Storytelling in video games

At their core, most video games tell a story. Whether the tale is about a princess who is always in another castle or a quest to stop a dark force from overtaking the land a video game is a narrative device.

Even with the advances in technology video game storytelling still strives for the same critical acclaim and acceptance that film and novels have enjoyed for so long. Lee Sheldon, author of Character Development and Storytelling for Games,” a leading textbook on character development and storytelling in games, said he expects games to reach that level of narrative.

“Games can be a legitimate storytelling medium like film,” Sheldon said. “They go about attempting to be, they have moments that are on par with film.”

Even though games will eventually reach the level of storytelling seen in film Sheldon said it frustrating that it is taking so long.

The first narrative film, “The Great Train Robbery,” was released in 1903. In 12 years “The Birth of a Nation” was released. It is widely considered the first example of an art film said Sheldon. Video games have been made for almost 50 years, and have existed as an industry for about 35 years, but have not achieved a feat similar to “The Birth of Nations” Sheldon said.

One of the challenges that video game writers face is the player.

“Orson Welles didn’t have the audience coming up and moving props while he was filming,” Edward Castronova, a professor at Indiana University, said. Castronova has studied the growth of the video game industry as well as social and economic circumstances in online social games.

Since games provide an active experience that directly engages the player they must balance plot with gameplay Sheldon said. A game such as “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” will use a different story structure than “Dragon Age: Origins” in order to better match the action happening onscreen.

“The story needs to work with the gameplay,” Sheldon said. “‘Uncharted 2’ is pretty formulaic but it works with the feel they are going for. I would see it as a summer popcorn movie.”

Sheldon said that the two biggest problems with video game storytelling are relying on old methods and leaving writing as an afterthought.

Some of the overused storytelling methods are using cut-scenes as the primary plot device or having players read mountains of text from signs, data pads, or books Sheldon said. Sheldon said cut-scenes or text aren’t bad in small doses but when used too much they take the player out of the game. The player is being fed the story rather than participating in the story.

Sheldon said video game narratives are also given a lower priority in game development. Developers will spend top dollar to hire the best programmers and artists but will spend much less on writers.

“They will say ‘well didn’t Bob down the hall take a writing course in college,’” Sheldon said. “’Let’s bring him in to do our story.’”

While using professional writers is an important step to improving the stories in video games there are some precautions. Sheldon warns that writers should not be chosen simply because they worked on a Hollywood movie script or wrote a best-selling science fiction novel. Writers that understand the medium and how to tell stories where the player is involved are necessary for video game plots to advance.

Castronova said that he believes games are still 15 years away from being viewed as an artistic equal to film. Sheldon said that to achieve that recognition games need to step away from their familiar settings and try new things.

“Everyone does sci-fi, high fantasy, and post-apocalyptic worlds,” Sheldon said. “We really need to get beyond those and try something different.”

Above all else however, Sheldon said developers must treat writing with the respect it deserves.