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Ste Pickford

I'm really enjoying these articles on storytelling in games. I've felt the same way as you for years - that chasing narrative in games was a bit of a blind alley - but I've never been articulate or clever enough to express it as well as you.

Let's not be embarrassed that games are games, and focus our energies on understanding and making better games, not trying to make games appear respectable to film critics.


I agree. Like I say, we can't really claim our art as our own while we define it in others' terms.


Yeah but no.
I usually enjoy tremendously reading this blog. I mostly agree with the articles.
But this one is just wrong!
Games are ALSO a not-storytelling medium. But they can perfectly be!
I would answer lengthily, but I am busy (reading this on my break), so I am just going to give a few examples;
"After 30 years of trying[...]Videogames are - not, in turns out, a storytelling art."
I could not agree less.

- I could not get "Choice of the Vampire" out of my head for weeks
- I am totally addicted to "Blue Lacuna".
Out of IF now:
- I hated Heavy Rain coz the story sucked, but I loved Farenheit
- I felt deeply for the characters of LBA
- I cried when Aerith died (I was little, ok?)
- I played all through Chrono Trigger, complaining at each fight sequence because they bore me to death, just to continue following the story
- There is not a week that passes without me going on the hunt again to see if someone finally decided to attempt do something akin to the old LucasArts games
- Being a Linux user and an apple hater, I finally got myself an Itouch (this was before the android wave) just because they have a lot of little games that have a story. I mostly use it to play IF. It is not practical, but at least I get to play on the go.
- I torrent all non-indie games, because I seldom play more than 10mns before never touching the game again, but I actually went and bought all the Phoenix Wright games on DS, after I finished them, because I could not feel well to have got so much fun for free.
- I just don't really enjoy HL, nor Max Payne, nor any of those. I do play them, for curiosity's sake, to assess the quality of the physics engine and the new ideas, UIs, etc, but I do not have fun while playing them.
These are examples out of my own experience, granted, but as I am a human that play games, I am representative of a fraction of people that do enjoy above all a story in a videogame.
Video games are not different from books. I agree with you on "claim our art"; but what video games are, in my opinion:
Videogaming is an all-encompassing art that embraces, is nurtured, and differentiate itself from all the others. It is the head of the tree, not another node.
I love your writings, but your positioning is negative instead of ++. You try to define videogaming by opposing it to what exists, whereas I think it encompasses goes well beyond other mediums. It is not even a medium per se, since the message is constructed by the receiver just as much as the sender. I link videogaming to the concept of play as Johann Huizinga sees it (somehow). Videogaming is illusion of control above all, is linked to dancing around the fire and drawing the auroch on the wall of the cave. For me at least. You are limiting it by calling it "art" only.
Damn that text box is small.

dr Jack

You said:
"I think it’s fair to say that games as a storytelling medium doesn’t really hang together."

First question:
Can you relate the theory you just explained to the game Planescape Torment?
The story in Torment was deep and a main element of the game. At least I think so, do you agree?
If you agree.
Is that story an error? Or the game had a problem since the storytelling of the story inside Torment don't hang with the gameplay?

Second question: What about Monkey Island?

I've a different opinion, but I'm not here to contest, I'd like only to understand the theory you exposed.
Using as examples videogames with a main and important story element.
Since I think that Torment and Monkey Island I & II are so good cause of the stories inside them.


Both Monkey Island and Planescape are commonly cited examples of 'storytelling' in games, but actually I think if you look closely at both of those games, they actually conform to what I'm talking about.

Both have considerable attention to the sense of their stories, both have incidentals, scrolls and cut scenes that are all used to paint the picture.

Both also have the same restriction as all other games that the player is in control, and so the arrangements are inherently lacking. There are plenty of opportunities for redundancy and repetition in both, and their plots are consequently telegraphed. The player is also, as all player are, controlling his doll as himself. Planescape makes clever use of this by calling the player Nameless.

My point is that taken on the rules of how stories work (i.e. via arrangement) none of these games stack up. No game can because all games are played by players at their pace rather than acted by actors along a script.

This means that the sense of a story, of a world in motion, is what matters for games. All of the games that you've cited here conform to that rather than actual storytelling, and that is what makes them brilliant.

That's the art of what games are.

Mr. Strange

While I see your point - I really think Planescape deserves special recognition for (if not actually breaking free) at least coming as close as possible to novel-style storytelling as a game could.

*Major Spoiler alert!*

The scenario of Planescape Torment is this - you were a powerful wizard, who managed to cast a spell which made you immortal. But every time you "die" your mind might be altered - essentially turning you into a new person. So over the past centuries you have had several significant lives - most significantly the wizard, a master thief, and a lunatic. The thief and the lunatic each discovered the truth about your predicament, and left clues for future incarnations of yourself.

That's the setup - which you don't actually understand until the end of the game. When the game starts, you just know that you apparently come back to life whenever you are killed, and you can't remember anything else.

Playing the game is very much like any other RPG, with dialog and quests. But the spine of the game - the "real story" - is figuring out more and more about who you are. So you (the player) is trying to figure out the same thing that you (the avatar) is. The clues you get are scattered and unclear - and in fact you actually "finish" the game without discovering the truth - unless you have certain ability scores and make certain choices.

But all this combines into a truly magical moment should you (the player) actually discover the truth. I believe this moment is the reason so many people cite this game as such a great example of what storytelling in a video game can be.

The experience of that moment was, for me, like realizing the meta-story within the Red Badge of Courage.


I really don't think that there is any disagreement in what I'm saying though. Other games that feature intricate mysteries are most adventure games, Deus Ex and many others.

My point is that the way that they are conveyed successfully (and I think Planescape is a case in point) is through a loose sense rather than specifically arranged storytelling. Storytelling is a very deliberately non-interactive art form, which no game can be, and its non-interaction is at the heart of why it works.

To get caught up in trying to attach the language of a different art to our own is ultimately not productive, nor celebrating of the art form that is ours. In a sense, we are disagreeing over terms, but I believe that the language that we use to describe our art is closely related to how we attempt to establish legitimacy for it (or fail to do so), so the terminology actually matters.

When I say 'videogames are not a storytelling art' I am not saying that they are not an art, nor an art capable of greatness. I absolutely believe that they are. But the language and ideas that are specific to storytelling are a terrible fit for describing what games do really well.

Thank you for the thoughtful comment.

Joe Cooper

I tried applying this sort of model, actually, after I read an article on Gamasutra trying to describe games as being "like a painting you can explore".

All the commenters threw a fit about about, but nevermind that.

Upshot is, some guy needed some text blurbs for an online crime game; stories that come out when you try different crimes, detailing how you succeeded, failed or were arrested.

He had a model where it would string together different pieces of prose to make stories that "vary" more, but I made the case for full paragraphs because the auto-assembly would make blurbs not worth reading in the first place.

Anyway, I took the opportunity to try the painting model...

We removed any "exposition" or intro blurb larger than a sentence, and then with every blurb tried to characterize the setting (which he wanted to be a dystopia). For example:

'The market for fake IDs is booming now that possession of pornography, flavored cough syrup and overly ethnic music is punishable by revoking your work license.'

'...right before the dude pays, he tells you he’s a cop and you're under arrest. “But marijuana was legalized!”, you say. “Yes, but you didn’t file form QXR-47G. That’s a violation of the Gardening Finance Reform Act.”'

It all worked well enough and received unsolicited compliments from players.


Right on Tadhg. You're a big inspiration to me. I'm working on a pretty epic YouTube video about this subject. I'll let you know when it's done.


"Videogames are not, in turns out, a storytelling art. They have tried very hard to be, and their reasons for trying are noble, but the results are always ham-fisted. There are no good game stories because game stories don’t really matter. What matters is the game world, in all of its glorious detail."

While, a few months ago, I probably would have agreed with this, I'm recently finished playing Fallout 3 and now completely disagree.
They did a fantastic job with the story line for this game. It's the best I've come across, which isn't saying too terribly much sense I'm not a massive gamer. Still, it deserves saying there are always exceptions.


Sorry, but this'll drive me mad if I don't correct it...
and *since.

Graham McGrew

I, too, wish to say, "But what about my favorite game, which excels at storytelling," only to have you say "No, it doesn't. It excels at being a moving painting." My favorite game is Dragon Age Origins. Maybe there can be common cause between interactivity and storytelling -- my choices helped to reveal more of Morrigan's character, making her late game plot point compelling. Maybe numina, thauma and drama can flourish in the same hedgerow.

Justin Keverne

Why exactly does the player character need to be the central character? Agency is possible without making the player the protagonist in all instances. Why not consider the player as an actor rather than a viewer? These seems like holdovers from traditional notions of story creation that there is little benefit in clinging to.

I agree with the central argument that "storytelling" is not the best way to think about it, though I find the way you've gone about arguing that point problematic. You make frequent broad statements about how successful game writing is, based, it would appear exclusively, on your own perception of it. You did not feel the characterisation of Kratos was successful, you find adventure games frustrating, you feel Mass Effect is heavy handed. I can find many people who disagree with you, and yet your argument is predicated on your views on these matter being quantifiable correct.

Also I ask this, how exactly is storytelling non-interactive? Corvus Elrod makes a very good case for why storytelling even in its most classic form is far from passive and non-interactive: http://corvus.zakelro.com/2009/02/crafting-a-fabula/


Hi Justin,

There's a companion post that I wrote on the subject of player characters (and how there is no such thing): http://whatgamesare.com/2011/02/cars-dolls-and-video-games-narrativism.html

There is a school of thought that thinks that because a story taps into empathy and resonance that that is a form of interaction, but that's a pretty esoteric interpretation. By that logic all things are interactive, and so the term becomes completely meaningless.

I prefer a more straightforward view: Am I able to effect change in the work? If the answer is yes then it is interactive. If not, no it isn't.

(By the way: Actually I did feel the characterisation of Kratos was successful by the way, because it's sparing. Apologies if that's not clear in the post.)


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