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Default Gamasutra - Should Games Have Stories?

May 11th, 2013, 00:32
Gamasutra has a new article written by industry veteran Soren Johnson. He questions whether video games should have stories, and explores various examples.
Stories and games have always had an uneasy marriage. From the beginning, designers have written stories into their games, giving the player a fixed beginning, a narrative path to follow, and a preset ending. At the same time, many players flocked to games because of their lack of narrative structure; a game experience is a chance to create a story, not to submit oneself to a designer's unpublished novel.

At the root of this problem is an almost theological dilemma - can a game designer tell a story if the player's choices actually matter? If the most important element of a game is its interactivity, then every static plot point a designer crams into the experience takes away from the centrality of the player. Put another way, if a game has a spoiler, is it really still a game?

To be clear, with the exception of a few abstract game like Tetris, almost all games benefit from story elements - an interesting setting, a distinctive tone, memorable characters, engaging dialogue, dramatic conflict, and so on. The best games have characters and settings that rival those of any other media - consider GLaDOS from Portal or Rapture from BioShock.

However, the actual narrative of a game - meaning the series of events which determines the plot - is the hardest element to reconcile with the essential interactivity of games. For this reason, narrative cannot be handled as it is with books or movies, in which the story is the core element that everything else must support.
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Last edited by Couchpotato; May 11th, 2013 at 10:04.
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May 11th, 2013, 00:32
Puzzle based and strategy games don't really need a story. If they do have one, it's a plus. Apart from those, in other genres, all nongrinders need stories. Grinders don't need a story as their aim is not to occupy the (human) brain.

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May 11th, 2013, 00:54
Make a great game engine and think of a story later is what I think.
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May 11th, 2013, 01:10
"Sometimes yes. Other times, no."
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May 11th, 2013, 06:11
I'm with Killias2.

Some people play for the story and some hate it. I personally saw how my friend got annoyed at story elements in some action-oriented games and skipped them. But I myself enjoyed them quite a bit and thought that they added up a lot to those games.
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May 11th, 2013, 09:00
Thoughtful article but the title is sensational. It is not about games having or not stories but how to tell stories.
The title must be: how should games tell stories?
The author puts forward the very fact that most games will end with a story.
At the same time, many players flocked to games because of their lack of narrative structure; a game experience is a chance to create a story, not to submit oneself to a designer's unpublished novel.
It is either be submitted to a scripted narrative or write your own.

As stated already, the question is answered: as a medium to storytell, video games come with structural flaws that immediately jeopardize the delivery of a story. Millions of dollars were poured into searching on how to deliver a story in video games yet no method was found.
Anyone with a good story is left in the dark to deliver it properly via a video game. Contrary to litterature or cinema. If you have a good story, it is better to keep it for a book or a movie as the how to is well known in litterature and cinema.

From that point, the choice is clear: either you want a medium to be used for what it conveys the best or you cling to what it does the worst.

Video games excell for a player to developp her own narrative. They suck when it comes to deliver scripted narratives.

Players chose some time ago.
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May 11th, 2013, 09:24
It's as if each day brings an increasingly stupid and redundant article with it.
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May 11th, 2013, 09:52
Originally Posted by wolfing View Post
Make a great game engine and think of a story later is what I think.
This is precisely what to do, if you want to make a game totally lacking any soul. Brian Fargo has it right in that sketch with the kid at the beginning of the Tides video. But, this isn't story in the narrow sense of scads of boring text, rather all the things that go to make you suspend your disbelief and feel you are journeying in a real world. In that respect, the artwork tone, location design, NPC design etc are all part of the story and need to be consistently planned up front.
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May 11th, 2013, 10:19
I have already admitted I like story in my games many times. If that means I'm wrong so be it. I wont change. I will agree though that games do need more than story to work also. It's the old game play first saying.

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May 11th, 2013, 10:39
Stories (or campaigns) in games are almost a must for me (but don't always have to be high quality), I think only puzzle games get a pass from me.
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May 11th, 2013, 11:18
A well written story should ideally unfold with game progression. (eg: well integrated and coherently woven)

A "flexible" type storyline that can be stretched by side quests progression can/might also be *recieved* flexibly due to the variation of the gamer's own ability (eg: lack of imagination).

If storyline flexibility is hidden and can only be found by agressive depth playing (eg: not casual gaming) - then this must lead to greater immersion and game conclusion satisfaction.

This is completely different to the game "telling a story" - for me a good storyline must be uncovered by determination or subliminal suggestion (eg: 'the unknown' etc')

This is highlighted where well known and accepted novels are used as a backdrop concept prior to a game's development. (eg: a 'Sapkowski' novel)

It is virtually impossible to make a novel type story into a deeply immersive game of progresive gameplay style in that the game is 'telling' the story rather than the player 'finding' or uncovering, searching to unearth the deeper progressive story elements.

So many games now display the storyline for all to see before the game is even released.

Dictatorial gaming is boring.
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May 11th, 2013, 11:37
Originally Posted by Roq View Post
But, this isn't story in the narrow sense of scads of boring text, rather all the things that go to make you suspend your disbelief and feel you are journeying in a real world. In that respect, the artwork tone, location design, NPC design etc are all part of the story and need to be consistently planned up front.
In gaming, suspension of disbelief comes from the game mechanics. Not from liminar features like a story.

Now players who are interested in the story first and only secondly in the game will try to find their suspension in the story.

But again, video games are a poor medium to deliver scripted stories so, when interested in stories, relying on video games to get good stories is what it is.
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May 12th, 2013, 13:45
I've played at least 100 RPGs in my lifetime. I can remember the story of about … maybe 2 of them, but I can remember the gameplay of most of them. Gameplay trumps story for me, it's a nice background thing to have but not the driver.
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May 12th, 2013, 13:59
Adventure games are about nothing but story.
Too bad no-one seems to want to do any good stories nowadays.

Plus, I believe that shooters don't need stories, too.

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May 12th, 2013, 23:53
Only if you want me to buy it!!

If God said it, then that settles it!!

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May 13th, 2013, 00:08
Originally Posted by wolfing View Post
I've played at least 100 RPGs in my lifetime. I can remember the story of about … maybe 2 of them, but I can remember the gameplay of most of them. Gameplay trumps story for me, it's a nice background thing to have but not the driver.
Totally agree. For instance, the biggest "story" game of all from what I consider the Golden Age of RPGs, Ultima VII. I remember that game vividly enough I can still run through segments of the game in my head, but I don't recall anything about the story other than the sound of that Guardian dude's silly voice. Other games from the same time: I can recall things like Guillotine traps and getting jumped by nose-bone African tribesmen chucking spears at me soon as I left town the first time in Might & Magic III, but not even a glimmer of the storyline remains in my mind. Wizardry 7 I recall clearly exploring some of the dungeons, and many of the puzzles, but the story is all fuzzy and vague. On the other hand, a game lacking in story is pretty dull fare. It leaves you (or me at any rate) feeling like I'm just killing time. That's the way I always felt about Elder Scrolls, before Oblivion came out.

Both are required, but the gameplay is more important. And my personal preference is for the story to unfold naturally during the course of playing the game, rather than the gameplay following along behind a strictly scripted story that's force fed to you via dialogs and event triggers.
Last edited by CraigCWB; May 13th, 2013 at 01:50.
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May 13th, 2013, 12:28
Story is essential to me. If the story or setting doesn't interest me, I won't play it. Period. I can overlook a whole lot of technical issues and bugs and what not as long as the story is interesting enough and told in the right way. Being able to affect it is a big plus.
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May 13th, 2013, 12:59
Not remembering a story doesn't mean it wasn't a strong drive in the game.

Gameplay is very easy to remember - and most systems in RPGs are closely related. Story is full of dialogue and lore, and very few people can remember story in detail for all the games they've played.

Story is essential to almost any RPG - if you ask me. Even Diablo needed a story to push you forward. You might not remember it now, but when you played Diablo - you probably had some idea of what quest you were on and who gave it to you.

That said, games should only have stories if they serve a purpose. I consider that obvious - and the question in itself is stupid and redundant.
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May 13th, 2013, 15:39
A good system with a weak (or no) story ultimately fails. A good example of that is Darklands.
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May 13th, 2013, 17:29
Originally Posted by BillSeurer View Post
A good system with a weak (or no) story ultimately fails. A good example of that is Darklands.
Such a game certainly "fails" when it comes to satisfying me as a gamer, but that clearly doesn't mean it will fail commercially. I'd put all the Elder Scrolls from Arena to Morrowind in that category of "good system/weak story" and they did quite well for Bethesda. I only spent a couple of days with Darklands, and that was back when it was first released, but my recollection is what it lacked more than anything else was charm.

————edit

By the way, games with good story and poor gameplay fail even more, for me. I didn't even try Mass Effect 3 or Dragon Age 2. I don't see much point to playing Bioware games, anymore, since all they've got going on is (allegedly interactive) cinema. Even daytime soaps have more compelling storylines, and I could spend the rest of my life watching those for free if I wanted to. And the only buttons I have to mash are the power, volume and channel. Doesn't get much more immersive and awesome than that, does it? Luckily for Bioware, there are lots of people out there who really want to believe they're participants rather than spectators in these so-called stories. If it wasn't for that aspect of gamer psychology they'd be in real trouble I suspect. They jumped the shark when it comes to gameplay/story balance a long time ago.
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