One of my favorite characters of all time is Varric Tethras, rogue dwarf and expert storyteller from the Dragon Age universe. Depending on who you ask, Varric is a liar and a scoundrel—or the best friend anyone could hope for. He has a heart of gold and a sharp wit, and he talks way too much. For me, the hardest moment in any of the three massive Dragon Age games wasn’t fighting a high dragon or trying to defeat my archenemy or even collecting every single one of those awful shards. It was the moment when I made Varric sad. A video game character! In fact, I had to return to a previous save and do it all over—that story, the story where Varric was heartbroken, wasn’t the one I wanted to tell.
Why Games Are Great for Storytelling
What makes roleplaying games (RPGs) a great storytelling medium is that they let players make interesting choices for characters, casting the player, at least partially, as the storyteller. Some games, such as tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, give players virtually unlimited choices—the only real differencse between kids acting out their imaginations and a Dungeons & Dragons game are maps, game pieces, and the roll of the dice. Video game RPGs are direct descendants of tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons. They have more structure—often determined by what the developers or the software is capable of—but the ability for players to make choices is an important part of their appeal.
There’s a huge range of how the choices in RPGs impact the narrative or the gameplay. Some games let you choose only things like gear, character skills, and character appearance. Other games are notable for how player choices inform the story through interactions and conversations—dialogues where the player can choose how to respond.
My favorite roleplaying video game (RPG) right now is Dragon Age: Inquisition. I’ve been playing it a lot these past few weeks. (A lot.) Inquisition is made by BioWare, a studio known for its implentation of the choice system. The studio’s major (recent) titles are the Dragon Age series and the Mass Effect series.
Other popular RPGs are the Walking Dead game, The Wolf Among Us, Tales From the Borderlands, The Banner Saga, The Witcher series, and the upcoming Game of Thrones title. Then there are the more traditional RPGs: World of Warcraft, Diablo III, Guild Wars II, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim—I could go on.
While the mechanics of choice differ significantly among all of these games, the common theme is that choices the player makes inform the direction and outcome of the story. Not necessarily dictate—but inform. After all, these are games that have preconceived characters, settings, and plots. In Mass Effect, the player must take on the role of Shepard, Commander of a spaceship. In the Walking Dead, the player must try to find safety from a horde of zombies while protecting a little girl. In World of Warcraft, the story is less complex, but the game still takes place in a specific setting with specific characters. These stories have rising and falling action, themes, and climaxes, all of which must be somewhat preserved while still giving the player a degree of independence.
Why Storytelling Is the Best Reward for Some Players
A lot of folks think gamers play RPGs as a way to gain rewards such as better gear, gold, or experience points. Instant gratification, right? You make the right choices, you gain better rewards. You make a stronger avatar, you make it easier to complete quests. This assumption isn’t necessarily wrong; some gamers certainly play this way, and most players play this way at least some of the time. But what has become increasingly evident from my discussions with other gamers is that the real draw of this kind of game is storytelling.
I’ve seen players choose one option over another because if they didn’t it would make a character—even a character from a different game—angry or hurt. I’ve seen players agonize over moral decision that might lead to imaginary deaths. I’ve seen players write novellas of character background to explain why their character made a certain choice, and why that choice makes sense in the context of the story. This is how powerful these games can be—just as intense and meaningful as books or movies, but with more emotional investment because payers actually help write the story.
Matt told me about a tough moral decision he made in Witcher 2, where he was given the option to do a decent thing, but it would have meant breaking his word to another character. Would he help out a group of oppressed people, or did his character’s moral compass forbid breaking a promise?
@Vengeful_Divine, a fellow Dragon Age player, had this to say about her struggle over who to side with (mages or templars) in a civil war: “[My character is] actually quite good friends with the templars. One is even like an older brother. It enriched the gameplay for me, because it made the situation a lot less black and white through her eyes. However, her previous templar friends are all dead, so there’s a bitterness there too.” In the end, this player opted to ally with the templars because of her character’s past bonds.
Another player, @JermazingTime, had a simlar story about choosing the darkside vs. the lightside in Star Wars: The Old Republic: “Darkside choices would have made certain encounters easier, but even though [my Sith warrior] was a Sith, he wasn’t deceptive or evil, and had fallen in love with Vette, who favored the lightside.” Thus, despite his character’s Sith status and potential for better rewards if he’d chosen the darkside, the character’s personality and romantic intentions stopped him from doing so.
One interesting outcome of this special kind of storytelling is the variety of narratives that can exist. While it’s not uncommon for players to do multiple run-throughs of RPGs in order to experience different decisions and characters, many players have a specific narrative (or several) that is theirs. A main character with an imagined backstory, interests, and personality. A set of choices that character will always make, because that’s how the story goes. Or, rather, that’s how this story goes.
Players like to share and compare stories. We love to discuss why we made one decision over another in moral or gameplay terms, but also in storytelling terms. Players will refer to a preconceived character as “my Hawke” or “my Lee.” It’s understood that one player’s Shepard might not resemble, act like, or make the same decisions as someone else’s Shepard, even if it is ostensibly the same baseline character.
@Trycester has two different Shepards, for instance. “In Mass Effect, one Shepard was a spacer and war hero. That meant for me that she saw the wonders of the universe, saw how vast and empty space was and that those little islands of life were very precious. By contrast, another Shepard had his family die on Mindoir…he repeatedly experienced loss, and thus got used to people dying. This made him more distant to his crew, colder and more calculating in his decisions.”
Demetria Spinrad describes an elaborate set of beliefs for her Dragon Age: Inquisition character, starting with the elf base. Her character didn’t identify as male or female, instead choosing the pronouns “ze/zir.” Despite elves having a pretty hefty pre-established culture and lore in the game, Demetria’s character went a different way: “I decided that my character would feel like an outsider in the culture ze was born into, and that ze would be a true believer in [the human religion] and would not want to be associated with anything to reminiscent of traditional elvish culture. Ze only wears armor with symbols of Andraste, prefers a human-bred horse to a halla (an elk-like creature that traditional elves raise and ride), and gets prickly whenever someone asks about the elvish gods or culture.”
By way of contrast, my Inquisitor was also an elf, one from the same tribe as Demetria’s. But my character loved his elvish heritage, and although he was interested in expanding his knowledge of other cultures and beliefs (unlike many elves, who tend to be insular), he was intensely homesick for his tribe. He wore elvish armor and rode an elk, and was always excited to talk about his gods and culture. Where Demetria’s character was prickly, mine was naive and overly optimistic—thus my gameplay was heavily influenced by his personality, just as I’m sure Demetria’s was, despite some baseline similarities between our characters.
Sometimes the backstory of a character is far simpler. @JermazingTime, about World of Warcraft: “Because my warrior also tanks, his left arm is more built to take blows with a shield and is not agile enough with it to dual-wield weapons effectively, so even if dual-wielding [yields better damage], he always uses two-handed weapons [when the goal is better damage]. In other words, this player was willing to give up fighting ability to make his story more consistent and satisfying.
Some storytelling considerations don’t affect the gameplay at all, but just enrich the player’s experience. Brian “Chef Lu Bu” Smawley, on Final Fantasy Tactics: “Playing FFT when I was a young man, I assumed Orlandu Cid spent his time pseudo-fathering the young soldiers. As he only gets to see his own son briefly during the course of the story, I imagine he dotes upon persons like Agrias and Ramza, whom he may feel a surrogate connection to. Plus, all granddads wanna spoil young grandkids.”
You know you’re playing for storytelling reasons when you make an unusual choice in a game just because the obvious choice doesn’t feel right. Becky Chambers relates a story similar to mine, also about Dragon Age: Inquisition. “I blush to admit this, but I rerolled 36 hours in. I had made a dialogue choice back at Haven that wouldn’t let Leliana [an important character] have her redemption arc. It would’ve been one thing if that was just how the story went. But knowing it was my choice that led it that way…I couldn’t let that lie.”
Why Gamers Can Be Amazing Creators
People love stories. We are fantastic at using our imaginations to bring more meaning and worth to our media, and games are no exception. Creativity is embedded in RPGs, but it’s also there because players will it to be there. Gamers are intensely creative folks, and games can support and nurture that creativity just as well as a novel or a television series or an imaginary game played on a swing-set in kindergarten.
Recognizing the incredible storytelling potential of RPGs is an important step toward understanding games as an artistic medium unlike any other. Not better, not worse—just different. Kids who love playing imaginary games or telling stories or reading are also experiencing something meaningful and intensely creative by playing video games.
Games aren’t about instant gratification or reward systems—they’re about imagination.