Once upon a time: The role of storytelling in games

Oscar Clark on how devs can tell their own story

Once upon a time: The role of storytelling in games

An online and mobile expert since 1998, Oscar Clark is the evangelist for gameplay video sharing tool Everyplay from Applifier.

The role of narrative in games is something that has been endlessly questioned.

Earnest Adam said in 1999 that "Interactivity is almost the opposite of narrative; narrative flows under the direction of the author, while interactivity depends on the player for motive power."

However, this doesn't mean that narrative has no role in game design. Rather, I believe that the transition to 'Games as a Service' means we simply have to rethink its role in the design process.

Call to adventure

Narrative's role in providing ideas of context or progression is crucial, whether we are talking about classical story telling techniques or more abstract forms, such as the persistent and ever more rapid fall of Tetris pieces onto the game screen.

Every tale of a 'heroic journey from tragedy to triumph' begins with the call to adventure, and the game's story has a role to play in helping the player get to grips with its context, as well as to help create anticipation of what's to come.

Well considered narrative can inform a game's art style, its name and even game mechanics, even if only to help provide a consistent context for play.

Think about the first sentence of your favourite novel. The best ones instantly transport you, challenge your expectations and foreshadow what is to come.

George Orwell's 1984 starts "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen". We instantly know something isn't quite right, something is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. From that sentence we know something ‘official' has perverted normal behaviour and the Winston Smith, unlike ourselves, isn't surprised by this.

Mike Bithell's inspirational Thomas Was Alone uses this technique perfectly; the tone of the voice acting, the art style and the simplicity of play all work perfectly to lure the player to each subsequent stage.

The refusal of the call

But games are different from both movies and books.

Whether the player is the narrator, protagonist or audience depends on the narrative approach a designer takes. Interactivity requires a degree of freedom but without context, progression and purpose players will quickly lose interest.

Indeed, I often argue that, from the point of download, games have only six seconds to grip the player and get them playing. Just as writers are told to 'show' and not 'tell', developers have to grasp the interactivity nettle and just 'do'.

Don't turn off the player by wasting their time with splash screens, clumsy menus or arduous tutorials instead get them playing.

The opening 10 minutes of a Bond film is a great way to think about this. Bond openings are always a rollercoaster ride designed to make sure that the audience is hooked straight away, but wthey also set the bar for exactly what Bond can do whilst foreshadowing the setting of the story.

Games are the ultimate media for engaging its audience, but this has to be meaningful and players expect to be rewarded early for their successes lest they leave for another game that responds to their needs.

Crossing the threshold

Sustaining the player experience over time is a question of more than just good mechanics, however.

Developers need to create reasons for the player to return and the narrative path can help with that. In tales of the First Voyage of Sinbad The Sailor, at the end of the tale, Sinbad 'the sailor' makes the younger Sinbad 'the porter' a gift of a hundred gold pieces, and bids him return the next day to hear more about his adventures.

As one of the 1001 Arabian Nights, Scheherazade's legendary tale was supposed to have delighted and intrigued her murderous husband, the Persian King Shahryar so much that he spared her life in order to hear just one more tale.

This principle of leaving you ‘wanting more' persists in modern media from the 1930-40's Saturday Matinee Movies like Buck Rogers, Tarzan or the Lone Ranger to modern television series like 24 or Breaking Bad. We may know that Flash Gordon didn't die when he falls off the cliff to save the princess, but we can only find out how if we come back next week.

Of course, narrative can create a sense of progression and purpose for games, but when done well it also creates a sense of urgency that encourages people to return to the game to find out what happens next.

Impending doom

There is plenty of evidence that enjoying playing is not enough to sustain an audience or to encourage them to spend money, however.

Satisfaction when playing is not necessarily enough to inform a purchase decision. We need to give players a reason to want to continue playing, and hopefully to make the decision to pay.

Games can tell these stories in many different ways. We can respond to the progress of players by increasing the relative difficulty levels and set the players sights on the ultimate resolution using fairly traditional narrative techniques.

Alternatively - and unlike any other media - developers can bring players together with a sense of shared purpose. Niche experiences like Tribal Wars rely on the sense of shared purpose that comes from building an alliance.

In this game, players build their cities up from villages, harvest resources and build armies to defend themselves or attack other players.

They also find other experienced players and use them to learn about the most efficient techniques of play and to get some kind of shared defence. However, the real depth of play comes in when something happens to that alliance – say going to war with another faction, or discovering that there's a spy in the group that needs to be identified.

Suddenly a story arises that has nothing to do with the designers, but that affects dozens (even hundreds) of players in just that one plot.

Narrative doesn't have to be written in stone - magical things happen when we simply create 'space' for the player to experiment. Personal, self created and unique experiences that emerge from our game allow players to create their own story within play. And that's something that they are going to want to share with others; the source of true virality.


The end of this particular tale is, I believe story telling in games is a vital tool when it comes to building user retention, but that doesn't mean that the game designer is always the author.

We are still learning about how to use game design as a narrative tool and for me the real transformation of games as a media is going to come when we stop trying to just replicate narrative techniques from other media and start to really invent our own.

Making the players' individual journey the focus might just be the start.