Computer Games as Storytelling

Computer Games as Storytelling

Most computer games these days have some kind of narrative to hold them together. What’s the point in blasting away all those aliens if you never end up saving the universe? Why bother running and jumping through all those rat-infested tombs if all you get are a few points? Story can provide the motivation for all the various actions you perform in a game, even if the story is sometimes thin or implausible.

Of course, there are those who object to the idea that games are a visual storytelling medium. Greg Costikyan argues quite convincingly that games are not stories. But he writes about games in general when he says this. Most gamers who prefer “adventure games” agree that the two essentials in adventure games are a good story and well-designed puzzles. This is perfectly understandable when we consider that adventure games had their beginnings in text-only games. In fact, there is still a lively community of text adventure aficionados out there, who lovingly call their favourite games “interactive fiction.” That name ought to give an indication of the importance of story.

But is it Art?
The kind of writing that appears in interactive fiction or text adventures isn’t really the same as the kind of writing you find in a good novel or short story. The interactive nature of these games doesn’t really allow for beautiful descriptive passages, as Gareth Rees demonstrates. Then again, the kind of writing you find in fiction isn’t the same as what you need for poetry, or song lyrics, or screenplays. I don’t think very many people would argue that poetry or song lyrics or screenplays can’t be literary just because they’re a different kind of writing from fiction.

Writing for graphic adventure stories is different again. Text games naturally have only text with which to express themselves; graphic games have graphics, too. In fact, most graphic adventures have very little text. They still offer some opportunity for a writer to show off, though, even if most gamers won’t really notice. Most graphic adventures need dialogue for their characters, and dialogue is one of the most challenging kinds of text to write. When it’s done poorly, people will notice and when it’s done well, people won’t notice it all (but at least they won’t call it crappy). The structure of a good story is basically the same, too, whether it’s a novel or a graphic game with many possible endings. In the creation of the story lies a place for a good writer to get to work.

All Kinds of Stories
There are all kinds of amateur game designers out there using games to tell stories. Interactive fiction and graphic adventures come in as many genres as traditional fiction. You can find spooky horror games, rollicking fantasy quests, humour, science fiction, even romance. It’s getting easier and easier to create your own games, too, with many freeware options for both graphical point-and-click games and text adventures. The hardest part is coming up with an idea that will translate well into a game.

Step-by-Step Adventure
So you think you want to try creating your own game? Here are some basic steps to follow.

1. The Idea. You’ll first need to come up with an idea for a narrative that would work well as a game. It might be a good idea to start by looking at what others have done. For interactive fiction, sample some of the offerings at the Interactive Fiction Archive( an ftp site). For graphic adventures, you might want to start with commercial products available at your local game store. Adventuregamers.com has a good list of recommended games for adventure newbies. Or you can check out software sites like the one for Adventure Game Studio, where games created with AGS are available for downloading.

2. Graphics or No Graphics. Once you know more or less what your game is going to be about, you need to decide if it’s going to be graphic or text based. If you have no artistic skill, you may want to stick with text-based, though there have been graphic adventures done with stick figures.

3. The Plan. When you’ve decided between graphics and text, it’s time to map out your story in more detail. You probably won’t have it planned to the last word until you get to the end of creating, but you’ll at least need a detailed outline (remember you can always make changes). It’s important to figure out if the story will be completely linear or if it will branch out into more than one possible ending. Knowing what obstacles will appear and what sorts of puzzles you’ll have is helpful, too.

4. Language? Once you know what you’re doing with the story, it’s time to start working on the actual game. That means knowing what language to write it in, or what software to use. Stephen Granade at Brass Lantern discusses the pros and cons of various languages you can use to program your game. Or you can use one of the many freeware packages for creating graphic point-and-click adventures. A couple you might want to look at are AGAST and Adventure Game Studio.

5. Away You Go. When all that’s done, when you’ve figured out what your game is about and decided whether or not to make it graphic, when it’s all planned out and you know what language or software you’re going to use, it’s time to get on with it. Get creating! Tell a story through a computer game.


Niko Silvester started writing stories at the tender age of six. She badly wanted an expensive toy, and her mother wisely gave her paper and pencils and crayons and suggested she write a story about it. She hasn’t stopped writing since.

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