An example and discussion of storytelling through gameplay

  • Red_Nova
  • 03/11/2016 10:01 PM

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of writing for video games? Dialogue? Flavor text? RPG item descriptions? Those certainly involve writing, yes, but these methods aren't exclusive to video games. There are books, movies, and even verbal storytellers that use similar methods. For video games, the rules change quite a bit. In fact, I would argue that words are very often the least important part about video game writing. Some of the best stories in video games occurred with either minimal or even non-existent dialogue! Why is this? Because these games implement clever design elements that manage to convey the feelings of the characters without ever explicitly stating them. What is left unspoken is just as, if not more, powerful than what is directly stated.

So here we go. Part 1 of... eh, who knows if I'll do another one of these? To be honest, there was a second game I wanted to analyze, but this article was way lengthier than I anticipated, so I didn't bother. If people seem to like this kind of rambling, though, I might just write another one.

A few weeks ago, I encountered a great example of wordless storytelling in the last game I ever expected to find it: Devil May Cry 3. I know it's relatively old, and make no mistake: story is not it's strong point. However, it still deserves a warning: I am gonna spoil the everloving crap out of DMC3's endgame. If you're playing through it right now and want to experience the ending of the game, stop reading this article now.

Let me just get this out of the way: I'm not a fan of DMC3. It's not a bad game by any means. In fact, it's a pretty freakin' good game. However, that's all it really was to me: a game. The immersive, gothic horror atmosphere and unique enemy designs of the original are stripped away to allow for expanded battle mechanics, same-y battle arenas, and a dorky main character who tries WAY too hard to be cool. It's not an inherently wrong direction to take, especially considering DMC3 is a prequel to the other games in the series, but it's just not my cup of tea. However, there's one thing this game did very, very right, and it's a lesson that we as game designers can learn and apply to our own games: you do not need a lengthy story to convey powerful emotions.

In fact, the most powerful part of the game occurs in single five minute moment.


Here's a breakdown of the important parts for the purposes of this article: Devil May Cry is a series of fast-paced brawlers that (mostly) put you in control of a half-demon monster hunter named Dante. DMC 3 is largely regarded by fans as the best of the series not only for its wide variety of boss monsters, weapons, and guns to upgrade and learn moves for, but also for the appearance of the greatest antagonists in the entire series: Dante's brother, Vergil.

After seeing their mother killed when they were just children, Dante and Vergil went their separate ways. While Dante became a laid back, smart-ass mercenary with a love for pizza and adventure, Vergil vowed to attain more power through any means necessary, even if it meant losing all his humanity in the process.

Family is still family, however, and the final act of Devil May Cry 3 drove this lesson home with a sudden and shocking delivery method: A sucker punch made up from a combination of a clever gameplay twist and a radical shift in music that turns the entire tone of the game on its head. I'll explain why I think this is so effective, and hopefully this will generate some ideas to use in our own projects.


Here's the scene I'm going to analyze for the next few paragraphs. Please take about five minutes to watch a boss battle near the end of the game, as it's a lot easier than describing it:

So what did we just watch? It's the end of mission 19 out of 20. Dante is facing off against a monster named Arkham. The video's starting point skipped about a third of the scene, but all you need to know is that Dante tried to fight Arkham, but it's clear that he can't beat him alone. Suddenly, Vergil pops in to the arena and announces his intention to kill Arkham. Having a common enemy, Dante and Vergil put aside their hostilities and join forces.

Vergil: "I'll try it your way for once."
Dante: "Remember what we used to say?"
Dante and Vergil: "Jackpot!"

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Enemies joining together to face a common threat. You've seen that before. So why do I highlight this game in particular? Well, when Vergil joins the battle, he is not a friendly A.I. that fights alongside you. Players control Dante and Vergil simultaneously, just like having a party member join you in an RPG. Vergil's movements mirror your own, and he attacks with his own unique style whenever you attack. If you get too far apart, you can press a button to call Vergil back to you.


I think I need to emphasize how significant this is. I personally can't think of many examples where you suddenly gain direct and total control over the protagonist and antagonist at the same time. From the way you control them both via gameplay, to how seamlessly they fight together in the following over-the-top cutscene. The point is made very clear: Vergil may be power-hungry, but he is not devoid of emotions or common sense. He is still a rational, thinking being with feelings and personality. Most importantly, Dante and Vergil still feel a connection to each other, and still hold a mutual understanding of how the other thinks.

You don't have to have anyone say it. You don't have to empathize with the feelings of the protagonist. The feeling happens directly to you. The player.

You can tell a player that Dante and Vergil are brothers all you want, and the game never misses a chance to remind players of this throughout its runtime, but NOTHING drove the familial connection home stronger than giving the player autonomous control over them both in that one critical moment. You, the player, dictate the actions of an antagonist. You wouldn’t control someone who was mentally crippled beyond repair, right? You wouldn't be able to control someone who was beyond control. Whether you acknowledge it or not, the actions of controlling Vergil as a playable partner for Dante create a connection between the two of them for the player.

And in the final mission, less than three minutes after Arkham falls, the game demands that you break that connection. You must kill Vergil.


Suddenly, the tone changes. If you watched the video, you probably noticed the fast paced, adrenaline-pumping music playing in the background throughout the fight and the surrounding cutscenes. That style of music is the vast majority of DMC3's soundtrack: give or take some electric guitar and vocals. However, that musical style is stripped away when it's time for the final showdown with Vergil. This is the final boss soundtrack for Devil May Cry 3:

Listen to this theme. LISTEN TO IT! This is neither the blood-pumping, empowering smash fest fit for a climactic battle, nor is it the horrific, dread-filled tones of a monster of unfathomable power. This is a sad, somber music that encapsulates Dante's mental state: This is a fight where he has nothing to gain, but everything to lose. If Dante is defeated, Vergil acquires unspeakable power and will let loose demons upon the world. If Dante wins, he kills his only brother, the last family he has left in the world.

I don't know about you, but I think that's a surprisingly powerful message to convey in a game starring a wise-cracking adrenaline junkie with a craving for pizza.


If there's anything to take from this article, let it be this: Never underestimate the power of player control. The impact DMC3's finale had would not be NEARLY as powerful if, say, Vergil was merely waiting for Dante at the end. If he was A.I. controlled for the fight, there would still be some impact, but to a player, Vergil would remain a separate entity, an eventual boss, and nothing more. The two minutes of gameplay with both Vergil and Dante displayed their brotherly connection far stronger than an hour of cutscenes or pages of text ever could.

Next time you're writing out a story or creating a lengthy cutscene, try to think of ways you can tell it via gameplay instead. Even if it's a mechanic that occurs only once throughout the entire game, the visceral feeling of being placed in the character's shoes at just the right moment will stick in player's minds long after the credits roll.

So what do you think? Do you agree with what I've said? Do you think I over analyzed this moment? Can you name any moments that you felt were conveyed better by making it playable rather than a scene?


Pages: 1
I think that "Next time you're writing out a story or creating a lengthy cutscene, try to think of ways you can tell it via gameplay instead." should be in the Game Making bible. It's an absolute truth: a videogame story will feel more real (and less boring) if you mix the gameplay and cutscenes all in a single thing. :)
The all around prick
Sometimes, it's even easier on the developers to let players figure stuff out on their own. Have you ever played The World Ends With You? I distinctly remember a part of that game where a riddle was presented, but you were never able to solve it on your own. You instead ran around town watching cutscene after cutscene while the characters pieced together the riddle without any other input required. Even if you already solved it on your own, you had to wait for the characters to catch up to you. After all, why let players actually participate in your game's world when they just need to play chauffeur for the characters?

Man, I loved that game, but I really want to punch the person who thought this was a good idea.
I agree with this one, especially that you'll really have to do so in order to finish the game.

And also, I remember Asura's Wrath's Episode 21 where you fight Yasha (spoiler alert)... TO THE DEATH. The game forces you to fight your own damn brother-in-law with a soothing, melancholic music. That's right, you're going to fight the bro you had while fighting the Will of The Planet.

I do know that Capcom owns AW and DMC and I highly notice the similarity with the fight scene, but it was still pretty epic. Also, the brofist at the end of the fight. ;-;
Pages: 1