Are games really a good storytelling medium?

Picture a cave. It’s dark outside, but the smooth rock surrounding you provides comfort from the elements. A fire crackles before you, and the flickering, warm glow illuminates shadowy figures seated in a circle around it. Someone clears their throat, the storyteller begins to weave a tale, and as the threads of the story grip your imagination, reality fades away. Thus it has been since the dawn of time…

All terribly epic isn’t it? But the fact is that mankind has told stories for thousands of years. Gaming is just the latest evolution of the narrative method, but is it more Spot the Dog and Jackass: The Movie than War & Peace and Schindler’s List?

Gaming narratives will inevitably be compared to books and films, as they are the other significant storytelling mediums, and game-makers over the years have clearly taken inspiration from both of them when trying to tell a story. Can gaming ever live up to the tale-telling heights of other media? Should it be trying to?

I would argue that games should not necessarily try to be more ‘cinematic’, as this implies that the best games should aspire to be just like a film. Although as a primarily visual medium, gaming has more in common with movies than books. The interactivity of gaming is what defines it and what separates it from other artistic forms, and it’s also what gives it the potential to be so much better at creating a story that involves the player.

To look at how gaming stories are distinct from those of films or books, we need to first explore the many different types of gaming story. There are games where the gameplay dictates progression in the game; most First-Person Shooters would fall into this category. In these titles the story is usually nothing more than a backdrop to give the player motivation. The player still can make base-level choices, such as which weapons to use, or how to beat that boss, but they can have no real effect on the story or the way in which the game is played. Platformers such as Mario titles, and even Point-and-Click adventure games would also fall into this category, and in many ways this is the simplest gaming experience. All that exists is the goal, the way to achieve that goal, and the challenge of getting there.

The next type of game is one where the story is in control. These games have a clearly defined narrative structure, and the gameplay fits itself around the story. In these games you are often less able to make any tactical decisions yourself, as everything that you do usually has a meaning within the story. Examples of this are Zelda games or titles like Beyond Good and Evil. This may force the player to use certain weapons or items at certain times as the story dictates it.

Then there are games where the player is the primary controlling factor. Games like Mass Effect or Oblivion allow you to shape your character, choose how the game is played (i.e. using stealth, magic, diplomacy), choose the order or type of goals and often choose the motivations of the character. That isn’t to say that the story will not force the player’s hand from time to time, but the player is the basis of the games experience.

What do all these types of games have in common? It’s that the story is external to the gameplay. The gameplay itself does not create the story; rather the plot is expounded through text, dialogue or cut-scenes. This is not to say that the gameplay can have no effect on the plot, as many titles will now provide the player with branching plots. Ultimately, though the game may have multiple paths or endings there are only a limited number of possibilities.

Although the player may be allowed to make decisions that seem significant, in reality these are hardly more sophisticated than a ‘Choose-your-own-adventure’ book. Therein lies the problem with games trying to be better storytellers than books or films on their own terms. The defining feature of gaming is interactivity; interactivity means control, but if this control is limited to the number of branching storylines that a developer can create then gaming will never reach its full narrative potential.

There are many reasons why developers can only create a very finite number of narrative possibilities; these include limited budgets, limited resources, limited timescales, hardware limitations and of course, limited imaginations. So with all these insurmountable limitations, how could gaming ever hope to provide stories that live up to the medium’s limitless potential?

Emergent narrative is the answer. This is when the player creates their own story through the use of the gameplay mechanics that the title provides them with. Open-world or sandbox games provide the best examples of this, as do games that are essentially simulations.
“I followed the hooker down the alley and set her on fire with a Molotov cocktail. But a witness tried to call the police, so I stabbed him.” – Grand Theft Auto.
“I pick-pocketed the old man, but felt guilty because he only had 2 Gold, so I gave it away to a beggar” – Oblivion
“I was too busy cooking breakfast for my wife to make up for our argument last night, so I was late for work again and lost my job” – The Sims

These stories are not pre-scripted and the player is not forced to make any ‘Option A or Option B” choices. Although the player has almost complete freedom of choice in these situations, there are still limiting factors; these being the game mechanics and the Artificial Intelligence of non-player characters. Although AI in games is becoming increasingly more complex, currently AI characters still have a much more limited range of reactions than a human player.

This is where online gaming comes in. The added variable of the unpredictability of other human beings vastly increases the number of possible situations. Each of these situations is another story. The choices that the player can make (and the tales that can unfold) are now limited only by the mechanics of each particular game.

Clearly there are Massively Multiplayer Online games out there that are making progress in this direction already and virtual worlds such as Second Life are approaching reality in terms of the opportunities that they offer to the player, but there is still much work to be done.

Of course I am not suggesting doing away with more traditional and single-player game-types. Another of gaming’s strengths as an artistic medium is its diversity, and it’s sometimes nice not to have to make choices and to simply watch a story unfold before you.

Cinematic and immersive games like the Half-Life’s and Metal Gear Solid’s of the gaming world can still provide fantastic experiences for the player, but for gaming to really reach its full potential to give every player a unique, personalised and truly interactive experience, we need to see more online titles whose game mechanics give players true freedom.

Picture that cave again. Only this time we’re in a game. You can choose to listen to the story being told, you can run outside, you can fall asleep, you can murder everyone around you, or you can begin to tell your own tale… The possibilities are endless…