A version of this article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine.

Unlike what video game detractors might tell you, story and narrative are a huge part of the art and science of building interactive entertainment.  Nearly all games have some level of storytelling in them.  What is more fascinating to me as a designer is how wildly different the usage of it from genre to genre, and even within that genre from game to game.

This is, of course, quite different from most other media – most fiction, be it murder mysteries, cop shows, blockbuster movies or even Saturday morning cartoons, are deeply and intuitively narrative driven (although, of course, the quality of it can vary wildly).  Not so with video games.  Nearly every game leverages narrative in a way, to a different degree, to different results.

Some games (such as those of Bioware, my studio) make story central, whereas others use it as a mere backdrop.  Most triple-AAA titles opt for a middle path – having a simple (but sometimes powerful) story that creates a sense of place and purpose.  These designs never forget that gameplay is king, and story should only be pushed so far as to support those ends.

Story is perhaps the most flexible tool in the designer’s toolbox, and as such, use of story in games can take wildly divergent approaches.  This is one of the reasons that making rules about narrative in games can be so difficult – the approach and focus given to story is going to wildly adjust how the designer needs to approach it.  Is the story merely a backdrop to the action, or is it core to the player’s activity?  Can the player adjust the flow of the story, or is he merely along for the ride?  Does your design require the player to pay attention to the story, or is it merely there for color?  All of these things are central to how the story, and the player’s interactions with the story, must be constructed.

This is all complicated by the fact that telling stories in games is hard for a lot of reasons.  Designers don’t have control over the flow or cadence of the experience.  Games are long, so long it can be hard for players to keep track of the narrative, especially if they walk away from the experience for a while.  And despite the fact that players always claim to want more and better stories, inartfully trying to cram it down their throat is more likely to bore or confuse them – care needs to be taken to present the story to them in a manner and pace conducive to the rest of their game environment.  What that manner is will vary wildly based on the game you’re trying to make. Continue reading