Game story sits at the heart of the greatest games!
Story in games has become a more prevalent conversation over the past 20 years. But our approach to it in general is deeply flawed.
Consider the following, and let me know if you agree with the statements:
- If in a cutscene I run away from a boulder, jump across a pit, and dangle from a ledge, it is considered story. But if in gameplay I run away from a boulder, jump across a pit, and dangle from a ledge, it is not considered story.
- If in a cutscene I tell a person that I don’t want to see them ever again, it is considered story. But if in gameplay I draw a weapon at them, attack them, steal all their belongings, and then push them off a cliff, it is not considered story.
- If in a cutscene I give a potion to my dying love interest, it is considered story. But if in a battle I give twenty potions to my dying love interest, it is not considered story.
Even if you agree with the statements, you can probably also see why I’d disagree with them. I’d like to share an alternative mindset to the general “gameplay versus story” approach that I think will help you see new ways to approach storytelling in your games.
I want to focus on three ideas related to gameplay and story theory here:
1. It’s all story
Think about Dungeons & Dragons. DND players know that everything can be story- it doesn’t end during combat, player discussions, dice rolls, and so on. DND does have a fourth wall, but no events in the DM’s world are completely disconnected from the story (at least, if your DM is pretty good).
We generally talk about gameplay versus story in video games. The problem with that idea is that gameplay is actually interactive story in the present tense.
When we talk “gameplay versus story”, we’re generally really talking about interactive story versus noninteractive story- segments where the player has control versus cutscenes, kinetic novel segments, text blocks, etc.
I can get into my definition for story in another article, but to keep this briefer I’ll just say that I define a story as “something that happens”. But even if you look at many other definitions for story, I don’t think you’ll find many that exclude interactivity as an aspect.
I will give you my definition for “interactivity” here, though: interactivity is having an impact on the story. Interactivity falls along a scale from Noninteractivity (1 story path) to Open Interactivity (unlimited story paths).
Oddly enough, when a game story is less interactive, people more often call it a story.
Noninteractivity means that audience members have no input in a story- only one story path. Movies, books, comics, and cutscenes are examples of noninteractive media. I think everyone considers this form of interactive story to be a story without issue.
Branching Interactivity means the audience has limited options in a story- a few story paths. If a character asks you “Do you like me?” and you have a choice between “Yes” and “No”, you have Branching Interactivity. Most people consider this form of interactive story to be a story without issue.
Contained Interactivity means the audience has a range of options in a story- uncountable story paths, but not unlimited story paths. When you can run around in an area, choose from a range of possibilities, aim a cursor around a room with actions on clicking, you have Contained Interactivity. Few people seem to consider this form of interactive story to be a story.
Open Interactivity means you can do anything- unlimited story paths. Only creators have this when crafting stories- this isn’t even a thing in real life (I can’t sprout wings or make food magically appear in my fridge, for example). Few people would consider this form of interactive story to be a story, at least if they’re in control.
2. What moments should be interactive in your game story
When looking at “interactive story versus noninteractive story”, we’re still seeing our project as against itself. Instead, our goal needs to be that everything works together towards our core vision.
Don’t try to have one aspect of your story win over another. Have every part lift up the vision.
If you’re unsure if a moment should be interactive, ask “what level of interactivity in this section of the game makes the experience as a whole stronger for the player?”
Despite my frustration at how much games lean into noninteractivity today (especially for core story moments), it’s not an illegitimate form of storytelling. So figure out what’s best for your story.
A few simple questions to ask:
- Does this part of the game story have to go one way? If so, go with Noninteractivity. If not, consider Branching Interactivity or Contained Interactivity.
- If this part of the story can go multiple ways, how many ways would still fit within the vision? If just a few, go with Branching Interactivity. If many, go with Contained Interactivity, in ways that can still help the segment move forward the vision.
- Does how something happens matter, or just the end result? If how a goal is met matters, you may need Noninteractivity or Branching Interactivity. If only the end result matters, you can give your player the “what” as a goal and let them determine “how”.
- Am I confusing my story outline with my project vision? Don’t confuse a story outline with a project vision. The project vision cannot bend, but your story outline most likely can. For example, your present story outline might dictate one method and outcome (“The player character accidentally reveals their weakness”), but that might be irrelevant according to your project vision (“I want people to feel the impact of their decisions”). Step away from the story outline and ask which best reaches the project vision.
3. How to navigate the range
A few ideas, all of which you’ve seen before:
1. Allow players to choose when they decrease interactivity
If a player chooses to talk with an NPC, and they know that will remove their ability to move around and force them to read some text, they won’t be upset. But if you force them into the situation against their will or knowledge- they run into an open area and trigger a cutscene- they might be upset. We still feel like we have control if we have chosen to give away our control; but if we never have the choice, we can feel pushed into it.
2. Make it a transition and not a switch
Moving from Contained Interactivity to Noninteractive on a dime can be jarring, especially if the player didn’t have a say in it. But if you slowly decrease Interactivity, it can feel a little less so- maybe from Contained Interactivity, to Branching Interactivity, and then down to Noninteractivity. Or, maybe you decrease player movement speed, or remove their ability to jump for a little bit, but still let them make some progress towards what their goal was before you interrupted it.
3. Have noninteractive content play over interactive content
For example, while you’re navigating an area your player character starts talking to someone on a radio or intercom while the player does their thing.
The bottom of a great game story: the most important part is vision
The most important part of any project is that you have a vision and are driving towards it. I want to make it clear that I’m not against ever moving from Contained Interactivity to Noninteractivity, or even that I’m against games with more cutscenes than gameplay- but I do think a focus on Noninteractivity has become a crutch for developers, and we aren’t asking the question why that’s the case enough.
Ultimately, what decisions you make for your project need to hang on your vision- not on industry norms, not on what’s easiest, not on your personal preferences, not on my advice. Take your vision, clarify it, and run towards it.
But my hope is that this article helps you approach your vision with more clarity and new ideas, and opens your eyes to a more powerful focus you can have in your gameplay. The strength of gameplay isn’t creating great stories for your players. The strength of gameplay is creating great stories with your players.