Story Design - Story Telling pt.9
Saturday, July 16, 2011 at 9:35AM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Critique, Story, Zelda

Ultimately, I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed in the way most talk about stories and video games and video game stories. Even the better writers out there could use more research, more experience, and more specifics. But those are fixes that are easily made. I'm more fed up with those who claim that video game stories are poor. I'm tired of those who feel like they have to devalue the medium before scraping away a glimmer of close-minded-hope on the potential of game narratives. I'm tired of people looking for the same familiar stories they already know instead of being receptive to the kinds of stories that are already being told. 

Before the recap, I've assembled a few quotes that reflect the attitudes that I feel are commonplace among video game writers, reviewers, and critics. 


I want to highlight an example of how gamers tend to separate what they think of as story and gameplay especially when articulating what they want. Over three years ago back in 2008, Michael Abbott (aka the Brainy Gamer) wrote a series on Zelda analysing the formula, story, and the gameplay while making suggestions for improvements. I have my own opinion on how to improve the Zelda series or what it could do. And I also have an opinion on Michael Abbott's ideas. But for our purposes here I want to focus on Abbott's tendency to ignore gameplay as narrative and try to separate story and gameplay experiences. If you pay close attention, he's halfway between two opposing views not knowing how to resolve his feelings.


Before proceeding with this argument any further, I fully understand that for many players the core Zelda gaming experience is not about characters - it's about dungeons. For these players, the characters and their stories may add color, but the real focus (and real genius) of the the Zelda series has always been about exploring clever, well-designed dungeons; solving puzzles and strategic challenges; overcoming enemies and defeating dungeon bosses... The story is basically window dressing...and isn't it essentially the same story every time anyway?


I understand why Abbott opened with this statement, but it's most likely a gross exaggeration. Even though some people say that they love Zelda gameplay most of all, the characters are a big part of the gameplay context. And if you look across the Zelda series, there are plenty of challenges and puzzles within the town areas for players to tackle, not just in the dungeons. Dungeons are neat, but Zelda never has been and never will be a dungeon crawler. 


I'm brainstorming here, but how about this: the player is given a choice very early in the game to enter one of two buildings: a temple or a museum. You can only choose one, and when your choice is made the other option disappears. In the temple you are drawn into a story and ultimately asked to accept a quest involving many other characters in a detailed narrative. If you accept it, you get a Zelda game that structurally resembles previous titles, but this time with a more complex RPG-like story.

Suggestions like this are difficult for me to take. Zelda games already feature many characters in a detailed narrative woven together in a complex story. The more modern the Zelda (Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, Phantom Hourglass, Twilight Princess, etc) the more complex and nuanced the story telling. If you like these kinds of features, which I do, then all you have to do is look for them.

If you choose instead to enter the museum... In this version of the game you are essentially moving from dungeon to dungeon within a basic narrative structure, but without all the story and character interactions of the other version.

My intention here (perhaps ill-conceived) is to envision a new Zelda game that gives me what I want without forcing the "skip cutscene" player to climb over a lot of unwanted material standing between him and the game he wants to play. I frankly have no idea if this idea is good or even viable.


With cases like this, I always challenge people to dig deeper into what they have to see if they already have want they want before asking for anything else. Either this or to at least articulate what they want in great detail. 



The Escapist: Narrative "Evolved:" (Daniel Floyd)

"Simply put the majority of games are poorly written." 

I'm not sure if "written" is being used here as a stand-in for dialog or overall story design. Either way, the statement is a gross generalization that is far from the truth. 

"even games lotted for being literary usually have sub par writing when compared to any medium out there"

This kind of comparison is only good for inflaming minds with its vagueness. Not all novels are well written. The same goes for plays, TV shows, movies, etc. Obviously, the best video game writing soars above the worst examples from other mediums. And if you want to compare the best to the best, you need to understand the way both examples tell stories from a design standpoint. I'd say, this speaker is lacking this kind of understanding. 

"Solid, well-written, thought provoking story... Good writing is almost detrimental to a game's success" 

Again, I'm not sure what these descriptors mean. I guess "solid" means coherent, and well-written means dialog leaning towards dramatic realism. But anything can be thought provoking. This line about how good writing is almost detrimental to a game's success is foolishness. This claim needs more examples and more explanation. Because from the research I've done on this blog, plenty of great games with great stories/dialog sold well. 


"and start looking for real quality and emotional impact... video games are strictly a commercial art" completely wrong."


There are many who evaluate stories by their emotional impact. While this isn't inherently bad, most don't explain that they devalue some emotions. Usually guilt, sorrow, saddness are put over happiness, anger, etc. So, if a movie makes them cry they automatically think of it as a better story than if a movie makes them smile or laugh.  I value all types of emotions and experiences stories bring equally. And if you think video games are strictly a commercial art, you should play my games at the top of the blog. All free. All for the betterment of design. All indie. 



The EXP podcast (Scott Juster, Jorge Albor, and special guest Justin Keverne)

I don't know the members of this podcast by voice, so the following quotes are not identified. 

"Did the fiction affect your single player experience at all?... I think that it's almost impossible to not see through the fiction of a multiplayer game almost straight away... I play no attention to the context in which [the multiplayer gameplay is] happening...I see through the aestetic layer of multiplayer games very quickly and it becomes a pure systems interaction... A single player game prevents that from happening to a certain extent" 


The fiction, form, and function are all closely related in a single player game and a multiplayer game. The moment we begin to learn about a game, we being to understand it as a system. Whether we use stories/models to understand interactions or you interpret raw gameplay/frame data, we still rely on the consistent fictional-virtual presentation of the game to play. In other words, the background processes that you use to play single player games and multiplayer games are the same. If you believe the one and "see through" the other, that has more to do with your preference not facets inherent to single versus multiplayer game design. 



Daniel Primed

What I call context is what we might think of as the game’s story (in the traditional sense). The context is an important part, but it’s not actually the main part of the narrative, it just tells us who’s who and what’s going on....For interaction to occur there needs to be 2 things: the player and a point of interaction. The player is represented in the game as Wario and points of interaction may include enemies or level elements. The story of Wario Land 4 is told by what happens between these elements.

Daniel recognizes the difference between context and narrative. Daniel also looks closely at the amount of control given to the player and connects this with the concept of co-authorship. In his article he gets down to detailed specifics, which is a great way to go. Even if he missteps, the reader can derive much from the clarity of his examples. 




  1. All stories are best understood when broken down into 3 main categories: content, execution, and discourse. When any of these elements work particularly well with each other harmony or resonance is created. 
  2. One way to evaluate the quality of a story is by how much coherence or resonance/harmony exists between the parts.
  3. We all have our preferences or facets of stories that we prioritize over the others. Though we may relate and enjoy these preferred facets greatly, this doesn't mean that a story can't be good without them. 
  4. When critiquing a story, there should be a hierarchy to your analysis. The order is content, execution, and then discourse. The reason is that evaluating a story mostly on its creativity or how it aligns with outside works is a much more complicated and subjective task than the story itself. On the one hand most stories are built around a few formulas/models. On the other hand, what's creative to one may not be to another. Arguing these points may be futile. Furthermore, story content is the core. The same content can be told multiple ways through execution. While the execution can obscure the quality of the content, the content cannot blemish the execution. 
  5. Complex stories are not necessarily better than simple stories. If you have a preference for complex stories, then figure out how deep into the complexities you typically go. You might be enjoying complex stories on a simple level. If so, you should realize that you can enjoy many more stories (the simpler ones) or that you have so much more to gain from studying complex stories. 
  6. Simple stories have an easier time achieving high levels of efficiency, coherence, and pacing. 
  7. The more work you put into understanding a story (or anything really) the more you'll get out of it. Also, experiencing many stories in a comparatively shallow way will never equal understanding a few stories in a deep way. 
  8. Gameplay tells a story in itself. The better you understand what stories are, the more the line between what is commonly thought of a "narrative" events and "gameplay" events as blurred. 
  9. Variability, emergence, and player control add new complexities and considerations to our analysis of video game stories. Sometimes the avatar makes decisions and actions based on its character. Sometimes these actions are co-acted with the player. And sometimes the player stretches what seem like the bounds of a character. 
  10. Even multiplayer gameplay creates rich stories, but these stories are often very poorly told. Taking lessons from the world of professional sports, there are many design implementations that can help a game convey the emergent story of competition to players/viewers. 
  11. Gameplay and story are blended, yet there is a fierce opposition between fans of the two sides. Story people cry for complex narratives and characters, yet there is no more complex character than the player and the co-authorship through emergent of complex mechanics. And on the other side, gameplay gamers seem not to realize that gameplay is plot (connected actions) and that narrative game elements can be part of the gameplay balance. 
  12. Our individual personhoods can be expressed as a story. The way we understand the world is a collection of models/stories. This reality makes stories one of the most powerful tools known to man. Stories have the power to shape us sometimes in dangerous ways. Sympathetic resonance is a theory that possibly explains cases like extreme fans to racists. 
  13. Ludonarrative dissonance is a interesting topic that most do not have the language or the design understanding to tackle. We must understand the medium first and then look for incongruous cases. 
  14. Stories are powerful, yes. They can be informative, explanatory, or entertaining. Being able to relate both cognitively and emotionally to the content of a story is an important part of tapping into its power. At the same time, a wide appreciation of people, cultures, views, actions, events, etc. is essential in fostering a wide appreciation of stories. I see no need to limit yourself by only thinking of a small group of emotions. Whether a work makes you angry, laugh, cry, or ponder the world, I value all of these options equally. 


I want to thank you for following this article series to the end. I've been writing stories since I first learned how to write. But finding ways to explain what I think, how I feel, and what I see in the world has been a never ceasing ambition of mine. For proof look no further than my blog archives. Other than technical writing about stories or game design I write poems, short stories, and novels. One of these days I'll get around to posting more of that content here. Or maybe I should focus on getting published. Whichever way my life goes from here, I'll be sure to tell the story. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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