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Video Game Narratives

On the recommendation of many podcasts and some folks I follow on Twitter, I went and finished Firewatch — a new, story-driven game about a guy hanging out in a national park watching for forest fires — in a single sitting. It’s a beautifully presented game, and tells its story with a finesse and confidence that is not usually found in video game writing and voice acting1.

Stories tend to be simplistic in video games. They are often terrible, though after 20+ years of mainstream acceptance they’ve gotten much better than simply Mario-saves-princess2. Some of the terribleness can be explained by gaming’s origins; video games were originally seen as and advertised to teenage boys, and that target audience didn’t much care for sophisticated storylines. Even now, story is hardly a requirement for games to be successful: gameplay and graphics and multiplayer modes often take the headlines over well-crafted storylines and witty dialog.

The other part of the difficulty of telling good story in games is inherent in the medium; player interactivity works against a storyteller. In movies and books and plays and even songs, the plot and perspective is wholly controlled by the artist. You — as the passive viewer/reader/listener — get to consume the story, but in a very specific manner that frames each moment exactly as the artist intended. That said, many movies and books have gone beyond simple narratives, but the model of passive viewership allows for complex plots and artistic flourishes specific to those media.

Whenever video games have tried to emulate this kind of passivity, it has always felt awkward and usually “not as good.” I remember reading about the accolades on Half Life 2’s storytelling, but actually looking back at that game, its primary innovation was putting players in a confined space so they can wriggle around while cutscenes and pre-canned animations and dialogs played in the background, instead of just playing a cutscene. While players technically had control over their character the entire game, story expositions still required tight restrictions on player agency.

Bioshock also played with this idea of agency in games. Games are supposed to allow player freedom, but the game eventually has the antagonist reveal that the player is following his orders. That is, the player is set on a pre-programmed, pre-determined path; the illusion of autonomy is central to games as a whole, particularly ones that are driven by plot.

That said, games are starting to come to their own in terms of using the strengths of its medium to expand on its storytelling capabilities. One trend I’m seeing is the emphasis on environmental storytelling: because the player is free to move around and pick up/interact with the game world, they can be immersed in the game world and its events via pieces world itself. Scattered items, notes from unknown characters, the structure of the architecture, etc. “fill out” a game’s story with gentle implications and hints, but all driven by the players themselves. Firewatch does this kind of storytelling very well.

The other kinds of stories that games uniquely tell are ones that emerge from giant sandboxes. I’m not just talking about Grand Theft Auto escapades and machinima, but games — almost all multiplayer — that allow so much freedom to its players that the interactions are novel and wholly unexpected. The prime example of this is EVE Online, the persistent massive multiplayer space sim. It seems that every couple of years, there are these amazing stories of events in the game, impressive in their scope but also fascinating in how much the game mirrors the real world and real-world systems. Stories here are special because they’re wholly driven by player actions, working within the loose parameters of the game to garner remarkable achievements purely in the virtual sandbox3.

Here’s hoping there’ll be new and even better ways to express narratives in video games in the future. Virtual reality will be an important leap forward in technology, and if it captures mainstream attention, it’ll enable another method of storytelling.


  1. Like many of the reviews of the game, saying much more would spoil the experience; if the above description sounds interesting, give the game a shot.

  2. Who conveniently lives at another castle!

  3. Though ironically, these great stories are best consumed via other mediums, either text or video, as opposed to within the game itself.

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