Storytelling is a practice that comes to us naturally. It’s as natural as breathing, moving, and feeling something. Joseph Campbell emphasizes something meaningful in his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces: “What does the soul truly want is a story.”
We’re familiar with modern-day tools of storytelling – television shows, movies, and books. And, of course, video games.
This newest form of media tests the artistic reach of how we can tell a story. Some games tell a story through their characters. Some do so with soulful worldbuilding. Others use everything in their power—worldbuilding, character arcs, themes, and role-playing elements—to manifest narratives players have never experienced before.
Let’s dive a bit deeper into the different ways through which video games tell us a story.
Using Game Mechanics to tell a story
How your character does something in a video game can shape a story. This is a standard tool many AAA developers use since they can access assets and mechanics supporting this idea.
Perhaps the best illustration of this application is the Mass Effect trilogy. Throughout the three games, the mechanics radically change while keeping the same level of emphasis on the narrative. Initially, you’re deceived into believing that your simple choices—the tools you use or NPCs you talk to—have little to do with the larger narrative. However, as the game progresses, the overall adventures reflect these choices.
The games successfully unravel the empathetic possibilities of having a player-crafted protagonist. You as a player significantly impact the main character’s actions, morals, and looks through the various choices you make. In turn, how you shape Shepard’s (the protagonist) personality also shapes your experience with the game.
Towards the end of the trilogy, your relationship with Shepard is heart-warmingly unique to you. Think of this as a novel that keeps writing itself. In a more genuine sense, you’re the invisible force behind these actions. When you look back to your experience with the games, you’ll wonder what could or should have happened had you not made certain choices.
In another example, consider Life is Strange and Tell Me Why. The mechanics may not shine through since they’re simple and serve just as means to an end. You click around, move your character a bit, and the camera doesn’t give you complete freedom. However, it’s still an excellent example of a game that shapes its narrative around player choices. These choices reflect how your character plays with specific supernatural abilities. Solving puzzles through your journey breaks up the narrative’s flow while giving the storyline a branching nature. These fundamentals are also evident in games by Telltale.
Using a game’s lore to enhance gameplay
A handful of designers have an innate capability to tell stories through the worlds they build. In doing so, the team hides important detail in plain sight using environmental storytelling. The castle you just passed may hold vital information about the knight you’re about to assassin. The dragon you just slayed had the soul of a witch you spoke to earlier. It’s in the little details where developers hide histories and descriptions of the world you’re in. A great example of this is explored in games by FromSoftware.
Levels and layouts in games like Dark Souls make for intriguing routes that always manage to circle back around themselves. Exploration yields breathtaking vistas and trails that can save your life. The environments that FromSoftware builds are purposefully made to be enjoyable to explore and convey a story.
Placing enemies and architectural elements always adds to the mysterious history behind the game’s world and characters. These components strengthen the narrative and give the planet a more complicated past. Each Dark Soul game is organized around creating a tale through the overall design, not only in specific locations. This is a similar direction that Elden Ring takes but with an open-world touch to it.
Environmental narratives are perhaps the least direct ways of telling a story. Instead of throwing lines of foreshadowing or consequences of choices, it allows players to explore a game’s world. Subtly, they also invent their own tales about the circumstances that led to a particular conclusion rather than detailing the events that led to them. This kind of storytelling is more collaborative: a game’s community creator will pick items for a setting and share them across different channels. It’s also how the FromSoftware community often discusses ideas and inspiration derived from a game’s lore.
This storytelling tool is a fantastic technique to increase the player’s immersion in a virtual environment, especially when combined with some elements of a straightforward narrative. Players grow increasingly engrossed in the game’s universe as they create stories to explain their encounters. If developers do it frequently and well enough, many players will start seeing environmental storytelling’s significance.
Using Transmedia Narratives to expand a game’s universe
Sometimes, game designers tell a story beyond the screen. Transmedia is a technique for telling tales that use modern digital technology. It is embedded across mediums – films, social media platforms, podcasts, and so on. The term “transmedia” refers to occurrences that are outwardly similar but distinct and tend to aim for out-of-body experiences. A simple example of this is how Mojang tells the story of Minecraft’s universe across different mediums.
Several spin-off titles cover the characters and features of the game. There are interactive tales, dungeon crawlers, and management aspects to the game that were added on later by different studios. However, all of these experiences support the Minecraft narrative. Players look better into what’s happening with this universe and how their own experience plays into it.
Similarly, games featuring the world’s favorite plumber, Mario, have made their way across different platforms. The recent The Super Mario Bros. movie gave people an insight into the other characters and themes the franchise is known for. On the contrary, a bunch of video games are based on films. These games take major plot points and character motivations from the existing source material, turning them into a playable and interactive experience.
Transmedia narratives enhance players’ experiences by bringing ideas from other contexts into video games. This allows players (and fellow observers of this medium) to add a spark to their curiosity.
Stories in their written and spoken form always have a silver lining to how they’re improvised. Video games mix multiple art forms into solid interactive experiences capable of telling many tales. Undoubtedly, a game requires a lot of time to develop. But if it is built on an engaging narrative, the effort always pays off. A studio’s vision for a good game stays in people’s hearts and long-term memories when supported by solid narratives.
With new technological innovations (including Virtual Reality), newer ways of experiencing games exist. This cradles finer possibilities to witness more stories with improved interactions. However, living through a game’s narrative will always be a game design challenge that leads to a bigger question – how far into video game storytelling can we immerse our players?