Storytelling in video games

Chat and discussion not related to either Marathon or Aleph One. Please keep things at least mildly interesting, though.

Post Jan 8th '13, 20:36

I didn't know where else to put this discussion which began in another thread. So, here it is.

skraeling wrote:Don't waste the audience's time with stuff that doesn't matter. It's true in writing stories and it's true in level design. If there's an area and it looks like you can reasonably get there then you should be able to get there; if the designer doesn't want the player to explore that area then he should just cut it.

RyokoTK wrote:I don't agree with this. Video games (excluding visual novels and the like) as a narrative are so far removed from cinema or literature that a lot of the most basic Storytelling 101 guidelines don't apply, and this is one of them.

skraeling wrote:This is nonsense. Video games are not some super unique medium completely removed from all others. All storytelling is fundamentally the same. The objects used may be different, but the methods, forms, and narrative devices are identical across all mediums. Point is, the Storytelling 101, 215, and 376 guidelines are equally applicable to literature, video games, or standup comedy.



RyokoTK wrote:This is such an incorrect point of view even when you compare, like, cinema to television, or fiction to poetry, let alone any of those to video games.

This is not an incorrect point of view. The more familiar you become with the arts the more aware of this you are. As an old professor of mine once told me, "Poetic devices are actually just literary devices which themselves are actually just tools for good communication." All communication relies on fundamental principles and storytelling is just another form of communication.

RyokoTK wrote:The key difference in video games is that the player has an active role in the narrative -- pressing buttons and winning levels

This is just not true, even though the entire game community claims it is (and I think the reason they fervently argue this point is because they need an excuse for why game stories aren't as good those in other mediums; after all, they rave about Spec Ops, which is nothing remarkable). The narcissistic idea that the player has an active role in the narrative is just a cognitive illusion, it isn't real. The player of a game is no more active in the story than the reader of a book is active in their story. There is no difference in the level of immersion. There is no difference in the level of agency. The differences that exist are merely superficial.

If the player is so active in the narrative then why can't he create a new narrative or alter the narrative. And I'm not talking about alternate story paths or alternate choices in a dialogue true. That's not altering the story, that's not being active in the story. That's being active in exploring preexisting stories. The player (and reader, and viewer) can't change anything about the story they're exploring. They can only explore what's been given to them by the author and the only choice they have is how they approach that exploration. If you're playing a game and you can choose to kill someone or spare them then this isn't really changing the narrative. Sure, you individually change your narrative as an audience but you're not changing the narrative of the character. That's where the cognitive illusion kicks in.

Player's keep thinking that their experience is the character's just because nothing happens without the player's input. However the character's persepctive and experience is very different than the player's. If the character has multiple choices he has the chance to alter his one and only story. However in the player's reality there are multiple stories and they all already exist. So, the when the player makes a choice he's choosing to explore a different separate narrative and not to alter a single narrative.

RyokoTK wrote:If you just wanted to tell a story about Heart of Darkness parallels in Dubai, make a movie. I had similar complaints about Eternal; Forrest had quite story to tell, but the whole video games medium did not work well with it.

In part I agree with you here. An artist should understand the tools at his disposal and approach a work with those tools in mind rather than ignoring the limitations of the medium they're working in. If you want to tell a story in a certain way then make sure that your medium is conducive to that method of telling the story.

However, I disagree in part as well. I think if you want to tell a story set in Dubai based on Heart of Darkness and tell it in a video game then that's fine. Just make sure you know what you're doing and that you're doing it right. You shouldn't try to tell the story using the same superficial tools as another medium. You should look at the deep fundamental tools used to make the story work both conceptually and mechanically and then use those fundamental methods to translate the work into the strengths of the medium you're working in. That's part of why I think most video game stories, even the best ones, fail. They keep trying to use the superficial rules of other mediums rather than understanding the fundamentals that make it work.

For example, if in an FPS you're given a gun that short circuits cybernetic equipment, and it kills some enemies faster and some enemies slower, then that tells a story, it constructs a small narrative. On a superficial level the way it tells its story is completely unique to how video games work. On a fundamental level it is the same way that all mediums tell stories.

Everything can tell a story. Layers of rock tell a story to geologists. Crime scenes tell a story to investigators. A nation's choice in national song, national food, etc., tells a narrative about how that nation wants to see itself and how it wants others to view its culture. Garbage tells the story of its owners so well that archaeologists at a dig site are much more excited about finding a garbage pit than finding vases, pots, skeletons, or paintings.
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philtron

Post Jan 8th '13, 21:10

skraeling wrote:This is not an incorrect point of view. The more familiar you become with the arts the more aware of this you are. As an old professor of mine once told me...


I'm annoyed that you kicked off your argument with an appeal to authority and experience.

This is just not true, even though the entire game community claims it is (and I think the reason they fervently argue this point is because they need an excuse for why game stories aren't as good those in other mediums; after all, they rave about Spec Ops, which is nothing remarkable). The narcissistic idea that the player has an active role in the narrative is just a cognitive illusion, it isn't real. The player of a game is no more active in the story than the reader of a book is active in their story. There is no difference in the level of immersion. There is no difference in the level of agency. The differences that exist are merely superficial.

If the player is so active in the narrative then why can't he create a new narrative or alter the narrative. And I'm not talking about alternate story paths or alternate choices in a dialogue true. That's not altering the story, that's not being active in the story. That's being active in exploring preexisting stories. The player (and reader, and viewer) can't change anything about the story they're exploring. They can only explore what's been given to them by the author and the only choice they have is how they approach that exploration. If you're playing a game and you can choose to kill someone or spare them then this isn't really changing the narrative. Sure, you individually change your narrative as an audience but you're not changing the narrative of the character. That's where the cognitive illusion kicks in.
The problem with this argument is that it assumes that "narrative" in a video game is restricted to the cutscenes. Maybe that's true of shit video games, but then again, critics of cinema aren't trying to hold up Jack and Jill as an example of why the medium fails. But even in intellectually devoid games like Call of Duty Whatever, the part where the player is shooting things is part of the narrative. Which is how this ties into the level design debate that spawned this thread: the level design itself, and the events in the level, contribute to the narrative. Weak and shallow level design can often times lead to a weak and shallow narrative. And yes, the player is actively controlling this. In a film, what is put on screen is (theoretically) seen by every viewer, and experiences only differ by the interpretation of that one thing. In a video game, you can't count on this, because each player controls his own "camera." It's a secondary level of interpretation that players have more control over.

You shouldn't try to tell the story using the same superficial tools as another medium. You should look at the deep fundamental tools used to make the story work both conceptually and mechanically and then use those fundamental methods to translate the work into the strengths of the medium you're working in. That's part of why I think most video game stories, even the best ones, fail. They keep trying to use the superficial rules of other mediums rather than understanding the fundamentals that make it work.


Yeah, if you're trying to measure a video game screenplay against Anna Karenina, you will be disappointed. Thankfully, the best video game storytellers don't actually fall into this trap. It's a pretty lazy argument to make when you claim the best VG stories "fail" because Morrowind is kind of boring to watch.
Last edited by RyokoTK on Jan 8th '13, 21:10, edited 1 time in total.
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RyokoTK
Saint Paul, MN

Post Jan 8th '13, 21:54

skraeling wrote:The narcissistic idea that the player has an active role in the narrative is just a cognitive illusion, it isn't real. The player of a game is no more active in the story than the reader of a book is active in their story. There is no difference in the level of immersion. There is no difference in the level of agency. The differences that exist are merely superficial.

This is obviously a troll thread. Or, if you honestly believe that's true, maybe you should play better games.
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Wrkncacnter

Post Jan 9th '13, 00:05

Everything can tell a story. Conversely, great works don't have to tell a story. Many of my favorites meet somewhere in the middle. Flourishes not integral to the "plot," details that create atmosphere or evoke thought, often mean more to me than the kind of narrative you're asking for. Not everything has to communicate something, either. Even when something is there to be communicated, sometimes the best we can do is look at its abstraction and admire that shape.

Video games have a lot of potential to present ideas like these.
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irons
(.Y.)

Post Jan 9th '13, 00:16

It's kind of a different but similar flavor of the irritating "are video games art" argument that got people up in a tizzy last year.

Anything can be art, it's not possible to make a checklist of what makes something art or not, and you can't really compare the artistic merits of Renaissance sculpture and modern expressionism without your argument sounding like "I don't like Pollock, therefore drip painting is not art."
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RyokoTK
Saint Paul, MN

Post Jan 9th '13, 00:33

This reminds me of [post="21989"]something from way back[/post]. I was going link to it ironically while quoting Ryoko, but then I saw he was making pretty much the same point then as he is now. [post="22092"]At least one of us has been mature for the last six years[/post].
Last edited by irons on Jan 9th '13, 00:34, edited 1 time in total.
underworld : simple fun netmaps // prahblum peack : simple rejected netmaps
azure dreams : simple horrible netmaps // v6.0!!!: thomas mann's greatest hits : simple simple netmaps
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irons
(.Y.)

Post Jan 9th '13, 00:55

Yeah my dislike of expressionism, and most modern art in general (except modernist architecture *swoon*) is pretty palpable, but I can admit that at least.
Last edited by RyokoTK on Jan 9th '13, 00:55, edited 1 time in total.
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RyokoTK
Saint Paul, MN

Post Jan 9th '13, 02:22

skraeling wrote:Don't waste the audience's time with stuff that doesn't matter. It's true in writing stories and it's true in level design. If there's an area and it looks like you can reasonably get there then you should be able to get there; if the designer doesn't want the player to explore that area then he should just cut it.


I feel like you have a pretty narrow idea of what "matters" in video games, or "art" in general. Why do you have to be able to explore an area for it to matter? Just being able to see outside areas can help immensely with immersion, and I've always felt that immersion is one of the most important things in a video game.

The narcissistic idea that the player has an active role in the narrative is just a cognitive illusion, it isn't real. The player of a game is no more active in the story than the reader of a book is active in their story. There is no difference in the level of immersion. There is no difference in the level of agency. The differences that exist are merely superficial.


How do you feel about this?
Last edited by $lave on Jan 9th '13, 02:24, edited 1 time in total.
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$lave

Post Jan 9th '13, 02:44

If you're annoyed with appeals to authority then it's a good thing I didn't appeal to authority. I used a quote from a someone else to better phrase my point not to prove it. If I had said the quote came from an old friend what would you have claimed then? Or if I just wrote it without claiming any source other than myself?

I'm really disappointed in your response Ryoko. Almost the entire thing put words in my mouth, implied arguments I never made, and then you argued against the things I didn't say.

Like when you said, "It's a pretty lazy argument to make when you claim the best VG stories 'fail' because Morrowind is kind of boring to watch." Except I never made that claim. I never even made any argument vaguely similar to that. I didn't mention Morrowind or any sort of game that's boring to watch. I didn't even discuss watching games as an observer because what would be the point.

And then: "Yeah, if you're trying to measure a video game screenplay against Anna Karenina, you will be disappointed." Good thing I wasn't trying to do that.

Let's look at another: "The problem with this argument is that it assumes that "narrative" in a video game is restricted to the cutscenes." What In the world are you talking about? My argument made no such assumptions. I never even talked about cutscenes. In fact, my argument couldn't have been about cutscenes because I was discussing player choice and player interaction which only take place during gameplay.

I know that level design, gun behavior, AI, etc. are all part of the game's narrative. And still the player's control over all this is only superficial. If you can go somewhere, do something, see something, then that's because the designer wants you to or didn't find the glitch. Like a director making a film, if a game designer doesn't want you to see something, you won't see it. What is available to you at any given moment in a book, movie, or game is controlled by the author. If the makers of Halo don't want you to see a Hunter for the first time until the third level then you won't see a Hunter for the first time until the third level. If the makers of Half-life 2 don't want you to shoot friendlies, then you won't shoot friendlies. All the control you feel is something you're allowed to have thanks to the designer. And if they want to take away that control at a given point, they can.

irons wrote:Everything can tell a story. Conversely, great works don't have to tell a story.

I never said they did. It's just that "story", not creative or artistic work in general, was the topic of discussion.

irons wrote:Flourishes not integral to the "plot," details that create atmosphere or evoke thought, often mean more to me than the kind of narrative you're asking for. Not everything has to communicate something, either. Even when something is there to be communicated, sometimes the best we can do is look at its abstraction and admire that shape.
Video games have a lot of potential to present ideas like these.

I'm not sure what narrative you think I'm asking for, but I do agree that skillful flourishes or aspects that create atmosphere are just as good as a good story. Those flourishes may not be integral to the plot but they're integral to some aspect of the creative work.

I agree with all of what you said actually, except the part where you think you're making an argument against what I said. Or maybe you're not making an argument against what I said. I can't quite tell.

RyokoTK wrote:It's kind of a different but similar flavor of the irritating "are video games art" argument that got people up in a tizzy last year.

That argument has been going on for so long; since before Braid was finally released. And I've hated it all this time for the same reasons you do. Which makes it interesting that you think I'm saying something similar.

Actually, what do you guys think I'm saying? Because your reactions make no sense to what I see when I reread my posts.
I'm not saying games need to be like other mediums; although on a fundamental level I think all mediums are the same.
I'm not saying games don't have potential. I'm saying they're not meeting their potential.
I'm not saying that coherent linear stories are the only type of art that is worthwhile. I'm not even saying that stories need to be linear or coherent. But I do think that all the resources devoted to a creative piece should serve to enhance that piece otherwise they're gristle unless their function as gristle serves some purpose and then I think that can work.
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philtron

Post Jan 9th '13, 03:04

skraeling wrote:I'm not sure what narrative you think I'm asking for, but I do agree that skillful flourishes or aspects that create atmosphere are just as good as a good story. Those flourishes may not be integral to the plot but they're integral to some aspect of the creative work.


Okay dude! I think it's time for you to lay down your definition of "story" here, because I think everyone here but you is under the impression that a "story" in a video game is more than just the screenplay and VA script.
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RyokoTK
Saint Paul, MN

Post Jan 9th '13, 03:28

skraeling wrote:Actually, what do you guys think I'm saying? Because your reactions make no sense to what I see when I reread my posts.

skraeling wrote:I think all mediums are the same.

In terms of storytelling, this claim in particular is what seems ridiculous to me, especially if you're talking about ALL video games. There are some games out there that actually let you role play, and one person's experience may be completely different from someone else. Their experience can also be completely different than anything the game developer originally intended. You don't think that means the player can tell his character's "story" by choosing to play the game a certain way?

To me, the storytelling in a game like this is not even close to the same as watching a film, for example.
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Wrkncacnter

Post Jan 9th '13, 04:06

Is this thread a story? Is it art?
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treellama
Pittsburgh

Post Jan 9th '13, 04:07

And how many of John Romero's mapmaking rules does it violate?
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RyokoTK
Saint Paul, MN

Post Jan 9th '13, 04:09

Does anyone actually care?
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Wrkncacnter

Post Jan 9th '13, 04:17

Why do birds suddenly appear?
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RyokoTK
Saint Paul, MN


Post Jan 9th '13, 05:49

skraeling wrote:...if in an FPS you're given a gun that short circuits cybernetic equipment, and it kills some enemies faster and some enemies slower, then that tells a story, it constructs a small narrative. On a superficial level the way it tells its story is completely unique to how video games work. On a fundamental level it is the same way that all mediums tell stories.
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philtron

Post Jan 9th '13, 06:00

Ok, so at a fundamental level, stories on all mediums are the same because things happen. Thanks, that wasn't at all a waste of everyone's time.
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Wrkncacnter

Post Jan 9th '13, 13:11

I was going to respond.
underworld : simple fun netmaps // prahblum peack : simple rejected netmaps
azure dreams : simple horrible netmaps // v6.0!!!: thomas mann's greatest hits : simple simple netmaps
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irons
(.Y.)

Post Jan 9th '13, 20:09

*Sees all the text*

TOO MUCH TO READ!!!!!! TOO MUCH OF A WASTE OF TIME!!!!!!

*Takes Z-Saber and slices skraeling in two*

There. Much better. [MSmile] Hey irons, hows it going?
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Destiny
USA

Post Jan 10th '13, 06:57

skraeling wrote:If the player is so active in the narrative then why can't he create a new narrative or alter the narrative. And I'm not talking about alternate story paths or alternate choices in a dialogue true. That's not altering the story, that's not being active in the story. That's being active in exploring preexisting stories. The player (and reader, and viewer) can't change anything about the story they're exploring. They can only explore what's been given to them by the author and the only choice they have is how they approach that exploration. If you're playing a game and you can choose to kill someone or spare them then this isn't really changing the narrative. Sure, you individually change your narrative as an audience but you're not changing the narrative of the character. That's where the cognitive illusion kicks in.

Player's keep thinking that their experience is the character's just because nothing happens without the player's input. However the character's persepctive and experience is very different than the player's. If the character has multiple choices he has the chance to alter his one and only story. However in the player's reality there are multiple stories and they all already exist. So, the when the player makes a choice he's choosing to explore a different separate narrative and not to alter a single narrative.


skraeling wrote:I know that level design, gun behavior, AI, etc. are all part of the game's narrative. And still the player's control over all this is only superficial. If you can go somewhere, do something, see something, then that's because the designer wants you to or didn't find the glitch. Like a director making a film, if a game designer doesn't want you to see something, you won't see it. What is available to you at any given moment in a book, movie, or game is controlled by the author. If the makers of Halo don't want you to see a Hunter for the first time until the third level then you won't see a Hunter for the first time until the third level. If the makers of Half-life 2 don't want you to shoot friendlies, then you won't shoot friendlies. All the control you feel is something you're allowed to have thanks to the designer. And if they want to take away that control at a given point, they can.


It seems that what you're saying is that a player playing a game is, fundamentally, no different than a reader reading a book. The actions they take in the game are just very complicated and challenging ways of turning the pages.

Okay, I get that. I've played games that are like that, but not all of them are. Have you ever played a sandbox game? And/or one that features emergent gameplay? Let me offer a thought experiment.

So I was playing Grand Theft Auto yesterday. I was walking down the street and saw this convertible drive by. It looked sweet, and I wanted to steal it. I ran into the intersection so the driver would have to stop. But then, just as I yank open the driver's side door, I see this hot rod coming up the cross street. It was neon green, my favorite color. So the guy in the convertible is freaking out, but I abandon him and carjack the hot rod instead. I got in, and started to peel off when I realize the radio's blasting country music. Well, that's going to ruin my joyride, so I start changing the station looking for classic rock. Unfortunately that distracted me just enough to run over the convertible guy's foot, and wouldn't you know it, a cop saw me clip him. So now I'm starting to panic. I gun it through the intersection, and the cop turns on his siren. The hot rod was pulling to the right; I must have damaged something when I hit convertible guy. So I'm weaving through traffic at about 45 miles per hour - fast, but not so fast I lose control. The car keeps pulling to the right and I knock over a sign post. It flies up over my hood, and when I reach a small clear patch in the traffic, I risk a look behind me. The sign post cracked the cop's windshield, and I see him swerve right, then left, then right again into a fire hydrant. I laughed my butt off all the way back to my garage.

Is this a story? Yes. Is it a good story? Maybe, maybe not. But who wrote this story? The guy who modeled the hot rod? The guy who programmed how it handles? The guy who set the spawn frequency of police cruisers? There's more to this story than the contributions of anyone in the credits, separately or cumulatively. I submit for your consideration that the player has some authorship over this story. And it is that aspect of storytelling that is fundamentally unique to games.
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Crater Creator

Post Jan 10th '13, 13:50

I AM FINE
underworld : simple fun netmaps // prahblum peack : simple rejected netmaps
azure dreams : simple horrible netmaps // v6.0!!!: thomas mann's greatest hits : simple simple netmaps
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irons
(.Y.)

Post Jan 10th '13, 14:29

Extremely well put. And I couldn't help chuckling at the bit about GTA---this is hilarious description of how wacky the gameplay is. I'm not proud to say this, but GTA (along with Marathon, of course) is one of the few games I really spent a lot of time on. It got to the point where my grad school roommates got me GTA San Andreas as a gag gift for my birthday.
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fiddler_on_a_roof

Post Jan 19th '13, 23:05

You seem to be making the generalization that a narrative has the same limitations regardless of its medium, and that to me just isn't true. If a picture is worth a thousand words, why bother painting words? The possibilities and strengths change from medium to medium, and if you refuse to acknowledge that, you limit yourself.
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Ares Ex Machina

Post Apr 7th '13, 18:33

I can actually see where the OP is coming from with regards to this.

Sure, you can alter or even create small side-narraties within a story arc at best, but you can't change the fundamental outcome.

Take the GTA reference for example. Yes, that is creating a form of "mini-story" within the game's world, but where are you ultimately? You're playing with a combination of rules that the stoyteller has already formulated. In Grand Theft Auto, the cars, the characters, the cities, everything is fictional. The playing pieces, already set. So it could be argued that taking a few elements of that fiction and bashing them together isn't so much forming something new as doing what the programmers put in capacity for you to do - much like an alternate story branch, but with a much higher number of combinations than "if you go here, you end up here, but if you go here, you end up here instead". Despite this, where does that all fit in anyway? These side-narratives don't make a jot of difference to the final outcome of the game's story elements which is an underlying straight line that one has to follow to completion (or rather, you don't have to necessarily follow, but not doing so will mean you make no progress in said game/story).

All that said, however... I believe the merit of storytelling in games is the instigation of emotion from a combination of these side-narratives as well as already designed narratives in place, that other "traditional" media cannot do quite as well. Where a film or a book allows you a static view of the world, a rigid interpretation of actions, a videogame allows you a physically and emotionally tactile function within the world that a player can exploit. In other media, the story is designed to make you feel how the main character feels at that moment in time, whether that be courage, trepidation, anger, love, whatever - whereas in a videogame, you're open to feel how you want to feel. Granted, the game may try and coax emotions from you by putting you into a situation that encourages a specific emotion, but ultimately, the story is yours to feel.

Let's go with the opening levels of Marathon - something we're presumably all familiar with. They're dark, hard (in the environmental sense) and quiet (I never played Marathon with music). Now, this is the storyteller's way of trying to coerce you into feeling the effects of these aesthetics. You may feel loneliness, fear, emptiness, isolation from this setting but that choice is up to you. You can either creep around, edging out from corners in fear of what might jump out at you or you can disregard all of that, sprint around guns ablaze and mow down the Pfhor without second thought. In that regard, the main character becomes your own story. An extension of yourself; and it's in this that you begin to create your own internal scripts outside of the game world and inside the reality of your own body and mind. Something that a book restricts in freedom, as it explicitly describes to you what the character is feeling and something a film restricts even more due to you actually watching a character's response to something so that you need not imagine how they're feeling - it's right in front of you. In this respect, videogames are a unique way of instigating emotion and telling a story because you aren't watching someone have an experience externally and empathising with that person - you are that person having the experience.

Yes, the story as an arc is predetermined, the terminals will always say the same thing, the enemies will always be in the same place, where you go and what you do will always be the same, but there's more to "storytelling" than just cold, hard details. It's in the emotional side of things, too. I could write a story that said;

"I went to the car dealership, I saw a car, I got in it, I checked it over for quality, I bought it, I shifted it into gear, I drove it off the lot, I drove back home, I parked it on the drive"

or I could talk about how going to the car lot to buy a new car made me feel, how;

"I saw a car I really liked. THE car I really liked - and instantly fell in love with. It was my dream car that - for years as a child - I pined after, having had a poster of it on my wall. When I slipped into the seat, it felt like I had always wished, I felt the wheel under my hands"... yadda yadda. (Obviously, these are two extremes but it puts what i'm talking about across.)

I guess the nature of this question really is "What is storytelling?" Is it solely in the basic actions, functions and interractions of the character to the ends of the story as a set of actions and reactions in itself? Or in the immersion and feelings generated by what you are reading/watching/playing/listening to (that is a whole 'nother topic. :P)? Is it both?

Edit; Hot diggity Jesus, this was a long, rambling post. I wouldn't blame you for tl:dring it.
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