the game is turn-based, then the story is often interrupting gameplay. It’s even worse if you fail some mission and those story beats will be replayed while you’re just trying to keep all the information you need in your head to make it through the mission.
If the game is fast-paced, then the player’s focus is on trying to make it through the stage. You’re using all your senses to try and survive or defeat enemies. There’s little room to take in detailed story from the characters. It’s only the other by-watchers who might be able to enjoy it (and even they may be confused with all the things happening at the same time!).
The game I remember having the biggest problem with this was Wonderful 101:
You may look at that video and think “Well, at least the dialogue there is rather meaningless.” But when you’re playing, you don’t know that. All you know is that you’re missing out on something. And if the dialogue is meaningless, why even have it there? To the chopping block with you, meaningless dialogue!
I’ve been watching through a gameplay video of Kid Icarus: Uprising, and it pains me. The dialogue is very witty and funny, but it’s all happening while you’re focused on other things. Even as I’m simply watching somebody else play, I sometimes miss what was being said. And to make matters worse, it’s not enough to focus on enemies AND the conversation, but you also sometimes receive notifications about items! That’s three things fighting for your attention!
Gameplay is the Story!
Sakurai’s video is titled “Game Writing is Unique”. You could also say that “Storytelling in video games is unique.”
But it’s not because certain storytelling methods wouldn’t work in games. As I pointed out in the previous chapters, there are ways to go around them.
So how is storytelling unique in video games?
To discuss that. Let’s look at an example of a story in real life:
We tried to go to a bar, but the bouncer thought I looked a little young and demanded to see some ID. Of course, I didn’t have any. Being almost 35, I hadn’t needed it in years! My friend was already drunk enough that he decided wrestling the bouncer was the correct course of action in this situation. We ended up visiting both the police station AND the hospital that night.A real life story
Something interesting happened to you. And it became a story (albeit a short one).
True video game storytelling is similar. It’s not written by paid writers. It’s born out of a combination of gameplay and the player interacting with the game!
Open world games like Minecraft, Breath of the Wild and Skyrim are very powerful, because everybody has their own story to tell.
It’s not the story told by writers that matters.
What matters is the journey you went through while playing.
Is what I would love to say, but…
Over the years I’ve seen more and more situations where people lament games that “do not have a story.”
It’s surprisingly difficult for people to even consider that a game could have something to call a “story” if it’s not specifically written by someone.
“Interesting situations happening to you and becoming your stories” is something that is grounded in real life. And despite that, it’s a concept that’s surprisingly hard to grasp.
I’m sure somebody, during some point in your life, has told you that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.
And I’m not surprised if you’ve scoffed at the thought. What does it even mean? Sure sounds like an excuse for not finishing something.
The reality is that people have some kind of innate craving for written stories, with their well-thought out chapters, character arcs – and most importantly – highlights and conclusions.
Something in our brains is wired so that we want to see things through. We don’t appreciate or remember the journey, we remember the highlights – the goals we met, the tasks we did, the high notes.
It takes a bit more effort to appreciate the journey.
Quick Guide to Appreciating the Journey
This was supposed to be an article about storytelling in video games. But now I’ve started ranting about goals and journeys. I have one last thing to say, so please bear with me for just a moment longer.
Goals are easy to appreciate, because there’s usually something tangible born as a result.
So we just need to make that happen for our journeys.
The good thing is, I have a somewhat simple hack for you to do just that.
Take screenshots. Record videos. Write journals.
All consoles and computers have the means to take screenshots easily. All latest consoles also let you record videos of recent events.
Writing a journal can be a bit more daunting, but you can compromise and do what we do here in this blog and just write small reviews instead.
Make your journey tangible. And enjoy the story you wove for yourself.