Game Design

scavenger hunt: a storytelling technique for video games

If you’ve studied narrative design for games, you’re probably familiar with many different frameworks for interactive storytelling.  Narrative design has grown into its own field within game design, with books, courses and experts on the topic.

In The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell discusses two main methods of interactive storytelling1.

  1. String of pearls
    • Designers present a non-interactive story (the string) along which the player moves.  Along the storyline, the player is given areas of free movement (the pearl), which can include gameplay and added exploration or challenge.
  2. Story machine
    • Designers provide a game environment with self-contained rules that acts as a story generator, allowing the player to create stories from elements in the game through emergent gameplay.

While these are not the only two ways to think about stories in games, Schell asserts that these two methods cover the vast majority of games.

In terms of methods of interactive storytelling, these two methods surely cover 99% of all games ever created.  What is interesting is how opposite they are from each other.  The string of pearls requires a linear story to be created ahead of time, and the story machine thrives when as little story as possible has been created ahead of time.

– Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design1

String of Pearls and Story Machine

I often consider which of these two techniques suit the games I play.  Sometimes, a game fits into a box neatly.  Batman: Arkham Asylum uses the string of pearls method, while Minecraft is clearly a story machine.  Other times, the game is tricky to squeeze into one box, or contains elements from both methods.

Image from: Mojang.

Journey, for example, contains a linear progression with cutscenes and checkpoints, which is characteristic of the string of pearls method.  But Journey also has vast opportunities for emergent gameplay within its levels that matches more with the story machine technique.  Eventually, the story you get from Journey is seldom only the story that the developers have prescribed.

While I’d probably still classify Journey as primarily using the string of pearls methodology, it’s an example of how the stories we experience from playing a game don’t necessarily fall into one category or the other.  Maybe you can fit a story machine into each pearl, or Frankenstein the two methods together in some other way.

Then there are the games with storytelling elements that don’t fit into either of these approaches.  As a result, I’ve come up with a new framework, which I call the “scavenger hunt” method.

Scavenger Hunt: A Framework for Interactive Storytelling

In the scavenger hunt method:

  • Designers place non-interactive elements of the story in the game environment for the player to discover.
  • These narrative elements can be discovered at the player’s discretion in any order within the limits of the game’s design.
  • Completing the game is not contingent on the discovery of any or all of the story elements.

The scavenger hunt framework can be used alongside both the string of pearls and story machine methods.  It is a way for designers to hide clues to, or portions of a larger story, around the game without forcing the player to uncover the whole story in order to proceed.  This can be considered backstory, easter eggs, or additional world-building, which in some games and genres critics may deem unnecessary to the main gameplay.

However, more and more games are adding elements to enrich the game world, and leaving them for players to find.  This requires immense trust in the player from the developer, who has to relinquish control over which elements are found, in what order, and which part, if any, of the story is eventually told.

To illustrate how the scavenger hunt method can be used to tell compelling stories through interactivity, I’ll provide examples from three different games.

Image from: The Fullbright Company.

1. Gone Home

Gone Home by The Fullbright Company pioneered the modern story-based exploration video game.  You play as Katie, who returns home from overseas and finds her family home empty.  Gone Home‘s gameplay consists of walking from room to room, turning on lights, opening drawers and examining objects that reveal the story of what has happened.

The developers give the player free rein to explore the house in whatever manner, picking up parts of the story in the form of letters, journal entries and other objects.  There is no progress bar that keeps track of what you have found, and no requirement to see everything before completing the game.

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Although Gone Home is a story game, it does not fit into either of Schell’s story methods.  It’s not a story machine because all the story elements are already written.  And while there is some unlocking of different areas to explore, the string of pearls framework doesn’t really apply, because the story tends to happen within the pearls and is largely out of the developers’ control.

Gone Home exemplifies the scavenger hunt method because the developers have basically left the story in the game for the player to discover.  Back in 2013, Gone Home‘s use of this interactive storytelling framework was revolutionary, and has since paved the way for many narrative games.

Image from: Blizzard Entertainment.

2. Diablo 3

Diablo 3, an action role-playing dungeon crawler game by Blizzard Entertainment, uses the scavenger hunt story method in a totally different way by combining it with the other methods.

Diablo 3 actually has two different modes.  You can play through the main storyline, which is set up in the string of pearls method with missions, checkpoints and cutscenes that carry you through a series of acts in the grand tale written by the developers.  Or, you can take on adventure mode, more like the story machine, where you battle increasingly more difficult enemies, collect loot and build up your character.

There’s an undercurrent of story in both modes, but the developers have also left all sorts of missives and journal entries around the world that reveal much of the lore of Sanctuary.  Picking them up isn’t required to complete the game, but the information in them goes deeper on the backstory of certain characters, or the history of a particular location.  The story contained in them deepens the game world and makes it feel more real.

Audio logs containing parts of the story are scattered around the map of The Witness for the player to find and play.

3. The Witness

The Witness, a puzzle game by Thekla, Inc., is my third example because it’s not really about story.  Sure, you’re stranded on an island, and you don’t know why you’re there, but the heart of the game is puzzles, not narrative.  Progression towards the final set of puzzles is structured like a string of pearls, but that structure only represents the way the player is brought through a series of tasks to the end of the game.  It doesn’t give information about the central story of The Witness.

This is where using the scavenger hunt story technique comes into play.  Elements of The Witness‘ story are found in audio logs scattered around the island.  The player doesn’t have to find any or all of them to progress, and they can be discovered in any order.  There’s also a hidden room where more of the story can be unlocked through solving a secret set of puzzles to play videos.  But that doesn’t have to be completed either.

The way The Witness treats story is very compatible with the scavenger hunt method.  Its fuzzy story pieces are not straightforward statements about the game world like Gone Home‘s and Diablo 3‘s, but they show that stories can come in many different formats.

Drawbacks of the Scavenger Hunt Story Method

On its own, the scavenger hunt method of interactive storytelling may not be a good way to tell a story coherently or to its completion.  Because the player is in control of what elements they find and in what order, the story will end up in various different forms for each player.  Game designers, of course, can work around this by using techniques such as indirect control.

Another criticism is that hiding things in a game world that players might find is just the process of hiding easter eggs, not a storytelling technique.  However, games like Gone Home have shown the validity of hiding story elements as part of gameplay.  Easter eggs of something fun and unrelated to the game world, for example, the developer’s name, is different from placing objects containing narrative pieces that enrich and enhance the game world.

As games continue to change and evolve, I’m sure there will be many new ways game designers tell interactive stories.  And while the story methods I’ve written about in this post are great ways to think about game narratives, they may become more or less useful.  We’re only scratching the surface of storytelling in games, and it’ll be exciting to see what comes next.

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References Cited

  1. Schell, Jesse. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. 2nd ed., CRC Press, 2015. p. 298-300.