Storytelling in Games

An essay on storytelling in video games

Someone re­cent­ly asked me to list my top five games, a not un­com­mon dis­cus­sion be­tween nerd­ly types. I list­ed them and we talked about the choic­es a bit, as well as why I think John Marston is the great­est char­ac­ter of all time. Then they asked the fol­low­ing question:

What game would you love to play?

Now, I’m sure we’ve all had thoughts about an ide­al game we’d love. For some it would be a long-awaited se­quel to a game they love. For oth­ers, it would be a reimag­in­ing of an old­er clas­sic. For oth­ers still it would in­volve rid­ing around on a T. rex, fir­ing mis­siles made of cor­gis at var­i­ous sports­peo­ple. In any case, there’s an abun­dance of po­ten­tial in the medi­um that hasn’t yet been re­alised sim­ply be­cause it’s a such a young art­form. This got me think­ing about the wealth of games yet to fall into my ea­ger hands.

The de­vel­op­ment of video games as a way of telling a sto­ry has been re­port­ed as hav­ing reached its epit­o­me in the last three years. Titles such as The Last of Us and The Walking Dead have been laud­ed as some of the finest ex­am­ples of sto­ry­telling that video games have of­fered up, and with good rea­son. They are phe­nom­e­nal games. I still re­mem­ber to this day the re­ac­tion I had to the end­ings of both games. I was ex­haust­ed from every­thing I’d just wit­nessed but in a to­tal­ly fan­tas­tic way. You know the mo­ment af­ter you fin­ish a re­al­ly great book when you just stare into the dis­tance for a sec­ond to di­gest what you’ve been through? That’s ex­act­ly what I felt af­ter play­ing those two games. However, games have been ex­ploit­ed for years as a medi­um for fan­tas­tic sto­ry­telling, re­gard­less of graph­i­cal fi­deli­ty. I mean graph­ics in books are al­most worse than a ZX Spectrum, but it doesn’t stop them from telling a good sto­ry. Let’s con­sid­er old text-based ad­ven­ture games, such as the ut­ter­ly in­cred­i­ble Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984), writ­ten by Douglas Adams him­self. These seem to get over­looked when dis­cussing great games. Maybe peo­ple don’t con­sid­er them “real games,” but, as far as I’m con­cerned, if there’s an el­e­ment of in­ter­ac­tion with the nar­ra­tive, it can be a game. Just re­place shoot­ing a mon­ster in the face with a choice be­tween tak­ing two doors and BAM! Same thing.

If you think about it, games start­ed like this sole­ly as a means to con­vey a sto­ry. The ma­chines they ran on weren’t ad­vanced enough to have any real in­no­va­tion in their game me­chan­ics. Only with the on­set of ar­cade ma­chines and home con­soles were the re­leas­es pushed in a less plot-driven di­rec­tion. And you know what? That’s fine. That’s more than fine: it should be en­cour­aged. Just be­cause you have a way of telling a sto­ry doesn’t mean you’re un­der any oblig­a­tion to. Games be­ing fun is pret­ty much their sell­ing point. Many peo­ple dis­miss video games be­cause they’re shal­low; the plots can be pa­per thin and serve pure­ly the game­play me­chan­ic. I’d ar­gue that even the most shal­low games that have a fun or in­ven­tive game­play sys­tem are equal­ly as valid as the most in­tri­cate and nu­anced nar­ra­tive. They both ful­fill a dif­fer­ent need for the player.

I think that’s why my favourite games meet some­where in the mid­dle. This mid­dle ground can be very hard to achieve, not only in games, but in any me­dia. Movies are an ex­am­ple: bal­anc­ing a great sto­ry with a fun ex­pe­ri­ence is dif­fi­cult to pull off, and the ones that suc­ceed show the po­ten­tial of the me­dia. Just as with movies, any­thing and every­thing should be avail­able for ex­pres­sion through a video game, no mat­ter the con­tent. That means, of course, we’re go­ing to have some ex­treme ex­am­ples, such as games that bore you to death or games that have a sto­ry that doesn’t make a lick of sense. But that’s fine. The wealth of po­ten­tial and cre­ativ­i­ty for this medi­um is in­cred­i­ble, and I’m more than ex­cit­ed to play through these ex­pe­ri­ences. So what game would I love to play? Everything. I’m so ex­cit­ed for the fu­ture of video games, and you should be too.


The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
John is a tat­tooed as­tronomer. He hearts games, movies & beardy mu­sic. He also bakes a lot and looks through tele­scopes less of­ten than he’d like. Helps with GamerGiving char­i­ty stream­ing as well!

Latest posts by John Burton (see all)

Scroll to top