Story Telling In Video Games

Story tellers have always been looking for new and more creative ways to express themselves and/or entertain the masses. I think that, if handled correctly, video games can be the most immersive and creative medium of all. But what is the correct way to go about telling a tale in such an inherently interactive environment? Over the past several years, various people and studios have experimented in an attempt to answer this question. The solutions some have come up with have been absolutely amazing in some cases, controversial in others and a complete failure in a disappointing number more.

You may have heard of The Chinese Room. They are an independent developer who has gained some fame for making two such infamous story-based games. The ‘walking simulator’ is a derogatory term which (so far as I know) was invented to describe the games that The Chinese Room is known for. Dear Esther is the first time I’d heard of them myself. This is a ‘game’ which I believe I have complained about before on this blog; the amount of interaction the player has is minimal: hold ‘w’ and move the mouse to point in the direction you want to walk while a mopey man talks in your ears about something. I honestly gave up listening to him after only a few minutes of him complaining. A mistake, it turns out, as the mopey man who talks way too much turns out to be the device by which the entire story is told. You walk around a deserted island until he runs out of stuff to complain about. The end. There is some kind of gameplay here, but I fear it was not intended by the developer; the level design is extremely poor. So much that it presents quite the challenge at times to work out where you’re supposed to next. Oftentimes it leads you to a dead end and you have to, with no indication at all, work out that you’re supposed to do a 180 and go back the way you came for a bit. To get through this harrowing experience, I would throw on some tracks from Spotify to listen to while I held ‘w’ down for 5 minutes straight, and discovered that you can’t actually drown yourself in game – several times. When this torture ended, I remember a great feeling of frustration that I had wasted my time on it. I was shocked to discover that I had only apparently spent 76 minutes on it. I thought it had been hours.

Their next game was Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. I did a review of it at the time. If you can’t be bothered to read that, here’s a summary: if you ignore the very nice graphics and beautiful soundtrack, the only thing impressive about this game is how the story can be so boring throughout, and yet the ending still manages to disappoint you. The story is told in basically the same way, except there is now some kind of gameplay, I’m not talking about the (still as unbelievably terrible) puzzle of a level design, but there’s a confusing light puzzle thing that is remarkably easy to solve once you work out the first one.

Everything about The Chinese Room’s games screams pretentiousness to the highest degree. They are games that feign depth and put on an aesthetic which tries to trick you into thinking that these games are deeper than they actually are. The kind of thing that some people would be scared to criticise because fans could so easily tell you that you ‘just don’t get it’ and that you’re ‘not clever enough to understand’. Well no more!

Gone Home is also a walking simulator, developed by Full Bright. I love Gone Home. It’s the only good walking simulator I’ve ever played. It tells the story of a person going home to the house they grew up in and learning about the events that transpired while they were away. What makes the game good is how much freedom the player is given to pick and choose how much information they want to learn. There’s the base story, which you have to follow, but there’s also so much more detail the player can go into in the form of documents, photos, notebooks etc. The player chooses the pace at which the story is told – this is an advantage of this medium that walking simulators simply must capitalise on if they’re going to tell a story. If you’re trying to tell a story through a game and you don’t want to give the audience the freedom to go at their own pace and skip out on stuff that might not be as interesting to them as someone else, are you sure a video game was the right medium to tell this story? Gone Home’s story is simple, easy to follow and excellently told. It doesn’t try to be anything more than it needs to be – there’s no fluff, it’s not trying to examine the human condition, it’s trying to tell the story of a family and the struggles they’ve had with living together – and yet Gone Home has had a far deeper impact on me than anything The Chinese Room has ever done. I fell in love with the characters and I left the game feeling satisfied, rather than frustrated. Gone Home is up there with the greats.

Walking simulators are quite limiting, however. You can only really tell one kind of story with one – one where the events have occurred and you’re a person walking through the rubble, uncovering the story regarding what happened. Telltale takes a more cinematic approach. I think most people know of or have played their Walking Dead game, at least the first series. It’s the only one I played. Telltale pioneered the episodic approach to releasing a story driven game. They would work on an episode, release that, and then do the next episode a month later or so. This is a pretty good system for them for a few reasons. For one thing, it means that they can have an output and release stuff on the regular without compromising so much on quality than if they had released it all at once. It also gives the players a common stopping point. It means players of the game are more likely to discuss it with each other. If the game was released all at once, it would leave players all at different points meaning that they would avoid discussing the game. By releasing the game in easily-digestible 2 hour chunks, you get the water-cooler effect, where people start discussing what they think might happen next. Then we get the peer pressure in for the people who aren’t playing the game but everyone else is. It’s a great marketing strategy.

In terms of how Telltale tells a tale, it much like watching an episode of a TV show, only you get to make some decisions like how the main character will reply to a question, who they’ll back up in a conflict, should they go to this location and do this or go to the other location and do something else. There’s also a combat system built into most of them which almost always consists of quick-time events and button-mashing, which can be exciting sometimes, but it is almost impossible to fail most of the time. Telltale has made series in this style ranging from The Walking Dead to Minecraft. They have been hugely successful, and I’m not going to sit here and write that they are bad at it; they’re not, they make good stuff, just nothing great.

I think that there are a few things which hold back all Telltale games. For one thing, production value is fairly low – animation is consistently robotic looking, graphics usually leave something to be desired and the soundtrack has never been stunning, but this is what you get when you are splitting you’re resources so much that you can be working on multiple series at once, and when you want to easily port the game to mobile.

Also a problem for me is the implementation of player choice. We know from the failings of The Chinese Room that you need player input. I’m not convinced Telltale actually really has any. I think that when you are given a choice in a Telltale game, you are being tricked. It’s not like the game ignores anything you tell it – it’s more that the choices you make have no real effect on the outcome of the story. Quite often a dialogue choice will come up and it will be designed so that whatever you choose, the same event will occur afterwards. It is, of course, unrealistic to expect Telltale to create such a branching story line so that any choice the player makes will have a different effect on the outcome. I just think that when you have a system like this, you are relying on the illusion of choice you’ve set up to not be shattered; once it is, the player starts to wonder why they’re bothering. I’ve always watched Telltale games being played on YouTube rather than buy them and play them myself.

For a more high production value game in this style, see Life Is Strange. Life Is Strange is the same sort of formula, except it’s a lot more like a normal game; you have a lot more control over what the main character, Max, does. You can walk her around, go exploring and also control time – but that’s more to do with the plot than anything else. This opens up something that is missing in Telltale games – exploration. Like in Gone Home, the player is given more of an opportunity to play at their own pace. If they were to walk into a room, they’d be able to look at loads of things in the room in order to learn more about the world, the characters and pick up hints about the plot. Choices that the player makes actually affect aspects of the game. So far as I know, nothing can change the outcome, but it makes the journey to the outcome so much more interesting, and provides a different experience for each player.

Life Is Strange is also a beautiful game, with pretty good animation, nothing stunning but better than Telltale’s stuff, and a great soundtrack. You may get annoyed with the characters, being that they’re all angsty teenagers, and you’ll definitely get annoyed if you are a teenager yourself because the character’s lines were all clearly written by someone who does not know how teenagers talk to each other – I’ll say this is charming; it did give me a good laugh while playing it.

There are loads of other games I could talk out – The Witcher 3, The Last Of Us, Uncharted – but I wanted to focus on games who’s sole purpose is to tell a story rather than be an action adventure or an RPG. I have seen proof that games can be, when done correctly, an amazing way to tell a story and an experience to remember for the player. But I think that it is so much harder to achieve this than to make a great film because there are so many variables involved. For a story to work as a game it has to be written as a game, and it should not be something that could be directly translated into a film or a book. Story telling in games is hard – but when it pays off, it can make for a groundbreaking experience.

Comment Games Reviews

The Turing Test

A little while ago, it was my 20th birthday. “Huzzah!” came my cry as my teenage years had come to an end and I entered the void of the time between being a teenager and a proper adult, with a job and a place to live that isn’t my parent’s house. One of my many birthday gifts was a game called The Turing Test. I’d asked for this because it was intriguing; I’d seen a part of the game being played on a YouTube channel, and I became very interested in it, both for the  gameplay and the discussion the game creates.

The game is a puzzle game, and clearly takes many themes directly from Portal – you’re solving puzzle rooms to get through a sci-fi facility while being talked to by a sentient robot, who turns out to be a little sinister – very Portal. The difference here is the far more serious tone that game takes, it’s a lot darker and brings up quite complicated ethical and philosophical issues, that really get you thinking while solving these puzzles. The game gets you thinking by presenting you with a well-balanced argument about AI and how you prove something has intelligence. It even goes into arguments about what intelligence even is and how you can define and measure it. By the end of the game, I had a lot to think about, which lead me to do a bit of reading on my own on the subject, but it also helps that one of my modules in University is all about AI, so I’ve been learning from that. The game is good, and I’d recommend playing it, but I don’t really have much to say on the subject. The ending is very good and left me very conflicted about who’s side I was on, the robot’s or the humans’.

But that’s not what I came here to write about, I want to write about the Turing test, as in the actual Turing test. Most people know about the original idea of the Turing test – a person sits at a computer terminal and has two conversations, one with a computer and one with another human. If the person is unable to reliably tell which is which just based on the conversation they had, the computer has passed the Turing test. For a lot of people, this is not a very convincing test, and most would argue that it is possible to program any computer specifically to pass the Turing test, without needing it to be intelligent at all. The  main argument for this comes from John Searle in a book he wrote called Minds, Brains, and Programs. The argument is called The Chinese Room. It argues that a computer can be programmed to fake the ability to have a conversation with someone using a rulebook telling it how to reply to every possible input to look convincing as a sentient being, when in fact, it’s just faking, this is basically how things like Cleverbot work. Some people have taken this argument to mean that it is completely impossible for a computer to be truly intelligent, as a computer is unable to understand the meaning of the replies it is giving and is simply pretending to be clever (like a lot of us d0).

Think of it this way: a computer knows the definition of house and it knows the definition of home but does it understand the true meaning of either word. To a human, we understand what it truly is to make a house a home™, but does a computer which is basing its understanding on:

  1. a building for human habitation, especially one that consists of a ground floor and one or more upper storeys.
    “a house of Cotswold stone”
  2. a building in which people meet for a particular activity.
    “a house of prayer”


  1. the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.
    “the floods forced many people to flee their homes”
  2. an institution for people needing professional care or supervision.
    “an old people’s home”

Both definitions are taken directly from Google, which is probably where an AI would get its knowledge from (No intelligent being would dare touch Bing). I know which house is my home – it’s not the house I live in permanently, it’s the house I grew up in rather than the house I live in when it’s term time at my University.

But, when one looks at the other side of this philosophical coin, one can see the other argument. Taking a quote directly from the Turing test game, this argument can be summarised quite neatly:

If someone copied, exactly, the brain of a duck into a digital form that could be run by a computer, and put it into a perfect robot copy of a duck, would onlookers not say, “that is a duck”. After all, if it quacks like a duck, swims like a duck and does everything a duck would typically do, would you not simply say “That is a duck!”.

I’m not sure I would make any comment about a duck if I saw one, but it does raise an interesting point: if a computer could mimic intelligence perfectly, why does that not mean it is intelligent? In the Chinese room example – sure, the person in the room doesn’t understand Chinese, but the whole system does understand Chinese, or at least appears to. This is the main argument against the Chinese room experiment, and I think that it is a very interesting one.

Humans have been known to think very highly of themselves, so when it comes to the idea that a computer could become intelligent, we tend to get a bit snooty about the attempts to make a computer intelligent, dismissing them as ‘faking’ or ‘cheating’, but I think that before we can understand how a computer can be intelligent, we need to know how a human can be intelligent, and even the simple question of “what even is intelligence? How do we measure it? Where does it come from?”

In my AI lectures, students have been asked “What is you favourite colour?” to which they reply blue, red or some other colour. Is that an intelligent answer? I walk to University every day, is that an intelligent act? Does someone have to be intelligent to walk from A to B? Or do they just do it, especially when they have walked this route before? What is it to be intelligent? What do we do that is classed as intelligent?

Sorry to end this on a list of questions, but I simply don’t have a solid answer to any of this. If you want to know more, there was a really cool program on Channel 4 a couple of days ago (that was definitely not an hour long advert for Humans season 2) which explored some of these questions, it was called How to Build a Human. Watch it, it was very cool. I won’t watch Humans, though. Maybe someone can tell me if it’s worth watching, and then I probably still won’t; I have a vendetta against Channel 4 at the moment.

Games Reviews

Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture

The Chinese Room is not new to this style of game. You may remember a few years ago when they produced Dear Esther. A game, I kid you not, I played for eleven minutes before getting bored and stopping. It wasn’t very interesting and I haven’t used to the style of game that it was. At the time, I was prone to immediately rejecting games which I wasn’t used to, and this was something completely new to me.

My opinion about this style of game changed radically when I played Fullbright’s Gone Home. If you have not played this masterpiece, stop reading this and play it now. It really is fantastic and it managed to completely change my opinion about this kind of games.

It was because of Gone Home that when I found out about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (ridiculously long title – I’ll just refer to it using the acronym EGTTR from here on out), I decided I wanted to give it a go. I wasn’t really aware that the game was by The Chinese Room when I started it, but when I found out I was willing to give them a second chance. I was ready to experience a story involving a bunch of Welsh(?) people who have all mysteriously disappeared.

What a lovely apocalypse.
What a lovely apocalypse.

The game starts off with you waking up in the middle of a road by a gate. From there you just start walking down a road. Along the way, the game teaches you the controls. Make sure you learn them; after showing them to you once, the UI clears itself from the screen and you just have to remember what buttons to press. Luckily, there’s not much to remember and you’ll probably get the hang of it quickly. It wasn’t entirely obvious to me that the game would stop prompting me so suddenly. In the game, there are some radios that are constantly emitting the sound of a woman reading out a random sequence of numbers. The first one you come across prompts you to press the X button to activate a BioShock style log entry recording. When I found the second one, I didn’t know to press X because it didn’t prompt me to do so, and I assumed that I couldn’t. It was only after about an hour did I work this out, which means I’ve missed a whole bunch of story. I may have missed some important things which would have helped me understand what was going on.

This wasn’t too bad a problem. The radios are simply an extra thing you can listen to which adds to the story. The main, important parts of the story are told by these strange, floating blobs of light which guide you around this village. At points they stop, and using some controller tilting, you activate some narrative. When this happens the world goes dark as if it were nighttime, and the light takes human form to represent a number of people and various objects they interact within the narrative. These narratives are meant to tell you about various people who live in the village and about what happened to them on one mysterious night, where everyone disappeared mysteriously.

The game is beautiful. It uses the CryEngine which is known for being good at making beautiful looking games with many lights and particle effects. What the most beautiful aspect of this game is not the visuals, but the enchanting soundtrack. It is relaxing and peaceful. It’s the kind of music which you can’t help but feel some kind of emotion for. It is great at relaxing you so you can simply sit back and enjoy the game. Frankly, it would be pretty boring without it.

On my list of things which really put me off games is slow walking speed and a lack of a sprint button. This game ticks both boxes in that criteria. You walk incredibly slowly in this game, it’s like your legs can’t move more than half a footsteps. You’re supposed to be following the strange balls of light but it’s quite irritating when they move so much faster than you. At times, I wanted to explore some of the houses and perhaps have a look at the vast open fields. Sometimes I got lost and needed to turn back. It’s quite annoying when you have to walk a long distance in a game very slowly. Perhaps the sprint button was not put in because it would ruin the mood of the game if people were just running around everywhere and rushing the game. I would hasten to disagree. Why? It took me three hours to complete the game and I’d wager that about half of that was walking and being lost. Let’s face it, walking around and getting lost does not make enjoyable gameplay. I wanted to get on with the story, not wander slowly through a village wondering where I’m going. I could do that in real life.

The big problem with being lost in EGTTR is that sometimes you don’t realize it. I had, on several occasions, lost my ball of light as I was walking, so I followed the path, trusting that the world design would guide me to where I was meant to go. You know, like a good game would. This did lead me somewhere else, but not where I was meant to be. The game is separated into following around different people (or blobs of light). You follow one person until you find out how they died, then move on to someone else. I had, twice, gotten myself so lost that I accidentally found the starting location of another story line which I can only assume I was supposed to find after I had completed my current story line. So without knowing it I had started another part of the game without completing the part I was on. I didn’t know this until much later in the game, so I had to go back and find the previous ball of light to complete their story line. I just went with it followed their story until I got lost again. This was very annoying. Not only because it meant walking back and having to find where the ball of light had gotten to, but it also completely muddled up the story in my mind. Everything I experienced was out of the order the game was supposed to happen in. The effect being that I was completely lost and couldn’t tell you what happen in the game at all. I still can’t.

After I had completed all the story lines (with great effort and determination on my part) I was catapulted back to the place I started but on the other side of the fence this time. I had one road to follow and had to walk into a big room where the final, revealing moment would happen. The moment where all of would suddenly make sense and I would finally understand what the game was trying to tell me. Alas, no. The conclusion made sense, I understood it, and I was completely underwhelmed. None of the previous three hours of gameplay mattered to the conclusion whatsoever. The ending was simply not very interesting and I felt cheated. My time had been wasted, and so had my £15.

This is what people look like.
This is what people look like.

So, in conclusion, I can’t recommend this game to you. You can get it for £15 on the PlayStation Store and I thoroughly recommend you spend your money on something more worthwhile. Like a really good toothbrush.