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What is the best way to tell a story in a videogame?


Jamie John
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I tend to play a lot of narrative-led, single-player games, many of which have different approaches to storytelling, some more effective than others. As I see it, these approaches can be broadly categorised as follows:

 

Through cutscenes

 

This is probably the most common approach, and the one that tends to be favoured by the majority of AAA developers. Think The Last of Us, Horizon: Forbidden West and Metal Gear Solid. In cutscenes, the game director will, more often than not, take control away from the player entirely while the cutscene is being played. Cutscenes allow the developers to frame the action in the way that they want to, using fixed camera angles and editing that wouldn't normally be possible. Cutscenes will also often depict characters doing things that the player wouldn't normally be able to make them do. Cutscenes can be very effective and resonant (The Last of Us, Silent Hill 2), but they can also be overlong and intrusive, more like a movie than a videogame (MGS), and players often resent how they take control away from the player.

 

Through audiologs, diary entries, notes, recovered documents, or similar

 

This breed of storytelling seemed to reach its heyday in the late noughties in games like Bioshock, Fallout 3 and Dead Space, and despite the backlash against it, audiologs still make frequent appearances in more contemporary games (Horizon, Halo Infinite, Deathloop). At its best, this form of storytelling can be evocative and poignant, employing dramatic irony and juxtaposition to contrast past with present, but it can also often be quite jarring and lazy, not seeming to make sense within the fiction that the game has created: why did this character feel the need to make this audiolog? Why did they decide to leave this very sensitive information lying around for anyone to find? How convenient that this person wrote an email to someone else, reminding them of the the passcode to the door I've been trying to open!

 

Through lots and lots of text

 

I.e., the JRPG approach, this is likely the oldest form of storytelling in games as it's cheap and most closely imitates the type of storytelling you would expect to find in a novel or other work of literary fiction. It's simple but effective, though, similar to cutscenes, conversations can often go on for too long and they take control away from the player, forcing them to read instead of play. Some games, such as visual novels like Danganronpa, or games like Phoenix Wright and Disco Elysium, simply wouldn't work without this form of storytelling.
 

Through item descriptions, NPC dialogue and 'lore'

 

I.e., the From Soft approach. My hot-take on this sort of storytelling is that the stories these sorts of games tell are very often compelling and intricate (see Dark Souls, Elden Ring, Bloodborne), but the manner in which those stories are told is wilfully obtuse and ultimately ineffective: can you really say that a game's story is well-told if you need to go onto YouTube after completing the game to get VaatiVidya to explain it to you? Is it right that a game requires a dedicated community of players unpicking lore in order to transcribe a game's narrative?

 

Through environmental storytelling

 

This is my favourite approach to storytelling in games, and the one which, to my mind, is more applicable to videogames than any other medium. Think Inside, Half-Life 2 and The Last Guardian. In these sorts of games, the 'story' has to be inferred from the areas that the player travels through and explores, rather than being explicitly told to the player. Often, the story is ambiguous, open to interpretation, and the games have relatively sparse dialogue, but they make up for it with atmosphere and tone.

 

---

 

Obviously, there are variations on the above, and lots of games employ lots of different storytelling methods simultaneously. I also think it's interesting to think how games have placed an increasingly stronger emphasis on narrative and storytelling as they have become more advanced: no one cared about the 'story' in games like Pacman, Space Invaders or Gauntlet, but from the early 90s onwards (and perhaps even before then), a game's 'story' has become one of its key selling points to lots of players.

 

Which approach do you prefer, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

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My favourite examples of storytelling in games tend to be the ones told through gameplay mechanics - directly referencing the things you've been using ingame or having those mechanics become part of the storytelling itself. Nier, Virtue's Last Reward, bits of Braid... even Phoenix Wright with its Psyche-Locks or narrative reveals through evidence usage. I prefer this "participatory" storytelling because it's unique to the medium - it makes the more passive form feel like you're channel-hopping between a film and a game.

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I think it really isn’t quite so easy to split these methods out. Like environmental

storytelling - all the games you’ve cited in different categories have a ton of environmental storytelling in them.
 

And you’ve cited Half Life 2 in that sparse storytelling category but that game absolutely does have loads of cut scenes, they just take place in the first person perspective. 

 

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When I try to think what my favourite stories in games have been, the methods used were all over the place. So I think the important thing is the quality of the story rather than the delivery. That probably goes without saying.

 

The biggest emotional responses I’ve had have been because of cutscenes (thinking snake eater and the last guardian) whereas the ones that have got me most interested and immersed in a world have been the ‘figure it out yourself’ types - specifically Demon’s Souls and Elden Ring. I was going to put HZD in that list too but really it uses all the methods and it’s more that it’s just a damn good story paced well through the game.

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Entirely depends on the game, the story it's trying to tell, the experience it wants you to have: any storytelling approach can be the 'best' depending on the situation

 

Text-based is the best option that could have been made for Disco Elysium and Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, allowing for more discursive dialogue and tackling of subjects that just wouldn't work, that would exhaust the player if fully acted out. Environmental and 'recovered documents'* are the perfect storytelling format for Gone Home and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, tying in fully with the investigatory gameplay. Not using acted cut-scenes would have severely diminished the Yakuzas, losing their sense of drama and melodrama. The use of a narrator makes The Stanley Parable, Thomas Was Alone and Portal brilliant; none of them would work half as well without it. Rez would not have been improved by more explicit storytelling.

 

As long as it's appropriate to its game, any method can be brilliant.

 

Well, except for "walk slowly while exposition happens", or "be stuck in a room with the ability to move but achieve nothing else while other characters speak endlessly around you", both of which are terrible in everything — basically "what if cut-scenes, but enshittened with a veneer of interactivity?". Those should be banned.

 

 

*these are really aspects of the same thing; and linked even to the 'lore items' idea

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4 hours ago, Wiper said:

basically "what if cut-scenes, but enshittened with a veneer of interactivity?". Those should be banned.

 


That sounds like it would deprive us of stuff like being able to switch to Snake’s P.O.V in the ending of Snake Eater to see the tears streaming from his eyes, which was the perfect way to get it through to the audience without any dialogue or exposition.

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7 hours ago, Qazimod said:

My favourite examples of storytelling in games tend to be the ones told through gameplay mechanics - directly referencing the things you've been using ingame or having those mechanics become part of the storytelling itself. Nier, Virtue's Last Reward, bits of Braid... even Phoenix Wright with its Psyche-Locks or narrative reveals through evidence usage. I prefer this "participatory" storytelling because it's unique to the medium - it makes the more passive form feel like you're channel-hopping between a film and a game.

Yeah, this. I'm surprised to see The Last Guardian mentioned in the OP for its environmental storytelling and no mention of its interactive storytelling. The bulk of story in that game is the relationship between boy and beast, and it's almost entirely developed through your interaction with it. Another example would be Celeste, which works by getting you to experience the emotional journey of the protagonist through its level design. Or it could be the control system in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, or the open world in No More Heroes, or the lack of it in Persona 5.

 

All the other elements can be important too. Good dialogue, well directed cutscenes, etc. But the key ingredient more often than not I think is how well the interactive elements work alongside them.

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It’s a really interesting topic. As I get older and my time is harder and harder to secure for gaming, the main thing I value is concision in storytelling. I really enjoyed the Horizon games, but the absolutely endless dialogue trees - all beautifully acted and technically amazing - had to be skipped 90% of the time. Playing Elden Ring and Breath of the Wild afterwards made me really appreciate games with simple stories and judicious cut scenes.

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9 hours ago, Flanders said:

And you’ve cited Half Life 2 in that sparse storytelling category but that game absolutely does have loads of cut scenes, they just take place in the first person perspective.

 

That's true, but the fact that you still keep control of the player when the cutscene is unfolding, and you always see things from Gordon's perspective, makes them feel a lot less intrusive than normal cutscenes, where the scene is actually cut.

 

8 hours ago, Darwock said:

the ones that have got me most interested and immersed in a world have been the ‘figure it out yourself’ types - specifically Demon’s Souls and Elden Ring.

 

Do you think those games are actually successful in telling their story, though? Did you manage to 'figure it out' for yourself? I certainly didn't, and for Elden Ring I really tried to, making notes on every proper noun in the game so I could refer to them later, but after about sixty hours I gave up. I definitely didn't know what the bollocks the various endings were about and, ultimately, I found them unsatisfying as a result.

 

2 hours ago, BadgerFarmer said:

Yeah, this. I'm surprised to see The Last Guardian mentioned in the OP for its environmental storytelling and no mention of its interactive storytelling. The bulk of story in that game is the relationship between boy and beast, and it's almost entirely developed through your interaction with it. Another example would be Celeste, which works by getting you to experience the emotional journey of the protagonist through its level design.

 

Yes, good point - interactive storytelling can often be really effective, and exclusive to games. I think that's what I really like to see: storytelling in games that only really works in games and no other medium.

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I'm of the opinion that gameplay is king to keep me interested in what's going on, so threading it through that is optimal - either during gameplay, or in short in-game cutscenes.

 

Ultimately though, if the game's story or world is interesting, then I have no problems with reading mountains of text ala JRPG or Visual Novel formats.

 

A nice thing I've experienced recently is in, of all things, a gacha game (Arknights). It has mountains of text for world building that is all archived, but when you click the skip button, it'll give you a TL;DR blub of the actual scene you're skipping - so you get some idea of what's going on before you carry on to the next stage or whatever if you're pressed for time.

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I’ve been playing Horizon Forbidden West recently and find that I’m just getting impatient and end up skipping cutscenes. Then I have no idea who is who or what I’m meant to be doing other than following markers. It’s irritating. I want to follow the story but the way it’s told is so laborious and dragged out. I have a similar problem with notes and audio logs. I never listen to, or read, them unless it’s vital to a puzzle.

 

I don’t think it’s the method itself, I don’t mind how they tell the story, but keep it snappy and entertaining. Cut out the bloat and I’ll be happy with it.

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1 hour ago, Jamie John said:

Do you think those games are actually successful in telling their story, though? Did you manage to 'figure it out' for yourself? I certainly didn't, and for Elden Ring I really tried to, making notes on every proper noun in the game so I could refer to them later, but after about sixty hours I gave up. I definitely didn't know what the bollocks the various endings were about and, ultimately, I found them unsatisfying as a result.

I think that is an issue with From games. They're fantastic at creating an atmosphere through their worlds and challenges, but I've never been able to get much out of them as stories. It says something that I often need to research the story outside the game. I only really clicked with Bloodborne for example after finishing it once, watching a load of story/lore vids then playing it again. Obviously that means some people are piecing it all together, but it's far too obscure for me.   

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Text with added voice over is fine, so long as the game keeps playing the audio when I stop looking at the text (eg put the book down or the like). It frustrates me hugely when it stops the audio and ultimately means I don't bother engaging with it.

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The best recent example I can think of is Unpacking, which told a really touching story entirely through its puzzle-based gameplay, with no text, dialogue or even on-screen characters.

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1 hour ago, BadgerFarmer said:

I think that is an issue with From games. They're fantastic at creating an atmosphere through their worlds and challenges, but I've never been able to get much out of them as stories. It says something that I often need to research the story outside the game. I only really clicked with Bloodborne for example after finishing it once, watching a load of story/lore vids then playing it again. Obviously that means some people are piecing it all together, but it's far too obscure for me.   

 

It's far too obscure for any one person: it requires an entire community of people to work together to document and fill Wikis with all of the little lore nuggets and theories before a coherent story can be told. This is especially true of Elden Ring, where there are several characters who either willfully misinform you, or tell you their own interpretation of events which later turn out to be wrong.

 

Some players absolutely love this sort of community-dependent 'archaeology' approach, and although I thought it was quite novel when I played the original Dark Souls for the first time, increasingly I've found it frustrating: if I get to the end of a game and I've absolutely no idea what's happened or why, then that's a failure of storytelling, as far as I'm concerned. I shouldn't have to spend hours researching the narrative after its been told.

 

I wouldn't mind if the main story was coherent and some of the side stuff was more arcane, but I've never found the ending of a FromSoft game satisfying. And often, because you've no idea what's happening, they seem ridiculous and absurd, like the end of the Bloodborne DLC, when 

Spoiler

you turn into an alien slug,

 

or the end of Dark Souls 2, when 

Spoiler

you kill the final boss at the end of an eighty hour game and a 30 second cutscene plays showing you sitting on a dusty old throne in a cave before the credits roll.

 

What?

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3 minutes ago, Darren said:

The best recent example I can think of is Unpacking, which told a really touching story entirely through its puzzle-based gameplay, with no text, dialogue or even on-screen characters.

 

Yes! Great example. That was one of my picks for 'Best story' in the GOTY awards for 2021.

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Don't care about the delivery method just make it skippable so I don't have to watch/listen/read any of it.

 

It's a very rare game where I have any interest in what is going on with the story, think GTA was probably the last.

 

I've never played games for narrative, it's all about the mechanics and what I get to do, couldn't care less about the game makers frustrated attempts at film making cos they never got to tell their stories after years at film school. 

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Hades. I have a very low tolerance for cut scenes, but I read and listened to every bit of dialogue in that game. Storytelling through a roguelike/lite/etc. done so masterfully. 

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I'm with @Darwock and @Wiper. It's not the delivery, the key things are the story being told, and it being told well, and that means whatever works well for the game. Trying to dissect and determine the best way is like trying to rank books, films, television, visual novels, song, lived experience and the oral tradition - you can have your preferences, but there's no objective truth.

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I'm another who is generally not bothered about story in games, just the gameplay. However, my favourite example (which I may have mentioned before) is Vagrant Story. In this you play a character in pursuit of the bad guy through an ancient castle, whilst in turn being pursued by a bunch of bastards. So what happens is you progress through the castle, and occasionally you get a cutscene showing what is happening from the guy you're chasing, you make a little more progress, and you get one from the people hunting you. Then you make more progress, and you arrive at the place that the first cutscene was set, so you feel like you're making progress. Then you get another cutscene from the folk behind you, and they're now in a place that you've recently been in, so you know they're gaining on you. Worked really well.

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I had the official Piggyback guide for Dark Souls and still have no idea what the story was.

 

Its a good job I don't like From's games, because as a narrative-led player I would be hugely frustrated with them (especially for the time investment required.)

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I'm with @Wiper and @Darwock too - whatever works best for the game. My favourite game of recent years is Sunless Skies, and that's got loads and loads of different stories, all told entirely through text. It works for that game (and I'd love more games like it) but it absolutely wouldn't work for something like Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, which I thought was another really well told narrative.

 

While I'm not gatekeeping or anything - you play whatever games you want, however you want - I'm entirely the opposite of @Gotters. If there's not a narrative to pull me through, I will stop playing after about ten minutes. Stuff like Super Hexagon or Downwell or Minecraft or Factorio, I appreciate, but after a few minutes I'm just not interested.

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For me, Mass Effect 2 and Persona 5 are the two best examples of narrative delivery. 

 

I love games that can deliver it through the gameplay sure, but if I want a story to be invested in, those two are the winners for me. 

 

Mass Effect 2, because building a team, and figuring out who they are is just brilliant, and it all interlocks into one hell of a last mission. 

 

Persona 5, because I not only want to spend time with the characters to build rapport, which in turn helps the gameplay, but because they are excellent characters. 

 

But most of the time I am just in the game purely for gameplay. I get bored super quickly if I am not having fun with the gameplay, or story. If the game can deliver both, then it's probably gonna be on my GOAT list (like the ones mentioned above!) 

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  • 2 weeks later...

I don’t mind the FromSoft approach, I feel like it gives me a nice atmosphere and though I’m not interested in piecing the story together I usually watch YouTube videos afterwards explaining it and then play through again with more understanding of what’s going on.

 

I don’t mind cutscenes, but I’d rather they were short. Anything that feels like the developers think they’re making a Hollywood movie or HBO TV show usually turns me off. Rockstar games post GTAIV and Horizon are some of the worst for me, endless cutscenes of beautifully animated, well acted story that’s written so poorly that I can’t bear it. Like a sixth former watched a bunch of prestige TV and thought they could do that. 
 

I’ve got more patience for it if it’s weird or silly. I quite like the story stuff in MGS and Resident Evil because it’s equal parts bizarre and ridiculous. Whereas when it’s clearly trying to be a movie I find myself wondering why I wouldn’t just watch a movie. Even B Tier Netflix dross is better written than most blockbuster games. Only the last of us games are actually successful in telling a story the way that seems to be most popular, but I’m not fond of them either because the gameplay is bland and shite. 

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