Games and stories

Humans are storytellers, and we do it more or less instinctively, but many of us are not great storytellers. Humans are also game players, and we also do that instinctively, and most of us are at least decent in some game or other.

The use of Story in videogames is a rather deep topic, but suffice it to say that games have done well with minimal story, with trite and clichéd story, and often with just plain bad story. Games do have the potential to deliver great story, and some have.

This article at Ars Technica raises some points that I mostly agree with, in that a game doesn’t need a story to be a great game. But I disagree with it insofar as great stories should only be told through established, proper forms. Reading it prompted the following thoughts in reaction:

Even Chess has an element of story to it: Two kingdoms at war. It’s abstract, but it does have meaning. It’s not really the point of Chess, and it’s easy enough to re-theme the story a particular chess set tells. Understanding the course of a game of chess through the metaphor implied by the significance imparted on the various pieces doesn’t really add any insight to winning strategy, though. Chess is loosely coupled to its story. It’s there for flavor, and there’s some symbolic meaning there, but it’s not very important.

A game like Tic-Tac-Toe has no story at all, right? It’s just an absolutely abstract conflict based in the geometric realities of the grid and the arbitrary significance of orthogonal lines. Well, suppose we take the British name for the game, Noughts and Crosses, and then let’s to a tiny bit further to modify the Noughts so that they’re Crescents. Instantly, we’ve created story: a retelling of the age-old, pointless clash that nobody can win between Christianity and Islam. It’s so slight, it’s almost stupid that this change is all that is needed to convey a story with a moral, yet it’s strangely powerful. And that’s how ingrained story is to games. It’s there because we can’t help ourselves putting it there.

Some attempts at telling a story that is the equal of our finest books, plays, and films through the medium of videogames game end up being a failure, and this ends up hurting both the game and the story. This much is true. I think “So don’t ever do that” is the wrong lesson to take from that. Game design is a rapidly developing art form and it’s entirely likely that new ways of integrating story and game are possible, many of them still over the horizon. We can imagine a lot, but we can’t imagine everything the future will bring. Which is why the future is so fascinating. Closing off an entire branch of game design because it was a bad idea in the past or because past attempts failed is just shortsighted.

If you’re making a game, the first goal is make sure that the game is good. There are a lot of ways to do this, likely infinite.

If you support the game with story elements, it can enhance the game. Game developers should try to make those good, of course, as they should make any element in the game as good as they are able. But they don’t have to be concerned about telling great, serious stories. Stories told through games can be great, though, and it’s fine to aspire and experiment to find what works and what doesn’t, but clearly most games do not require a level of storytelling the equal of a classic novel in order to be great as games. It’s OK for them to aspire to do so, though.


Add a Comment
  1. Two of my favorite games, Beyond Good and Evil and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, are both great games that tell stories very well.

    The argument from that article seems to be, “Movies tell good stories, and some good games have no story. Therefore games shouldn’t tell stories.”


    1. I have a feeling the Ars article distored Jaffe’s words in order to stir up controversy. I really can’t understand how someone with as much experience in the industry would say that game design and storytelling don’t mix at all. I can appreciate that sometimes attempts at storytelling get in the way of the game being enjoyable, but so much depends on how the two are implemented and intertwined that it’s riduclous to have such a hard-lined stance about it, unless your focus is so narrow and you’re *only* interested in a very specific type of game, to the point where other types of games don’t even look like games to you.


Leave a Reply