An overview of the key methods of narrative delivery in video games

Not all video games feature a distinct narrative component, instead focusing predominantly on the gameplay element to entertain the player. Those that do, however, can use the narrative to immerse the player. A good story may provide another layer of interactivity, and engage the player on another level to the gameplay itself. This article discusses some of the key methods that are used to shape and deliver a narrative in video games, with notable industry examples used for illustrative purposes.

An initial consideration concerns the protagonist. Whether or not the playable character is silent often influences the type of narrative delivery that is employed. The major benefit of a silent protagonist, as often found in first-person games, is that the player is readily able to project their own personality, or assign a personality of their choosing, on to the avatar. In essence, the virtual protagonist is a vessel which can be imbued with a personality. The player then experiences the game world, and by extension the narrative, through the avatar’s eyes. With a silent protagonist, the player will interact with the game world and set narrative events in motion, but is not responsible for the delivery of the narrative.

Narrative delivered through supporting NPCs or a narrator is common in games featuring a silent protagonist. In the acclaimed Half Life and its sequels, for example, supporting characters such as the relatable Alyx Vance complement the design and aesthetics to bring the game world to life. They are largely responsible for compelling the player to progress through the storyline. Often a key supporting character or characters will be the primary drivers of the narrative, and may also occupy the dual role of narrator. To illustrate, the antagonist in Bioshock, Andrew Ryan, acts as a supporting character and quasi-narrator. He gradually builds the narrative through his ruminations on Objectivism towards the stunning climax, whilst directly interacting with protagonist Jack as he moves through Rapture.

“A man chooses. A slave obeys.”

For stark examples of narrative delivered primarily through a narrator, then look no further than independent games Dear Esther and Bastion. With no more than the most fundamental gameplay mechanics – essentially movement – Dear Esther is quintessential interactive storytelling. The narrator periodically exposes snippets of information as the player progresses through the game world, placing the onus on the player to piece together who their character is, how they came to be on the island and uncover the mysteries that it holds. Bastion, from Supergiant Games, delivers much of its narrative through the gravelly-voiced Ruckus, who alludes to the Kid’s thought processes as he progress through the game world whilst also uncovering the backstory. Dear Esther was predominantly praised for its thought-provoking, open-ended narrative but criticised in some quarters for its bare-bones gameplay. Bastion, however, was met with critical acclaim, as it backed up its compelling narrative with solid gameplay mechanics.

One of the key benefits of relaying narrative primarily through a narrator is that the player experiences the storyline dynamically as they progress through the game. Executed well, the systematic exposition prompts the player to really engage with the narrative in order to form an interpretation of events, and then enhance this with their own imagination. On the other hand, with a silent protagonist and often disembodied narrator, there is always the risk that the player feels detached from the characters.

The flip-side of a silent protagonist is, of course, a voiced one. Often but not always in the third-person perspective, iconic protagonists such as Nathan Drake, Lara Croft and Commander Shepherd do not just witness the story flow around them, they are integral to it. Although it is more difficult for the player to project themselves on to a fully fleshed-out character, they are often more memorable. Characters such as Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us are unforgettable because they are so well rounded, and develop throughout the game, rather than remaining unrealistically mute. Such protagonists actively participate in the story, and are central to it. The intention is that we, the players, can relate to these characters. We form attachments to them as we guide them on their adventures and witness their experiences, but we do not become them. The narrative can then rise to another level of poignancy as the player becomes emotionally invested in the events that impact on their characters.

joel and ellie
Lump firmly in throat.

Other games deliver their narrative through more than just a single or couple of playable characters. A wealth of JRPGs, for example, primarily deliver their narrative through a party of characters – typically playable ones. As the party members interact with each other and forge in-game relationships, so too might the player empathise with the characters and start to develop attachments. Such party-delivered narratives, however, are highly-dependent on the strength of characterisation and in-game chemistry. Final Fantasy X, for instance, succeeds in telling an emotional tale of love, loss and sacrifice due to its believable, developing characters that the player accompanies on their journey through Spira.

Of course, it would be incorrect to suggest that the majority of video games featuring a distinct narrative only employ a single method of delivery. Narrative writers may bring in multiple approaches in support of the primary one, if it exists, in order to enhance the believability and potency of the narrative through variety. Supplementary methods of narrative delivery can add detail to the game world and the narrative, which may otherwise be cumbersome or tedious if relayed through characters. Increasingly, the boundaries between different approaches are blurring. Text may be used to offer greater depth to a game world if the player wishes it, but audio logs have recently become a staple form of secondary delivery, such as in the Bioshock and Fatal Frame franchises. Often optional, they provide the player with background details on the game world, characters and narrative without obtrusively halting gameplay and jeopardising immersion.

Whichever delivery methods are employed in video games, there is an abundance of industry evidence that a strong narrative can be a key factor in securing player engagement. Talented writers and designers may seamlessly blend multiple methods of narrative delivery to facilitate the development of attachments between the player and in-game characters, be it the protagonist, supporting characters or a party of characters.

A successful video game narrative complements the gameplay to provide a unique interactive experience for the player. It is not simply about telling a story; the narrative writer must always keep in the forefront of their minds how the narrative can be relayed through gameplay mechanics. The discrete methods of narrative delivery are constantly being re-interpreted, explored and merged to tell ever more involving tales. With hugely successful titles such as The Last of Us and the Mass Effect games often discussed more for their narrative than their gameplay, the future will hold exciting challenges for video game writers and, hopefully, ever-more immersive experiences for the players.