Storytelling and Games: Time to Get Serious

Storytelling and Games: Time to Get Serious

Warren Spector, Mickey Mouse’s current foster daddy, believes modern game design is lacking thanks to an emphasis on improving visuals instead of diversifying combat and developing worthwhile in-game storylines.

“I’m disappointed by the fact that we still focus solely on combat mechanics and rendering techniques, at the expense of other things we could be devoting energy and effort to,” Spector said in a recent interview with Develop. “We could be focusing on non-combat AI and making conversation as compelling as fighting for a change. Wouldn’t that be great? We could be focusing on making storytelling truly interactive.

“We just focus on prettier pictures and flashier graphics attached to more impressive combat scenarios, and honestly, that just bores me.”

It’s unfair to insinuate that video games don’t have any worthwhile stories to tell. Some combat-heavy games like Mass Effect 2 and BioShock tell tales that keep the player on the edge of his or her seat even while he or she is fighting for her life. Then there’s Team Fortress 2, which has a shallow premise, but is fleshed out by a sense of humor that keeps the player coming back to its characters.

On the other hand, you won’t run out of fingers if you count off the number of games that have a truly professional feel to their scripts. There’s a reason why Valve’s supremely clever Portal was quoted to death: There aren’t many games that are worth quoting, except to reference awesome bits of Engrish.

Video games are an awkward medium. They’re like the gangly kid who sprouted up overnight, but still can’t resist sticking frogs down the girls’ backs. Will their childish stories ever get a chance to catch up to their stunning visuals and gain the chance to be taken seriously as a means of expression?

Or is the full and true maturation of video games really necessary? Everybody has that one bachelor uncle who zips around in cool cars and buys you the toys and games you truly want for your birthday while every other relative is piling on the sensible clothes and school supplies. He may not be society’s best example of a responsible adult, but you still like him because he doesn’t conform and is a lot of fun to be around. But you might begin to find him tiresome as you age and watch him act like a teenager trapped in the shell of a 56-year-old. If video game stories don’t grow up a bit, we might similarly be driven away someday.

At the same time, everybody needs to unwind once in a while with a cheesy book, a movie full of explosions, or a video game that doesn’t take your brain for a long walk. Spector might disagree, but what if video games told their stories according to their genres? In cases where the story is supposed to be centric to a game–say, an RPG–there has to be a conscious effort not only to tell a solid story, but to try something different. In some cases, all it would take is a look back at how things used to be done. There was a time, for instance, when it was okay for JRPG heroes to be adults with grown-up motivations and grown-up conversations. When did that become illegal?

It would also be nice to see more interactive novels, a few of which made their way to the States via the Nintendo DS. Hotel Dusk was one–let’s get the sequel here, already–and Aksys’s recent 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors has met with acclaim for its blend of storytelling and puzzles. Both games are ideal for people who want to read a decent story, interact with interesting characters, and witness the consequences of their choices first-hand outside the setting of a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

Granted, both Hotel Dusk and 999 are celebrated for their depth, but the writing in both games still have issues like spotty narrative and gobs of wacko pseudo-science. Sometimes, though, you just have to shrug and award an A for effort. A story that’s engaging can get away with technical flaws, and it’s preferable to the alternative: A grammatically-perfect story that ultimately ends up being a big bore.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.


  1. It is true that more interactive novels (Hotel Dusk and 999, as you mentioned) should be brought stateside. The only real problem from a financial standpoint is that the market for that in North America and Europe is still fairly niche, unlike in Japan where the following is fairly strong. Hopefully, there will be a game that attracts a wide mainstream audience to the genre, doing what Final Fantasy VII did for the RPG genre back in the day.

  2. Nice work Nadia. I’m a newbie psuedo gamer. And I say psuedo because I game for fun and fitness, and not for scoring. I know, I know, shoot me! However, I am so impressed by the world of videogaming and think it has so much more potential to offer the world.
    Frankly, I just don’t get the gaming games. I’d like to; but I feel I will be lost trying to get what the point of it all is. Nintendo was brilliant in its invention of the Wii, simply because it made playing intuitive, even for those of us very resistant and close-minded to videogames. When I saw E3 and the new Zelda with Miyamoto wielding the sword, I wanted to try it. But will I get what needs to be done? Will it be fun or just plain frustrating. Granted, I have found that if I persevere, games that were definitely frustrating in the beginning turned out to be my favorite games to play (DDR for one). I’d love a good story line and intuitive moves and action for activity and an engaging time. I know there is art in videogaming. And there are the many talented people who contribute. I can’t wait to see what is coming and whether or not I can become a real gamer before I’m sixty!

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