Telling Stories has been an integral part of humanity since the very beginning. They were told around campfires and then in books and eventually with movies. Nowadays an equally important mode for story telling is with video games. There are lots of facets to video game storytelling and honestly it would be nearly impossible to talk about all of them in a single article. So instead I will talk about it in portions with more articles to come. Today I have decided to do a single article that explains how I tend to perceive the stories in video games and how I see the storytelling mechanic.
What is a video game mechanic? This term generally refers to the actions that are used to make up a game. Things such as jumping in Mario to kill goomba or inventory sorting in DayZ are mechanics used to enhance the game experience. Now I can hear you saying “We already knew that, what are you trying to get at?”. Well, I would like to propose the idea that storytelling falls under the umbrella of a game mechanic. Now, before you pull out your pitchforks give me a second to explain. The storytelling mechanic and every other mechanic have more in common than you think.
The first thing they have in common is they affect how players interact with the game. Let me explain what exactly I mean. Most people are familiar with the work of the former studio Telltale Games. In those games specifically the storytelling directly affects how people interact with the game. The use of the phrase “X will Remember that” helps to give the impression of consequence for your actions (whether there actually are or not). This and other similar mechanics used in narrative heavy games are directly tied to the story and used to affect how the player interacts with the game world. It can be as simple as deciding who is coming with you on your next mission, or as complex as creating a completely different alternate ending but it is the storytelling mechanics that really tie them all together.
The other thing that they have in common is the ability for them to be omitted. Now I know it sounds weird but it kind of makes sense. If storytelling was something that every game “needed” then it would be in every game right from the beginning. It would be a core identity of video games similar to TV and movies, but it isn’t. That is because sometimes the storytelling doesn’t matter. One of the amazing things about video games is that if one mechanic isn’t working, or is underperforming, a designer can remove it or use other stronger mechanics to help the player gloss over the weaker mechanical bits. This counts for the story just as well. Honestly when was the last time you bought a Call of Duty game for the campaign? This also explains why people still play Fallout: New Vegas 10 years after it was released (the mechanics of which leave a lot to be desired).
Obviously there are more than a few nuanced differences that you could argue with me about for hours (please don’t). The point here isn’t to say “your writing doesn’t matter” or “storytelling in games needs to go away”. The point is to maybe get you thinking about video game stories in a different light. Maybe make you think “Did I actually like the story here or did I like the mechanics used to hold the story together?”
If you got this far into this article I really appreciate you and hope you would do me a favor and follow me on Twitter @shadowkeeper790 . I plan to do more articles in the future about my opinions on storytelling in video games and hope you will stick around and read those as well.
Great article! This is an interesting point I wish more people talked about. It’s hard to find a game with both a good story AND fun mechanics!