Throughout history, storytelling has been one the most important elements in connecting human beings. Powerful stories—whether they make us think or feel, imagine or remember—make us aware of our unique character and our shared human experience.
A reader opens a book and is drawn through the lines of text. In a darkened cinema, an audience is captivated and transported to a world of sight and sounds. With simple game mechanics, a player guides a character through an onscreen narrative. And, in the age of smart technology and virtual reality, some of these stories are allowing increasing levels of audience engagement, transforming the player into an active participant through immersive stories.
In the world of video games, this process is experiencing a revolution; producing entirely new vehicles for immersive storytelling and narrative techniques. Rather than simply being told the story through the words of an author, or observing a story through the lens of a film director, in video games, the player becomes the story.
It’s largely unexplored territory. With so many variables and unknown factors to consider, how does one ‘go where none has gone before’ and create these multi-branched narratives for a new generation of immersive experiences?
Firewatch is a mystery set in the Wyoming wilderness, where your only emotional lifeline is the person on the other end of a handheld radio. Set in 1989, the story unfolds when something strange draws you out of your lookout tower and into the world below to explore a wild and unknown environment.
The Rise of the Narrative Designer
Critical reviews demonstrate that the quality of the narrative has become one of the most crucial features—ahead of graphics quality and even gameplay—of today’s most successful video games.
The challenge is clear: to create multidimensional video games with interactive and immersive storylines, where color design choices and subtle interactions are just as important to the storyline as dialogue or setting. And rising to meet the challenge, at the new frontier of immersive storytelling, is an entirely new breed of storyteller: the narrative designer.
According to NarrativeDesign.org, a publication written and edited by narrative design pioneer Stephen Dinehart, the role of a narrative designer in the game development process is to champion story, craft compelling narrative elements, and define the systems in which they’ll be delivered to the player.
Among others who carry this new breed of hybrid talent is Evan Skolnick. For Evan, crafting entirely new immersive experiences that push the boundaries of narrative is just a typical day at the office.
A former journalist and Marvel Comics writer, Skolnick transitioned into video game development in 2001. Since then, he’s worked across different platforms and genres, on dozens of well-known titles, including Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2, Star Wars Battlefront, Mafia III, and The Walking Dead: A New Frontier. He has also written one of the best-selling books of its kind, Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques published by Penguin Random House, and has earned the adoration of some of the most discerning critics in the video game industry.
We had the chance to sit down with Evan and talk with him about his work and this new generation of immersive stories and interactive experiences.
Can you tell us how you became involved in video game storytelling?
I had worked in traditional storytelling for a decade, when I moved into games, as a producer. My studio, at the time, was a small shop in New York City, called Hyperspace Cowgirls. I almost immediately identified the need for someone with professional-level writing ability to infuse some ‘narrative love’ into the games. A similar thing happened when I was a producer at Vicarious Visions, an Activision-owned studio. My background as a Marvel writer and editor came in handy more and more, as I started out, helping out on various projects with dialogue polishes. This eventually culminated in my landing the lead writer spot on Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2, which of course was the perfect combination of my two careers up to that point.
Let’s dive a little deeper into narrative design in the world of video games. We are all familiar with how narrative applies to a traditional story—such as a play, a movie, or a book—but when we step into the fully immersive environment that is a video game or other interactive media, how does this traditional narrative structure change?
As you might expect, the main thing that makes game storytelling so different from every other kind is the introduction of the player into the equation. This has three major implications. One, the player isn’t just watching the main character; he or she is the main character. Two, the player expects to be able to influence the game world, the characters and, of course, the story. And three, during gameplay, stories that weren’t planned by a writer or anyone else on the development team can emerge spontaneously.
Asked by a dying friend to look after fourteen-year-old Ellie in a post-pandemic United States, Joel, a ruthless survivor, treks across the country and struggles to survive the realities of this new world. At its core, the story is about the bond that forms between Joel and Ellie – a story of loyalty and redemption.
So, the player is the protagonist. Can you expand on that?
It means that the fictional goals of the player-character must be aligned with what the player who’s controlling the character actually wants. Otherwise you can run into what we call ‘ludonarrative dissonance’, which is the unpleasant situation where we’re asking players to do something they don’t want to do…or prevent them from doing what they want.
And in terms of how the player influences the narrative in the game world…how do you create those bumpers or boundaries?
The player wants to affect the world, and what happens in the story. Many games strive to find ways to give this power to the player, but the fact is that we just can’t afford to do it on a huge scale, in most cases, while still having anything resembling a crafted story. The cost of developing entire game areas, missions, characters, and so on, which most players will never see because they took a different path through the story, is just too prohibitive.
That said, stories can emerge spontaneously. This is easier to understand if you’re a sports fan. In every baseball game stories unfold—stories that could never have been predicted by the people who designed the rules, or built the stadium, or drew the chalk lines. The rules, and the system, and the interactions between various players can generate an endless variety of stories within the play space. It’s also true in many video games. This means we can leverage a different kind of storytelling—what we call emergent storytelling: the players’ personal stories that only they experience. These stories are not so much designed or written, but just made possible. And while they might not hold up so well under scrutiny, when it comes to structure and flow, they are deeply personal, and often incredibly memorable to those who were ‘there’.
So, as a game writer, you work with these new tools, and you set aside other tools you might have been pretty reliant on—such as having total control of everything that happens in every scene of your story. It can be a really difficult adjustment. I know it took me quite a few years to fully understand and accept that writing for games is fundamentally different from writing for traditional, linear media, and to change my way of thinking about storytelling in the interactive space.
In a strange and mystical land, a young boy discovers a mysterious creature with which he forms a deep unbreakable bond. The unlikely pair must rely on each other to journey through towering treacherous ruins filled with unknown dangers. The player must take control of the young boy and learn how to communicate with his giant companion in order to survive.
How do you approach the task of designing a player’s freedom within a fictional world? Is there any comparison with Choose Your Own Adventure books that facilitate reader-chosen narratives?
It’s very rare that I find myself in that kind of position, because the games I work on are not text-only, and once you are talking about art, animation, and so on, the ability to branch your story repeatedly like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel goes away. Of course, in most games we try to give the player the feeling of steering the experience, and so it’s the ‘illusion of choice’ that we often go for. Many games featuring choices that affect the story often ‘pinch back’ to a singular result (sooner or later) so the team isn’t trying to build two, or four, or eight different games.
When you receive a brief for a new game project—particularly one with a concept that exists in a world entirely different from our own—where do you look for inspiration, both for story and for interaction design?
Rather than try to see every new movie that comes out, I’m more likely to watch a favorite film, for the thirtieth time, to analyze what makes it great. Same with books. I’m a huge fan of the early Pixar movies; they have that incredible combination of humor, action, and emotion. In the interactive space, it’s been awhile since anything really blew me away; that might be, in part, because I’ve become so familiar with how the sausage is made.
Set in a post-apocalyptic New York City in the aftermath of a smallpox pandemic; the player, who is an agent of the eponymous Strategic Homeland Division, commonly referred to as simply “The Division”, is tasked with helping the group rebuild its operations in Manhattan, investigate the nature of the outbreak and combat criminal activity in an immersive multi-player open world.
Is there a typical structure for the creative process? A formula that helps chart the path—regardless of the game at hand?
There’s no such thing! Every game project seems to have its own process and methods, and as a game writer you constantly have to come into that system, and find where you fit. It’s not like in more established forms, such as movies, where the roles have had over a century to solidify, and the format has remained essentially the same. I think games are too young, and too constantly changing, to settle down like that.
How do you keep pushing the envelope in your craft, as both technology, and audience expectations of story become increasingly more challenging?
Virtual reality is going to be an interesting place to play from a storytelling perspective. Ultimately I think VR has stories that will best be experienced within that immersive space. However VR is also extremely constrained, because everything is always first person and we can’t ever take control of the camera away from the user. This really cuts us off from a lot of important visual storytelling tools.
My approach is always to try to identify each platform’s storytelling strengths and weaknesses, and try to go with them, rather than fight them.
Set in 1960, an airplane crashes into the ocean and leads the protagonist, Jack, to an underwater city built by a business magnate as an isolated utopia. Upon discovering a genetic material used in the city to grant destructive superhuman powers, Jack has to find a way to escape while learning about the underwater city’s disturbing past.
Finally, in your professional opinion, which game exemplifies all of the best qualities of narrative design?
BioShock remains my go-to choice for excellence in narrative design. Anyone with any interest in video game storytelling should play through this stunning game. It doesn’t just have an amazing story, and an incredible story world—it also uses, and even subverts, many of the very elements that make playing a game such a unique experience.
It’s a story that could only ever be experienced in a game. It’s a glimpse of the vast frontier of new storytelling experiences that await us in the future of this still-young medium.
A New Frontier
There are few things that could ever match the simplicity and joy of peeling open the first page of a fresh new book, but with the rise of the narrative designer, there are now new portals of storytelling opening up to reveal fresh new narrative dimensions ready to be explored.
Thanks to pioneers like Evan Skolnick—equipped with an ever-expanding arsenal of immersive technologies for crossing this vast new frontier—the art of storytelling, and the ways in which we now become a part of it, is on the verge of being changed forever.
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