The Story Structure of Video Games: A difference of execution and content presentation

The Story Structure of Video Games: A difference of execution and content presentation

When we think of stories, we could mention at least a dozen different categories within which we classify our stories, and multiple ways of construction; i.e. short stories, novels, graphic novels, journals, etc. And those were just written examples. There is also audio-visual storytelling, theatre, and many more. Not least, video games. Naturally, I shall be talking about video games.

Stories from books to games

Now, it’s been a long time since my last post, which is due to my working on a thesis, coincidentally concerning narratives in video games. I therefore felt it was about time I share some of my thoughts on the subject matter, based on the research I’ve done for the paper. I will be presenting some thoughts and ideas in broad strokes – Leaving the details for the actual thesis for now. Following submission I will be able to go into further details, which I genuinely look forward to sharing with you all!

As such, here are the 4 ideas and statements I wish to put forward:

  1. Most AAA video games share the same storytelling structure.
  2. Issues with storytelling are not so much located on the macro level so much as on the micro level.
  3. Stories in video games should fulfil ONE main purpose – Motivate the player.
  4. Violence is not necessarily the issue concerning diversity in gamer profiles.

Let us run through them one at a time, and I will divulge some of the reasoning behind each.


1. Most AAA video games share the same storytelling structure.

While researching story structure in video games I came across a structure called “Hero’s Journey”. The hero’s journey got its name from Joseph Campbell and was viewed as a proto-story, “monomyth” he called it––an overarching structure within which the story takes place. How many stages the story consists of varies according to interpretation, but basically is goes like this; the hero’s world is established; there is a call to adventure, a change of circumstance; the hero’s first threshold, or challenge; the journey, where most of the video game takes place; the climax, which is often a boss fight of some sort; and finally the prize for completing the journey, and potentially the journey home and a relative return to normality. It is a structure that lends itself well to epics, think Iliad and Beowulf for instance, and video games that cast the player as the central character, which in turn leads to a feeling of empowerment on the player’s side. Exactly because most video games wish to empower its players, they tend towards this structure as it neatly facilitates  a story of action, engagement, and momentum, which developers naturally hope results in good entertainment for the player. Now, I said most games utilise this structure, that is of course most games that tell a story, and I have highlighted all the games that do use the hero’s journey in green just below:

UK Game Sales

The one game that does not follow the structure is Battlefield 1, but otherwise, as you see, most of the other games do utilise this structure. Those left unmarked are because they do not tell a story, most of the being competitive games, and Elder Scroll I was very much in doubt of, so left out for now. You are of course more than welcome to double check, and let me know if some of them strike you as surprising. I personally did not expect this many of them to use this structure, however, it seems to do the job for most developers, whether it be a conscious choice on their part or not.


2. Issues with storytelling are not so much located on the macro level so much as on the micro level.

So, even though many games apparently share the same overall storytelling structure, they vary greatly in ability to tell a gripping and interesting story. As the statement suggests, this is because the problem is to be found on the micro level, not macro.

Most people can probably write a story that simply consists of those big moments of for instance a hero’s journey:

Normal world – big event changes things; hero trains – first challenge to test hero; find big evil – beat big evil – save world – feel amazing about yourself and your achievements.

That is roughly it, but what about everything in between? The above are all the epic moments in the game, many of them should ideally create some emotional response in its players, just like these same moments are meant to create emotional responses in viewers of a film. However, if all the storytelling emphasis is placed on these select moments, and the build-up and character development is not in place, then the story is most likely deemed to fall flat on its face, without creating the desired emotional impact and memorable moment. A closer analysis of how this is managed in video games will be featured in the thesis, but for now, I will let another very clever soul explain it in terms of the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In this video, Nerdwriter basically explains that part of the reason this film fails so spectacularly is due to Zack Snyder’s excessive use of “moments” without leading up to each moment with properly constructed “scenes”:

I just wish to further add that this guy is absolutely amazing, which should be evident from watching the video. Do yourself a favour and subscribe to his channel if you haven’t done so already.

3. Stories in video games should fulfil ONE main purpose – Motivate the player.

I actually just wanted to put this thought out there for now. In general observation, video games are about solving some task or problem through gameplay, that consists of choices and decisions, of which the consequences can seem arbitrary. Stories are almost always about conflicts, internal or external, and how the character manages to overcome or come to terms with whatever causes the conflict. In a video game, you as the player get to actually act on behalf of the character and thereby actively overcome the conflict. However, if we are to truly care about our actions within the game world, and feel motivation to carry out the required tasks we are faced with, we need to buy into the characters purpose. If we are simply presented with some shallow story of negligible or worn purpose due to cliché, such as save the princess, it may not feel very motivating. This is of course not always an issue – Mario Bros. is a great game despite only having the shallowest of “save the princess” stories. But then the game clearly deemphasises the story element, which is absolutely within its rights (The great thing about video games is the huge variety of content). It is more of an issue in games that actually do try and tell a story, and to some extent depend on the story to keep player motivation at high levels. Think Call of Duty: Infinity Warfare (Classic save the world narrative with somewhat repetitive gameplay, and no real surprises story-wise) versus Mafia 3 (Granted not the best story in the long run, but it does spend the first hour of gameplay setting up the characters and world, in order to instil a deeper understanding of Lincoln’s motives, as an attempt to motivate the player along the same lines as Lincoln himself).


4. Violence is not necessarily the issue concerning diversity in gamer profiles. 

Violence is a big part of most video games. Why? I would argue that it is basically because it is by far the easiest to represent – Taking action is most clearly shown by destroying some object. “Modern culture is too obsessed with violence” one might say, “Journalism’s portrayal of war is impacting culture and seeping into all corners of media” another may argue. But let us just take a step back and remember what video games are based on: Games – Board Games.

Ask someone to mention 3 board games and many will, I wager, mention at least one of the classics such as chess, backgammon, ludo, chequers, if not several. What do all of these have in common? One of their core mechanics is sending the other player “home” or off the board, i.e. you take action against another player by destroying his or her pieces.

So we can talk about the specific representation of violence in games being influenced by culture and media portrayal, but the core mechanics of board games outdate most modern media. That being said, we still see a predominantly male demographic playing video games. This leads me to believe that it may partly more to do with the actual content of the games, more than the basic gameplay.

This theory resonates in some statistics put forward by Quantic Foundry:


In short, we see that video games whose content is more focussed on high fantasy and exploration have a larger appeal to the female audience than other types of content, which thereby also means that these types of games appeal to the broad demographic in general. In other words, if violence ensues as an unavoidable situation during exploration and in the quest for more meaningful ends, then such violence may not be seen as an issue for many women and men. I am not saying that we should accept violence as the only way of playing games, but I do hope to have highlighted to some extent why it is prevalent, and how ways of representing violence can have a large impact. Violence for violence’s sake, in borderline sadistic ways, is for many much less appealing than violence as fight for survival, just as an example of different rough representations.


As I mentioned in the beginning, these are not meant to be understood as complete theories, as the argument structure here is somewhat full of holes and certain assumptions. But hopefully I got you to consider these matters a bit, as I find they are often points that tend to go more or less unnoticed by many people – Including critics.

That’s all for now. I’m heading back to the Thesis.










6 thoughts on “The Story Structure of Video Games: A difference of execution and content presentation

  1. I find the part on stories being about the micro level rather than the macro interesting. Seeing as most stories are based on the same path, it’s the intricacies of those paths that define the story as individual.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, its something I believe is not thought enough about in production. An example being Fallout 4 – They openly admit that many of the side-quests were constructed by designers, programmers, etc. Which is evident when looking at the writing of those quests. So much of the world could be expanded in interesting ways through those, if the writing accommodates it, however it remains untapped potential in the game. At least in my opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s interesting that you didn’t highlight FIFA 17 in green, since that now has a narrative mode that EXACTLY mimics the hero’s journey archetype. The narrative mode is even called ‘The Journey’! It might be worth checking out to add to your thesis.

    Liked by 1 person

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