A former professor of mine once told me that for a story to be a story, it must consist of a character being changed by events. Stories may be layered and make use of a gamut of literary devices and tropes, but everything is built on the foundation of a character being changed by an event. It is not enough to put an alcoholic in an ambulance with his dying mother or a rogue AI in a law firm run by God or an amnesiac engineer in a haunted sandwich shop. Those aren’t stories; they’re situations. They may be interesting situations with interesting people thinking and saying interesting things, but they’re just situations. And a situation, this professor stooped to tell us, is not a story. Something has to happen, and someone has to change because of it. A story has transparent motion between a distinct individual and their specific circumstances.
Of course, like most rules of literature, the rule disintegrates upon closer inspection. Kafka’s entire body of work is about people not changing under the reader’s watch; even Hemingway was more interested in his unique brand of musing than in laying out what happened to whom and why it should be important. But I imagine that this professor of mine was just trying to break down a complicated world into manageable chunks for a new batch of undergraduates. Even if the “character-changed-by-stuff” criteria for the written word is imperfect at least it’s somewhat useful in understanding how literature functions. Games, on the other hand, do not fit this criterion at all.
Game narratives aren’t built on stories. Even the most linear, plot-heavy games focus not on what happens, when, and to whom, but rather everything around the events that help to set them up. The circumstances that make the plot possible are far more interesting in games than the plot itself. If literature is a growth chamber where a character is altered when stimulus is applied, then games are a big open room covered in clues, often occupied by fascinating people and explored by a stranger.
It isn’t just that world-building is more important than creating a plot, as argued by Nick Dinicola on this site, nor is it that the player must feel responsible for creating movement in the plot — although both are still necessary for the narrative to carry any weight — it is that a game’s situation, not its plot, is at the foundation of video game narrative. By narrative, I mean the sum of plot, world, character, scenes, environments, sets, dialogue exchanges, and anything operating in the mechanical system that could be said to evoke a feeling or thought (including the mechanics themselves).
Not to discount any of the great writing or directing authored in games past, but everything is built on a core situation. A player is dropped into a starting environment and everything is experienced through their exploration, deduction, and play. Even when the player has no authority over the game’s events, at the core the narrative is built on each new bit of atmosphere that the game establishes. Whether it’s a change from the Brecilian Forest to the deep roads, hopping out of a warthog and into a banshee, or just lining up four lines to clean up a once log jammed Tetris board, every mood and atmosphere is framed by a situation.
Think of how most levels begin: there may be a cutscene or even just a brief dissolve that wipes to a new screen, but ultimately a level puts an avatar into a world and leaves the player to explore — even if it is just in one direction. Even in adventure games, in which the player basically figures out how to move from one conversation or cutscene to the next, the narrative is built on the player moving their avatar or their screen or even just closely examining the elements of the world, until each puzzle is solved. Nothing happens until the player has explored the game enough to understand its context. In a novel, you don’t hear about how the character enters a room, approaching each piece of furniture in every new room just to see what they could do with it and what reasons that it could possibly be there (unless it’s a Henry James novel, am I right?).
Everything from “1-1 MARIO START” to the most dynamic cutscenes just establish context, put the avatar in an open space, hand the controls back to the player, and then leave things unresolved. Even if the resolution of a plot is unaffected by player input, most of the narrative substance (the artwork, music, character design, the effort required to move from A to B, the personal and statistical growth and changes in characters) all happen when the player is just exploring the situation. It’s why games will never — and should never — reach absolute verisimilitude. Because even while it isn’t natural for a hero to take twenty minutes away from a main quest because they thought they might have seen a neat-looking shark from a coastline or for villagers to greet heroes that barge into their homes or for people to repeat the same speech at every prompt or for enemies to walk and attack in the same patterns or for death to be an annoying setback instead of an absolute state, they facilitate exploration of the enormous situation, which is at the core of video game storytelling.
The plot doesn’t matter as much in games because it doesn’t exist until the player moves it. However, the situation is always there, and in the best games, it’s always interesting. Even in games stripped almost entirely of story like in a Mario game or where it’s irrelevant such as in a World of Warcraft raid or a League of Legends multiplayer match, the situation dictates the thoughts and feelings that become the story. Being clearly outclassed by an enemy leads to anxiety and desperation, resulting in carefully choosing the location of battle or baiting enemy aggression. Ultimately, exploring the game’s context leads to the story of a glorious come-from-behind victory or a humiliating defeat. The point is that the emotive and rational experience is dictated by what situations the game establishes.
The reason I believe why most players don’t finish games isn’t that games are too challenging or even that players get bored with their games. It’s that games lose their impact after too long a string of unpalatable, limited, or repeated situations. The problem is that as a game nears its conclusion fewer unexplored locations remain, fewer long-term goals need maintenance, and fewer characters are left with unresolved arcs. The more progress that the player makes, the more constrictive the overarching situation becomes. Essentially, there are fewer big open “rooms” left to explore and flesh out. How many players quit a 40 hour campaign right before the final boss just because it’s the last possible thing that they can do? By the time that the final dungeon opens up and the side quests are all wrapped up, the only situation remaining doesn’t need to be explored to understand: “I will beat the boss, or I will reset until I beat him and get the ‘good’ ending.”
For literature and film, plot is everything. Without moving events that shape (or fail to shape) the characters, there is only setup with no direction. We engage with these stories to see what a person will do and how the things that happen will shape them. But games, at the core, are setup. They create a place to wander and figure out for one’s self. All the story that may happen afterward results from play in an open space, the boundaries and significance of which is understood through experience.