“But I don’t want her to die,” the player exclaims, tapping rapidly on the controls. “She’s gotten through so much already, and her friends would be devastated. Besides, she was so close to figuring out what happened to her family. If she dies here, will we ever know?”
The player’s efforts were in vain, and the character on the screen perishes. The player slumps down, devastated, but then picks up the controller to keep going. “Maybe I can save the rest of them,” he says.
If this experience sounds familiar to you, you probably know what it’s like to be engrossed in the story of a video game. Sometimes, when you pick up the controller, it’s not about the gameplay or mechanics — it’s because you care about the events unfolding onscreen, and want to know what happens next.
Whether it’s the solemn quest for survival in The Last of Us, the bonds you form with the characters in the Final Fantasy series, or the time-altering choices to make in Life is Strange, video games have told some amazing stories over the years. But how do they do it? What makes video game narratives work?
I tried to find the answers to these questions by learning about what’s going on behind the scenes of a great video game story.
Why Tell a Story Through a Video Game?
There are plenty of modes in which a writer can tell a story. Novels, films, and comic books are more straightforward ways of doing it. And you don’t need a story to make a good game — just look at Tetris and Pac-Man.
There are a few unique things about storytelling in games, though.
The first is player choice. As an interactive medium, video games are the only way in which the player can truly influence where the story goes. Many successful games have allowed players to “choose their own adventure,” and reach an ending based on their decisions. The player is literally in the shoes of the main character and feels all their internal conflict, which creates a sense of personal involvement in the story.
Detroit: Become Human is an example of a game with incredible depth to player decisions. Set in near-future Detroit where androids are created to serve humans, the game follows the androids’ journey to resist their oppression and fight for their rights as equal members of society. The player plays as three androids with different missions, and is forced to make constant decisions between acceptance, morality, and survival. The charm of the game lies in the fact that no two players’ paths are the same, and every player’s path is meaningful.
“We want to transport the player to our screenwriting room and ask [them] this question, this dilemma, and understand what [their] opinion is,” said lead writer Adam Williams. “That’s why two players will hardly have the same exact gaming experience. Their experience will somehow become a reflection of what they think, what they feel.”
Other narrative titles driven by choice include Life is Strange, where you play as a high school girl with the ability to rewind time; Until Dawn, a horror game where your choices determine whether you’ll survive; or any game in the popular “dating simulator” genre. Despite these games’ differences, they share the common feature of allowing the player to dictate the events in the story.
But responding to player choice isn’t the only thing games can do. Some games prefer to tell a linear story with minimal choice and immerse the readers in a different way. Florence is one such game.
A Love Story at Your Fingertips
Florence is a unique experience. It’s a short title originally released on mobile that takes only 30 minutes to play through. Yet, its story had an incredible impact on its players, receiving reviews describing it as “beautiful,” “moving,” and “made me cry.”
The game follows Florence Yeoh, a 25-year-old woman who’s been living a monotonous, unfulfilling life, who then falls in love with a man named Krish. The player solves puzzles representing Florence’s daily life as she moves through her relationship, from beginning to end. The entire story is told through almost no words, and contains no choices that influence the ending.
Florence’s lead designer Ken Wong, who also developed the well-known mobile game Monument Valley, comes from a multimedia background and looks at games through an artist’s eye. He explained to me that when designing Florence, his primary goal was to immerse the reader into the story through touch-based interactivity.
“Florence is immersive because you are actually using your finger often in the way that Florence is,” he said. For example, when Florence is listlessly scrolling through her social media on the train, the player scrolls through social media with her. When Florence is at work and solving boring math equations, the player is solving them with her. Wong explained how Florence was designed from the ground up for iPad users, so the team focused on how players actually use their fingers on their devices.
Some of the most impactful touch controls in Florence are metaphors of how she is internally feeling. When Florence and Krish go on their first date, the player is tasked with piecing together jigsaw puzzles to form Florence’s dialogue bubbles. Initially, the puzzles are hard — Florence is nervous, and she doesn’t know what to say. But as she and Krish get to know each other better, the puzzles become easier and easier, as if the conversation starts coming naturally to her.
The chapter “Let Go,” where Florence must learn to let Krish go from her life, contained an especially apt metaphor that came naturally to the team. “I bet that people would touch the screen, they’d try to figure out what to do, and the thing to learn is that you actually have to do nothing,” Wong said. “You have to let go and not touch it at all, and Krish will fade out of her life.”
Essentially, Florence’s storytelling is unique because it was designed for players to have a tactile experience of how Florence is feeling. “I usually don’t enjoy games that just tell their stories through cinematics or text, because that’s really inserting a movie into the game, or inserting a novel into the game,” he said. Instead, he believes interactivity like this is key to video game storytelling.
Florence does, however, occasionally borrow from film and graphic novels, thanks to its comic-book-like format. Wong cited Asterios Polyp and Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley as two of his greatest inspirations. He also mentions his love for the language of films, and the way they convey emotions wordlessly through body language and facial expressions. Many moments in Florence’s story, such as the parallel chapters “Moving In” and “Moving Out,” are quite cinematic in their execution.
Wong described his team’s creation process as similar to creating a storyboard for a film, but with a strong focus on game mechanics. “We split up the story into chapters. Each chapter is like a beat in the story, and it has a theme,” he said. The theme could be anything from “meeting for the first time” to “moving in together.” “The idea is at the center, like ‘What game mechanic represents that idea best?’ So, I would do one drawing for each of these beats and put them on the wall so we could look at it.”
Florence’s choice of having a completely linear narrative was deliberate, so no player could make the “correct” decisions and avoid the truths of life the game wants to get at. As an artist, Wong finds it incredibly important that Florence describes a life experience. “We were trying to represent that romance and relationships is not all good stuff,” he said. “Sometimes it can be really painful, and sometimes two people can really care about each other, but it doesn’t work out.”
Florence’s approach to immersion — by allowing the player to “act out” the protagonist’s thoughts and movements — is quite unique, but similar techniques have appeared in other types of games. The Room series on mobile, for example, is an escape room puzzle series known for its immersive tactile controls. The player touches, twists, and opens items with their fingers, mimicking the motions of the protagonist. When it comes to metaphorical actions, Danganronpa is a mystery series where the player must “shoot” their words like bullets onto others’ contradictory comments, breaking them apart and pointing out the flaws in their argument.
Such devices are commonly used in story-based games without choice, especially those of the puzzle or mystery genre. But choice-based narratives can utilize them to great effect as well. Detroit: Become Human takes a step in this direction, by having the player engage with the controller when carrying out small hand-based motions. For example, the player would swipe the touch pad to flip the pages of a book, or turn the joysticks in certain directions to mimic opening a door. These games show us that video games can be far more than a flashy choose-your-own-adventure novel. They can truly bring the player into the story through tactile actions.
Of course, sometimes, a game doesn’t just want to tell a story. Instead of looking for gameplay designed to immerse a player in the story, many games want to look for a way to tell a story that supports its already existing gameplay, which leads to a rather different narrative process.
When Narrative Takes the Backseat
As popular as story-driven games are, most games weren’t initially designed to tell a story.
Oftentimes, the answer to “Why tell a story through a game?” is “I have an amazing game here, but I also want it to tell a story, so the gameplay can mean something.” If you’re developing a shooter game, a platformer, or a MOBA, you’d probably want to put gameplay above all else, so the experience of playing the game feels good to your players.
This is why many game writers are sometimes not brought onto the scene until rather late in a game’s development. Even if they were present from the beginning, writers often need to compromise with other aspects of the game and confirm their writing to fit what the game designers come up with, rather than shape how the game tells their story.
“I think some aspiring game writers who love stories and want to help bring them life in games don’t necessarily understand what a small piece of the overall development effort narrative usually is, even in games that seem to be very much focused on story quality,” said Evan Skolnick, a prominent game writer who has worked on titles including Star Wars: Battlefront and Cuphead.
Yet despite this, many gameplay-focused games have managed to tell great narratives, without sacrificing the quality of their gameplay. This is more impressive when considering the fact that some of these games don’t have access to the more traditional modes of storytelling like dialogue screens and cinematics.
For example, how does one tell a story in a card game?
Narrative in the Cards
Legends of Runeterra is the League of Legends card game developed by Riot Games, and has been making a name in the CCG market since its release in 2020. As a digital card game, it’s got plenty of ambitious goals, and advancing the League IP through the lore of its cards is only one of them.
Like many other card games, the cards in Legends of Runeterra tell a story as you play them. You’ll find some of these stories sequenced through the art and flavor text of a set of cards. In other cases, the story unfolds on the battlefield, where units attack or defend with characteristic war cries, and related characters may have a short conversation if they meet on the board. Every move in the game builds into a narrative, where Demacian soldiers are lining up to hold back the aggressive Noxian army on the other side, or sneaky Ionian units are slipping past enemy defenses to carry out an assassination.
Martin Montgomery is the narrative lead of Legends of Runeterra, who coordinates the team behind these stories. He began his career in animation, then worked as a cinematic artist for games before becoming a game writer. When it comes to designing narrative in Legends of Runeterra, Montgomery freely admits how narrative must exist to support gameplay, instead of the other way around.
“In my opinion, writers in games are here to elevate a game’s design,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I obviously love story-driven games—I’ve worked on them—but in general, games need to be fun first, as gameplay is the primary draw.”
Because the narrative is only a part of the whole, Montgomery explains how his team’s process of designing narrative is inherently collaborative. When designing a new set of cards, from the onset, the Narrative, Art, and Design teams come together to determine the set’s overall themes. Together, they decide what kind of “feeling” they want the cards to have, and what they want the players to do with them.
After the design team comes up with general design archetypes, Montgomery explains, the three teams go into a process called “softslotting." Members of the Narrative, Art, and Design teams split into small groups to develop ideas for story, card illustrations, and card mechanics. “This is a pretty fluid part of the process where ideas can come from any member,” Montgomery said. Therefore, writers may propose ideas for a story to be told in the cards, or they may work off a piece of concept art or a card mechanic, assigning it its own segment of lore.
Once the ideas are refined, the teams go into full production on the cards. “It’s a ton of work between writing scripts, VO records, art production, sound design and a LOT more in between,” said Montgomery.
This process works quite differently from planning out a story and making the game mechanics fit that story, but it allows gameplay and narrative in Legends of Runeterra to feel interconnected and cohesive. For example, Mountain Sojourners is a card that buffs your entire field if they’re all supporting each other, because they’re all working as a team to climb Mount Targon. Aurelion Sol, a space dragon who creates galaxies, is an extremely expensive unit that creates Celestial cards in your hand.
Of course, the collaboration between teams also means sometimes, trade-offs must be made. An idea that works well narratively may be difficult to balance or not fun to play, so it may not make it to the final stage.
“We try and create the space for Design to make the necessary changes to hit goals of balance or fun. This might mean letting go of a story idea I love,” Montgomery said. “But this goes both ways! Design regularly accommodates Narrative in adapting a mechanic to fit a particular theme, which we writers always appreciate!”
A Legends of Runeterra blog post details the process by which the champion Ezreal was created. Initially, the design team leaned into Ezreal’s lore — he is an explorer who loves traveling around the world and discovering artifacts, so they made his card shuffle five artifacts into the deck that he had to draw. That design didn’t quite work out and confused many Ezreal players at Riot.
“I remember during one of these feedback sessions a Rioter—who I won’t name—said they didn’t know what Ezreal’s deal was,” said Riot Dovagedys in the blog post.
So the team changed course and landed on Ezreal’s final form as a Mystic Shot spammer, which wasn’t quite as flavor-heavy, but was easier to comprehend and much closer to his League counterpart.
Such experiences aren’t uncommon in the video game world. Many game writers agree that working around limitations is necessary for creating an engaging game, which is something you won’t come across when writing novels or films. George Ziets, video game writer who worked on inXile’s Torment: Tides of Numenera, explains some limitations writers may face in his interview with Forbes.
“Game genre determines the kind of writing that the game needs,” he said. “In a shooter, you’ll be writing lots of short, snappy lines for characters to be shouting while the action plays out, or clever back-and-forth banter between your squad-mates as you move through the world. […] User interface can limit writers too. If you can only fit 100 characters into talk bubbles that appear over characters’ heads, that’s going to strongly affect the style of your dialogues and the way your characters communicate.”
Despite the myriad of limitations game writers may face, Ziets points out how video game storytelling is the only medium that lets the player take charge. “Even on games where story takes center stage, that story is a collaboration between the writer and the player,” he said. “The one unique thing that games can do is react to the player’s decisions and change course to reflect their choices. We’re not telling the writer’s story – we’re telling the player’s story.”
Therefore, successful game writers consider the link between the player’s actions and the narrative, and find ways to balance player freedom with the story they want to tell.
This is a particularly tricky task in a game like Legends of Runeterra. Unlike RPGs, where there are clear missions and storylines, card games have little narrative structure, and players have utmost freedom in how they choose to play their deck. Champions who have never crossed paths will become allies in a deck where they work with each other. Regions at war will team up, and close friends might find themselves on opposite sides of the battlefield. Despite the developers’ best intentions, players will never play cards in exactly the “right” way to tell a story.
“It’s for this reason that we try not to tell intricate, linear stories in our sets—1v1 play just isn’t the place to meaningfully experience that,” Montgomery explained. “Instead, we’re hyper-focused on effectively and economically communicating character, worldbuilding, and story moments.”
By design, voiceover scripts for Legends of Runeterra must be short, so they don’t interrupt gameplay. Therefore, when cards on the field interact, players get but a glimpse of how the characters would act in a what-if setting. For example, if Zilean, a time-traveling chronomancer, sees the enemy play a Zilean, he’ll say “Ah, a paradox.” Then, the other Zilean would respond “At another time, we might have been friends.”
These interactions are short, but they help the player learn a bit more about who these characters are and what their world is like. The player can feel like they are in full control of their cards, while also immersing themselves in the world of Runeterra.
It’s a difficult balancing act, but that’s what makes video game narrative so engaging.
Words of Advice
Video game writing, or narrative design, is one of those careers that didn’t exist until only recently. It’ll likely see more attention as the video game industry grows, as more and more games are seeking to tell a great story or attach a quality narrative to its gameplay.
For many young writers with a love for gaming, video game writing is an enticing opportunity. The video game medium can make storytelling incredibly difficult, but it’s also the only medium where the player gets to experience the story with themselves at the center. It’s hard not to notice the magic of video game storytelling, and it’s easy to want to create that experience yourself.
I asked the narrative designers I interviewed for a word of advice for anyone who wishes to do what they do.
“I think this is true for anyone hoping to break into games: make stuff and meet other folks who are making stuff,” Montgomery said. For writers, this means start writing anything you like — and then finish it, because lots of professional work requires the resiliency to complete a project. Then, seek out like-minded creators, like artists, engineers, or designers to take your work to the next level.
Wong had similar advice. “Just start creating,” he said. “One of the amazing things about game development now is that there are so many tools out there that are either free or really cheap. There are so many tutorials online; there are so many people who want to collaborate.”
“And I think it’s important to remember that we’re always learning,” Wong added. “We’re all students. So there’s no reason to be intimidated or to feel like you’re not good enough. You learn, and you get good by just doing the thing.”
There is always more to learn about video game storytelling, because of just how expansive it is. Every game tells its story in a different way, whether they allow the player to sit back and immerse themselves in the storyline, or to take charge and create the story themselves. The sheer diversity of methods — and the amazing experiences that each of them can create — is what makes video game narrative so fascinating.