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The Power of Story in Video Games: How Gameplay Narratives Impact Player Engagement

Published: August 11, 2021
The Power of Story in Video Games can Make Games Much More Engaging to Where you Care about the Characters' Survival and Outcome

Flashy graphics and action-packed gameplay trailers will draw many players to new games. Yet, compelling storylines are often what keep players engaged with a game. As the video game industry looks to sequels, DLC, and subscription-based revenue models, they need highly engaged player bases. Story forms the foundation of most video games. Without a good storyline, players can't fully engage with their characters or their plights, and they find themselves without a compelling reason to keep playing.

To illustrate our point, we will provide some examples of games whose incredible popularity is due in large part to their excellent storyline. We will also highlight a couple of games that have relatively shallow gameplay, but their creators continue to produce a lot of lore to keep their players immersed.

Allowing Players to Create and Destroy Storylines in Bethesda Games

Bethesda produces both the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series of role-playing games. These games are open-world and allow players to explore vast landscapes, complete quests, collect things, or just get lost in the wonder of what they see.

Choosing different paths is important to a good storyline like in Elder Scrolls with many bridges

For Bethesda, the gaming experience is less about the story and more about creating one. The game doesn't just tell players what to do or where they should go. Instead, it offers a landscape that gives them choices for how their own stories unfold.

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim has its roots in Nordic folklore and mythology. Players are able to explore this world at will, shaping it into what they want it to be. The game has so many unique and interesting side quests and story interactions available, many players have completely different experiences on second or third playthroughs.

The developers have created a world with so many different and unique stories that players are able to create their own paths in it. You can join dark a dark assassin's guild or be a noble knight. The choice is up to the player. You can even slay the NPCs giving you the quests and just move into their house 😈.

Bethesda also publishes another open-world RPG series: Fallout. The games in the Fallout series take place in post-apocalyptic America, where civilization is shattered by an atomic war. While some of Fallout's content can be a bit silly (i.e. alien invaders), the game doesn't lack for interesting choices to shape the story.

Compelling Story in Fallout Video Game Shows Main Character Entering Dangerous Sphere with Glowing Green Weapon
Image Courtesy of Bethesda Softworks

With approximately 70 million copies sold between the Elder Scrolls and the most recent edition of Fallout, it's clear that Bethesda has a winning formula. Giving players control over their own worlds entices them and keeps them interested in coming back for more.

A Game is a Series of Interesting Choices

Sid Meier, one of the most notable game developers of all time and the vision behind the Civilization games series built his games based on a single principle. He believes that "a game is a series of interesting choices."

Civilization games are turn-based strategy games where players are tasked with guiding their chosen civilization to greatness. One of the hallmarks of these games is how every choice carries weight in deciding victory or defeat.

Civilization Gameplay Showing How Many Different Player Choices Impacts the Game's Storyline

Players must manage their empire's military, economic, and cultural development. There are not right choices, yet everything has a consequence or is a trade-off.

For example, in Civilization games, players can choose to conquer other civilizations with military might or convert them peacefully through religion or culture. Furthermore, the game's tech tree offers a number of ways for players to advance from one era of human history into the next, always giving each decision deep consequences that shape both gameplay and storyline.

Storytellers in game civilization looking out over world of wonders
Image Courtesy of 2K Games

The Best Games Turn Players into Storytellers

Players want to make impactful decisions that affect the fantasy in which they're playing. The best stories in gaming are those that create empathy for the player and allow them to feel like they're part of the story - not just someone who is passively watching it unfold.

Some of the best examples come from Telltale Games. Their most notable game is the Walking Dead game, where players are tasked with making decisions for a group of survivors in a zombie apocalyptic world. Each decision has far-reaching consequences that impact both gameplay and storyline.

Power of Story in Video Games Walking Dead Shows Player Making a Choice During Zombie Apocalypse

Unlike more action-packed adventure games, Telltale decided to focus on the story over combat. Their narrative-directed approach to storytelling creates a bond between player and character - one that doesn't exist when you're just watching from afar.

Their Walking Dead game has sold millions of copies and is one of the best adventure games ever made. With its focus on storyline over graphics, the Walking Dead has also held up much better than many other adventure games from the same period.

Telltale games are not alone in developing amazing story-driven games. Story-driven adventure games like Life is Strange and Detroit: Become Human also place story development at their forefront.

AI character staring at the player with a futuristic city in the background
Image Courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment

In Detroit: Become Human, the developers have even placed narrative over the character. The player's characters can die without the game-ending. The story continues from the perspective of another character.

Games without Storyline can Benefit Greatly from Lore

Some gaming genres don't lend themselves well to storyline development. For example, multiplayer shooters and MOBAs, which reset the battlefield every game have a very limited number of story choices.

This is where lore (i.e., background information) can be very helpful to players who are seeking a deeper understanding of their favorite games' world and characters. For instance, for games such as League of Legends, developers provide expansive backstory. They also create beautiful cinematics to help the game characters come to life for the characters.

Video Game Characters Looking Out over Town In Arcane Background Story for LoL

Riot Games, the publisher of League of Legends, is even developing the animated TV show Arcane on Netflix and a LoL role-playing game to help develop their imaginary world of Runeterra where the characters in League of Legends originate.

Final Thoughts on the Power of Story in Video Games

You will find that most games that stand the test of time or have a large fan base have well-developed storylines or allow the player to develop their own stories. Humans have always been drawn to great storytelling, and video games are no different.

One of the best ways that recent advances in technology have helped story-driven games is in the development of great handheld gaming PCs. These have replaced the clunky, low-res hand-held consoles of the past and the pay-to-win mobile games. They provide gamers that want rich, immersive stories an opportunity to continue their fun on-the-go.

There are of course many other wonderful stories in video games than we’ve highlighted here. If you have a particular story that you just love, please let us know in the comments below.

Arcane Image Courtesy of Riot Games.