As a narrative designer of interactive games, I craft stories for players to experience. As a writer, I am often faced with the creative dilemma: Is this story mine or the players’? Who holds the reins in this experience – who should control the ending(s) and the journey to get there?
The answer is always: both. Games can and do contain some of the most excellent storytelling of our age. Crafting those stories takes skill, collaboration, and creativity. But an inherent quality of games, especially roleplaying games, is that, of course, they are meant to be played.
Gamers aren’t looking for passive entertainment when they choose to play a game rather than watch a film or read a book. They want to drive the story forward. So what’s the best approach to storytelling in games?
Pre-Crafted Characters and Linear Storytelling
Think of games like The Witcher, Horizon: Zero Dawn, God of War, and Assassin’s Creed: Mirage. What do these have in common? They all feature a player character whose identity is set in stone.
The narrative designers are telling a story about one pre-determined character with a carefully plotted journey before them. The player controls how they succeed in defeating bosses and overcoming each task, but mostly, they are along for the story’s ride.
Pros: I think this often makes for a tighter storyline packed with vivid characters. NPCs’ responses in dialogue aren’t as generic as they are wont to be in response to the multitude of dialogue options present in full-on roleplaying games.
A linear storyline offers the writers control over crafting the most brilliant story they can, much like a novelist or screenwriter can control a plot to achieve peak emotional power and effective pacing.
Cons: The player may feel less involved in the story’s journey. Their dialogue is chosen for them, their ending pre-written, and their fate ordained by the narrative design overlords. This can lead to a lack of player agency, which is part of what makes games unique from other forms of entertainment.
Player-Customized Characters and Nonlinear Storytelling
This category is where most true RPGs land. Bethesda’s specialties like The Elder Scrolls, Starfield, and Fallout are prime examples.
In these games, players may be given a stripped-down backstory but little else. Many give you the option of choosing your physical traits, your name, and a basic background of your choice, like your job or how you grew up. After that, the world is your oyster.
Dialogue options often feel endless, and relationships with NPCs are yours to develop or ignore. You can choose your job and how to specialize in future skills, whether fighting or crafting. You can even choose sides in conflicts; sometimes, these choices lead to completely different endings.
Pros: Gamers can drive the story in the purest sense possible. These games are for players who want to imagine their own characters or insert themselves into the story. The possibilities of branching narratives and multiple endings make these games replayable and addictive long-term.
Cons: The narrative often suffers. While designing branching storylines and multiple endings can be great fun for narrative designers, it also becomes more difficult to keep a handle on ensuring a tight, meaningful, cohesive storyline. That is why games that do succeed in this (lookin’ at you, Baldur’s Gate 3) are so impressive.
The Best (or Worst?) of Both Worlds
Then, there’s the in-between approach, which is highly popular. Games like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, Mass Effect, and Frontiers of Pandora, all give players a certain level of freedom in character customization while still maintaining a mostly linear storyline.
Sometimes, this approach is as simple as offering the player a choice of gender or hairstyle, but otherwise, the player character is the same person. Some games use a unique twist to offer an in-game explanation for player character customization, such as in AC: Odyssey, where the DNA of twins, a brother and a sister, are both available for the player to choose from so they can play either Kassandra or Alexios. In doing this, AC: Odyssey was the first entry in the Assassin’s Creed franchise to offer gender customization.
Pros: Despite limited customization, players still get to feel like they are creating their own character and playing someone they can somehow identify with. The story benefits from being carefully fostered by the narrative team and so is usually well-crafted.
Cons: The story walks a line that sometimes feels weak. Sometimes, the player isn’t addressed by name, like in Frontiers of Pandora where the player character is only called by the tribe name they hail from, Sarentu. In Mass Effect, no matter how you customize your character, they will always be named Commander Shepard. A big deal? Maybe not. But it can distract from the customization players may wish for.
Can We Have Our Cake and Eat it Too?
Sometimes, we are offered a rare experience, like Baldur’s Gate 3. The newest installment of Baldur’s Gate gives players a clear-cut choice between the two styles. You can play a custom character – one entirely of your own design – or an origin character – a pre-crafted character designed by the game’s expert team of storytellers. And don’t worry, if you choose a custom character, you won’t miss out on the origin characters’ stories. They’re all featured as NPCs in the game.
Regardless of how video game stories are told, I think all fans and writers can agree – stories are the beating heart of games. Without them, why does combat matter? What goal does crafting serve? What drives the avatar forward? Players are ready to dive into new worlds, become new people, and test their limits. Stories are what make those beloved, exciting experiences possible.