Video games have historically had a tricky relationship with story. That might seem counterintuitive to anyone who has had their heartstrings tugged by big games like The Last of Us or God of War, but the delicate balance between story and gameplay is difficult to get right. Fundamentally, you have two kinds of narratives vying for supremacy in any game: the tale the designers want to tell, told through cutscenes, dialogue, in-game documents, and the like; and what the player actually experiences by engaging with its core mechanics and systems.
Ubisoft’s Clint Hocking famously coined the term “ludonarrative dissonance” for this often-conflicting relationship between the layers of a game’s narrative. Many AAA studios tend to dodge the intricacies of video game storytelling by taking a more cinematic approach. In many of these games, the gameplay serves merely as a way of getting the player to each story beat: shoot some guys, move along, and see the next scene. The narrative often unfolds in spite of the game’s mechanics, rather than because of them. Very little the player actively chooses has a meaningful or lasting effect on the story — similar to how someone watching a movie can’t change what happens on screen.
So, what about games that actually take the medium’s fundamentally interactive nature into account when laying out their story? It’s not unheard of, but the results are a mixed bag. Players frequently find themselves wrestling with a handful of arbitrary choices or a binary morality system, but rarely do they feel that their interactions with the game’s systems have a meaningful impact on the unfolding narrative. Unless they’ve been enjoying the recent renaissance of roguelike games.
The humble roguelike has become a vehicle in recent years for some pretty novel ideas about video game narratives. The approaches are different, but the goal seems to be a unified one: creating the kinds of stories that only games can tell — ones that are strengthened, rather than hamstrung, by the nature of the medium.
Take, for example, Finji’s Overland. On its surface, this criminally-underrated tactics game has a fairly by-the-numbers story: horrible creatures emerge to wreak havoc on humanity, and you have to guide your plucky band of survivors from the East Coast to the West. But if Overland’s broader story sounds a little uninspiring, it nevertheless manages to shine in its moment-to-moment character-driven storytelling.
During each new run, you control a new survivor with a couple of procedurally-generated lines written about their background. Perhaps they’ve been experiencing health issues lately, or they flunked out of military boot camp, or they’re a dog. These little randomized nuggets of backstory combine with the gameplay of Overland, which pushes players into making hard decisions as a matter of course, to result in little emergent micro-narratives. Otherwise generic characters are fleshed out, and each interaction and choice possesses an emotional stake. It might not be perfectly rational to risk everything to try and rescue your faithful canine friend Tofu — who “likes to shake hands” and is “maybe two years old” — but whatever you choose to do, it makes you feel something.
In a similar vein, Darkest Dungeon gifts the player a stagecoach full of fresh-faced heroes who scour the vaults of the eponymous mausoleum. Party members arrive with a randomly-generated name, class, and a few attributes for the player to send them out to their uncertain fates in the twisting corridors of various dungeons. But each excursion changes each character, blessing or cursing them with new traits and providing the framework for more emergent characterization, like a man of the cloth losing his faith in the face of incomparable horrors, or a thief with a heart of gold who develops a gambling addiction to cope with the stresses of his profession.
But perhaps nothing hit the nail quite so squarely on the head as Hades. Supergiant Games’ astonishingly successful hack-and-slasher expertly folds its very game-iness into its narrative. The very cycle inherent to roguelike gameplay – fight, die, rinse, repeat – is embedded into a story ultimately about its own cycles of death and gradually moving forward. Where other games might treat player death as a necessary but often meaningless mechanic, a hindrance to be quickly forgotten as you restart from a previous checkpoint, Hades puts it front and center. In the process, it manages to weave a tale that connects it indelibly to its story, aided by an abundance of unique dialogue from its colorful cast of supporting characters.
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Hades might be one of those rare games to seamlessly incorporate dying into a long-form narrative, but the ever-present specter of death is a common and powerful narrative tool in roguelikes. The genre has never shied away from death: it’s part of the dance, and part of the story. The difficult choices that games like Overland and Darkest Dungeon ask players to make feel so high-stakes and compelling precisely because of this: death isn’t just something to ignore. Runs of Overland can turn on a dime and end prematurely – not to mention gruesomely – in a blaze of glory or embarrassing failure. A dedicated cemetery in Darkest Dungeon pays tribute to entire teams of departed adventurers, each with their own history of misguided dungeon-delving. The possibility of meaningful loss gives weight to every decision the player makes, and there’s an unspoken guarantee: one way or another, you’ll get a story out of every run, whether or not your character survives to tell it.
The shorter form and cyclical nature of the genre also lends itself to this kind of storytelling. A shorter, tighter route from beginning to end in each cycle results in remarkably satisfying short stories, however they may end. But that doesn’t preclude the possibility of longer-form narratives like Hades. The smaller scope of these games compared to, say, the sprawling wilds and boundless possibilities of Skyrim means that it’s much more manageable to construct a compelling narrative organically, driven by the actions and choices of the player.
So should developers give up on trying to tell good, unique stories in other genres? Of course not. There’s always a place for the big-budget cinematic titles. Several other kinds of games have flirted with narratives that can’t work in any other medium. Undertale, for example, famously utilizes its RPG mechanics and expectations to tell a moving and, in some cases, harrowing story, while the bizarre and hilarious walking sim The Stanley Parable explicitly moulds its story around the player’s actions and choices. But it’s understandably difficult to craft a story that perfectly balances the creators’ vision and the players’ choices.
A compelling narrative is driven by the actions and desires of the characters, not the other way around. Just as it’s jarring to have someone in a TV show act out of character for the sake of furthering the plot, it can often break the sense of immersion to have a story unfold in a game that doesn’t seem to be at all affected by how you play. Hades and the other stars of the modern roguelike renaissance address these problems in novel ways, and we love them for it. But perhaps future video games will take inspiration and find yet more stories that can only be told in this beloved medium – standing, as it were, on the shoulders of (Super)giants.