With the evolution of videogames, we have seen storytelling come on leaps and bounds. From the early days of post-apocalyptic games, narrative has progressed from classic Doom’s "Mars actually portal to hell, kill all demons" headline to the rich plots and moral questions raised by recent games such as The Last of Us: there can no longer be any doubt that games do contain narrative, and that narrative gives us a reason to continue playing them.
Storytelling in games is not a one-size-fits-all solution, as anyone who has played a real-time strategy game and a survival horror game can attest. This post aims to give an overview of the two broad categories of storytelling in games, and look at some examples from post-apocalyptic games we know and love.
Broadly speaking, storytelling in games can be considered as either embedded or emergent. In embedded storytelling, narrative is crafted and players experience the story through play. Designers and writers explicitly create embedded storytelling, with the intention of players experiencing the narrative in a certain way. With emergent storytelling, narrative emerges and evolves through play, with no two players experiencing exactly the same story. Most games utilise a combination of embedded and emergent storytelling, as explored further in the two examples here.
Embedded Storytelling in The Last of Us
With an embedded narrative, the story of the game is already written. There is a pre-determined outcome, and every player will encounter the same story arc, relevant cutscenes, and markers that move the story along. The narrative is experienced interactively but exists outside of the gameplay.
The Last of Us is an adventure survival game set in a post-apocalyptic world of people-eating fungal plant-face zombies. The player takes on the role of Joel, a gruff, reluctant hero, faced with escorting Ellie, the young, potential saviour of the human race, to safety.
Within The Last of Us, the narrative exists to give the player reason and motivation for collecting resources, traversing through dangerous environments, and killing NPCs – both human and mutants – as they do. The embedded narrative follows a filmic, linear progression with all players seeing the same introductory opening scenes. Every player of The Last of Us will experience the same story, the same character interactions, and the same final outcome, regardless of their playing style.
Emergent Storytelling in Fallout 4
With an emergent narrative, players are free to make their own decisions about where to go and how to do things, making their choices based on in-game variables.
Fallout 4 is a single-player role-playing game (RPG) in which the player takes on the guise of the ‘Sole Survivor’. Players can choose the gender, name and appearance of their avatar, and engage and interact with the open-world setting of the Wasteland however they please.
Within Fallout 4, there is an embedded narrative – but the majority of the game provides players with emergent gameplay. War may never change, but narrative certainly does. Want to go rogue and kill honest citizens and terrorise towns? Go right ahead. Want to be a generally all-round good guy, rescuing captives, distributing supplies and fighting for synth abolition? Also cool. Want to follow the main quest through from start to finish to find out what happened to your son? Want to ignore the main quest completely and explore the world on your own? Both viable options. No two players will experience the same game with an emergent narrative, unlike a game with a predominantly embedded narrative experience.
Storytelling in digital games is becoming more and more prevalent. Even in traditionally non-narrative focused genres such as RTS or FPS games, we see elements of embedded or emergent narrative adding to the gameplay experience. For games designers, having an understanding of these two main forms of narrative can help you build a cohesive gameplay experience. Ultimately, different kinds of games will call for different narrative perspectives, but both kinds can lead to rich, engaging storytelling experiences, as The Last of Us and Fallout 4 both show.
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