Storytelling in Literature versus Video Games

Literary Narrative vs. Digital Narrative

/ by Katarina Ferk

The art of storytelling is as ancient as humanity itself. From the moment our ancestors traced their fingers across the cave walls, painting stories, and to the present day, where we can experience living as those cavemen did, through virtual reality, humans have made impressive progress in storytelling.

I was not exactly enthusiastic about video games, that is, until recently. My primal joy hid in the form of adventure novels and fantasy films, and games spiked no interest in me whatsoever (the only exception might have been the game Lego Racers, which I played with my brother decades ago). Over the last few months, my path strangely led me to the world of game design, where I encountered concepts previously unknown to me. Amongs these, the concept of storytelling stood out the most and, as an amateur writer, I was intrigued.

The definition of interactive storytelling is “a form of digital environment in which users create or influence a dramatic storyline through actions.” To me, this sounded quite different from storytelling in literature. In literature, the creator has all the power over the story, events and the protagonist, while some games provide a new experience of the user being in control of the story. Writers have to make the reader feel for the character, they have to feel empathy for him or her. In literature, the protagonist is presented to the reader (its audience), while in gaming the protagonist is experienced by the audience. The sole fact that, in a game, you can advance a story just by making different choices is already compelling, but interactive storytelling provides something perhaps even greater: it creates a sense of presence, the feeling of being inside a made-up world. Imagine, instead of reading about Philip Pullmna’s Lyra Belacqua, actually making decisions for her, or walking the halls of J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts by yourself. The PC, aka the player character, is a character in a role-playing game, whose actions are controlled by the user, meaning that the user doesn’t just see the story, but can also participate in it. What we call supporting characters in literature equal NPC (non-player characters) in video games. Unlike PCs, the non-player characters are not controlled by the user, but instead by an artificial intelligence.

One of the first things you have to decide, while writing a piece of literature, is the point of view through which you’re going to present your character. There are three different points of views in literature, and also in game design yet, in both, we mostly use two - the first-person or the third-person view. In literature, the first person is used when the story is told from the narrator’s point of view: we read about what the protagonist is seeing or feeling from inside their mind. Third person is more popular, and it is used when we want to tell a story from an outside perspective, as if we were watching a film. You may use the third person omniscient, where the reader can hear the thoughts of many characters, or third person limited, where some information, like characters thoughts, are hidden. A first-person view in video games is a bit different from the one in literature. The user sees what the character sees, which can lead to greater connection between the two, thus enhancing the experience. The only problem that you may experience, in some games, is never actually seeing what you look like as a character; No Man’s Sky is a game where you take on the role of a space explorer (first person view), exploring 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 unique planets, and not only do you never see yourself as a character, there is also almost no chance of you running into another space explorer, because of the high number of planets.

In the third-person view, the player is looking at the protagonist, usually from behind-the-shoulder perspective. This view provides visual information about the main character that the first-person view does not, but it also creates the sense of otherness which reminds the player of the gap between him and the character. Some users or readers feel closer to the characters if they don’t know much about their visual presentation, because it gives them the freedom to imagine what they look like by themselves. Sometimes the third-person view takes that away, and we are confronted with the pre-selected image of the character, but in some games you may create the appearance of the character by yourself. A good example of this might be WoW, or World of Warcraft.

In WoW, players control a character avatar, whose appearance they can design by themselves. They may choose a race (dwarf, human, troll etc.), which defines the character’s racial traits, and class (healer, warrior, druid etc.). The user designs the appearance of the character throughout the game. World of Warcraft can be played in third or first-person view, and a lot of users get confused when they get stuck in the first-person view all of a sudden, having previously played in third-person. This illustrates how important is the visual presentation of a character, especially if the user helped creating it himself. It may be true that, in the first-person, the user feels as if he actually is the character, but in the third-person (especially if he helped design the character) he feels as if he is contributing, co-creating the story and the character.

A second-person view is rarely used in games, as in literature. In a game, the player spends the entire time looking at the main character from the front. This view is used in some Japanese games, where the player can interact and talk with the main character, usually a favorite character from a manga or anime—someone the audience already feels they know. Although the second person narrative is rare in literature, it is quite frequent in video games. In fact, almost every game narrative is told in the second person.

The developers of No Man’s Sky have used an algorithm that allows the game to create the planets by itself. This is called “procedural generation,” and it refers to the method of creating data algorithmically, as opposed to manually—as if a novel would keep writing itself as you read. In video games, this method is used for creating items, quests, level geometry or, in this particular case, planets and their ecosystems. Some of the advantages of procedural generation include large amounts of content, smaller file sizes and randomness, for less predictable gameplay. The setting in No Man’s Sky is so massive that if you spent just one second on each of the planets, it would take you 584 million years to visit them all. Of course, writers provide us with worlds beyond our imagination, but imagine a fantasy world that creates itself. A world so infinite that not even its creators know every nook and cranny.

At first, games didn’t tell a story but, over time, the capacity of games grew, and game designers created better graphics, sound and gameplay. All storytellers abide by the same principle, written by Aristotle himself - the story must have the beginning, the middle and the end. In Poetics, he wrote that it all begins with a set of events that set the story in motion; in the second part, the protagonist deals with these events; and in the final part, a resolution is reached. To game design, we can also apply Freytag’s Triangle. First we have the exposition, which presents us with a tutorial level (we learn the mechanics of the game, something happens that sets things in motion, like a shipwreck), then comes rising action, which most of the game embodies, followed by a climax, which is usually a fight with a final boss (a “boss” is the strongest antagonist or monster in the game), “falling action,” meaning post fight sequences (escape from a collapsing building, for instance), and resolution (dialogue between the characters or the main character's monologue).

Of course, the story structure in games varies. Linear is the most traditional, and is almost always used in literature. The series of events follow a narrow line, all leading towards the ending. Although some elements of gameplay are thrown in, the gameplay and story seem to be two separate elements. The player can’t influence the story, because there is only one scripted story, therefore only one possible outcome.

Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri

Vanishing one evening

without a trace.

Without  forgotten clues

on the threshold of my room

and no arrow

to show me the way.

Wherever I could have gone

Would be of no relevance:

Laid at the bottom of the sea

Buried in the darkness of the woods

In China devoid of memory

Looking for a pitiful story

Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.

Everything is fine

As long as nobody ever knows.

Sublime fantasy

Vanishing without a certificate of death

So that one day they will understand

What is baffling me now.

A “branching story” is one in which the game developers give multiple choices at various places in the game. Like the 1980s phenomenon, Choose Your Own Adventure children’s books, in which chapters ended with a choice on the part of the reader, with different pages indicated to turn to based on the choice of the moment. When a player decides what to do, his story goes on a certain path, each path leading towards a different ending. This is something writers usually can’t do—in Choose Your Own Adventure, the choices are limited and the storyline simplistic.

“Parallel paths” is similar to a branching story format, but all decisions lead towards the same ending. In the 2013 Tomb Raider game, there are several additional story elements along the way (like raiding an extra tomb) which delay the story, but they all lead to the same ending. For example, when I was done with Tomb Raider, I reached the same ending like everyone else, but because there are so many side elements in the story, I attained only a 62% completion of the game. The many side stories are added in a game for replayability, which lengthens the lifespan of the game. Although the user has already finished the main story, he may still enjoy in exploring the rest of the game world. Each of the side stories provides you with new components. Even though you already know how the game ends, these parts are completely unknown to you.

A “threaded story” is where a player can choose several different plots at the beginning. For example, you can chose a different quest or a different storyline. The game can have multiple beginnings, middles and endings, and the player can also choose a different combination of those elements.

The last video game story structure is the “Dynamic Object-Oriented Narrative.” Here, there are several beginnings and endings, and several mini-stories along the way. Each mini-story can lead to a final ending or to another mini-story.

One of the most important writer’s tool is the rule “show, don’t tell.” The reader’s experience is far more vivid and enjoyable if he or she is given the possibility of coming to a certain conclusion by him or herself. Readers have their own imaginations, and they just may come to greater conclusions that the writer intended. The point of “show, don’t tell” is to make the reader feel smart, thus the writer must fight the urge to explain. The problem with this concept can occur in games: when a player is about to get to another level, there may appear a paragraph describing the area that he is about to enter, which costs the player the element of surprise, and the experience of seeing it by himself. While “forewarned is forearmed,” it comes at the expense of the imagination.

One of other most useful writerly tools that can be easily applied to game developers: critique testing your product. Writers read their work, or send it to a few colleagues and, based on the reaction and constructive criticism, they are able to fix the holes in the plotline or characters. The same technique can be used by game developers; they will sit someone down and ask them to play their game. Not only do they receive feedback, but they can also observe the player’s reactions, which helps them to look for various bumps; like a slow character reaction or a confusing setting. For example, I have tested a game in this manner, and when I got confused about a certain gameplay element, I asked the developer “what does this mean,” to which he replied with “what do you think it means,” thus learning of the problem through my eyes.

Lately, game developers have joined forces with writers, trying to create a good storyline—not just a serviceable one. Sadly, good writing doesn’t sell games (though there are some exceptions). The dynamic in the gaming industry is similar to that in the writing industry; both game developers and writers have to pitch their game or a novel to a publisher. And a publisher wants something that will sell, make money and, in most cases, they want something that is not necessary innovative, or too far outside of the box.

However, we have come a long way from finger-painting the cave walls. They say that the future of storytelling lies in the video game industry: after all, today this industry is worth about 90 billion dollars annually, and the prediction is that, by the year 2017, it will be worth at least 102 billion dollars. If we take the Hollywood film industry by comparison, Hollywood made 10.4 billion dollars in 2014, while that year the video game industry made 83.6 billion dollars.

Perhaps something else that is noteworthy (beside games) in the future of storytelling is VR, or virtual reality. Virtual reality refers to immersive media or computer-simulated reality, which “replicates an environment that simulates a physical presence in places in the real world or an imagined world, allowing the user to interact in that world. Virtual realities artificially create sensory experiences, which can include sight, touch, hearing and smell.” Much ink has been spilled on the use of virtual reality, and not only can VR be useful in game design, but also in education, training, heritage and archaeology (virtual walks through different time periods, or Google Earth’s new virtual tour of Petra), architectural designs (architects or consumers will be able to take a virtual tour of the model), urban design and therapy. The basis of VR is immersive storytelling.

I had the pleasure of experiencing virtual reality first hand, by using a special headset (a headset with a screen spitting out two near-square video feeds, with each feed at a slightly different angle, so the player’s brain is tricked into thinking that the two 2D images are one 3D one) and watching a short movie about a tiny mouse. I truly did feel as if I was really there, not to mention that the mouse was incredibly likeable, especially because it seemed like she was trying to communicate by using various gestures.

Some say that virtual reality is going to catch up with video games very soon. By the end of the year 2020, the virtual reality market is supposed to be worth about 70 billion dollars. While games provide us with the experience of the character, literature provides empathy for the character, and virtual reality gives us both. Not only we can walk the halls of Hogwarts by ourselves, and not just by manipulating controllers, but we can actually experience and empathize with people far away from us. The first world countries are so detached from the horrific events of the third world that we blindly walk on by. Reading of an earthquake is one thing, but what if we could actually simulate being there? Walking around in someone else’s shoes? Perhaps the future of storytelling holds far greater significance in our world than we can imagine? Perhaps it can change the humanity itself, as the ultimate tool for empathy?

Some say that films and novels will become obsolete. Many, in many eras, have prophesied the death of written literature, saying that audiobooks or eBooks or even films will replace black ink on paper, yet we persist. Storytelling is a shape-shifter, re-created by the human imagination, over and over again. Games may be its future, but literature began once upon a time, and I’m certain it will live happily ever after.

Katarina Ferk

is a comparative literature and literary theory graduate, trying to make it as a writer in YA fiction world. Binge watching The 100 is her guilty pleasure, but she still makes time to sit down and do some serious writing on her laptop. Katarina was in the top fifteen in the international competition called Young Writers Prize, hosted by Hot Key Books, in the top five in a short story competition, presented by Cosmopolitan, and she won the second prize in Slovenian Short Story Competition, hosted by NMN.