Storytelling in Video Games: A Squandered Opportunity

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

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It is no secret that we here at Oprainfall love us some good ol’ RPGs, and chances are you do too. The reason for this is often not just because of the typical gameplay elements that RPGs entail, but because of the amazing and awe inspiring stories that many of these games have to tell. I would even be so bold as to claim that video games, in general, are one of the greatest narrative mediums known to man – as they don’t simply tell a tale, they deliver an experience within a story. So why is it that I so often hear comments such as “Playing a video game for the story is like eating a cake for the spoon”, when in reality it’s more like baking a cake you yourself are going to eat? I believe it is because, sadly, in a lot of cases these people are right. Video games are amazing and unique in the way that they can portray plots, however many developers squander the capabilities of the medium. Specifically, they forget to incorporate one single important concept into their stories – interactivity.

Storytelling Zelda

There’s more to storytelling than just interacting with books!

In a video released earlier this year, Psychonauts creator Tim Schafer sat down with Ron Gilbert, one of the creative minds behind the first two Monkey Island games, in order to discuss adventure games and deliberate on what it is that makes them so great. One of the topics they discussed was interactive dialogue. Dialogue is an extremely handy way of conveying information, be it plot, setting or character related, to the recipient of any given medium. In video games, unlike in books or in movies, this dialogue has the possibility of being interactable – expanding the possibilities tenfold. Most games rarely pull this feat off well however, a problem which Gilbert blames on the vast amount of writers who expect a video game script to work exactly like a film script. Video games are not movies; it pains me to see so many developers and publisher trying to treat them as such. According to Schafer, it’s really important for a good dialogue writer (in a game) to also know programing. Thus he/she will be able to see how their ideas will work within the code as well as understand in which way their lines will flow within the game; creating a more cohesive experience.

Storytelling Monkey Island

Insult sword fighting -a brilliant example of great interactive dialogue

The same can be said about storytelling in video games in general for far too many games, especially AAA titles. While attempting to create “epic” storylines and at the same time creating gameplay that will appeal to the masses, developers far too often overlook integration. Cohesiveness is completely lost when rules contrived through the gameplay directly contradict rules established by the story’s setting. One of the most villainous practitioners of this kind of narrative travesty is the Uncharted series. On one hand I am following the wondrous Indiana Jones-like adventures of Nathan Drake and co, yet at the same time I am expected to believe that Nate is a coldblooded murderer of thousands of inexplicably available private soldiers who somehow were shipped to an unknown, desolate place in an impossibly short time. This particular problem arises when a traditional third-person shooter is forced into a screenplay for a film – yet for what reason? I might as well just watch Indiana Jones and play Vanquish.

Storytelling Indiana Jones Storytelling Nathan Drake
The worst kind of Indy-game

I’m not saying that these kinds of games are inherently bad, as many amazing stories are told using this method – take Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII for an example. The game features amazing characters and a powerful and emotional story, but in-between the story segments it’s naught more than a simple action RPG with almost no exploration. Here the story works as an incentive, a reward for clearing each stage. The fact that Crisis Core is a Final Fantasy title makes this kind of gameplay work, as the setting is already over the top and unbelievable to begin with; unlike games like Mass Effect who want their worlds to be taken more seriously. Although the fact still stands that this method is an unfortunate waste of the medium’s narrative capabilities. When considering the memory constraints of the PSP in Crisis Core though, it becomes an understandable waste. More modern games like Final Fantasy XIII, however, have no excuse.

Storytelling Crisis Core

Crisis Core tells a good story, but does the game tell it well?

“You ask the impossible!” you might say. “No game with a good story could be told within the gameplay without maiming the experience in some way.” To those of you who think like this I say: I find your lack of faith disturbing.  There are a select few games that have managed to make gameplay a part of the narrative experience without turning into a visual novel or a film containing forced gameplay elements.

Two amazing titles that immediately come to mind are Shadow of the Colossus and Portal. Unlike all of the other games mentioned in this article, their tales are woven around the core gameplay mechanic. In Portal’s case, the story circles around how you solve puzzles with your portal gun, from there you get to explore why and where you are doing what you are doing. In the same way, Shadow of the Colossus is built around the fact that Wander has to beat 16 bosses to win. Here the gameplay is not being shoved into an existing world and narrative, instead it’s up to the game to create a setting explaining why and how you defeat these bosses. Thus, by not forgetting that at their core they are a game, these titles successfully manage to integrate their story into their gameplay from the get-go. This is why these games are so memorable, they manage to create something more than just a game with a story – they convey an experience.

Storytelling Shadow of the Colossus

Are we not all tools guided by the will of the game designer?

Are these games the best there is? For some, perhaps. The point of this article is not to argue which games have the best story; it is to highlight the possibilities within said games that are missed by so many developers. Many of my favourite games squander this opportunity as well, that doesn’t make them less fun to play or their plot any less interesting to follow. My point is this: there are some things that only can be done – only can be told – using the interactive medium that is video games, and hopefully we’ll see more developers experiment with the unique storytelling techniques that this medium is capable of in the future.




  • I agree with you so much.  If you like Portal, I could also recommend Half-Life as well.

  • What about visual novel games, like the Zero Escape series?

    • I was thinking the same exact thing up until this point near the end: “There are a select few games that have managed to make gameplay a part
      of the narrative experience without turning into a *visual novel* or a
      film containing forced gameplay elements.”

      Still, Zero Escape ftw. Great story.

    • I love visual novels, but I’m not quite sure I would put them in the same category as video games. It really is a gray area, if I had to define them I’d say they’re evolved books – In the same way films are evolved theatrical plays.

    • Sanguine

       I don’t think its as ambiguous as you think. Most visual novels these days have significant gameplay hidden under the hood. The choices you make aren’t as cut and dry as a choose your own adventure book. They can trigger or prevent entire events, completely derail the story you were hoping to tell, and hugely impact which ending you get.

      Fate/Stay Night, particularly the Heaven’s Feel route, has so many variables influencing your events and the three potential endings you practically need a flow chart to get what you want. And thats one of the LESSER examples I could cite.

  • And still, I like JRPGs and games such as Asura’s Wrath 😉

  • Sniper D. Luffy

    FF 9 comes to mind…where did the good time go? T___T

  • This article brings up something that I’ve been thinking about for a while.

    There was a time when a video game could tell a story, but it was still up to the player to articulate that story in his/her imagination. The point about how game developers are trying to mimic movies is spot on with how I feel. Video games are NOT movies, and they should not try to prescribe to the exact same methods. There are exceptions to that rule, of course.

    But mainly, there is a certain lack of depth in video game storytelling, and I think there CAN be a way to do it without showing it exactly like a movie. I take to the belief that games should try to be more like interactive novels, or comics, instead of movies. Why? Because there is still some involvement with the player’s imagination. You are playing it, and your imagination is engaged to help create the world. Instead, designers mistake graphical fidelity for imagination and they desire to create the world in its entirety, down to the fine detail of individual hairs and blades of grass. But this is when the art becomes less interactive, and gets stuck in limbo in between trying to be a movie and trying to be a video game.

    There are also some tried-and-true elements that are crucial to making a story interesting that video game story writers stopped embracing. Those things, mainly, would be a sense of irony and the unexpected. It’s difficult to pull it off in a game, because you know that you are going to fight something, and eventually win. But how that is delivered is very important. It seems video games in general are stuck in trying to repackage the same exact experience over and over with different graphical skin and tweaked mechanics, opting to increase the physical and visual depth without looking into the elements of story and what make them interesting. Irony is the art of doing something unexpected- and in some cases, doing opposite of what is expected. This is a very important mechanic for good storytelling and I find it lacking in most video games.

    I am glad to see people discussing this topic. There is incredible potential yet to be tapped in the art of video games, and yet I find that potential gets overlooked. I ask why video games languish in this way, but I know somehow that this depth can be achieved. People just have to be creative and work outside of their usual patterns of doing only what makes money. Developers also have to do what they love- which is hard in business.