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Storytelling in Games: Adventures in Ludonarrative



storytelling in games

Break out the confetti and grab a slice of cake; it’s time to party over at HBO. Helmed by the Mandalorian and Lyanna Mormont, HBO’s The Last of Us looks to be a smashing success. With an overwhelming viewership and resounding critical praise, video games seem to have scored a rare win in terms of successful adaptation to film/TV. With only a handful of episodes to go on (at time of writing), a substantial heap of praise seems to be leveled at the show’s adherence to the story of its source material, adapting some of the game’s more dramatic sequences shot-for-shot and word-for-word.

Yet that praise speaks to a larger discussion about how The Last of Us tells its story. How is it that an interactive medium (video games) can be adapted “shot-for-shot”? Something that individual players are in control of; an experience that is at the whims of those holding the controller? One aspect that certainly helps with the adaptation of Naughty Dog’s Playstation classic is the fact that, once it’s time to hunker down and deliver some narrative, they make their game decidedly not interactive. They break themselves away from the unique strengths of their medium to deliver their story in a way more in line with film or television, and that sort of linear, cinematic storytelling naturally lends itself to similarly cinematic adaptation.

The Last of Us
Image: Sony Interactive Entertainment

And this isn’t to say that The Last of Us – or games like it – are inherently lesser experiences than games that find more creative use of the unique interactivity offered by video games. Incredible things have been accomplished with the more traditional cinematic narrative structure. Rockstar is another aficionado of this type of storytelling, and the likes of the Red Dead Redemption games and Grand Theft Auto 4 & 5 are examples of excellent narratives well delivered. The issue isn’t a deficiency in the narrative chops of these companies, it’s more of a case of squandered potential. Strictly linear, cinematic-heavy games like The Last of Us don’t seem to differentiate how an audience engages with a game versus how they engage with TV/film, and that sort of approach can sometimes feel like they’re selling short what makes video games unique.

More often than not, this approach also brings about its own host of issues with how gameplay and narrative interact. That’s right, it’s our favorite gaming buzz-word: Ludonarrative dissonance. For those unfamiliar, ludonarrative dissonance is a concept unique to gaming in which the mechanics of playing a game conflict with the story/narrative of a game, resulting in a clash that tends to hobble the story elements as they are undercut by what has been established in gameplay. Looking for an example? Well, look no further than The Last of Us, just for the sake of staying on topic. This isn’t the first time we’ve accused this particular game of struggling against its identity as an interactive experience, and that fact may well speak to how apparent that disconnect can be. Be warned, this example will be citing a scene from a little more than halfway through the game, so venture forward with a mild spoiler warning.

At a certain point in The Last of Us, Joel sustains a rather serious injury, at which point he has to rely on Ellie for his survival. In a violent clash, Joel is knocked from a balcony, where he falls and is brutally impaled on a jutting piece of rebar. He is crippled throughout the ensuing scene, barely able to stay upright as Ellie attempts to guide him to safety. His injury is severe, yes, and the story treats it as such, putting Joel out of commission for an extended time jump until winter rolls around. Ellie is forced to become the caretaker as the tables are suddenly turned on the dynamic of their relationship, and the strength of their relationship is given time to shine as we see how far they’ve come with each other. It’s all well-written, emotionally poignant stuff. The issue? To this point in the game, in the hands of your average player, Joel has likely sustained hundreds of gunshot wounds in standard combat. Gunshot wounds he has shrugged off with a hastily crafted bandage before charging right back into the fray.

storytelling in games
Image: Sony Interactive Entertainment

So why is this particular wound the one that sends him reeling? Why can’t this piece of rebar through his hip be waved away with one of the crafted bandages that seemed to do the trick just fine in relation to the spray of bullets lodged in his chest? Well, because the narrative dictates that this one “counts” where the others do not. We need Joel to be injured for the story to progress as written, but he’s basically Wolverine when it comes to how he treats physical damage in the gameplay. The solution? Injure him in a cutscene and soldier forward without acknowledging the blatant disconnect between story and combat, gameplay precedence be damned. That is ludonarrative dissonance, in a nutshell. What has been established in gameplay is entirely contradicted by what the narrative is doing, and vise-versa. Its identity as a video game stands in opposition to the story it is trying to tell, and their chosen medium feels more of a hindrance than a boon. 

And this is far from the only example of gameplay butting heads with the narrative. It’s important to note that ludonarrative dissonance is present in all sorts of games; this isn’t remotely exclusive to Naughty Dog, and it doesn’t necessarily ruin an experience. Fallout 4 sees a massive disconnect as the “urgency” of finding your lost child is set to the back-burner in favor of Bethesda-style exploration; no actual time-sensitive stakes are applied as the quest for your missing child is put on polite hold for as long as you need to take in the sights. Mass Effect takes a ludonarrative hit as renegade players find themselves still lauded as the galaxy’s savior, despite the player’s actions painting them as a lawless thug in combat armor. Even my gaming darling Obsidian often designs their story separate from their gameplay with the likes of Pillars of Eternity and Fallout: New Vegas. Every time the plot has to move forward, gameplay comes to a screeching halt. Designing a game whose mechanics enforce the story can be an incredibly arduous task; so many games will opt for the more direct route of taking their ludonarrative dissonance on the chin and hoping the audience gives them the benefit of a generous suspension of disbelief. And, more often than not, we happily oblige.

Although this might speak as to why The Last of Us has made for such an excellent adaptation over at HBO; it’s story was powerfully moving in spite of being a video game rather than because of it. Gameplay wise, The Last of Us isn’t doing anything revolutionary. When folks talk about it, they’re almost always talking about the interactions between Joel and Ellie. The powerful emotional beats with Sarah in the intro. The quality of the writing. Everything that plays out in the cinematics. Very rarely do you hear rave reviews about the “place a ladder between two roofs” puzzles, or the rather bland cover-based shooting that functions with perfect adequacy. The story always felt like it was yearning to be a show or film, so adapting it as such seems a logical step, if a rather redundant one.

And that is why, while The Last of Us remains a quality game with heaps of well-earned praise, it can sometimes feel as if it has squandered its identity as an interactive story. But again, if you want to hear more about The Last of Us specifically, there are far better writers around here tackling that particular issue. We’re here to explore games that do their best to alleviate that dreaded ludonarrative dissonance. Games that embrace their identity as such, and find ways to weave storytelling into the nuts and bolts of their moment to moment gameplay.

One company that has garnered more than its fair share of success (or notoriety, depending on who you ask) on this front would be FromSoftware. With Sekiro as a bit of an outlier, FromSoftware games have always told their stories in a uniquely non-traditional manner. In place of a more straight-forward narrative, FromSoftware instead has elected to bake a majority of their storytelling into the worlds they create. While their methods can be cryptic (and perhaps frustrating at times), their design philosophy is one of active player engagement as opposed to a more cinematic, passive experience in terms of delivering their story.

The way they accomplish this type of player engagement is a fascinating meld of design decisions. First off, the stories they choose to tell are ones where the climactic events of this world have already occurred. As players, we’re not seeing the glorious victories and triumphant armies. We don’t witness Gwyn at his apex, nor his triumph over the dragons in Dark Souls. We’re not an active participant in Marika’s shattering of the Elden Ring, nor the Night of the Black Knives that preceded it. No, we find ourselves in the aftermath of these events. We’re in worlds that have flared and faded. We’re in the ruins, left to pick through the rubble of what came before.

Dark Souls The Undead Asylum
Image: FromSoftware

This particular decision allows FromSoftware the opportunity to structure their story into an interactive investigation for the player to take part in. Environmental clues are scattered thick throughout their level design, and item descriptions give vague hints and implications of what events have transpired before our arrival. Dialogue with NPCs can be equally obtuse, and it rarely stretches on for more than a few moments, providing us with little more than crumbs for our narrative bread-trail. We only ever get puzzle pieces; fragments of a larger picture. It’s up to us as the players to piece it together. By setting the stories of their games in the aftermath of their worlds, FromSoftware is able to structure their narrative in a way that is almost akin to detective games, where the player engages in finding clues and deducing likely outcomes.

Their stories encourage the player to interact with their environment and engage with the world they’ve been placed in. The only real cutscenes in their games tend to be for boss introductions, transitions between major areas, and ending wrap-ups. There are, of course, exceptions, but more often than not, FromSoftware seems comfortable handing us a pile of assorted puzzle pieces and letting us interpret the crumbs as opposed to sitting us down and spoon-feeding an exposition-heavy backstory. Their narrative style feels more at home alongside something like Return of the Obra Dinn than it does The Last of Us or Horizon: Forbidden West; they engage their players to tell their story in a way only video games can, and offer us a glimpse of what is possible when developers embrace the strengths of their medium.

In fact, Dark Souls offers a bit of a one-two punch in terms of weaving gameplay into narrative. On a grand scale, the world of Dark Souls is a pointedly cyclical one, alternating between ages of Light and ages of Dark. An occasional hiccup might alter the flow of the cycle momentarily (extending Gwyn’s Age of Fire, “breaking” the cycle in Scholar of the First Sin, etc), but each sequel drives home that, regardless of the previous games’ outcome, the cycle takes over once more. Fire, dark, and fire once more from the ashes. A cycle of life, death, and rebirth, if you will. Now, Dark Souls 3 shows signs of that cycle beginning to taper and wither, but that seems appropriately fitting for what is likely the end of the Souls series.

Where things get interesting from a ludonarrative perspective is in the core gameplay loop of the Dark Souls trilogy. More often than not, players struggle with the Dark Souls games. The series is arguably most known for its brutal difficulty; an aspect that is often cited as a steep barrier to entry for droves of newcomers. It goes without saying that this difficulty wall is by design, but narratively, there’s a little more to it than that. Playing Dark Souls (or any Soulsborne, really) is a matter of repetition; get flattened by a boss, learn a little bit more about their pattern, get flattened again, rinse, repeat. Eventually, we either emerge victorious or close the game to play something less stressful. You could go as far as to say the process of progressing through the Dark Souls series is one rife with cycles. One very specific cycle, to be precise. “A cycle of life, death, and rebirth, if you will.”

storytelling in games
Image: FromSoftware

That’s right; the cyclical nature of the world is reflected and paralleled by the cyclical nature of the gameplay. The narrative and the primary gameplay loop coalesce as opposed to clash, and the result is something that only video games can achieve: a story that is not hindered and inconvenienced by its interactivity but instead elevated by it. Where something like The Last of Us gives the impression that gameplay is in the way of its narrative, Dark Souls embraces and is enriched by its gameplay supporting its narrative.

And again, this isn’t to say that this method of storytelling is intrinsically better than a more straightforward approach, it’s simply a method that takes greater advantage of what makes its medium unique. If you’re willing to indulge, there are loads of games that take the concept of ludonarrative even further, almost to a natural conclusion. While games like Dark Souls find creative ways to weave their gameplay into a larger narrative, some games simply opt to do away with narrative altogether, allowing the gameplay to more or less become the story.

This method tends to be the territory of games like Project Zomboid, Mount & Blade, Elite Dangerous and the XCOM franchise, just to name an arbitrary few.  Sure, these games have worlds, but those worlds tend to be established more as frameworks around a more narratively loose experience, more often for setting than for plot. These are games whose greatest stories are relative to the individual player. Stories that come naturally as a result of mechanics and game systems at play as opposed to written dialogue or story progression. 

Ask anyone about their favorite moment in XCOM, and you likely won’t get a story about flavor text or the brazenly utilitarian cutscenes that start the campaign. No, you’ll be regaled with stories about how their sniper was helplessly pinned down and outnumbered after a botched operation. About how a tactical combination of smokescreens and hand grenades provided an opening for their sly getaway. About how the success of their mission hinged on a single 30% chance to hit and about the unlikely fresh recruit that pulled off the shot. If you’re anything like me, you might even grow attached to units that have survived even the gnarliest frays, forming bonds and projecting character onto units entirely through what has transpired in gameplay.

None of the stories we adore from these games are scripted; they all come as a direct result of the gameplay. Systemic games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild (or even Skyrim, to a lesser extent) can wind up in this category as well. With so many variables at play in how the world operates, the most memorable moments spring from how we interact with them and how they clash together. When Link throws his metal sword in the middle of a thunderstorm so that a lightning strike crashes atop an enemy, it rings far more satisfying than it would have in a cinematic due to being a product of our actions as players. The pitched battle that lights an entire field of grass ablaze, allowing Link to take to the skies with his glider as we rain down arrows from above? All an exciting, organic result of systems that have been designed and set loose in a sandbox tailored for controlled chaos and player adaptivity. The game provides us the tools to mold our own stories and setpieces, and when we do just that, those moments are ours. 

Breath of the Wild story
Image: Nintendo

Now, this isn’t to say that the best stories in gaming come from games that decidedly don’t tell a story, but these are the moments and “narratives” that perhaps feel the purest to their medium. Still, most folks will probably have a stronger emotional reaction to The Last of Us than they will a rowdy match of Civilization 6, or a star-charting run in Elite Dangerous. The complexity and depth of Joel can’t be matched by the kings and queens of Mount & Blade or even the most battle-tested grunts of XCOM. There’s room for traditional storytelling – and arguably a necessity for it – but to lean so heavily into traditional means of cinematic narrative that your story feels at odds with its own medium? Games from indie hits like Papers, Please to the aforementioned titan that is the Dark Souls franchise have shown that such rigidity needn’t always be the standard.

Ludonarrative dissonance is one of those terms that tend to merit an eye-roll or two whenever it gets brought up when discussing game design; it has the potential to be an unwieldy abstract that often strays too far into the intangibles of design philosophy and is frequently seen as an unavoidable pitfall that isn’t necessarily worth addressing. As mentioned earlier, most players seem fine with giving a wave of their hand when story and gameplay clash. And such courtesy is one we’re happy to give! In relation to their story-driven counterparts, video games are a relatively young medium. Books, television, and film have had decades upon decades to hone their craft, while gaming stands as the relative newcomer. The medium is still finding its feet and discovering the strengths that set it apart from its far more seasoned contemporaries.

So while The Last of Us continues to surpass record after record for HBO, it may well be more a result of that particular story finding the home it always strived for rather than the one it was begrudgingly saddled with the first time around. A great companion piece to compare and contrast will likely be the rumored Disco Elysium show that is reportedly in the works; a game whose story and character growth is so intrinsically woven into player choice and interactivity. With The Last of Us, the material is a much cleaner transition to other mediums. Joel is Joel. Ellie is Ellie. Bill is Bill. Everyone is a written, defined character independent of the player.

storytelling in games
Image: ZA / UM

Disco Elysium, on the other hand? The story is a sprawling, in-depth character study of someone the player defines. Players can take on the role of a brutish meathead that kicks down doors and throws the first punch or a self-loathing “hobo-cop” that has enough points spent in the Inland Empire stat to carry on a metaphysical conversation with a mailbox. So how do you adapt something whose story is so specifically tailored by – and for – individual players? Disco Elysium is a story unique to each person playing it because the character study at its core revolves around an entity crafted in tandem between player and writer. It’s a story that needs interactivity. It’s something only video games can achieve, and any adaptation that strips away that interactivity would serve only to lessen the material. Same goes for the likes of Dark Souls or Return of the Obra Dinn. Or Undertale. Or Hades. Or any number of games that seek to celebrate and embrace their medium.

Games are an extraordinary playground for creativity; the potential for where they go and what stories they’ll tell is as exciting as it is limitless. Games have never stopped growing; from the early steps of Wolfenstein and A Link to the Past to the unimaginable innovations of Half-Life and Ocarina of Time, the history of video games is hung on a timeline of tectonic shifts in technology and unbridled imagination. Every generation has brought in tow a slew of radical new thinkers and creative new avenues for interactive storytelling that has pushed the medium forward time after time.

Surely, we can do it again.

Gaming has been my passion, and RPGs have been my sweetheart. I learned to type playing EverQuest with my brother, and I've never looked back. While isometric old-school RPGs are a personal favorite, as long as I've got a stat screen and build variety, I couldn't be more at home.