Storyworlds and narrative in video games

Written by Cheryl Cottrell-Smith

Video games are never without some kind of narrative. No matter how simple the concept or the gameplay, there’s a story behind every game.

  • The worm needs to eat to grow, but will die if it bites itself.
  • Mario has to rescue his love interest from an evil dictator, experiencing numerous landscapes and tackling adversaries upon the way.
  • The Inquisitor must travel the land in search of rifts that allow darkspawn to pass over from the Fade, fighting the nemeses that come through and closing each rift, all while building an army and gaining power to eventually close the giant breach that caused the rifts in the first place.

Narrative varies in complexity as the world of gaming ages and grows, but the importance of story in modern culture keeps narrative at the heart of media such as video games.

In an article in The Guardian last year, Grant Howitt considered the growing importance of complex narrative in video games. He referred to a quote from John Carmack, founder of ID Software and creator of Doom and Quake, in 2003: “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie: it’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”

Twelve years ago, Carmack didn’t see the significance of narrative in gaming. The significance of giving players the means of fully engaging themselves in an immersive world. Twelve years ago, we didn’t have gaming storyworlds such as Assassin’s Creed, Fallout, Dragon Age, and BioShock (to name a few).

BioShock Infinite

We’ve moved past the days when repetitive or skill-based gaming held our attention for hours at a time. With the enhancement of visuals and graphics, game studios are now able to infuse cinematic life into their products, giving characters backstories and linking the elements of their fictional world together into a cohesive whole. Some studios develop an entire gaming world in so much depth that they easily spin off into novels, comics and TV shows.

At the StoryWorld Quest conference in Edmonton last October, BioWare’s General Manager Aaryn Flynn discussed the creation of the studio’s newest title, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and the importance of story to the development of this game.

“At BioWare, story is at the heart of everything we do,” said Flynn. “It’s at the foundation…[Dragon Age Origins was] set up as a world of stories. The Grey Warden was meant to be nameless on purpose because we wanted to pour more of the audience into their own heroes…as storytelling in Dragon Age progressed, the idea of more immersion and more agency came to the forefront. We made sure to continue that.”

Flynn’s speech was accompanied by a digital presentation to walk the audience through game elements such as character customization, the dialogue wheel, and player agency. Before the presentation began, the screen housed only a single quote by Philip Pullman: “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

Dragon Age: Inquisition

And there’s no denying that the world of Dragon Age has a compelling narrative that runs alongside the player’s agency to explore the game as they choose, creating individual stories as they make their own way through the world. Morality and evil are often grey areas, making the narrative even more complex for the player who has to make the tough decisions. As Jonathan Ostenson says in his essay, Exploring the Boundaries of Narrative: Video Games in the English Classroom, “[these] shifts—more agency for players and more complex representations of good and evil—show a maturing of the video game genre as it comes to more authentically represent the world around us.”

Narrative and story in video games are at the heart of the gameplay experience. As our world continues to tell more stories through different forms of media, so does the complexity of narrative in video games increase in turn.

But have we taken it too far?

Take Telltale Games, for example. The studio develops episode adventure games that play like one large cut scene, with moments of agency interspersed throughout the episode.

Unlike games such as Dragon Age: Inquisition, Telltale Games’ adaptation of Game of Thrones, for example, is very much the opposite. Dragon Age offers up its open world to the player, who essentially makes their own story within the confines of the overall story arc. Game of Thrones guides you in a strictly linear fashion, offering up small instances where you can explore a limited space or hold a conversation with another character. In Game of Thrones, the story is all—gameplay is minimal.

This kind of guided tour through a video game can be distasteful to some, especially to a generation used to crafting their own storylines and exploring open world maps. In an article on The Game Design Forum, Patrick Holleman says that game designers must be careful not to make games too focused on cinematics at the risk of losing a player’s interest:

A movie creates a fictional world that one can see and hear, but viewers are locked into a guided tour that the filmmakers have scheduled for the viewer, and viewers can never deviate from that tour. In a videogame, on the other hand, the player is presented with a world that can be accessed largely at their own discretion. Videogames that are too linear—too much like the guided tours of movies—are often deprecated by critics and gamers.

Many of Telltale Games’ episodic adventures depend on a certain narrative linearity and, even though players can decide on the direction of conversation and some courses of action, the various potential storylines all converge at several major points.

This kind of narrative linearity is something the realm of video games hasn’t seen in a very long time—and people are loving it. Narrative-based games such as Game of Thrones and The Wolf Among Us are getting rave reviews: 8/10 for both games on Gamespot, 4.5/5 for The Wolf Among Us on GamesRadar and a solid 4/5 from Metacritic.

They might hold us by the hand just a little, but these games are providing immersive storyworlds that draw the player in, making them a part of the narrative, and giving them much to think about.

There’s certainly less freedom than an open world RPG such as Dragon Age: Inquisition, but the narrative arc is approached from a completely different angle. At the end of the day, I’m of the opinion that both kinds of games offer a unique narrative experience and can be enjoyed by the same types of gamers. Why? Because we like stories: pure and simple.

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