Narrative in Gaming

A successful game – regardless of what platform it’s played on, what console, or whether it’s digital or in real life – will always have a story to tell. Without a clear narrative, a game becomes boring. It lacks depth. It is difficult for the gamer to engage with.

Humans are creative, intelligent creatures. We are hardwired to relate to stories – it’s why oral history has been so successful, it’s why the movie industry can churn out so many remarkably similar pieces and still be so profitable, it’s why books and songs and even photos stay with us for such a long time.

We like stories. They help us make sense of the world. They give us a notion of how we’re supposed to live, or how we’re not supposed to live. They make the universe knowable and less frightening.

This is why games always have a storyline. You might not give a rat’s ass about the storyline and skip right over it all, but it’s important nonetheless. It shapes the game, your goals and your focus as you play, so next time you sit down to rage through a game, take a little more time to understand why the narrative has been set out like that.

According to journalist and author Christopher Booker, there are seven classic narratives or storylines. If you look closely enough, you’ll see that just about every game you’ve ever played will have been built off one of these, as they are have been proven again and again to engage people and hold them to the end:

  1. Overcoming the Monster: you’ve seen this in Beowulf, Resident Evil. This is a GREAT gaming narrative. Enemies and action galore.
  2. Rags to Riches: Stories like Aladdin and Cinderella. Not a strong gaming narrative, it’s generally not dramatic enough.
  3. The Quest: Think Tomb Raider, Uncharted, Zelda. Also makes for great gaming as there are many challenges, suspense and action.
  4. Voyage and Return: Bioshock Infinite is a good example of this storyline. Can make for great gaming but is generally not used that often.
  5. Comedy: Duke Nukem is probably the most comical game that springs to mind. Not a very common narrative for gaming.
  6. Tragedy: Almost never used in gaming. It’s just not fun enough and there’s never a sense that you can win.
  7. Rebirth: These are redemption stories, where you come out better than you started. Usually in games it’s the opposite, so you don’t see this much either.