Storytelling And Player Experience

Posted On: 2021-11-15

By Mark

Would you believe me if I told you that a Metroidvania is a genre principally defined by its storytelling style - and not by camera perspective, gameplay actions, or progression systems? I suspect that you wouldn't - and rightly so, as those three are often cited as the key traits of the genre. Yet, for as long as I've loved the genre, I've held some semblance of this belief - though it's only recently that I've been able to articulate why. If you'll indulge me, I'd like to explore this idea - by first starting with what storytelling is*.

Defining Storytelling

Storytelling is more than simply relaying a story (or plot) to some audience. As I'll define it here, storytelling is the combination of every element afforded by the medium, for the purpose of delivering a particular experience to the audience*. Thus, in an oral medium, tone, timbre, and even the use of breath are all parts of the storytelling. In a visual medium, like comics, the art style and composition contribute to the storytelling. In a live interactive medium, such as certain plays and improv street performances, the interaction between audience and performer is likewise a part of the storytelling, with the actor indulging or using the audience's emotional reactions as a part of the performance.

In a digital interactive medium, such as video games, the audience's (player's) interactions and experiences are just as much a part of the storytelling. The most obvious example of this is a player choice influencing the plot, but this extends much further - the kinesthetic feel of the controls, player directed exploration, and even time spent on loading screens are all part of the storytelling of a game. Essentially, everything you think and feel as you play a game is part of the storytelling.

Exploration as a Storytelling Tool

When a game's interactivity lets a player explore, it gives the player influence over its pacing and the order in which new scenes, areas, or characters are introduced. In such a game the player is co-authoring their own experience, choosing what risks to take, how far to explore, whether to rush into new things or slow down and take time to admire the details. The game's design often complements this using constraints and supporting structure - such as limiting how much risk a player may take on (ie. sealing off end-game areas) or encouraging certain pacing choices (ie. using interesting landmarks to encourage slowing down or unremarkable tunnels to encourage passing quickly through). The pace of the game is defined by both together - the time to a first encounter with hostile aliens is as much influenced by their placement in the game world as by the player's exploration pace.

The game mechanics associated with Metroidvanias are, more often than not, essential parts of defining how a player controls this pacing. Most Metroidvanias provide powers that gate access to areas, limiting where the player can go and what they can do. Exploration within the available areas is self-directed, and players encounter new areas in an order defined by their own choices. Inaccessible areas are often memorably sign-posted: a ledge that is too high to reach, or a massive, immovable boulder blocking the way forward. Importantly, these are often presented in a way that foreshadows what power will overcome them: such as a high-jump to reach that ledge, or the strength to lift/destroy massive boulders. This detail is particularly interesting, as it means that choices about where to explore influence the anticipation/surprise associated with gaining powers in the future.

Sequence breaking - the act of reaching areas/content that ordinarily could not be reached - is part of the appeal of Metroidvanias. Through demonstrating exceptional tenacity or skill, players can even access gated areas. In this way, players create powerful emotional vignettes for themselves by finding a seemingly impossible obstacle, refusing to give in, and then finally triumphing - opening the way to places they've never been before. Often, it is such personal stories of persistence and triumph that players retell to one another - and it is likely the kind of storytelling experience they sought from the game in the first place.

I would argue that this kind of self-directed exploration is more fundamental to the Metroidvania genre than ancillary trappings, such as a 2D camera or jumping on platforms. Genres define why a player chooses to play a game - what draws them to it and keeps them playing. For myself, and I imagine for many others, it's not the progression of powers or slaying bosses that draws us in - it's the way that self-directed exploration as co-authorship feels: wondrous, terrifying, and calm - all paced exactly according to the player's individual actions.

Is that Really True?

A naysayer might argue that this thing I've defined as storytelling is not storytelling in the traditional sense. It's more of the emotional arc that a player goes through as they engage in the act of playing - their own personalized experience of play. That is a worthwhile point, but I wonder what makes that any less of a story? As I've written about in an earlier post, I think these kinds of meta-stories that emerge from the player performing the act of play are incredibly powerful. It seems, to me, this is in many ways the core strength of games as a storytelling medium: by giving the player co-authorship over elements of the story - pacing, repetition, order of events in the plot - the player is empowered in a way that no other medium permits. If that empowerment becomes a growth arc for the person playing the game - then I'd say that's downright incredible.