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Saturday, 4 July 2015

Not on the nose!

People enjoy stories for lots of reasons. Early man used storytelling to map the landscape around him. A good chat-up line is the beginning of a story. Our whole social life is woven around the exchange of stories in various forms.

In storytelling, less is more. The most effective films don’t consist of chunks of static exposition interspersed with bursts of action. Facts are not baldly stated, they are revealed for the audience to notice and interpret. I think it was Billy Wilder (quoting Lubitsch) who said that if you let the audience work things out for themselves they will love you for it.

It’s true in games too. Elements of plot should be there to be discovered through action, not shovelled on between levels. Games are a lean-forward medium, after all, and gamers tend to be bright people. So drop a hint, plant a seed. Trust that the player will put it all together.

There’s a level in Warcraft 3 where your hero has endured a long siege and then you get a cutscene where the old king shows up and tells you jolly well done, followed by loads of natter amounting to: “The bad guys are there, go kill ‘em.”

Warcraft 3 is a great game, but its storytelling won’t win any awards. Two guys telling each other stuff is boring in any medium, especially when what they’re saying merely restates things we can already see or guess. It just makes you want to quit and read a book instead.

Black and White (yes, we're looking at old examples; but they work) did a number of clever things with storytelling which may have been inspired by silent movies. Storylines were set up with vignettes – a sick man stumbling through the woods, a figure leading children off to a cave. The story then became what you made of it.

Black and White was of course all about “sandbox” gameplay. But you could apply something similar to more formally structured games too. Suppose there’s a knot of musketeers watching darkly as those two victorious heroes congratulate each other. Then, in the next level, a group of your musketeers turn renegade and attack you.

That way you’ve got a plot twist – a reversal, no less – and you’re leaving the player to join the dots. There’s even a political resonance in the way those grunts you keep getting killed might eventually turn on you, blue blood or no.

Who says games can’t do irony?


  1. Just got myself a copy of the Heart of Ice collectors edition. Never came accross this series back in the day Dave. Looking forward to delving into later on this evening ! :)

    1. Hope you like it, David. I think of HOI as my best work. Modesty forbids me to say any more than that :-)

  2. Well if that is the case Dave I am in for a treat! :)

  3. Your talk of minimal storytelling actually makes me think a lot of Shadow of the Colossus.

    1. Ah yes, a masterclass in storytelling, that!