The Game Design Forum

Narrative in Videogames

by Patrick Holleman

“When’s the first time someone’s going to write the Moby Dick of computer games? People around the world are going to go ‘Wow, it doesn’t even matter that it’s a game, that’s classic—that’s a classic tale.’”

-Chris Metzen, VP of Creative Development, Blizzard Entertainment. Interview, Day to Day

If videogames can be art, how should we study those games which are artistic? There are games, like Tetris that are not intended to be art in the usual sense, and they can be studied simply as games, focusing on what game design ideas and programming mechanics make them entertaining. Other games, however, have elaborate scripts, voiced characters, and dramatic music; these are elements common to other forms of art like films or plays. Should people interested in studying videogame design use methods from these other forms of art, then? This is an old question that has been rattling around in discussions of videogames: should games be studied ludologically or narratologically? (Both are defined below.) Neither discipline is adequate. Whether or not videogames can be art, they must nevertheless have their own form of criticism that assesses them for what they are, not what other thing they are like.

Some background: ludology is the study of games as games. Ludology studies the rules, theories and practices common to games like chess, hearts, backgammon, Monopoly, and so forth. Narratology is the study of narratives, like novels, poems, movies, plays, and television shows. Modern videogames, obviously, contain elements derived from both traditional games and traditional forms of narrative. Are modern videogames more like traditional tabletop games than they are like movies? Are they something entirely different from anything that has come before—and if so how should we study and assess them? First let us break down these very large questions into a few smaller and more specific ones; in doing so we will find how videogames are different from traditional games.

AI, the Big Difference in Games

The first question to answer is: are videogames enough like traditional games that they can be studied the same way, despite the narratives they possess? The study of traditional games—ludology—studies the common ideas in traditional game design, like the use of chance, how players take turns, and how the players drive the action of the game to win. Like traditional games, videogames do have a number of common rules and strategies. Consider how common “headshots” and the “zerg rush” are outside the games that coined their terms. On the other hand, videogames don’t really owe as much to chance; in fact randomness in videogames can be perceived as thwarting skill and cancelling out fun. But the biggest difference between traditional games and videogames is artificial intelligence, which only videogames have.

Artificial intelligence means more, in the case of videogames, than one might ordinarily think. The most obvious kind of AI is the computer-controlled opponents (bots) in any given game. For the purposes of this essay we can call these computer opponents, that tend to be imitations of human players, continuous AI. But there is another kind of artificial intelligence; this is the programming that works in the background. For example, independent moving parts and dynamic ambient conditions (like a wind that blows in irregular gusts) in a game environment are controlled by a piece of programming that requires no input from a player. This programming knows what to do and requires no player-prompting or random initiation, but it is limited in its role to being a background factor in the game. This kind of much more limited AI can be called discrete artificial intelligence. Many videogames have some amount of continuous artificial intelligence, but nearly all of them have abundant use of discrete artificial intelligence.

(Note that I do not intend to make any comment on the computer science of artificial intelligence, a subject about which I know nothing. These terms only refer to game design elements that operate without the player’s input.)

In a traditional/tabletop game, the players and chance are responsible for everything that goes on in the game; but this is not so in most videogames. Even if one of the players of a traditional game is a guide or dungeon master, they are still engaged in the same play action, just in a different role. But still, the players, or chance-based pieces they use, are responsible for causing all the game action. This is simply not true in videogames; videogames have a discrete game world, not created or operated by any player. This is the primary design feature that separates videogames from their traditional counterparts.

In short, the difference between traditional games and videogames is that videogames have a world in which everything about the game, except for controller input, takes place. This world is created, controlled, and sometimes populated by continuous and discrete artificial intelligence. The player is a guest in that world, the central participant in its mechanics. Even still, the world is usually not driven by the player; it is the designer’s world, and should be studied as such.

The Big Three: Setting, Character, and Challenge


The second question in assessing how videogames should be studied is whether or not videogames are similar enough to traditional narratives that we should study them the same way. To begin, it makes sense to admit that some portions of videogame narratives are exactly like books; the player reads them without interacting except to turn the ‘page’. Some narrative segments in videogames are exactly like movies; the player watches them without doing anything except pausing and unpausing. No decent videogame is entirely like movies or books. A movie creates a fictional world that one can see and hear, but viewers are locked into a guided tour that the filmmakers have scheduled for the viewer, and viewers can never deviate from that tour. In a videogame, on the other hand, the player is presented with a world that can be accessed largely at their own discretion. Videogames that are too linear—too much like the guided tours of movies—are often deprecated by critics and gamers.

The desire for some amount of freedom within the videogame shows that it is specifically this elaborately constructed world which makes videogames not just unique, but also enjoyable. And ultimately, the world of the game is also—simply by its nature—a narrative element: setting. Setting in games is so uniquely expressed that we can say with certainty that narrative in videogames is at least different from other art forms. And setting—the world in which a game takes place—is where the fundamental principles of game design and game narrative come together. It stands to reason, then, that there should be some excellent videogames which show how the narrative and gameplay elements can work together to create a unique artistic experience.

The Silent Hill series is built around the notion that setting—the world which videogames create—is their best narrative resource; recognizing this, the designers have created a game that is all about using setting as the primary influence on both gampelay and narrative. Silent Hill, the eponymous town, is a nightmare world full of symbolic monsters that represent human failings and fears. In all the Silent Hill games, but especially Silent Hill 2, the emphasis in the game is not necessarily on combat, but often on exploration and escape; indeed, some of the monsters in the game cannot be killed at all in the traditional sense. The environment itself can and frequently will kill the player character. Sometimes, the best thing that the player can do is survive by running away. The only way to successfully get away is to pay close attention to all the horrifying things in the environment and wisely choose battles in order to survive. In a narrative sense, this is stressful and demoralizing; the player is forced to carefully examine a horrifying wasteland. The gameplay is very similar in that regard; it is about limited player resources, evasion, knowing your escape routes, and recognizing environmental clues when something is about to go horribly wrong.

It would be difficult for a medium other than videogames to express so acutely the particular feelings of powerlessness, isolation and malingering dread that Silent Hill is able to evoke. Books, films and music proceed one second at a time; even when a scene seems interminable, this is just an artistic trick by the authors of the work. With Silent Hill, players can be quite literally trapped in a nightmarish situation without knowing how to get out of it. Until the player figures out what to do (and sometimes even for a while after that) he or she is trapped for an amount of time that varies greatly. And this is all a consequence of the merging of the narrative and gameplay aspects of setting specific to videogames.

World of Warcraft is another game heavily dependent on the depth and persuasiveness of its world; it has the benefit of being an ever-expanding world as well, with content updates and expansion packs. The first time through the game tends to be the best, from a narrative perspective. The structure of the quests (tasks with completion rewards) that guide gameplay are heavy on exploration, but often a bit short on variety, i.e. collect 10 quest items, for the millionth time. What makes these quests and dungeons compelling—at least the first time through the game—is that they are driven by a strong, interesting setting. One chain of quests in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion has the player flying up an impossibly tall tower on the back of a borrowed dragon. The gameplay isn’t particularly innovative; it is a series of fairly standard one-on-one fights. But the fact that these fights are taking place miles in the air in a swarm of mythical creatures, and that at the end of the quests players arrive at the throne of a demigod—that makes it considerably more fun. Every location that the player visits suggests another turn in the story: from the ancient, flash-frozen battlefield to the corrupted temple of another god, each reveals another twist in the dark narrative. The quests, for the most part, are all about killing X number of enemies and collecting Y number of items; the setting makes it captivating.

Even getting lost in World of Warcraft can be a pleasure; in fact getting lost can be one of the greatest pleasures in the game. Enjoying the setting in one of the less-populated zones, finding obscure quests, achievements and bits of lore is a kind of enjoyment not really possible in other forms of narrative. This kind of exploration is possible because the world in WoW is huge; a huge and complicated world affords the artistic pleasure of rarity. It is certainly possible to notice things in a book or a movie that other readers and viewers don’t notice, even if everyone is seeing the same thing. But it is not possible to venture into a secret area of a book or a movie, to have the pleasure of finding something which never even flashed before the eyes of other viewers, who are reading the same book or watching the same movie at the same time.


It is fairly obvious, and often argued, how videogames have an advantage over other forms of narrative: the player often is the character around whom the narrative is centered. From the simulated tension and excitement of racing away from the police in Grand Theft Auto to the grim scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, where the player experiences declining control of their character as he dies of radiation poisoning, games have certainly shown what they can do with a simulated incarnation. Some might argue that books and films can convey any of these experiences just as well if the author or director is sufficiently talented. That argument might be true, but there are two ways in which videogames use character—as a narrative element—in a unique and compelling way.

The first of unique approach to character in videogames is that videogame characters can be customized. In fact, as gaming technology is progressing, character designs are coming closer to being pulled straight out of the player’s imagination. And this is not just true of the appearance of a character, but also the behavior of the character. Games like Fallout, BioShock, and Mass Effect all allow the player to choose the path of their character’s development. This obviously presents an enormous amount of narrative potential. If characters—an indispensible part of any narrative—can be made by the player with creative freedom, the player is in control of their artistic experience in a way nothing else can match. And when a player chooses the path of character development, they are choosing a narrative; the depth of the narrative is often equal to the effort a player puts into developing a character.

But character customization and multiple paths of character development do not automatically create a form of perfect narrative unique to videogames. Sometimes character customization is just cosmetic; and usually the appearance of the player character doesn’t affect the narrative at all. Moreover, choosing a path of character development is ultimately just a way of choosing one traditional narrative out of several traditional options; those narratives are all prefabricated by the game’s writers. A truly idiosyncratic videogame narrative would be an entirely player-created narrative that takes place inside the world of the game. That kind of narrative, however, would require some serious innovations in game design. Either there would need to be a near-sentient form of artificial intelligence which could handle an extremely dynamic story, or there would need to be full-time human dungeon masters available in an online setting, with large toolkits for quickly building custom stories for players.

Characters in a videogame have a more important narrative advantage than customization, one that mirrors reality: they are useful. Players very often need the characters in their games for play reasons, particularly in games where the player controls more than one character. This causes a range of narrative situations that will be instantly familiar to even to those who don’t play videogames. There is the talented jerk character; their personality is atrocious but they are so useful the player puts up with them. There is the ne’er-do-well friend, who is very likeable but practically useless; carrying this character through the game is often a burden, but the story is more interesting with them in it. And then there are characters who are simply awesome in ability and personality, and players hate to see anything happen to them. These are fictional people with whom players have a practical--not just voyeuristic-- relationship; in what other form of art is this possible?

The death of a character in a videogame can replicate the real-life, practical effects of death better than any other form of narrative. In any book, film or stage drama we may find that we were very attached to a character, and that their death has an intense emotional effect on us. But in a videogame, if the player loses a character to a plot-related death, they feel a realistic second sting: the player needed that character in a practical sense. In the real world, someone will grieve for the loss of their friend and business partner because they miss his friendship, but they have the additional burden of now having to run the business without him. If you were unknowingly using Aeris in your party before her death in Final Fantasy VII, you feel this in a smaller sense. The player misses her not just because she was likeable, but because she was useful; the hard work put into learning and developing her abilities is now in ruins. There is also commensurate anger at the antagonist who kills a videogame character; the enemy has not only killed someone the player likes—they have made the game harder by doing it.


Challenge is the final aspect, and perhaps the most idiosyncratic aspect, of how videogames use unique narrative tools. For instance in Mass Effect 2 the game ramps up the difficulty during encounters with the narrative’s primary antagonists: the alien Collectors. It is difficult in other media to express the difficulty and drama of an action when both we and the writers know that all the characters are going to survive because of their actors' contracts. (This is particularly true in television.) But even in that all-must-survive scenario, videogames have no trouble conveying difficulty. Mass Effect kills the protagonists when the player fails. When players finally do succeed, after many restarts, they’re alive and well but the fearsome power of the enemy is unforgettable. This is particularly true when the game achieves a severe flow state and the enemy’s power isn’t made of “cheap shots” but rather well-designed difficulty that the player has been prepared for. That is possibly the height of videogame artistry, and any plot rewards found after seem doubly sweet for the effort.

Greater Artistry in Videogame Narratives

The purpose of studying videogames is to enrich videogame design. The various purposes of videogames themselves might be entertainment, fun, artistic catharsis, and so on; but the purpose of studying videogames is to make them better. Therefore the last thing this essay should do is to suggest ways that narrative can be used most effectively in games.

First, we have learned from studying setting in games that too much linearity in games is a bad idea. The freedom of a game world is key to its persuasiveness; so even in games that have linear narrative or linear gameplay, it would be wise for designers to add even a few small, diverging paths, extra content, and secret areas. This does not mean turning every game into a sandbox game; rather it just means that a little freedom to move around in a game is usually a good thing.

Second, while customization of characters in videogames is fun, it is much more practical right now for the usefulness of characters in a videogame to be emphasized. Custom character models and diverging plot lines are great; many quality games take advantage of these design ideas in unique and interesting ways. But until we either have a radically advanced kind of artificial intelligence or full-time, in-game dungeon masters for online games, customization is not going to be developed much beyond where it is now. Character usefulness, integrated into the narrative, can see considerably more development. Any time the friendly AI characters are completely incompetent (this happens quite often) they have lost much of their appeal as characters. If those characters are also immortal, revived at the end of every level, the player might actually want the friendly AI dead because they get in the way. It would be far better for the narrative if the friendly AI characters are:

  1. At least moderately useful; the player must notice the difference these characters make in the process of gameplay
  2. Mortal – they can be killed or wounded in gameplay, in some cases forever, if the player is not careful, making the game harder
  3. Equipped with a significant personality, likeable or unlikeable

These conditions are not always possible in every game. Indeed some games might be worse if they try to observe these rules. Still, it seems that most games could benefit from at least experimenting with these rules, as they have great potential to make a game’s narrative stronger and more idiosyncratic to videogames.

The third and final design element to pay attention to is challenge, because it possible in videogames to convey the intensity and drama of a situation directly through difficulty. The primary guideline in this case is that difficulty should not always be a smooth upward curve. Games with narrative must not get more difficult with each passing second; rather, the narrative and gameplay must cooperate so that the most dangerous enemies in the narrative are clearly the most challenging enemies in gameplay. This requires three things.

  1. The challenge level across the game must go up and down in sync with the narrative. This may result in sections that are easier than what came before, but this is okay. These are good for "catching your breath," in a figurative sense, as well as introducing new gameplay skills.
  2. The spike in difficulty must not be caused by the appearance of enemies who are unfair or “cheap.” The new challenge must be organic and somewhat familiar, even if it arrives suddenly
  3. Use of checkpoints and auto-saves; if the game is suddenly going to get harder, the player must not always be punished by having to start back in the easy section again

Obviously these suggestions don’t spell out every step necessary in using challenge to enhance narrative, but they are functional as a basic guideline worth being aware of.

Final Thoughts

Although today’s videogames use both design elements from traditional games and narrative elements from traditional works of art, they are fundamentally different from what has come before. Certainly, nothing in the ancient world predicted videogames; it is absurd, therefore, to use a Greco-Latin term like ludology or narratology for the study of them. I suggest we simply settle on the name videogame studies. Videogames are what we are studying, and any attempt to add to or subtract value from our subject through a name in a dead language is entirely unneccessary. Our discipline is alive in the here and now.

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