Cartoon owl holding up a controller. Pixelated red background. Text: Game writing is unique

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.

Last time Masahiro Sakurai inspired me to talk about minimaps. This time, he’s talking about game writing.

Come, dear reader! Let us listen:

Once again Sakurai’s video is super short. So I’m here to make it needlessly long.

Sakurai presents four main points in the video:

  1. Story can sometimes get in the way
  2. The story is from the main character’s perspective
  3. The main character must win
  4. 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.

(Video starts at 6 minutes 57 seconds)
You don’t have to watch the whole video (it goes through the whole game).
But see how quickly you’re thrown back into a cutscene?

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.

We’re in a flashback! Can you tell?
(image source: Jegged)

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.

Final Fantasy 8 is a bad game, but I didn’t mind playing as “the man with the machine gun” (the not-main character and his merry troupe) every now and then.
(image source: This Cage is Worms)

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.)

After fighting a crappily designed bullshit boss for 3 hours straight, you have finally won! Now enjoy watching a cutscene how the boss beats you up anyway.
(image source: YouTube)

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.

Gheralf: There are entire games that focus on character loss (Darkest Dungeon, and effectively all roguelikes). The important thing here is to consider the player:

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.

Goodbye, Mogr.
(image source: lparchive)

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:

(Video link starts at 7 hours 20 minutes.)
Just try to keep up with what the characters are saying while also dealing
with the constantly appearing enemies!

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!

You’re out of the starting cave. Where will you go? What will you do?
(image source: Polygon)

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.

A silly moment on my journey.

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.

That’s it.

Gheralf H. Swiftwar

Gheralf H. Swiftwar

Crazy owlmister. Eternally attemps to find ways to prove that his thousands of hours put into video and computer games has not been just an utter waste of time.

3 thoughts on “Storytelling in Games – Game Design

  1. It’s a-me again :p
    Whoo, storytelling, that’s a big topic. The article all makes sense, but I’m just going to offer a couple random interesting counterpoints.
    In general, I absolutely agree about losing in cutscenes after winning a battle, that’s incredibly frustrating. There is one lone example that actually worked though, perhaps because the player actually ultimately wins. Forgive me, but this is rather spoiler-y, I’ll try to be as vague as possible though. The cutscene was from Lies of P, and occured immediately after defeating the true final boss. Now, this is a souls-like game, so it’s not exactly easy, and the final boss reflects that by usually requiring 50 tries or so to beat the first time (but also really well designed). So by the time you actually beat it, you’re going to be pretty haggard after being curbstomped endlessly for possibly hours. How the cutscene plays out, you and the boss exchange a flurry of blows, until the boss gains an upper hand, and is definitively about to skewer you (like has happened endless times already). But then a major NPC steps in the way of the blow for you, giving the main character a chance to rip important organs out of the boss, defeating it once and for all. There are slight variations depending on some of the choices you made. So, the player technically doesn’t win, at least not by using the game mechanics, but that’s *actually accurate*. You don’t really feel like you beat the boss, you just survived long enough to drop it’s health to a level where the NPC intervenes.
    As for how story and game are interspersed, I think there are ways to do it successfully. For example, to pick a game pseudo-randomly, The Witcher 3. Now, there are still a lot of problems with the game amd even with the storytelling, but dialogue and high-concentration sections like combat are alternated well. So basically, whenever a piece of information is actually specifically vital to whatever quest you’re doing, you can only obtain it through a proper dialogue tree (or some other method that requires you to stand in one place). But the main character has conversations constantly with side characters while traveling from place to place. Walking around is… not a difficult or attention-grabbing task, so having conversations carry on while moving that give the player context and lore is a great alternative to just skipping to where the quest proper picks up again. Of course, the system is often glitchy and unoptimized, but by principle it actually works really well. Similarly, a lot of games will have 2-3 line conversations occur while, for example walking down a long hallway with no enemies to draw the player’s attention.

    1. Wa-hoo!

      It sounds like Lies of P does something correctly again. Thank you again for your insights!

      To be honest, I think a losing cutscene can work as long as the gameplay reflects that by a reasonable margin.
      For example:
      1) by not showing the boss fall dead and defeated onto the ground (and especially not exploding to tiny bits or something!) during gameplay
      2) if the boss does fall down, at least show them get up or be annoyed (continuity), and not just be fine as if the whole fight didn’t happen
      3) you can also cut the fight before boss health is completely gone to emphasize that it’s not over yet

      And as you mentioned, it’s important that the boss’s superiority is established beforehand. It all boils down to good storytelling (where it’s necessary to understand that everything happening during -gameplay- also affects that storytelling).

      That’s a great point about dialogue while walking! I completely forgot to consider it while writing the article.
      As you mentioned, there’s are of things developers need to take into consideration to make sure it works: it’s fine if the system is a bit wonky, but optimize it well enough that the player can’t too easily miss dialogue. For example, in Kingdom Come Deliverance, speech and sounds get progressively weaker as you move away from their source, but despite that, I don’t remember having much trouble listening to people (so they managed to do something right!). There’s hovering text to migitate this effect, even though it can disappear if you’re not looking at the target or aren’t near enough. The only part where I distinctly remember it being a bit hard to listen was a part where you’re listening to two people talk while all of you (and a couple of other soldiers) are riding full speed on horses…

      And in general, as you suggested, it’s important to reserve the most important details for when the player is least occupied by something else.

      1. That makes complete sense, and yeah, continuity is definitely the biggest concern. In the LoP example, if the battle ended with the boss just being defeated, it would have felt a little… anticlimactic. (also, sorry for making you read all those typos, I really try to avoid them, but I also write these comments on a phone :p)

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