Immersive Narrative and Storytelling in Video Games

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the games "Dear Esther" and "Portal."

In most media, such as movies, music and books, we either watch, listen to or read the story as it unfolds. While a good story can certainly draw us into its fictional world and immerse us in the characters and environments, sometimes it still feels like there is a barrier separating us from the story. In this aspect, video games have a strong advantage; they give you control over a character and his or her actions to an extent and allow you to experience the story as that character.

Julie Johannes, who teaches a Games and Literature class at RIT, provided her thoughts on narrative and storytelling in games. To begin with, she clarified the differences between narrative and story, as she does in her class.

“Narrative is sometimes seen as the story that you tell about what’s happening, [while] story is the events that are unfolding,” Johannes said. Her class explores the importance and validity of the narratives of various works of literature and video games.

Many stories and games feature “tropes,” which are defined as common, or overused, plot devices. A few storytelling tropes that gamers might immediately recognize are “the hero’s quest,” in which the protagonist is searching for something; the very common “morality meter” or “moral choices” trope, in which the player is given a series of choices of varying moral correctness that affect how the story progresses or how other characters view the player; and “point of no return,” where the plot forbids the player from revisiting previous sections of the game after a certain point. While popular opinion says that tropes are overused and unoriginal, Johannes disagrees.

“You can really boil down any story to ‘It’s about love, life, death or something similar,’” Johannes said.

Johannes believes that tropes can be used well in games if they are utilized in original or surprising ways. However, tropes are in their worst forms when they are used “just for the money.” When a game is released just because the developer believes it will sell well, especially if it’s only because a certain name is attached, then these games are doomed to appear as cheap rip-offs and will be torn apart by the fan base.

A specific example of this can be seen in the iconic "Banjo-Kazooie" games. The first two games were massive platforming games with heavy emphasis on collecting all manner of objects and tokens. However, in the third game, "Banjo-Kazooie Nuts and Bolts," players constructed their own vehicles out of Lego-like pieces and drove around expansive worlds. Fans of the series usually regard "Nuts and Bolts" as a cash-grab game which would have been much better off with a different protagonist.

While games can easily fall flat in the storytelling department, there are other games that excel in that aspect. Johannes believes that games which allow players to “construct the story of themselves” are some of the most effective at storytelling. One such game she mentioned was "Dear Esther," which she includes in her course. While there are prompts and there exists a level of linearity, the player is given the option to explore the world and dig up more information about the story as he or she progresses. Johannes mentioned the drawings on one of a cave's walls in the game; closer observation reveals that these drawings are diagrams of things like a car’s braking system or a chemical formula. She also compared it to the game "The Stanley Parable," which has a few more gameplay elements while still being very heavily narrative-driven.

However, it isn’t only narrative-oriented games that tell stories well; games with actual action and gameplay can boast strong narratives, as well. Most gamers have either played or know the basic plot of the game "Portal." In fact, many people that have played the game were aware of the ending before they played it. Many players knew the true intent of the voice that guided them from test chamber to test chamber from the start — but imagine not knowing what the game held in store, instead thinking the guidance throughout the first half of the game was delivered via prerecorded messages. Someone who wasn’t aware of the murderous artificial intelligence lurking behind the text-to-speech-sounding voice would be confused and startled by the fact that the supposedly prerecorded messages were beginning to talk directly to them, threatening to kill them. Additionally, "Portal" contains a large amount of hidden content for those willing to explore. An adventurous player can find a fair number of dens hidden behind the walls of the test chambers that contain obsessive scrawling, some of which spawned a certain infamous internet meme. The player is given the option of exploring the world around them while they progress to gain more information, or they can proceed directly from point A to point B.

Johannes said that interactivity is key to telling a story well in video games. If a game uses an overabundance of cutscenes or progresses the story by making the player listen to non-player characters constantly, that can ruin the immersion of a game. She praised games that make the player think while they play; not in terms of solving puzzles, but providing the player with information that startles or confuses them. A great example of this is  "Bioshock," which is known to have an enormous plot twist that makes the player rethink every action they have taken in the game thus far.

Video games have become a promising frontier for the creation of immersive, interactive storytelling. Cutting-edge visuals and audio can paint a scene for us and draw us into a new reality. There is a huge amount of potential to be explored, and some games are well on their way to being viewed in the same light as sophisticated literature.