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Games are not stories

By on April 17, 2012

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at and The Borderhouse.
  • I’ve been writing some stuff about games & narrative/story.  To get some views on this I put up a poll on it: – there are a few days left before it closes.  What is interesting from a Dev perspective is about 50% of respondents don’t view story as that important and 50% do. I started a LinkedIn discussion on this which also has strong opinitons on both sides of the debate (though I’m not sure ‘sides’ is the right word):

  • For me, Games are about enjoyment – pure and simple. If that means a game has a fantastic story attached to it, great. If it means playing hours of a sports game with friends then great.

    I’m still not sold on “Games are not about stories” line purely because it can be taken so many ways. The most enjoyment I get out of playing games are the stories that I take away, the stories I create be it things that happen in Skyrim or that overhead kick I scored in the last minute on FIFA.

    Trading stories with friends about what happened in our individual game experiences, pure bliss, so in that way, for me, games are about stories.

  • I don’t agree. I think that pretty well all books are about story (even non-fiction, except perhaps dictionaries) and all TV shows too. 

    But not games.

  • Splok

    “Game are not about story.”

    I realize that people want sound-bytes, but that seems like an odd position to take.  Would you contend that books are not about story? or that tv shows are not about story?  Obviously some of them are completely devoid of story, and some have story as a central element.  A book can certainly exist and be successful without a story, but if you remove the story element from a great novel, what do you have left?  You may not have enjoyed Heavy Rain, but how enjoyable would the game be if it had no story at all?

  • The comments via Twitter and here have been very useful. Keep them coming.

  •  That’s really useful feedback. Personally, I think tht TV execs need to remember that the core mechanics (the Pong bit) are the essence of the game, and that is very hard to find. The “easier” bit (meaning that it is a known challenge, not that it is easy to execute) is adding the characters, meaning and context that matter to TV types.

    I certainly would be happy to say that “games are not about pre-authored linear scripts”, but it’s not very punchy….

  •  Actually, I love games with stories (I just thought Heavy Rain’s story – as much as I saw of it – was dull and badly told).

    But stories are only a tiny part of what makes a great game, whereas they are most of what makes a good book or TV show. That’s my point.

  • I don’t get it. Games you like are not about stories, so games are not about stories? And when there ARE games about story, games are still not about stories? What’s the point of this post here?

  • To take the philosopher’s response, how exactly are we defining stories?

    Certainly it’s true that games aren’t, necessarily, about writing. Certainly it’s true that they are not all structured in dramatic ways that tally neatly with other narrative mediums (and in fact are often better when they don’t). This does not mean that games aren’t about story on a somewhat broader and (I think) more useful definition.

    If games weren’t about stories we wouldn’t be shooting down space aliens or building civilisations; we’d be deleting sprites and placing squares that generate +5 of resource X.

    Games aren’t about writing (necessarily); but that they don’t conform to the structural standards of other, safer mediums does not mean that they aren’t about story.

    This will, for many, quite fairly push the definition of story too far: a game of chess has a story on this take in so far as you’re not winning pieces, you’re killing knights and kings. I think that’s a fair enough objection, but if we take story to only refer to the tighter concept of pre-authored script with a beginning, middle and end then almost no games qualify.

    More importantly, if we take story on the tighter traditional definition then the statement “Games aren’t about story” becomes catastrophically misleading to anyone who hasn’t had the terms spelled out to them as above. If “Games aren’t about story” is taken to mean that games aren’t about pre-authored linear scripts then fine. Great, even. I think that’s rather cool. But if you tell a room of TV execs that “Games aren’t about story” and fail to spell out what that means (in fact even if you do) they’re only going to assume that means games today are all about the same things that pong was about; and that’s a far more dangerous mistatement than the one which (perhaps generously) credits all games as having stories.

    Have at that.