Who’s telling the story in a video game?
On the surface, the answer is obvious. The game’s creator is telling the story. But the reality is a lot more complicated, and I feel that the failure to answer this question early in a game’s development can become a big problem later on.
On one hand, yes. The game’s creators are the ones who choose the genre and the gameplay and the level design, the look and feel of the game. They craft an experience for the player.
On the other hand, video games are inherently interactive. It’s the player’s choices that drive the game forward. What weapon do they use? What mechanics do they focus most of their time on? Do they follow the unstated rules of the game, trying to match the intended tone and play style, or do they do their best to undermine it, by looking for glitches and overpowered strategies? Or do they play with the ragdoll of enemy bodies for fifteen minutes?
A game’s creators can never be in complete control of the entire experience. That’s what is great about video games! Every single person who plays has a different experience. But if you gave the player complete control over every aspect of the game’s narrative, it would quickly grow tedious for the player, and would never stitch together to mean anything.
So storytelling is always on a line between those two points. But where on that line should it be?
I’ve worked out a pretty simple equation that works more or less universally: The more open you make your game, the more the player is telling the story. The more linear you make your game, the more YOU are telling the story. No matter where on the scale you fall, you have to be mindful of that balance.
The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is almost completely linear. You don’t make choices that influence the story, and your path through the game is entirely predetermined. Does this make it a bad game? I don’t think so. I think that the creators understood the costs and benefits of making their game linear, and crafted the entire experience around it.
You don’t make choices in the story. This HAS to be a story about a young, naive Prince, tricked by an evil Vizier and forced to team up with the princess of the land he’s invaded in order to undo his terrible mistake. Every story action is predetermined. Because of this, the Prince is introduced as a strong, fully-fleshed character, and grows in a dynamic, realistic faction throughout the story. A story where you make the important story decisions simply couldn’t form a character like this.
Dark Souls, on the other hand, finds a different balance. You choose who the character is. Your choice of class, of armor and equipment and which stats you level, down to whether you choose to complete all NPC quests or kill every NPC you meet, crafts who that character is. The world is yours to explore, and most of it can potentially be at your fingertips from the opening moments. However, there are certain nodes of the story that are unavoidable.
Because of its different design, it wouldn’t make any sense to give you a Lawful Good hero on a quest to save his ailing grandmother*. What if you wanted to kill every NPC? Could you still confront the villain with indignation over their designs to rule the world*? Instead, they give us a blank slate character and a story that does not rely on who that character is. They hang just enough story on the anchors of those few nodes that you must pass through, and then leave the rest of the plot to optional exploration.
*Not the actual story.
These are two extremes . There’s plenty of room between them (Minecraft goes even further than Dark Souls by not HAVING a story), and plenty of games that nail the balance they’ve chosen. I could go on all day talking about them.
Instead, I want to talk about a game series that (I feel) fails to keep this balance.
I’m going to pick on a series I love here, a series I’ve spent hundreds of hours with, and will probably spend a thousand more. The Elder Scrolls.
Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim. Who makes games this good? Three in a row that are widely considered some of the best games ever made? I’ve bought Morrowind THREE TIMES, and I’m contemplating a fourth.
However, after playing hundreds of hours, exploring the world, doing everything from reading books to going into hellish dimensions to slay demonic lords, there’s one thing I haven’t done in any of the three games. And that’s finish the main storyline.
My experience isn’t unique. Most of the people I know love the games, but have never “finished” one.
This isn’t necessarily because the stories are weak. Oblivion and Skyrim had stories that seemed fine, and Morrowind actually has an outstanding story (which is why I came closest to beating that).
Instead I feel that they tend to mistake where they fall on the scale.
In The Elder Scrolls, you decide who your character is. Do they give to the poor? Or do they murder the homeless? Are they noble travelling warrior, or thief and assassin? Or do they just like going out to gather ingredients for potions? YOU decide what your character’s personality is. YOU decide what motivates them.
And then the game decides what the main story is, regardless of any other decisions you make along the way. Murderous outlaw who’s emptied the cities of all non-essential NPCs? You’re going to prevent the apocalypse, same as the devout follower of Talos who spends all their time completing side-quests to help the children. And barring some small choices that don’t change the overall plot, you’re going to go about it in the same way.
They craft their world and their gameplay to give the player all of the choice, but they still believe that they are telling the story. Motivations and methods fit poorly unless you’ve chosen the “right” character type. Because of this, I never FEEL anything when playing the main story.
Some other games that do similar, but are more aware of this balance, include Fable and Jade Empire. You craft who your character is, but there’s always a motivation that will fit who you’ve made them. Jade Empire in particular is a master class in letting the player choose who their character is while still keeping them invested 100% in the story.
The more control you give the player, the more THEY are the ones telling the story. As long as you’re aware of this, and design around it, you can make the players feel like the characters, and by extension themselves, are truly part of the story.