Yes, I spend a lot of time whining about storytelling in games. I don’t do it because I’m a mean person that enjoys complaining all the time. I mean, those things are true, but that’s part of a completely unrelated personality problem. I complain about storytelling because I think AAA publishers fundamentally underestimate the impact of good writing. Or perhaps they don’t have the expertise to tell good writing from bad. The point is that we wind up with a lot of games with enormous teams, massive marketing campaigns, cutting-edge graphics, extravagantly produced cutscenes, and embarrassing high-school level narrative structure.
On the other hand? I admit, this is a hard job.
Video game writers have it tough. Like, regular writing is already hard enough. Writing for linear media like movies, books, or television saddles the writer with a lot of competing concerns. For example…
The Challenges of Writing Traditional Stories
- Main plot, preferably with a 3-act structure and rising action.
- Maintain a clear tone.
- You should probably have one or more sub-plots or layers.
- The dialog needs to sound natural while also being witty, compact, and true to the characters.
- Supply exposition that tells the audience what they need to know without boring them.
- Make sure you don’t have too many or too few action beats, and make sure to space them out.
- The protagonist needs a strong arc with clearly defined motivation.
- You need to be faithful and respectful of any extant lore.
- Don’t forget to do proper setups and payoffs for jokes, plot points, character beats, and plot twists.
- Make sure it’s all coherent and comprehensible to the audience.
- It needs to be emotionally resonant! Appeal to the humanity of the audience using in love, anger, justice, revenge, redemption, catharsis, familial bonds, curiosity, and all that other touchy-feely stuff.
- Obvious stories are boring so make sure to throw a twist in there somewhere! But not too many, because then the story feels random.
- Don’t forget to collaborate! The director, producer, and other creative people on the team will all have their own “brilliant” ideas that they’ll insist you add.
- Oh, and while you’re at it: Throw in some sex appeal, but not too much. Throw in some pop-culture references, but not too many. Draw from established tropes to make the story feel familiar, but then somehow also make it feel original.
- But most of all: Have fun!
You need a plot that’s interesting but not too derivative. You need to worry about pacing, character arcs, setting up and paying off ideas, making the dialog efficient while also sounding natural, and so on. Screen time is precious, budgets are limited, and audience attention spans are short.
Meanwhile, In Video Games…
Video game writers have inherited all of those challenges from their ancestor mediums, plus they also need to maintain a careful balance between gameplay and cutscenes. You generally shouldn’t let gameplay sections run so long that the player feels disconnected from the plot, and at the same time you probably shouldn’t subject them to long cutscenes with no interactivity. And most importantly, you need to respect the events depicted in gameplay.
That last one is something I’ve noticed that writers really struggle with when coming to games from another medium. Even talented, successful writers seem to have trouble adapting their workflow to allow for the contributions of the player.
What usually ends up happening is that the writer will come up with a standard Hollywood style script, and then cut it up into fixed cutscenes so the game designer can stick gameplay bits between them. The result is basically what you’d expect from that description: A bifurcated experience where the two halves feel like they’re at odds with each other. I’ve heard people coming from gamedev schools describe this design style as “a book with the pages glued together”. Gameplay becomes a tool to advance the story without being a part of it. Yes, getting the next page un-stuck is a challenge, but that challenge isn’t acknowledged by the writer as part of the story.
In Insomniac’s Spider-Man game, you don’t get to defeat Rhino and Scorpion in gameplay. Instead, the fight ends when the writer grabs the controller out of your hands and switches to cutscene mode so they can beat the bad guys for you in a stylish cutscene rather than let you do it in gameplay. Your job wasn’t to defeat the bad guys. Your job was to get the next page unstuck so you can see what “really” happened.
I know some people don’t mind this sort of thing, and if you’re one of those people that doesn’t care or think about what happens in cutscenes, then this video is probably going to sound pretty alien to you. For me, it feels like the writer is kill-stealing the boss from me. That moment where the boss goes down? That’s the reward I’m looking for. That’s the moment of empowerment I’ve been working towards. Having that moment taken away so the writer can have a cinematic climax is negating my reward so the writer can make pretty, trailer-friendly cinematics. It’s working against the very idea of a video game.
Compare this to the boss fight against Mr. Freeze in Batman: Arkham City. (Which, incidentally, regularly makes the lists of Best Boss Battles Ever.) In that fight, you defeat Freeze entirely in gameplay. The game doesn’t switch to cutscene mode until after you’ve won. Maybe this seems like too subtle a distinction. I mean, both fights end in a cutscene, right?
But imagine if someone asked you to describe how the hero defeated the villain. In Spider-Man’s case, you’d probably describe the events of the cutscene, because the events of the cutscene are what “really” happened as far as the story is concerned. On the other hand, anyone describing the Freeze fight in Arkham City would have to describe what happened in gameplay, because that’s where the fight took place. You’re not struggling to un-stick the next page in the story, you are, by participating in the gameplay, authoring parts of the story. Did you struggle against Freeze? Did you have to stumble around a bit to figure out the right approach, or did you breeze through the fight like the Batman himself, effortlessly outmaneuvering Freeze at every turn and making Freeze look like a chump? No matter how your version of the fight went down, that’s canonically what happened in your journey through Arkham City. What you did is what happened, because the Gameplay is the Story.
Of course, if getting gameplay and story to work in harmony was always that easy, then we wouldn’t see so many talented and experienced professionals struggling with it for so many years.
It’s easy enough to SAY that the gameplay is the story, but it’s hard to do because the needs of a story are often opposed to the needs of gameplay. (At least, in cutscene-heavy, story-driven games.)
So let’s talk about why Gameplay is the Story is really hard and how it could be done better.
Failure is Not an Option, it’s Mandatory
While I started off talking about the annoyance of having the designer steal the player’s victory in a cutscene, the real problems actually show up at the opposite end of the spectrum. See, classic adventure stories typically require the hero to go through some sort of personal growth in response to setbacks and adversity. The problem is that gameplay doesn’t typically allow for setbacks. If the player screws up and dies, a story-based game will generally retcon the mistake away. Time is reset to some checkpoint and the player gets to try again. The story proceeds as if the player’s mistake never happened.
This means that – canonically – the player character never loses in gameplay. Without some way to provide setbacks via cutscenes, you’d wind up with a story where the protagonist is infallible. Yes, the Gameplay is The Story, but the corollary to that is that the Audience is the Protagonist, and how the hell is the author supposed to write a story where they can’t control the main character?
Which means that – for all the time I’ve spent praising the idea that Gameplay Is Story, the concept is fundamentally unattainable in traditional cutscene-driven games. A story where the player has total control over the character is a story where the protagonist can’t make mistakes. At some point, the player has to be willing to occasionally let go of their character to allow for cutscene-driven setbacks.
So what we have here is one of those obnoxious trade-offs where we have to choose between two desirable things. If the writer intrudes into gameplay too much, then we end up with an obnoxious and frustrating experience where it feels like the gameplay doesn’t matter and you’re just pushing through unrelated combat to get the next page unstuck. On the other hand, if the writer never gets involved then we end up with a dull story with no stakes.
There’s no perfect way to square this circle, but I want to make some humble suggestions for how the author can create setbacks for the player character without pissing off the player. Since this is The Internet, we’re going to do this in the form of…
A Big Dumb Numbered List
(I’ve heard these things are really popular.)
So if you’re a player and you wonder why cutscenes so often get on your nerves, or if you’re a developer and you’re trying to figure out why so many people skip your expensively-produced cutscenes, then here’s my list for the 10 things writers should keep in mind when weaving their story-based setbacks into gameplay.
- Keep it Brief.
Setbacks need to happen so our protagonist can grow, so we can establish stakes, and so we can give the audience a reason to hate the villain. But having the player character fail in a cutscene is also going to make the player a little restless because they’re no longer playing the game. There’s a system of diminishing returns at work here. Making the scene ten times longer isn’t going to make us hate the villain ten times more, or give the story ten times more stakes.
In Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, your character fails in a cutscene when he’s captured by the Nazis. That sequence is about twenty minutes of solid cutscenes where the protagonist is degraded, humiliated, tortured, mocked, and used as a tool of Nazi propaganda. Even if this was a movie and not a game, this twenty minute sequence would be ridiculous overkill. In the context of a video game, it becomes completely numbing. Worse, a lot of this is unskippable, which makes replaying this part of the game a chore.
- This probably sounds obvious, but… don’t forget the player exists?
Okay, this is a really obvious one and it’s mostly just here for the Borderlands series. This game isn’t cutscene heavy, but when it does have a cutscene, your interplanetary badass is transformed into a floating camera. Yeah, I get that the cutscene is trying to allow for the fact that your party can be made up of any combination of characters, but having those characters do absolutely nothing in cutscenes is really, really weird. The solution here is to not write a story that requires the player character to do nothing while their allies are maimed and killed by the villain. But if you just can’t help yourself and you can’t think of any way to advance the plot, then at least hit the player character with a freeze ray or put them behind a forcefield or whatever. Because having the protagonist do nothing at the most critical moment of the plot isn’t just frustrating to the player, it’s completely nonsensical.
- Don’t Overwrite the Events of Gameplay.
I pretty much covered this earlier. Maybe the player beats the boss without taking a scratch, but then the writer injects a cutscene that says no, actually the boss grabbed the protagonist and gave you a thrashing, gameplay be damned. The rhetorical position the writer is taking is that the gameplay doesn’t matter. The player’s actions aren’t part of the story.
In Batman: Arkham Origins, there’s a boss fight where you have to defeat villain Bane. It tries very hard to recapture the magic of the Freeze Fight I mentioned earlier, but it can’t get there because the writer felt the need to intrude on the gameplay. The game ends the fight with a quicktime event rather than letting you defeat the boss with the established mechanics. Once you’ve damaged Bane enough times, the game switches to a cutscene where Bane grabs Batman, punches him through the wall, and then you defeat Bane using what’s effectively a quicktime event where you need to read the game designer’s mind to understand Batman’s intent. Bane is then defeated by plans that were unknown to you, were only made possible by blind luck, and all of it was unrelated to the mechanics of the previous fight.
I realize it might not look as cinematic to have the fight end in gameplay, but if the player wanted cinematic they could always go to the cinema. This is a video game, and the audience is here for interactivity. If this is a fight they’re supposed to win, then just let them win in gameplay. I mean, that’s what the gameplay is for.
Ideally writers should save the cutscenes for the talking at the end. Not only is it more fun for the player, and not only does it make better use of the medium, but it also makes the cutscenes way cheaper to produce.
- Don’t Make the Player Work for Failure.
Or as I like to call it, “Failure is forbidden until it becomes mandatory.”
It really, really sucks to struggle through a boss fight a few times, get a game over for losing, but then when you finally “win” the writer puts you through a cutscene where you lose anyway. In Wolfenstein II you have to fight your way out of a Nazi courtroom. It’s actually the hardest fight in the game for some reason. But when you finally “win”, you discover it’s all a daydream. You’re still a prisoner of the Nazis and nothing has changed. So why does the player have to restart if they die? Is the main character failing at his own ridiculous daydream? If the goal of the scene for the player character to fail, and if Gameplay is the Story, then just accept accept the player’s failure. That’s what the script calls for! Just cut to the end of the daydream and move on. Mission accomplished.
Worse, these sorts of fights are an absolute bastard on subsequent trips through the game. It sucks when you know you’re in a pointless rigged fight where you have to give it your best before you’re permitted to fail and move on.
- Don’t Change POV.
In Marvel’s Spider-Man, there’s a moment when Spider-Man gets ambushed by Scorpion. We transition to a cutscene where Scorpion sneaks up behind Spider-Man and gives him a poke with his poisoned tail.
I understand why writers are drawn to moments like this. See, this moment…
The moment where we see Scorpion and Spider-Man is oblivious? That moment is an example of Dramatic Irony. That’s when the audience is aware of the full situation while one or more characters in the story or not. A classic example of this is in Hamlet. When Hammy has his duel with Laertes, we in the audience know that the wine is poisoned, the sword is poisoned, this duel has been set up specifically to assassinate him, and half the royal family wants him dead. But Hamlet isn’t aware of these dangers, which creates suspense within the story. Not only is there danger, but our hapless protagonist isn’t even aware of it.
While this is a tried-and-true technique in theater, cinema, written works, or whatever, it’s inappropriate in situations like the one we find in Spider-Man. You can only do dramatic irony when the audience knows something the protagonist doesn’t, but in a video game the audience is the protagonist, remember?
This story is told from Spider-Man’s perspective. The understanding is that we in the audience are experiencing the story through Spider-Man. For the purposes of gameplay, if we see something, then Spider-Man does too. But now suddenly we switch to a cutscene that makes us privy to things that Spider-Man isn’t. Effectively, we’re changing point of view. It’s like a book that changes viewpoint in the middle of a page.
I swung down to the reservoir and landed on a nearby rooftop. I knew Scorpion was lurking around here somewhere.
Spider-Man continued to stare at the water like a dummy. Slowly Scorpion snuck up behind him and then struck with his poisoned tail.
I cried out as I felt Scorpion’s stinger land on my left arm, tearing through my Spider-suit. My head began to spin and I stumbled forward.
It’s not just awkward, it’s fundamentally wrong. This would not get past an editor.
I want to make it really clear that when I say “point of view”, I’m not talking about where the camera is. I’m talking about the gap in knowledge between the audience and the protagonist. If we know something they don’t and the designer doesn’t allow us to act on that knowledge, then we’ve stopped being players and we’ve become a passive audience.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t have the player character get ambushed in the story, it just means you have to ambush the player at the same time.
For an example of this done properly, we can look at Batman: Arkham City. Early in the game, the writer needs Joker to ambush Batman. As Batman examines Joker’s medical equipment, he switches to detective vision to give the audience a little puzzle to ponder. While the player is distracted, the Joker springs his trap and catches both the audience and the Batman off-guard.
There’s an even better example of this trick later in the game. When Batman is chasing a Ninja around the city – it’s a long story – he finds a clue on the ground. In this case, the player is the one to enter detective mode and focus on this object. That’s when the writer has Batman get jumped. The result is that the ambush feels “fair”. The author didn’t have to cheat and grab the controller out of the player’s hands to make this work. It maintains the connection between player and protagonist, and it follows the rules of both the world and the narrative.
- Dialog Should be Enticing, Not Force-Fed.
Technically this one is a problem for movies as well as games, but the problem is SO common in games that I wanted to cover it here. In either case, the villainous monologue is a classic trope. The villain corners the protagonist, but instead of fighting, the hero sits still while the villain monologues their plans, their motivations, or the rationale for their behavior. But just because it’s a trope doesn’t mean it’s bad. Establishing the villain and helping the audience to understand them is really important for making the drama work.
But if you’re going to bring the gameplay to a halt, then you need to make sure the audience wants to hear what the villain has to say before you take control away from the player.
In Mass Effect 1, we have a showdown with the bad guy, Saren. We’ve just shot our way through his base and discovered the massive scope of his plans. We learned he’s worried about the mind-control abilities of the Reapers, and he’s trying to figure out a way to both keep himself alive and avoid becoming their thrall. We’ve discovered his plans are larger and more complicated than we initially believed. So now we’re curious. Why is Saren doing this? Why is he serving the Reapers and how does he imagine he’ll survive such a collaboration?
So when the scene takes us into dialog mode, we don’t mind. The player character wants to talk to him, the player is already curious about what he has to say, and the conversation suits the machinations of the writer.
- Don’t Repeat Yourself.
2013’s Tomb Raider is a great example of this problem. In that game, Lara Croft is repeatedly waylayed or ambushed by enemies that magically appear just off-camera. Now, one or two of these would be totally fine. Lara was inattentive and someone got the drop on her. It happens. The problem is that this happens so frequently that it becomes obvious and predictable. It’s like watching the same a magic trick performed again and again.
“Hey, where did that guy come from!? Did he walk through the wall? How did that other guy get the jump on her? Does she not have peripheral vision?”
Eventually we stop being mad at the antagonist and start being mad at the writer.
- No Cutscene Incompetence.
- I’m Not Kidding, Knock it Off with the Cutscene Incompetence.
- No, seriously, Stop it With the Cutscene Incompetence Already. What is Wrong With You? Do You Hate Players? Are You Some Kind of Monster? Who Hurt You? Do You Have any Concept of How Obnoxious This Is? Who Told You That You Could Write Video Games?
In the Tomb Raider reboot, Lara is trying to rescue her friend Sam. Some cultists have kidnapped Sam and are planning to burn her at the stake because… you know what? It doesn’t matter. We don’t have time. They’re bad guys. Human sacrifice. You get the idea.
Lara enters the sacrificial chamber behind the cultists. She has the drop on them. By this point in the game she’s got a shotgun, a pistol, and an assault rifle tucked in her back pocket. She’s dealing with a group of massed enemies who are armed only with melee weapons. She could, right now, kill the cult leader and mow down any cultists foolish enough to charge her head-on. But instead the cutscene has her using the bow? That’s literally the worst possible weapon for this situation. It’s ridiculous.
Worse, she doesn’t even attack! She has this perfect opportunity to assassinate this dangerous cult leader and save her friend, and instead she sits by, doing nothing, while the cultists finish their preparations. It’s not like it’s a mystery what they’re about to do. It’s not like they’re going to suddenly change their mind and not sacrifice Sam. But for whatever reason, Lara waits until the last possible moment and then attacks the wrong personShe attacks the guy that’s about to kill Sam, but if she’s acted sooner she could have killed the leader, then this guy, then another guy, etc. with the worst weapon. Of course she gets overwhelmed by the crowd and captured in a cutscene.
This is a problem in far too many games. It’s a problem when Commander Shepard forgets she’s in a cover-based shooter, drops her gun in a pit, forgets she owns more than one gun, forgets about all her space magic powers, and then falls into the pit herself while her teammates forget they exist. It’s a problem every time Alan Wake falls over and accidentally drops all of his weapons into hammerspace. It’s a problem when the main character of Rage 2 gets themselves stupidly poisoned for no reason. It’s a problem in all the Grand Theft Auto scenes where your character stands around doing nothing while foes escape. It’s a problem when cutscene Spider-Man repeatedly loses in physical altercations with a normal human for no apparent reason.
On one hand the game keeps patronizing the player. Through the lore, the gameplay, or sycophantic allies, the game tells you that you’re special. You’re a super-badass. You’re the hero. But then a cutscene starts and the game shows that your character is weak, clumsy, oblivious, foolish, or dim-witted. Their powers don’t work, they can’t shoot straight, and things that are trivial in gameplay suddenly become impossible. The writer is tearing down the hero in a way that will frustrate the player and make them resent their own character.
Dear game designers. Here is my super-secret pro-strat for avoiding this. Ready? Here we go:
Don’t make the protagonist incompetent. Make the antagonist clever.
I’ve been picking on Tomb Raider in this video, so let me make up for it by pointing out a good scene from the game. At one point Lara comes to a bridge. The writer doesn’t want her to cross. Instead – for the purposes of the story – she needs to get captured by the supernatural threat on the island. Instead of having her fall off the bridge or get ambushed by more teleporting goons, the writer has the bad guys be proactive. They use an innocent civilian to distract her, and then they drop explosives on the bridge to blow it up.
This makes sense. She’s been plowing through their ranks, so they knew she was coming. They had lots of time to prepare. For whatever reason, explosive containers are ridiculously plentiful on this island. There’s nothing wrong with Lara blundering into this trap because there’s no way she could have seen this coming and her foes have never tried anything like this before. Instead of making Lara into a dummy, this scene reinforces the idea cult leader Mattias is crafty, experienced, and capable of thinking ahead.
Although the writer does spawn in some more magical teleporting mooks at the end of the scene. But then they die a few seconds later so it sort of doesn’t matter. Whatever.
So that’s my list. Making sure that the Gameplay is the Story isn’t a binary on / off deal. It’s an ideal to aim for. And I wish more games would aim for it.
 She attacks the guy that’s about to kill Sam, but if she’s acted sooner she could have killed the leader, then this guy, then another guy, etc.
A programming project where I set out to make a gigantic and complex world from simple data.
Batman: Arkham City
A look back at one of my favorite games. The gameplay was stellar, but the underlying story was clumsy and oddly constructed.
Quakecon 2011 Keynote Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
Marvel's Civil War
Team Cap or Team Iron Man? More importantly, what basis would you use for making that decision?
Who Broke the In-Game Economy?
Why are RPG economies so bad? Why are shopkeepers so mercenary, why are the prices so crazy, and why do you always end up a gazillionaire by the end of the game? Can't we just have a sensible balanced economy?