Gaming is home to a potent new form of storytelling

John Walker argues, irrefutably, that games are a great place to tell stories: "There are some who have argued that games just aren’t the right medium for telling stories. ... But this argument is entirely flawed, failing to understand that gaming is home to a completely new form of storytelling, and one that is perhaps more potent and powerful than any other." [Rock Paper Shotgun]


  1. Yeah, for those of you too busy/lazy to follow Dan Hibiki’s link, John Walker wrote an article called “Maybe Games Just Aren’t For Telling Great Stories” on Tuesday and “Games Are The Ideal Place For Telling Great Stories” on Wednesday. Linking just one of them is missing the point.

    This isn’t the first time he’s covered both sides single-handedly: a while back he did “The New X-COM Is Going To Suck” and “The New X-COM Will Be Awesome.”

  2. Personally, I think the best story-telling game has been Dragon Age Origins (let’s not even DISCUSS that travesty of a sequel.)  The story arc was fixed but the backstories were varied and there was an unbelievable range of stories that could be generated between and among the characters depending on the make-up of the party at any given time and the levels of friendship among them.  Sadly, I think too many people missed this element of the game altogether since it required talking and relationship-building, something too many players were too impatient to deal with.  The story-telling facility enabled and encouraged repeated play in order to see what would happen. One play-through for example ended in a typical tragic-romance style.  Another had the main character hook up with someone (numerous someones) altogether.  In another I attempted to choose all the most obnoxious conversation options just to see what would happen if I played it more evil (my only quibble there was that it was pretty impossible to get much cooperation, which you think could be done if only through fear.)  In any case, I was THRILLED at the story-creation and character development in an RPG and hoped it foretold a future of games that were engrossing on multiple levels.  Sadly, Dragon Age II gutted the concept, took out all the subtlety of the conversation options (which were not always cut and dry in Origins), took out the option for customization of characters and backstories.  Essentially they cut out its heart.  Sigh.  

  3. Humans are great at telling stories. Everything humans do tells stories. It’s how we understand and process the world. The power of games is that they make explicit something which is usually implicit in story telling: in all stories, the audience is a participant to the telling.

    We craft the stories as we partake in them. We create our own personal form of the narrative- when we watch a film, or read a book, we are not passive observers who receive the creator’s vision. A good story sparks our imagination, we participate with it, we think about it, we play games where we try and jump ahead in the plot and then jump back and re-evaluate our predictions in the context of events. We build our own mental models of the characters and settings. Sometimes, this explodes into fan fiction and expanded universes and role-playing games, but even when it doesn, the effect still exists.

    Video games make this explicit. And I think as people start praising video games as a narrative medium, we run the risk of forgetting that. Video games are not something to be experienced, not something to be observed, but something to participate in. And the writers trying to tell stories in that medium need to remember that they must give control to the player in a way that doesn’t usually happen in other mediums.

    I always find the Half-Life series interesting, because people praise its story. The story is, honestly, nothing special- it’s a basic alien invasion story, with flat characters and some heavy deus ex machina. But it’s a well executed story, which gives the players control- there is never a cut scene. Gordon Freeman never speaks. From the first moment in the game, the player is in control of Gordon Freeman, even as the credits are rolling. Exposition happens inside of gameplay.

    It’s not a terribly special narrative, but it’s embraced its medium in a way that transcends its uninventive mediocrity.

  4. Although it is a different subject, I think it is in the same ballpark: Coursera is offering a free online course through Vanderbilt titled “Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative” that might be interesting to people who enjoy this general subject.

  5. Something I really like about horror games is that they are like horror movies that answer the question “What if that hadn’t worked out?”  Horror movies try to get us to buy into the suspense but if you’ve already picked out the protagonist then you pretty much know they will make it to at least the last or second last scene.  In a horror game you get to really understand that the hero’s success was not inevitable, that things could have gone fantastically wrong and they could have been blown up or ripped to bits or what-have-you.

    Of course in order to achieve this a game has to be hard enough that you can fail but easy enough that you don’t run the same segment enough times for the illusion to be lost.

    And to be honest, AAA horror video games top AAA horror movies in terms of story anyway.  And, really, some of the horror indie games are brilliant enough that I’m sure they rival the best horror stories.

  6. Games and storytelling are inherently at odds. A good story will propel you to its inevitable conclusion. A game will cease being a game if it has an inevitable conclusion.

    A game might generate a “story” experience as it is being played, as in any great game of Chess for example, but that is incidental to what a game is. There are many many fantastic games without any stories hardcoded into them. Minecraft, anyone? Imo, this “storytelling” and “hero” thing is a blight on today’s gaming industry… and the story how it came to be is quite banal.

    In the early nineties gaming was finally recognized as a new mainstream entertainment medium. The powers that be at the time (mostly movie moguls) were at a loss how to push this new round thing into the old square hole they new. They needed a reference with which to understand it. Since the closest thing to it were the movies (audio-visual content) they inferred that this new thing is valued by the amount of “story” and “character” just like the movies. So, here we are now, 20 years later, still trying desperately to sell games through “stories” and “heroes”.

    p.s. (As a huge admirer of Joseph Campbell, I can’t but cringe at what has the popular entertainment industry done with his monomyth concept. It was meant to be an analysis of the basic structure of human psyche as evidenced through mythology, rather than a recipe for everything from computer games to wild life documentaries and cooking shows.)

  7. Is this discussion exclusively about computer games, or are tabletop games included?  Some of the best stories came out of the old D&D/Hero Systems/GURPS formats, where you created your own storylines.  The fun part always came where the PCs did something completely unexpected; sometimes it was just annoying and got slapped down, but sometimes it propelled the game in a entirely different direction and the GM had to think fast.  Hilarity usually ensued.

    1. Nowadays you, the mere consumer, “are not qualified” (to quote the best movie ever made) to interfere in matters of such importance and complexity as the story of the “product” you “consume”. Please, leave it to those better qualified who happen to be paid to deliver the allimportant story content to you. Leave stories to those who know what they’re doing. Breed. Obey. Be happy.

  8. The Japanese have a thing called a visual novel, a cross between game and straightforward storytelling. Never caught on in the States.

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