Books, movies, podcasts, and tales around the campfire are all classic examples of storytelling mediums. Yet the last 30 or 40 years have seen the rise of a new method of sharing narratives: video games.

Yes, video games. While some games may seem like button-mashing mayhem, many games also tell a story like a movie. And still others give special cues that progress the game, without shoveling a narrative to the player.  

Traditional Game Storytelling

Traditional game storytelling is readily apparent. A lot of single-player games feature extensive cutscenes, which are effectively just scenes from a movie. The gameplay gets you from one scene to another, and sometimes has its own storytelling elements. But the traditional model is usually shooting enemies through a part of the game map, then arriving at another checkpoint that continues the story, movie-style. These games could be turned into a television show with minimal changes, which sometimes begs the question of why a game was the chosen medium.

The Main Character is You

When you watch a movie or read a book, you sit passively by as the main character interacts with their world according to how they’re written. But in games, you are that character. In some games, the story is pre-determined, but you still get to control exactly where that character walks. In other games, like role-playing games, you can play as anyone you want! You can even play as yourself, making decisions that you would make in that scenario. In that sense, you are quite literally the main character in your own story. Movies don’t have that effect, but games can.

Take the Elder Scrolls series for example. These are massive role-playing games that technically never end – you can just keep playing them indefinitely. You could go your entire time in the game without ever interacting with the primary intended storyline, if that’s what you want. If you would rather your character ignore the civil war, or the supernatural being taking over the world, and instead become a merchant or a farmer, you can technically do that. It’s whatever you want the story to be.

Games that put you in the main character’s shoes (first-person perspective does this more than third-person) excel at viewer transportation, or immersion. Movies and books do this too, and you’ll recognize the feeling if you’ve ever sat through a movie and totally forgotten the world around you. But while you may scream at the movie screen “No, don’t go in that door!”, a game (or at least a decision-based game) would allow you to avoid going in “that door” altogether. Your immersion increases, and you feel transported.

At least until the game starts glitching…

Background Game Storytelling

What can a game do when storytelling is not inherent to the plot? This requires a broader storytelling strategy that expands beyond the game itself. Love it or hate it, Fortnite is the prime example of this. As a multiplayer round-based game in which every round is pretty much the same, it’s hard to tell stories on this level. Instead, Fortnite tells a story through subtle changes to the game map. Locations come in and out of existence, and small clues to a broader story are left all around. But for the average player that just wants to play the game for what it is, the story could be ignored completely.

The game capitalized on its large multiplayer audience by having live game-changing (literally changes to the game map) events in which players can gather together and watch something happen live. While other games have done this, this was an important aspect of Fortnite’s story, and that story evolved over the course of nearly 2 years; slowly spinning a narrative while other games in the battle royale genre were content to say “you just shoot people until you win.”

At the end of the day, Fortnite is a game about shooting other players and being the last one standing.  But if you pay attention, it's also a story about inter-dimensional travel, zombies, and cataclysmic apocalypse.

Storytelling Through Game Mechanics

Somewhat more interesting than classic storytelling, is doing so through visuals and mechanics. This gets into an interesting facet, which is the language that used by gamers, and I don’t mean the lingo. Rather I mean the things that game developers put into their creations that only people who play them would understand.

Some of this is in the controls. It’s generally known that the “WASD” keys on a keyboard are the movement keys, and the space bar is jump. It’s similarly second nature for more obscure buttons; E or F are often the interact buttons and Ctrl is crouch. Every PC gamer knows this.

Additionally, level design is another storytelling language that non-gamers may not inherently speak. A fallen tree in the road is easy to climb over in real life. But in a game, a fallen tree is often used to show the player to not go that way. Some games create invisible walls, which are not very immersive to the story. A fallen tree is a less-intrusive way of giving the player important information. You’ll feel silly trying and failing to jump over a tree that isn’t meant to be jumped over, but an experienced video game player would never even bother approaching the tree.

Studies on the storytelling abilities of game mechanics are limited, but the ones that exist offer some interesting insights. A 2015 study by professors at the IT University of Copenhagen and NYU paints an interesting picture. They created a game with randomized mechanics and a very neutral-looking 3D world, then asked players what they thought the story was. Since the mechanics were randomized, there were a variety of answers. However, the study practitioners noted a few interesting observations, including a correlation between “war” being part of the story when the non-player characters split into two groups that attacked each other. Another notable correlation came when the A.I. characters were passive and ran away from the player. The players in this situation observed that they were overpowered compared to the non-player characters, and were perhaps a superhero or supervillain. Yet another story derived from mechanics was one of a correlation between the player character being given an invisibility power, and the player determining whether escaping from the location was part of the story.

As we can see from studies like this, there is no need for defined characters or settings in order to properly tell a story. If we see two groups of non-player characters acting hostile toward each other, we instantly know a battle is incoming. If stealth mechanics are part of the game, we understand that we need to be sneaky, or need to avoid the non-player characters. We know how people react to real-world scenarios, and we can apply that to blobs on a grey 3D space, even when all elements of setting or character are absent.

Video games are just the latest medium in a long history of human storytelling, but the nature of games means they can tell stories in completely different ways than other formats. The story is yours to create, so grab a controller and settle in for a long gaming session. And if you want Storify to help tell your story, we’re just a call or an email away!