Video games: do players get in the way of a good story?

Video games contain great tales that take place in detailed worlds and with fantastic characters. But does the player get in the way of the overall story?

A screenshot showing Niko Bellic, protagonist of Grand Theft Auto 4

Niko from Grand Theft Auto 4 is part of a detailed narrative but, with the player in charge, is their game experience true to that story?


In traditional forms of narrative, events are constructed to tell a bigger story. Conventional wisdom calls for the removal of extraneous details that distract from this. Be it a novel, a TV show, a film or a play, you’ll find little flab that doesn’t at least build a character or illuminate an underlying theme. To match this, protagonists commit believable acts based on believable motivations. Video games are different.

The modern blockbuster video game (getting bigger, grander and more expensive with every generation of technology) is underpinned by scripts and animated sequences to rival Hollywood. But the player is in charge of the story’s protagonist and no two players experience the story in exactly the same way. Games also have all kinds of extra things to see and do that enhance the player’s enjoyment of the environment or gameplay mechanics. A perfect example is the ‘collection quest’: a challenge to collect items hidden throughout the world. Even when the game’s narrative is urging you to rush to the aid of a friend, you’ll still stop and sweep the area for comparatively trivial items. The motivation of the player and the protagonist aren’t aligned.

That’s not the case with Shadow of the Colossus and that’s what makes it such a good story. Released during the autumn of the Playstation 2′s reign, the game follows the tale of a young warrior named Wander killing the titular colossuses in a pact to save his girlfriend. On one level, the story itself is a frame to a game full of boss fights. Most of the story is told in the opening sequence and the games lengthy end scenes. But other than slaying the colossuses, there’s little else to do. Every action serves the story and every collectable builds your strength for your battles. Couple that with an atmospheric world and you have one of the most memorable games in a library of thousands.

A screenshot of Wander from Shadow of the Colossus defeating a colossus

Shadow of the Colossus focuses on boss fights linked by a simple but powerful narrative.

But Shadow of the Colossus’s story updates themes that have been long explored in Japanese arcade games. Be it Donkey Kong, Bubble Bobble or Double Dragon, defeating a wave of enemies to rescue a damsel in distress is standard fare. In many games, an malevolent entity or spirit is the captor or the manipulator of the story. But Shadow of the Colossus might be the first major action game that took this simple fairy tale and told it seriously.

By logic, the beautifully crafted worlds within RPGs should host the best-told stories. However, some of the most consistently told stories exist in action games where your limited choices all serve the plot and pacing of the main narrative can be tightly controlled. This makes Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series and their apocalyptic The Last of Us shine. Even then, you can spend your time looking for hidden collectables while a companion yells that you need to hurry to somewhere else. Of course, you know you have all the time in the world.

The characters Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us

The Last of Us explored human relationships more deeply than most action games.

RPGs are among some of the more complex games available and they can slip into rather academic exercises in character levelling, combat and exploration. Although rich stories provide a backbone to any RPG, a common way that people play is to break off just before the final battle to finish any less pressing quests they have yet to complete. Before this, players will often find themselves sidetracked from their main objectives by strangers asking them to help in small matters that have no bearing on the main story. The rewards of these diversion are usually in-game items or money that isn’t required to complete the game.

The amount of control that the player has over a games plot depends on the genre and the design. A plot isn’t the story – it’s the chain of events that tell it. Adventure games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead rigidly align actions to a plot and give the player control by branching events depending on their actions. Some of the decisions come with a time limit, underlining the urgency of the situations and emotionally engaging learners in a realistic way. But in a game like Grand Theft Auto 4, things are different. A character might inform gangster-with-a-heart-of-gold Niko Bellic that he needs to go and take care of urgent business. However, the player can choose to spend seven in-game days seeing how many cars they can blow up at once instead. With several missions available at any time, you can choose to forget about one thread and do another instead. The story and the plot are not unified. In GTA4′s Wild West cousin Red Dead Redemption, most of the diversions available have a relevance to the characters and story. Collection quests are linked to survival. This creates less of a playground that other sandbox games (particularly games like Just Cause 2 and the Saints Row series), but it places the story nearer the centre of the immersion that the experience offers.

So the thinner the interaction, the more control the designer has over how a game’s story is experienced. Yet the alternative are blank canvasses like Minecraft. Here, the game has little backstory and the player has a lot of control over the world with the ability to build whatever they want. Coupled with a thriving online community, the player’s story as they progress through the game is the only one that matters.

These intrinsic quirks and considerations of video game storytelling aren’t necessarily a problem. Video games offer a unique way to explore beautifully built worlds and narratives. Players are accustomed to the storytelling conventions and rarely think twice about a protagonists who go searching for trinkets when they should be rushing to the aid of friends (if that happened in a film, they might feel differently). But there are some players who prefer to finish the main stories uninterrupted. This isn’t rewarded by games designers. Some games refuse to let a player and complete the sub quests, forcing them to start all over again. Achievements and trophies are often awarded for being completionists, an experience that (from a conventional perspective) tells a baggy plot where the protagonists have very strange priorities.

Perhaps the experiences of the player as they interact with the world are the story itself. The player’s own telling of their adventures in a strange world. But were does that sit with the lovingly crafted, multi-million budget cut scenes and scripts that wrestle the player back to the story that the game’s designers want to tell?

And so players have come to live a dual life in their game worlds. They follow the story laid out for them while taking breaks to explore the game and weave a narrative of their own. Just like footnotes can distract from a novel or mid-season breaks can interrupt a TV show, players pick up and drop the main plot without feeling too cheated. It’s part of the medium. But whether a game tells a great story in a traditional way depends on its priorities and whether that’s been designed as the centre of its experience. When the player is a both storyteller and audience, it’s impossible to judge games by the same rules as non-interactive media. But as games get closer and closer to Hollywood, perhaps the most successful stories will come from games that give the player the blank canvasses to tell their own tales. Perhaps the rigid stories that try to ape other media are getting in the way of the player’s own story.

About Matthew

Matt likes writing, fancy chairs and procrastination.

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