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Storytelling in Games

We’ve been telling stories all the time, from the start of time. Stories are as old as humankind.

We tell stories not just to entertain, but to survive and thrive. They help us pass on knowledge, and to imagine the future.

Storytelling grows and changes with every new medium that we create. We innately understand that mediums like books, films, and music are story containers. But what about video games? As a relatively new medium, games can create stories in ways completely different than what’s come before.

We’re going to take a closer look at storytelling in games in four parts. Each week we'll release the next part.

Part 1: Meet the Players

Part 2: Mechanics: Telling a Story with Verbs

Part 3: Environmental Narrative: Storytelling in the World

Part 4: Emergent Narrative: The Story About the Story

With these ideas in play, you can expect to create wonderful and compelling stories within your game world. But not only that; there will also be the opportunity to bring to life brand new experiences for players everywhere to enjoy and share with each other.

PART ONE: MEET THE PLAYERS

The most fundamental difference between games and other mediums is that games don’t have readers or viewers or an audience— they have players.

When you listen to a song, watch a film, or read a book, there’s really not much to “do.” There are no choices to make along the way; the storyteller sets the pace and guides you along.

A game, on the other hand, can be seen as a set of meaningful choices. As the player explores the game and makes those choices, stories emerge in many different ways.

To a game designer keen on telling a traditional, linear story, this can be challenging, as players will do unexpected things. They might skip a cutscene that shows a vital piece of story development. They might uncover important clues to a mystery in an unpredictable order. When a game’s story “wants” them to leave the village and fight the dragon, they might choose to spend all day picking flowers instead.

So it’s important to understand the players. These are the people who in many ways will become the main characters themselves, and are partners in creating the story of the game.

Of course, they all want different things.

Every player comes to a game with different motivations and goals. Some want to build, some want to destroy; others want to set a new record, and there are some that just want to hang out and chat.

There are many novel ways to look at the types of players, but a simple categorization is Bartle’s Taxonomy, created by Richard Bartle in 1996. It describes four basic types of players, based on how they interact with a game and each other. Bartle’s Taxonomy names them as “Achievers”, “Explorers”, “Killers”, and “Socializers”.

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“Achievers” are the ones who are looking to be on top of the leaderboard. These will be the “completionists”, the “speed runners”, who will face every challenge you place in their path. If it’s possible, the “Achievers” will be the ones to accomplish the goal. They are playing to win, and they’re going to win everywhere they can.

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“Explorers” are what they sound like. They enjoy immersing themselves in the game’s world and discovering its secrets. They will be the players who will find your most well-hidden easter-egg no matter the cost. If there’s a side-quest, they’ll chase it, leaving the main storyline of a game in the background. No part of your game world isn’t worth exploring for them.

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“Killers” are competitive players. Despite their grim name, they're fun to play games with. Unlike the Achiever, whose interest is in beating the game, this type is most interested in proving their skills against other players directly. They also naturally are drawn to ways to experiment with the game and alter the world around them.

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“Socializers” are the ones who love to engage with other players. They want to share their resources with others and want to make alliances. At the same time, they’ll be the players who enjoy games with fascinating characters for them to talk to and understand.

Real life players are more complex than these simple types, of course. But these are still a good starting point for looking at how each type engages with a game’s story, and what they value about it.

Just like how we have our personal preferences of movies genres, like “action flicks” or “romcoms,” it follows that these player types gravitate toward certain types of games. For instance, a fast-paced racing game is going to appeal more to Achievers and Killers than an Explorer or a Socializer. If you can also wreck and ram the course and other players, you have hooked the Killer type. If there’s a way to customize your car and send emotes to other players, it’s more interesting to the Socializer. If the racing courses all have hidden secret paths and easter eggs, the Explorer is more likely to play.

Typically a game will have a mix of these elements and a game designer must make choices about what to include and what to leave out. This applies to a game’s story as well.

We’ll take a closer look at how that’s done in the next article, starting with the one of the most basic building blocks of games: Mechanics. In the meantime, why not take the official quiz to find out what your Bartle type is.