narrative design: storytelling methods in video games
Narrative design for video games has steadily become a profession and field of study within game design. In this post, I will give an overview of several narrative structures commonly used in video games. These frameworks aren’t mutually exclusive and may not cover all video games, but understanding them is a good first step towards picking apart the way a game’s story is told.
From this article, I hope that game designers can better structure their interactive stories and identify and fix problems within them. I also hope that players can gain a better understanding of the story elements in the games they play.
For each storytelling framework, I will present some game examples, discuss its advantages and disadvantages and provide practical tips for narrative game designers.
We begin with the two main story methods that Jesse Schell covers in The Art of Game Design, which he states “surely cover 99% of all games ever created”1. These are the string of pearls and the story machine methods, which Schell describes as opposite to each other.
1. String of Pearls
String of pearls is a story method in which a non-interactive story is shown to the player through text, cutscenes or some other format, which is considered the string. In between the static story are periods of free movement and gameplay, symbolised by a pearl.
Common uses are action adventure games and role-playing games with a main story.
- Batman: Arkham Asylum has a single linear story in a series of missions, but allows the player to freely wander the grounds of Arkham in between them.
- The Last of Us keeps the player on rails throughout the story while allowing for periods of intense gameplay.
- Lego Star Wars (and other Lego story/movie tie-in video games) follows a single story with the aid of cutscenes followed by playable levels, but levels and areas can be replayed or explored in between levels.
- Designers have the most control over the story being told, and can fine-tune for the pacing, dialogue, tone, interest curve and other intricacies.
- The player can feel like they don’t have agency over what happens in the main story, or that their choices don’t matter.
Tips for using the string of pearls storytelling method:
- Write a great story. Because your story is the one that is going to count in the string of pearls method, it should be the best story you can tell for the game you are creating. Get actual writers to write dialogue, cinematic treatments, and storyboards for how the narrative will play out, and use techniques from film and theatre to make the story suspenseful, funny or emotional, but most of all, engaging.
- Aim for a balance between the playable and non-playable aspects of the game. Too many cutscenes or too much text to read can be tedious for the player. Conversely, too much freedom within the pearl can make feel directionless and make it more difficult to get the player back on the rails of the story.
- While the string of pearls method can make gameplay and story seem like separate elements, this does not have to be the case. Think of ways to integrate story into the gameplay and vice versa. Making cutscenes slightly interactive, or having non-player characters like companions reveal parts of the story during gameplay can be effective ways to do this.
2. Story Machine
Story machine is a narrative method where the game’s elements act as a story generator for the player. The game system allows the player to create stories by interacting with the game world, or by simply playing the game.
Common include sandbox and open-world exploration games.
- Minecraft is a sandbox game where players can mine blocks and build structures in a procedurally-generated infinite environment.
- The Sims is a simulation game without any real goals where players create their own characters and direct them in their daily lives and relationships.
- Don’t Starve is a survival game where players can explore a randomly-generated game world and find ways to survive however they choose, for example by combat, hunting or farming.
- By creating a system instead of writing the story parts, there’s an unlimited number of possible stories that can come out of interacting with the game world.
- The story is largely in the hands of the players, so the developer has much less control over what stories are being told.
Tips for using the story machine storytelling method:
- Systems have to be interesting for players to engage with them. Add mechanically deep elements that interact in interesting and/or multiple ways with each other, and design them with explorers in mind.
- Give players multiple ways to accomplish goals or solve problems. By providing choice, you will encourage players to explore and try different things, leading to new stories and maybe even emergent gameplay.
- The success of a story machine world depends on players, but players are unpredictable. Often, the parts of a game that are interesting are not what the designers had in mind. Starting with a toy and finding the fun can be a great strategy. Playtesting and iterating on feedback, as well as listening to the community, are a must.
The next two methods are terms that are often used to describe game narratives, which are more specific than the string of pearls and story machine.
3. Branching Narrative
Branching narrative is the technique of creating a number of prescribed story scenes through which the player progresses, with the player’s choices and/or other factors determining which story scenes are presented.
It can be thought of as a subset of the string of pearls method, though there are multiple strings branching off from the original starting point, and they don’t have to connect back to the original string at the end of the game.
Common uses include interactive fiction games.
- Life is Strange and its prequel/sequel are adventure games that give players choices that can affect outcomes in the game, leading up to multiple possible endings.
- 80 Days has the player travel around the world, choosing which cities to visit and how their journey will pan out. The events and choices are different on each playthrough, though the player always ends the game by returning to London.
- The interactive film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and “Choose Your Own Adventure” style books have pre-recorded or pre-written scenes that are only shown to the audience if certain choices are made, resulting in different possible endings.
- Designers get the control of the string of pearls method and are able to craft various elements of the story to their liking while giving players more meaningful choice that can result in different playthroughs.
- The number of scenes can quickly grow out of hand, and designers will have to write far more scenes than the average player will see. This costs more in time, money and space. The number of scenes can also mean that some will be better than others, and that there is one path that becomes the favourite or the “correct” way to play the game.
Tips for using the branching narrative storytelling method:
- Player choice is important in branching narrative. The player will want to feel like their decisions have an effect in the game’s story, so make sure that the branch makes sense with the player’s choices throughout the game.
- Since choice is important, you should design interesting and impactful choices. Consider the rising cost of additional scenes and only create ones that matter in the story. For example, simple aesthetic choices like “should I wear the red dress or the blue dress to the party?” may not be worth making an entire new art asset, model or cutscene if it is not an important plot point.
4. Amusement Park
Amusement park is a structure sort of in between string of pearls and story machine. It usually occurs in a large game world that contains multiple available missions or quests, perhaps even a main storyline, but in which the player can choose which narrative path to pursue.
Common uses include MMOs and open-world games.
- World of Warcraft has many possible storylines and missions, and the player can craft their own story by the ones they choose to pursue.
- Red Dead Redemption 2 has a main story, but the open-world game design means that there’s multiple different missions to pursue, mini-games and things to discover such that the player doesn’t have to go on a mission or complete the story at all to enjoy playing the game.
- Amusement park narratives try for the best of both worlds, and when done well, provide options for the controlled storylines of the string of pearls method alongside the emergent gameplay of the story machine method. Players can gravitate towards whichever they prefer or participate in different types of stories, thus making gameplay varied and interesting.
- Supporting multiple different forms of narrative in usually a large game world is extremely costly. Designers also end up creating more stories in the form of missions, quests, in-game items, non-player characters and so on that the average player will see, in order to give the amusement park game world more depth.
Tips for using the amusement park storytelling method:
- To keep the amusement park narrative contained, don’t overstretch yourself. Having too much choice can also be a problem, so make the choices of what to do distinct and interesting.
- Design different types of missions and stories, and give them internal interest curves, challenges, and difficulty levels. This ensures that the player experience is varied and exciting, and that every new mission provides something fresh to the player, provides a suitable challenge and ends with a feeling of accomplishment.
The final interactive storytelling technique is one I’ve proposed to describe a previously overlooked type of gameplay.
5. Scavenger Hunt
Scavenger hunt is a type of storytelling in video games where the designer places story elements within the game environment for players to discover at their own pace. These fragments are not required to be found, do not have to be discovered in a specific order and may not provide the full story.
The scavenger hunt framework, which I proposed, is often used along with other narrative structures to leave additional story parts for the player to find. These discoveries enrich the game world, provide backstory or reveal secrets that enhance the game story and player experience.
Common uses include story exploration games, and in conjunction with other types of games.
- Gone Home is a story-based exploration game where the player explores their family house and pieces together what happened.
- Other games of different genres like Diablo 3 and The Witness hide story elements in notes, audio files or cutscenes for players to chance upon.
- Leaving clues in the environment about a larger story is a natural way of giving the game world more depth without forcing the player to go through the story parts of a game if they don’t want to.
- Designers do not get to decide if players discover the story at all, or in what order they find the narrative pieces. This can be tricky to design around.
Tips for using the scavenger hunt storytelling method:
- Although you don’t get a say in what order the story is told, you can still leave clues in the most likely places and in a predictable order for most players. Keep an eye out during playtests on what players do in relation to where you place parts of the story, and adjust accordingly. Using indirect control to guide the player to the more important story points can be helpful here.
- Make each story element worthwhile to find on its own, even if it’s just a tiny snippet of the big picture. A player who only finds one piece should feel rewarded.
- Not all players are going to find the story. Depending on the type of game, maybe most players won’t find the story at all. Create the story for the fun of enhancing the game world, and trust the players, because then, the ones who discover the story will be all the more delighted.
Narrative Design and Interactive Storytelling Continue to Evolve in Games
There are many ways of telling stories in games. A single game can use more than one of these structures, whether it is concurrently or in different game modes.
StarCraft II has a single-player campaign that is very much in the string of pearls arena, while its multiplayer mode is a real-time strategy game leaning more towards the story machine structure. Other games like Journey utilise a string of pearls progression with many opportunities for exploratory and emergent gameplay within the narrative, sort of placing little story generators into each pearl.
It’s also important to note that these frameworks are only guidelines. Part of being a game designer is being able to adjust and iterate to find what works best for a particular game. While it’s great to have a theoretical knowledge of what’s out there in terms of narrative design, it’s even more exciting to see game designers continue to push the boundaries of interactive storytelling.