Why don’t stories matter in games?

It seems like you believe stories don’t matter in games. If this is true then, do you think they matter in films and books? If so then why do they matter there and not in games?

Does your favorite song have a great story? It might, but probably not. Does most of the music you listen to have nice stories, or even stories at all? Does most of the static visual artwork you enjoy tell a complete story? Does it tell any story? Many people consider cooking an art. I personally would consider it one, I’ll leave that up to you. Do great chefs tell a story with their meal?

Some of these mediums can support stories. Some of them can be bundled with stories as a hybrid medium. Does that necessarily make these mediums suited for storytelling? Is storytelling necessarily the most important part of every medium? Is it necessarily an important part at all for a given medium? Is it something a medium should be judged on?

The core of my philosophy is, “Gameplay is the most important thing in a game.” A lot of the rest is all the necessary ideas to make that core philosophy work and make sense; iteration off that core idea.

We’ve had a ton of games without stories that are considered universal classics. We’ve never had a film that lacked story but was a universal classic. Narrative is almost irrevocably tied to certain mediums and there’s no indication that games are one of them.

Of course the mediums of interactive software or simulations of space can support stories, possibly even good ones, it’s just games that are at odds with stories. Entertainment software lacking good stories is a lack of good authors, not a fault in the medium.

I don’t think a game should be judged for its story any more than for the quality of the visual symbols representing the game constructs (aka. the graphics, which some people (icyclams) will tell you are more important than the story and just as important as gameplay). I don’t think it makes sense to judge a song based on the content of the lyrics (not proposing we ignore the vocals or rhyme scheme, just the meaning). I don’t think it makes sense to judge a painting by anything other than its visual composition, coloring, rendering, construction of forms, and so on.

Many people offer a token, “of course gameplay is what’s most important.” I want to offer you the genuine thing and take that to the absolute limit. It’s a perspective that needs to exist.

13 thoughts on “Why don’t stories matter in games?

  1. orion_black July 31, 2016 / 6:07 pm

    I’ve been reading this book, Antithetical Arts – On the Ancient Quarrel Between Literature and Music, that is a defense of absolute music(non-representational music) as something valuable to human beings. The main thesis/conclusion is that music’s main value is ‘moral’ insofar as it produces a particular kind of mind-uplifting ecstasy in the susceptible spectator. I haven’t finished it, so that’s my take so far.

    I think there are interesting parallels within (absolute) music and games, the first would be that games also produce said morally uplifting experience. ‘Experiencing’ a game’s depth inspires a particular form of awe, in which you can see ‘options’/’possibilities’, a particular sense of ‘clarity’ not only in relation to the game. Like say when you walk out of a claustrophobic place and you perceive ‘openness’, but more intense because you were already in the open. I’m not making the best description, but you probably get a sense of what I’m talking about. If there’s a specific aesthetic to games it’s probably related to the ‘ecstasy of depth’.

    The book also talks about how music can inspire emotions of a garden-variety which is something games also kind of do by managing your options. That’s how survival horror works, by severely and progressively limiting you options. Another form of that would be the ‘anxiety of euros’ where you know you need X, Y and Z resources and also know you’re not going to get them so…

    Inspiriting emotions of a garden-variety is something games regularly do, it’s the more sophisticated/subtle forms(presumably what most people want their games to do) what’s not so easy. To accomplish that, I would presume you should manage the options of a player in a more sophisticated way, not a simpler one.

    Anyways, if you can you’d probably want to give it a look, even if you aren’t particularly into music.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chris Wagar August 3, 2016 / 6:34 am

      Sounds interesting. I might look into it.

      I don’t think I’d go with anything as abstract as music or games having some type of moral value. I think they just fulfill a type of aesthetic pleasure that we’re evolved to enjoy because it was beneficial in the ancestral environment. Depth is a function of design that helps aid the essential process of inconsistently seeking favored outcomes. It means there’s a lot of different smaller favored outcomes that can be sought and pleasure derived from, it alleviates fatigue with repetition, it creates more ways to experience a smaller set of content.

      I don’t think inspiring emotions is everything in art. I would certainly defend the value of non-narrative forms of art.


  2. David November 6, 2017 / 7:13 pm

    Isn’t gameplay in it of itself the vessel for the player to engage and interact with his own story?

    So lets say if you put a bunch of blocks in a big empty white room. The player will usually have a natural inclination or goal, either to jump on them, try to get to the highest one, etc. Isn’t the process of having an interest, making a goal, and overcoming the difficulties involved with seeing that goal through inherently storylike in nature? I fail to see how the options you have of reaching that goal with gameplay are a means to their own end. Options and gameplay, if anything seem to serve to facilitate the story, and make the player’s relationship with that story feel more organic and personal. In a sense, gameplay is story’s bitch. At any rate, I don’t think they are mutually exclusive and shouldn’t be judged as such without better context.

    Likewise, I don’t think a painting should be judged only by the sum of it’s parts. Many of the transcendental properties of art, music especially, are beautiful because they are purposeful and life affirming in nature. Technical qualities are still incredibly important, especially for learning, but often to a fault.


    • Chris Wagar November 6, 2017 / 8:37 pm

      By your way of defining story, practically everything is a story. If everything that happens in a game can be called a story, then that leaves us with no way of differentiating between what the game’s story is supposed to be and literally anything and everything that happens during play.

      What is the story of Ocarina of Time? That Link escapes kakariko village, collects some cuccoos to get a bottle, savewarps back to kakariko, kills gohma with a stick at the same time he is killed, plays his bottle like an ocarina, then warps to ganon’s castle, skips down to the base of the castle by getting hit by a falling rock, and ultimately kills ganon with a stick? These are things that can happen in the game, but they are still not Ocarina of Time’s story. They’re not the authored story of the work.

      Your argument deftly avoids the point made by this article by attempting to change the definitions of words.

      We need gameplay-centric theories to explain games and gameplay within them. Story-centric theories of gameplay design don’t lead to engaging game systems, they lead to nonsense, and they fail to account for many aspects of the design of systems. Saying stuff like, “gameplay is story’s bitch” is counterproductive to an extreme.

      This is like saying that visuals are completely integral to games, and stories are subservient to the visuals that express those stories.

      Artistic works don’t need to be magically transcendental. The meaning of a work isn’t as important as the work itself. I don’t think artistic works need to have a grander purpose, being simply beautiful is purpose enough.


      • David November 7, 2017 / 5:00 am

        Sorry, I worded some things badly. I mean to say gameplay inherently requires storylike structures to be good gameplay, not that those structures are the actual story of the game. They can sometimes coincide though. Basically those structures lay at the foundation of our lives, and games mirror that. Without them, we wouldn’t enjoy playing games. So reading a title called “Why don’t stories matter in games?” irked me a bit.

        I agree that story-centric design is less useful.

        I worded it badly too, but I mostly agree. Their purpose is their own existence. Meaning doesn’t need to be ascribed because they are meaning itself, therefore life affirming and enhancing.

        Transcendental experiences can happen and trying to explain them with a checkmark list of all the well executed technical parts usually won’t get you too far. By your guidelines, the value of such a work is much less than how you actually feel about it. And in my opinion, if we’re talking about a review as an entertainment product/ tool you’re giving to others, avoiding a more human approach can be a lot more boring to get through, even if the individual parts happen to be useful.


        • Chris Wagar November 7, 2017 / 2:31 pm

          I simply don’t agree that gameplay requires story-like structures to be good gameplay, unless you really mangle the definition of story to include practically any sequence of events. Most games of Tetris don’t have anything resembling a story-like structure, nor does the average session in an open world game like Minecraft. People who play games are not storytellers, they are not deliberately trying to make for an interesting narrative, they are playing to win. They are not making decisions with the idea, “this would be a good narrative arc,” they are trying to get things they want. People don’t live their lives this way (unless they’re narcissists). A good way of putting it is, “Your life is not a story you tell, it is a story told about you,” and a game is the same way.

          I think that attempting to implement story-like structures deliberately into games actually can compromise the fairness of a game, as with comeback factors in fighting games.

          I don’t agree that story-like structures lay at the foundation of our lives, I just think stories are our means of interpreting the events our lives. I don’t think that stories are what make games fun, and we find a lot of games fun completely without stories, such as Tetris or Minecraft (you can argue that these have stories, but again, I think that’s a counterproductive mangling of definitions). I think what makes games fun is a bit more primitive and simple. it’s the drive to succeed at difficult things. There’s a base motivational instinct to pursue patterns that lead to rewards. In simpler animals, this can be seen in operant conditioning. If animals are given food, they will continue to do whatever they were doing when they got food, there’s a neural associative link formed between those events. Humans are autotelic, we can choose purposes for ourselves, apart from just food, and hang onto these associations much longer and across much more abstract chains. This ability to abstractly link rewards allowed us to succeed in the ancestral environment through persistence hunting and the invention of technology. Thus we have a drive in us to succeed at things that are difficult or random that we choose to be important.

          And a lot of my theory of game design revolves around iterations on this simple motivation. Flow is related to the amount of consistency in receiving rewards, low consistency creates frustration, high consistency creates boredom. Depth is related to the number of possible metrics one can improve consistency along.

          A theory of story-structure or storytelling isn’t necessary here, it doesn’t have explanative power for the phenomena of games, unless you mangle the definition of stories to include literally anything and everything that happens ever, which doesn’t accomplish anything productive, because even if you define stories that way, it doesn’t give you additional power to explain game systems that successfully entertain in the absence of authored narratives. In my opinion, that way of defining stories is just a way for people who like stories a lot to try to make games more about authored narratives, by claiming that everything is a narrative, therefore people who don’t like authored narratives don’t have a valid complaint, since what they enjoy is arguably narrative too and they shouldn’t complain about authored narratives. I think it should be patently obvious how this is a ploy to discredit gameplay structures and make games subordinate to story structures.

          As a final note, I think a checkmarked list of all the well-executed technical parts is an extremely human approach. I don’t see anything other than humans making checkmarked lists. Making checkmarked lists or generally being methodical is an intensely human thing to do. If you find it boring, then that’s your fault. I find attempting to search for vague transcendental meaning to be extremely boring. I want the meat, not the skin.


          • David November 7, 2017 / 7:12 pm

            They are how we interpret our experiences as well as what we ascribe meaning to. They also indicate and shape who we are and what we are becoming. Otherwise, everything is just a series of random events that happen to come together. It is because of those inherent structures that we enjoy games because we reflect ourselves onto them and raise them up to ourselves. Without them, Tetris becomes a bunch of blocks falling down as well as all the systems that make up the falling of those blocks, which attempts to drag itself as far away from humanity as it can, therefore losing it’s inherent value.

            Similar to that, when you referred to the work itself being more important earlier, I didn’t realize you meant it literally. Art justifies itself because it partakes in the delight of being. Not in it’s OWN being, but in it’s joyous life affirming nature to humanity. Beauty cannot exist alone in a vacuum. Man has to ascribe it as such.

            What you call “drive” is an inborn pattern of behavior activated by environmental stimuli. The things that strongly activate that behavior in humans are almost always archetypal and storylike in structure, and those archetypes are universal to all human culture. I agree it isn’t useful to you because you ignore the person playing the game in favor of the mechanical systems of the game itself. I would bet you probably think the player only exists at all as a tool to explore these systems.

            I’m not saying I don’t like technical things too. I’m only saying that everything needs to exist together with context. Pursuing an extreme is never as favorable as finding a balance. In that way, I agree lists are very human. I just find your list incomplete.


    • Chris Wagar November 7, 2017 / 9:53 pm

      Except everything IS just a series of random events that happen to occasionally come together or not. Life is filled with serendipity and coincidences and the absence of catharsis, which are all avoided in stories, because it’s poor storytelling to introduce extraneous information. However our lives are filled with extraneous information and dead ends, and we take the information that isn’t extraneous and filter it into stories that we tell ourselves and other people. A story is a lens for understanding the events that have happened to us, but our lives are not stories in the making, they’re stories in the telling. Trying to seek story-like meaning throughout your life is an exercise in futulity and superstition. It’s more productive and better matches the shape of reality to accept that the implicit rules of storytelling don’t apply to the chaos of our lives. Taking the search for stories in your life to extremes can lead to narcissism, a disregard for the fact that in the context of other people’s lives, your life and your “story” isn’t everything.

      Tetris doesn’t need the concept of a story to be fun. It can seriously just be a bunch of blocks that people try to fit together and feel good or bad about lining up. It’s literally not less human being what it is. A bunch of blocks falling down, and the systems that make up the behaviors of those falling blocks were invented by humans and don’t naturally exist outside of humans. It feels like you’re appealing to some stereotype of the logically rigorous as being not human, when it’s just as human as the appeal of the transcendental. Just looking at tetris as a system is perfectly human, among all life on earth, it’s something that only humans can do.

      “What you call “drive” is an inborn pattern of behavior activated by environmental stimuli. The things that strongly activate that behavior in humans are almost always archetypal and storylike in structure, and those archetypes are universal to all human culture.”

      Except that’s incorrect, I just demonstrated to you an example of a behavior that is not archetypal or storylike in nature. Addictive pursuit of inconsistent rewards is not unique to humans, and it’s not tied to stories in any way, it’s just a simple facet of human behavior.

      Further, the hell do you mean I ignore the person playing the game? My definition of fun is predicated on the existence of people. Games only make sense in the context of people. Games were invented by people for people, to satiate a particular abstract desire that is intrinsic to people, rather than practical to their continued existence. The systems only exist as a means of entertaining players. All the theories and models are about finding what fits human desires and creating a predictive way to cultivate things that can better fit human desires in the future.

      Not all human desires are born out of desires to fulfill an archetype, most of them are supernormal stimuli versions of behaviors we evolved in order to survive in the ancestral environment. A lot of them are just iterations of simple heuristics for getting along with other people and being productive.

      Not everything needs to have a higher meaning. Things can be intrinsically enjoyable (relative to humans). Things can be intrinsically beautiful (relative to humans). For example, abstract art and geometric patterns are frequently beautiful, despite lacking any type of story or meaning. We evolved to have an aesthetic sense. To appreciate certain patterns and color combinations. There isn’t an aspect of these works that we find meaning in, from our perspective, they are simply beautiful.


      Not everything needs to be meaningful, and searching for meaning everywhere can be hazardous. It’s like pareidolia.

      I don’t think everything needs to exist together with context. I don’t think that a holistic view of a given thing is strictly necessary to understanding that thing. Getting into specifics is a very strong way to understand the particulars of the world. We still use newtonian physics models at the level of everyday objects, even if they’re not accurate in the cosmic, atomic, or quantum levels, because they’re useful for performing a number of common jobs. We contextualize a lot of things using stories, but this doesn’t mean that stories are necessary to understand all things. You don’t get better at Day Trading by understanding stories and meaning, and you don’t get better at abstract art with those things either (though you might earn more money at art shows by pushing things further into conceptual art).

      I don’t believe that stories are necessarily an intrinsic part of games at all, I feel like that’s an imposition from the outside, and that it’s not a holistic or even reasonable view that stories should be regarded as a core part of games any more than 4K graphics.


  3. David November 9, 2017 / 12:12 am

    I never made any association with “higher meaning” so it’s not that fun reading something predicated on that being the case.

    I think everyone’s lives at the base level are heavily affected by archetypes. They are not something you necessarily seek, they occur on their own, unconsciously across time. They can also be clarified through dreams which have the role of integrating our conscious and unconscious lives. And even though more can be learned if acknowledged in an inquisitive way, dreams function this way of their own accord at a base level. And this sort of base tending of the psyche beyond the conscious interests of the ego was coined the process of individuation or realization of the Self by Carl Jung.

    I think addiction somewhat coexists with this too, though I don’t feel like I know enough to make a good argument. It would probably be considered something like the spiritual thirst of feeling whole, though it also cheats the chain of events in it’s archetypal context by placing rebirth before death of the former self, at least when referring to drug addiction. I assume addictive properties of games are similar to a lesser extent, but once again I’m not sure. Note we are only talking about humans and not other creatures.

    If we’re talking about attitudes we evolved in order to survive, it can be complicated as well. Jung believed that the collective unconscious (being the theory that every human is endowed with these psychic archetypes and that they are innate and not learned) was a product of natural selection. These archetypes would inherit dispositions to produce images of a particular character. Basically, images would evoke a powerful response in reaction to stimuli, then dispositions for man to produce those types of images were preserved through natural selection. The types of images that evoked a response were those that related to situations that naturally recur in human experience. If they didn’t reflect man, they did not evoke a powerful response. And if we look at something like the fight or flight response, which is a human instinct that predates archetypes, we can see the two are extremely similar in effect. It is instinct in response to stimuli just as it is patterns in response to experience, only one is physical in nature whereas the other is psychological. Do they have a base implication on one another at our current state in evolution? I dunno, probably not, or maybe somewhat. But do those instincts have enough of a voice to compete with archetypes when judging our enjoyment of a videogame? Absolutely not.

    In fact I would think that archetypes are directly responsible for the phenomenon of loving a game at one point in your life, and then disliking it at a later point. I don’t think instincts can account for that, but I might be partially wrong.

    And if we’re talking about abstract art, it exists completely in relation to archetypal structures. In many ways the abstract painter attempts to express his inner world upon the canvas. He is saying something by his process of creation in it of itself. Just because there is nothing to grasp onto doesn’t mean there is no meaning. They aren’t just pretty marks on a canvas. Without the context of human experience and the archetypes that structure the core of our collective unconscious, the existence of these things have no value. There is no higher meaning being sought out either. You could say meaning is a side effect and not a goal.

    In relation, if we look at Tetris, the act of getting rid of clutter and finding wholeness after challenge plays out literally on screen. I would argue that that is archetypal in nature, and relates completely to human experience.

    And yeah, you see fun as an effect of technically well-executed mechanical systems that are completely results driven by being judged across time to understand the definition of well-executed, not as the effect of genuine interaction with a person at all levels. So I find your process an incomplete way of looking at things. And I also never argued for the whole over the parts. I’m calling for both to be looked at in balance instead of one and only one being forced to it’s extreme.


    • Chris Wagar November 9, 2017 / 1:36 am

      I think that archetypes are unsubstantiated rhetoric. By higher meaning, I don’t mean like, meaning of life or anything, I just mean a meaning outside simply enjoying winning or not. Archetypes completely fall under “higher meaning” here. You’re looking for some reflection of the human “soul” or some fancy business to explain things with a billion complicated devices that are not necessary to explain things.

      Archetypes are a completely unnecessary instantiation to understand human psychology or the appeal of games. Occam’s Razor. Do not multiply the number of unnecessary entities. This is literally just, “You will feel good if you get something you want some of the time but not all of the time.” You don’t need to invoke archetypes as the ultimate arbiters of enjoyment for this.

      Also, I literally linked Paper Marbling. Marbling is literally a random pattern that looks pretty, and you’re trying to associate an archetype with that and claim it’s representative of the painter’s “inner world”.

      I see fun as literally, “Sometimes shit you want to happen does, and sometimes it doesn’t, so it feels better when it does happen.” This is the neurochemical chain of events that causes the sensation of fun. That’s it.


      • David November 9, 2017 / 3:18 am

        A strictly results driven way of sorting information can be useful for simplifying things and objectifying what works and what doesn’t to a large extent, but it isn’t necessarily correct or complete.

        The concept of the archetype is extremely helpful in understanding human psychology. Analytical psychology as a whole is largely predicated on it, and Jung is widely considered one of the most important contributors in the history of psychology. That said, it’s still a younger science in the sense that there is a lot of space left to grow, and so a lot of things can be disagreed with. So, cheers lol.

        For some reason I thought the link you sent was apart of the video, but I see it now. I don’t understand what point you’re trying to make. It can be beautiful the same way nature is beautiful and doesn’t go against anything I said.

        Anyway, thanks for the talk haha.


        • Chris Wagar November 9, 2017 / 5:19 am

          Strictly results driven ways of sorting information are the basis of the scientific method. If you don’t have results, then you’re not talking about something that is real.

          Analytical psychology is not a science, young or old. It is based on rhetoric and conjecture. It’s at best a philosophy.

          Beauty is not something that originates in the meaning of the work, it is something that is not solely attributable to psychological archetypes or meaning that people find in things. It simply exists relative to our human minds, from our perspective, uncaused (though obviously formed by evolution, just not formed by reasons and logic in our minds). It looks nice to us as a species, but it might not look nice to an alien.

          Good talk.


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