Video Games as a Storytelling Medium

I’ve always been an avid consumer of anything with a good, compelling story—whether that story’s told through a book, tv show, movie, or, surprisingly, video game.

Gaming has become a massive part of our culture. No longer seen as a “nerdy” hobby, games are enjoyed by people from every walk of life. Gaming’s appeal is broad, ranging from casual time-wasters like Candy Crush to games that essentially become a second life, like EVE Online or World of Warcraft (or, funnily enough, Second Life). Games allow players the opportunity to become fully immersed in the game world—if that’s the point of the game. While no one is going to become “one with the gem” in Bejeweled, it’s quite easy to lose yourself in a game as rich and well-crafted as The Witcher 3.

Today’s games have come a long way from their simple ancestors like Pong or Space Invaders. Today, a solid majority of games have some semblance of a story, even if it’s only purpose is to serve as a framework for gameplay—the fun bits where players blast aliens in the face with a laser gun or race against the clock in a timed trial.

Games utilize the element of storytelling in a variety of ways, often dependent on the type of game and its purpose. Where some games are inherently structured and built upon a solid story, others utilize the story as framework to contain and amplify the gameplay.

Story-Rich Games

In the same way a novel tells an immersive story that helps transport your mind to the world within, story-rich games feature a heavy focus on a well-crafted and detailed world, setting, and story. Role-playing games, or RPGs, are perhaps the best example for games which put story above all else—or at least on an equal level. Even other genres, however, have adapted to include strong story elements. Gone are the days of shooters like Doom, where you play a character in a world with only a loose, vague story to serve as a backdrop as you shoot enemies. Games like Half-Life, Halo, and Call of Duty all include immersive and compelling stories.

As you do with a good book, TV series, or movie, a game with a believable and well-told story is going to amplify your enjoyment of the game. No matter how fun it is to play a character who hunts down monsters, your enjoyment is increased when you feel like the player character, empathizing with his motivations and understanding his purpose. The story is made all the more enjoyable when the player is presented with options for or against doing a particular action. In the case of The Witcher 3, one of the most-lauded RPGs of recent memory, the player character is Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher who’s job it is to hunt down monsters. Very often, the player is presented with choices to make, especially when facing a creature which was simply misunderstood or is more human than beast.

These choices give the player agency and further pull him or her into the game’s world and setting. The player has a direct impact on the game world, the same as choices made in real life would have an impact on the real world. Though the story may be fairly linear, with a defined beginning and end, the choices made and the story told throughout remove the player’s sense of disbelief. Hell, after investing enough time in the game’s setting, a player may even have an emotional reaction to the death of a favored character or an unexpected twist in the plot.

Witcher 3 conversation

A cinematic conversation in the Witcher 3

Mass Effect 3 conversation

A similar conversation in Mass Effect 3

Player-Driven Stories

Some games may include varying amounts of story elements with the purpose of creating an environment for players to immerse themselves in. Open-world games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and the Grand Theft Auto series are notorious for their focus on creating a “sandbox” for players to build upon. While there is usually a main storyline and even optional subplots and side quests, the focus is more on creating a genuine atmosphere for players to use their own imaginations to fill in the gaps.

In the case of Skyrim, the player plays as the Dragonborn whose goal is to defeat the dragon Alduin the World Eater. Unlike most story-driven games like The Witcher, the player is under no obligation to follow the story—or to complete it in any linear, specific way. Moreover, the player is able to create his or her character from a number of options, deciding upon race, gender, height, features, and a wealth of other options, creating a character to “role-play” in this world. The player character is then brought into the world and given a crash-course to the setting through a brief and unskippable introductory scene, before being allowed to explore the setting.

In a game such as Skyrim, elements of the story and setting are used to encourage and enhance the story the player creates in his or her own mind, while the story elements themselves maintain a tether to the game world. So even if hundreds of thousands of players go through to the story’s ending of defeating Alduin, each player’s experience is different. Player A created a warrior whose very homeland of Skyrim was threatened through the game’s story elements of the civil war and Alduin, whereas Player B decided to play as a character who was a pacifistic mage unwittingly caught up in the action. Skyrim, then, serves as a perfect example for encouraging player-driven stories within a defined and immersive setting by using story elements to foster players’ imaginations.

Skyrim Open-World Environment

The open and expansive world of Skyrim

Stories as a Framework

Other games use story as a framework or structure in which to contain the main focus of the game: gameplay. While these games don’t outright eschew from an interesting or immersive story, the priority lies elsewhere, so the element of story, no matter how strong it is, is not the defining feature or hook for the game.

This is, perhaps, most notable in games of the massively multiplayer variety, such as World of Warcraft, or WoW. WoW has a deep, rich story—referred to as “lore”—but gameplay has always been the central focus. While Blizzard, the developers, have worked hard to maintain a healthy balance between gameplay vs. story, gameplay has always won. That’s intentional and to be expected from an MMO, where the main purpose of the game is to level and experience challenging end-game content.

But the story is still present and can be engaged as much—or as little—as players wish. While leveling a character, players can take the time to read each line of quest dialogue, which generally tells the self-contained story for an area of the game world. At max level, quests, cinematics, and non-player character dialogue continues the story, but all of it can be ignored if the player simply wants to play the game.

WoW Cinematic Cutscene

Skippable cinematic cutscenes in World of Warcraft are used to help tell the story

This method uses storytelling, then, to contain the gameplay in a believable world, but it falls short when compared to more story-centric titles such as The Witcher or Mass Effect series. To make up for this—and to please fans of WoW who do follow the story—Blizzard has a library of supplementary real-world content in the form of books, mangas, and video shorts that further tell the story of the game world. While this additional content isn’t necessary at all to enjoy the game itself, it further immerses those players interested in the story and lore of the setting without compromising on gameplay.

Even games such as Need for Speed, primarily a driving/racing game, make use of story as a framework for the gameplay. While the focus is obviously on the challenging of winning races, “Career” modes set a loose story to help players immerse themselves into the game world. Again, though, players can choose just how much to invest themselves in the game’s story—it’s a totally optional feature that can be ignored without a negative effect on gameplay.

Games as a Medium for Immersive Storytelling

Gaming as a pastime is continuing to grow, even at the expense of other storytelling mediums. The Motley Fool reports:

the growth in gaming appears to be coming at the expense of other forms of entertainment. In particular, gamers who are playing more video games than they did three years ago are spending less time playing board games (49% of gamers), watching TV (37%), and going to the movies (37%).

As gaming continues to grow, so, too, will game developers continue to explore gaming as a medium for telling rich, compelling, and immersive stories—perhaps even moreso than those stories told through more traditional mediums such as books or films. With the incredible success of the titles written about in this piece, the evidence is obvious that gamers not only want stories in their games of choice, but that storytelling in games is well-received and thoroughly enjoyed.

Dan Mattia

Dan Mattia is a US-based freelance writer. He's written a variety of blogs and articles for startups and small businesses. When not writing, Dan can usually be found losing track of time in whichever game world he's become addicted to.