This is part 1 of an ongoing series on the techniques that game designers employ to tell stories in video games. Part 2 is already available, and more are coming.


People like me—which is to say, people who spend too much time thinking about video games—often divide themselves into “ludologist” or “narratologist” camps. Put simply, these two camps disagree about whether storytelling is a natural part of video games as a medium.

The people who debate this question are smart people, but the question itself is stupid; it doesn’t matter whether narrative is endemic to games, in exactly the same what that it doesn’t matter whether narrative is endemic to poetry or film. You can make an abstract movie. You can write a novelistic poem. Some games aspire to tell stories, others don’t. My interest tends to be in the games that tell stories, and in the ways that they do so.

Games seem to inspire categorization—there is no shortage of fissures along which the hobby can be split. Games can be divided by:

  • audience (hardcore or casual, an awful distinction)
  • platform (PS3, Wii, PC, etc.)
  • engine (Unreal, idTech, etc.)
  • perspective (first-person or third-person)
  • graphical dimensionality (2D or 3D)
  • culture of origin (Japanese, “Western,” Eastern European, etc.)
  • genre (FPS, RPG, etc.)
  • gameplay mode (single player or multiplayer)
  • distribution model (disc-based or downloadable)
  • budget/development model (AAA or indie)

…and so on, ad infinitum. Many of these divisions are spurious but still useful, or at least interesting to think about.

Historically, video game players, reviewers and developers have most often tended to classify games by genre. In many ways, this makes sense. It’s an established system, with a language that can be adopted and adapted from film and written fiction. Game genres tend to be closely related to game mechanics—the types of interactions that players can have with the game world. Since much of the fun of playing games comes from these interactions, players who have enjoyed one role-playing game or real-time strategy game can reasonably expect to like at least some things about another.

(The late, lamented Idle Thumbs podcast once spent a few minutes sadly sighing about the fact that non-genre games hardly seem to exist. Ennui!)

One major way that games can differ from each other is frequently ignored: approach to narrative. Perhaps this distinction is ignored because the quality of game storytelling tends to be so low. Perhaps the debate over whether games should tell stories obscures the need for a clearer understanding of how they do. Perhaps the problem is the bizarre anti-intellectual streak in “gamer” culture.

Whatever the reason, the result is that we have no standardized vocabulary to describe game narrative. We can do better! Let’s do better! OK, we’re doing better starting now. I’m going to propose a set of storytelling techniques that I recognize in games, and I’ll illustrate them with examples of games in which they were employed. Keep in mind that very few games use only one of these techniques, so there will doubtless be some overlap; I’ll try to keep things simple.

The tools in the toolbox

I. Exposition

Exposition is the impartial presentation of information. Academic articles, news stories, encyclopedia articles and recipes are all examples of exposition. Exposition is technically different from narration and description, which are separate modes of “rhetorical discourse.” However, for the sake of clarity, I will be defining any storytelling technique which straight up tells the player something about the plot or world as a form of exposition.

Exposition = telling.
Exposition ≠ showing.

What does it mean to “tell” something in a game, as opposed to “showing”? Games can literally show something visually, or tell something in written or spoken language, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. I contend that even information which is conveyed entirely visually—literally shown to the player—might still be considered as “told” to the player. That’s because the technique of exposition must be compared against the other two narrative techniques which are possible in games: exploration and interaction. Those two techniques more closely approximate the process of discovery and comprehension which is meant by “showing” the reader something in film or written fiction.

I think some examples are in order here. Keep in mind that exposition can place many formats; games are uniquely flexible in terms of how they can present information to the player.

Written exposition

Marathon

Marathon was an early first-person shooter (FPS) series—so early, in fact, that these games were still called “Doom clones” when it was released. It had a few notable features for the time:

While none of those elements are entirely unique, there’s no denying that a certain je ne sais quoi has kept the original Marathon and its two sequels somehow relevant… and it’s not just because the company behind the games went on to make Halo.

The Marathon trilogy told its story through a series of in-game computer terminals which featured still images and brightly-colored text. The contents of these terminals varied. Sometimes, they were direct addresses to the player character from one of several feuding AIs. Other times they were internal communications or historical records from one of the alien civilizations through whose worlds and spaceships the player was currently rampaging. The color of the text indicated the author of the message.

 

The basic plot of Marathon is nothing special. Alien slavers attack a human space colony. The player, as the only surviving security officer, must fight them off. The latter two games had plots that were slightly less clichéd—search amongst the ruins of dead alien cities for clues to escaping the inevitable heat-death of the universe; pick your way through a fracturing time-stream to repair the damage you did to the space-time continuum in the second game—but the endeavor as a whole was unabashed hard sci-fi, complete with hand-wringing philosophical questions (“What does it mean to be human?,” “Do the ends justify the means?”).

The fact that the Marathon games were so popular for their stories is a result not of the content of those stories, but of how well the series employs text-based exposition as a storytelling technique. The games feature a network of constantly shifting narrators, few of whom were trustworthy. Characters and history texts frequently allude to larger events of which the player is only ever given brief glimpses (à la The Lord of the Rings). The AI characters are moody, and have convincing character arcs—Durandal, the primary non-player character and namesake of the second game in the series, is alternately bitter, sarcastic, revengeful and megalomaniacal, but proves ultimately benevolent.

There are elements of exploratory narrative and interactive narrative in Marathon as well. Many terminals are hidden, and so large sections of the plot can be missed if the player is not careful or interested; and of course the game’s graphics and setting contribute to the atmosphere of the story. The game’s fundamental gameplay mechanics (combat and environmental puzzles) are also relevant to the narrative, although they only rarely progress the plot directly. I’ll define exploratory and interactive narrative in later posts; for now, I only want to establish that these techniques are present, though not primary, in the Marathon trilogy.

(I probably haven’t mentioned it on this blog before, but I wrote the terminals for a big Marathon mod/fan-sequel called Marathon: Rubicon once upon a time.)

Like Marathon, the Elder Scrolls role-playing games have a history dating back to 1994. I have briefly played the first game in the series, as well as The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and the most recent entry in the series, the celebrated Oblivion. I cannot comment on the game’s overall approach to story, because I have not spent much time with it; but it was obvious to me even at a glance that the game presents a great deal of expository backstory about the world through diegetic in-game texts.

Where Marathon uses written exposition as its primary engine driving the narrative, Oblivion uses using the same technique to allow players interested in the world to become more immersed in it. Even for a game that is tremendously open-ended by design, the books in Oblivion are an addendum; most players probably do not read them, and many who do may only do so to gain the occasional gameplay benefits offered by specific books (“training manuals” which improve certain character statistics).

This post is getting very long, and I’d like to release it into the wild. Next time, I’ll look at the Metal Gear series and how creator Hideo Kojima focuses on storytelling through cinematic exposition. (Plus, bonus preview of interactive narrative, because I can’t resist!)