People who defend stories in video games often claim that stories are valuable because they contextualize gameplay, thereby giving the player valuable information related to play while ostensibly just giving them information about the game’s world or central plot. For example, an opening cutscene is, on its face, just telling the backstory of the game. However, it also imparts important information that makes learning the game smoother: who is the enemy, where the player is supposed to go, what the overall goal of the game is, and so on. It is supposed that if the player was just dropped into the world without this bit of story, then he might be confused and rudderless. This benefit of story is overstated, and I’ll explain why.
There has been some effort to expand the concept of story to an unreasonable scope. This expansion of the definition is often the effect of starting with the premise that story must be central to games. When you are set on seeing games as a storytelling medium, you will herd every element of games in the cramped space under the umbrella of story. I have heard people classify practically everything as story. That includes theming, visuals, the player’s experience with the game, the game’s development history, and the player’s skill progression. Let’s look at the concept of story simply. What is the story of The Lord of the Rings? Frodo taking the ring to Mt. Doom, and all the subplots and character development contained therein. This is the definition of story I will be working with. I consider that the most obvious and useful definition.
So, what is wrong with using story to covertly transmit valuable information about play to the player? It is problem that all story in video games has, regardless of its intended purpose. It gets in the way of the game. Every second spent reading scrolling text, watching an opening cutscene, listening to conversations, poring over journals, etc. is a moment spent not playing the game.
One way to avoid the annoyance of unwanted story while satisfying people who like story attached to their games is to make the story unobtrusive. Dark Souls is often held up as the model of this sort of minimal storytelling; the cutscenes can be skipped and the dialogue can be clicked through quickly.
Now there is a new problem. If the story is meant to convey play information and the player can skip it, then he is missing out on the information that was valuable enough to slip in with the story. If that information really is really valuable, you have to make story mandatory so players won’t miss it. The solution of making story unobtrusive defeats the purpose of including story in the first place. So if you use story for that purpose, then it will always intrude on the game experience.
Important play information can be (and is) transmitted by more elegant methods that don’t have the drawbacks of story. Dark Souls includes a few of these. I am not the first to note that the game uses positioning of characters to indicate their hostility or friendliness. Laurentius, for example, is found trapped in a barrel, unable to attack. There could have been some text in the game that said “Long ago, humans were fed to the Gaping Dragon. There are still some there, and they will be grateful if anyone helps them out.” Instead, Laurentius is just placed in a non-threatening position which allows players to approach him with security. Similarly, Solaire’s position and pose are non-threatening and allow the player to understand his role in the game as an ally without reading text or watching a cutscene about it.
Aside from careful placement and posing of objects, visual and sound design can also convey play information that story is supposed to be good at conveying. If you want to make sure the player knows certain characters are the enemy, make them look and sound evil, menacing, or threatening. If you want an area to look safe, fill it with defenseless people and friendly noise. This is all really obvious, but people claiming story has a unique ability to convey play information need to be reminded of these common techniques.
Gaming conventions do a lot of work directing play with information as well. The story of a video game will sometimes say something like “Orcs are ravishing the land” or “Devils have invaded our holy city.” However, players already know orcs and devils are evil. Conventions in the medium are already in players’ heads. Games can rely on them. In that respect, conventional (or “generic”) designs can be extremely useful in directing play. They are unobtrusive and make in-game goals obvious.
Of course, games sometimes buck these conventions, and the designers has to accommodate for the player experiencing that surprise. If you want a game where orcs are allies, you can make the player character an orc. You can make the orcs more human-like as opposed to the usual animal-like design. You can place and position orcs in non-threatening ways. You can put an orc front-and-center on the box. Even in cases where convention is being broken, story still does not have value in directing players away from their expectations of conventions. Other game design elements and even packaging/marketing design are still less obtrusive in directing players away from those expectations.
Difficulty is another way to convey play information. Dark Souls is famous for this. If you go into the graveyard near Firelink Shrine, you will probably die quickly and realize you should come back later. Story would be undeniably clunkier in delivering that message, without the benefit of players practicing the mechanics while fighting the skeletons in the graveyard. I won’t go on with regard to this point, since it has been explained ad nauseum by every critic the great things Dark Souls does with difficulty.
The claim that story is valuable because it can covertly transmit valuable play information to the player is wrong. Story is uniquely bad at it, in fact. It can either be obtrusive to make sure players get the information, or skippable so it’s possible that players miss valuable information. Visual design, sound design, object placement and posing, difficulty, and level design are all underappreciated by players as means to give the player information about play.