Do-it-Yourself Storytelling in Video Games

In most video games or digital narratives, the story is provided to you as part of the experience. Some games, like Dys4ia, are specifically geared toward telling a story as their entire purpose.

But in some cases, you only have the digital environment to work with, and often, that environment gives you only a context, and no particular narrative.

This is where a lot of classic game stories come from. For instance:

Save the princess!

Super Mario Brothers

And, um… save the princess!


(The Legend of Zelda)

And don’t forget saving the princess (and eventually ALL THE THINGS).


(Final Fantasy)

And then there’s… this.


(Bad Dudes)

What you’re seeing here (other than how game designers in the 1980’s were pretty comfortable with blatant gender stereotyping) is that often the story in these classic games is little more than an ill-devised exposition of a goal.

Developers knew that a good game needs a good goal, but they weren’t terribly concerned with fleshing out things like a character’s motivations, or the roles of side characters. Really, you get, “You’re a hero, go beat things up until you save the princess/world/president!”

That might be a little thin for those looking for a story-driven engagement. But if you look hard enough as a writer, you see nothing but potential. If you wish to apply them, these games are waiting to have narratives projected onto them. In other words, these games are blank canvasesThe story can be generally whatever you want it to be.

I have done this myself with perhaps the ultimate form of context-heavy, narrative-neutral game: sports games.

A few years ago, I decided to preview the NFL Playoffs by simulating the games with a hacked (updated) version of Tecmo Super Bowl. Because the game can be run as a simulation without user interference, I opted to just sit back and write game stories on what happened in the game, and it turned out like this.

But that’s just one example. The list of narratives born of video games range from hilarious decade-long projects to famously absurd fanfictions, but they all show, very clearly, how fun it can be to take a digital context and put your own narrative on it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get started on my next project. It’s about a man with an insatiable hunger for exploration and his reliance on substance abuse to overcome the ghosts of his past:


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