How to use interactivity to tell a great game story

Some factors, like memorable characters and an engaging plot, are important to great storytelling no matter how you tell your story. Writing a great game narrative relies on the same techniques as other stories, but add a whole new dimension: interactivity. While in most stories, the audience is an observer, in games, the audience is part of the action.

When you incorporate game interactivity into your story, you unlock the ability to tell stories in a completely new way. You can give the player more flexibility in how the story unfolds and provide opportunities for exploration that just aren’t possible in traditional storytelling.

Games provide limitless options for creativity, so there are plenty of ways you can incorporate interactivity into your story. For this post, though, I’ll be focusing on the two most important: leaning into the player-character dynamic and creating an explorable game world.

Lean into the player-character dynamic

The player-character dynamic covers the relationship between the player and the character they play. A strongly defined player character can introduce the opportunity for friction between what the player wants to do and what the character (and the writer) wants to do. Even more importantly, players will chafe if you force the character to perform actions that they don’t believe the character would do.

Getting the player-character dynamic just right is a balancing act between creating a compelling character and letting the player maintain agency. The options available to the player also need to make sense within the context of the character. This can be a tricky needle to thread and may explain why, even in games with overarching stories, the player character is frequently one of the least interesting characters.

There are two main ways that games handle the player-character dynamic, with most games falling somewhere in between. On one side of the spectrum, games use a blank slate character as a stand-in for the player. On the other side, games create a well-defined character who the player inhabits. While creating a blank slate character simplifies the player-character dynamic, most story-driven games have well-defined player characters. It’s much easier to emotionally invest in a story if you care about the main character.

Can you tell a compelling story with a blank slate character?

Although blank slate characters work better for some stories than others, you absolutely can. As an example of this, consider Gone Home, a first-person exploration game where the player character returns to her empty childhood home. We know next to nothing about her, but the story isn’t about her anyway. As you explore the house, you unlock what happened prior to the start of the game. In parallel, the character herself also learns what happened.

This is a perfect example of leaning into the player-character dynamic with a blank slate character. Since the player’s story and the character’s story align, there is no friction between what the player wants and what the character wants. In this game, you become the character.

Blank slate characters can be used to tell compelling stories, but it’s important to consider the story you’re telling. This approach works best if the character is an observer, rather than an active participant in the events, or if the player’s personality is a crucial part of the game (as in some choice-based interactive fiction). Don’t use this approach, however, if the emotional crux of your game rests on this character. Your player won’t feel it.

Tell a story with a well-defined character

Having a well-defined player character is the more common approach for story-driven games. In general, players are more likely to emotionally invest in a story if they care about the characters. If the player character is interesting on their own, it’s easier for the player to align themselves with their story. Night in the Woods is a great example of this, where you play as Mae, a 20-year-old cat who is returning to her small town after dropping out of college. Playing this game, you don’t become Mae, but you do become empathetically aligned with her.

Of course, this approach can produce friction when the player is decidedly not aligned with the character. The player may be pulled from the story if they’re forced into doing things that they don’t want to. That being said, this friction isn’t always a bad thing: Sometimes it can increase the emotional impact, especially if the player and the character both feel out of control. Night in the Woods, with its primarily linear narrative, also includes successful player-character friction.

So how exactly should you lean into the player-character dynamic?

There’s no one solution, but it’s vital that you don’t ignore it when writing your story. Not sure where to start? A good rule of thumb is to have a well-defined, multifaceted character, especially if you’re creating a third person game. In that case, you want to provide a compelling character while still giving the player opportunities for agency. You can absolutely write a compelling story where the main character is a player stand-in, but make sure it fits within the context of your story.

Create an explorable world

Okay, so you have an idea for how to handle your player character. What now?

The world surrounding your player is arguably the most important part of your game. After all, games are about interactivity, and the world contains all the elements that your player can interact with. Just as the setting is vital to a good story, your game world should be intrinsic to your story. To make your story more immersive, your game world should be tightly coupled to your plot.

An explorable world can cover anything from a linear side scroller to a massive open world game. Every game isn’t going to be Breath of the Wild with massive open worlds to explore. As an indie game developer, your game world is going to need to be smaller, and that can be a great thing! A smaller explorable world means that you can shape your environment more meaningfully without the need to fill massive spaces.

By creating a world that compels the player to explore, you can create stronger hooks that tie the player to the narrative. To make a more compelling game world, you can provide the player with opportunities for discovery and create a vibrant atmosphere.

Provide opportunities for discovery

Opportunities for discovery can cover anything from finding new characters, unlocking new areas, or uncovering small interactions. The small details the player uncovers can enhance the story you tell.

Night in the Woods also does a great job encouraging the player to explore. Each in-game day, the player can wander around Mae’s home town, talking to townspeople and exploring new areas. When I played, I explored every nook and cranny of the town each day, talking to every character. Then I played it again to unlock the interactions I couldn’t reach in a single playthrough. Those small but regular interactions caused me to grow attached to the characters. Checking in with characters each day often led to significant emotional payoffs.

All those little interactions were what made me love the game. Including engaging NPCs is a great way to deepen your game world. I know I’m not the only person who will wander through an entire game world and interact with every character until the dialogue repeats. It’s incredibly satisfying to steadily uncover individual stories and gradually piece them together. Small interactions make a game world feel real and multidimensional. They can also provide a way to drop powerful moments into your game.

Create a vibrant atmosphere

You can also deepen your game world by creating a vibrant atmosphere. The atmosphere contributes to the general tone of your story and can often be used to relay its themes. A great example of this is GRIS, a game with no dialog that still managed to hit me right in the chest. It’s also quite possibly the most beautiful game I’ve ever played:

In GRIS, you play as a young woman who is journeying through a colorless world as she recovers from depression and trauma. As the story progresses, the colors are gradually restored to the game. As a game with no text, GRIS relies fully on art and music to drive the story.

If you’re not an artist or a musician, there are still plenty of ways to create a vibrant game atmosphere. You can focus on using simple but consistent art, and then use the narrative itself to create the atmosphere. Coherency in style goes a long way in creating an immersive game world. This was the approach taken in Thomas Was Alone:

So how can you use interactivity to tell a great game story?

As you shape your game story, it’s important to consider how interactivity fits into your narrative. When you incorporate interactivity into your game story, you unlock a whole new way of telling stories. You can tell stories that can’t be replicated in other formats.

Take advantage of interactivity in your games to tell more compelling stories. As you shape your game story, pay extra attention to the player-character dynamic and the game world. Think about how all the components of your game can work together to tell the best version of your story.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to explore. Games are one of the newest methods of storytelling, and interactivity provides limitless avenues for creative storytelling that we’ve barely begun to uncover. If you explore how interactivity can enhance your story, you’ll be on your way to telling a great game story.