Skip to main content
If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

Small Stories, Big Games

Could we be making better games if we weren't so concerned with front-loading our stories with the highest possible stakes?

Adrenal fatigue

I was speaking to a colleague recently, about how we relate to the protagonists we're asked to play. We fell onto the topic of a particular title, in which a loved one is killed and you travel the game world seeking revenge. I said this seemed fairly generic, but that I supposed that it was ultimately relatable, and he shook his head. For the most part, he said, "setting out to avenge a loved one isn't really something any of us can relate to. It just capitalizes on those hot rushes of adrenaline we get when we imagine someone hurting a person you love." I replied that he should please write an article about this.

He didn't. So here's mine.

"Big games need big stakes and big goals. Avenge. Rescue. Save the world. Adrenaline is instant, universal motivation"

Before I begin it's important to make a distinction: I understand that not every game is seeking to take us on a narrative journey. Many multiplayer and team-based shooters, for example, give us the rush of fast-paced combat without a round-to-round arc, and I'm in no way suggesting that we need to change that. These are essentially sports, and the competition with other players (or bots) provides all the engagement we need. I'm not expecting Call of Duty or Overwatch or Rocket League or FIFA or Tetris to chill out and let their stories breathe.

Instead, I'm looking at games that have a defined beginning, middle and end, and ask us to embark upon an adventure as the protagonist, with a focus on open world games and "walking simulators." This is because I am a AAA video game writer increasingly interested in innovative stories, and when my colleague said that we "capitalize on those hot rushes of adrenaline," it struck me as a sanity check: could we be making better games if we weren't so concerned with front-loading our stories with the highest possible stakes?

Adrenaline as Motivation

As a writer, my job isn't simply to tell a compelling story; it's to tell a compelling story that centers the protagonists and, yes, compels them to move forward. (Subjectivity vs Objectivity). In AAA games there are millions of dollars at stake, relying on millions of players to justify the investment, and that means that one story has to motivate an entire audience, made up of myriad different backgrounds and life experiences. But more than that, in an age of DLC, episodic content and microtransactions, it has to motivate players to stay in the game.

For developers of all kinds this is a massive challenge, and for a narrative team it means creating something that feels global, universal. Something to which we can all relate. When asked what we would do if someone hurt or killed a loved one, or if war threatened our way of life, we feel it immediately. I've spoken before about how risk-taking in game production is often inversely proportional to game budget, but here we see it very clearly: big games need big stakes and big goals. Avenge. Rescue. Save the world. Adrenaline is instant, universal motivation.

"Walking simulators ask us to explore. They ask us to take our time, and to learn a little more, and to spend time in the world. Those are actions"

And that's great! Sometimes. It's the same reason that blockbuster films tend to be big-budget action movies with huge set pieces, rather than anything more contemplative and quiet. But I wonder if we've become so addicted to cataclysm and catastrophe that we're getting ahead of ourselves, and constantly trying to up the ante without seeing any real returns. We're killing protagonists' loved ones without getting a chance to know them in life. We're swearing that the world will end in 72 hours, while hoping players will stay in the game for 80+.

They're good games, Brent

When it comes to games that play with different and more unusual mechanics and "smaller" stories, independent studios produce the lion's share. Among them, the genre that stands as the polar opposite of the high-energy, adrenaline-focused AAA world is the "walking simulator." They are largely combat-free, more about observation and interaction than pure action, and in most cases you cannot kill or be killed. But they also ask us to explore. They ask us to take our time, and to learn a little more, and to spend time in the world. Those are actions. And at times, whether in a game like Firewatch or What Remains of Edith Finch? or even the most terrifying walking simulator of all time, the now-defunct P.T., I've wished aloud that more games would allow me so much space to do what I want. In those titles, I am not being forced into action, but I take it of my own volition, motivated by curiosity and discovery.

Why is it so rare, then, to see this sort of storytelling in more mainstream games? Why do I need to be shoved into action when I can explore, and uncover the story myself? When I started this article I spoke to Darby McDevitt, a narrative director at Ubisoft Montreal who is perhaps best known for his work on Assassin's Creed, a franchise that certainly doesn't shy away from action, murder and the apocalypse. I asked him whether he felt that raising the stakes was a necessity in AAA. Is this all we can make?

He replied that it was less a narrative failing, and more an, "outgrowth of our over-reliance on a narrow battery of game mechanics. In the best and worst games, most developers assume that a large portion of the narrative should be propelled forward by the player's active engagement with the game mechanics, so if your only interactive levers are shooting or swinging a sword, the story - more often than not - is going to be a story that can be 'solved' via violence."

"Too often do I find myself 28 hours into a game thinking, 'Wait, what was I doing again? Oh right, avenging my family'"

And of course, nothing gets the blood pumping like violence. But McDevitt goes on to raise something that perfectly elucidates my concern: "it's [nearly] impossible to pace an open world game with traditional narrative techniques, unless you make the open-ended quality of the game part of the story."

The open world dilemma

Open world games might be the area in which our dependence on adrenaline fails us the hardest, and brings back an old enemy: ludonarrative dissonance. We seem largely unable to marry the urgency and seriousness of a main story kicked off with action, danger and overwhelming odds, with an open world that prioritizes freedom and going at one's own pace. In our quest to beat back linearity, we're meandering all over the map.

In these games, we play characters who have, for example, had their child kidnapped, perhaps the most terrifying and tragic event that can befall a parent, and one that demands undivided attention. We are to believe that this child is their whole world, and the raison d'être for the entire campaign. It is the motivation for us to push ever forward, and fight our way to the resolution. But then, once we are in the open world, we meet a random man on his way to market, and wouldn't you know it, his cart lost a wheel! He asks us to help him out by finding X pieces of wood in exchange for X currency. And instead of replying, "What? My child is missing, are you serious?", we say yes and spend an in-game day helping a stranger with his inconsequential problem. In these cases, what was the point of trying to rile the player up, if we were only going to ask them to slow down? Why bother creating a premise dependent on urgency if we're simultaneously hoping they spend 30+ hours exploring other options?

It seems the answer is that we mostly ask, "What would make the player do X?", and answer right from the top shelf: we have to make sure this happens, or else. It makes me wonder whether we're collectively stuck, or if it's simply a matter of seeking the easiest solution to the problem of connecting high-octane, often violent gameplay with a story that justifies it. Either way, too often do I find myself 28 hours into a game thinking, 'Wait, what was I doing again? Oh right, avenging my family', with all the enthusiasm of a person who has just walked into their kitchen and forgotten what they intended to get.

Although, isn't that what we're doing to players? By writing these kinds of plots, we're doing something like this:

"What is the value of freedom and action if it comes at the cost of immersion, coherence and relevant emotion?"

Q: "What would make the player walk into the kitchen?"

A: "They're starving! They haven't eaten in days and there's a hot dog in there."

Q: "Perfect. But what's going to keep them in the kitchen? What else is there?"

A: "Every other food."

We wonder why some people never get around to the hot dog. The problem above could be solved by simply stating that the player is hungry and ought to check the kitchen and figure out a solution, but our need to use adrenaline as motivation insists, 'No, they must be starving'. We claim the character needs X, but we don't back that need up in any meaningful way. The lesson becomes that the character's story has no bearing on the character's world, that the stakes aren't real. We need to strike a better balance.

Striking a better balance

Sean Vanaman is one of the writers behind Firewatch, a walking simulator. The premise is that the player character, Henry, is processing his beloved wife's descent into early-onset dementia, and has retreated into the woods by way of taking a job as a national park fire lookout. It's a unique premise in that it sets the player up as someone who needs time to think and explore the world around him, and isn't rushed into action. When the game's mysteries begin to emerge and the pace picks up, it's a palpable and important shift. I asked Vanaman how his team managed to direct player progression while simultaneously allowing for exploration and freedom.

"In Day 2 of Firewatch, as you're wandering around looking for these antagonistic teens - and also, hopefully feeling like there's more going on than meets the eye - we paced out that entire 'day' through level design, walk/run speed and the character's conversation speed. There are a bunch of things that happen, some big moments ('I've discovered something intense') and some small moments, and getting a sense of how well we dole those out with the tools we have at our disposal is basically a measure of how well we can do our jobs as video game storytellers. We literally moved the triggers and level art around inside of the engine to modulate the heart rate [of the player]. We wanted to make a game where one little thing could make a big impact in terms of energy without needing some heart-pounding action sequence."

It's easy to dismiss this level of commitment as a necessity of the walking simulator format, and to suggest it can't be applied to games where we want players to experience both complete freedom and a high-stakes story. But what is the value of freedom and action if it comes at the cost of immersion, coherence and relevant emotion? People are quick to scoff that walking simulators are just story, but they still seem baffled when the latest open world, AAA revenge fantasy thrill ride is criticized for weakness in its plot.

"If we step back from the edge a bit, and allow the adrenaline to ebb, we might learn what else can drive players"

So what can be done? The answer is simple to devise but difficult to implement, because it requires something that a great many developers cannot easily afford: belief in themselves as storytellers. Yes, it's easy to go for the gut-punch, the low-hanging fruit of explosive action and that 'hot rush', but it's not always necessary. We can design and craft stories that motivate the player in other ways: human curiosity, a yen for discovery, and the desire to move forward and accomplish, or even, yes, to fight and kill, can be driven by more than the tropes we're dead-set on using.

The payoff

In recent years, we've seen some major AAA success in this area. Grand Theft Auto is a great example, where the self-interested, violent nature of the player characters justify the action in the main world, and are well matched with the main campaign. And perhaps even more successful is this year's Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where everything accomplished in the real world serves to rebuild the amnesiac Link, establish the world and eventually lead to the final battle. Even the latest entry in the incredibly strong Uncharted franchise - often cited for ludonarrative dissonance by having its charming, good-guy protagonist kill hundreds of people - did the series' best job yet of justifying player action and balancing it with world interaction.

Still, all of those remain based in combat, so there's plenty of work still to do when it comes to making mechanics that serve a different kind of energy. But it makes me want to see more, and to play more games that make me feel at home in the world; free in the sense that I can am unbound and liberated, rather than free because nothing matters.

It will take getting back to the storytelling DNA shared by AAA and indie titles alike, but I believe that moving in this direction is key to bridging the gaps we've created. If we step back from the edge a bit, and allow the adrenaline to ebb, we might learn what else can drive players, and the ways in which they move, explore and achieve when they are unburdened. The benefit won't simply be better stories; understanding the different ways that players can be motivated will help us to understand what else they can do, and open up a world of new mechanics.

Darby McDevitt puts it succinctly: "Typically we just say 'you're an ex-cop' or 'a gladiator' or 'a closeted hero' etc. If we were brave we would say, 'our player is a doctor' or a 'janitor' and we would develop fun mechanics based on these roles. I can easily imagine more story-driven games based on this format... but who is daring enough to make them?"

Given that in the past few months alone I've been a 20 year-old cat returning to her post-industrial town seeking friendship and solace as she copes with dissociation ("Night in the Woods"), a harried chef travelling back in time to save the Onion Kingdom with my cooking skills ("Overcooked"), a single dad looking for love ("Dream Daddy"), and a nervous partygoer desperate to find a cute dog at the party (Will Herring's "Pet the Pup"), it's increasingly clear to me how thinking differently about our motivations can open up new worlds. And as both a writer and a player, I hope that some of our biggest studios and most popular games can begin to do the same.

Related topics
Kim Belair avatar

Kim Belair

Narrative designer

Kim Belair is a writer, narrative designer and co-founder of Sweet Baby Inc, a narrative development company based in Montreal. In the industry since 2013, she's worked with companies including Ubisoft, Rocksteady, Square Enix, KO_OP, Valve, and JuVee Productions to bring games and stories to life. Beyond narrative work, Kim is an advocate for representation and inclusion, and is currently leading an initiative aimed at supporting, training and empowering marginalized devs. When she isn't working, Kim can be found collecting skulls, thinking about food, and looking at her phone. Find her everywhere @Bagelofdeath