Obstacles for Games as a Storytelling Medium


I have been giving a lot of thought to the power of games as a storytelling medium. Recent titles like The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, Gone Home and even Papers, Please are all diverse examples of successfully telling a story through different mechanics and interaction paradigms.

In an effort to continue our trek towards that goal, I’ve identified what I consider to be some of the most obvious obstacles to overcome and I’ll talk about some games that have been trying to tackle said obstacles, successfully or otherwise.

Disclaimer: The scope of this rant only includes games that are interested in delivering a storytelling experience that could match other mediums (e.g. cinema and literature) and does not apply to all games of all genres. I don’t think tetris should be changed to favor storytelling.

The problem of the Fail State

In his book A Theory of Fun, Raph Koster talks about the connection between “fun” and the brain’s addiction to playful learning through problem solving. According to Koster, in order for games to be fun they must, among other things, have a fail state after which the player should, in the very least, retry the game in order to provide a tangible problem to solve.

Mario is an Italian plumber that travels in time to an arbitrary point in his life every time he dies, in the hopes of eventually doing it properly and save a princess.

Mario is an Italian plumber that travels in time to an arbitrary point in his life every time he dies, in the hopes of eventually doing it properly and save a princess.

It is immediately clear how this conflicts with traditional storytelling. Take the original Mario Bros for the NES as an example. If you observe a normal playthrough as if it were a story, it would be about an Italian plumber that travels in time to an arbitrary point in his life every time he dies, in the hopes of eventually doing it properly and save a princess.

This specific narrative disconnection is neglectable given the game’s purpose; Mario Bros was not meant to be a delivery mechanism for a great story, just a fun platformer. The problem is that games that actually do want to tell a story have borrowed the same fail state mechanic used in those older games, resulting in a crappy narrative device. How many times have you been in the edge of your seat in a thrilling video game and you miss a jump? You then have to retry that thrilling action scene again. What if you miss that jump 5 times? The story can lose you completely and is no longer thrilling or captivating. Even though this can be mitigated with game balance, you are still hoping for the player to avoid a worst-case scenario in order to fully enjoy the experience.

Some notable games have tried to avoid this narration inconsistency with clever story contrivances. For example, both Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Bastion have narrators, so if you hit a fail state the narrator deflects the player’s attention from the inconsistency, “No wait, that’s not what happened, let me back up”. It may also seem that games whose stories are actually about time-travel are exempt from this issue, but even though these games do some extra effort to mitigate the problem, they don’t change the fact that falling to your death a dozen times makes for crappy storytelling. The real change needs to happen in the core design of the game.

One solution is to have a single, ultimate fail state with permadeath. This fail state could wrap up the story and bring the story to a meaningful conclusion. We can see this dynamic used a lot in roguelike games. Like in FTL, a space game in which every playthrough tells the story of a crew of spacefarers. A story that will mostly end up in tragedy since the game ends the first time your ship is blown to bits and the only option is to start a new story with a new crew.

Still, the stories that are told this way are stories that emerge from the gameplay itself (ludonarrative), as opposed to being authored directly by the game’s creator. And even though having emergent stories is one of the reasons why games have a vastly greater potential for storytelling than any other medium, the possibilities for guiding that ludonarrative are rarely explored.

"Then the kid falls to his death... nah I'm just foolin" - Bastion Narrator

“Then the kid falls to his death… nah I’m just foolin” – Bastion Narrator

One good example is Lucas Pope’s dystopian document thriller Papers, please. It introduces fantastic story beats mixed in with purely mechanical gameplay. He spent a lot of time and effort trying to introduce a wide array of authored storylines into the natural mechanics of the game. Unfortunately, instead of giving closure to the story upon reaching an ending, Papers, please allows you to “time-travel” to a previous day in your run so that you can experience the other 19 endings faster, and in the process, he turned a potentially personal story into just another variable in a system of branching storylines (I’m not saying this was a bad decision in terms of game design, only that it is a decision that favors mechanics over narrative).

Another solution is to remove fail states altogether. Even if this won’t go well with games involving challenge and high stakes (without the constant fear or failure, success won’t be as rewarding), It works great with games involving dialogue trees and choosing your own outcomes. In Telltale’s The Walking Dead they replaced most of the fail states and used branching storylines instead. Even the bad decisions you make will tailor a custom story based on your actions, resulting in an incredibly personal experience.

Another noteworthy example is Gone Home, a game in which the whole story is presented through the player’s exploration of a carefully designed uninhabited house. The fact that they could tell a story so successfully speaks to how powerful level design can be, and how games without fail states or overly complex puzzles can still be engaging and deliver rich stories.

So regardless of the methods employed, it is clear that fail states need to be reevaluated for games that are trying to focus on storytelling. We need more solutions that maintain the problem-solving nature of games, but no longer disrupt the pacing of the game’s narrative.

Ludonarrative Dissonance

Ludonarrative dissonance refers to the conflicts between a game’s authored story and the separate story that emerges from the player’s actions in the game. It is what changes Dead Rising 2 from being a game about a survivor trying to find medicine for his daughter to a game about a scantily dressed sociopath running over zombies with a tiny pink bike.

Dead Rising 2 is a game about a scantily dressed sociopath running over zombies on a tiny pink bike.

Dead Rising 2 is a game about a scantily dressed sociopath running over zombies with a tiny pink bike.

Something to note about ludonarrative dissonance is that it is very hard to avoid completely. As long as player agency exists, there will be ways to create such disruptions. You will see Gordon Freeman played as a silent disturbed man who tries to hit every single thing in the lab with a crowbar and sits on the faces of people he kills, Solid Snake will like to make out with passed-out soldiers and Kaitlin from Gone Home is a hoarder who compulsively takes every object in the house into her own room.

We can only make sure that the expected player actions are in tune with the game’s narrative. So when every Zelda game encourages the hero of Hyrule to smash people’s homes in search for rupees to steal or Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series nonchalantly commits mass murder, something is definitely wrong . When the actions that cause a ludonarrative dissonance are expected or encouraged by the game’s core mechanics, the game’s mechanics needs to be reevaluated.

It seems to be only the games that strap the story on top the mechanics as an afterthought that screw this up consistently. A great, and unlikely, example of maintaining ludonarrative consistency is Company of Heroes 2. Even though the main campaign’s story isn’t particularly good, the way they defined the game’s mechanics based on the historic setting is commendable; they created game systems for things like frostbite, or law enforcers that shoot their own men for retreating. The harmony between the mechanics and the story make for an authentic experience of war in the eastern front.

In order to avoid any ludonarrative dissonance in our games, we must make sure that all the design decisions for mechanics and systems are filtered through the storytelling experience we are hoping to create.

Closing the Aesthetic Distance

Although I haven’t seen it used in game design theory before, Aesthetic Distance refers to the distance between a player’s conscious reality and the fictional reality presented by the medium. It is a sort of measurement of immersion defined by the qualities of the experienced content. Since games are a personal, hands-on medium, it makes sense to try to always maintain a close aesthetic distance for the player.

I guess I can interact with that radiant disc thing with the flying question mark on top.

I guess I can pick up that glowing disc thing with the flying question mark on top.

In games, the aesthetic distance is usually broken in order to prompt action from the player. For example, the way objects you can interact with in a game tend to have a magical glow or sparkle around them. These contrived indicators help the player assimilate the interaction boundaries of the game faster, as opposed to having to poke at everything all the time in order to figure out the limitations of the interaction system.

The problem is that violating the aesthetic distance causes the player to distance herself from the experience and compels the player to focus on grokking the game, effectively dismissing the game’s story as secondary or irrelevant. Games that are interested in delivering an immersive storytelling experience should try to close that gap as much as possible.

It’s not as simple though, maintaining a close aesthetic distance requires a lot of creativity and composition mastery. Instead of just making objects glow, they need to call attention to themselves by their shape, color, framing in a scene, the lighting they receive, etc. A game that does this incredibly well is Metro: Last Light. Every item and object is deliberately placed, and tells a story of how it could have ended up there. Everything fits organically in the surrounding game space without feeling artificial.

This includes all UI and the game’s HUD (Head-up display). In Metro: Last Light you check your watch to see how depleted your gas filter is, and in Dead Space your health is measured by the spinal fluid going through the character’s suit. These creative ways of displaying information to the player in a natural, less contrived way are all good efforts for keeping a closer aesthetic distance for the player.

To conclude, I think we’re getting close. Making games that match other well established mediums in terms of storytelling is tricky, and may even seem a bit pointless, but I think the ludonarrative experiences that games bring to the table should not be overlooked. I’m thrilled to see the industry working out these quirks, and can’t wait to see what comes next.

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