Games are esteemed for their storytelling. From Dark Souls to Elder Scrolls, developers everywhere adopt wildly different approaches to unveiling their worlds, characters, and lore. Yet there’s one major difference to every other form of story: you are the protagonist.
Books put you in the minds of the characters. Movies help you visualise the characters. But games put you in the driver’s seat. Their thoughts, actions, speech, interactions, even down to what they eat and wear are entirely your choice. Calling it a unique experience is a gross understatement, and truly, this is the key to the gaming culture and the immense industry that surrounds it.
Here are a few of the most popular approaches to storytelling in gaming and why they are so successful.
Games stay with us forever. Characters feel like lifelong friends and old enemies. Here are the most powerful ways in which games tell stories.
Masterful plot – Bioshock Infinite
Perhaps the most classic form of storytelling is that of Bioshock. It’s just good writing. The Bioshock trilogy crafts a masterfully told and infinitely compelling tale, literally. Playing with notions of time travel and alternate realities, no game’s ending has consecutively blown the minds of so many gamers than Bioshock Infinite.
Irrational Games clearly understood the importance of hiring top-tier writers, elevating a game from greatness to legendary status, and ultimately one that will be talked about for decades to come. There is no great trick to this form of storytelling. It could be adapted into a film, as many have petitioned. Overall it’s a mix of undying characters, great themes, and good twists. If Bioshock was a book, it would be considered a classic.
Player-tailored stories – Telltale games
If gaming is defined by its ability to put people behind the wheel of a story, then player-tailored games take it to the next level by letting you choose how the story ends. Famous titles of this genre include Fable, Mass Effect and Telltale Games like The Wolf Among Us and Life Is Strange.
Every choice you make influences how characters react to you and treat you down the line. Siding with one person might result in betrayal from another. Aligning with one faction may result in the fall of a democracy etc. It’s an incredibly refreshing experience and one that can scarcely be found outside gaming.
Adaptions – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
CD Projekt Red’s magnificent, and endlessly deified, The Witcher trilogy offers a hybrid form of storytelling. The Polish game company honoured their country’s famed fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski by adopting his acclaimed series of novels.
While closely following the main events of the books, CD Projekt Red built on the world with non-canonical plotlines of their own. While this could be considered an advantage as they adopted a beloved world, the novels were not significantly popular outside of Poland and the games brought a global audience to these characters.
It must be stated that the story, especially in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is exceptionally well told. Plus, the story is play-tailored, with a total of 36 different endings, blending yet another form of gaming storytelling. A shining example of how to adapt games from books.
Minimal – Dark Souls
As soon as the player occupies this grim, bleak world known as Lordran, it’s impossible to deny the atmosphere of Dark Souls as something sheerly original. There are no bustling towns of villages, no political hierarchies or battling armies. In fact, there’s hardly more than a handful of NPCs throughout the game and even they are so bleak and stiff-tongued that they hardly reveal any information at all. Hence, Hidetaka Miyazaki requires his players to do a little digging.
Miyazaki has openly cited the literary works of H. P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, and George R. R. Martin as inspirations in his desolate game world. Miyazaki also draws inspiration from European architecture and the history of humanity to conceive his environmental storytelling. One such example is the Milan Cathedral in Italy, which is directly referenced in Anor Londo, a central location in Dark Souls.
Miyazaki’s philosophy on storytelling is more of a ‘fill in the blanks’ method, leaving a lot the resolution up to players. However, this endless speculation has led to literally thousands of forums and hours of videos explaining the world that the game inhabits.
Rich Lore – The Elder Scrolls
The Elder Scrolls games likely have the most in-depth, complex, and fleshed-out lore of any gaming franchise, barring perhaps World Of Warcraft. So much so that there are multiple hardback books dedicated to containing and sharing the lore of the world. There are even three books containing all the writings and pages found in Skyrim—just one of the games!
While it’s not possible for every game to possess this much detail when they do occasionally come along they have the power to suck thousands of gamers into their worlds for decades or more. There’s even a pretty convincing theory to propose that everything in Tamriel is all a dream.