As a child, Shigeru Miyamoto, the legendary creative director of Nintendo, spent a lot of his time outdoors. He liked to wander around aimlessly, trekking through the forested valley that surrounded his home in Sonobe, a small town thirty miles from Kyoto. His curiosity about the world led him to explore every nook and cranny of the wilderness, climbing over hills and skirting past the edges of lakes, creeks and rooks.
Shigeru never took a map with him, choosing instead to let the world unfurl as it came. Every walk became an adventure, every moment spent in the anticipation that, perhaps, around the next bend lay something unknown, something to be discovered.
One day, he stumbled upon a cave. It yawned amidst the trees like the mouth of some colossal beast, dark and uninviting. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old at the time, and so he returned home, too frightened to descend into its depths. But his curiosity lingered, and his imagination ran wild, filling the cave with all manners of secrets waiting to be unearthed.
After days of hesitation, Shigeru gathered his resolve and returned with a lantern, determined to see what lay inside. Little did he know that the moment he decided to enter that cave would, years later, serve as inspiration for one of the most beloved video-game franchises in history.
A legend is born
In 1986, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda. Shigeru’s new title, following from the success of his Super Mario Bros., was, quite simply, a game-changer. No game before it had ever provided its players with such control and clear narrative motivation.
Upon starting, the game flashed a brief introduction explaining the basic premise: You are an elven hero named Link, charged with the rescue of princess Zelda from the clutches of Ganon, the prince of Darkness. To do this you have to find the missing pieces of the legendary Triforce and unite them in order to defeat the forces of evil.
The game dropped you into the middle of an open world, the first of its kind, and gave you no clues about where to go and how to achieve your goal. Players were encouraged to explore and the game rewarded courage and curiosity – it was designed so that every turn revealed something new. The player progressed by entering each of the nine dungeons and navigating their way through the puzzles and enemies until they faced Ganon in the final dungeon.
In itself, the negotiation of challenges is not a terribly unique characteristic for a video game. However, what made Zelda interesting is that it left the sequence entirely up the player. Thus, the more adventurous player could forego the prescribed path and attempt to take on the more challenging parts of the game with little to no preparation.
Now, despite the lack of hand-holding, Shigeru did attempt to the give the player a bit of advice. The introduction ended with a simple question – “Can Link really destroy Ganon and save princess Zelda?” – invoking a timeless motif in storytelling: the cliffhanger. Traditionally, having posed the question, the storyteller would promptly wave their hat and vanish with the promise of retuning at sundown the next day to give the bewitched audience the answer.
Zelda, however, answered the question very simply: “Only your skill can answer that question. Good Luck. Use the Triforce wisely.”
Helpful? Perhaps not. But in some small way, it captures just how it is that games change the way we tell stories.
The narration of experience
When Zelda told its players that the fulfilment of the narrative depended on their skill, it wasn’t just talking about their physical and mental ability to play the game, it was also referring to the player’s participation in co-creating the story. Think about it – a film, a play or a piece of music doesn’t need its audience for its narrative to be fulfilled. Even a novel is, in itself, a complete work of narration.
Whatever one may say about the audience being necessary for any such piece of art, the physical completion of its narrative is not dependent on them. Every single movement of the characters is scripted out beforehand and no matter how many times you read a book, or watch a film, that simply won’t change.
This isn’t the case with video games. Imagine you’re playing a single-player videogame, which may be story-driven or not. If you stop doing anything, the game cannot move forward. If you continuously fail to do something, the game cannot move forward. If, say, for some reason, there is a tree in the game and you decide to spend three hours simply staring at it, well…you get the point.
A game, no matter what type of game it is, simply cannot fulfil its purpose without the player’s cooperation. That single, irrevocable fact – that authorial intent accounts for player cooperation – is what makes video games so exciting as a storytelling story-telling medium.
Shigeru had always intended for Zelda to serve as a homage to that cave in the hills of Sonobe. And yet, had he chosen to write a story about his experiences as a child, or even make a film, no matter how good, the feeling evoked from the audience would have only been an approximation of his own. This is a result of an inevitable gap that always exists between such media and their audience. It is the gap of experience.
The realisation that a story is not theirs to remember but rather another’s to tell is subtle, but leaves the audience with unease. To negotiate this, we seek to relate such stories to ourselves, to our lives and to the people around us. We write books on other books and conjure up a field of study dedicated to the dissection of stories. All in the attempt to bridge this gap, this creation of voyeurism, that will forever leave the audience outside the narrative.
By choosing to make a videogame, Shigeru was able to close this gap significantly. In designing a game populated by the unfamiliar and daunting, one that necessitated unguided exploration, he gave players the chance to overcome these obstacles themselves; just as he had with himself, all those years ago.
The new kid on the block
Video games have only been around for a little over half a century, and though they’ve come a long, long way since Zelda, they are still only in the early stages of their development as an artistic medium.
While the scope of the form expands with technological innovation – translating into higher computing power, graphical fidelity and increased complexity – the real reason games are so hard to pin down is something far more fundamental. So long as there is player interactivity, a game can be just about anything it wants, an important thing to remember when trying to understand how games tell their stories.
Stories aren’t only about the plot and the characters. In all mediums, the structural form surrounding the narrative is just as crucial. In literature, form may include the tense, the viewpoint, the language, the way chapters are laid out or even more trivial things such as font size, number of pages, etc. In film, comics and other visual media, colour, shot composition, and transitions amongst other things so the same thing. In music, a change in the time signature, style and key can give new significance to the same melody or musical motif.
For video games – which can, and do, include all of the above – what matters most is the gameplay experience, which refers to the overarching details of a game and defines what it feels like to play the game.
A big part of this is played by the mechanics of the game. These are the core activities that the player will actually be performing – the virtual results of their physical commands. Some examples of this are Mario’s jumps in the Super Mario franchise, the shooting gameplay from Call of Duty, or the customisation options of a typical Role Playing Game. These mechanics, when combined with visual, audial and narrative design, bring to games the physical sense of player participation that they are known for. Getting all these parts working together is why games can take up to eight years – or even longer in some cases – to make.
Obviously, developers can tweak all these elements in many different combinations, thus altering the very identity of a game. This is why games have so many genres (over 40 at last count) and though not all of them are genres that are typically used to create narrative experiences, in a medium such as this, it’s hard to say what is and isn’t possible.
Studio ‘MediaMolecule’ is currently developing a game that lets players make, play and share their own games. It requires no coding, no technical proficiency and no large teams of developers. There is no pre-existing genre for such a remarkable thing, no way to categorise this – now seemingly inevitable – progress of the medium. It can, quite literally, be anything you want it to be.
They’ve titled the project “Dreams”. I don’t think they could have chosen a more fitting name.
For the players
What this variability in form, style and game-play design means for players is that all games, even those that fall into similar genres, have at least some sort of learning curve, requiring you to gradually acclimatise yourself to the rules and logics that govern the game world, and the manner of challenges set forth by the developers.
At its extreme, a certain game or type of game may be inaccessible to some players because they simply lack the requisite skills or temperament needed to play and get better at it. While some games can afford to have difficulty levels to help mitigate such things as well as other customisation options to help the players learn the ropes, for many others, the gameplay experience – with its specific level of difficulty or complexity – is essential to the perception of the narrative.
Consider the games made by FromSoftware studio. Renowned for their unique environmental and story-telling design, these games are also amongst the most punishing and difficult experiences in gaming. Though their latest game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice significantly changed the studio’s iconic combat system – making it faster and more reflexive – it retained the trademark difficulty and steep learning curve, prompting some to say that the game is not user-friendly and should offer an option for an easier mode in order to allow for enjoyment of the narrative and atmosphere.
However, such criticism misses the point of games like these. Sekiro, for instance, is set in a fictional representation of “Sengoku” era Japan, or the erstwhile “Age of Warring States” which lasted from 1467 to 1600. It was a time of struggle, brutality and contests between warriors of great skill and renown. If combat was easy, if enemies did not feel threatening and characters credited with legendary feats in combat did not challenge the player, the entire point of the narrative and its setting would be lost. While I have personally never been able to complete any of the games other than Sekiro, I cannot deny that the studio knows what it needs to do in order to create a symbiotic relationship between gameplay and the kinds of stories it wants to tell.
Another game that uses its mechanics to enhance its storytelling is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. A short, yet sweet indie game, the game tells the tale of two brothers, Naiee and his elder brother, Naia as they seek the waters of the Tree of Life to save their ailing father. Whilst the story is moving, and the visual design is wondrous but not extraordinary, what makes the game stand out is that the player is required to control both brothers at the same time, using one half of the controller for each of them. At any one moment, you may be guiding both brothers to work together to clear an obstacle, or have one distract an enemy whilst you get the other to safety or have both interact with different NPCs (Non-Playable Characters) at the same time.
It takes time to get into the flow of using your hands independently of each other, but once you get comfortable, you become the connective bridge between the two brothers, closely mirroring their own development as a team. This marriage of mechanics and narrative is made all the more powerful when one brother dies.
Suddenly you feel a physical sense of loss as one of your hands is rendered useless. Like a phantom pain, it twitches inadvertently; remembering a time when, only moments ago, it was full of life. It’s a marvellous example of how games can create a physical sense of player participation.
While there are many games whose stories act only as basic context for the developer’s gameplay and design ideas, like the highly ambitious intergalactic exploration game No Man’s Sky, story-driven games are doing better than ever. These games place heavy emphasis on their narrative and atmosphere, designing the gameplay and visuals accordingly. When done well, the two aspects are symbiotic, each incomplete without the other.
Yet even here, there are two ways to go. Either you give the player narrative and play-style freedom, or you restrict them intentionally, so as to create a tightly curated narrative experience.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is still regarded as one of the best games ever made, featuring an expansive fantasy open world, packed to the brim with side-quests, secrets, and living, breathing environments that respond to the player. Adapted from Andrzej Spakowski’s novels, the tone of the world, the characters and motivations needed to be very precise so as to stay true to the source material, which meant that all aspects of the game world and gameplay needed to be crafted in an organic manner, stemming from the original narrative.
Still, game developer CD Projekt Red not only crafted stories that feature some of the best writing in the business, but also, through narrative, dialogue and play-style choices that often asked the player to confront their own morality, allowed for a great deal of player autonomy. The critical moments in the main story were negotiable, as was almost everything else about the world.
This resulted in three different endings and thirty-six possible variations in the world, depending on a player’s choices, not counting all the other little optional titbits of world-building information hidden away across the map in the form of books and letters and conversations. A game like this not only presents a narrative to a player, but also allows them to seamlessly create their own.
Another game, called Papers Please, developed independently by Lucas Pope, uses player autonomy to teach the helplessness one can feel in the face of a corrupt and dictatorial system. With simple yet appropriate visual design, it puts you in the shoes of an immigrant officer working for the fictional autocratic country of Arstotzka, located at a border that replicates the one that stood between East and West Berlin.
Every day, you examine the paperwork of potential immigrants, letting in those who comply with the immigration rules of the day and rejecting those who do not. You are rewarded for your day’s work with a salary, used to keep your family safe and provided for. Every decision is ultimately yours.
Dilemmas arise regularly. What would you do when faced with a wailing husband, begging you to let his wife in despite her faulty paperwork? Would you risk it? But wait, what if the authorities find out? You can’t risk your family’s safety.
Prices are rising though. The salary isn’t enough. Should you ask for a bribe? Maybe. Maybe it’s the government’s fault? What did that man say? Something about a rebellion? Should you? Don’t know. Maybe you should report him? You need the bonus. Maybe it’s better this way.
While The Witcher and Papers Please are both examples of games that use choice as one part of their gameplay and narrative experience, taking player autonomy away can be used just as effectively as well. The video game masterpiece of 2013, The Last of Us, restricts the player by funnelling them through beautiful but strictly designed environments, giving them freedom only in resource management, some limited exploration, and the way they choose to tackle enemies, but denying any sort of real choice in the narrative.
The constant play between control during game segments and paralysis during crucial narrative moments, told through scenes cut cinematically, invokes a sense of helplessness that does wonders for the narrative – a heart-breaking tale of redemption and loss set in post-apocalyptic America. Yet, despite visceral gameplay that perfectly conveys a sense of desperate survival, it is easy to question whether the narrative could have been told just as effectively through another medium.
It really comes back again to the narration of experience. Though you could not change the story, you still helped it come to life. You still felt the tension of the characters. You felt their fear, their desperation, and their hope, not because you were told about it or shown it, but because you lived through each moment with them. It loads you with a real sense of responsibility towards them that isn’t purely voyeuristic.
Video games are an exciting medium, full of variety and freedom for developers and players alike. The synchronous relationship between the two is unique to the medium and is really at the heart of what makes video games so special, particularly those games that seek to leave the players with something to think about.
While it may seem that conflict is necessary for games, as it gives players something to do, the trends are changing. Games such as Journey and That Dragon, Cancer are reinventing what a game can be and what it needs to do to create a sense of immersion. Indeed, an entire new genre of games, jokingly called, “Walking Simulators” have emerged.
Driven by indie developers, these games place the narrative at the very core of their experience, limiting gameplay to simply walking around in a first-person view, interacting with objects in the environment designed to help the player piece together the story. Starting with Dear Esther, the genre is a treasure trove for experimentation in narrative and gameplay design, as proven by the endlessly innovative What Remains of Edith Finch and Firewatch.
Even large, big-budget games are slowly moving towards uncharted territory with Death Stranding, the highly anticipated game by video-game auteur, Hideo Kojima, having already proven itself as one that has taken bold steps for the medium.
Combine these trends with the rise in AR and VR technology, and the imminent release of the next generation of gaming consoles, and I think it is fair to say that it is truly, a great time to be a gamer and a lover of stories.