Story Vs Design

“What is more important: story, or design?”

I’ve had this argument countless times, and come down on either side of it (really, whichever side made me right and the other guy wrong). But I’ve been thinking about this lately, and without an ego-interest in either side I’m having a hard time defining the difference between design and story.

One way of splitting the two is this: “Design is what the player does and the story is what is done to the player.”

I don’t really like that one, because it limits story as a non-interactive element. This definition breaks down when you think of games like Oblivion or Grand Theft Auto, where the most interesting stories tend to be the ones players create for themselves.

Another way of splitting the two is to say that “Story gives meaning or context to the design,” but I don’t like that one either because it minimizes the impact of the player on the events in the game. This one breaks down when you think of a game like Portal or Bioshock, where many of the emotionally impactful moments come only through the player’s willingness (or lack thereof) to perform a task that is forced upon him.

In the end, I think that story is not subservient to design, but definitely serves design (and vice-versa). They are both really two sides of the same coin — story is the aspect of design where the vision of the designer and the player’s ability to interact with the game come together. To put one over the other is, therefore, a wasteful activity.

After all, how can something be better than itself?

The line of thinking begs the question “Why, if design and story are the same thing, are many (otherwise good) games’ stories such utter shit?”

I have some ideas, but no time to write them up right now. I’ll save that for the next post.

In the mean time, let me know what YOU think. Why do many games with good design have bad stories? Also, while you’re at it, feel free to let me know what you think of the whole Design VS Story idea.

Bookmark the permalink.


  1. I read this and my first thought was “story affects the character, design affects the player.” Of course, the player experiences the story with the characters; that’s the point. I think again with that kind of definition you’d run into the separation of player from story, and really, I think that’s how it is. You play the game and see the story as though it were a movie. Yes, you can give input as the player and influence the direction of the story to an extent, but I can’t really think of an example where the player truly influences the story in a meaningful way. Say in the case of GTA, I see that more as a questing game like WoW or something. You are able to explore and such, but the cutscenes are set in stone more or less. I really don’t have a problem with that, and I think a slight amount of detachment from the story is okay. When you are left to act on your own motivations, you learn nothing about a character. I really like seeing different characters in stories and identifying with them as I play/read/watch/whatever. But if it’s just me roaming around, I’m usually less interested. If I were able to add my own opinions to a story, it would become kind of boring. I’m a very logical person, and injecting that into stories wouldn’t build any tension/suspense/drama. It’s like on Austin Powers, when Dr. Evil is going to kill them with the unnecessarily slow moving dipping mechanism, and Scott just says “why don’t you just kill him? I have a gun, in my room…” etc. The point is, that’s the kind of thing that would happen if the player were left completely on their own, so I think having an amount of division between the player and the story is alright.

    As for why sometimes well designed games will have bad stories, I think it’s because well um… developers don’t always have good writing skills, or simply don’t recognize the necessity for a good story. I just remember this one guy in a class of mine who had some ideas for some cool RPG mechanics, but when I asked him about the story he was like “oh, well I don’t really know. I hadn’t really thought about it.” I think that’s the mentality that a lot of the developers have. The gameplay is first, the story is second, or third, or not at all. It’s a shame that the story generally plays second string to gameplay, because that seems like one of the reasons games are still looked at as not a valid medium for communication of ideas by the majority of people. Games are viewed as better versions of pong and donkey kong. People recognize the advances technologically, but not otherwise. To be fair, though, I think that’s generally the case. I find infinitesimal amounts of games with stories worthy of note, and it’s because even game developers don’t truly see games as an efficient way to communicate stories or art.

    Not only that, but think about the audience most developers are creating games for. The 18-24 year old male demographic doesn’t have the attention span to play ico. Ok maybe that’s not fair, but the point is: you’re making games for people who want to ricochet a grenade off the wall and blow somebody up around the corner, not discover the interworkings of a mysterious castle. Why make a game with beautiful artwork or storyline when your audience won’t even notice it?

  2. I definitely see your point about GTA and free roaming stuff, so I’ll not address that much (except to say that I tend to make up my own stories when I’m playing games like that, though I realize that’s not a common thing).

    So putting aside for a moment the ability of the player to have a meaningful influence on the story, lets look at the ability of the story to have a meaningful influence on the player.

    When you look at a game like Portal or Bioshock, both were lauded for their great stories. But in my opinion, the greatness of their story didn’t really lie in what the story was doing to the character — it lay more in what the story was doing to ME while I was playing it.

    — possible spoilers —

    In Bioshock they were able to use the interactivity of the medium to cause the PLAYER to feel complicit in the story’s reversal. When the big reveal happened, I felt used. I felt like the game had reached past my character and actually touched me personally. It was a feeling I don’t feel often when playing games, and I think it’s a real strength of our medium which is being underused.

    With Portal, the developers were able to use the interactivity of the medium in the same way as Bioshock, but they also managed something that Bioshock didn’t. Where Bioshock made the player feel complicit, and then redeemed the character, Portal actually succeeded in making the player feel complicit and then allowing the player to redeem himself. It was a very clever way of using story and design as a single unit to affect the player directly, bypassing the character all together.

    — end possible spoilers–

    At any rate, the definition of story as something that happens to characters is definitely as valid as either of the first two I proposed. However, I feel like it, too, ultimately limits story a little too much… at least based on the ways I personally interact with stories.

    I agree with you about some companies not caring much about stories. However, in my time in the industry I’ve also worked with a lot of people who really wanted to make story a priority and yet were not able to. Granted, their efforts were better than those who didn’t even try, but they still weren’t up there with the top-tier storytelling games.

    One of my theories, which I’ll get into later, is that a lot of people who aren’t professional writers think that story and plot are the same thing. To have a good story, they surmise, one only needs a good plot. So they spend a lot of time trying to make a plot feel epic or grand, but end up falling short in one of the other critical areas that make for good storytelling — like good characters.

    So what’s the answer? One possible answer is to make sure that the person leading your design is also a good writer. This is okay, but you can’t always have your cake and eat it too. I know a ton of good designers who are terrible writers, and vice-versa.

    So there must be a way for a designer and a writer to work together to achieve good results.

    I can’t get too far into it at the moment, but I think I’ll write a post later about the method I’m currently experimenting with and other methods I’ve seen used before.

  3. I think the people leading development should be just well rounded. Maybe not specialists, but have a fair amount of knowledge of design, story, art, programming, etc. My theory is that a person like that would be the best… director? I don’t know the tiers of workers in a game development company. The big boss should know a little about everything.

    If you have a game where the design and the writing are fairly separate, I think you can have designers and writers coexist harmoniously as long as one trusts the other to not suck horribly. Seems most games have the separation of action and story, so you can pretty much just leave the writing to the writers and the designing to the designers, to an extent.

  4. The Story vs Design question is a tough one. What do I think?

    Games are fundamentally about what the player brings to the table. You don’t just show the player something, you put building blocks in front of them and ask them to make something. Can you escape from the collapsing fortress before the clock runs out? Can you defeat this boss, given these set of assets and liabilities? Etc.

    You can make a game about building stories, or where story building is a fundamental part of the game experience(if not the core mechanic). This can totally work. I’ve seen it in RPGs, but I’ve also seen it in video games. Will Wright’s work is a step in this direction; you get building blocks for some story, the story of a person, city, etc, and you can take that in any direction you want. Sure, the stories that the average player builds are pretty sucky, but we have lower standards for our own stories than someone else’s. For one thing, you identify with it right away, and got to custom tailor it to your own preferences.

    The problem is: There is a whole universe of gameplay out there that doesn’t involve story creation. Those games deserve to be made. They can often benefit from having a story, though. Take Professor Layton, the gameplay is basically sequential puzzles, but the story serves to give color, meaning, rewards, and a vehicle for more puzzle mini-games. The story of Professor Layton is essentially non-interactive, but it enhances the game experience to have it there. If I received a copy of Professor Layton that was just the puzzles and nothing else, I’d never complete it, and I’d never recommend it to anyone else for purchase.

    Why do good games have terrible stories though? My basic reasoning for this is: How many movies have bad stories? I don’t mean the movies reviewed by Ebert & Roper, I mean everything released to DVD. Is it 50%, 75%? That’s movies, where the story is most of the experience! What are the odds that you make a good game and a good movie at the same time? Low, that’s for sure. Now if you’re Blizzard, you can just keep writing stories and games until one of them works, and throw the rest away. That’s how good scripts are written. You have to be willing to spend the resources to do it though, you have to want the good story bad enough to work for it. In games this is particularly true (as Penny Arcade pointed out, Professor Layton has some serious story issues resulting from the fact that it’s tied to gameplay where you solve a shit-ton of puzzles, this is super common since the story has to make room for the gameplay), but definitely be overcome with enough love and care for story.

    In summary: Design and Story aren’t totally separate, and can be mixed to great results. However, most games do separate them, and that’s okay. A good story will always enhance a good game, but at the end of the day games are games and need to work as games first and foremost. That’s what I think.

  5. Would you consider a game like Half-Life 2 to be in the category of games that separate story from design?

    I’m not saying that games should all be sandboxes where players make up their own story. I’m just saying that games, even those who don’t let players make up their own stories, should leverage interactivity to make their stories stronger.

    It’s like the “Show don’t tell” axiom in normal writing, except in games it’s “Play, don’t tell.”

    Instead of coming up with a huge back story, let the players play the back story (like in Max Payne).

    Designers and writers, in that sense, can work together to make something greater than the sum of their parts.

  6. Yes, I would consider Half-Life 2 to in the separate category.

    Half-Life 2 has gameplay (FPS with occasional physics puzzle mini-games) and a story (Gordon Freeman the resistance fighter out to save the world). They are well interwoven, such that you can be playing and experiencing story simultaneously, and the two support each other well.

    We’re in total agreement here, or at least I agree with everything you’re saying. I love me a great game, with both excellent story and gameplay. (Like Half-Life 2, God of War, etc) However, if asked which is more important, I have to say gameplay. It’s a lot like the question of Glitz vs Gameplay, of course gameplay is more important than graphics, but graphics sure don’t hurt. (give me NetHack, and you can take your Graphics and Story*)

    In my opinion, all games should leverage story to make their gameplay stronger, and vice versa. It’s a winning combo.

    * NetHack actually leverages story more effectively than a lot of games, but it’s very light on the story, so it’s a decent example.

Comments are closed