The three most common techniques for telling stories in games

Mainstream games, or at least a significant subset that I’m too lazy to define here, make use of three big techniques to tell stories:

  • Cut-scenes.
  • Invisible boxes.
  • Environmental storytelling.

I think both game developers and players understand these techniques by now, and in fact I think players are getting tired of them. I know I am. And that means it is time to surprise people again, to innovate, by moving beyond these tools or by using them in new ways.

Cut-scenes

Cut-scenes are the most conventional and, perhaps not incidentally, also the most controversial tool. We’re splicing another medium, film, into our games. It is an effective medium to convey information and evoke emotion. Players and developers both understand cut-scenes, important reasons for their popularity. The effectiveness of cut-scenes balances out the fact that they are not interactive, and therefore tend to break immersion and take away agency. But it’s an uneasy balance. Cut-scenes, by definition, do not fit well in an interactive medium.

Over the last 20 years, innovation in cut-scenes has been about technology (how complex a scene can we show), production (how do we economically make more complex cut-scenes) and filmmaking craft (how do we make effective cut-scenes). There has been almost no innovation in the interactive aspects of cut-scenes, and this is to be expected since cut-scenes are pretty much defined by not being interactive.

(I classify dialogues as cut-scenes for the purpose of this article. How to do dialogue better or make it more interactive is beyond the scope of this blog post. People tried cool stuff in the 80s and early 90s, we did some reasonable things in the role-playing games I worked on, by now people have kinda stopped trying to invent new things, at least in AAA. I haven’t played enough Mass Effect or Skyrim to have an opinion on how they did, but I didn’t get the impression it was groundbreaking.)

Invisible boxes

Invisible boxes (or planes, spheres, volumes, etc.) are the tool that level designers use to trigger events. When you walk around a corner and a ceiling collapses, enemies come running towards you, or some characters act out a little scene (just out of your reach), then you just hit an invisible box. When you’ve seen them once, you see them everywhere.

And that is the problem. As a player, you develop a sense for these things. You know stepping into that big room or walking around the corner will trigger something, just as you know that if you just stay there, nothing is likely to happen, forever, except for the eerie and foreboding music. (The tendency for games to get stuck, when nothing happens because the player isn’t doing something, is a big immersion breaker.)

Invisible boxes are used to orchestrate events just so for the player’s enjoyment, to make sure she meets the right challenge at the right time, sees the right thing at the right moment. They are an easy tool to understand and to use, although hiding them requires finesse.

But they can never be fully hidden. At some point, the player realizes that the world arranges itself around her, and then the reality of being on a well-orchestrated ride dominates the illusion of being inside the fictional world of the game, and her behavior changes. She knows what to expect.

Invisible boxes are stupidly easy to implement, so there has been no innovation here for decades. We’ve become more sophisticated in how we use them, but the scripts in the games I wrote in the early 90s are conceptually the same as the scripts in current games.

Note also that invisible boxes are orthogonal to interactivity. We can use them to orchestrate spectacles, but they are not inherently interactive, they do not in themselves create or enable interesting choices for the player. In fact, they are often used to trigger or to artfully replace cut-scenes. Characters talk or interact in real time, scientists are drawn into ventilation shafts, but in such a way that the player doesn’t notice that she cannot interact with them.

Environmental storytelling

Environmental storytelling is telling a story through a game’s environment, specifically a story about what happened before you arrived in said environment. I believe the term was coined by Henry Jenkins, but I’m not an academic so I’m not going to research it. I first saw it used in System Shock. Remember finding those little cubby holes with a corpse and some empty food containers and recordings telling increasingly bleak tales of the bad stuff that happened before you arrived? Well, that was kind of the best use of that technique, and it’s been used more or less like that ever since. It was used well in Portal and Manhunt. It’s a useful technique, but limited. I recently saw a blog post critiquing the diaries and recordings in Bioshock 1 or 2. I surprisingly felt a bit disappointed at the start of Dishonored when early on, in the sewers, I found a little cubby hole with a corpse and some empty food containers and letters. I remember thinking “Oh no, it’s the 90s again.” For all I know it was a homage. Dishonored is great, you should play it.

So?

These three techniques have a number of things in common. They’ve been used a lot over the last 20 to 30 years, especially in ‘mainstream’ AAA games. Players understand how they work, they’ve learned the conventions. Developers understand how to use them, and have refined them over the years.

And there are signs that people are getting tired of them. I’ve got a whole different blog post on a back burner somewhere about techniques and gimmicks and genres. I don’t have an opinion why this is happening, whether people just get tired of any technique. Maybe they do. Maybe you can see this when you look at the evolution of TV and cinema and comics, how things are rebooted and reinterpreted. But I claim it’s happening.

Finally, none of these techniques are very interactive. Only invisible boxes can claim to be somewhat interactive, in the sense that they react to the player.

(Just a few days ago I read this profile of Mohammad Alavi in Edge:

Once more, Alavi charged into the wilderness alone, eventually writing over 10,000 lines of scripts that anticipated every way the player might disturb or be noticed by the patrolling soldiers, handling each case with different animations and behaviours. “It was crazy and jury-rigged together, but the end result is that you can enter the situation from any angle and it’s legit – if they thought they saw you from a certain distance, they’d behave differently than if you popped up right in front of their face.”

So maybe you can do some cool stuff with invisible boxes if you’re crazy. But they rewrote his scripts and turned it into proper AI.)

And I believe this shows that all of the current techniques we currently have are smoke and mirrors. Well-executed, cunningly used smoke and mirrors, perhaps. But we’ve taken things that we as developers understand and that our players understand, and have tacked them onto games. We’ve taught our players how to overlook the joins and seams, that we all know are there. And we’ve taken this as far as we can. Now the end is in sight. We’re close to not being able to do better, to not being able to afford to do more, and players have caught on to us.

We’re on a local maximum, a beautiful hilltop where things are great, but any movement leads downward. And that’s scary, because that means we have to leave behind what we built, pack a small backpack and trek through the wilderness to find new beauty. And we only have a vague idea of where to go. Some of us won’t make it.

I’ve been thinking about storytelling in games for a long time, since before I became a professional developer even. For years I chased immersion and used the techniques I described above. But I knew there had to be more. Now I am seeing hope, in games like FTL, in Spelunky, in Rebuild, in Dwarf Fortress, perhaps in Minecraft. It’s not the discovery of something blindingly new, but more suddenly looking at things in a different way. (And then seeing a trail leading from these games back in time to older games. It was there all along.) I don’t know where this trail will lead. I’m sure it will be different from where we were before. I can’t wait to find out.

Comments 8

  1. Tim Manning wrote:

    The battle for game designers must be fought on a number of fronts. Players understand what is called schema, the conventional way of operating. If you change this too radically players dont understand, lose the thread and get lost. The schema is a defined route and its the expectation that makes it comfortable and allows progress.

    This is true in many other aspects of life. Change the formula too quickly and too radically and the player/user loses control – movie genre, website navigation. Make them too different and we, the users, dont understand.

    Posted 13 Feb 2013 at 10:02
  2. Jurie wrote:

    Yes, good point, both sides have to learn how to use the conventions of a medium, and you can’t change too quickly. You can see the same in the development of TV, e.g.

    Posted 13 Feb 2013 at 12:43
  3. Chris Crawford wrote:

    You left out the branching tree, perhaps out of good taste. Yet for all its execrability, the branching tree continues to appear in the designs of the brighter-eyed and bushier-tailed.

    I have long thumped away at the importance of expanding the verb set, but now I have added another commandment to my stone tablets: the statement of affinity, usually in indirect form, should lie at the core of interactive storytelling.

    Lastly, a semi-self-aggrandizing comment: the second edition of my book on interactive storytelling is now out. The good news is that I greatly revised it to reflect the many changes in the last 10 years. The bad news is that, realizing that it will likely be used as a textbook, they raised the price.

    Posted 13 Feb 2013 at 16:47
  4. Jurie wrote:

    This blog post is a hand-wave-y pot-shot at current techniques. As Harvey Smith just pointed out to me on Twitter: it’s not very original, and a seasoned game designer will easily find some holes.

    What I hope to do is continue this argument and say a few things that are a bit more original. I tried for a few years to write it all in one, scintillating essay, but I’m not an experienced enough writer for that. So I’m taking small steps.

    I’d love to read more about the important of statements of affinity. And perhaps I can convince your publisher that I am an Influential Blogger and they should send me a review copy.

    Posted 13 Feb 2013 at 16:56
  5. Boris Bauer wrote:

    Actually I’ve seen some variations of storytelling in games I quite liked, but I’ve never seen games that took that much further:

    1. Sidekicks: In Beyond Good And Evil your uncle (who happens to be a “pig”) Pey’j is merely a funny side kick that reacts to contexts e.g. giving hints, doing small talk, and cooperating when opening doors, doing combo moves, etc. Left For Dead or Half-Life 2 also used that to some limited extent. But I never saw games that took that much further and reflected more of the progressing story and your actions outside cutscenes.

    2. Alignments/Change of behavior: In games like Gothic whole villages and factions of people suddenly react differently to you in dialogue and action depending on who you joined and what you did (although usually picking from a small set of discrete options). If games go a bit further there and combine NPC reactions and timeline (classic chronological story telling) to some extent this would obviously help to create and reflect your own story. The one you created by the way you handled dialogues and acted.

    But I guess when we go into that direction we always hit a limit when adding more and more possibilities, which at least in “AAA” games usually means tons of animations, audio recordings, well readable AI reactions, etc.

    BTW: Jurie, I’m curious what you saw e.g. in Spelunky, Minecraft, etc.? Do you mean the fact that changing environments, exploring, finding new meta games in the game, etc. already offer you enough options that don’t need a scripted story on top of it? Or where does it take your mind…? :)

    Posted 15 Feb 2013 at 5:58
  6. Jurie wrote:

    Hi Boris. Those are good points. There are more techniques: my point was that these are very common and they are perhaps being overused.

    Re Spelunky, Minecraft etc.: what I see are deep possibility spaces and more interesting stories that emerge.

    I have more things to say about this, hopefully I can express them in blog posts sometime this decade :)

    Posted 15 Feb 2013 at 12:32
  7. Boris Bauer wrote:

    I noticed that I got a bit excited about the topic and my train of thoughts got a bit side tracked: I was already thinking of just slightly more dynamic ways to “trigger” story telling that were explored a bit but still are underused.

    I’ll sit back, sort my thoughts, and wait for your next post on story telling. And I don’t mind if they are infrequent and episodic. That leaves more space for discussion. ;)

    Posted 16 Feb 2013 at 2:50
  8. Sik wrote:

    I know this post is old, but since it’s the newest one as I write this…

    The real problem you seem to be talking about doesn’t seem to be the techniques per se, but rather storytelling in general. As long as you’re trying to tell a specific story you’re taking control away from the player. You may be able to let the player control in the order in which things happen and such, but ultimately it’s still all scripted in some way. Let the player control the story and you aren’t telling a story anymore, but rather you’re providing a setting for the player to work with (which also means you’ll need to approach it with a completely different mindset).

    Mind you, the techniques you describe still can have their place, especially for games which merely have an excuse plot (i.e. where the plot is there just to justify the gameplay rather than being important). In fact that’s where their use originated. You may use cutscenes or scripted events to give an excuse as to why something happens in a specific way and then let the player move on as usual.

    Posted 17 May 2013 at 20:04