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Evolution of the Video Game Narrative

July 28th, 2009


Video game stories are often the objects of derision among gaming communities — and perhaps for good reason. They are often riddled with ‘bad writing.’ It is perhaps worth considering the ways in which it has categorically been bad but also in what ways it is getting better. The mechanisms behind these developments might be more fundamental than gamers and game writers have given them credit for in the past.

The biggest misconception present around narrative in video games is that it is somehow synonymous with a novel that is separate from the game itself in conception and then serves as a sort of overlay. The idea of narrative (either through dialogue or cinematics) broken up by interspersed bits of gameplay is the more concrete form this normally takes. The stories that often result from this model of narrative suggest that story in video games can be unsophisticated because, as an aesthetic experience, the gameplay mechanics can take up the slack in the writing. And to be perfectly honest, there is some truth in that idea. But the point is one of kind rather than quality. It is unfair to compare the narrative in, say, Baldur’s Gate II to something like Moby Dick. Both of these stories are thoroughly enjoyable, but the narrative style in the latter does not belong anywhere near the former.

Game narrative isn’t trying to be novel-like or even movie-like; it is its own medium. The stories in video games are experienced in a different way because they are interactive — and this concept goes beyond simply pointing out that the player can (in some cases) drive the story in one direction or another, though that is certainly true. The narrative experience presented in video games is different in kind than from a novel or film precisely because it is interacted with rather than told. Portal is an excellent example of this narrative style. While if it were translated into a short story or movie, Portal might be entertaining, it would not maintain the psychological unease which the game itself evokes precisely because the game offers no resolution without the player’s explicit interaction, without which the story does not progress. Or to be more precise, there is a threat of an “alternate narrative” that proceeds from the player’s failure to accomplish the tasks set up by the game itself. Even if that alternate narrative is entirely imaginary, it still colors the experience.

Portal is an example of developing narrative in video games, but it still has the fundamental structure of a novel or a short story. But as for a game that breaks that mold completely, few games can compare to Flower. Now if you haven’t played Flower yet, you absolutely must do so before reading any further.

Seriously, do it.

Now then. As an aesthetic experience, Flower has an undeniable structure to it. There is a developmental arch throughout the game that could loosely be called a ‘story’ but the important feature of this ‘story’ is its inability to be extracted. What would it even mean to take the story out of Flower? Putting it into words feels insipid — it loses all its potency. Perhaps one could make a film of it, but it still feels disingenuous. Try it if you don’t believe me — there are plenty of Youtube videos. When watching a game like Flower, one invariably gets the feeling that he or she is spying on someone else’s experience that he or she is not privy to. This is not often the case with movies, where the characters on screen are explicitly putting on a show for the audience. Watching Flower is somewhat like watching someone have sex: it must be great for that person but the audience gets the feeling that it shouldn’t be there in the first place.

Narrative in video games has developed, is developing, and undoubtedly will continue to develop in a myriad of different ways. This look at it is by no means comprehensive. But hopefully the gaming community as a whole can get past the idea that game narratives are just stories on top of gameplay. Such a perspective only serves to limit what can be done in the medium and it takes an innovation like Portal or Flower to break the mold.


Justin Thurman has produced three articles and one sale under the Constant Content username of “Monks.”


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