Understanding the Makings of a Video Game Story

This is the second part of a loosely connected three-part article series I'm writing which began with my previous article. Today I'm going to go deeper and describe the nuances behind the video game story that I love so much and why I think they are the greatest in many ways.

Header gif is from Muv-Luv Alternative, a visual novel.

In my previous article I discussed my definition of "story", which is a sequence of told events that eventually culminates in an outcome. This takes many, many forms in video games, which we'll get to later.

Once again, this article is largely based around my opinions and observations. I'm drawing conclusions myself and writing this article to share my thoughts on the matter.


Dex's Three Elements of Visual Arts:

In visual media, I define three separate elements.

Firstly, we have visuals. Visuals are something that you see or perceive in a work. These might be a still image or a moving picture. Things like paintings consist solely of visuals. Any story that is perceived from the piece is highly subjective and as such it is not reliably an example of storytelling.

Secondly, we have story. Story is a sequence of events that occurs within the piece which culminates in an outcome. TV shows are an example of a visual piece with story elements. They consist of both visuals and story elements.

Thirdly, we have gameplay. Gameplay is an element within the piece which, when activated by the player, actively changes the story, even by a small amount. Video games are an example of a visual storytelling piece with gameplay elements. They are a combination of all three of the elements I've defined.

This defines games in quite a broad manner, but a manner that I am comfortable with. Because most visual novels consist of decision points and cinematic games like Heavy Rain use QTEs and basic movement, they are video games by this definition.

Each element is capable of affecting the other two elements. A certain story may beget a certain visual art style. A gameplay element will dictate the story somehow. The visual style might dictate the type of gameplay we get.


Story in the Context of Video Games:

Understanding the Makings of a Video Game Story

Stories in video games are unique in many ways because you, the player, have the ability to dictate how exactly a story plays out. In Call of Duty, do you sprint for that cover or do you run straight into the battlefield like the brazen confident-in-auto-healing gamer you know you are? In Mass Effect, do you shoot Wrex when you and him stop seeing entirely eye-to-eye?

Other media like TV shows may attempt to give you a choice in the matter, but it comes down to the opinion of the entire audience, not just you.

Overall, there are two major categories of video game stories:

The first is the traditional kind: the planned narrative. These games are based on the principle that the writer tells the player a story. Your actions may alter the path of the story, but the overall plot is defined and told by the game writer. An example of a game with a planned narrative is Deus Ex. While there are roleplaying elements, the story follows a projected course.

Understanding the Makings of a Video Game Story

The second is emergent narrative. These games encourage players to form their own story while the writers minimize their presence in the piece. Games like Skyrim, DayZ, and Civilization are largely based on this principle. They do not follow a strict projected story path and encourage players to build a story of their own.

This distinction is (like all things) a sliding scale. There may be games with a planned narrative that encourage emergent storytelling as well and vice versa, but they are two opposite ends of a spectrum. There is much contention over which is better and, unfortunately, this is a situation where "having both" is more difficult than it sounds. One commenter in my previous article threw in their lot with emergent narrative, stating the following:

that said, when it comes to video games, i tend to prefer emergent narratives, not games that hold me by the hand, but games, like STALKER, where most of the story is invented by myself in my own head.

- Hadjimurad

He makes the point that the player making the story up for themselves will result in the best result. This is a fair argument indeed, but Warren Spector, known as "the man behind Deus Ex and Thief" has a different perspective. From IGN we get the following summary:

He revealed an intriguing struggle here. For Spector, open-endedness is not the be-all, end-all. As a story design widens out to a free-form system, he argues, the "emergent narrative" (story that's partially created by the player, rather than completely designed by the developer) ends up with a relative lack of direction and emotional resonance. There are fewer exciting, "holy crap" moments, since the narrative can't be designed as easily to flow towards those moments as effectively. Meanwhile, the "tyranny of choice," as he puts it, can threaten to make the player freeze up because they're simply given too many options for things to do and places to go. The player doesn't know the particular rules are of the game—what he or she can get away with, what the long-term repercussions are of "bad" behavior, and the rewards of "good" behavior.

Meanwhile, a well-defined story arc, while limiting player options, offers a familiarity of common techniques across all media. Meaning, people recognize a story when they see one and know generally how to follow along. With an open-ended structure, however, the player could get lost or stuck without even knowing it.

He states that games with emergent narrative are lacking in direction and focus, which undermines the impact of the story. In addition, stories with emergent storytelling are difficult to convey to casual players because the rules of the story and game are difficult to comprehend. What do I do next? Where do I go? These questions will plague a player in an open-world game.

Understanding the Makings of a Video Game Story

Emergent gameplay can create some incredible stories in the right situations, but it also can backfire and make the dramatic structure of a story (Exposition->Rising Action->Climax->Falling Action->Denouement/Resolution) collapse completely. Players will be left wandering for hours stagnating out-of-sync with the flow of the dramatic structure.

For every gamer that enjoys the openness of a game like Fallout 3, there is another that feels a game like G-senjou no Maou, a heavily linearized visual novel, is a more powerful story and game. It's a point of contention and one that is unlikely to go away in the future.


Why I Enjoy the Planned Narrative:

In my previous article, I stated that I play video games for the story. This is no exaggeration. I love games for their ability to immerse me through visuals, sounds, and giving me the ability to change the story in small ways. It makes me feel like part of the game when things go right.

I'm dragged into the story and I enter it in a way that can't be achieved by a book or a movie. By having a dramatic structure that constantly ups the tension, I'm never left stagnating and jarringly pulled out of the narrative.

Maybe I'm high-maintenance, but I just don't enjoy that feeling of roaming for two hours with nothing really to show for it. I enjoy emergent gaming to an extent, but I only enjoy it, I don't love it. There's that distinct lack of a tight narrative that I think makes a game truly worth playing.

With a planned narrative, developers are able to explicitly eliminate issues with ludonarrative dissonance (which I called gameplay-story dissonance in the previous article) where an emergent story would largely rely on the player ignoring it.

For example, Muv-Luv is a visual novel. It has decision branches that affect the story outcome. Makes sense right? Doesn't seem like there's much dissonance to deal with right?

Well, sort of. Visual novel branches still rely on the player accepting that you can save your game and load it right back up to play through it again. Technically speaking, this is a form dissonance. The story (in theory) shouldn't be repeatable like this, but the gameplay allows it. It's something we normally accept as an acceptable break from reality, but it is still a form of dissonance.

Understanding the Makings of a Video Game Story

Muv-Luv destroys this dissonance by coming up with an explanation for it. In Muv-Luv, you are revealed to have been playing through the lives of the main character in several alternate realities, each spinning off from each decision branch. This gameplay explanation goes on to feed into the overall plot of Muv-Luv. In an emergent story, you can't really explain these types of dissonance away as easily.

Planned narratives are better at keeping a consistent pace, explaining away inconsistencies, and delivering an impactful story than emergent narratives, so I appreciate them far more.


Gameplay and Story, The Redux:

As I've said in the previous article, gameplay introduces something to a traditional story: choice. A game like Call of Duty features limited choice, only affecting the story cosmetically rather than intrinsically. A game like Muv-Luv features minimal choice that results in changes to the story. A game like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. features a wide variety of choices that culminate in very different experiences every time.

Each game represents a very clear design choice in how gameplay will feedback into the story. My previous article discussed how I enjoy visual novels for their dedication to giving me a story worth telling, but I also expressed an implied disappointment in many ways to how much the storytelling is, in fact, held back by the limited choice (and thereby, gameplay) that could make it truly the ultimate form of storytelling.

Understanding the Makings of a Video Game Story

They are able to direct the narrative more effectively than a traditional game, but largely at the cost of the one unique thing games have: gameplay. It's still a video game, but it has shifted to an extreme side of the spectrum.

How the two are mixed is vital to making a story that not only is good, but takes advantage of the benefits of a truly interactive user experience that video games give us.


In the end, both types of video game stories have their merits, but they will divide the population due to their mutually exclusive nature. I personally think that planned narratives are more capable of giving me a story worth telling and I will hold to that. The best stories I've heard come from planned narratives, not emergent.

This is the second in a loosely connected three-part article series that I'm writing on my opinions when it comes to video games and how we define the elements within them.

You can read all my articles on Dex's Corner, follow me on twitter @Dexomega, and join us on Talk Amongst Yourselves for more fun. If you're interested, Ani-TAY has you covered for all things Japan.