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MIND MELD: Storytelling in Video Games

Video games are an evolution of the human tradition of storytelling. It began as tales told around a fire, progressed into images painted on walls, developed into text printed on paper, and advanced to moving pictures accompanied by sound. Video games take story telling a step farther. The audience is no longer a passive spectator, but is instead an active participant in the story being told. Often authors are tapped to write tie-in fiction for popular video game franchises, and sometimes they are even hired on to help craft compelling stories for the games themselves.

We asked this week’s panelists…

Q: How do you feel about the state of storytelling in video games? What do developers do right? What could they be doing better? What games do you think tell excellent stories?

Here’s what they said…

William C. Dietz
New York Times bestselling author William C. Dietz has published more than forty novels some of which have been translated into German, French, Russian, Korean and Japanese.

If it was easy to write good games everyone would do it.

There was a time when killing aliens, monsters, and bad guys was enough. But not anymore. Now gamers want good writing too!

Yeah, yeah, I know. There are lots of games that don’t involve shooting things. And that’s good. But since I don’t play those games my expertise (such as it is) relates to shooting aliens, monsters and bad guys. And I believe good writing and good game play can coexist.

But before I get into that I should divulge that my perspective has been shaped by writing tie-in novels for franchises like Star Wars, Halo, Starcraft, Hitman, Resistance, and Mass Effect.

I’ve written games too, including Sony’s RESISTANCE: Burning Skies with Mike Bates, and the LEGION OF THE DAMNED® ios game with Conlan Rios. But I have never been a full-time employee of a gaming studio–so my knowledge is limited to what I have seen from the outside looking in.

First, before you write a game you have to have an outline or treatment. Unlike writing a novel, which some people (although I’m not one of them) can do without an outline, a game involves lots of people working in parallel. And they need a plan.

Generally speaking there are two kinds of outlines/treatments. Short outlines that are designed to get a game together by a hard deadline with little regard for possible sequels. And I can relate to that. Take the Legion of the Damned series for example. I planned to write a series so I created a universe large enough to accommodate a number of books. But did I write a nine book story arc? Heck, no. I had no way to know that the first volume would do well enough to pave the way for a second novel never mind all the rest.

And it’s the same for a lot of the game shops. They hope there will be more iterations but have to put all the energy they have into the one they’re working on at the moment. And given the strength of the competition it will have to be awesome in order to survive.

The result is that long term story and character development suffers and I see the results of that when I’m hired to write a tie-in novel. Time and time again I see really interesting characters who were killed off in the first or second game because no one knew what to do with them or to freak players out. (If we kill Carter they’ll figure we might smoke anybody!) The result being that they aren’t around for people like me to feature in books, comics, or secondary games.

And the reverse is true as well. Some characters need to be devoured by a ten story tall boss or fall into the bottomless abyss! But they live on and on. Usually because they are useful in some way or have a substantial fan base.

Long outlines by contrast assume success and incorporate something like a three game story arc. That’s totally cool if three games get made. But what if the first game fails to gain sufficient traction? Then the team is left with a hanger… Meaning characters that aren’t fully developed, a plot was never fully realized, and some disappointed customers.

The point is that to some extent the quality of the writing, or what the writing could be, is determined by the choice of whether to create a short or long outline.

Now this is where things get even more complicated. Some teams have a very vertical top-down management structure that dictates the plot to the person or team who are writing the script. Others are more collaborative and tend to get things done through brainstorming and consensus.

Each approach has definite advantages especially to an outsider such as myself. The top-down people know what they want, and that’s a good thing, except that they are frequently resistant to outside ideas. And, if they are driven by a long form outline/treatment then they have a tendency to sacrifice things to it. As in, “Hell no, we can’t do that… If we do we won’t be able to blow up the moon in game three.”

The result being that the characters, the plot, and even the dialog is dictated to the writers. Not directly–but through marginalia like, “Jessica would never say something like this.” And no justification is required because hey, the team leaders have the ability to channel Jessica, and the writers don’t. Another way in which the writing gets skewed.

Meanwhile the consensus driven teams are more open to suggestions, but it can be difficult to get closure, and when you think you have it chances are you don’t. So you pitch your idea to the team, they nod, and you can feel the beginning of a glorious consensus. Then Larry says, “I think that works Bill… I’ll write it up, share it with the level designers, and check with my wife. She has a lot of good ideas. Then, once we have everybody’s feedback, we’ll move ahead.”

No, I’m not kidding. So the danger here is producing a script that lacks focus, a consistent voice, and a singular style.

I mentioned level designers who, as the title implies are responsible for developing individual levels in a game, often referred to as “missions” in shooters. First let me say that these poor souls are often as powerless as the writers are and frequently for the same reasons.

However where writing is concerned the designers can be part of the problem. That’s because while they want the overall project to succeed–it’s even more important to them that they create the coolest level that ever was. Because if they can do that they succeed even if the game fails. You can imagine their next job interview. “Sure Invasion of the Snails cratered, but look at Level Three… It rocks.”

That means they might be vocal advocates for ideas, gimmicks, and dialog that is antithetical to the overall script. As in “Hey, dude, how ’bout we cap Baxter at the end of level three? The players will never see it coming.” Which would be fine except that Baxter has to throw the lever on the light bridge in level five. Sigh.

Another barrier to good story telling is the almost universal tendency to sacrifice dialog to action. Time and time again I’ve seen management whack character interaction in order to shoehorn some additional action into the mix. The assumption being that players, especially young ones, are mostly interested in shooting things. And if you look at which games make the most money there’s something to be said for that view.

That brings us to the audience and their role in this. Yes, they have a role. If people buy well written games that will encourage management to insist on better writing. And there’s some evidence that we’re headed in that direction. The fact that people regularly create and post lists of the best written games attests to that.

Finally there are process/production issues that limit what a script can or can’t be. You can write it–but can the company afford it? Can the technology support it? And is there enough staff to get the job done? Typically the answer to at least some of those questions is going to be no. And that means compromise.

So given all of the moving parts, all of the ways that things can wrong, it’s amazing that good game scripts ever get written! Fortunately they do. Which ones are they? The ones you enjoy most.

That brings us to the question of what could be done to improve the quality of game related scripts. I think the solution is for management to insist on good writing, interesting characters, and a story that matters. The sort of characteristics that define a good book or a good movie. I believe that will lead to an immersive experience and commercial success.

Oh, and they should be nice to writers! Never mind, I got carried away.

Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley is the author of the award-winning novel God’s War and the sequels Infidel and Rapture. Find out more at

I think video game writers are suffering from some of the same things novel writers are in this biz. Big studios want break-out hits. They want to sell 100 million copies of stuff like Madden and Grand Turismo. To sell in those kinds of numbers, you have to write for a very broad audience. You have to dumb a lot of stuff down. I’ve been following the struggles of game developers like BioWare, who were acquired by EA a couple years ago, and how they’re trying to make these mega-millions sellers games out of what are, to some extent, niche RPG games. It’s a heart-bleeding thing to watch sometimes, but I see some light.

BioWare writes some of the best games around, and that’s in no small part due to the fact that their goal is to create amazing games where storytelling is still held up as core to the game making process, as opposed to something that just strings together big fight scenes or makes sense of slick graphics.

I broke into BioWare games with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and was hooked. It not only has one of the most epic twists of all time, but the characters and worldbuilding are so diverse and complex that you get totally sucked in. I had the same experience playing their Dragon Age: Origins game, where at one point I had to make a decision between continuing a romance with one character and doing the best thing for the party. I still remember the shock I got when a character ended up walking away from the party because of a decision I made. Immersive storytelling means that over a series of games, or even a single game, you get really attached to the outcome of the story – more so than you would in a traditional point and shoot game. We see this all the time in regular fiction, too – the more you connect with and empathize with the characters, the more you feel like they’re people you really know, the more involved you become in the story.

And then, of course, there’s the successful Mass Effect games, also put out by BioWare, which give you the opportunity to play the most badass heroine in video game history maybe ever. If you so choose. BioWare does an astonishing job creating characters of all types, including powerful female characters, and that’s still all too rare in the gaming business. I’m a huge fan of the God of War games, too, but I don’t fall head-over-heels for those button mashers the way I do deep, interactive storytelling games.

I think the best games – like the best novels – can teach you empathy. And what really great RPG’s like BioWare’s excel at is also teaching you how to deal with the results of your actions. Being an asshole has consequences. So does being a goody-goody. Budget constraints and that whole “make something that pisses off no one” push for mass appeal have meant fewer real choices and consequences, it’s true, but I have hope for a return to more choices in the future.

That’s because I see some shifts back toward great storytelling. Games like World of Warcraft – which I don’t exactly play for the deep storytelling – have placed more emphasis on story and inventive questing with recent expansions in order to appeal to and retain long-time subscribers.

Knowing there are still companies out there willing to take some risks and invest in great storytelling makes me optimistic, as does the rise of indie gaming companies, which may have smaller budgets, but also less pressure for selling mega-millions. Sometimes I think that gaming companies, like many novelists, get so focused on the selling mega-millions part that they forget about why they got into storytelling in the first place.

As players, as readers, we do occasionally need to remind them that we value great stories.

Guy Haley
British writer Guy Haley is the author of Reality 36, Omega Point, and Champion of Mars. He has three books coming out from the Black Library next year – first of which will be Baneblade and Skarsnik. The Crash, his latest novel for Solaris, is also out next summer.  Guy has been a magazine editor and journalist for 15 years, working for SFX, Death Ray and White Dwarf. When he’s not staring at words on a screen he spends his time trying to train his Malamute to do stuff, shouting at the cat, or drinking beer; sometimes all at once.

Computer games are a difficult medium to write effective stories for. Traditional storytelling is by no means passive – television, books, films, plays etc all require a significant imaginative effort on the part of those enjoying them, but video games are a different creature. They’re halfway between actual experience and story, and that means a lot of tricks you can use in other formats just don’t work very well.

There are games out there with fantastically detailed backstories that play little part in one’s enjoyment of the game, being just a framework to set a bunch of missions against, and those where the narrative is so all-consuming the player feels like they’re on rails, running through a fairground ride (check out my article here) on MMORGS for more on this). Some games, sandbox 4X games, the better RPGs like Fallout 3 and Skyrim, present you with a story that you can stick to or ignore, but these can be just as frustrating as games-on-rails, as your own meandering quests lose any meaningful framework.

And this is because games need stories, and they need stories mainly because they are limited and limiting. If you were really trying to survive a rad-blasted wasteland or conquer the galaxy, you’d feel invested, but even in an open-ended video game adventure, there are a great many restrictions to what you can do, and many distancing factors between you and the world you are exploring/invading.

Furthermore, there’s none of the subtle shading of emotion and connection with other “people” that you get in real life, or, for that matter, in books, theatre or cinema. Even in old-fashioned wargames and RPGs, I have a greater sense of connection with the characters, probably because these games, unlike video games, are acts of collaborative storytelling. Perversely, this lack of emotional involvement is even more true of multiplayer online games, where most players’ focus on the mechanics of the game (and sheer rudeness, unfortunately) distances you further from the tale.

Some games have brilliant worlds, great scripts, and awesome levels of detail. But I’ve yet to play a game (and I do play a lot of games) where I’ve gone, “Wow, what an excellent story.” X-Com is probably the closest I’ve come to feeling that, and probably only because of the attachment to my men that I built up through nail-biting missions.

So it’s a question of engagement, and video games are not engaging. I love computer games, I love gaming of all types in fact, and although I have been very impressed by the backgrounds of many, I’ll turn to other forms of entertainment for a genuine story experience every time.

Abhinav Jain
Long-time science-fiction and fantasy geek, lover of all things Star Wars and Warhammer (mostly all things anyway). I currently have several works in progress for both science fiction and fantasy in different formats – short story, novella, novel. I am also a book reviewer for The Founding Fields and a movie reviewer for Just Beyond Infinity. You can follow me on twitter @abhinavjain87 and through my blog at

Storytelling in video games. Now that’s a real bag of tricks to consider. If I’m honest, storytelling has always been much more important to me than gameplay ever has. I believe it’s harder to innovate in game-play than it is with storytelling because, after all, how long can you keep on doing the same thing you always do in a shooter like Doom or Space Marine, or in a strategy game like Homeworld or Age of Mythology? And yet, storytelling is often what I see developers not getting right. I used to play quite a few games in college, not the least of which was Star Wars: The Knights of the Old Republic and World of WarCraft and Zeus: Master of Olympus, but that interest has waned in recent years, especially since I had to stop playing World of WarCraft for financial and personal reasons. In the last two and a half years since then, I’ve only played Space Marine, Dawn of War: Dark Crusade, Sins of a Solar Empire and some free time on Star Wars: The Old Republic and World of WarCraft, alongwith some Mass Effect demos.

That’s not to say that the storytelling or the gameplay is at fault here, just that I’ve changed priorities of sorts, being invested in becoming a published author and my various reviewing gigs and blogging. What hasn’t changed though is that I still pick up games because of the storytelling, and not the gameplay. The only way a video game is going to turn me off with regards to the gameplay is when the gameplay is really, really bad. Storytelling remains the bar with which I judge all video games.

For me, one of the games with the best storytelling out there is the original Homeworld, a space-based Real Time Strategy game, by Barking Dog Studios and Relic Entertainment. In it, you have a society, the Kushan, stranded on a hell-hole of a planet, Kharak, with tons of infighting and everything else that entails. Then, they find a crashed spaceship in a desert and their entire world-view changes. They discover that the planet they have called home for all these uncounted years isn’t actually their home world. And they set out on an epic journey across space to reclaim their true home world: Hiigara. On the way they encounter space pirates (the Turanics), traders (the Bentuusi), and the people who stranded them on that hell-hole in the first place, the Taiidani. The story is simply epic. Through in-game cut-scenes and cinematic videos, we get to explore all the different cultures and learn about the history of this setting. Often times the videos are simplistic, in that they are little more than a series of still images. But they still pack a hell of a punch because of the voice-overs and narration. You get treated to the story in bite-sized chunks and that’s okay, because the writing, the dialogues, the narration and everything is just superb. I was so inspired by the story that for one of my high school English essay assignments I wrote a thousand word flash fiction about how the Kushan people felt when they learned that Kharak had been destroyed by their enemies, in retaliation for the Kushan developing spaceflight, which had been a condition of their exile to that world. In all the missions that the player must perform to help the Kushan reclaim Hiigara and their place in the wider galaxy, the story is extremely immersive. We get last stand type missions, missions where you have to break blockades, missions where you have to survive asteroid fields,destroy staging areas, pass through spaceship graveyards, and so much more. The variety is great. Homeworld: Cataclysm and Homeworld II continue all of this and more, as the stakes keep increasing and the setting is increasingly more detailed and more nuanced. Ancient horrors are brought back, there are prophecies of great apocalypses and resurgences, and more, much more. I would love to read a series of novels based on Homeworld.

Then you have the RPG Knights of the Old Republic, another of my all-time favourite games, this time by Bioware and LucasArts. As a big fan of the Star Wars franchise, this was another epic game that had so much focus on the storytelling aspects, with some really great game play that was so different than what I had seen in Diablo and Diablo 2 (my gaming experience at the time was very limited). The folks at Bioware got me to really invest into the story and the characters. I didn’t like some of the narrative decisions that I was forced to make, but the setting they had created was really diverse. They got the space opera feeling of the setting down, since we had to travel to all these different planets, explore ancient and “modern” cultures that are all different from each other, like the Wookies and the Rakata for example. And since this was an RPG, the storytelling was even more important than it had been for Homeworld. What Bioware did right was what Barking Dogs did right: diversity in the missions and how they are carried out and actually exploring the backstory of both settings.

And we can’t ignore World of WarCraft either here, which I think has one of the best storytelling experiences out there right now. I started playing towards the tail-end of The Burning Crusade, which was the first expansion, just before Wrath of the Lick King came out. I pretty much burned through the various quest lines until the new expansion came out so I could be ready to step into it as an at-level character, so I don’t remember much of the classic and TBC quest-lines. But there are some that stuck with me. Both the Eastern and Western Plaguelands, the lands that once used to be the Kingdom of Lordaeron, have some of the most haunting questlines in terms of their emotional impact. We deal with big-bad undead enemies and the foot soldiers alike, but there were the little things that really made those zones awesome. I offer this fan-video by noted machinima artist Cranius as evidence: click here for the link. This is the quest line titled “The Redemption of Joseph Redpath” and begins with the ghost of his daughter. The video always makes me teary-eyed. When players have to get into Stratholme and fight against all the big bads, it’s even worse. Fans of WarCraft III will remember that Prince Arthas slaughtered the citizens of the city when the city was struck by the plague. Just the emotional resonance of that moment, as you stride through the city is immense.

The entirety of Wrath of the Lich King also has some epic questlines, and my favourite zone is Storm Peaks, a land steeped in the mysticism of Azeroth’s history. Discovering everything there, like the instance of Ulduar, allying with the various tribes of dwarves and giants that call it home, was a great experience. That zone underscores what for me is an undeniable fact: Blizzard knows how to do some great epic questlines. Despite what people may have you believe, it’s not all just kill twenty goblins, collecting ten red wolf meat and so on. Wrath of the Lich King brought with it vehicle combat. That had an incredible effect on how the quests could be done. I could fly gnomish copters and bomb the hell out of enemies. I could ride young drakes and fight off a big bad dragon. I could ride in tanks and destroy other tanks. The possibilities really were endless. That’s how Blizzard innovates. Wrath of the Lich King was an incredible experience for me as someone who is invested in storytelling. I even wrote up some pieces of fan fiction about my character, a human paladin who has sworn revenge on Arthas and all Orcs. I think I still have that somewhere on my hard drive.

In more recent memory, Space Marine by the folks at Relic and THQ has been another awesome experience. Based on the Warhammer 40,000 franchise of tabletop games by Games Workshop, the game is about a Captain of the Ultramarines chapter as he and his warriors defend an Imperial world from the ravages of the Orks, the galactic menace. The storyline in the game is great and has some truly epic moments (such as a female senior officer of the Imperial Guard, and fighting off enemies in gunships), the game combines elements of both the RPG and shooter genres for a really interesting hybrid. Again, there is a great diversity in mission types and locations, etc, but where the storytelling fails is in its denouement, in the epic battle that’s been building up from the get go. It also underscores how painfully short the whole game is. The Warhammer 40,000 setting one of the grandest and most epic settings out there in science fiction, with an incredible amount of depth and nuance to it, no matter which faction it is. But it seemed that the developers went for the safe and short route. It’s a very different sort of approach than what we got in the first three Dawn of War games, which are RTS games based on the same franchise. A lot of potential for character development was simply left unfulfilled. And that’s my main criticism for the game. I do have to say though that the opening, when the fate of the world is being discussed by the bigwigs of the local Imperial authorities, that is exactly the kind of opening I wanted for this game. It highlights the merciless and “grimdark” feel of the setting.

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of the grand, epic storylines, where both the focus and scope of the game is huge. I think those are trickier stories for developers to get right. Whether its dialogue, or narration, or quest text there is something inherently compelling in such stories. I find them much more inspiring than the Halos and Call of Duty‘s out there.

Myke Cole
As a secu­rity con­tractor, gov­ern­ment civilian and mil­i­tary officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from Coun­tert­er­rorism to Cyber War­fare to Fed­eral Law Enforce­ment. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deep­water Horizon oil spill. All that con­flict can wear a guy out. Thank good­ness for fan­tasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dun­geons and Dragons and lots of angst fueled writing.

I started in the video game stone age with the 8 bit graphics of Hunt the Wumpus and Ultima I and the text reels of Zork. They helped form the bedrock of love-of-fantasy that eventually grew into my desire to write for a living. Infocom, for reasons I don’t fully understand, always treated the Zork storylines as a lark, as if the medium of gaming somehow precluded taking the story seriously (we like games? Nah. We’re only KIDDING!). Anyone remember Leather Goddesses of Phobos?

But the graphic based games had only a veneer of a storyline. In Karateka, an 8 bit classic that sucked up WEEKS of my childhood, a bad guy kidnapped your girlfriend, and you had to fight your way through a castle to rescue her. Not much of a story.

But, here’s the thing. I *miss* those days. This is because I filled in the blanks. I knew that Akuma had a backstory. Maybe he was part demon? I knew that his castle ruled over a fiefdom, full of peasants suffering under his rule. Maybe there were other resisters among them? Maybe some of them had stories? I knew that princess Mariko wasn’t just a weak woman, waiting to be rescued. At the end of the game, if you stayed in your fighting stance and got to close to her, she’d kick you in the head and kill you. She must have some training of her own. Was she also a karateka? Had she kept this secret from you? Why?

These questions formed the bedrock of my nascent storytelling skills, as I drifted off to sleep at night wondering about Iolo and Shamino. Who were they? Where did they grow up? What was that like? The 8-bit rendering of the Wumpus didn’t satisfy. I had to paint the picture in my head. The Grue comes to eat you in the pitch black, but you never *see* it. My mind worked to fill in the blanks.

And that, just as much as fantasy novels and comic books, made a writer out of me.

Don’t get me wrong, today’s video game storytelling is *outstanding* (the original Deus Ex and Thief series, anyone?) Modern game stories have absolutely inspired my writing. But there’s something about the early days, a gap in the picture, that I will always miss.

I had to work to fill in those blanks. And I came to love that work.

I still do.

Jason M. Hough
Jason M. Hough (pronounced Huff) is a former 3D Artist and Game Designer (Metal Fatigue, Aliens vs. Predator: Extinction).  His first novel, The Darwin Elevator, will be released in July 2013 by Del Rey, followed by books two and three of the trilogy in August and September.

Robert McKee, the great lecturer on plot structure, said “There’s only one story: the hero’s journey.”  And, other than a handful of possible exceptions, most video games are exactly that: A hero, usually you, on a journey of some sort.

Games are an interesting beast though because there’s really two stories trying to be told: the one pre-programmed in (sometimes no such thing exists), and the one the player creates through their actions.

The massive challenge facing game designers is to make us feel that we’re making the decisions, that this really is our story being told.  This often must be an illusion, but the great games will make us forget that (Grand Theft Auto comes to mind).  The worst of them, and I feel this is happening more and more as story complexity in games increases, will feel to us like nothing more than a string of pre-recorded scenes we’ve simply been given the tedious task of unlocking.  In these cases, either the gameplay or the story must be uncommonly good for players to put up with it.  Uncharted pulled this off.  Mass Effect, too, though the feeling of not being in control is well masked here because much of the story unfolds in gameplay rather than cinematics.  On the other hand, most movie-based games fail in this area for reasons I hope are self-evident.

Portal is a great example of a game that could have eschewed a pre-programmed story.  At its core Portal is a linear collection of clever physics-based puzzles.  If it went no further it would have been pretty good, too.  But it would have been sterile.  I think what made Portal so great, beyond the brilliant play mechanic, was the story layered on top of it.  It tied the whole thing together and added a wonderful momentum, all without getting in the way.  Players remember “thinking with portals” as much as they remember “the cake is a lie.”

In fact this illustrates another challenge in conveying story in a game: the nature in which we play them.  Short sessions over the course of a few weeks, occasionally with multiple-day gaps in between.  The odds are stacked against complexity and characterization.  How often have you picked up an RPG after a long break and racked your brain to try and remember what the hell was going on?  I feel this way with books when there are years between releases in a series, but if I’m away from an RPG for even a few days I sometimes feel lost.  Games also are likely to get repeat visits, often with players going through the same game but as a different character.  All of this stacks up against the game designer who is striving to tell a complex story, and in the past has been the primary reason for light stories that put most of their focus on high-impact moments (first and last level, typically).

My favorite game this year was FTL.  The wonderful thing about FTL is that it has no preconceived story line.  Instead it has an elegant, simple plot motivator: unseen bad guys are coming for you.  They get closer with each passing moment and your goal is to stay ahead of them so that when they do catch up, you’re ready.  The story, though, the journey that you go on to get from beginning to end, is yours.  It comes through organically.  And it is different every time and even though you basically never win, it’s almost always an amazing, gut-wrenching, tension filled extravaganza.  And the further you get, the higher the experience soars.  It’s brilliant, and the best part is that your decisions, every damn little one of them, ends up helping or haunting you right to the bitter end.

Another game I’ll mention is Minecraft.  A very different game from FTL, but similar in the sense that the story is what you make it. And though it can often have a story no more interesting than “I dug a ditch”, I guarantee you when you have a truly epic hardcore survival-mode run that ends in a desperate clash with a slew of monsters pouring through the dungeon stronghold you accidentally breached, you will never forget that.  And you know what, when you tell another player about it they will listen with rapt attention to your story.  Story, see? I bet you didn’t know Minecraft had one.  Sure, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it is boring.  But try telling another Uncharted player how you beat the final level.  They’ll probably cut you off halfway through and say, “yeah, I know, I played it” (or maybe “dude, no spoilers”).  Nothing against Uncharted, by the way. I played it and enjoyed it, but since setting down the controller I hadn’t spent a moment thinking about it until now.  The focus is on a pre-programmed story (a great one too, with fine writing) but there’s virtual zero opportunity for the player to make their own story.

My advice to game designers today: Design your game to let the player’s actions tell a great story.  Don’t treat the player as a mule who is just carrying the camera gear from pre-rendered scene to pre-rendered scene.  I say this, by the way, as a former game designer who is guilty of every sin mentioned above.  I also realize this is a tall order in this age of movie-sized budgets and risk-averse executives.  They want to see every dollar on the screen, as the saying goes, and so they want designers to force the player down one path, allowing all the focus to go there.  Resist!  Or do what I did, and write books instead.

Paul Kirsch
Paul Kirsch thinks way too hard about science fiction, steampunk, and video games, and treats every Twilight Zone marathon like a national holiday. He reviews books and writes about writing at

I used to think that we could do no better than games like Baldur’s Gate or Planescape: Torment, where reading a novel’s worth of dialogue and description was as vital to the game play experience as combat. Those are like The Godfather of gaming — fantastic, but they would prove a hard sell today, when gamers could just as easily flick an angry bird across the screen. That said, I would argue that the potential for quality storytelling is every bit as genuine today as it was yesterday, and that gamers have some of the biggest hearts in the creative world.

Whether putting together a book, a film, or a piece of music, the artist has to think beyond their vision of the masterpiece and factor how the product will engage the audience. Game designers face this challenge every day. They need to craft a convincing environment with (often) a quality score, sound, graphics, narrative flow, and dare I even mention a fun and challenging game mechanic. I can only imagine that they’re pulling their hair out over audience engagement during every stage of the project.

When the game is done, gamers are left with nothing but the rattling in our heads. The quest is over. No one left to guide them through the world. This is where the story of a game is tested: with the question of where it left its audience. Did it tie up every loose end, or leave us wondering what we did wrong? Was the ending consistent with the rest of the perceived narrative? How did the gameplay inform the story itself, if at all? The story becomes the emotional anchor that weighs the game in our minds long after we play it. Bastion is a fantastic example of a game with emotional girth. A combination of narrative, music and overall tone make the player feel nostalgia for a world that was already dead. That game is laden with resonance before even approaching the question of play. Portal and Half-Life are instances where the designers value the intelligence and insight of players, and craft resonant experiences where the limitations and puppet strings are nearly invisible. Alan Wake, Assassin’s Creed, and the classical Omikron: The Nomad Soul utilize the meta tools of great literature and force the player to confront their own sense of reality, with the game’s journey as symbolic of an interior quest for self-discovery.

Telling a story in a game is both simpler and more complicated. We have the tools to craft gorgeous worlds on a massive scale, but a greater responsibility to make the story as compelling.

I save the lion’s share of optimism for the independent game world. Steam has leveled the playing field to give modest games the audience they once lacked, using the same model as iTunes or ebook self-publishing. Even if the big companies went morally bankrupt overnight and started to grind out Call of Duty clones, it would take a lot more to destroy the creative endurance of gamers. The games we want to play are being made because we’re the ones making them.

Zachary Jernigan
Zachary Jernigan’s debut novel, No Return, comes out on the 5th of March, 2013, from Night Shade Books. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Crossed Genres, and Escape Pod, among others. He promises/hopes that he is better at writing fiction than he is at playing video games.

When the kind and august — not to mention muscular — Nick Sharps asked me to be part of this discussion, my first thought was, He should get Paul Kirsch to contribute! (This was literally thirty seconds before Paul, knowing his own strength in this department, volunteered.) Though I was interested in the topic and agreed to contribute, my knowledge of the current state of storytelling in gaming is… sadly lacking.

But Paul — Paul’s a gaming guru, a vocal supporter of the art form. His enthusiasm is often infectious. He has, for a couple years now, been encouraging me to play video games more. In particular, he has raved about the storytelling in Mass Effect. One evening, he told me with ever-growing enthusiasm how immersive and complex the game was, completely ignorant of how much the very idea of the game stressed me out. You see, I’m the kind of gamer (though that term is too select; occasional and completely bumbling controller-masher is more appropriate) that worries over every little detail, making sure that every corner of aroom is explored, until giving up in a huff five minutes after starting.

Dude, the games of today are hard. And the more complex they are, the closer I come to a heart attack. I mean, goodness, my favorite game series of all time is Mario Kart. That’s my speed, man.

So why on Earth am I part of this discussion? Well, because, other than the fact that Nick was kind enough to ask me and I’m just enough of an attention-junkie to accept, I really love the concept of storytelling in video games. While I’m sitting, neurons barely firing as I watch some dumb TV show, there are millions of gamers immersing themselves in virtual worlds, solving puzzles and building skills — contributing, in a far from passive way, to sophisticated storylines. It’s awesome. I, interested if uninvolved party that I am, lament how little respect is granted to an art form that contributes so much to our narrative culture.

All of this begs the question, though: If I can see the virtue in these games, why don’t I make a more concerted effort to play them? And my answer is… Laziness? Stupidity? I don’t really know the exact reasons. I do know, however, that I’d be thrilled to have my own novel turned into a game — of course I would; No Return: The Game would be so much cooler than No Return: The Movie! — but I also know that I’d stink at playing it. I’d go to L.A. to visit Paul, where I’d watch him play, reveling in how he contributes to the story I helped create. And then I’d visit my bosses, Jason and Jen (both huge gaming advocates), and watch them play.

I’d be a bystander, thrilled and jealous by turns.

It probably won’t happen, of course, but it gives me shivers just thinking about how cool it’d be.

Now, I realize that I haven’t contributed too much to the issue, here. I only touched on the first of Nick’s questions. But… I do hope I’ve made it clear that, even to the non-player, the virtues of video games as a narrative medium are obvious. In other words, some of us may be intimidated by how mature the art form has become, but this doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate it in our own way.

Thanks for asking me to contribute, Nick. Thanks for reading, readers!

David J. Williams
David J. Williams is author of the 22nd century espionage/future war Autumn Rain trilogy as well as this year’s steampunk novel The Pillars of Hercules; he is also credited with story concept for last century’s Homeworld.

I think there’s been some fantastic stuff in recent years—the Bioshock and Fallout franchises come to mind—but really, I think it’s just getting started.  What’s possible now is so beyond what was do-able at the outset of the video game era that it’s as fundamental as the shift from silent to sound in cinema.  Yet all too many of the attempts to take advantage of that bring to mind the maladroit 1947 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic The Lady In the Lake (in which the entire movie was shot from Philip Marlowe’s point of view, to disastrous results).  Immersive storytelling demands a different set of rules, and I’d have to say that the twin gods of programming and art continue to draw the bulk of the attention of the folks running the industry.  This is understandable, but also unfortunate.  Because if the New Aesthetic applies to anything at all, it applies to video games; Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” might just be the ur-template here, with its (seemingly) endless chains of possibilities—though the challenge for video-game narrative is to control those in a way that Borges’ narrator did not, integrating the virtual with implicit expectations from the ever-more-elusive real one.

Though in the spirit of full disclosure:  this is in many ways still my favorite game evah.

About Nick Sharps (85 Articles)
Nick is the Social Media Coordinator and Commissioning Editor for Ragnarok Publications and its imprint, Angelic Knight Press. He is a book critic and aspiring author. He is the co-editor of Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters from Ragnarok Publications. He studies Advertising and Public Relations at Point Park University.

4 Comments on MIND MELD: Storytelling in Video Games

  1. Now those are some truly excellent responses to the question. Great to be a part of this one! Thanks Nick!

  2. Nah. We’re only KIDDING!). Anyone remember Leather Goddesses of Phobos?

    :Raises hand: I do. You got to pick your gender by which bathroom your character went to at the beginning of the game…

  3. Great conversation about one of my favorite activities, though one I don’t get near enough time with.

    Thanks Myke Cole for the mention of Thief, one of my favorite gaming experiences ever. Those three games were just amazing. I generally find myself comparing all my gaming experiences to the time I spent with those games as they came out. Although it has just the barest outlines of ‘story’ I found myself loving Dishonored this year because it allowed me to sneak around the entire game, Thief-style, knocking out and stashing away my victims rather than being forced to kill them to complete mission objectives. Great fun!

    While I don’t disagree that the open ended nature of games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim *can* lead to an unfocused experience simply because of how far off the main quests you can go, it is that aspect that to me makes them a nearly perfect gaming experience. There is a serviceable story in both games (and New Vegas) but at the same time I can use my own imagination and create my own immersive experience for my character by setting personal quests, building up whatever skills I am interested in my character having, etc. I love that.

    But like Kameron Hurley and others I also like the level of storytelling that goes on in games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect where choices have consequences and even when the story is more linear there is a really strong emotional investment because of the quality of the story and the quality of voice actors, cut scenes, etc.

    I think we are in a great age of gaming and I’m looking forward to what comes next.

  4. I’ve read with pleasure Kameron’s Hurley trilogy (God’s War, Infidel and Rapture), and I think I’d like to play a game following Rapture story. I don’t know if the game can reproduce details of the book with fidelity, and I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed not to find in the game the world that I imagined.

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