The invisible storyteller

In the first full installment of the game story career gut check, I’ve decided to dive deeper into the idea that game story is always the player’s story. You may have invested hundreds or thousands of hours of your time to make it, but the player’s experience is all that matters. In fact, in most cases, the better the narrative designer has done his or her job, the more the player will feel a sense of ownership over what happens.

To clarify, I’m not talking merely about dozens of choices and branches that simply lead to different outcomes and endings. Those can be great, and absolutely can lead to a player’s sense of control over the story. But beyond that, even in a game story that is relatively linear, the connection between what the player does and the consequences that unfold should ideally feel natural and seamless. How many times have you played a game and had the thought “Oh, I guess the game wants me to go talk to that person now?” Whenever the player feels like they are doing something because the games wants them to, immersion suffers.

Narrative designers, and in fact all game developers, should strive to immerse the player in the game experience as completely as possible. Of course, anyone who has ever worked in games knows that is a great thing to say, but very hard to pull off. Deep immersion is generally time consuming and expensive for a developer, so we often use shorthand in UI elements, screen directions and awkward, explanatory dialog to move things along. But, that doesn’t mean that better solutions don’t exist.

When you work in game story, your job is not just to create great characters and plot, but to weave those into the interactive experience. If moving a story along requires a player to talk to another character, they need really compelling reasons to do that beyond the fact that the character has an arrow over her head. And those reasons may not be conveyed in words. Perhaps lighting and sound and prop placement can encourage the player to speak with the character. Telling story in a game requires that you use all of the tools at your disposal. If you have command of those, your storytelling starts to become invisible. That is awesome, but it can also feel thankless.

One of my favorite game story experiences is Portal. Aside from the snarky GLaDOS character, there were very few words or other use of traditional tools of storytelling. But that game created a sense of place, purpose and intrigue that had me sucked in from the beginning. The story I was most left to ponder was “Why did someone make this place, and what happened to them?” It was told in rather simple sets, generally basic props, and only simple mechanics to master. But those all worked together brilliantly to give me plenty of motivation to keep moving forward. By far, the most talked about element of Portal was the portal mechanic itself. While I’m certainly not alone in my appreciation of its story, it was so baked into the experience that I’ve actually heard very savvy game designers assert that “it didn’t really have a story.” But I believe it was a truly amazing story, because it was the game.

The downside of this view of great game story, at least for some, is that the better you do your job, the easier people will think your job is, and the greater the risk that you get little credit for it. So if you crave lots of credit, this might not be the job for you. On the other hand, if you strive for immersive experience, and are fine foregoing talk of “my story” in favor of “the player’s story,” there are a lot of story-savvy developers (myself included) who will hire you once you develop your skills. What skills, and how do you develop them? Ah, this blog is young, and there is much to talk about. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear from folks about the game story experiences that they feel are really amazing and immersive, and why you think they worked so well.


One Reply to “The invisible storyteller”

  1. It’s a great post and I agree that creating immersive experiences is an important tool for game developers to have. When I think of immersive experiences Valve sets a high bar with both Portal and Half Life. For me, it’s not just how the game isn’t interrupted by cutscenes or big markers about where to go next or constantly flipping to a mini map to figure where to go next. It’s also about how the game will interact with the player. Maybe I’ll hesistate to open a door and Wheatley will crack a joke about my pause or Glados will make fun of me for being stuck on a puzzle (because I was stuck for way too long). These moments where the game reacts to the player are key I think to immersion. It makes the game feel like a two way conversation.

    I’d be interested to hearing your thoughts dialogue systems in games. I’m a big fan of Kentucky Route Zero’s dialogue system and wish other games would opt for a similar style. The way you choose the dialogue for multiple characters and the way the choices feel understated rather than melodramatic is a great achievement. (I’m sorry but I hate the text flashes: Clem will remember this – kind of immersion breaking). I also found the way KRZ constantly has explores narrative delivery methods. There is a frame narrative, dueling simultaneously progressing narratives, and of course the Act 3 song which defies description.

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