How is game storytelling different?Complications Ensue
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Monday, July 25, 2016

On our Reddit AMA today, greyandbluestatic asked, "how do you approach storytelling in games versus cinema and literature?"

Here's my answer:

The short answer is, there’s no difference. A story is a story. Specifically, in my books, a story is:

a. a fictional person we care about
b. who has an opportunity, problem or goal
c. who faces obstacles and/or an antagonist and/or his or her personal flaws
d. who has something to lose (jeopardy)
e. and something to gain (stakes)

Moreover, a story is told to
f. an audience.

You can see how these apply equally to movies and books and games. If one of these elements of story is weak, the story is usually weak. When I say “weak,” I mean it doesn’t leave us with a powerful feeling.
That’s what story exists in games for. The gameplay is “How?” The story is “How do I feel?” Ultimately, it’s “Why do I care?”

The key difference, of course, is that storytelling is all about “I make choices for you,” while gameplay is “You make the choices.” So delivering a great story in a game has to take that into account.
On the top level of the game, we have a series of cinematics that tell each playable character’s story. The gameplay aspect is that you have to complete story missions to get to the next cinematic. That’s pretty familiar.

The other levels are environmental storytelling. There are things you see and things you hear as you run around trying to stay alive long enough to craft your way out of the predicament you’re in.
So, these are things that the Wellies and the Wastrels say to each other and to you. They show you the world you’re living in, and how they feel about it.
These are the things Arthur says to them and to himself. These show you how he feels about things. They show you who he is.

For example, you may feel good about killing a Wastrel, but he usually doesn’t. That’s unusual, in a game hero.

There’s dear old Uncle Jack. He’s always happy and upbeat, but you can listen between the lines. Why is he telling people how to identify cholera? Why is he talking about flour substitutes?
You’ll see posters that tell you what the rules of the world are, and what the history of this world is. You learn that Britain lost the war. You start to get a sense of what it is exactly that everyone is trying so hard not to remember.

You might find letters in the mailboxes that tell you more about the people around you, and what their stories might be.

I’m trying hard to create a sense that the NPCs are not software agents that are there to give you things if you poke at them in the right way. They’re people in a fictional world, that have their own stories – their own goals, and their own obstacles – that would be doing something even if you weren’t looking.

The key to everything in the game is that what’s not said is as important as what’s said. The game’s story is a puzzle you can put together through repeated playthroughs. (You won’t get the whole puzzle in any one playthrough.)

Tl;dr: the cinematics are straightforward, linear narrative. Everything else is a puzzle.

And, eventually, once the story comes out, you may discover that the cinematics don’t tell you everything either, and there may be a bit of a puzzle there, too.

Rest of the AMA here.

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