Posted by MajorMitch (500 posts) -

Have you ever played a game that you felt shed light on how or why you live your life?

People like stories. We inherently like stories of all shapes and sizes, in as many areas of life as we can get them. Naturally, this extends to the realm of video games, where stories have only become more and more of a focus for the medium as it’s grown in popularity over the years. A friend recently asked me the above question when we were talking about video game stories, which initially sounded weird to me. While it’s not uncommon for other mediums, such as books or movies, to tell stories that can strongly affect people in that way, I generally don’t think about video games in the same light. At the same time, I have deeply enjoyed numerous video game “narratives” over the years, which got me thinking about what it is I personally get out of my favorite video game narratives.

The World Ends With You has led me to reflect on my life as much as any game, which still isn't all that much.

First and foremost, there have been plenty of video game stories that I like for having endearing characters, an interesting plot with memorable moments, or themes that stick with me for some time after playing them. These games include things like Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Cross, God of War, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, BioShock, The World Ends With You, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, To the Moon, and so on. These types of games, for the most part, I consider to offer “traditional” storytelling, where a concrete story is told in a way that’s largely removed from the input of the player (aka, gameplay). This is probably still the most common form of storytelling in video games, and it also lies on the non-interactive end of the spectrum, thus making such stories the most analogous to other, non-interactive mediums. While I have highly enjoyed many such stories (particularly those in the games listed above), I don’t know that I would say any of them have made me reflect on my life to any substantial degree (then again, I’m not sure many stories in other mediums have either, but that’s another topic). Furthermore, I don’t think they’re the kinds of video game stories that have had the biggest impact on me while I’m actually playing games, as these stories exist separately from gameplay.

When I’m playing a game, its story is rarely at the forefront of my mind. I’m much more focused on grappling with what I, as an acting agent in a (hopefully) well realized world, need to be doing to complete whatever tasks lie before me. As such, the only narrative that immediately registers to me is that which pertains to what I can actively engage with. This is where some video game stories can often lose me; games can spend too much time explaining their overly convoluted context for what’s going on in a way that doesn’t involve the player (Metal Gear Solid is a prime example). Such lengthy exposition is often too far removed from what I can reasonably care about as the player, and can make me feel like I’m not a meaningful participant in the world, regardless of the quality of said exposition. On top of that, it’s simply too much to be introduced to dozens of characters and plot threads while also trying to grapple with any number of potentially complex (and hopefully interesting) gameplay systems.

Games can use a lot more than words to tell stories.

In most cases, only once I’m in well versed in and engaged by those gameplay systems will I appreciate the greater context that they exist in (and even then games can still go off the rails later on). This context can certainly include traditional story and characters, but it also includes art, sound, world design and everything in between; the tiniest details can greatly affect the nature of the experience, and I would argue that all of these features should be considered when talking about a video game’s “narrative.” Video games are in the unique position where the author doesn’t have complete control over how the user digests their work. They can certainly guide and direct the process, but the player ultimately sets their own pace (outside of forced dialogue and cut-scenes, which is why those things can cause trouble if not used well), and thus discover and be affected by any number of potentially captivating details that exist within the game. This also means that each player can view the experience from a slightly different angle that’s uniquely meaningful to them, dependent to some degree on how they go about playing.

This relates to what I’ve frequently heard called “player driven narrative,” which is the best way I’ve found to describe my favorite video game narratives. Part of me hesitates to even call them “narratives,” because the word carries a certain amount of expectation, and what we’re talking about is a bit more abstract. Put as succinctly as I can, it’s the idea that the narrative of a game is that which describes the player’s own actions and experiences. When retelling the story of a game, you would tell it as the story of your character(s) and what they saw, what they heard, and ultimately what they did. The more detailed the story is the more interesting it becomes, and the more it’s told through your own choices and actions, rather than through forced exposition, the more player driven it becomes. As such, player driven narratives lie on the exact opposite end of the video game storytelling spectrum from the traditional storytelling I described above, as they are intrinsically tied to the interactivity of the medium. I have a hard time describing it any more directly than that, so let me try using a few examples to hopefully further illustrate what I mean.

Everyone has their own story to tell in Civilization.

When people think of great video game narratives, I don’t think Sid Meier’s Civilization series is usually at the forefront of the conversation, but I think these games create wonderful player driven narratives. If I were to tell one of my (many) Civilization stories, it might be about how I played as a peaceful Gandhi who was committed to scientific research and cultural prowess, and dealt with other leaders diplomatically rather than by force. It would be about how Tokugawa invaded in the Middle Ages, prompting me to muster up a small but advanced army to desperately protect my territory. It would be about how my citizens went on strike when they weren’t happy, and while I got frustrated at their lack of desire to work, I constructed cultural works and secured luxury resources to appease them. It would be about catching English spies who were trying to sabotage my construction of a space shuttle, and in the end it would be about launching said shuttle to Alpha Centauri. Those are very broad strokes of the story, but you can imagine the other nuances that fill in the gaps along the way to color the experience and make it more fulfilling, and how every player would have their own unique story to tell.

Video games can let us partake in our own personal narratives.

I would argue that every video game allows for player driven narratives to some degree, only that some games simply embrace the idea substantially more and/or do it better than others. Civilization is a favorite example of mine, but there are plenty of others that have captivated me over the years. Unsurprisingly, Firaxis’ other recent strategy game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, succeeds with its narrative in much the same way as Civilization; everyone has a story about how their own squad came together, and how they did (or did not) stop the alien threat. Some other games that stand out to me as allowing for strong player driven narratives include Metroid Prime (or equally, Super Metroid), Shadow of the Colossus, Demon’s/Dark Souls and Journey. None of these games have much in the way of a traditional “story,” but I find myself thinking about my experiences with them substantially more than most games. While on the surface they appear to ignore what we often think of as story to focus on gameplay, I would argue that their narratives (including all that entails) are so intrinsically tied to their gameplay that it’s all basically the same thing. Take Metroid Prime for example. Nowhere is it explained or directed that Samus explores Tallon IV’s ancient Chozo Ruins, uses a spider ball suit enhancement to traverse the fiery Magmoor Caverns, or searches the Space Pirates’ data archives for information on their experiments. And yet players of Metroid Prime know these things happen because we do these things. The game doesn’t explicitly tell us to do these things either, but by participating in the game’s beautifully designed world we’re able to process what we see and hear into useful information that guides our own narrative. The gameplay is the story, which creates a very seamless package that’s much easier for me to become immersed in, compared to those where gameplay and story are disjoint.

I think it’s that immersion that ultimately wins me over on player driven narratives when compared to other ways of telling stories in video games, and why it dramatically helps a game’s cause to successfully merge gameplay, story, characters, art, sound, world design, and so on into one unified whole. If a video game can create a rich, immersive setting for me to participate in and discover on my own volition, with minimal direct exposition, then I’m much more likely to feel invested and connected to what’s happening on screen. That opens the doors for an infinitely more powerful and lasting (and oddly personal) experience for me than traditional storytelling can hope to muster, which goes to great lengths to explain why I find video games such a unique and fascinating medium in the first place. I still don’t know that any video game story has ever caused me to reflect on my life in the way my friend was asking, which may simply be more a reflection of me as a person (and/or my drama-free life) than a trait of video game storytelling in general. What I do know, however, is that the most meaningful video game narratives for me on a personal level are often player driven ones.

#1 Edited by Slag (4016 posts) -

Oh man great blog @majormitch !

(@marino or @zombiepie , please consider his blog for the user community showcase)

This is a topic I've been thinking about lately as I'm shooting for a Platinum in Heavy Rain.

I think video games often make the mistake of trying to be movies with their cutscenes emulating a passive experience where they have the opportunity to go well beyond that creating an active story. While there have been some great successes (such as Final Fantasy Vi) as you pointed out, the opportunity for something better is just now beginning to be realized. I hope/think games like Telltale's Walking Dead will help inform narrative structure in all game types not just Adventure for games that use the old more passive style.

re: player driven narrative.

I can not agree more, this in my opinion is how games should be telling stories.

That's one thing I really really liked about Dragon's Dogma, and before it Metroid Prime and the Souls games (as you mentioned).

There's not a lot of cutscenes, you just kind of experience the world and story. You don't know really anymore than your player character would reasonably know. Your Player character's relationship with NPCs is more or less what you make it to be. It feels immersive in a way a JRPG never is.

that's led quite a few people to claim there isn't much of a story or a good story there. I think it' just a different way of doing it and I also think that's why the ending was so powerfully effective. Perhaps there are elements of Gransys that are too understated and underdeveloped but the approach at least for me I found to be enthralling.

if you haven't played Dragon's Dogma, since you like the immersive style of narration you might want to give it a look now that the expansion is out.

#2 Posted by Hailinel (23915 posts) -

@slag said:

Oh man great blog @majormitch !

(@marino or @zombiepie , please consider his blog for the user community showcase)

This is a topic I've been thinking about lately as I'm shooting for a Platinum in Heavy Rain.

I think video games often make the mistake of trying to be movies with their cutscenes emulating a passive experience where they have the opportunity to go well beyond that creating an active story. While there have been some great successes (such as Final Fantasy Vi) as you pointed out, the opportunity for something better is just now beginning to be realized. I hope/think games like Telltale's Walking Dead will help inform narrative structure in all game types not just Adventure for games that use the old more passive style.

re: player driven narrative.

I can not agree more, this in my opinion is how games should be telling stories.

That's one thing I really really liked about Dragon's Dogma, and before it Metroid Prime and the Souls games (as you mentioned).

There's not a lot of cutscenes, you just kind of experience the world and story. You don't know really anymore than your player character would reasonably know. Your Player character's relationship with NPCs is more or less what you make it to be. It feels immersive in a way a JRPG never is.

that's led quite a few people to claim there isn't much of a story or a good story there. I think it' just a different way of doing it and I also think that's why the ending was so powerfully effective. Perhaps there are elements of Gransys that are too understated and underdeveloped but the approach at least for me I found to be enthralling.

if you haven't played Dragon's Dogma, since you like the immersive style of narration you might want to give it a look now that the expansion is out.

Games can be immersive in different ways. The story in Persona 4 isn't driven by much in the way of player agency (though player actions do play a role in which ending you get), but that game is dozens of engrossing hours with an entertaining story, characters, and world.

Narrative design in games shouldn't be a "my way or the highway" proposition. A story with a fixed linear progression driven by cinematic-style cutscenes can be just as entertaining as a game like Heavy Rain or The Walking Dead.

#3 Posted by Clonedzero (4091 posts) -

I personally LOVE good stories in video games.

I've been talking about it alot recently but I think Dark Souls handles its story in a very unique and interesting way. If you don't care or investigate the story it will seem paper thin to most people. If you go out of your way to try and learn things, by reading item descriptions (oddly enough they have ALOT of information on those) and talking to everyone every so often (I'd make a lap of all the NPC's i met to talk to them again after every boss i beat as it seemed to trigger new dialogue and events with them). Dark Souls has an impressive atmosphere and its storytelling and lore is in the backround, you have to put the effort into it, but there are some pretty cool secrets and things to be learned if you put your detective cap on.

Though I can't really stand any of the Metal Gear games except Metal Gear Solid and MGS3. As they had the most on-the-level story telling and believability. (still one guy had the power of BEEEEEES, ugh. fire the guy who thought of that). Aside from those two, the story is so convoluted and dumb that i can't take it seriously. I'm sorry snake i know its a dramatic moment but you're fighting schoolgirls. I'm sorry radian but you're fighting a shirtless vampire, oh and then you fight a fat buy on rollerblades. WTF.

But what i really mean is stories are great. I love them. Simple ones like DragonAge: Origins, theres a blight, you gotta stop it and some dicks giving you trouble doing so if done well are amazing, which it was. Others that are character driven, say, FarCry3, i loved the character development how jason stopped being a rich whiteboy and became a warrior and stopped being able to relate to his friends.

I will say, since I'm a HUGE fan of RPGs. The cliche gimmick thing i hate the most is being the "chosen one" or some ultra gifted guy. Like while Skyrim is easily one of my favorite games this generation, the fact you're the "child of destiny" to save the world is a bit lame. Give me an RPG where you're joe-schmoe helping the "destined one" on his quest to defeat the great evil and late in the game, the hero dies and then its up to you, the sidekick to save the day. That would be cool.

Whatever, i'm rambling, sorry.

#4 Edited by Slag (4016 posts) -

@majormitch Portal is another one that used that storytelling technique to great effect.

@hailinel: I didn't mean to imply that the older more passive style should not exist at all, just that in my opinion the medium's best story telling potential is in the more immersive style. It's something this medium can do that other mediums can't. I'd like to see more of it.

I like the Persona series quite a bit, and have always enjoyed JRPGs, so I certainly don't begrudge its' existence. Always been a fan of adventure games too. I like story in games.

I do think one thing that did make Persona so successful of late in the West is the fact you do have so much (comparatively anyway) agency in NPC social links, unlike the vast majority of the major AAA JRPGs like a Dragon Quest or a Final Fantasy or a Tales. This in my opinion is where narrative in games is going. Persona if anything is proof that JRPGS have the potential to get more immersive if they choose to. I think that's exciting.

Choice and variety in story telling styles is a good thing. The old cutscene style I don't think will ever leave us, if nothing else for cost reasons, since it's got to be logistically easier to write since it's one story. And frankly some games don't need anything more than that.

That doesn't mean that video games on the average can't be better at one style of story telling than another. Or don't have the potential to tread ground that literature, theater and movies can not (or can not as well).

#5 Posted by StarvingGamer (8016 posts) -

@hailinel said:

Narrative design in games shouldn't be a "my way or the highway" proposition. A story with a fixed linear progression driven by cinematic-style cutscenes can be just as entertaining as a game like Heavy Rain or The Walking Dead.

Seriously, ugh. I'm so tired of hearing people say stuff like this. Don't get me wrong, games like The Walking Dead are fantastic. It was my personal GotY last year, and I'd love to have more games like that. But that doesn't mean I don't want games like BioShock Infinite. Thankfully there's plenty of room for both.

I'm glad you like the games that you like but that doesn't mean the games that I like have to become like the games that you like.

#6 Edited by Ares42 (2576 posts) -

Couldn't agree more. While there's nothing wrong with the more cinematic gaming experiences, looking at it as though it is the innovative way that embraces the unique aspects of gaming has always come off as misguided to me. If anything I view it as old-fashioned and unimaginative. All the best stories I have from games is about things I did, experiences I made.

Personally I've found the best way to distinguish the two is by saying movies can give you stories, videogames can give you experiences. While it's still somewhat of an unclear way to describe it (as watching a great movie can still be considered an experience in itself), it does distinguish the difference of something happening to others and something happening to yourself. There have been several games through my time with gaming that has given me experiences other mediums could never ever hope to achieve, and unfortunately most of them are never acknowledged for accomplishing these things. I've dealth with loss, fear, joy and drama on a level that no movie has ever moved me.

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#7 Posted by Winternet (8006 posts) -

Games still need to get other things right (like gameplay and game design) before getting the story right.

#8 Posted by MajorMitch (500 posts) -

@slag: Thanks! I agree that sometimes games can try to be like movies too much, even if that can sometimes work out very well. Like you, I simply prefer it when games embrace what makes them unique :) I might have to try out Dragon's Dogma. My brother just picked it up, so I might borrow it from him at some point.

@hailinel: I don't think anyone's trying to say that there's "one true way" for video game storytelling- I'm certainly not. It's great that there's variety (there's more now than ever, which is fantastic), and I've loved plenty of games for having linear, cinematic stories. More player driven narratives are simply my personal preference :)

@ares42: I think it can be really hard to put into words what makes us connect with these kinds of stories/experiences, and how they can make us feel (which was what I was attempting to do here!). I also think that's one of the reasons why this kind of storytelling isn't always acknowledged as much as it maybe should be. But I think (and hope) there's enough of us (both fans and developers) that "get it," even if we can't always properly verbalize it :)

#9 Posted by JCGamer (659 posts) -

I personally love games that have a story and a goal driven narrative. I never really get into games that make you "create your own fun" and prefer games with strong narratives. Back in the day of Doom and Quake, I never finished a first person shooter because I never really thought I had enough motivation get me through. Granted, the overall design of FPS's have changed away from find a "bunch of keys and open doors to the next level", but I do think that the reason I finish these kind of games now is that I want to see how the game ends storywise.

I do agree that some game can go a bit crazy with non-interactive cut scenes and the such, but I think there is a place for them and would hate for games to bag story all together for open sandbox games without any real narrative.

#10 Posted by JackG100 (404 posts) -

The stories in Crusader Kings II are pretty awesome from time to time too. With no storytelling whatsoever really, like how my regent married off his heir to a ambitions harlot who happened to be gay, and two days after the marriage that scheming bitch murdered him, through a plan devised by his ambitious twin sister. If you want player-imagined narrative there is plenty to be found in CK2.

#11 Posted by DrIntrovert (81 posts) -

Great blog! I think that a game's ability to involve the player is the real strength of the media compared to books or movies. A designer can even have a specific story in mind, but still allow the player to learn it from the environment. Super Metroid is a really good example of this. There is a deep and very specific narrative, with emotions evoked by the music and environment at certain times. But there's never a word of text or dialog used to explain any of it--the player learns all of the story from the context of play. Compare that to Metroid Fusion or *shudder* Other M and you'll see that the reason those games are inferior is how verbose they are, and how linear.

#12 Edited by MajorMitch (500 posts) -

@drintrovert: Thanks! I really like a lot of the Metroid games, and the way they go about constructing their narratives, and that's exactly why Fusion and Other M kind of put me off a little bit. I think comparing something like Super Metroid to Fusion or Other M is a good way to kind of see how those subtle differences in storytelling style can generate wildly different feelings when playing.

#13 Posted by miva2 (225 posts) -

Yes, I definitely agree player created stories are far stronger and have a more lasting impression than standard narrative through dialogue and cutscenes. Ofcourse the latter can be good too but they seem less memorable.

My most memorable game story, and also my most emotional moment in gaming, comes from Rome: Total War. When I was attacking the Greek with the Macedonians and they suddenly betrayed me and claimed Greece for themselves. I saw them as my friends and they betrayed me. I just sat there looking at my screen like "WTF man??". I needed some time to think before continuing into battle. I didn't load an older save though, that's not how I roll.

Or that giant battle (also in Greece I think) that ended up with one enemy unit of Triarii versus my cavalry general (Triarii are spearmen, strong versus cavalry). It took a lot of micro managing to attack them from behind. In the end I beat them. My general the only man standing. Not even his guards, just the general. Here's a screenshot for the ones interested.

@jackg100: I've heard many great things about Crusader Kings 2. Maybe I should try it out! Although the medieval setting is not entirely my thing.

#14 Posted by JackG100 (404 posts) -

@miva2 said:

@jackg100: I've heard many great things about Crusader Kings 2. Maybe I should try it out! Although the medieval setting is not entirely my thing.

It certainly isnt a game for everyone, they have a quicklook of it here. It's basically a political breedinggame where you want to make your rulers as competent as possible marrying off their offspring to others in your vicinity in order to tighten alliances, or maybe to get a confidante inside their house for an assassination if you're next in line to rule their country.

It is a very complex and but also a very entertaining game in my opinion, but it is very niched.

#15 Posted by Hailinel (23915 posts) -

@majormitch: Other M was exactly the route I wanted to see Metroid take.

#16 Edited by Trylks (826 posts) -

Stories can lie. A story can go through things completely unrealistic and impossible.

While games do not need to be more realistic, they metaphorically represent reality. Theme Hospital is not any realistic (no people with giant heads around so far) but you will have a first hand experience on queue handling and queue theory with that game. Eve Online may not be the most realistic game ever, reality is not on space colonization yet, but the underlying economical principles that drive that economy do also drive the real one (which is more complex and thus harder to understand), therefore the game serves as a simplification for an easier understanding. You want to stay competitive on the labor market? You will need to do something better, cheaper or newer (different), and that is the same in starcraft and nearly any RTS game where you need to strike harder, faster or overtech your opponent, in the end it's competition again.

And so on and so forth, every game presents a fictional world where some rules apply and some lessons need to be learned, some of the rules or laws in that world will be present to a greater or lesser extent in the real world, and so the knowledge will be applicable. That is what happens with games and game mechanics, and it's not a coincidence that game theory stands by that name and settles the foundations to explain and analyse most of the problems that happen among individuals in societies. On the other hand movies and other media do not have any laws, but a script that defines what happens and it is more surprising and thus entertaining when you keep breaking the laws, it's a matter of entropy, see Lost for an example.

About the stories, they are the bad side of games, the part that is like movies and books. In the stories the hero wins, the nerd gets the girl and some morals and indoctrination is shoved inside the spectator. They are not meant to make you reflect or think about things, but to tell you what you should think, they don't pose a problem to your intellect, they give the solutions, because you are not meant to think or do anything, the spectator is meant to look and learn.

That's why games, being interactive, are much more educative and cultural than movies, novels and other passive media.

I've just remembered I wrote about something quite related in my blog some time ago: http://www.giantbomb.com/profile/trylks/blog/educational-games/95761/

#17 Posted by believer258 (11642 posts) -

@hailinel said:

@majormitch: Other M was exactly the route I wanted to see Metroid take.

I still need to play Other M but everything I've seen and heard about it sounds like it's precisely the opposite of anything I want in my Metroid. Including other people in the third Prime game is one of the reasons I often cite for just not wanting to play any more of that game. I really want the absolute loneliness and atmosphere and seclusion, on a single planet, of Prime 1 and Super Metroid; take that away and you take away one of the most important things that make those games special, to me.

#18 Posted by TobbRobb (4581 posts) -

Fantastic blog. You bring up one of the key things I've never really been able to put into words or understood fully. Player-driven narrative is a key part in almost all my favorite games, and it'd almost dare say it's needed for my enjoyment (obviously not exclusively). This is another factor that really deserves some extra thinking, I'll make sure to integrate it into my considerations when looking at games I like. Thanks~

#19 Posted by HellknightLeon (451 posts) -

Oh my GOD!!! You guys type so much... I cant read all this... We are apes guys... Keep it that way so I can understand whats going on.

#20 Edited by TheManWithNoPlan (5242 posts) -

Really interesting read. Good job.

#21 Posted by Tom_Scherschel (120 posts) -

Interesting blog. I agree that every game allows for the creation of a player driven narrative, but I don't think that precludes the ability to simultaneously have a more structured story (Bioshock Infinite does this). I think that the stories we create are generally going to be more compelling to us because we have a sense of ownership/accomplishment attached to them, and that makes us more attached to the games that allow for the creation of those stories.

However, I would argue that a strong story is more important to a game. Games have a unique ability to place us within a character, or insert us directly into a story (Heavy Rain and Skyrim, respectively), and that direct immersion allows them easier access to our empathy. Empathy is incredibly important to expanding your understanding of the world around you, whether you're talking about another culture or just another person. Ignoring this opportunity is totally valid; you don't need to know anything about the story or world of Geometry Wars to enjoy it. Much like a sport, the challenge it presents is what makes it fun. But a lot of games do attempt to use this opportunity to tell us something about the world, or at least how the creator views the world, and they fail.

In most cases I find that it is because the director/designer is trying to saddle the conventions of film onto video games. I'm playing through Final Fantasy XIII right now, and the linearity is driving me nuts. For the first seven hours I've been holding up and hitting X and that's it. I did some research into the making of the game and the director felt that the linear game design would make the player feel like they were watching a film. He thought this would absorb the player into the story and keep players from becoming distracted. This completely misses the strengths of the medium he's chosen, and it happens all the time. Hideo Kojima is probably the poster boy for this. These creators put you in a world of limited/no choices, create surface level connections to the supporting characters, and then hit the player with info-dump after info-dump as they move dutifully from one setting to the next.

But look at a game like Heavy Rain. The game can be beaten in 8 hours (I should know, I did it in one sitting) but places you in the shoes of multiple characters, places real, fully drawn supporting characters into their lives, and presents you with a slew of moral and ethical questions. Within that framework it still allows for the creation of player driven narratives by allowing the player to choose which direction the story will go in, and by allowing them to fail certain objectives without ending the game. Your ending, who is alive at the end, and what you did to get there can all be vastly different than my playthrough. And in concert with that freedom the game spends time making me get to know not just my character, but the people in his/her life, so that when I have to make choices later on I actually care about what I'm doing, and I'm considering those choices from a synthesis of my own opinions and what the character would want. On top of all that, every ending you could get in one way or another supports the theme the director is working with overall. All in eight hours, without lengthy, non-interactive cutscenes and extensive speeches. I think about Heavy Rain all the time, and when I do I'm thinking about both my version of events and the overall message of the game.

The two stories, my player driven narrative and the game's narrative, combined to form a lasting experience, but it only succeeded because both parts were so masterfully done. Player driven narratives, on their own or within games with weak overall narratives, can't have the same impact because they aren't expanding our minds (is there any phrase that means approximately the same thing without sounding quite so douchey?), they are just recollections of a good time, so to speak.