Ain’t So Simple: Story Structure in Gaming

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What is it that sets video games apart as a medium from, say, film or literature? The answer lies right in your hands: the controller. Video games require direct interaction between game and player in a way that no other medium does.

When analyzing literature, theorists and critics often talk about the “contract” that is made between author and reader when a reader picks up a book. It’s a promise implicit in every work of fiction: read this and you will be entertained. What form this entertainment takes depends on what kind of book; it might be informative, thrilling, hilarious, inspiring, terrifying, or any number of experiences. But it must be entertaining or the reader will simply put it down and move on.

The same principle holds true for film and, of course, for video games. But with video games, the need for player interaction adds an extra dimension to the promise made by the medium. The promise is not simply “this game will provide you with entertainment,” but also “you, the player, will help shape this story.” This ‘shaping’ of story can be as basic as determining whether the hero succeeds or fails, or as complicated as choosing what pixel to place where in an infinite digital space.

This demand for interaction complicates the creator’s already challenging process of telling an interesting story. The player must be allowed to weigh in on the story at some level, or they’ll feel betrayed by the medium, the creator/player promise having been broken. So game creators must construct stories that are not simply told to the player, but also adapt and change based on how the player chooses to interact with the game.

The types of stories that game creators construct to deal with this problem fall broadly into three categories: linear, multipath, and RPG/open-world. Obviously, there are many games that straddle the line between two of these categories, or plant themselves in one category but borrow elements from another. Because of this, it’s perhaps easiest to think of these categories as benchmarks on a sliding scale, rather than strict divisions.

Linear Games

Portal
In Portal, the “test chambers” that the player must solve puzzles in are numbered, enhancing the linear style of gameplay.

These are games where the player progresses more or less along a single set path of the story, from a single beginning to (usually) a single end. Portal is a prime example of this; every player who plays the game begins by waking up in a chamber in Aperture Science labs, and every player ends the game by facing off with the evil AI GLaDOS. Portal is even linear in the physical sense; the player progresses through a strictly ordered set of test chambers and hallways with little room to explore. (Rather than being seen as a shortcoming, this tight-knit design is actually one of the aspects of the game that is frequently praised by both gamers and critics alike.) Portal 2 follows the same formula, but with larger chambers and more luscious graphics, giving the player the illusion of a larger, more explorable area.

Portal 2
In Portal 2, locations are much larger and more elaborate, but still follow a strict linear progression with few chances to backtrack.

It is possible to have a game that follows the linear formula without forcing the player to follow a completely strict progression. Spyro the Dragon, for example, is made up of a series of hub worlds that the player has to pass through in order. Each hub world contains five or six sub-levels that the player can complete in any order they chose; as soon as they complete a certain number of objectives in these worlds, they can progress to the next hub world. Although play within the hub worlds is more free-range, the ordered nature of the hub worlds and the single boss fight/ending makes this game’s story linear.

Linear games are the closest video games come to movies—at least in terms of story. The game writers do not have to worry about creating multiple storylines, some of which the player may not even see. They can simply tell a story and let the player battle or puzzle their way from plot point to plot point.

Multipath Games

Games of this type present the player with the illusion of controlling the story while presenting a more or less similar sequence of events to tell the same story that would have been told without the player’s input. Some games take this illusion to extremes, like the Fable series or Heavy Rain, which advertises itself as games in which every decision the player makes will affect the outcome. Heavy Rain in particular boasts so many distinct endings that even people who have played the game multiple times seem uncertain how many different versions there are (the general consensus online seems to be 17).

Other games, like the Nintendo classic Star Fox 64, take a more toned down approach to the multipath method of storytelling, providing only a few interconnected paths that all lead to more or less the same ending. Unlike Fable and Heavy Rain, the player’s path in Star Fox is determined not by the plot decisions, but by the player’s skill level. If the player performs particularly well or completes a secret objective on a level, the next level they are sent to will be from a “higher” track; if they miss the secret objective or only complete the bare minimum requirements to pass the level, they are sent to a “lower” track. Players who complete the game completely on the “higher” track are rewarded with a more victorious “The End” screen; players who have to use the middle track or lower can win, but will receive the “bad” version of the ending, taunting them to try again.

Star Fox 64
A mid-game map screen from Star Fox 64. This player initially started off on the high track, but then sank to the middle track because they didn’t blow up enough stuff in the second level.

The classic puzzle game Myst can also be considered part of this category. Every player begins the game by clicking on the book and arriving on the island, and every player arrives at more or less the same ending point (though the success or failure of their ending depends on which pages they collect … and what they choose to do with them). The main portion of the game is spent traveling to four different worlds known as “Ages,” each of which contains its own set of puzzles and problems. Unlike a linear game like Spyro the Dragon, however, these Ages can be entered by the player in any order, provided they can solve the puzzle that leads to the entrance.

Multipath games certainly present more of a challenge for game writers, since they must keep track of which decisions a player makes during the course of the story and present the player with an ending that makes sense regardless of which path has been chosen. But that’s an easy challenge compared with trying to unify the myriad story paths of…

RPG/Open-World Games

In this category of games, the player is in control of the story to such an extent that they may feel as though they are creating the story themselves. RPGs, at one end of the category, are a lot like multipath games in their construction. Typically beginning from one specific opening (or one from a short, set list of possibilities), RPGs offer the player an increasingly large number of interconnected paths to follow in order to reach any number of eventual outcomes. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, each player begins the story at their own interrupted execution, and those who “finish” the game face off against the evil dragon Alduin (though this by no means concludes the story; the player is free to go on collecting bounties and quaffing mead to their heart’s content). Using a system of “quests” which are assigned to the player by various NPCs, Skyrim allows the player to directly follow the main story, liven it up with small unrelated side plots, or ignore it altogether and focus on, say, becoming head of the Mage’s College or filling their house with pewter tankards.

RPGs further expand on the illusion of complete control by giving players the ability to select and adjust their character’s appearance, skills, equipment, and style of play. Skyrim, like many RPGs, opens with a character creation screen in which the player selects a class (or rather, a species) and tweaks their character’s appearance.

Skyrim, Elder Scrolls
The character creator in Skyrim allows the player to choose from ten different races, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

Open-world games, meanwhile, provide the player with the most freedom possible. Often, these games do not have any ending, and some of the more creative ones, like Minecraft, do not even have a beginning. The player is simply dumped into a world and told to play with it, figuring out the rules as they go and ending when they choose, not when the game tells them to. Survival games such as Seven Days to Die also fall into this category, providing the player with only a basic premise—survive the zombies—but no ending, apart from the players inevitable demise (and even then, simply respawning and continuing remains an option). In games of this type, the story put forward by the game creators is comprised solely of a starting premise and a set of world rules. All the events of the story are created organically by the player as they interact with the game.

Minecraft
But now I’ll never finish building my dreamhouuuuuuuuuse!

Obviously, not every game fits neatly into one of these categories. Sometimes the best games are in fact a deliberate blend of elements from two of these categories. Games in The Legend of Zelda series tend to be a blend of the RPG and linear game styles, while completely skipping over the multipath category. The Age of Empires series takes the open-world premise and gives it a surface level of multipath play in its campaign modes. And then there are games like The Stanley Parable that completely turn narrative structure on its head. But despite varying styles and structures, all of these games offer players the same promise: play us, interact with us, and you will be entertained.

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6 Comments on “Ain’t So Simple: Story Structure in Gaming

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