Why Put Stories in Games?

Game designers, game theorists, and players have debated the subject of stories in games for many years, disputing issues such as whether stories belong in games at all and, if so, what these stories should be like and how they should work (see "The Great Debate" sidebar). Many players want a story along with their gameplay, and some game genres—role-playing games, action-adventures, and above all adventure games—definitely require one. Whether a story will improve a game depends on the genre and how rich a story you want to tell. Although a story won't help in all cases, here are four good reasons for including a story in your game:

■ Stories can add significantly to the entertainment that a game offers.

Without a story, a game is a competition: exciting, but artificial. A story gives the competition a context, and it facilitates the essential act of pretending that all games require. A story provides greater emotional satisfaction by providing a sense of progress toward a dramatically meaningful, rather than an abstract, goal.

■ Stories attract a wider audience. The added entertainment value of a story will, in turn, attract more people to a game. Many players need a story to motivate them to play; if the game offers only challenges and no story, they won't buy it. Although adding a story makes development of the game cost more, it also makes the game appeal to more people. On the other hand, players who don't need a story are free to ignore it—provided that the story is not intrusive.

■ Stories help keep players interested in long games. Simple, quick games such as Bejeweled don't need a story and would probably feel a bit odd if one were tacked on; that would be like adding a story onto a game of checkers or tic-tac-toe. In a short game, getting a high score provides all the reward the player needs. But in a long game—one that lasts for many hours or even days—simply racking up points isn't enough reason for most players to carry on. Furthermore, stories offer novelty. A long game needs variety, or it begins to feel repetitive and boring; a compelling story provides that variety.

■ Stories help to sell the game. It's difficult to show gameplay via printed posters, magazine ads, and the box the game comes in. Gameplay, as an active process, isn't always easy to explain in words or static pictures. But your publisher's marketing department can depict characters and situations from your game's story and even print part of the story itself in their advertising materials.

This book can't teach you the fundamentals of good storytelling; you can choose from many hundreds of books and classes on creative writing for that. Instead, we'll look at the ways that stories may be incorporated into video games and how interactive stories differ from traditional ones. Designing characters, an important part of any kind of storytelling, is covered in depth in Chapter 6, "Character Development."

There isn't one right way to include a story in a game; how you do it depends on what kind of entertainment experience you want to deliver and what kind of player you want to serve.

The type of game you choose to build will determine whether it needs a story and, if so, how long and how rich that story should be. A simple game such as Space Invaders requires only a one-line backstory and nothing else: "Aliens are invading Earth, and only you can stop them." Indeed, such a game should not include any more story than that; a story only distracts the player from the frenetic gameplay.

At the other end of the spectrum, adventure games such as Dreamfall and Discworld Noir offer stories as involved as any novel. These games cannot exist without their stories; storytelling offers up to half the entertainment in the game.

A few games allow the storytelling to overshadow the gameplay and give the player little to do. This was a common mistake when the industry first began to make video games based on movie or book franchises. Critics and players uniformly con­sidered them poor games because they violated the design rule that Gameplay Comes First. A designer must always keep that design rule in mind, no matter where the original franchise idea came from.


Among theoreticians, interactive storytelling is the single most hotly debated issue in all of game design. What does interactive storytelling actually mean? Is such a thing possible? Should we do it? How should we do it? What are we trying to achieve by doing it? How can we determine if we're doing it well? And the problem gets worse: The game industry doesn't even know what to call it. Interactive storytelling, interactive narrative, interactive drama, interactive fiction, and storyplaying have all been proposed. In the 1990s, the academic community began to consider the issue and drew its own battle lines. The narratologists (people who study narrative) conducted fierce and often impen­etrable arguments with the ludologists (people who study games and play) in the learned pages of scholarly journals. Search the Internet for “interactive narrative” and you will be overwhelmed by a confusing tide of conflicting verbiage.

These interesting and sometimes important arguments may eventually change the industry, but in the meantime you need to build a game. Use the principle of player-centric design, and don't worry about the theoretical arguments. Build a story into your game if you believe it will help to entertain the player, and don't build one in if it won't.

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The following factors affect how much of a story a game should include, and you should take them into account when you make your decision:

■ Length. As the previous section said, the longer a game, the more it benefits from a story. A story can tie the disparate events of a longer game into a single con­tinuous experience and keep the player's interest.

■ Characters. If the game focuses on individual people (or at least, characters the player can identify with, whether human or not) then it can benefit from a story. If the game revolves around large numbers of fairly anonymous people—such as the visitors in Theme Park—then adding a story won't be easy.

■ Degree of realism. Abstract games don't lend themselves to storytelling; repre­sentational ones often do. You may find it difficult to write a compelling story about a purely artificial set of relationships and problems, while a realistic game can often benefit from a story. This rule does not hold in all cases: Highly realistic vehicle simulators and sports games usually don't include stories because the prem­ise of the game doesn't require one; on the other hand, Ms. Pac-Man, an abstract game, did tell a cute little story because the game included characters.

■ Emotional richness. Ordinary single-player gameplay seldom inspires any but a few emotions: pleasure in success; frustration at failure; determination, perhaps; and occasionally an aha! moment when the player figures out a puzzle. Deeper emotions can come only when the player identifies with characters and their prob­lems, which happens within a well-written story. If you want to inspire a greater variety of emotions, you need to write a story to do it.

You may also want to include a story to set your game apart from games using simi­lar gameplay mechanics. The gameplay of Half-Life is virtually identical to that of any other first-person shooter, but the story sets it apart.

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