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How it tells a story

October 28, 2009

Every game tells a story. There are dozens of ways that video games have told stories over the years, and although many games seem to stick to a familiar formula, there is no governing rule of how the story needs to be told. Today, I won’t discuss what makes a game’s story good or bad, but rather many of the different methods that games use to tell their story. Here are a small number of methods I’ve chosen to talk about in this post:

  • 1st Person
  • Cinematic
  • Text-Only
  • No Words

1st Person Story

Half-Life 2

An explosion witnessed by the player in Half-Life 2

This method of storytelling puts the player directly into the role of the main character as they live his or her life. This method is most often utilized in the First Person Shooter genre, which comes as no surprise considering that the camera is acting as the player’s eyes (what the main character sees, the player sees.) This method has becoming increasingly more common with the growing number of FPS games, but isn’t exclusive to shooter games. What the 1st Person Story helps accomplish is creating an atmosphere where the player actually feels like a part of the story, immersing them into the world. The way of storytelling first emerged when Doom came out for the PC, but wasn’t really utilized until Half-Life years later. There was no narrative in these games, but the story was told through the characters and setting. A great way of progressing the plot without taking the player out of the game. This idea, and variations of this idea, are used all the time in modern day games, like Oblivion and Call of Duty 4. They aren’t without narrative most of the time, but their origins were.


As games matured from their early stages on 8, 16 and 32 bit platforms, a lot of new technologies became available. More space on discs allowed for more detailed sound (in the form of voice acting), and 3D environments and the use of a 3D camera allowed for film-like camera angles to be used. The first game to really use this style was Metal Gear Solid, which opened the floodgates to many more. This method of storytelling is comparable to watching a movie, and can be  nearly identical at times. Anybody who has ever gotten engrossed in a film they really loved know what it’s like to play a game that uses cinematic storytelling. The most recent example of a game that uses cinematic cutscenes would be Uncharted 2, which could essentially be a Hollywood if stripped of gameplay.


Movie? Game? Both?


Zelda 2 OpeningThis style of storytelling made its debut around the time of the Nintendo Entertainment System. This method of explaining the plot came about when fonts were able to be utilized, and the obvious way of storytelling became to present the story like a book, with text. Many games used text in the opening of the game, and let the rest of the story play out solely in the gameplay, like Zelda. In these cases, the quality of the story relies almost entirely upon the quality of the writing. Of course, in games like Zelda a large portion of the story plays out in the imagination of the player, which is something I wish we would see more often. But just because this style is old, doesn’t mean it isn’t used anymore. Lost Winds, on WiiWare, explains the plot through text and setting, rather than voice. Braid, by Jonathan Blow, explains more and more of the plot through text as you complete sections of the game. This has the effect of feeling like a short novel; it motivates players to continue on through the next world of the game, just like a novel motivates the reader to continue on through the next chapter. This storytelling method can be very effective, but again, the writing must be compelling: It’s absolutely necessary.

No Words

Mario Galaxy

Many moments can be explained without words

Before even fonts could be utilized in games, the only way to tell a story was through the gameplay. Space Invaders was about an alien invasion, Super Mario Bros was about saving a princess, and many games left everything up to the imagination. This style has fallen almost completely out of use, with very few games relying only on gameplay, graphics and music to explain the plot. Games like Super Mario Galaxy do a lot of the work without words, but they do come into play at times. The same thing goes for games like Shadow of the Colossus, where much of the game is just about atmosphere and gameplay, but I can’t think of any games with no dialog or narrative whatsoever, with an exception for puzzle games like Tetris. I sometimes think about how interesting it would be to see a game with no words at all. None. Could gameplay explain the story well enough without text? That’s the kind of thing I would want to be exploring if I had a little more time on my hands.

Well, that’s about all I want to get into today. There are more methods, although perhaps less obvious, or hybrids of other methods. Thinking about how you want to structure the story can drastically change how the game plays as well.

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