Narrative vs. Tone in Games

For a long time I felt that the unique nature of the game medium set it apart as a special avenue for storytelling and championed the idea of story in games.  I knew there were difficulties and had seen first hand failed attempts at mixing narrative with interactivity, but I was convinced it was just a matter of finding the right approach.  But, my own recent attempt to create an interactive story and the games I have played in the past few months have had a decided effect on me.  I still feel a game can be used to deliver an effective narrative, however I think tone is the strongest use of the medium to achieve a desired emotional state for the player.  I believe that the tone of a game should take priority over narrative for the designer.

I realize that within literature tone is seen as an element of narrative, as just a part of the whole.  But in games, and video games in particular, creating the tone of the piece is more analogous to creating tone in film.  I would go so far as to say that the narrative in video games frequently serves as a part of the tone, rather than the inverse, which also feels true for film. Similar to film, in games the tone is the desired effect created through all the medium’s elements. The games creator can direct the sound, visuals, gameplay, narrative, tactile aspect, and many other elements in order to generate a tone which is unleashed on the player with the hopes of achieving a specific emotional state.  The medium’s interactivity and many possible elements present a unique and often trying difficulty to storytellers in the field, but at the same time are alluring for the immersion and potential for strong impact.

Baldur's Gate: Lots of fun, lots of dice, lots suspicious guards.  The Forgotten Realms is rough on law enforcement.
Baldur’s Gate: Lots of fun, lots of dice, lots suspicious guards. The Forgotten Realms is rough on law enforcement.

Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, and Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber were two titles that played a formative role in my belief that games can deliver on story.  Story and narrative aspects have a strong presence in both games despite differences necessitated by gameplay.  In Shadows of Amn, the player is largely free to roam about either experiencing the central narrative thread, or encapsulated stories in the form of side quests.  Person of Lordly Caliber primarily delivers a linear narrative with some player choices but the only noticeable results of the choices come at the game’s conclusion.


Ogre Battle 64 Screen shot Go Find Him


I loved the story in both of these games, and was completely immersed in the games in different ways.  However, in looking back I realized that while I enjoyed both the story and and gameplay of both experiences, the two elements operated more in parallel then as parts of a single thing.  And, while I had a strong emotional connection to the story of Person of Lordly Calibur, when the game ended I felt a strange displacement.  I now attribute this to the impression that my agency in the game world was inconsequential.  I was asked moral questions at the game’s start and presented with weighty and seemingly important decisions at different times, but at the end of the day these decisions changed little about the story.  As a result I felt a tension between my affiliation with my avatar in the game, the strong story, and this strange illusion of control which ultimately undermined the impact for me.

Before I played either of those games though, I had one of my strongest experiences with any creative medium  through The Legend of Zelda: The Link’s Awakening.  I originally thought it was the game’s story that had left such a lasting impression on me, bringing me back to play through it again and again.  But I now realize it was the game’s tone ( and possibly my young age to some extent) that still conjures up strong feelings for me now when I think back on playing it.  The story itself was simple; you (or Link) have washed up on an island, shipwrecked, and don’t remember anything.  Gradually you regain your memory while protecting the village and yourself from the monsters on the island that have recently become irate.  It turns out the whole thing is a dream, and if you wake the Windfish, the dream will end (either yours or his, it is somewhat unclear).  The kicker for me was the end of the dream, while your only means of escape, also means the end of existence for the villagers and island inhabitants that you have been interacting with all game long.  The characters generally had a distinct appearance, even on the limited graphics of the original Game Boy, and perhaps their simplistic representation conversely allowed a more detailed existence in my head.  I had become quite attached to the world, and now it was quite literally coming to end on multiple levels, to the point that I couldn’t even imagine these characters having a happy existence once I turned the cartridge off for last time.

It's hard to believe but that raccoon has a bad mushroom addiction.
It’s hard to believe but that raccoon has a bad mushroom addiction.

The memorable, distinctive music, surreal feel of the colorless, simplistic visuals, gameplay, and just united feel of the game world as a whole all contributed to such a strong tone that I will likely remember The Link’s Awakening as one of my favorite game’s indefinitely.

More recently, I enjoyed played Limbo and Bastion, two games that I think achieve a similarly strong impact on the player because they focused on using a unity of their game elements to achieve a distinct tone.

These experiences in isolation wouldn’t have convinced me to see narrative and tone as carrying different priority in games, but a few months ago when I worked with a team to create an interactive piece for a class I felt first hand the tension that can exist between story and interaction.  Our game, or experience, used the PlayStation Move and the Oculus Rift in an attempt to put the player in the role of a former musician struggling with drug addiction.  One of the large barriers to strong interactive storytelling is the efffective use of the interactions.  If the interactions are not used effectively to immerse the player or tied in a meaningful way to the story, then a disconnect occurs.  For our experience we used the PS Move controllers to allow the user to experience or act out cello playing movements and hypodermic needle injection in an attempt to not only convey loss but a visceral element.  But not only were we limited by a desire for a simple and strong effect, but our inability to completely master the technology we used resulted in some small disruptions in the movement of on screen arms which was enough to weaken the whole thing.

One scene from my team's interactive story effort, The Cellist.
One scene from my team’s interactive story effort, The Cellist.

Obviously our own technical issues and difficulty with storytelling have no bearing on the medium as a whole.  But we were successful in certain ways which affected me more than the failures.  There were mixed responses from those watching the experience, but the majority of the feedback said they liked it because the lighting, visual setting, sound, and concept made them feel something, even those who were unsure of the story.  Based on the feedback, I felt that the emotional response we got was stronger then if we had made a clear story with less substantial tone.  Amongst the other games shown alongside ours those who had a strong tone, even those whose story was sparse, were the ones which stuck with me.  On the other hand, in the experiences which conveyed a clear narrative the interactions did not particularly bolster the story; they just coexisted with it.

After this experience I looked back on the catalogue of games I had viewed as strong interactive narratives and realized that, more often than not, the lasting sentiment had from from the game’s tone rather than specifically it’s narrative.

I still feel that an effective narrative can exist in games, but a designer concerned with maximizing their influence on the player would do well to consider story as just one of the many elements at their disposal which must fit into the tone as a whole.


The Windfish tells Link about tone.  He thinks it is important.
The Windfish tells Link about tone. He thinks it is important.

4 thoughts on “Narrative vs. Tone in Games”

  1. This article was very profound and a joy to read. I think you brought up some really strong points of tone playing a larger role in the gravity of the experience in games.

    Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber was also one of my favorite games of all time. I do remember individual strong moments in the game’s story, but I am not sure I could recite the story as a whole. As you stated, the tone was a stronger indicator of why I have such a strong attachment to the game. I never quite identified as the main character, but the point that your actions didn’t have much effect on the narrative stood out to me. Although I never thought of it that way, the story definitely took a backseat in successive play-throughs. The game still had a lot of free choice, but that choice was instead reflected in the state of your army: who died, whether you favored archers over spell casters or if you spent the time to tame and raise dragons and beasts creating a diverse force.

    While Zelda is one of my all time favorite games, I don’t identify with Link’s Awakening as strongly as so many of my peers. It was interesting to read your perspective on why it was so profound for you.

    How do you plan to move forward now knowing that tone carries such an important role?

  2. Christian,

    I think this is very well stated. I too loved Link’s Awakening. I often liken a lot of game design to architecture, and I think in this case that is particularly applicable. In a lot of cases buildings are great to look at, but terrible to experience. I have found that the ones that play with your emotions through light, tension, compression, even things as minute as airflow and the way a door swings are what really influence the way you experience a structure. This is also true in a lot of interactive experiences, including the ones you mention. Sometimes the best parts of the story are not told through the narrative, but through tone.
    In architecture, you have no narrator, or dialogue with which to convey your story. You have only tone. You can control how people move, see, and hear. Through this you can control how they feel (admittedly with less success than most other story mediums.) When designing, I like to think of “Home”. What is home and why is it home? It is nothing more than a building. What is it about a home that separates it from a house? It’s the connections you make with it. Not dissimilar from your experience with Zelda. There are some games that just feel right, just like your house feels like home, and that feeling can go a long way to make the story great. It is like when you move into a new apartment, it does not immediately feel right. It takes a little time to become a reflection of yourself. I think that is why tone is so important to games. For the story to have that feeling, the tone must be an integral part in telling it.

    This was a long winded comment, sorry.

    Ps. The cellist was one of my favorite BVW worlds for the reasons outlined above.


  3. I never really thought about tone in games, but now that I’m thinking about it, I have to say I agree with your idea. I remember your game gave me a enormous feeling of immersive and I didn’t really even understand the story. Also the game we made that round started with a weak story, but in the end the nightmare kind of tone we created saved the game. So I’m not really sure if tone is more important than story itself, but it definitely has a huge impact on the game.

  4. @Anthony,
    I am glad you enjoyed the post. You make a good point about Ogre Battle 64 also providing choice through the state of your army, which characters you choose to strengthen or which you leave as fallen on the battlefield. I realize I didn’t discuss this aspect of choice in games, choice through game state or mechanics, and focused more on how choices were reflected more tangibly in the narrative. As these elements aren’t mutually exclusive(Ogre Battle 64 is actually a really good example of this) this could be a good topic to explore further. To answer your question, in the future I plan to focus more on the details of a design (sound, visual touches, setting) then a concentrated effort on just the area that is traditionally considered the game’s narrative.

    I enjoyed your architecture analogy to design choices overall. I have admittedly not considered the weight and possibility of architectural design in depth so seeing the process from this perspective is very interesting. Also, you hit on something interesting with the idea of what makes a home. The idea of establishing connections between elements in the environment and the narrative, whether it be literal, figurative, or atmospheric is a really insightful way to think about the interplay between tone and narrative elements.

    The tone of your Creepy Clown Carnival (the title I gave the game in my head) was very memorable and I felt as if there was almost an emergent narrative just from the setting and other game elements you and your team put in place.

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