How Storytelling Functions in Video Games (Part 1): Introduction

How Storytelling Functions in Video Games (Part 1): Introduction

This is the first entry in a series of upcoming posts that all derive from my M.A. Thesis. As the title indicates, these posts concern themselves with storytelling in video games. They are an examination of the traditional storytelling structures and how these are represented in video games. Part 1 is the thesis introduction, including a few comments here and there. Part 1 leaves a lot of unanswered questions, but these will be addressed over the coming weeks.


Comments added specifically for this blog post are in bold formatting.
The following is an extract from the Thesis, Video Game Storytelling: How storytelling functions in an interactive medium (2017)

Video games keep growing in popularity, and the medium continues to affect new areas of human life. The size of the video game industry alone is a testament to video games’ popularity; in the United States sales numbers on video game software are at 16.5 billion dollars (ESA 2016, 13), higher than those on film box office sales, at 11.2 billion dollars (The Numbers 2017, ‘Domestic Movie Theatrical Market‘). Moreover, the gamer demographic has changed. No longer can we perceive the average gamer solely as a male teenager shut away from the world outside, frivolously wasting away his youth. At least half of the gaming demographic now consists of people in their 30s or older, with less than a third being under 18, and an increasing number of female gamers (ESA 2016, 3).

This is more or less your standard opening statement, simply establishing the initial relevance of the subject. Allows for a common ground of departure for readers.

Video games have not only changed in player demographic, but also in how they are perceived and used in various new contexts. Some turn gaming into an occupation due to the relatively new phenomenon known as eSport. Careers are made from competing in tournaments, everyday life supported by team sponsors such as Cloud 9 and Epsilon eSports, with total prize pools of a single tournament reaching as much as 20 million dollars (E-Sports Earnings 2017). Another interesting way in which we see video games used is within medical research. Researchers are looking at ways to utilise virtual reality video games as part of pain relief treatment (Li et. al. 2011) and brain-machine interfaces (Donati et. al. 2016), with early results showing promise. This goes to show that video games offer more than mere pop-cultural entertainment, and may, in fact, affect human minds in interesting new ways. And so, some people are beginning to take video games more seriously. I see video games as an interesting and different storytelling medium that should be taken seriously as such––to deliver stories in ways not possible via non-interactive media. However, many developers still struggle to create truly interesting and impactful stories in video games. I believe there is huge potential in video game storytelling, interactive storytelling, but I also claim that such storytelling remains rooted in storytelling traditions that precede the video game medium, such as the need for a linear understanding of the story’s sequence of events to make it accessible and a tradition for stories to be about human struggles with an emphasis on how the characters address these struggles. Narrative construction in video games must therefore still adhere to lessons learned in other types of media. In addition, developers should remain aware of the main function that stories play or should play, in video games, namely to motivate player action and emotion. Moreover, such narrative messages must be supported via gameplay, in order to create a congruous storytelling experience.

To elaborate, I am not saying narratives are universally neglected by video game developers, but simply that developers, in general, could benefit from paying more attention to the strengths of adding a well-integrated narrative to the game. Moreover, as upcoming posts will explain, the foundation of storytelling remains the same when entering the video game medium, which in fact, when writers and developers realise this, makes the act of storytelling in games slightly easier. No need to reinvent storytelling every time and a new game is made. 

Video games are an interactive medium, which means most of the emphasis in a video game is placed upon the mechanics and rules of the game. The interactivity of the medium is what leads game designer Keith Burgun to state that ‘[t]here is simply no way to combine the two [game and story] without damaging the one or the other’ (2012, 110). He mainly attributes this to the linearity of narratives and the non-linearity of games (ibid. 27), which creates a dichotomy between the two. Although I acknowledge Burgun is correct in highlighting the potential issues designers of video games face when combining game and narrative, I do not believe the two are mutually exclusive as he describes. I aim to illustrate that the interactivity of video games strengthen the medium’s storytelling ability, in contrast to weakening it. This interactivity allows players to experience narrative in different ways while relying on well-known storytelling techniques. Video games come in many different shapes and sizes, from a digital version of the board game chess to “walking-simulations” that include next to no ludic elements. Most video games nowadays include stories, even if only to create a context for the game to play out. The stories are experienced either through character or world exploration. To talk about the ways storytelling works in video games, I focus on products that have been, in part at least, designed to tell a story. Below, I present four statements that all concern the stories in video games. Statement one is by-and-large an analysis and description of why we from an evolutionary perspective see certain storytelling trends in modern video games. Statement two, three, and four are all normative statements that delineate the ways in which storytelling functions within video games, and how, I argue, developers must approach storytelling.

  1. The most common traits in the stories of popular video games will follow preference traits traceable through evolutionary psychology.
  2. Video game stories are experienced linearly and should be created with this in mind.
  3. The story in video games should first and foremost establish player and character motivated action.
  4. Ludo-narrative cohesion is paramount to avoid emotional disconnection from the story.

By showing how these four statements are essential to the construction of video game narrative, I aim also to highlight the medium’s storytelling potential. These statements further seek to broaden the understanding of why many (especially AAA) video games tell their stories in certain ways. This is not to defend the storytelling conventions we see, but illustrate that such conventions are in place for a reason, and such understanding may assist in challenging the conventions via more informed background knowledge. In general, the most interesting challenges to conventions of video game storytelling come from the smaller independent (indie) developers, and I shall towards the end of the paper [series] offers an example of how such storytelling can differ between AAA and indie productions.

Each statement is given a chapter of its own, dedicated to explaining the theory I base the statement upon. Each chapter will moreover offer varieties of video game analyses as examples of how that theory comes into play. The normative assessment of the three latter statements is given because I believe that they should all be a part of the thought process when developers and writers sit down to create the story for a video game. They are in other words essential to the creation process, but also to the way that players will experience the story through gameplay. However, mounting challenges to these normative statements may produce interesting results that in time could change the ways in which we perceive video game storytelling. Understanding video game storytelling as important to player motivation, both in an evolutionary and narrative sense, could ease the process of creating stories that function in coherence with game-play and affecting players as developers and writers intend. The normative value of the statements also gives critics and researchers various points of departure from which they can build an analysis or critique of a video game. Finally, it becomes easier to create new and interesting solutions to video game storytelling and the ways it interacts with game mechanics, if one is aware of what makes current solutions work the way they do; i.e. knowing how and why AAA video games are so alike in their current storytelling formula.

That wraps up Part 1. Please take time to consider these four statements in the above. To some, one or two of them might seem controversial, but when you think about the player experience they make more sense, which is a point that we shall return to and expand upon. 



Burgun, Keith. 2010. Game Design Theory: A New Philosophy for Understanding Games. New York, Taylor and Francis Group.

Donati, Ana R., Solaiman Shokur, Edgard Morya, Debora S. Campos, Renan C. Moioli, Claudia M. Gitti, Patricia B. Augusto, et al. 2016. ‘Long-Term Training with a Brain-Machine Interface-Based Gait Protocol Induces Partial Neurological Recovery in Paraplegic Patients.’ Scientific Reports 6:20383. doi:10.1038/srep30383.

E-Sports Earnings. 2017. ‘Largest Overall Prize Pools in eSports’. Accessed May 28, 2017.

ESA. 2016. ‘Essential facts about the computer and video game industry’. Accessed May 28, 2017.

Li, Angela., Zorash Montaño, Vincent J. Chen, and Jeffrey I. Gold. 2011. ‘Virtual reality and pain management: current trends and future directions.’ Pain Management 1 (2): 147-157. doi:10.2217/pmt.10.15.

The Numbers. 2017. ‘All Time Worldwide Box Office’. Accessed May 28, 2017.

The Numbers. 2017. ‘Domestic Movie Theatrical Market Summary 1995 to 2017’. Accessed May 29, 2017.




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