All Games are Storytelling

All games are interactive stories. The dictionary defines ‘game’ as an interactive pastime meant to entertain. Before video games, it’s easy to see why this would be the optimal definitons. There are no characters in hide-and-seek or in basketball, but let’s describe them. Basketball is about two opposite teams trying to complete an objective, preventing the other one from completing theirs and thus coming out as winners. Hide-and-seek also has this structure of two opposite teams, only this time one team has just one person. Doesn’t this simple descriptions sound like a plot structure waiting to be filled? Isn’t Star Wars also about two opposite teams, trying to achieve their objectives and preventing the other from completing theirs?

It wasn’t apparent then. Basketball and hide-and-seek contain no characters. There’s no good and evil, and the opposite team don’t represent anything. This carried itself into the early video games, like in Pong. The two sides of Pong have no difference between them. Quickly, though, stories begun to appear. Pac-Man is a story. It’s a story of a creature running away from his enemies, collecting MacGuffins and occasionally finding the strength to face them by eating special fruits. Somewhere, someone wrote an article about Pac-Man being a story about drugs. Space Invaders is also a story. What’s the difference between it and a stereotypical action film? Both feature a hero killing a lot of bad guys in order to reach the Big Bad.

The story is told via the game mechanics. For a specific analysis, see my essay about Five Nights at Freddy’s where I noted how its game mechanics contribute to the storytelling. The game mechanics are the tools and obstacles the heroes face. The way they’re being used can tell us about the character. Pac-Man can try to collect the dots as fast as he can, or he can take his time and try to avoid the ghosts more. He can immidiately for the fruits, or keep them until things get tough. The ghosts also have their own behavior. They can either be programmed to follow you if they spot you, or merely go in a set movement pattern. I’m not sure what is actually programmed in Pac-Man, but that’s irrelevant.

All of these can tell us what the story is about and what it means, both what’s automatic and the choices that are left to the player. In literary analysis, a choice like whether the hero hurries to his objective or be cautious matters. It tells us about his general character. The enemy AI tells us about their character, too. If the ghosts have a set movement pattern, the hero faces a dumb, predictible enemy. If they follow him, he has a bigger challenge. The main difference between fiction and video games, however, is the element of choice.

This is what Klosterman said in his essay, “Pong X Infinity”. The analysis of video games should not ask what does this mean, but what could it mean. As I pointed out, you can choose Pac-Man’s behavior, and thus can lead to multiple different stories. RPG fans love to praise Fallout 2 and New Vegas for their amount of choices, but in fact all they do is expand on the element that defines video games. A choice whether to be more evasive or more confrontational may seem like a gaming preferance, but for literary nerds this is one of the most important character-telling moments.

That’s why praising a game for having a lot of choices as good storytelling is silly. Choices, as a storytelling device, are only useful if they expand the meanings the story can have. The choice in Pac-Man’s story are irrelevant because itx story leads nowhere. In the end, it’s just a cute arcade game. In Planescape: Torment, the choices matter because each influence not just the outcome but the meaning of the story.

It seems that recently, most games that are praised as story-reach are just games with a lot of text. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t take advantage of the unique medium. There is some ground to the criticism that games like Fallout and Planescape are sometimes like interactive novels, like a visual novel with more action. However, the sandbox style is a great example of mechanic that’s just as important for storytelling. Visual novels is merely steering a novel in a few possible direction. In Fallout and Planescape, you have much more freedom of what to include or exclude from your story. You even have the option of forgetting about the main story and be a boring, homicidal maniac. This freedom is useless unless, of course, we’re given interesting choices.

This is not an attack on the visual novel or text-based interactive fiction. Both are great formats that can tell good stories, but they don’t take advantage of the video game medium. They’re an extension of literature, more than anything. Fallout, Planescape: Torment, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and Five Nights at Freddy’s are examples of games which take the advantage of the mechanics to tell a great story.

While the mechanics how the game tells its story, sometimes they go against it. I’ll explore in a later post when does a game mechanic exists for both storytelling and gameplay purposes, and when it exists solely for one of them. An example is how Bonnie in Five Nights at Freddy’s teleports. If you played the game, you can think about this and whether it exists solely to offer gameplay challenge or also to add to the story. I’ll write my views in a different post.

4 thoughts on “All Games are Storytelling”

  1. There are a number of visual novels that address the gameplay element of “choices” within their narratives, to the point where it’s become somewhat cliche. Especially in terms of time loops and alternate universes. And some like Higurashi and Umineko don’t even have choices within the games themselves (for the most part), but consciously feature their episodic serialization as a part of the narrative.

    I guess my point is that visual novels tend to be much more aware of the way choices have an impact on the player’s (narrative) experience. Perhaps due to their limited nature.

    What do you think of games such as Spec Ops: The Line that eschew all player input from the narrative being conveyed?


    1. I haven’t heard of Spec Ops. How does it work?

      By the way, I’d say that any visual novel that offers no choice at alli is not a video game but another form of literature. That’s not an attack, by the way – it’s definitely a format that can produce great things. The same goes for Infocom stuff.


      1. I’d say that visual novels (including the ones that lack choices) are almost certainly games due to their genealogy. If you look back, there’s a clear progression from Western-inspired adventure games (such as Chunsoft’s Portopia) to dating sim-type games to modern narrative-focused “scenarioge” or scenario games. The vast majority of visual novels feature strong romantic themes and branching paths based on love interests, which is a holdover from the dating sim days (as well as most VNs being erotic in nature).

        I realize that you’re not disparaging VNs by saying that they’re not games, and most English-speakers would agree with you. It’s just a particular point that I have some feelings about. They could be considered literature, but I wouldn’t call them virtual books or novels (I’m not even a big fan of “visual novel” as a catch-all term). In Japan, they’re universally considered a subset of adventure games.

        Anyway, I mentioned Spec Ops because it’s oft-criticized for having a totally linear narrative while being structured as if the player has a choice. In other words, the game criticizes the player-avatar for making the wrong choices within the story when those choices are totally inevitable within the game. You, the player, pulled the trigger, yes, but it was the only means of advancement so of course you were going to do so.

        I think the lead developer once said in an interview something like, “the choice is for the player to continue or stop playing the game.” Which is a cheap argument, I think.


      2. I think visual novels are not games only when you don’t have any choice at all. If all you do is just read words with visuals to accompny them, it’s a new form of literature.

        Dating sims, in opposite, are about choice – choosing which girl you end up with.

        I don’t think a linear story is a bad thing. Fallout 3 and Fallout 1 also has linear stories. You can end up in slightly different ways, depending on your skills, but the conclusion doesn’t change much. I don’t think that’s bad. I care more about the story being well-developed, interesting and deep rather than giving me plenty of choices that don’t make for any good stand-alone story.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s