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Games, and the stories they tell

It’s been a while since I started this blog, with all the intentions of using it to get back into writing about games, design, and narrative theory, so it’s high-time I set fingers to keys and started the process. Writing about games and the stories they tell was something I found surprisingly engrossing when I started producing essays for my University course in Game Art - a degree that, whilst focusing on the techniques of producing 3D and 2D art for games and animation, had a sizeable media-studies bent to it when it came to the more academic portions. I had always harboured a predilection for debate and discourse on any subject thrown my way, so when it came to diving into the theory behind narratives and storytelling, I found myself writing and thinking about games that I had always loved in new ways.

One of the first things I found when doing research on these subjects was that, back in the heady days of the 90’s and the turn of the century, scholars studying game design and games in general - “Games Studies” or “Ludology”, depending on who you are talking to - were divided on the role that narrative had to play within the field. Arguments went back and forth about if you could really tell meaningful stories in games, or if those stories were superfluous to or wholly separate from the gameplay and minute-to-minute action.

When I was reading about these arguments, after-the-fact, I always thought about how sort of, silly it seemed, that academics would get so wound up around what a medium could or could not do. Reading a paper that talked about how Snake from Metal Gear Solid was a character basically absent from the actual gameplay was the first thing to throw me off - I found myself fundamentally disagreeing with the author when he talked about the character of Snake being “Off-line”[1] when the player had control. It seemed to me that they were missing one of the core things games could do with narrative - draw you into the world by inhabiting the role of the player-character.

When I played Ocarina of Time as a kid, I played it for the adventure. Exploring the world of Hyrule, finding those places where little snippets of story blended with the scenery, exploring the caves and towns and finding that new area that breathed life into a previously unknown part of the map. I soon found though that I was also engrossed in the story, the characters of Link and Zelda, of Saria and the Kokiri, the Sages and the elusive myths and legends of this world. All of this, from a game where the lead character speaks only in shouts and grunts. Link as a character was always there to me, always “on-line” and drawing me into the world, as a locus for my interaction and a focal-point of the narrative. Whilst he never spoke, his actions in the world and the narrative, and his goals and design, gave him all the characterisation he needed [2] to draw a young boy into a world of magical forests, fantastical creatures and green-tunic-wearing elf-folk.

This all came back to the idea that, when you play a game like this - one that has some semblance of narrative, where you are inhabiting a character in the world - you are playing as that character in the world of the narrative [3]. You are not only immersed in the gameplay but in the story of the world through the focal-point of the player-character. You are playing as a part of that narrative, that world, and the goals of the character are the same as yours - defeat the evil boss, save the princess, become the hero. This gives games a unique ability to deliver story to you the player directly - with your goals aligned with the main-character of the narrative, and with you inhabiting them and controlling their actions, you become drawn over a so-called “prosthetic bridge” into the game-world [4]. The narrative role of the player-character is always there as you inhabit them, giving context to your goals and actions, and allowing you to feel at home in this strange and exciting digital world.

Looking back now, I can see why those scholars thought as they did about games and game-narratives. Cut-scenes took away the core component of games that made them different to other screen-based media - interactivity. More and more games relied heavily on them to convey their stories, whilst neglecting it when you finally picked up your controller and started pumping bullets into bad-guys. As technology and the games industry progressed, these problems and academic arguments slowly became resolved, with a new focus on studying the field as a whole and seeing what new idea games could bring to the table of storytelling. With more and more story-heavy games from studios like Bioware, Naughty Dog and Quantic Dream receiving critical acclaim, it is evident that there is plenty of space for both gameplay and narrative in the industry.

Now, with the rise of the often-maligned, indie-made “walking simulator” (a term that I’ve never liked, let alone the fact it’s often used as a point against the quality of these games), along with the growth of narrative-heavy episodic games from studios like Telltale, storytelling in games is reaching a new height, and I’m loving it. I’m excited. Games like The Witcher, The Last of Us, and all the way to Bastion, Undertale and even Journey show us the breadth and depth of narrative that games can produce, and the different and effective ways in which they can tell those stories and creative narratives which suck us in, churn us around in joy and pain, and leave us elated and exhausted like nothing else can.

Thanks for reading, I’m hoping to make this a semi-regular thing now so any feedback is great! I’ll post some references if anyone feels like diving deeper into the papers -

[1] Newman, J. (2001). Myth of the Ergodic. The International Journal of Game Studies. Available Online:

[2] McMahan, A. (2003). Immersion, engagement, and presence: A method for analysing 3-D video games. In The Video Game Theory Reader, M.J.P. Wolf, and B. Perron, Eds. Routledge, New York, 68-86.

[3] Balyiss, P. (2007). Beings in the Game World: Characters, Avatars and Players. Proceedings of the 4th Australasian conference on interactive entertainment.

[4] Klevjer, R. (2006). What is the avatar? Fiction and Embodiment in Avatar-Based Singleplayer Computer Games. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Bergen, 2006.

(Reposted from my tumblr - )