Why have narrative in games?

It has been somewhat in vogue recently among a certain class of indie game designer to assert that games are not a good storytelling medium. Now, I have never made a secret of my views on dialog and other narrative techniques in games. While interactivity is of course central to any gaming experience, that is no license to make games meaningless. Done right, narrative gives context and meaning to our actions in-game, and provides a valuable experience in its own right.

Rather than simply post a rant, however, I decided to put the question to a handful of other indie RPG developers:

Some designers have demonized narrative as an inherently limiting and unnecessary distraction from the emergent storytelling arising out of pure gameplay. Why have narrative in games?

As you might expect, I received a variety of interesting and thoughtful responses:

Jeff Vogel: Someone is demonizing narrative? Really? That seems odd.

Emergent gameplay is great, if you can get it. It is a very difficult thing to do. But storytelling, whatever the medium, is one of the oldest and most fundamental human activities. Human brains are naturally receptive to telling and being told stories. As long as that is true, people will use games to tell stories.

Thomas Riegsecker: Narrative is certainly not required for all games, and in some cases in can be unnecessary baggage for the player. When it comes to role-playing games, one world think that a strong narrative is an absolute requirement. However, countless variations of Rogue shows that you can have a marvelous role-playing experience with little more than a single sentence explaining the goal. Likewise, many successful mainstream RPGs rely on nothing more than the overused plot of “Kill the powerful bad guy”, and any narrative in between the start and end of the game is really unnecessary.

However, narrative can be exceptionally rewarding as well. It can turn a generic role-playing game into a unforgettable one if done correctly. Certainly, when someone fondly remembers an RPG that they enjoyed playing years ago, it is often the story they remember and not the hours of level grinding and monster killing. Likewise, narration can guide the player through a seemingly immense world, preventing that unwelcome feeling of “I don’t know what I should be doing now”. Overall, it really is a player preference. As a developer, I need to find that balance between not enough narrative and too much narrative that will give a rewarding role-playing experience to as many potential customers as possible.

Amanda Fitch: I don’t think narrative is limiting and unnecessary, but if it is presented in manner which takes the player out of the game, then yes, it isn’t any fun.

Jay Barnson: I think I may be one of those demonizers. Sorry ’bout that. Didn’t mean to give any more ammunition to the haters.

Simply put, the needs of good “traditional” storytelling as we know it runs counter to good interactive gameplay. The hero in a compelling story is going to make mistakes, is going to be subject to rising and falling action, and is going to get pain heaped upon him by the author, and not see victory until the moment things are at its bleakest. He is not going to choose the optimal path to victory because – frankly – that makes for a really boring story. But that’s exactly what the player will go for if given the choice, and gameplay is all about making choices. So either we smack the player down with non-interactive, forced narrative, or we allow them to create for themselves a story that is likely to be devoid of very much drama.

Nevertheless, I love a good story in games. It’s a big part of why I’m such a fan of RPGs – I love the stories. The human brain is hard-wired to tune into stories. And I think even a mediocre story is more fun when you get to live it through a game. So in spite interactivity and narrative being something of a shotgun marriage, it works. The big question is how to make it work better. The almost universal approach today is to reach some compromise between the two, and keep trying to find a happier medium that works best for each game. Another, much more challenging approach, would be to rig the game mechanics to encourage adherence to more dramatic narrative formulas. Score bonus points for making dramatically interesting mistakes or something. And interactively build the narrative around player actions. We see glimmers of that in the Left 4 Dead series, where the AI engine seems to spawn enemies more based on the rhythm of the game than on location.

It’s not an easy blend. Narrative and gameplay are always going to have contradictory goals and tend to inhibit each other. But I also feel that the blend of contradictory elements is often greater than a sum of its parts.

[EDIT: We have a late entry! Added below.]

Vince D. Weller: Narrative is a good feature. I doubt that there are many people who’d tell you that they don’t like a good story in their games, so the problem isn’t that narrative is some kinda outdated thing of the past that gets in the way of emergent gameplay (I’ve yet to see a game that actually delivers it, but that’s a different story), but that like any other feature it can suck for one reason or the other. A story can be bad. A story can be uninspiring. A story can fail to grab the player and make him care (Alpha Protocol). A story can suffocate the player (Witcher, many Bioware games). Much like anything else, good story-telling is a talent. Not everyone can tell a good story, especially in a video game format. If you can’t, then it’s better to skip the narrative and focus on features that can replace it, like the sandbox elements, for example. If you can, then it won’t take much effort to make the story flexible enough to support decision-making and it would enhance your game. Simple as that.

As for narrative being limiting when it comes to emergent gameplay, I disagree. There are many ways to craft a story that doesn’t force the player to move along a pre-determined and very narrow path, but lets the player make decisions and craft his or her own story within the story arc. I can tell you what these ways are, but it’s boring, so let me throw stones at Jay instead:

“Simply put, the needs of good “traditional” storytelling as we know it runs counter to good interactive gameplay. The hero in a compelling story is going to make mistakes, is going to be subject to rising and falling action, and is going to get pain heaped upon him by the author, and not see victory until the moment things are at its bleakest. He is not going to choose the optimal path to victory because – frankly – that makes for a really boring story. But that’s exactly what the player will go for if given the choice, and gameplay is all about making choices. So either we smack the player down with non-interactive, forced narrative, or we allow them to create for themselves a story that is likely to be devoid of very much drama.”

The amount of drama depends entirely on the story-teller and the paths he creates for the player. If there is a path that can be described as the optimal path to victory, then yes, it’s boring and uninspiring, but only because the story-teller has failed. That’s what consequences of your actions are for. By applying consequences to the hero’s actions you can infuse the story with as much drama as you need and make the “optimal path to victory” the “hero does in the end” path, should you so desire, or “the hero fucks everything up, so things now are way worse than before, so thanks a lot, you fucking douchebag” path, not to mention the much desired “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” path where the seemingly optimal, no-brainer options lead to the hero slowly become the villain, without even realizing it. I assume that the moment when the player realizes what his hero has become would be quite precious.

So, the moral of this story is that choices without consequences don’t mean much and it’s the consequences that are the link between the traditional storytelling and emergent gameplay.

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  • Inannawhimsey says:

    Just a comment knocked loose from your essay :3

    Perhaps computer games are always going to be different from, say, pen & paper RPGs in that pen & paper RPGs are a lot like radio, in that they totally require the imagination of the players. Whereas, right now, computer games are like TV — they TELL the viewer what they are experiencing.

    The human brain is still the best game around :3

  • Callan S. says:

    It’s just a hell of alot easier to plonk some text on a screen and say ‘See! Story!’ than code alot of small actions which tend to draw into a narrative in the players head.

    Not to mention no ones in the habit of having the game record the players play, so he could see his story, gasp, twice or more instead of only ever the once.

    I’m writing a browser game at the moment which plonks text on the screen between battles. It’s lazy – the player is supposed to be playing/doing something, not passively listening/doing nothing. It’s just a work around I’m using, because I’m just one coder alone.

    “The hero in a compelling story is going to make mistakes, is going to be subject to rising and falling action, and is going to get pain heaped upon him by the author, and not see victory until the moment things are at its bleakest. He is not going to choose the optimal path to victory because – frankly – that makes for a really boring story.”
    Which ‘He’ are you talking about? The hero or the author?

    Frankly hero’s who make sub optimal choices are a tired cliche and much moked, typically. Hero’s who make sub optimal choices are boring.

    Moral choices where the Hero puts down the gun cause they threaten to kill the hostage – this is a moral choice, not a sub optimal choice. But since when does the player know in your game whether putting the gun down or not is the best choice? If he can figure it, you’ve not made a complex game at all (or he’s looked up spoilers).

    Walls of text in games? A work around doing a great deal more work. Check out guild wars 2 where they are trying to banish the wall of quest text.

  • Bob Clark says:

    Being a designer who’s primarily interested in creating games with interactive dialogue, I’m obviously sort of biased as to the idea of whether or not narrative-driven games are any more or less legitimate than those which concentrate on what you might call abstract emergent play. However, I will say that I find it odd how much of a debate there is over whether or not storytelling, when properly done, even has a place at the table– yeah, of course it’s difficult to do right, but that doesn’t mean you give up the ghost entirely. Integrating interactivity into storytelling can be a challenge at times (or vice versa, depending upon how you look at it), but to me, the two things seem like something of a natural fit.

    Granted, games don’t necessarily need narrative to be fun, but to a certain extent I’d argue that all narratives have something intrinsically gamelike about them. Fritz Lang often said that he viewed the plots of his films as games in which two opposing players took turns vying against one another– it’s especially easy to see this in his “Dr. Mabuse” films, or the seminal early-sound picture “M”, where Peter Lorre’s murderer is basically the prize being sought by both cops and criminals. Whenever a new element is introduced into a story that significantly alters the status-quo for the characters in question, it’s called a “game-changer”, a word that got thrown around a lot with the ups and downs of the show “Lost” (hell, they even made the connection literal with the whole backgammon obsession). Hell, even at its most basic definition, narrative requires some kind of conflict to attract interest, and how better to express the outcome of any given conflict than win-or-loss states?

    So, yeah. I’ll admit, partly my motivation is self interest (if people stop caring about narratives in games, then I’m pretty much screwed) but also it’s just a matter of aesthetic logic. Not all games are narratives, but all narratives are games, so why not make the connection, if you can?

  • Heh – ‘sokay Vince, I hope my hide is thick enough to take a couple of thrown stones. My skull is certainly thick enough.

    But guys like Chris Crawford have spent years (decades, really) trying to make proper “interactive stories” with only limited success.

    So I think that narrative and interaction will remain at odds for the foreseeable future without a radical change in how games are designed. But while the two aspects will always be in contention, I think it’s okay. And as you suggest, there are ways of making the two a little more compatible.

  • […] several indie game developers about the role of narrative in games in an article entitled, “Why Have Narrative In Games.”  Now, they were all RPG developers, which is traditionally a very story-heavy genre, so […]

  • WCG says:

    Well, I’m one who thinks that RPGs are not a good medium for storytelling. Books and movies are great mediums for telling a story because they’re passive and linear. The storyteller knows where he’s going, and the reader/viewer has no alternative but to follow along.

    Games aren’t passive, or shouldn’t be, and linearity conflicts with player choice. When you try to tell a story in a game, you don’t play to a game’s strengths. A game isn’t a movie, no matter how superficially similar they may be.

    I think the future of RPGs lies in world-building – and in story creation, rather than storytelling. That’s not to say that there won’t be stories in the game. In that respect, a simulated world should be just like the real one, with lots of narratives, large and small. There could even be an overarching story, a world-spanning problem or dire situation.

    But the developer wouldn’t be telling any particular story, nothing with a beginning, middle, and end. He’d set up situations among the NPCs that could become “stories,” but they’d continue with or without the player. Yes, the player’s actions would have consequences – and far-reaching consequences in some cases – but if he turned left, instead of right, any number of situations down the road to the right might play out without him, or at least continue to evolve in some reasonable way.

    These situations wouldn’t be what we normally think of as “stories,” not at all. But if the player discovered them and took part, they might become very meaningful parts of his character’s own personal narrative. And as I say, they might have far-reaching consequences throughout the gameworld.

    Now many games, like shooters, that are just a matter of game mechanics, can be linear with no problem. In those games, the player doesn’t have to make choices. The gameplay is just in killing whatever moves. But in an RPG, decisions should matter, and not just in picking one of two or three choices. I’m talking real freedom for the player, and REAL choices.

    I think that Dwarf Fortress (admittedly, not an RPG) is pointing the way forward, along with a very few other games. The memorable thing about these games is the story or stories you create by playing the game. It’s different for every play-through. We’re only at the very beginning of this kind of gameplay, so it’s pretty primitive yet, but IMHO, this is where games can really shine. Movies can’t do this, no way, no how.

  • wruscle says:

    I had a moment like Vince Weller described, and it was precious. It snuck up on me. I was playing Fallout 3, second time through. I had not detonated the atomic bomb in Megaton the first time and I was curious, so I did it. It was quite a spectacle and, as a result, I got the luxury apartment in the towers and the trust of the owner.

    But I found, as I continued on in the game that I had a growing resentment toward the owner, and decided that he should be taught a lesson. I wanted to make amends in a way, get some good karma back. And I remembered the ghouls in the tunnel nearby that were not allowed in the towers by the racist inhabitants. So I figured I would help them get in and teach the owner a lesson. I stole the keys and opened the door in the basement of the towers, somehow thinking that the ghouls would come in and assert their rights.

    I don’t know why I was thinking they’d do some kind of sit in, and that I would be able to navigate some sort of dialogue tree that would lead to a begrudging resolution, but I did, and that’s not what happened. The ghouls started shooting, and then it was just survival, floor by floor until the owner at the top was dead along with everyone else. And once there was enough of a pause for me to take stock, I clicked on my karma, to see if having retaliated for the destruction of Megaton had moved me positive. It had of course bottomed out, I was a scourge of the wasteland.

    How could I have not know that would happen? I was stunned at how clearly and inexorably my initial wrong had given rise to resentment, resentment had given rise to an impulsive plan to try to rectify things, and how the plan had made me worse than the NPC I had come to hate. It was an extraordinary and authentic fall from grace. I did not reload. I couldn’t. It was too good a story to renounce. So I left the tower, never went back, and hunted slavers until I couldn’t find any more.

  • Fred Fnord says:

    Frankly hero’s who make sub optimal choices are a tired cliche and much moked, typically. Hero’s who make sub optimal choices are boring.

    Please do yourself a favor and don’t try to be a novelist. (And not just because you don’t make plurals with apostrophes.)

    Because, of course, you have it exactly backward here. The hero who makes no mistakes, who has no tragedy, who is omnicompetent and always knows exactly what to do, that’s the boring one.

    See, for example, the Retief series by Keith Laumer. Every story is the same: the bumbling bureaucracy muffs something up, usually with the help of the evil Russians aliens. Retief, possibly with the dubious aid of his bureaucratic sidekick, goes in and does the perfect thing to fix everything. The end. There are plenty more of these in the SF arena, most of them apparently written by Ayn Rand acolytes. The only dramatic tension is seeing exactly how the main character is going to fix the situation, and that’s not even enough to base a novella on… it’s purely the realm of the short story. (And you can base quite a good short story around it, but, as with Retief, more than one or two gets boring and predictable.)

    Americans hate true tragedy, where the main character loses. This is a terrible waste of a good art form, and is very limiting on writers working in English these days. However, if there are no smaller tragedies in the main character’s life, the story is stock and boring.

    There’s another subgenre of ‘perfect hero’, where the main character doesn’t ever do anything wrong, but every bad thing that could possibly happen to him or her happens, and there’s just nothing they can do. They make every right choice and it doesn’t matter, they’re screwed no matter what. Usually they end up winning out in the end (because, as I mentioned above, Americans hate tragedy) but there’s no lack of dramatic tension. This can make a decent story, but generally doesn’t, because after a while having the worst possible thing happen over and over and over and over gets boring, predictable, and less and less credible. Plus, again, it’s hard to sympathize with a hero who always makes the right decision, unless you’re egocentric enough to believe that you fit into that category.

    For a contrast, take a look at Lois McMaster Bujold’s science fiction books. Her books are all about growing, learning from your mistakes, being an idiot sometimes. Fixing it when you can, and mourning it when you can’t. They’re some of the best out there. Writing like that could make an incredible game, though it would have to be done very delicately and with lots of branches, which of course game manufacturers hate. (Since it generally means lots of content that won’t be seen by everyone who plays the game.)


  • Matt Marquez says:

    Taking Bob Clark’s line and tweaking it somewhat, I’d say that all games are narratives and all narratives are games. When a player participates in a game, she is creating an experience that will feature highs and lows and eventually end. That sounds like a story to me. What ultimately decides whether a game has a “good” story is the scale and meaning attached to it and how appropriately it fits the game.

    For example, many people hold up Shadow of the Colossus for its powerful story even though there is virtually no dialogue or secondary characters beyond the hero. And the only apparent consequences of the player’s actions are reflected in the hero’s physical form. The small changes in his appearance are minor, but they take on greater meaning because he is the only person in the game. It’s simple, but the experience is intensely personal as befits the story.

    A much larger game in terms of cast, locations, etc. would require similarly epic consequences. Obviously this is much more difficult to do because designers have to anticipate and add every one of these consequences and do it in a way that advances the story in a way that is appropriately meaningful way. (I can’t even say what meaningful is because it should change depending on the story.) That’s a lot of hard work and I think that’s why many epic games frequently fail to have good stories. It’s more difficult to do on a larger scale.

    To be fair, I think crafting a meaningful story is incredibly difficult no matter how big or small it is. But I do believe that every game automatically has a story. It’s simply up to the developers to decide how developed that story should be and it is up to the developer’s skill to make the game experience fit within it.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by kate_eltham, Josh Rosen. Josh Rosen said: Very interesting post about narrative in games: http://bit.ly/am57FO I especially like the last section […]

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  • Callan S. says:

    Fred Fnord, the ‘do yourself a favour’ stuff comes across as bitchy. And the apostrophe correction is for people who are afraid to speak only as a peer.

    As I said, if the characters making a moral choice, or even if he’s letting his rage or something overwhelm him like love or such(related to a moral choice), it’s not a sub-optimal choice. It’s moral choice.

    If your Lois McMaster Bujold’s books involve some moral choice (which isn’t that hard to do, so it’s quite likely there), cool. But if they don’t and the characters just do stupid sub optimal choices based on no real principle execept that they are random in the head, no, they’re just idiots staggering around and are quite boring.

  • SanguineAngel says:

    Vince D. Weller is my hero. His views on story-telling within games and how dramatic story telling could be acheived comfortably with emergant gameplay are pretty much perfect as far as I am concerned.

    Of course, there are numerous ways to acheive it, but he has summed it up pretty handily and also highlighted a large flaw in current standard game design practice.

  • JEM says:

    I don’t believe anyone out there is actually demonized narrative. Saying you don’t like badly or over-written stories is not the same as saying you don’t like stories at all.


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