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Games Are Stories: The Final Word?

By on May 26, 2012
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This is a guest post by freelance narrative designer, Tom Jubert.

Nicholas argued recently that ‘games are not stories‘. As much as he’s obviously after a sound-bite the TV chaps will lap up, he justifies a slightly more considered version of the statement with reference to the (true) fact that story tends to be less important in games than in mediums like film or literature. I think Nicholas overestimates slightly how important story is to those other mediums – surely script in those areas is often just as susceptible to the whims of various directors, editors and actors as it is in our own – but I take the point. A movie, no matter how Hollywood it may be, begins with a script. A game, almost always, begins with gameplay and setting.

That’s interesting in itself, though. I’ve never come onto a job where either of those two were particularly up in the air – it’s always a sci-fi mmo, or a desert shooter, or a zombie RPG… The setting, it seems, comes in the same breath as the core gameplay. I’d argue that this suggests an alternative take on games – that, in fact, they revolve centrally around their narrative contexts, that these are chosen to work in harmony with the mechanics and that every scrap of work done after that decision is t its best when it works toward both of those goals.

There is a reason that we play cowboy games, and football games; and not precision clicking tests or abstract tactical challenges. A random coloured shape serves all the mechanical purposes of a heavily armed nazi, but we prefer it when our actions in games carry weight and meaning.

I’m reminded of the various discussions that go on around games being fun vs not-fun. It’s supposed by some that games need to break free from being fun in order to be important; to be what games are supposed to be. Others say fun is the whole point of games – why would we want to play anything else? Both sides seem to miss the point – a game needs to be entertaining. Like any other creative medium, if we wanted the bare facts we’d look elsewhere. But fun is just a subset of entertainment; not-fun games canstill be entertaining.

I think when we try to argue whether games are or are not about ‘story’ we end up talking about writing, and opinion is predictably split. Some love cutscenes, others hate them. That’s not one we need to solve. But we should be careful trying to claim that games aren’t about story, because without story we’d still be playing stuff that looks and feels like tic-tac-toe.

For more, check out Tom’s narrative design blog, Plot is Gameplay’s Bitch.

About Tom Jubert

Tom Jubert is a freelance games writer / narrative designer, best known for his work on the Penumbra series, for which he was nominated for a Writers' Guild Award. His upcoming releases include Lost Horizon and Driver: San Francisco. He was previously the Managing Editor at, and has also spent time in production.
  • Tom Jubert

    I think that’s fair comment. So long as we’re happy to agree with Nicholas (and we all agree on what we’re talking about) that stories are strictly linear, pre-scripted affairs, then what happens in most games is certainly a dramatic fiction, but we can agree that it’s not a story.

  • Alright, I get it, thanks.

  • You ask an important question – the problem with English is that we have words drawn from so many different languages, each with their own nuance. We can’t always agree what we mean by them.

    But fun typically implies “playful”. Watching Avengers Assemble is fun. Watching Schindler’s List may be entertaining, but is unlikely to be fun.

    You can be entertained by a documentary, a history book, a piece of avant-garde music. But you are unlikely to describe them as fun.

  • Thanks for the post, Tom.

    I definitely think that the setting can matter. Possibly even that it always matter. But to me, story is a linear narrative. It’s not necessary to games.

    That’s not to say that writers aren’t important to games, but that people who commission games ought to be able to understand gameplay before they understand story.

    Otherwise they’ll make rubbish games.

  • ChrisBateman

    The focus on story vs games continues to mislead here. The important factor is fiction in games, of which story is just one form. And as your guest author here correctly imputes, fiction is *very* important to games.

  • “But fun is just a subset of entertainment; not-fun games can still be entertaining.”Aren’t fun (adjective) and entertaining the same thing (meaning both enjoyable)?
    Do you have examples of non-fun games that are entertaining?
    Note: I am not and English native speaker, i.e. I am not trying to be a smart a$$ here, just wondering.

  • Hi Tom,

    I think you’re confusing story with the playing of a role. It’s uncontroversial to suggest that a lot of games work with roles that players want to play, from a cowboy to a vampire to a level 50 paladin.

    But that doesn’t connect to story.