One of the main activities of humankind is telling stories. We all tell stories.
When we describe the day just passed to our partner over dinner, we’re telling a story. When at the pub with our friends we list the problems we’re having at work, we’re telling a story.
Every day, we are also passive listeners of other people’s stories.
When we read a book, the author is telling us a story. When we watch a commercial on television, the advertisers are telling us a story. When we listen to a song, the singer is telling us a story.
If you think about it, every day we create and listen to stories. The whole world is some kind of cacophony of stories being mixed together and bouncing from one person to another, in an endless spiral of stories, tales, anecdotes.
We are stories telling other stories.
All these stories are being told and listened to because telling stories is a need.
It's always been.
From the beginning of humankind, man has told stories.
Telling stories is an activity that humankind has been doing since before language and writing were even invented.
But what is our purpose when we tell stories? And how can all of this be applied to the creation of a videogame?
The series of articles Interactive Storytelling will deal with this topic, looking into the mechanisms of classic and modern narrative, and will provide you with tools to tell an interactive story.
Why We Tell Stories
Telling stories can have different meanings and goals. Sometimes a story is a way to tell a fact; sometimes it is a way to exorcise our fears; in other cases someone tells a story just for fun.
Telling stories is a way to express our personality and creativity, and to show aspects of our thoughts that we wouldn’t be able to express otherwise.
Indeed, storytelling and communicating facts are two very different matters.
When we are communicating and presenting facts, we simply expose the pertinent events. That’s what journalists do, for example: they present the facts as they happened, without personal details, opinions, or feelings. This way, the listeners can make up their own minds.
But when we’re telling a story, the narrative becomes personal: we add our opinions (even just indirectly, through a look or tone of voice—or, if you’re Italian like me, using gestures), we emphasize details that are important to us, and generally we filter the facts through our way of looking at things and our cultural background.
Somehow, we customize the story we’re telling so that our audience will get the message we want to convey, and not simply a list of the events. We don’t want our listeners to come up with their own opinion; we want, first and foremost, to give them ours.
And we do so because we want our storytelling to cause a response.
We want people listening to our story to have fun, or feel moved. Or to sympathize with us, or get angry or comfort us. Even when we’re not the subject of the story, we tell it to create an emotional response in the other person—maybe to share a feeling.
Let Me Give You an Example
Case 1: you’re at the pub sitting by the bar, watching TV. The journalist is telling the news about the corruption of an important entrepreneur and explains that, as a consequence, many workers are going to lose their jobs.
Response: the information is presented in a neutral way, and you process it according to your personal situation and decide how to respond. If you’re a worker, you’re going to feel empathy and then rage. If you’re a writer, you might get curious, and maybe will want to write an article about the story. If you’re a rich entrepreneur, you may be wondering about the possibility of easily taking over the business of the corrupted man. Whatever the response is, it’s up to you.
Case 2: a few minutes later, a man arrives and sits next to you by the bar. He starts to talk and tells you how desperate he is because he’s one of the workers that are losing their jobs, and he has a daughter in high school and a mortgage to pay.
Response: the information is now presented to you in the way your interlocutor intended. His story is filled with rage and disappointment. You process it according to your personal situation, but you’re influenced by the way the story was told. Your response may be similar to one described in the first example or, instead, could be different, affected by the man who told this story.
The better the narrator is at telling stories, the more he will be able to affect who is listening.
So, in summary, we can say that we tell a story to convey a message with the goal of provoking a response in who is listening.
How We Tell Stories
The Tools of the Trade
We use tools to tell our stories: these tools are not just pencil and paper or a microphone. As we’re going to see in greater detail, there are tools we often use without even realizing it.
For example, voice modulation while telling a story is a tool. Emphasizing a word and speeding up or slowing down the narrative are all means of pushing our listeners to respond the way we want. As narrators, we have the power to direct our interlocutors’ reactions towards our desired goal.
As professional narrators (because these articles are precisely meant to give you tips so that you will be able to apply the concepts of storytelling to products like videogames), we have a duty to do so.
We cannot write a story without knowing where we want to take the players or what kind of response we want to provoke in them: otherwise, our narrative is going to be very weak.
And in order to make the most of it, we have to correctly master the tools at our disposal.
The first group of tools are interdisciplinary experiences. As narrators of a videogame, we can exploit a great deal of things to tell stories. Background music, for example. Or the lights in a scene; or the chromatic correction applied to the game camera.
But, in order to use these tools, we have to know them. The first advice I can give you, then, is give yourself a smattering of each of these tools. You’re a Game Designer, that’s true, not an Artist or a Sound Designer. Nonetheless, you can’t be totally unaware of how their tools work. Ignoring the basic rules of directing will cause you to write a cutscene lacking in rhythm or using angles not suitable for conveying the intended message to the player.
Clearly, if you work in a very large team, there are going to be people who specialize in those areas—and they will get to decide, probably, the final results regarding those aspects. However, having some knowledge of their fields will allow you to create a common ground and engage constructively with them, and to suggest what your vision is like as author of the story.
For example, if you want to convey fear or anxiety or discomfort during a game sequence, you can use certain kinds of background sounds or give the camera a particular angle. But in order to do so, you have to know how adjusting the angle of the camera can affect the player’s response. All of this is part of the storytelling: camera, music, sounds, colors, are all tools to exploit.
A journey has a direction that tells the story with images and colors.
So, the more you know about those, the better.
The second group of tools are life experiences. When I teach Game Design, one of the first things I notice is that students think of themselves as potentially good game designers because they play a lot. It’s clear that playing frequently and knowing the relevant market is essential. But just playing will make you a poor narrator as you will tend to repeat what you saw in someone else’s game.
Instead, doing things that are different from playing will widen your knowledge and culture.
One of the secrets of telling a good story is knowing who you are addressing. And, as a result, adjusting the way you tell the story so that it will affect your target audience as much as possible.
Now, if your target audience consists of people passionate about opera, one of the first things that you’ll have to do is attend ten performances at the opera house. And not just that. You’ll have to go hiking, paddle a canoe, paint a picture.
Because you’ll learn new and different tools and ways of handling the narrative that will widen your possibilities in storytelling. The more you know, and the more you've studied or tried, the better you’re going to be at telling a story.
Man and Animals
Making Up Stories
One of the main differences between man and animal is the ability to tell a story. Many animals are able to communicate among themselves and transmit to each other information about the location of food or a source of danger.
However, exactly as we do, animals are able to tell themselves stories. An animal can tell itself a story through dreams, while sleeping. I recently observed my cat. When he’s asleep, he often makes the same noises and mouth movements as he does while hunting for bugs around the house. I did a little research and found papers that show that cats dream things that have never happened.
But the big difference from our dreams is that animals cannot invent using their imagination. Their dream, even if it’s never happened, is based on actual facts. We, instead, are free to dream and make up stories based on things that not only have never happened, but that can’t happen (raise your hand if you’ve never dreamed of having some kind of superpower!).
Imagination, therefore, is the third tool at our disposal to tell stories: we can make them up and make them believable—sometimes until our listener is convinced that what we’re telling is the truth. I think that politics is based on this principle… but I’m not a great expert in politics.
The other great difference between us and the animals is the ability to build upon the ideas of others, in a collaborative way.
For example: an ant is able to say to another ant, “There’s food further in this direction.” But a third ant, looking at the conversation, cannot add, “And if you go even further, you’ll find water.” The third ant, in order to express its message, will have to start a new conversation from scratch. This may look like a small limitation, but it’s actually the reason why humankind has been able to achieve such great scientific progress. Because when we study something, we start from what others have studied and demonstrated and told us, for example through a book. We don’t have to start from scratch and can focus on the next step.
This is a way of telling stories cooperatively. Cooperation, which is our fourth tool, is a form of interaction.
And we can define interaction like this: a reciprocal exchange of information between two parties, through a medium.
Storytelling in Video Games
Finally, after this long premise, we can deal with the heart of the subject: why and how to tell stories in a videogame. We've made clear what storytelling means, what the purpose of storytelling is, and which tools we can use, and we also gave a definition to the word interactive. Which is really important because, with the birth of videogames, a form of narrative previously considered “experimental” has actually become one of the most popular and relevant kinds of contemporary narrative: interactive storytelling.
And this is the reason why storytelling in videogames is so important: because the way you can tell stories with a videogame, you cannot tell them through any other medium.
In fact, videogames allow you to organize messages and to provoke reactions so complex and so powerful they make narrative a unique and, in many ways, new experience.
Yeah, of course, Interactive Storytelling will be one of the new "big things" in the future.
Man has been telling stories since forever, but only with videogames did he start telling interactive stories.
But what is a classic narrative like? And how is a videogame narrative different from a classic one? Finally, how many kinds of interactive storytelling exist?
The next article will answer these and other questions.