How Important Is Story In A Game?

As the entire planet now knows, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice premiered last Friday with only 29% of the film critics polled by the Rotten Tomatoes website giving the film a favorable review. (To put this into perspective, the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score earned by a Marvel Studios superhero film was Thor: The Dark World at 66%). Ouch!

While many critics praised the film’s action sequences, the main complaint about this clash between the two greatest superhero icons of all time is that there were too many jumbled storylines, none of which was adequately developed.  Yet the film went on to earn $166 million in its first weekend at the box office,  the seventh highest opening weekend of all time.  Now that may be a testament to the film’s marketing campaign, but it did get me wondering about how important the quality of a story is to an audience.  More specifically, how important is a story to a game?

Well, let’s take a step back and look at the hierarchy of narrative elements for a game.

First is Theme; that is, the location or time in which a game is set.  Now, some games such as Tic-Tac-Toe and Checkers don’t have a theme.  These are called abstract games, ones in which the game mechanics and social interaction between players are what is engaging.

Yet by adding a theme, the game mechanics are given a setting that gives players a sense of immersion, a temporary suspension of disbelief that they are another person or in another place.  Sometimes all that is needed to provide theme to a game is simply to depict the game objects as characters, such as the Pac-Man character and ghosts in Pac-Man.

Alternatively, a game can be set in a universe that is already well-established in other media — for example, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or DC Comics — bringing into your game all the associations players have formed from experiencing the universe in other media.  A familiar universe, including a historical or contemporary real-life one, can make a game’s mechanics more playable for the user.  One doesn’t need to explain to the player that a revolver in a Old West game can fire only six shots or that wearing the One Ring in a Lord of the Rings game will cause the player to disappear.

Second is Premise.  Premise establishes a game’s goal within the theme.  For example, in Space Invaders; the premise is to protect the planet from alien invaders.  Without a dramatic premise, many games would be just too abstract to allow the player to become emotionally invested in their outcome and make the game experience richer for the player.

Finally comes Story.  Now, in many games, story is limited to backstory, an elaborate version of the premise.  The backstory gives a setting and context for the game’s conflict, and it can create motivation for the character, but its progression is not affected by gameplay.

However, in many games the premise is followed by a series of story-based complications for the player, eventually leading to a climax, the resolution of which satisfies the goal defined in the premise.  Such stories can be very simple, or they can be very elaborate with many twists and turns in the plot.

Stories allow players to experience both novelty and predictability through the surprises of the storyline and the familiar structure of stories.  Players can role-play in the make-believe universe defined or interpreted by the game designer as well as engage in self-expression by coming up with creative solutions to the complications presented by the story.

While stories aren’t essential to a game, they can satisfy many player’s different needs for engaging in play.  However, where there is a story, it should be a well-told one, otherwise the story premise is merely a marketing hook that may draw the players in initially but will not keep them engaged.



About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on March 28, 2016, in Game Design and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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