When taken as a whole, it’s really only been in the most recent sliver of video game history that we’ve seen an explosion of robust narrative development. Sure, we must acknowledge the early pioneers, companies like Infocom and their titles like Zork. Still, modern video games, thanks to Bioware, Telltale, Quantic Dream, and others, have provided immense richness within the limitations of hardcoded storylines, settings, and decision points, richness that was not reachable earlier on.
Tabletop RPGs arguably got to this point earlier and have been there longer. It is simply more straightforward to write out several possible endings to a given module or adventure path than have to code them out and make more ingame content knowing that many players will never see it. In a weird way, though, that’s why I think looking at how narrative complexity presents itself in video games is so interesting and instructive. When video games fracture their storylines into multiple endings or complementary subplots (like, for example, character romance subplots), it has to be deliberate. Everything is designed intentionally, and for some players figuring out the combination of actions that leads to a given outcome is part of solving the puzzle of the game.
Typically, a video game story is designed to start branching out among many different decision points, and then collapse back into a set of endings. In many games, like a lot of open world games, the middle is a cloud of disconnected points, with sidequests and subplots hanging out in the space of the game but not necessarily connected. Some games do place important narrative decisions within sidequests; games like The Witcher 3 and The Outer Worlds at least acknowledge the impact of secondary storylines in their endings even if they don’t necessarily affect ‘the ending’. Other games, like the ones I will discuss, have every ingame action potentially contributing to how the game ends. This is a level of granularity which tabletop RPGs essentially never need, because there’s always a human adjudicating how everything resolves, making it more, well, analog than the video game alternative. What makes video game plotting so interesting though, is that everything is built quite intentionally, in a way that GMs can, if not exactly emulate, at least learn from.
Intentional design leads you down fascinating roads, and with that in mind I want to examine two games which not only utilize intentional design to the best of its ability, but also use it to subvert the tropes that have appeared from the patterns and norms that came before them. Life is Strange not only tells a great mystery and coming-of-age story, but also pokes the “They will remember this” style of decision-based gameplay in the eye by giving the main character the ability to reverse time. Meanwhile, The Stanley Parable stands as the court jester of all narrative games, deconstructing video game design on multiple levels while making players laugh through the whole thing.
Life is Strange
The current design norms of the adventure game genre were established in earnest when Telltale Games released their The Walking Dead game in 2011. Telltale was founded by a trio of LucasArts designers, who took their former employers’ legacy in the point-and-click adventure game genre and turned it on its head. While LucasArts had an impressive legacy in the space, their games based on puzzle-solving and famously known for incredibly convoluted puzzle solutions (I still remember being angry at the walkthrough for the original Sam and Max) weren’t really holding up in the 2010s. Telltale’s choice to focus on narrative over puzzles paid off in a big way, at least until the company went out of business in 2018. When Dontnod Entertainment released Life is Strange in 2015, they were strongly following the Telltale model. Life is Strange succeeded where Telltale was flagging with its mostly licensed titles, though, and produced two sequels and a prequel between 2015 and 2021. Though all of the games in the series follow the same basic model, the first one is most interesting both because it was more daring with the breadth of its storytelling than later games, but also because of the core mechanic.
In Life is Strange you play Max Caulfield, a student at Blackwell Academy in Arcadia Bay, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Early on in the game Max is faced both with reuniting with her former best friend Chloe as well as discovering that she has the ability to reverse time. Now, reversing time in a game that’s built on choices is in itself an interesting choice, and that’s one of the things that made the first game much more narratively subversive than the sequels. Being able to play through multiple different outcomes whenever big decision points come up is a really interesting way to examine a game built around decision points, and also serves as a puzzle mechanic when you can see something occur and then go back and stop it, as an example. Of course, the game’s willingness to let you muck with time is limited, and it is a noticeable annoyance that you are restricted or prevented from using your powers at the most pivotal moments, a strong indication that the game’s designers had some trouble writing through the implications of what Max would be able to do if they kept the power internally consistent.
One place where there is interesting interplay between your ability to reconsider your choices and the plot of the game is in how much variety there is in terms of when the consequences of your actions are made manifest. Max has the ability to reverse time maybe 30-90 seconds, so for any decision where there are longer term consequences, you simply have to go with it. Of course, we can then break into metagame thinking about this, because you can just replay episodes of the game to see how different decisions affect things. One interesting design choice that is carried over from Telltale games is that each Life is Strange episode has a decision scoreboard, where you can review the choices you made and also see what the broader playerbase did. As I found out when playing these games this scoreboard can also reveal to you potential side stories and actions you didn’t even know were a choice (and often also reveal that 76% of players on Steam didn’t know either).
While Life is Strange has a large number of decision points that affect how the game plays out, it does make the ending of the game fall largely onto one major late game decision, which has to do with a massive storm that’s coming to Arcadia Bay. It’s one failing of this sort of narrative design that’s hard to overcome: If you want to make the climactic decision feel weightier, it often comes at the expense of the weight or effect of earlier decisions. Of course, for the other game I’m looking at, even the simplest decisions carry massive weight, like which hallway you’re going to walk down, or how long you decide to sit in a broom closet. Yes, I’m serious.
The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable is, arguably, a parody of games like Life is Strange (though it was released before Life is Strange itself), where narrative freedom is made to appear broader than it is through clever developer tricks. While other games have made wry commentary on the relative linearity of video game stories before (Bioshock comes to mind), The Stanley Parable makes it plainly and hilariously obvious. In The Stanley Parable, you play an office worker named Stanley, who one day discovers that all his coworkers have disappeared. What Stanley has that most office workers don’t, however, is a narrator. Voice actor Kevan Brighting plays Stanley’s narrator, who describes in rich detail what Stanley does as he goes to solve the mystery of his missing coworkers. Of course, you are not Stanley, you’re at home on your computer, so you can, within the confines of this office, do whatever the hell you want. While obeying the narrator’s prompts tells a tidy little walking simulator story, every time you disobey the narrator or otherwise go off on your own introduces another strange plot thread you can follow. Unsurprisingly, some of these get incredibly meta, including levels from other games, the narrator having long-winded arguments with a silent protagonist, and sometimes just getting stuck in a box of placeholder assets. To get even more ridiculous, the ‘Super Deluxe’ edition of The Stanley Parable was released earlier this year; this version includes, among other things, a slightly different version of every single one of the original storylines which are triggered by finding and holding onto a metal bucket.
One of the things that makes The Stanley Parable work as well as it does (aside of course from the excellent writing) is that it serves as a look behind the curtain. Games with a story told within the play space (as opposed to through cutscenes or other static methods) have a complex set of events and triggers going on behind the scenes, but also have to be built in a way that prevents the player from interfering with how they’re executed (…or not). Of course, that’s also what gives The Stanley Parable a good amount of its irony…it’s a hardcoded (though branching) story about ruining the developer’s story.
I also find the writing of The Stanley Parable makes it very easy for a tabletop GM to empathize with the plight of the narrator. The ‘broom closet ending’ lampoons the all-too-common phenomenon of players latching on to a detail in a GM’s description and spending a significant amount of game time investigating something which the GM actually hadn’t written a thing about. Similarly, the familiar feeling of the players going off and trying to do something completely unrelated to what was prepped while a plot hook sits there untouched is basically the underlying story of a solid chunk of the plotlines within the game. And while it’s good to empathize with those perspectives, it’s also good to, well, laugh at them. The ‘master of the story’ is a character to be laughed at, and even if not everyone in the hobby agrees, sitting outside this fictional narrator and taking the opportunity to laugh is a good perspective exercise for every GM. A game player is going to take every shred of freedom afforded them, and The Stanley Parable is a perfect way to remind the GM in your life (whether it’s you or someone else) of that fact, even when player freedom only leads to broom closets and placeholder assets.
The fact that video game narrative is constructed quite differently from TTRPG narrative is one big reason it can be instructive to look at it from time to time. Both Life is Strange and The Stanley Parable represent different deconstructions of video game story tropes, but they also serve as observation exercises for any role-player, GM or otherwise. Within a video game you have a limited story to tell and a limited space in which to tell it. Both Life is Strange and The Stanley Parable serve as maximal examples of video game narrative, cramming as many decision points and inflections into the playtime as possible, while still maintaining both reasonable pace and a decent amount of illusionism. When you run or write a tabletop campaign, you have much more freedom in your story space than a video game developer. You don’t have to script dialogue, nor worry about distinct outcomes to specific encounters. That said, the deliberate way that video games must be written is worth looking at. Even if you’d never want to run an RPG with a dialogue tree or mission objectives or a narrator, you probably do want to run a game where each encounter and each NPC has a purpose and fits into a larger whole, even though such a game would likely be very difficult to manage. Still, that’s the interesting thing about this contrast. Video games have a finite set of scenes and outcomes, so those scenes and outcomes are developed very clearly and deliberately. In a TTRPG, even a single scene you’ve prepped carefully can have a huge number of permutations depending on what players do, and the games generally intend for that freedom to occur. Even though these media are very different, though, they still are both games where players are trying to make impactful decisions in interesting circumstances. You wouldn’t necessarily want to prep your RPG like a video game, but it’s certainly worthwhile to look at how video games achieve the story beats that they do.
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