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You are trapped on a boat. The unicorn you were meant to be attending to has escaped. You need not be reminded of the last time you witnessed the full extent of its bloodlust, let alone on a vessel with no reasonable means of escape. The narrator refers to himself in the third person and reminds you that he can’t do shit to help you out here. He also submits that it’s up to you to deal with the situation he has posed, even though he seems to be the one telling the story. Then again, he contemplates, while he may be the one telling it, he may not be the one making it.

… See, that little escapade is why I’m not making trillions off my magnum opus, ‘The Howl of The Monohorned Horse: Neigh A Chance In Hell’.

Storytelling and storymaking require very different approaches to narrative structure, with the former requiring absorption as opposed to the latter’s need for participation. Games are unique in that they seem to tackle both styles with relative ease. We play as Lara Croft and designate her actions, but we simultaneously watch as she goes through a story totally out of our hands. We could say the same of Nathan Drake, Master Chief, Gordon Freeman, Kurt (from MDK, ya ignorant curd), Jim Raynor, Mario, Max Payne, even Kirby. With such memorable narratives, it seems like games are a great storytelling tool, but that’s not how I see it.

 
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Unicorns are clearly top-tier plot devices

Let Me Tell You About Making Stuff

Storytelling is as old as humanity itself, serving a variety of purposes broader than my dance teachers’ side-step. In video games, storytelling happens through a number different devices, such as cutscenes and NPC interactions. Stories in games are usually there as a reward for overcoming in-game obstacles to incentivise continued play. Metal Gear Solid will almost always introduce bosses well in advance, and when you get through the boss battle, a cutscene will play as a reward to fuel the Kojimaspiracy. Considering that the story is all anyone ever talks about when it comes to MGS, you might judge it to be quite good at storytelling, but that’s only one-half of the equation.

A core – if not definitional – component to any game is interaction. If you’re not interacting, you’re watching a movie or reading a novel more so than you’re playing a game. Let’s take MGS as the example again. There are giant gaps between when you are controlling your character (usually Snake) and watching a cutscene. Nature metaphors are fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but when you sit there for half an hour to get a chance to play Snake again, you quickly develop a distaste for non-interactive segments in games. So, what’s the alternative? If you bothered reading the intro, you already know the answer.

 
Spoiler-Alert

It’s… It’s storymaking… Storymaking is the answer to th- JUST KEEP READING!

By its very nature, storytelling requires a player to take a step back from what’s happening on-screen. Games require active participation, though, and this is where the idea of storymaking comes into play. Instead of needing external motivation from a pre-set narrative, there are plenty of games which evolve to create their own stories. Think games like The Sims, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Stellaris, EVE; games that don’t employ set narratives to create stories worth recounting. Storymaking is a substantial part of video games, so it seems odd that storytelling is the standard for most games.

A lot of games coming out today seem less interested in creating emergent narratives as they are with pre-planned ones. There’s an inherent paradox in this approach since techniques required to tell a story often force the player to stop interacting, removing the whole ‘game’ part of the game. Now, how far these techniques go is questionable (is listening to an NPC during a conversation in Skyrim negating your interactivity!?!?), but you get my point. Using cutscenes, being forced to wait for an NPC to open the locked door, anything that strips the player’s agency to nil seems counter-productive to making an interactivity-driven experience. AND YET, games like CoD, Halo and Uncharted use techniques that adopt a hands-off mentality. There are plenty of obvious reasons for this, but there are also some less than obvious ones.

 
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So you can’t mess up and look back at the explosion, obviously

Digging A Hole With A Fork

The main reason that the same old techniques of storytelling crop up in video games is because we’re familiar with them. We, as a species, tend to look favourably on things we’ve been exposed to before. Since we’re told about Santa Claus and Hannibal Lecter as kids, telling stories about Master Chief is an easier way to break someone into the game than by telling them to make their own stories. By adhering to conventions we’ve had experience with, it’s easier to draw people’s interest in the game, even if it’s as bare-bones as exposition in the instruction manual. The other big reason is that playing a game non-stop for 12 hours straight can get a tad mundane.

When storytelling devices interrupt gameplay, they can act as buffers for your brain to digest what the hell just happened. Too much exposure to the game and you’ll end up getting overly familiar with it, and considering this is the basis for prolonged exposure therapy, you can guess why we want to avoid overexposure. Interruptions in gameplay also help with getting players to remember things since people don’t do well to remember large chunks of information as much as the starts and ends. By switching between storymaking and storytelling techniques, a developer can control the pacing of a game to make sure it doesn’t become too much for a player to handle. While all of this is well and good, there are still downsides.

 
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It’s great chatting and all, but if you could just open the door for me…?

I’ve talked before about how cutscenes disrupt the flow of a game as well as the player’s psychological flow, but other storytelling techniques don’t do much better. Having to stop and read a book in Skyrim or wait on an NPC to trigger the door opening breaks the flow of a game (not necessarily immersion, though), and this is obviously undesirable. Storymaking doesn’t tend to suffer from these pitfalls because there’s no reason to stop, so the rhythm of the game is never interrupted by totally 100% necessary exposition. Of course, the more pervasive issue is that of the story taking over.

The big problem with using games for storytelling is that such an approach bypasses the meritocracy games must implement to feel fair. Say you complete a mission only to be told that your efforts were for nought. The big baddie got away again even though you broke through in record time, or maybe you couldn’t beat the boss at all because the game needed you to lose to serve the story. Sure, these are great plot devices, but it seems pretty backwards to be told that being good at the game was a waste of time. There’s a fine line between making the player useful and elongating the core conflict of the narrative, but games are getting better and better at straddling that barrier.

 
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Straddling in games is a big deal, as can be seen in this Skyrim mod. Assuming it hasn’t been removed. It’s been removed, hasn’t it? Yeah, that’s fair, it wasn’t safe for human eyes.

Does It Blend?

It would seem that storymaking and storytelling in video games are mutually exclusive paradigms, but modern games are getting sneakier in how they develop stories. As technology and game design have become more sophisticated, so too have the ways in which games convey narrative. The easiest example to pick is environmental narrative, where the narrative is communicated through – you guessed it – the game environment. Objects like posters, stray bodies, animals, bookcases, engravings, pills, clutter, anything that contributes to the mise en scène can tell a story as the player makes their own. Parts of the narrative can be uncovered through exploration (or in the case of Freedom Fall, just playing the game), but the player is never stripped of their agency. In some ways, this is still a separation of making and telling, but games have gotten far more devious as of late.

Consider a game that tells the story through having the player make it. This approach is the basis of The Stanley Parable, a game where the storytelling and storymaking are one and the same. As you act in the game world, the story adjusts to match the circumstances. Of course, if the narrator gets cocky and suggests that you do something, you can do the opposite, which forces the storytelling to change. The key point is that the player is making the story while being told what the story is, and if there were ever an example of blending making with telling, this would be it. Walking simulators (I don’t like this term, but hot damn if it isn’t convenient) like Firewatch and Gone Home adopt a similar approach where the story is being told but the player is the one in control. They’re not free to do as they please, but as they explore and uncover parts of the narrative (linear or otherwise), the player ‘makes’ the story. It’s more like piecing everything together, but you get the idea. The Stanley Parable is a unique case, though, since most games don’t offer this level of freedom.

 
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Visual novels are a whole different can of worms, and yes, that was totally a bird pun

Games like The Stanley Parable are rare to come by, and most games that implement this mixed approach fail to capitalise on their potential. Look at Beyond: Two Souls as an example, a game so utterly linear that it hurts. Ultimately, your actions don’t matter because the story will evolve in the same fashion. Sure, you might save the home from the big scary ghost spirit, but if you didn’t, nothing would change. You’d still leave, still have sexual tension with the dude from the ranch, and your actions will have no bearing on the story you’re meant to be drastically altering. The story suffers because the game tries to cater to people who’d prefer to craft their own narrative, even though the game obviously wants to tell a very particular story. The problem here is that this approach is what many games will try to deceive you with a sense of control.

Narrative driven games have recently gone with an approach that looks like storymaking but is secretly(ish) just storytelling. It’s thinly veiled, but games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted effectively try to make you feel like you are significantly influencing this story as you go along. After all, you’re the one controlling Lara through the swathes of merc’s, and a cutscene didn’t play when Nathan had to hop in an SUV and leg it. In a sense, you are making a story by playing the game, even if it is a highly scripted and pre-planned experience, but that’s the point. Again, it’s thinly veiled, and I doubt anyone is ignorant to the apparent linearity of it all, but they both do a great job of making you feel like you’re contributing to the story.

 
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It’s a small contribution, but he’d be dead if I hadn’t pressed X

Perhaps the ultimate example of the illusion of control in storymaking is any game by Telltale. Much like The Stanley Parable, the story adjusts as you pick and choose how it evolves, but this is not a game of organic gameplay. Unlike a game where the mechanics create stories, like Skyrim or Stellaris, Telltale games are precisely curated series of events that are tenuously connected through player choices. The story will change, yes, but this is storytelling veiled as storymaking at its most concealed. The choices you make will alter what happens next, but you can only choose what the writers allowed, so you can’t use the full extent of your theoretical resources in any given situation. You might have a robot arm that could defuse the situation single-handedly (heh heh heh), but you can’t use because the plot deems it so. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing (especially when it’s done well), but it’s an interesting approach to telling a story through a video game.

Final Thoughts

Games are home to some great stories, but how those stories are ‘told’ or ‘made’ isn’t as simple as it might appear. The techniques of film and prose certainly have their place, but when you have a medium that can put the player in a character’s shoes, how could you pass that up? The control may be illusory at best, but it may not be achievable through gameplay that forces you to create your own stories. Telling and making a story require very different schools of thought, and while they can be used in conjunction with each other, it does beg the question whether games are a medium suited for storytelling. I don’t care that much, mainly because I’m more of a storyderiving kind of guy. Like, where in the world IS Carmen Sandiego? And how are you getting off that boat?

The unicorn is not to be trifled with once the moons sets, and it is a terrible night to have a curse… OF THE MONOHORNED HORS- yeah, okay, it’s not good. SHUT IT DOWN.

Nick Ballantyne

Nick Ballantyne

Managing Editor at GameCloud
Nick lives in that part of Perth where there's nothing to do. You know, that barren hilly area with no identifying features and no internet? Yeah, that part. To compensate, he plays games, writes chiptunes, makes videos, and pokes fun at hentai because he can't take anything seriously.
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