3 approaches to storytelling in games

Simon K Jones
18 min readJul 23, 2018

I was asked to give a talk comparing storytelling in games and literature by Access Creative College. This article is based on that talk — you can read the first part here. This article contains some spoilers, primarily for the game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

Last time I wrote about genre and perspective in games, compared to prose fiction. Now it’s time to take a closer look at how games can be used to tell stories, exploring why it’s such an exciting, diverse and unusual medium.

It’s almost impossibly hard to define what a game ‘is’, which is testament to how fascinating it is as a form of artistic expression. Easier to identify are storytelling techniques in games, of which there are at least three distinct versions. These all boil down to the intersection of story with game design, and how that balance is weighted.

#1 Using games to tell your story

The priority here is to tell a story: that is the primary goal of the project, with games chosen as the delivery mechanism for the story. It’s likely that the story concept was the inception of the project.

Mass Effect 3, with my unique version of the protagonist

The Mass Effect trilogy is arguably an example of this form of storytelling. The games shifted their mechanical approach drastically over the course of three games, while retaining the same focus on story. The detailed role playing elements of the first game were considered to be relatively unimportant for the sequels. Other game elements such as driving vehicles and scanning planets for resources came and went with each game: these were story games first and foremost, with the developers experimenting with how to fit game mechanics around their story.

While the games never quite settled on what kind of game they wanted to be, they did succeed in fully exploring the empathic potential of having a player-crafted protagonist. The lead character’s behaviour and morality could be heavily influenced by the player, as could their physical appearance. Games such as these are unique among other mediums for allowing players to define their entry point: while movies are still struggling with representation, but in 2012 Mass Effect let you choose gender and skin colour and have that person be the hero of your story.