A Holistic View of Story (in Video Games)

There is something very curious and special happening when we experience a story – or rather, interpret a story. The title of the article, as confused as it is, does imply that we will try to look at “story”, the concept of a “story” without any specific context, only to bring the focus right back on story in video games.

It is also essential I explain what a “story” means for the sake of this article. There is an endless number of definitions for plot and story, specifics for what differentiates the two. I say we get rid of the specifics. For the remainder of this article, please accept that “story” is much more than a summary of events. 

A story is the rhythm of life as humans see it – a beginning and an end. Humans have an innate understanding of story from very early childhood, which they acquire from observing life. Despite sounding very lofty and philosophical, this is a very grounded and pragmatic view. 

Each day is a new story, which starts with the sun, and ends by night. Every child knows and lives this. Historically, from the adults’ perspective, the night was dangerous, and surviving the night meant a happy ending to that particular story. These motifs are found throughout all cultures across the world and ages. A story which doesn’t follow the beat of the world, a story without an end, or rather, a story which ends prematurely, feels off. However a story which follows the beat of life resonates very deeply with humans as something truthful, no matter how fantastic it may be. This is the wide-angle, holistic view of what constitutes a good story.

I believe that this holistic view of story is the key when discussing video games, as other methods of discourse are too specific and do not offer a wide enough view. I shall demonstrate:

♢ A book has a story and we experience the story by reading.

♢ A movie has a story and we experience the story by seeing and listening.

♢ A video game has a story and we experience the story by seeing, listening as well as interacting with and playing the game.

From this simplified comparison, it is clear that a video-game has more elements at play than a book or a movie. It is afterall a video (we watch) game (an artificial ruleset we interact/play with)! But this doesn’t have to be the case, and we can create the same distinction for the other two mediums: a book that aims to tell a story relies on the user’s ability to read heavily – to interpret the letters as words by knowing the language in which it’s written. Languages have rules as well and require an archive of words and concepts to be memorized. We can call this complex set of skills required to read a book reading.

Watching a movie requires some other skills, and to experience and interpret it, many of the skills used in reading such as abstraction, conceptualization and visualization are required – only this time on a timer, as the images flash before our eyes, there is only so much time to take it all in.

Both the book and a movie have been around for quite a while as a way to tell stories. A lot of poetry deals not only with the contextual structure of the poem (what the poem is about – two lovers for example) but also with – I will be specific with this example – rhythm.

How can this be? Rhythm? A book doesn’t make any sound afterall! The poet however, knows that the book will be read, and he knows that whoever reads it, will verbalize the words on the page in his mind. In the reader’s head, given that he is a fluent speaker, these words will resonate and flow at the speed at which they would be pronounced.

The poet can use this knowledge to speed up the tempo at which the user reads by using many short words. In short sentences. Full stops.

He can then use this technique to enhance whatever the context of the story requires, just like a composer can tell a story and affect your emotions with sound, without using any words.

Songs can tell stories too, stories so engaging they hold halls full of people at the edge of their seats, or send them into fits of sobs and tears.

This is a very good example of a holistic view of a story. It is not only the “plot”, it is also the tempo, the rhythm, the speed and the emotions. You cannot simply retell the events or happenings, or read an abstract of “The Old Man and the Sea” to experience its story – the equivalent of reading about a car crash as opposed to experiencing one yourself.

The consequences of this knowledge are far-reaching. It also means that with anything that was created in a language we do not natively understand, we are put at the mercy of the translators when experiencing a story, at least to some extent.

To say you can’t experience, or are losing a lot unless you speak the original language of the film, book or poem is a phrase some of us have heard. It is a valid argument: simply put, the story is not on the page. It is not on the screen. And to focus back on video games: not in audio logs, story cutscenes, phone-calls or never-ending text dumps of exhaustive codexes. It happens in the player’s head, where he interprets and abstracts all the aforementioned, along with his moment-to-moment decisions and emotions. So many video games have their respective video and game parts undermining each other at every opportunity: a character might have an emotional breakdown after killing a person in a cutscene, even though the player has killed dozens already in their current play session.

The plot of the game might require the player character to prepare for a fight with a tough opponent, a climax of sorts, only to beat him with ease, because the player is overleveled and the writers did not account for such a scenario (this particular example can and HAS been used as a subversion (final boss of Dark Souls), but usually, it is not).

In both of these examples, the game asks us to kindly ignore the game part, which is the only part separating the game from a movie, and to focus on the video part, while the “story” takes place.

The gameplay part of a game is also the story. The same story, interpreted the same way as the story in the cutscenes or audio logs. Similar to how you might re-tell a close game of chess. Is that not a riveting story, despite no predefined plot?

The video part of a video game can have an excellent story with great dialogues, graphics and camerawork. The gameplay might make the player enraged, stressed, exhausted, horrified or satisfied. But unless these elements work in tandem, conjoined in the player’s brain, video games cannot tell a story unique to its medium.

We wouldn’t call a video which would consist of scrolling text a good movie to watch, no matter how good a story the text would tell.

We wouldn’t call a book filled with musical notes a good book to read, even though the music it describes might sound heavenly when played.

The story in the video part of a game might be great, rivalling those of the best movies, and the game’s gameplay might be fantastic, but that’s simply a good video and a good game – not a good video game.