When it comes to storytelling and getting emotional responses from games, sometimes less is more

When we consider the advancement of games and the maturation of their storytelling, we always assume that more tech, more tools and more space will be what lets us refine the experience into something more mature, complex and sophisticated. Something more affecting.

Whether or not the videogame is a good medium in which to tell stories is one of the discipline’s most common debates. There seems to be some acknowledgment that play can create feelings, and that those feelings can be meaningful. We see that games can provide scores of fans with the opportunity to enter fantastical worlds and meet new characters.

Meanwhile, it’s generally agreed that as a basic principle this needs to happen through game design, and not in conflict with or at the expense of game design. Not all games need stories, and trying to imitate the conventions of cinema or pushing the abstract values of ‘realism’ or ‘immersion’ hasn’t borne fruit.

Still, while the particulars continue to make excellent fodder for fan debate and developer forum discussions, let’s agree that games can be a good medium for telling some kinds of stories. And that under some circumstances, they can tell those stories in ways other media can’t, by letting players inhabit events, control worlds or even touch elements from some peculiar distance mediated by a designer.

Recently, though, we’ve seen some games that have things to teach us about how games can tell stories, while still using the familiar language of game design. And contrary to some widely held ideas, these games achieved their impact, their sense of maturity and grace, through restraint and constraint. In other words, maybe games benefit most from taking things out, rather than piling more things in.

The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home is a lovely example of what can be achieved by reduction within constraint, rather than the conventional ideal of bigger-better-more. A small team, comprised mainly of 2K Marin veterans with experience in environmental design, gave itself an interesting task: to find out what happens when you don’t have the resources, the combat, the triple-A values.

The result is an eloquent, spare story about teenage love in a complicated time, told simply through player exploration. On one hand, the four-person development team didn’t have the scope or budget to render realistic faces with extensive dialogue and extensive game system. On the other, the constraints – partly necessary, partly intentional – let them focus on innovating with minimal resources. The delicate human story at the game’s core was able to come to the fore because of the things they didn’t add.

A reductive approach to design seems to lead to better storytelling. Many of the games with a place in the canon of videogames’ most affecting experiences focus on a simple system, or a single mechanic: consider Portal, whose witty humour and character was delicately whittled out of a puzzle-solving game.

Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus are both beloved for having illuminated touching fantasy and provoked thought by not fully explicating their universes, and by keeping the player focused on a single task or ruleset. The less stimulation and information you provide to the player up front, the more opportunity you have to surprise them and subvert their expectations.

Papers, Please is a recent game that is alternately funny, political, thought-provoking and chilling – rooted in a concept that sounds so mundane you might assume it’s boring. Yet through the simple concept of processing documents at border control, the game creates one of the most nuanced and complex narrative experiences I’ve played this year.

In Papers, Please the player experiences an incredible range of emotion and decision-making opportunities, because the systems are elaborate while the narrative is restrained. One might presume that a game about immigration policy would benefit from details about the world in which it’s set, extensive context or pathos-heavy character stories, or explicit real-world references, but the reverse is actually true.

Because the game’s engaging element involves making quick mechanical (and ethical) decisions with minimal information, the fact that so many elements go unexplained makes the experience stronger.

Many game designers know well that constraints make for more creative games – groups of designers doing one-button game design challenges a few years ago came out prepared to better understand the touchscreen age that followed, and weekend game jams often spawn incredible ideas from the combination of a single concept and limited time.

Perhaps, as a general approach, restraint and reduction better serve storytelling in games as well. It’s certainly something to consider as the next generation of hardware promises more lifelike facial animations, real-world actors and more emphasis on the ever-nebulous concept of ‘immersion’. Rather than think about what else we can pour into a game, let’s think about how we might enhance the experience by taking things out.

Illustration: Marsh Davies