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Interactive Storytelling - Narrative Techniques and Methods in Video Games

Mike Shepard, Author

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Project Description


This project looks closely at a number of recent (circa 2007 to 2014) video games in an effort to prove that, like other storytelling media before, video games are capable of telling stories and holding a narrative on their own, differently, not better or worse, from stories and narratives in other media forms, like television, cinema, and text.  Further, it seeks to discuss and share findings regarding the methods that video games employ in order to tell a story as effectively as they can: avatar customization, use of setting, user interface, game mechanics, morality, choice, violence, death, and so on.  This project does not seek to elevate video games into new narrative heights, but to point out what has been done well in the realm of storytelling and how that, in itself, furthers the medium in its narrative capabilities.

This project holds to the potential that video games offer as an interactive fiction, and how its unique presentation impact narratives in a way that other media generally cannot, even in familiar techniques like sound design and lighting.  This project argues that video games offer great new potential for storytelling and narrative through the interactive characteristics of their medium, many separate from, but also heavily reliant on, the game’s story.


Since rooting themselves in the homes of consumers, video games have told stories.  The stories themselves vary: early on, we were treated to the story of a plumber, a princess, and an evil tribe of turtles (Super Mario Brothers, 1985), of the young hero’s quest for an ancient, triangular power, and the evil that wishes to acquire it (The Legend of Zelda, 1986), or of the intergalactic bounty hunter on a mission to exterminate a pirate faction and their deadly, parasitic weapons (Metroid, 1986).  This was well and good.  The trailblazers of the Nintendo Entertainment System made for truly great games, even thirty years later, but the story was never important: the gameplay always overshadowed the story, something often listed in a couple paragraphs in the instruction manual.  Video games were very much just that: games.

Times have changed.

In the nearly thirty-year span between the Nintendo Entertainment System and 2014, video games have been experimenting with narrative: they range from the earliest Final Fantasy (1987) to the Super Nintendo's generally dialogue-less Super Metroid (1994), the harrowing streets of Silent Hill (1999), and the galactic ring of Halo (2001).  All that time, developers have been testing, parsing, experimenting with the different ways video games can tell stories, ways that movies and text can't touch.

Now, players have the opportunity to rally the galaxy against an ancient, synthetic force as a soldier of our choosing and creation (Mass Effect, 2007-2012), explore the mysteries of dystopian cities under the sea and above the clouds (Bioshock, 2007-2013), and watch the mental collapse of a soldier trying to justify the destruction he causes (Spec Ops: The Line, 2012), among so many other things.  Jim Bizzocchi speaks to this evolution, that “games do not necessarily involve story…[but] story can add to the pleasure of gameplay, sometimes significantly.” (Bizzocchi, 2006) The difference between games past and present is that story is playing a greater and greater part, and many facets of video games come into play to help tell those stories – stories that can, on a good day, compete with long-standing cinematic and written works in terms of narrative content.

Video games are unique in that their emerging version of narrative is based on their nature: interactive.  Players have the unique opportunity to shape their own narrative, or to tell stories in ways that cinema and texts simply can’t, and designers are learning to harness these interactive elements more and more, from avatar customization to choice in-game.  These elements impact the player in that the player has direct input in many of these elements, in turn impacting the type of experience they end up having.  Many stories told in video games wouldn’t have nearly the same impact if they were told through another medium; walking through the desolate, flickering halls of the U.S.G. Ishimura (Dead Space, 2008) wouldn’t be the same if I, the player, wasn’t controlling Isaac Clarke.  Think of the disconnect between movie-viewers and the characters they watch, and how often the viewers yell at the characters for making such-and-such decisions.

Video games change that up by putting players in control.  Tom Bissell mentions this magnitude in Extra Lives, that “games…contain more than most gamers can ever hope to see…and you might never even see the “best part.”  The best part of looking up at the night sky, after all, is not any one star, but the infinite possibility of what is between stars.” (Bissell, 2010) Cinema and other narratives put the consumer on a track, pre-meditated by the director, author, or otherwise.  Games create the world, but, as Bissell mentions, puts players in control of what they do or don’t see; they make players responsible for failures and successes due to their decisions, but also ties them emotionally to the outcome of a world, again, based on their decisions.

Further, they serve to heighten the gameplay elements of an experience in a positive manner; one wouldn’t play a game if it wasn’t enjoyable.  More than anything, these gameplay and narrative elements serve to tell stories differently.  Just as the words in a book and the images and sounds of a movie tell their own stories in their own way, so do video games through their interactivity in various forms.  This isn’t the new and only way to tell stories: this is another way to tell stories, and an effective one when handled well.

Before beginning, it’s important to have a definition of video games in mind: the way I’ve viewed it, a video game is an audio-visual experience, narrative or otherwise, in which one cannot proceed forward, in game or in story, without user input; for example, moving a control stick or pressing a button.  Although I also count text-based computer games (Zork, 1977-82) among video games, they do not fit into the audio-visual section that a vast majority of video games rely on, nor do they employ the same immersive techniques this study touches on; thus, text-based adventures and games will not be discussed.

To compound this, a general notice regarding video game genres, in comparison to cinema genres: video games tend to be classified by their overarching gameplay elements, sometimes coupled with their settings, instead of the emotional and/or setting-based elements found in cinema.  For example: movies can be action-adventure, romance, comedy, sci-fi, western, and so on.  Video games, on the other hand, can be a third/first-person shooter, survival horror, open-world/sandbox, stealth, role-playing, and so on.  While some might disagree with this classification, often vying for a more cinematic genre-type for video games in an attempt to uplift the medium, I disagree.  Video games offer something apart from what cinema offers, namely, the gameplay described in their genres, and so I find it more fitting that we classify video games genres based on their gameplay types.  Players are often able to infer the emotional-type drama with a look at the cover and box descriptions.

For the sake of this exploration, I will be concentrating on single-player campaigns of the last generation of home consoles, namely the Microsoft Xbox 360, in circulation from 2005 to the present.  Fragments from the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1990-1998) and Nintendo DS (2004-present) may also be explored.  As such, this exploration will not cover the elements of MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games); they do not employ many of the conventional narrative elements found in campaigns, instead relying upon the interactions, cooperation or lack thereof, and personal paths of its players, essentially, having the players create their own story with the world they have set out.

This exploration does not intend to usher in a newfound, universal respect for video games, only to call attention to those that do a good job and how.  Every medium has their highest forms of art: Pride and Prejudice, Citizen Kane, and The Sopranos, for examples.  Video games have Mass Effect, Bioshock, and Fallout, among others.  Conversely, every medium has their more numerous entertainment-driven releases: for instance, Twilight, The Expendables, and Jersey Shore.  Likewise, video games have the Super Mario Brothers series, Halo, and, more or less, Call of Duty.  Ralph Koster touched on a vein years ago, that “the fact that most games are merely entertainment does not mean that this is all they are deemed to be.” (Koster, 1999) I do not wish for all video games to start employing the elements this exploration discusses, but merely for players and non-players to recognize that some games tell stories in uniquely effective ways.  Plain and simple, we don’t need to change Mario to tell a story.

The video games discussed here are, in great part, the games that manage to marry the story they tell with the gameplay that tells it.  Super Mario has perfected an otherwise simplistic gameplay system, but is overall lacking in the narrative department.  Heavy Rain holds fast to its storytelling prowess, but does little for its gameplay.  By effectively combining the two, we attain the best of both worlds: a meaningful story to follow and care for, and gameplay that is engaging to the narrative and player, and usually fun.

All sections are prefaced with an italicized list of games discussed within; in order to avoid spoiling oneself, check over these lists and make sure there are no pertinent games you’re in the middle of or interested in playing.  Conversely, maybe reading about them in this way will pique your interest.  In the end, it’s personally up to you, but each section will hold fair warning.
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