Story games

I recently came across this article by Greg Costikyan about the fundamental incompatibility of story and game  Story vs. Game.  This is as a result of a really interesting discussion on that topic at Keith Burgan’s game design forum.  I don’t want to critique Greg’s article so much as offer a counterpoint to that line of thought based on my experience playing and designing both computer games and tabletop roleplaying games.

The main thrust of the argument against combining story and games is that good stories are pre-determined and linear, while good games are not — they require the player to  have the agency to be able to make decisions that change things up.  So the conclusion drawn is that limiting the player’s agency makes for a worse game, and conversely allowing the player to mess with the arc of the narrative makes for a worse story.  You are effectively making a frankenstein that is unsatisfactory from either perspective.

I can’t argue with most of that, but to cut directly to the chase, I think it’s missing the vital point — you don’t play a story game to produce a story, you play it to be in a story.  The objective literary value of the ‘story’ produced as a result of play is irrelevant.  To quote Lemmy, “the pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say“.  And in fact Greg talks about the huge advantage that participation gives games  over other mediums towards the end of his article.

There are also a few assumptions that go along with the story vs. game argument.  The first is the very concept that story and game are distinct and separate things that need to be mushed together somehow.  I think this is because so many games do exactly that — tack a few cut scenes in between blowing shit up.  Most gamers be like “How quickly can I fast forward through this stuff?”  But that type of stitch job isn’t the only option available.  A story game needn’t be “story + game” any more than an arcade game would be considered “game + physical challenge” or a strategy game as “game + planning”.  A story game can be simply a game about story.  The genre of interactive fiction.

The Story vs. Games article does consider “Choose your own adventure” style of games and also touches very briefly on paper RPGs.  The problem that Greg sees with CYOA games is that they lack goals. I don’t agree.  The goal is to work in the best interests of the protagonist.  Fictional Bowser kidnapped your fictional Princess Peach?  Man, you got to fictionally get her back!!!   The real problem with CYOA games is that they are just really simple little things that won’t hold any serious gamers interest for more than a few minutes.

For me, where Greg discusses Paper RPGs is the most interesting part of the article.  That part stands out because it concedes that yes, these peeps have fun playing their style of game, and that participation is the key to appreciating any resulting ‘story’.  But then glosses over that observation to conclude that by an objective literary measure, the ‘stories’ aren’t much chop.  To that, I refer you again to Lemmy.  But I will also add that the paper RPG community has made huge strides in the genre since 2001.  There is really a whole lot of insightful designers that have spent the last 20 years doing a mountain of great work with games intended to be both great fun to play and produce satisfying narrative as a result.

The second assumption is that a story game must necessarily be inferior as a game.  It ain’t necessarily so.  In fact, the factors that are most important for engaging gameplay – consequential decisions made in the pursuit of goals – are precisely the factors that make for engaging narrative.  So putting players in the position of the protagonist and giving them the opportunity to select those goals and make those consequential decisions seems more like a match made in heaven than a fundamental incompatibility.  They are just different types of decisions and goals to arcade games or strategy games, that’s all.

Lastly I would like to touch on the possibilities that story games offer.  I’m not going anywhere near  ‘games as art’ or ‘games vs. art’.  What I will say is that all types of games offer moments.   Arcade games can offer moments of exhilaration.  Puzzle and strategy games games can offer moments of satisfaction or triumph.  Story games can offer moments of emotion and insight.  It’s by the frequency and depth of these moments that story game players derive satisfaction from the ‘narrative’ rather than some literary measure of coherency.  Ask anyone who has played  improv theatre or paper RPGs, and has experienced a point where the talking stops and everybody stares at each other like ‘Did that actually just fucking happen?‘  There is definitely something worth shooting for there that only interactive fiction can provide.

The fact that nobody has quite yet managed to successfully bring that experience to computer games (that I’m aware of) isn’t anywhere near enough reason not to keep trying.


  1. Spot on. Randy Ingermanson has a good quote (originally in the context of writing fiction, but definitely applicable here):

    Storytelling is all about delivering a Powerful Emotional Experience.

    And as your last paragraph shows, isn’t that what games (and art) are all about? People play games because games make them feel – consequently, people develop emotional attachments to said games. Narrative is just one of many ways to provide and develop that emotional experience.

  2. Game and Story definitely have competing needs, but they can coincide. Occasionally we get great gameplay and a great story, and it’s a thing to behold. More often than not gameplay is better than story, and they’re the games we tend to forget. It’s like any two people forced to work together. They might occasionally bitch at each other, but they need each other to keep their jobs.

    At the barest level, a story simply explains your surroundings, your identity, the antagonists, and how to play the game. i.e. Serious Sam “You’re in Egypt, and Egypty stuff is coming at you – start shooting”. Even Defender and Pac Man have stories, such as they are.

    What you don’t want is the story to overwhelm the game, like in Super Paper Mario which has reams of exposition that just gets in the road (of some unique perspective twisting BTW). Heavy Rain is more story than game, but nails it by grabbing your emotions and not letting them go.

    No game has more exposition than Assassin’s Creed. I’ve learnt more about renaissance Italy and The American Revolution from video games than I ever did at school. Fortunately, you can choose to ignore almost all of it, and what’s left is given great production values.

    The Last Of Us was pretty much GOTY last year. It being a sibling of the Uncharted games, it’s very linear. The gameplay is solid, but it’s the story that drives you.

    If you’ve played through three instalments of Mass Effect, what gave you more pleasure? Defeating the Kai Leng boss, or saving the galaxy? That’s gameplay vs story right there.

    OK, I’m done game-dropping.

    On linearity vs open-world, there seems to be one approach that seem to get that balance right – at least as right as we can make it today.

    The linearity of the over-arching story is broken into chapters, but each chapter itself is a non-linear open world. Here’s some story, now do what you like, we’ll pick up the story again when you hit the trigger point(s). Then fill up the gaps with short, self-contained stories as side-missions. Every so-called open-world game uses this technique.

    As you say, the basic problem with stories is a) it’s hard to write good ;-), and b) they’re static. We might be on the verge of being able to dynamically generate interesting gameplay, but if we tried the same thing with stories now we’d just have word salad.

    Now this is a topic we’ve crossed before. Truly dynamic games, where an AI generates plots, maps, characters, dialogue, voice-acting, cut-scenes, etc.. A virtual Dungeon Master, with a James Ellroy story plug-in, Ion Storm game-play plug-in, and Nolan North actor plug-in. That would be nice. It might also be the last game ever written.

  3. As Jesse Schell writes in “Art of game design – a book of lenses”, there are 4 integral parts of every game, that is equally important. Esthetics, technology, mechanics, and finally, story. A great game is one that balances these four, and any weakness in either is detrimental to the game as a whole.

    Now, there have been plenty of games that are great even though one of the four are rather weak, but imagine how great these might have been if what was weak had been made great as well?

    I perceive story to be a key point in games, and for me, designing games is very much about telling stories.

  4. Every action tells a scene, which cobbles together with other scenes to form a story. I feel the great debate when it comes to that struggle of saying you can’t have a good story if you have great gameplay is a lack of observational awareness. Simulation-ist games like Shadowrun, Mechwarrior, and Dungeons and Dragons are given a bad rapport from this lack of awareness to telling a story due to the players not answering the questions the die impose. Why didn’t they succeed in harming the target? How did they accomplish the killing blow? Answering these as you perform each die roll tells a scene that will create a great story for the player if they bother to look.

    Just yesterday I played Basic D&D and the players failed to attack a monster 4 rounds in a row while the monster hit one of them for a killing blow. Sounds boring and painful, right? It would be if they just stated they missed and moved on. Each attack they had to explain what they did to not harm the monster – not miss outright, but just not hurt it. By doing so, players gave more narration to their actions, telling each other how they braced for impact when the monster attacked and shocked them with the creatures might, but not penetrating their resolve ‘ it missed’. Or when the Barbarian stab at the mighty beast only to cause a flesh wound that didn’t phase it ‘the player missed’.

    You get my drift. Compelling stories along with great gameplay can occur at the same time if people let themselves witness and become the story within the game.

    1. Alex, I think your example underlines one of the points of the article – what you are describing are great *moments* experienced during play. Together the sum of the events might add up to a shitty story if viewed objectively by a third party, but so what? Its the moments for the player that count in many game. Watch someone play a computer basketball game and as a ‘sporting’ spectacle, the overall game is probably ridiculously comedic. That doesn’t mean anything to the player though.

      1. The Odyssey is a story about a group of dudes going back to their homeland. Romeo and Juliet is about two people who parents are at war with one another over their kids being in love. A Christmas Carol is about a jerk who realizes by threat of ghosts, he should stop being a jerk.

        Objectively, everything is boring when you summarize the events into a paragraph or less. Therefore is feels like a fallacy to state such a thing. Not that you mean that, of course, but it reminds me the whole A True Scotsman. Being objective is more subjective based on the viewer’s perspective. For example, I don’t care for many sports, so any story or game about said game would bore me and I wouldn’t be able to provide proof that any of it was compelling.

        I despised stories with a heavy handed message, so when I spot it, it tarnishes my perspective that a tale should be just a list of things that happened and hopefully the reader enjoys it. Bias, as they say. This did get me thinking so I thank ya for it. I think the post you mention has a flaw in their statement after I went to go read it myself.

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