Not all games are vehicles for stories, nor need they be. Games like Sim City, Minecraft, or Tetris are hardly worse-off for lacking a compelling narrative. But as a small minority of games have shown, games can tell stories in ways other media cannot. Unfortunately, all too often, even when games do try to tell stories, they fall into the trap of thinking that backstory can be the narrative.
Games are frequently packed with countless books, codices, audio logs, and expository dialogue-trees filled with background information, even when the story itself – that is, the story that you experiences – is threadbare.
But backstory can’t replace narrative. It’s simply exposition, devoid of the necessities of progressing the plot, of motivating the protagonist, and of immersing the player. It often neglects characterization, tone, and thematic consistency. It flows from the pen or keyboard with the ease of imagination, requiring little of the craft of the storyteller. It’s why there’s twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth and only three volumes of The Lord of the Rings.
Ultimately, it fails the old writers’ maxim of show, don’t tell. Backstory just tells. And this is a problem.
Video games are a medium capable of telling deeply affecting stories. As I’ve written about previously, the interactive nature of the storytelling can deepen the connection between player and the story, often surpassing what is possible in other media. It can also force players into situations where they must question their own beliefs, ideals, and convictions.
But this can only happen with an active narrative that the player experiences. Simple backstory, even if given in a narrative style, can’t do this. It doesn’t engage the protagonist or the player. It doesn’t motivate, force choices, or explore the characters. Certainly, background information can add detail and depth to an existing narrative. But alone, it is nothing more than an encyclopedia of the imaginary.
Perhaps the starkest example of backstory versus narrative is found in the Dark Souls games. In these, a lonely adventurer works his way through dungeon-after-dungeon, fighting horrors and unlocking secrets until there are no more horrors, or secrets. This is, essentially, the entire plot of both games. I’ve heard some argue that Dark Souls had a deep story, insofar as a detailed backstory underpins the events of the games. But this is mere history. These events aren’t seen or experienced by the protagonist or the player, and thus do not form a part of the narrative. They don’t impact the player experience.
Of course, this isn’t a problem in all games, and arguably Dark Souls is one such game. Dark Souls thrives on the feeling of loneliness, hopelessness, and ultimate futility. A strong narrative is unnecessary to these feelings, and most players that complete it do so without much mind to Lordran’s past.
But an active narrative is necessary when a game does attempt to immerse the player in a story. Unfortunately, instead, modern games often end up simply telling you about a story that happened before. This often takes the form of discovered narratives. These are the audio diaries of BioShock, the video logs of Dead Space, or the endless lore discoveries of modern MMOs. These games often take you to places full of monsters to fight, but in which the primary story has already happened. You survive only to pick up the pieces.
Consider BioShock. But for the fateful encounter with Andrew Ryan shortly past the half-way point, very little actually happens between the time the player enters Rapture and the time she completes the final encounter. Instead, the player is told the story of what happened to Rapture in the past. Very little occurs in the present, and, as a result, there is very little narrative to engage with.
Certainly, BioShock’s audio diaries are told as first person narrative by their authors, but these aren’t the protagonist’s stories, nor the player’s. They’re someone else’s, just there to fill in the history, removing the player from the experience.
Compare this, for example, with Half-Life. Almost nothing in Half-Life happens off screen. The events of the game, including almost all important plot elements, are experienced by the player through the eyes of Gordon Freeman. He doesn’t stumble across detailed audio logs in the Black Mesa facility describing how the alien invasion began. Instead, he was there. Gordon Freeman is the story. Half-Life tells an active story, one that immerses the player, rather than the passive story of BioShock.
I played Half-Life over sixteen years ago, yet its events stick with me far more than those of BioShock, a game I first experienced far more recently.
There are, of course, other examples. One is Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, which is similar in its obsession with past events. While it does feature its own narrative, the experiences of the protagonist Talion are frequently overshadowed (no pun intended) by the focus on his spirit-elf-companion’s history with Sauron. It was hard at times not to feel like the elf (I won’t use his name to avoid spoilers) was the actual protagonist of the game.
A similar problem occurs when a game spends too much of its time being about its lore. Such games often seem desperate to show you just how deep that lore goes, forcing endless exposition onto the player as part of the main story. This is, of course, a principal problem of The Elder Scrolls games, which, while being otherwise mostly excellent games, have typically left a great deal to be desired on the narrative from.
Games are frequently packed with countless books, codices, audio logs, and expository dialogue trees filled with background information, even when the story itself – that is, the story the player experiences – is threadbare.
And the The Elder Scrolls world has incredibly deep lore. It’s pantheon of deities, its cosmology, and its history are complex. Perhaps because of this, almost every game seems created around it. It’s as though every story relates to a deep aspect of the lore, which will necessarily be expounded upon at length by some scholarly figure. Yes, it’s called The Elder Scrolls because of the prophetic Elder Scrolls, but surely not every time one makes soup must it presage the return of same ancient evil.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with lore, with history, with world building. It can flesh out a story, slake the curiosity of those who want to know more, and provide a real sense of place and scope. But it isn’t the story itself. Most BioWare games, such as the Mass Effect or Dragon Age series, are examples of worlds that while filled with history and lore, also tell a current story, full of interesting characters engaging with current events.
Developers need to overcome the desire to tell the player just how neat their world and its history are, and instead let the player discover it as a natural part of progressing through a story that’s compelling in its own right.
For games to truly discover their storytelling potential, developers must show the story to their players, rather than simply telling them.