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The Inefficiency of Games as a Narrative Medium

Two_infinities_by_freydoon_rassouli Games and stories have become inexorably intertwined – but we should be cautious about stories in games, as videogames are an extremely inefficient narrative media. The question must be raised: when is it worth the cost of rendering a narrative in a game?

Much has been written about the relationship between games and narrative, here, there and everywhere else besides. In general, I think it can be agreed that while games do not need an explicit narrative (there will always be games such as Tetris which are entirely abstract, for instance), there is a class of games which depend upon their narrative element as a crucial part of the experience of play. These narrative games are quite unlike other narrative media.

But when you have a particular narrative, how do you judge if it is suited to games? And when you have a game, how do you judge what you can do with its narrative?

A problem which game writers, and others interested in game narrative, often choose to overlook is that it is tremendously inefficient to render a story in a game. For instance, suppose you have a short story to tell. You can write it in prose in a few hours. You can shoot and edit a short film of it within a day or so. But to make the same short story into a game takes hundreds of man hours.

Now it is true that by making a game of it you add something that you cannot get in other media – namely interactivity. But there is a flipside to this, which is that not all stories benefit from interactivity. If you want to tell the story of Job, for instance, there is very little point in making it interactive... In fact, by making it interactive you probably collapse the narrative, as it depends upon the protagonist reaching a state of despair from which they fall into inaction. This is essentially impossible to render in an interactive form, except as an absurd pastiche. Similar arguments can be made for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, say, or James Joyce’s Ulysses.

It is not that these stories could not be made into (or at least used to inspire) games – it is rather that what makes these narratives interesting is not necessarily compatible with an interactive form. Furthermore, it is such a tremendous investment of resources to render a narrative in game form that one had better be certain that the narrative is a good choice for a game before beginning.

Far too many people, especially students and amateurs, have an idea for a game, which is actually upon analysis an idea for a story. But they do not then try and write the story (as a novella, or screenplay), they set their sights on a game and have high hopes of bringing their story to life in game form. Most fail. Even those that succeed often do not produce a very satisfying narrative, as if one does not have the skills required to write a story as a novel or a screenplay, there is no reason to believe that one has the skills required to render the narrative in a game – a considerably more complicated task.

It cannot be overemphasised that it takes a tremendous volume of resources to make a game narrative, and the more interactive the narrative, the more laborious it becomes. Façade is an impressive piece of work, but it represents hundreds, perhaps thousands of man hours of work for only half an hour of play (ignoring replay). It was only worth doing because it was pioneering new techniques (which were absolutely worth exploring!), and even then, it is doubtful that any commercial game will follow in its footsteps.

Certain game stories are comparatively simple to implement. For example, if one is creating a linear, or fairly linear, shooting game, then one can render the story as a series of cut scenes between the action – this is in fact the de facto standard for game storytelling, whether for good or ill. In these cases, the story is simply a gloss upon the gameplay. These are cases where the game narrative serves its purpose; the game is already being made, and the narrative adds positively to the experience of the game.

But this is not the case for every narrative idea proposed in the context of games. Indeed, it is arguable that the game concept should precede the story concept, unless it happens that the story concept implies gameplay (which does happen – Ico is an example).

Thomas at Mile Zero asks as part of this month’s Round Table on games and narrative (albeit accidentally!) why there are no game stories with the richness and unique identity of art house movies such as Junebug, and why we are instead doomed to heroic (or anti-heroic) archetypes in videogames. I feel that the answer to this question is the inefficiency of rendering narrative in the medium of games.

The audience becomes used to the high production values they experience with upper market franchises such as Grand Theft Auto and Final Fantasy, and the budgets for such games require a sufficiently large audience to justify their creation. That audience is not generally courted by inventive narrative, alas – I wish that it were. Rather, the few interesting examples of game narrative occur despite resisting commercial factors.  And even if one makes an interesting narrative on a smaller budget, it is still grossly inefficient to do so, compared to how much it would cost to make a short film with the same story content.

There is no way to avoid the fact that games are an inefficient medium for delivering narrative. But there is also no way to avoid the fact that interactive narrative can only be attempted in a game, or something very much like one. What is lacking is the commercial impetus to justify the costs required in making creative interactive narratives, and while the market for videogames remains focussed on games of harsh challenge and fleeting entertainments, this commercial impetus remains absent. It is not even clear that we will ever find such a market. Creative interactive narrative might always be a by-product of the games industry, and never a commercial goal.

But it will not stop those of us enchanted by the potential of the medium trying to push its limits whenever we can. 

The opening image is Two Infinities by Freydoon Rassouli, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is implied, and I will take the image down if asked.


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Good one Chris. I'm seeing some of the collisions between expectations and realities in terms of narratives and games now at work... not the easiest to explicate or derive the real meat of things (gameplay) from what's currently seen as primary (story).

I think it's difficult that even when narrative is just an additive, the best these days tend to come from either a gameplay-first story-later model, or from story and gameplay meeting in the middle... rendering the story "top down" as it were is a recipe for failure, if adherence to the story is put before solid play mechanics.

Jack: I believe it is possible to put the story at the top level - provided the story implies gameplay; this is what happened with Reluctant Hero. But then again, only the framing story exists for this right now - we won't be plotting the game in detail until a little bit later, when we actually know the resources we have available.

Whether or not it is a recipe for disaster to put the story at the top level, it is usually a recipe for high development costs. :)

This post never quite came together as neatly as I had hoped, but I wanted to contribute something to the Round Table that might stir up some mild controversy! ;)

Best wishes!

Rather, the few interesting examples of game narrative occur despite resisting commercial factors.

Other than than Façade, which are the games you are claiming do have good narratives? Seems like it would be useful to base this kind of discussion on the "data" of actual games and narratives rather than abstract ideas.

Two games that managed at least a small degree of what I think of as "narrative interest" for me were ICO and Shadow of the Colossus (obviously both rather connected). But why?

But to make the same short story into a game takes hundreds of man hours

I read this as a challenge, and I will act accordingly.

Since a wise man once said, "If it goes without saying, you better freakin' say it anyway..."

Chris, while I agree with your principles of inefficiency, it should be noted that not all games serve narrative equally. If Bizarro-Chris said, "Films are an inefficient medium for story" and cited only Bruckheimer-esque examples of bombast and spectacle, then there would be heads nodding. Many blockbusters have truly rudimentary narratives that are similarly inefficient, but the 18-24 year-olds are going for the explosions, not the "boy finds girl" component.

So shooters and GTA-styled franchises may not be the best examples to illustrate the point. I suggest that if you want your comparisons to be fair, then the best counterparts to the rarely-lucrative art house movies are goal-based explorations in new media (also rarely lucrative) or budding genres, like ARGs.

If we constrain the "story in gaming" argument purely to what covers the shelves at EB Games, then consensus is easy.

Pippin: A challenge! :)

Firstly, remember I'm talking about the efficiency of narratives, not about how good they are.

That said, and allowing for the fact that I haven't played all these games, here are some suggestions for you: Planescape: Torment, Discworld Noir, Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2, Ico, Fahrenheit, Psychonauts.

Shadow of the Collosus is a fascinating example, actually, as it *does* have an efficient narrative, in game terms.

Chill: please do! Massive respect for even *considering* taking that challenge! :)

Ryan: guilty as charged! I confess, I wrote this Round Table post to try and provoke some debate and discussion, and it seems to have worked. :)

But you are absolutely right - in the indie market, the problem is not as severe. But still, I think that outside of 2D and text adventures, videogames are always less efficient than other media.

The problem just gets infinitely worse in the mass market.

Many thanks for the comments everyone!

I have to agree that narrative in games is currently very inefficient on the average. I think this is mostly due to the fact that we have grown up with very influential media, films in particular, that have shaped our view of what stories are like and how they are supposed to be presented. They depict scenes and events in a way that really resonates with us, and we don't want our games to fall short of that experience.

The same goes for music -- we are heavily influenced by rock bands, pop music and movie composers, and again as a result, we aim for replicating that same familiar listening experience. And who can blame us? What worked for them should work for us. Yet, music and stories are the two big "misfits" in games.

The problem is we are trying to solve this from the wrong end. That is, we try to fit what we have learned a story should look, feel and sound like into our medium. All we really get as a result is bloated budgets. Maybe it would be worth taking a step back and thinking about what it is that stories are for?

Stories don't exist for themselves (nowadays someone might say stories exist for making money, hehe), so you wouldn't be telling a story of Job for just the sake of the story. There is always something there about life, universe and us as human beings that we feel connected to. In some stories it might be something really mundane, but hey, it's there nevertheless. And that's what defines a story -- the message, theme or whatever is it that you are trying to get through.

This is where the key to finding the right shape and form for a narrative in games is. You take your theme or your message and work your way up defining goals, actions and reward systems so they are in line with the questions or choices you want the player to face. The end result will not resemble a film and it will not resemble a book, but that is not the point. You have to go beyond the familiar linear narrative.

So, yeah, it would not be hugely efficient to come up a with a short story and implement it in a game. You'd be much better off filming it. But if you extract the theme or the message from your short story, it just might help you break free from what's merely superficial about stories and maybe, just maybe, you would be able to imagine ways to convey your message in a game using narrative methods completely unique to this medium. In an efficient way.

I agree with Cikkulus. Movies are not the only way to tell a story. Trying to force a video game to be a movie inevitably produces something that fails to be either. Having a strong story and then presenting it like it would be in a movie or book leaves you without the most important part of a video game: interactivity. If I decide to play my DS instead of reading on the train, it's not because I'm looking for a riveting story. Even if the story itself is good, it will fail for me if it is presented in such a way that it detracts from the interactivity. I don't have to play a poorly designed minigame about guiding Raskolnikov through the streets of St. Petersberg to get to the next chapter of Crime & Punishment. Why should my enjoyment of the excellent tactical RPG gameplay of Fire Emblem be interrupted so I can read some bullshit about crystals? Game designers need to remember what the medium is all about.

Even my beloved Planescape: Torment fails in some ways by this definition. The gameplay itself was atrocious, and was just an obstacle in the telling of a story that might have been better told in another medium. However, it also succeeds in an important way. The game medium allows us to explore. Just about the most fun I had in that was just in wandering around Sigil and taking in the atmosphere. Every little thing was just great, and no other medium would have allowed me to spend as much time as I wanted focusing on the parts I wanted to see.

Deus Ex is a good example of delivering a good story while still putting gameplay first. Instead of clumsy exposition that takes you completely out of the game, most of the story was told in the false document style through papers and e-mail accounts you have to hack into.

But all of that is still reminiscent of traditional storytelling. Grand strategy games, such as Paradox Interactive's line, provide a completely different kind of story experience that is completely immersive. While there is always historical background and in the older games, Events, the story is told entirely through the game mechanics. There is a surprisingly large community on their forums that translates what happened in their games into short stories. Like a word problem in a math class, these games are about setting up a situation so that it can be described meaningfully mathematically.

Chris, have you had a chance to play any recent (post-1995ish) interactive fiction yet? I know you expressed intentions in that direction a month or so ago.

In my experience, this is where to look for the most exciting intersections between story and gameplay. If I remember rightly, Adam Cadre's excellent 'Photopia' has already been suggested as a starting point. I agree: it's an excellent introduction to the potential of the medium.

There is much that high-quality I.F. can teach game designers in general (and there is a *lot* of high-quality stuff out there). While Photopia arguably only works in its current medium, many others suggest game-story possibilities beyond pure text. Examples include Emily Short's magical 'Metamorphoses' (or the more recent 'Floatpoint'), Cadre's dark puzzle 'Varicella', Adam Plotkin's spy thriller 'Spider and Web' as well as 'Slouching Towards Bedlam' by Foster and Ravipinto.

Oh, and to see an amusing (and arguably even successful) experiment involving a despairing, inactive protagonist, do play Stephen Bond's short 'Rameses'.

(By the way, do you know about Em Short's IF Reading List? )

Cikkulus: well said! I believe this reimagining of game narrative is precisely what is required, but remain doubtful about the commercial prospects of the titles that do so. I would be happy to be proved wrong, though!

Matt A: Deus Ex certainly does a good job of producing an interesting game narrative, but it was monstrously inefficient in how it went about it! The story took advantage of the game medium in some ways (the capacity to overhear conversations, for instance), but was scripted on a threaded narrative basis - the player only sees about a third of the total material developed, if not less.

I'm not familiar with Paradox Interactive's games, but certainly implicit narrative (where the story emerges from the interpretation of the mechanics in the player's head) sidesteps the problem. It's a realm of limited authorial intent, but the success of The Sims shows the commercial value of this approach. But is this the most we can hope for?

Tim: I confess, I have still failed to take the interactive fiction bull by the horns, although I am aware that there is some interesting work going on in the field.

Text adventures (=IF) were considerably more efficient narrative mediums than modern commercial games, but alas, IF is categorically not a commercial genre. In fact, I don't believe anyone is making any money from it at all.

I don't doubt that interesting interactive narrative work is going on in IF, but I do doubt the capacity for this work to influence mainstream development because of the inefficiencies of that side of the medium and also the incommesurability of the text adventure's basic play to the mass market audience.

Of course, without having dug into it further, I may be jumping to conclusions. :)


Thanks for the comments everyone! If it seems that I am overly focussed on the commercial side of this equation it is because a vibrant and successful media such as film and TV can turn a profit on its artistic endeavours as well as its blockbusters, and being profitable means securing employment. This isn't the case in games, and doesn't look likely to improve any time soon, alas.

We need a commercially viable "art house games" movement. We don't have it yet, and it is not clear how we can get it.

Best wishes!

It takes a few things to get a commercially viable experimental games. Firstly, the people or companies with the suitable funding must recognize the need to advance the medium. It pays off in the long run to be able to keep their product lines from stagnating. The titles developed in this fashion should not be expected to reap the same kinds of profits as the flagship titles do. Instead, they should be valued on the basis of what they contribute to your arsenal. Is developing new rendering techniques or tools for your blockbuster game commercially not viable? This is the same thing. Think it of as developing a game design toolchain for your company (and the entire industry, for that matter).

Sidenote: The publisher Gamecock (basically, reincarnation of GoD) is convinced being creative pays off much sooner, as well. I hope they succeed and this thinking will catch up with more publishers.

Secondly, a suitable platform and/or a set of tools for the platform is needed to lower the costs of taking risks to a level which can be justifiably spent to what be thought of as game design R&D. This can be said about all games, of course, but in a climate where people are not willing to invest a whole lot in something that is viewed to be unable to reap immediate benefits, it is especially important to have less risky components that balance out the risky design.

Thirdly, these games should not forget to iterate and reuse what already exists. Just because you're doing an experimental game doesn't mean you absolutely have to toss everything away and start from scratch every time. Innovate on one area at a time, but be thorough. You're not looking for an all-round revolution, because it's highly unlikely for you to succeed in revolutionizing everything at once. And even if, by a miracle, you did, people would not get it and it would be swept out as garbage. Look at Ueda's games for reference how to advance the medium in a clever way.

Cikkulus: I've been arguing along this line for so long now that I've practically given up hope. I agree with you - a small investment in original, inventive games would yield dividends for any publisher willing to take the leap of faith. But they don't see it that way. And they probably won't unless some publisher does it and proves it works - then *everyone* will do it.

Or at least, such is the hope. :)

Best wishes!

Chris: hehe, well the good news is it's more or less inevitable that publishers become aware of that when the impact of audiovisual development becomes insignificant enough. The bad news is it's inevitable in the same way as the death of the sun. ;)

It's disheartening to see studios like Clover go down. Fortunately, there are also things to be happy about, like the latest Splinter Cell ( as they seem to be doing what I expected Hitman to do first. Assassin's Creed has some fresh ideas, too.

And the whole deal with the DS, you simply cannot stand out with the graphics in the traditional sense (that is, shinier shaders and bigger textures), so you're forced to come up with other ways to differentiate yourself from the others.

So maybe all hope is not lost. But, like you, I won't be holding my breath either. :)

The fact that EA has set up its 4th division for 'experimentation' is surely encouraging.

Regardless, I agree wholeheartedly that any interaction will make the story-telling less efficient if we take efficiency to be the man hours needed to tell a particular story (with reasonable production values) to, say, a million people.

If we try and tell the same stories, any interaction will cause problems. If the 'writer' has a specific story that must be told, deviating players will cause problems. Typically, story-telling is a 1-way process.

Whether it's through discourse or a game though, interaction can allow people to examine aspects to varying amounts, depending upon how interested they are in them as well as posing interesting dilemmas.

In a way, with less constraint over the story that must be told, a game could allow for more efficiency from the point of the player, in terms of how long the story being told is one the player is interested in. Not that that's often the case.

Even when dynamically generated content reaches loftier possibilities, there will always be more limitations than in discourse, whether it's because less complex elements can be procedurally generated via a computer than by a mind or because so much content simply needs to have been created beforehand.

And recognisable elements being repeated (specially lines of conversation) will break suspension of disbelief.

Given that, I think a good way to approach narrative in games could be to either to have the narrative constantly unfurl whilst the game goes on, play not affecting the written narrative seriously or have the 'narrative' be expressed by the world we pass through?

I can't think of any games that constrain themselves to either approach off the top of my head, other than this flash game:
(Please play before reading on - only 2 minutes long.)

I seriously love the way the 'plot' transpires in the background as you play, giving a moment of satisfaction as you reach the conclusion. The story - 'a giraffe started bouncing one day. It bounced higher and higher! As it bounced, it collected stars, dodging the creatures it saw. Higher and higher! Higher and higher! Until... it reached the moon.' - can be told far more 'efficiently' with words. But just as if the story would be told with an animation, the elements of colour, sound and visual movement would add another layer of appreciation, the fact that it is a game adds another layer, allows us to experience a little more of the giraffe's story, even if it's abstracted a little.

Also, the fact that most people would play this game not expecting any real narrative conclusion works to its favour, making the little narrative it does contain even more of a delightful surprise.

Or perhaps let the play create the narrative - one letter in Gamecentral (teletext-majigie) spoke of ISS giving him the story of a 3rd division team's rise to win the championship, complete with last-minute goals, twists of fate and an eventual triumph.

Cikkulus: I hadn't thought about the DS specifically in this context, but it's certainly the case that with handhelds in general the simpler technology opens the door to cheaper (=more efficient) storytelling.

I'd love to work on an adventure-type story on DS, but alas none of our clients are developing for the platform.

Bezman: The flash game is an interesting case as one could certainly tell the story more efficiently with just words, but producing an illustrated story book would perhaps be more work than the game. Of course, as a 2D web-based game, it can be a lot more efficient than most of the "blockbuster" videogames. :)


It's going to be an interesting few years in videogame development... the rules of the game are changing, and no-one really knows how it is going to pan out.

I must try and hold on to my optimism. :)

Whenever the topic of narrative in games, social aspects represented in games, truly "mature games" (as opposed to mature-for-19-year-olds with gratuitous violence etc) comes up, I'm always surprised at how myopic the designers blogging are to a certain genre:
The japanese visual novel.

Granted, 70% of the genre is porn, but if we're looking for top class storytelling using software, then it can be found in the other 30% or so.

There's many examples of indy visual novels becoming so successful that their stories were made into anime or other big budget media.

The stories are usually male romantic fantasies, sometimes with horror elements, (often set in high school or university) but that's just a peculiarity of the market and the culture, I dont think it's a feature of that style of storytelling or the technology used.

(similar to how a lot of IF's are very abstract stories, or mystery stories. Or zork-like puzzle based stories)

Why is there such good storytelling? Well, first its cheaper since they're just graphics with mostly text and some speech. But I think the key part is the fact that there are many visual novels being made all the time, on similar tech.

Think about novels or films. Does someone sit and say, "I'm going to throw $4 million at this book and it will have an excellent masterpiece story!"
Seems to me like the very best stories occur almost by accident. They're written by talented authors who then go to write other good stories, but it's something that's difficult to do on demand, to specifications.

So I think it's almost impossible to "specify" that your AAA epic RPG have a wonderful story. Although I guess it might be possible to adapt an existing good story to a game, if it is suitable. (that's probably the safest way.)

The fact that the very well established indy games industry (and visual novel industry) in japan churns out hundreds of visual novels and other adventure type games that all use similar gameplay and tech, means that there's opportunity for that lucky masterpiece to occur. imo.

zeech: care to single out some titles from this Japanese visual novel subgenre as good examples of the form?

For me, the trouble with the adventure game form is that the availability of players who enjoy the form is low (less than 10% of the market as a whole, maybe even lower). I feel it's hard to want to favour a medium with such a minority audience when other aspects of the game world reach a very wide audience.

But, once again, I lack time to develop this point. ;)

Hmmm, it's hard for me to recommend titles, since I've mainly played the pr0n ones :P

There's a fan translation of the game Tsukihime, that was adapted into an anime (with 90% of the story cut out). That's a good one I guess. It's not world-class literature, but it's a complex story with an interesting spin on some old ideas.

I think I mainly bring up visual novel style games when comments are made of the lack of games with a "social" element, or focus on a storyline. (as opposed to top class writing). In which case we can refer to lesser but still popular titles like Sakura Wars.

The main problem is that the big-name non-porn visual novels are all untranslated (or only fan-translated). Therefore I havent experienced them properly, and therefore I cant recommend them.

There's not much market for it outside japan I guess - western gamers just arent used to that sort of thing. And/or simply dont like reading much.

Although the success of Persona 3 shows that these elements do appeal to many gamers.

Thanks for the tips! My Japanese reading is actually not too bad (as long as I have my kanji dictionary on hand, and have a lot of spare time!) so I could potentially attempt an untranslated game - if I had the time. :)

Thanks again!

Hmm, well, if we're going into japanese, then the company Key makes some big name, non-porn visual novels, although they're terribly formulaic in their dating game-style structure:

Heheh, interestingly wikipedia considers "Pheonix Wright: Ace Attourny" as a visual novel.

Another recent indy game->anime blockbuster is "Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni", which is a psychological horror story.

For other game genres that use visual novel elements to tell their stories, you could look at Strategy RPGs such as the Langrisser series on the Sega Saturn, the Sakura Wars series on the Saturn and Playstations 1/2, or the Front Mission series from Square.

These games are usually turn-based strategy games, with very large chunks of visual-novel style storyline/character interaction between each combat section.

This allows them to tell more complex stories (although primarily dialogue driven rather than narrative) than having cutscenes and "mission briefings" that you find in the PC RTS genre.

Ah, well now we have pushed so far into this corner that we have synched up. :) I adored Front Mission 3, and I know very well the style of narrative it employs. I was rather disappointed with the fourth one, though.

Will check out Sakura Wars if I get a chance - I want to know how you can have a cherry blossom war. ;)

Best wishes!

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