Storytelling In Digital Games

Posted by on Nov 25, 2013 in Storytelling
Storytelling In Digital Games


It is a given that all games have at least rudimentary narrative dimensions and that if they setup to do so they can tell very elaborate stories. (Dr. Mark Butler)


(Sources: Spacewar!AdventDonkey Kong)

  • unit5_spacewar1
  • unit5_advent
  • unit5_donkeykong

Examples from the Slideshow:

  •  Spacewar! (1962) – The 1st digital computer game. It’s a two-player game in which each player takes control of a starship and attemps to destroy the other.
  • Advent (1976) – Text Adventure with nameless characters walking through an unmaped territory and trying to solve puzzles.
  • Donkey Kong (1981) – 1st Arcade Game with a rudimentary story ( Ape kidnapes girl and hero tries to rescue her).


How do games tell stories?

  • classical narratives devices (setting, plots, omnipresent off-screen narrators, characters, dialogues and internal monologues)


  • Sequences of a computer game in which the player cannot take action of him-/herself and is instead limited to the mere role of a spectator
  • can be pre-produced video files containing animations of film sequences or ingame engine videos ( rendered on the fly using the graphics of the game engine)

Narrative possibilities of cutscenes:

  • advance the plot
  • introduce characters and
  • further their development
  • provide clues
  • offer background information
  • convey atmosphere
  • BUT interrupt the flow of gameplay


New forms of integrating narration and play


  •  Interaction and immersion support each other

Dragon’s Lair (1983)

Heavy Rain (2010)



  • player has a reduced spectrum of action

Half Life (1998)

Grand Theft Auto 5 (2013)


Adventure Game Architecture

  • forerunner: Text Adventures ( Advent, Zork )
  • Visual ( Point&Click ) Adventure e.g. Monkey Island (1990)


3 Characteristics of Adventure Games (by Claus Pias):

  • STORIES – with a Beginning, a Middle and an End
  • MAPS – Places and Paths between them
  • SERIES OF DECISIONS – distributed throughout the map


ALL Adventure Games have the same underline structure:

  • DECISION NODES – structure the unfolding of the story
  • LABYRINTH – space ruled by decision logic ( player traverses the story by making decisions between available options )
  • LIMITED NETWORK STRUCTURE (must have some meeting points)


Two types of functional elements within an Adventure Game:


  • Indications – express character feelings and atmosphere
  • Information – help player to comprehend the spatial relations 


  • Kernels – distributed segments with a chronological & logical function, such as game objects
  • Catalyses – only chronological function, e.g. cutscenes or scripted interactive game sequences

all interactive elements are DISTRIBUTED


Adventure Journey as a sequential Rite of Passage in which the theme of the setting can be variable.

Recurring themes in Adventure Games are:

  • Explorative journeys
  • Threshold
  • Battles with adversaries
  • Empowerment phantasies
  • The restoring of order
  • Quests
  • Doors


Complexity of game storytelling

e.g. Heavy Rain 

  • rich atmosphere and complex characters
  • multiple solutions to challenges and plenty of optional side paths
  • 22 different game endings
  • kind of a psychological novel


e.g. Beyond Two Souls

  • increasing game technology & design – developed a new method for the motion capture  of the facial expressions


The Future of Computer Game Storytelling

Current narrative toolkit and language of Computer Games:

  • Cut-scenes
  • Interactive scripted events
  • Ambient narration
  • Performance as narrative
  • Adventure Game Architecture
  • Distributional and integrative elements
  • Thought clues
  • Increasing audiovisual fidelity


Challange for future game developers is to intertwine storytelling in the gameplay as seamlessly as possible:

  • Variety of Formats
  • Episodic games with downloadable content ( e.g. The Walking Dead, Saints Row IV, Bioshock, … )
  • Reduction of the game’s size ( like a shortstory or poem )

unit5_future(Storymooc 2013 University of Applied Sciences Potsdam)


More visionary Talk – major changes in gaming ( by Dr. Mark Butler )?

  • Game Engines as Story Engines – a system able to create a believable and consistent story on the fly (“A deconstruction of the author”)
  • Overcome the Uncanny Valley – no noticable difference between game characters and a real human beings
  • User generated story content – giving the players tools to create their own episodes (DLCs) and let others play them. A filter system is required to seperate good and bad examples (getting away from “closed story” with a beginning, a middle and an end). Examples:  MinecraftNeverwinter Online or Project Spark



Creative Task of the Week

Please think about which digital game fascinated or impressed you most up to now and tell us why!


I’d like to introduce you to the game To the Moon .

As you can see, it’s not a shooter with super realistic graphics nor an adrenalin re/action based game but rather an interactive and very sensible story (that’s why I choose it for the creative task).



It’s about two doctors travelling through the mind of a dying man in order to fulfill his last wish (hence the title). In this fictional world a technology is developed, which allows doctors to create and embed artificial memories in their patients’ head. So if a changing of someone’s mind is requested, later he/she wakes up with memories of things that didn’t actually happen.

But since these new memories are permanent, a conflict between them and the real memories arise, which leads to a malfunction of the persons body. Therefore, this operation can only be done to people on their deathbeds, to fulfill what they wish they had done with their lives… but didn’t.

Ingame – the lighthouse is an important part of the story

What impressed me most is definitely the true depth of the story and how it is presented.
Playing as the doctors, you enter the old man’s mind and start travelling backwards through his memories. Flashbacks and interactive scenes play an important role and help to develop the story. However, the player has to find out by him/herself what happened in each sequence and why it is important to the overall story in order to influence the patient’s mind.
Through the storytelling it’s so easy to identify with the characters, be it the old dying man or the doctors. I developed a real need to help the old man, wanting to fulfill his last wish no matter the cost.
Furthermore the music is just wonderful. It emphasizes the emotional impact in the scenes and helps to create a beautiful atmosphere. To be honest, some scenes really made me cry …

Ingame – Ghosts of past memories

1 Comment

  1. Derrick