The Video Game Plot Scale

They used to challenge your thumbs - now they test your heart, too.

You know what they say about great minds, and Stokes isn’t the only one overthinking video game plots. But while he’s delving into the types of stories a video game can tell, I’ve been thinking about the increasing importance these stories play in our gaming experience. It used to be that video games were solely a test of skill. They might test your reflexes, your ability to solve puzzles , or your ability to think strategically. Oftentimes you needed a combination of skills. Starcraft requires strategy and reflexes. Tetris requires spacial reasoning and reflexes. But generally, the fun of a game came from mastering it — surmounting the challenges to get the highest score possible.

However, over the past 20 years, we’ve seen increasing emphasis on plot. Target audiences got older and wanted more sophisticated narratives than “our Princess is in another castle.” The technology got good enough for cut scenes, first with text, and then with voice acting. And while the early games were written entirely by the programmers, it quickly became standard for dedicated writers to be involved from day 1.

All this led to something curious: the fun of video games no longer came solely from beating them. It came from the stories too. Think of the survival horror genre. Silent HillResident Evil (the old ones, before they became shooters). You can’t say that our enjoyment of those games comes entirely from puzzle solving and combat. A huge part of the experience is atmosphere and storytelling.

So games are partially a test of skill, and partially a vehicle for plot. And the relative importance of those things varies from game to game.

I fully expect that nobody is going to precisely agree with those pie charts. Some of you probably start mashing the buttons the second you sense a cutscene coming on. Others of you have a Sephiroth figurine on your nightstand. But my point is that it’s no longer true that the fun of a game comes entirely from gameplay, and it hasn’t been for a while.

(NOTE: the pie charts are a little misleading, because this is NOT a zero sum game. Making the plot better doesn’t mean you have to make the gameplay worse. But it’s interesting to consider these two qualities as a ratio: to what extent is the game a pure test of skill, and to what extent is it a gripping yarn?)

What really got me thinking about this was LA Noire, which puts you into the shoes of a 1940s police detective. (It’s extremely influenced by LA Confidential, down to the steely Irish captain.) This was produced by the same developers as Grand Theft Auto, and at first glance it’s got a ton in common. You can drive around a huge urban area. You can get in fistfights and shootouts. You get sent on missions after lengthy cutscenes. The formula seems familiar.

But over the weekend, I was having trouble chasing down a fleeing suspect. And after a couple failed attempts to catch him, a dialogue box popped up to ask if I’d like to skip the action sequence. This would NOT negatively impact my score, the game assured me.

Now can you imagine Grand Theft Auto giving you the chance to just skip a shootout and move on? Of course not. (It does often present you with multiple missions to take on at any given point, but that’s not the same.) But to the LA Noire team, the action sequences were not the point of the game. The focal point is the interrogations, uncovering the truth and the lies. In other words, LA Noire places story first. I’m not pointing this out in a negative way. I just think it’s interesting that Grand Theft Auto 4 lets you skip all the cutscenes but you have to do the car chases, whereas LA Noire lets you skip the car chases but not the cutscenes.

Okay, so some games are more plot-centric than others. What I think we need is a scale that allows us to make intelligent comparisons.

The Video Game Plot Scale

1 – No plot at all

EXAMPLES: Tetris, Bejeweled, Minesweeper

These are the pure puzzle and strategy games. I’m having trouble thinking of any action games that fall into this category, because once you’ve established an enemy, even a fairly abstract one, it’s hard not to also establish a basic plot. In a way Galaga doesn’t have a plot, but in another way an outer space battle against impossible odds is the greatest plot of all.

2 – Tiny germ of a story

EXAMPLES: Super Mario Brothers, Frogger, Angry Birds, Double Dragon, Contra, Mortal Kombat

I’d argue that even Pac Man belongs in this category instead of category 1, because those are GHOSTS that are chasing him. Once you can anthropomorphize your protagonist and antagonist, even a little, you’re in category 2.

3 – The setting plays a large part in the game, but there’s not much plot to speak of

EXAMPLES: Left 4 Dead, Myst, SimCity, Portal

These games barely have any plot, but they do have lots of atmosphere, and that’s a critical part of their appeal.

4 – Basic story shapes gameplay

EXAMPLES: Legend of Zelda (the original), Castlevania II, Civilization, Metroid

You have a big goal, and you need to accomplish a bunch of little goals first. You need to fight Ganon, but first you need to get all those pieces of the Triforce. And to do that, first you need to get the raft. The plot is the reason why you do the things you do. But note that there isn’t a whole lot of dialogue or exposition. You proceed from little goals to big goals to victory, but you don’t learn much along the way.

5 – A simple plot is gradually revealed

EXAMPLES: Call of Duty series, Halo series, Bioshock

This is the first category in which the game attempts to tell a complete story, giving you new information and sending you in new unexpected directions. Note that my examples are first person shooters. That should tell you that the plots are definitely subsidiary to the action. There’s just enough plot to keep the action moving, but not a lot of extra plot.

6 – Plot unfolds through frequent cutscenes

EXAMPLES: Ocarina of Time, Assassins Creed series, Grand Theft Auto series, Red Dead Redemption, Shadow of the Colosus

These games have a lot of story to tell and a lot of characters to keep track of. But they don’t rise to the level of hardcore role playing games.

7 – Plot is complex and takes a lot of the player’s time

EXAMPLES: Mass Effect series, Final Fantasy series, Fallout series, basically any RPG

These are the games where the story is a huge part of the appeal. The developers want you to fall in love with these characters and care deeply about the worlds they live in. There’s going to be a ton of voice acting and cutscenes that are longer than most Adult Swim shows.

8 – Plot is central, action scenes are optional


There are skill-based elements, but they can be partially or completely breezed over so that the plot can continue. The game exists primarily to tell a tale.

9 – Plot is everything, controller used only to advance the story

EXAMPLES: Heavy Rain

At the top of the scale, the game is basically a playable novel. The controller is only used to advance the plot. It’s possible that the game might ask you to do some things that require reflexes and dexterity, but that’s not why you play the game. You’re in it for the story.

10 – Any book for the Amazon Kindle

Buttons flip the pages back and forth


Okay, there are a lot of games that won’t fit neatly onto this scale. And I realize I’m blurring the line between the IMPORTANCE of the plot and its contribution to the overall fun of a game. Angry Birds is a great example. I put it way down at 2, because it barely has any plot at all. But obviously, the graphics, sound effects, and catchy music play a huge role in its success. We could easily imagine a game that play exactly the same, but with brightly colored cannonballs instead of birds. It would not be nearly as popular.

Ditto Portal. I ranked that as category 3, because it doesn’t have much of a plot at all. But as the computer goes from comically deadpan to chilling, and you begin to realize the whole lab was abandoned long ago, it really gets under your skin. No one who’s played Portal would say that its plot isn’t “important.” Indeed, the fact that the plot isn’t revealed in obvious ways like cutscenes is part of what makes it so effective.

So this discussion is far from over, and the scale is a work in progress. But one thing we can agree on is that video game stories are getting more ambitious in scope. What’s not clear yet is how to balance story with gameplay in a natural way. I’m definitely not a fan of cutscenes. Some of those RPGs can feel like a movie broken up into short chunks, with a video game stuck in between. And elements of Heavy Rain, like moving the controller back and forth to brush a character’s teeth, seems way too Mario Party to take seriously. Personally, I think games work the best when the story is advanced without the player losing control – check out the Half-Life series, or any of the other stuff from Valve. And games like LA Noire and Mass Effect give the player a choice of what to say, so even when the plot is predetermined it doesn’t feel that way.

It’s going to be interesting watching developers explore the upper parts of the scale. It’s getting to the point where they can put us inside an interactive movie. The question is, do we want that? Or would that take too much game out of the game?