Chapter 4 – Playing for Stories

To start off, this post doesn’t talk that much about writing in the sense of books and novel, but about storytelling and storylines in games.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

The idea for this post came from The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (picture above taken from the game’s Steam page, not made by me), a game I just played. I won’t spoil it, so don’t worry if you’re planning on playing it, but I will say that the story in it was great. Would it have worked as a book? I doubt it. Books, movies and games are all different methods of telling a story, but none of them is better than the other. It depends so much on the story. But these methods can interact with each other.

I’m a gamer who doesn’t value graphics or game mechanics that high. They have to work and be pleasant, but they don’t have to be very innovative for me to enjoy the game. Storylines, however, are much trickier. I love good stories and always keep an eye out for games offering just that. If the game has amazing graphics and some cool, new game mechanics, but the story is awful… well, I’ll just leave it where it is. (Of course there are exceptions and I sometimes want to play a game that requires zero thinking, but let’s focus on the story-games for now).

I’ve noticed that lately there are a lot of indie games that focus almost purely on storytelling. Some of them are more like interactive novels with the solid background story and the plot that doesn’t change, despite what you do. You’re in for a ride; you’re not the rider. Some of them allow the player to have all control (or the illusion of control) over how the story progresses. These games are becoming quite popular, at least with a certain audience. Why?

I think games are evolving from being an entertainment into being an experience. The game you find very entertaining and enjoyable, the game you play for hours on end, can easily be overshadowed by a game you play once and never touch again, but that made a lasting impact on you with its storytelling and atmosphere.

With games that let the player make choices, you write your own story. But the reality is that it’s not really your story: someone has written the plot for the game, with all the possibilities, and you’re limited to choosing from the given options. That’s what makes stories in those games difficult. The developers have to merge their own narration with the player’s way of plaing, and that takes great skill in writing.

There’s only so much freedom you can give to a player, but whatever choice you give them, it all needs to make sense in the game. You can’t narrate something and then let the player contradict it. The other option is to leave out the narration all together and let the player wander on, but even then the story (the developers) needs to be prepared for whatever the player decides to do, so it can act accordingly without breaking immersion.

I mostly play RPGs and for me it’s important that the choices my character has to make in the story make sense. When I play a game and end up wondering (even on multiple occasions) why my character hasn’t just given up on quest x and left, it means something’s wrong with the story. It’s exactly the same with books: if I can’t get my head around why the characters are doing something, there’s something lacking in the story.

There aren’t that many games that have been directly inspired by books, but there are several games that have become books afterwards. From the books I’ve read, The Witcher and Metro 2033 are two examples where the book has inspired the game. With The Witcher, CD Projekt RED did an amazing job transforming the books into games that have the same feel to them, and that actually have storylines that could’ve been used in the books. Metro 2033, however, went a different route, and the game doesn’t have that much to do with the books, although the main story is somewhat the same.

Looking at the situation the other way around, there are so many books based on games it can get overwhelming. Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Assassin’s Creed, Halo, BioShock, Dead Space, Diablo, Sonic the Hedgehog, World of Warcraft… you get the idea. There’s a LOT of them. These books generally offer background stories, or stories set in between two games. What does that tell us? That games aren’t always enough to tell the whole story. There are things that just aren’t great for gameplay, things that would be too boring to make playable but too long to turn into cutscenes, things that would require an hour-long monologue to explain. It’s easier to expand a game with background books, than to tranform a book into a compelling game.

That being said, no one should underestimate a game’s power to tell a story. Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate 2 are two of my favourite games because the storylines are amazing. It doesn’t need books to explain it (alhtough there are novelizations of them): the story within the game is complete, makes sense, and the characters have a purpose. Alright, there are a few oddities and characters that don’t feel quite finished, but all in all it’s the best example I can think of a great RPG. So if you’re looking for a great story, give it a try! For shorter experiences, maybe give The Vanishing of Ethan Carter a chance.

What to make of this very random babble is that while games haven’t reached a level in storytelling similar to books (and they never might), games can deliver a strong story, sometimes even better than a novel would. Still, behind them both is solid writing. The story needs to make sense.

Choices in games are something you can consider when writing: what if the main character, the player, would’ve made a different choice along the path? What would have happened to the storyline? Would it be better or worse, or would it even make sense? Maybe this kind of thinking is something you do already but if it’s not, maybe try it out the next time you’re not sure where to go with your story. Give the main character a choice, and see where it takes you. The road might be wrong, but at least you’ll learn why, and maybe even discover what you should have written in the first place.

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3 thoughts on “Chapter 4 – Playing for Stories

  1. Can’t help but ask, but have you heard of Choice of Games? They do Choose Your Own Adventure novels (not video games, but people sometimes call them an interactive game) but they’re so much more than that — they keep track of your character’s statistics, friendship levels, who you’re in a relationship with, etc. automatically. Some of them are really deep and can literally go anywhere depending on your choices. I recommend picking it up during your leisure time for inspiration 🙂

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