Does a Game Need a Great Narrative to be Good?

Kingdom HeartsBy Darwin Geronimo

Video games have seen ever-increasing use as engines for delivering narrative over the last several years. Titles such as Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us are critic ally praised for the narratives they deliver and yet examples like these are extremely few and far between.

Now, a game doesn’t have to focus on narrative to be a great game. I love the Kingdom Hearts franchise for its over-the-top action and characters but spin-off after spin-off has turned the story into a convoluted mess, not to mention a lot of the writing comes off as cringe worthy, seemingly using words such as “heart”, “light”, and “friendship” interchangeably. Having a great narrative is not necessary to a great game yet in the push for games as art form, sub-par storytelling drags the medium down as a whole. Many attempt to deliver a narrative through their game not fully prepared to handle all the quirks unique to the medium. Narrative design in games is very different than for books and movies and, in principal, is harder to design for than other medium because games ask the player to complete the narrative.
Players are involved with a game’s narrative primarily in one of two ways. They are either a sort of guiding hand of fate, helping the characters along the story reaching a fated conclusion or the player is a character in the game, creating his or own story using the tools given in the game. The distinction is not black and white. Both exist on opposite sides of the scale that is narrative control. The former represents the game designer whereas the latter represents the player. Total control of the narrative by the designer meaning no input from the player devolves the medium into what is essentially just a movie, a common critique of games marketing themselves as “cinematic” experiences. The other end of the scale, total player control is an ideal and impossible to obtain due to the very nature of game design. Designers aim to give players a closed, isolated, and complete experience to the player and must therefore draw the line of player freedom at some point.
Designing for player-driven narrative is where difficulty arises. The designer must present the player with choices of about equal value and then devise scenarios for both choices. The work can add up really fast. Just three binary decisions can lead to eight different ending scenarios. Many designers can subvert this having many scenarios overlap with one another. The problem then arises when player feels as though his or her decisions are inconsequential. It is walking this thin and delicate line is what separates the rookies and the pros.

About the Author

Darwin Geronimo
Darwin Geronimo is a 21-year-old senior from California State University East working toward his Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Physics with a minor in Mathematics. His specialties include scripting, game physics, data analysis, and critical problem-solving. He hopes to one day break into the industry designing systems and mechanics.