SHOW, DON'T TELL

The many ways you can tell the story without overly relying on traditional cutscenes.

The difference between videogames and other types of media lies in the player's interaction with the game. While cutscenes are important when you try to tell a story with a game, you can't rely on them exclusively, since most of the player's time is spent playing and they may get annoyed at too many cutscenes turning the game into a "movie" of sorts.

There are numerous ways to tell the story without the cutscenes, but, for simplicity's sake I'd like to cover five major ways. You have most likely seen these used or used them yourselves in your projects, since they're all various aspects of the game at their core. The question is if the game uses them to reinforce the narrative.

- Visual Narration. I believe it's a given, considering the title of the article. You don't have to tell player "it's a ruined castle of ancient times" when you can put an old throne in a dungeon, statues of a cool ancient dude or his portraits, some other castle-y elements and so on. If a boss character is narcissistic, you don't need everyone to say it all the time - you can put the boss's portraits and statues all around their dungeon and that can work better than a hundred words that you could use to relay some plot-critical information.

- Musical Themes. Leitmotif is a musical track with particular melody that is associated with certain characters, events or locations. When you hear the Big Bad's evil riff in a dungeon theme in the middle of the game, you're instantly alerted and know that this is an important part of the journey. So-called "boss remixes" make boss fights with certain characters more climatic or even tragic if you so want. Music can also hint to the player there's more than meets the eye to the story: say, a battle with the Big Bad in the middle of the game doesn't actually use a special theme but a regular boss theme - something's up and the player knows not to use all their items.

- Thematic Integration. I know it sounds complicated, but let me explain what I mean.
Let's take an RPG dungeon. A dungeon is a volcano, good. That means fire. Fire enemies that can inflict some sort of "burn" status with their fiery attacks. Volcano have lava that can create puzzle situations or escape sequences for a player to deal with, perhaps, with the use of some water magic.
A boss of such a dungeon would also be able to use fire to their advantage, wielding it - the player would expect so. If the boss is a full-fledged character, with fire association they could be short-tempered. And that could translate to them actively hampering the player's progress or fighting them in the middle of the dungeon several times.
Add a "volcano" music with, say, deep guitars and heavy drums, and it becomes subtly atmospheric in how all the elements to the dungeon play off each other, "make sense", so to speak. And if the boss is a member of the Big Bad's team, they could be counterparts to, say, other elemental baddies, which would give the evil team an elemental theme. I love examples of such integration in "Mega Man Star Force" that plays with constellation theme as well as some other in its sequels, and "No Straight Roads" that capitalizes on the music industry theme.

- Story-and-Gameplay Integration. This is something you're more familiar with. Character travelling with a lowered Max HP when they're injured by the plot, AI of a partner character reacting to, say, certain boss characters in particular way, characters reacting to the hero based on what the player had them do or wear and so on. A good way to integrate the two is to make all the cool skills character can display in a cutscene available to use during the game proper or the other way around. "Dissidia: Final Fantasy" is very good at this.

- Interface. That's one element that's often underestimated and overlooked even by those who recognizes the importance of previously mentioned points. The thing is, the interface is a major interaction point between the player and the game and depending on how it looks and feels, it can put the player into the world of the game or out of it. One of the reason "Dark Souls" is as atmospheric as it is, is due to all the item descriptions that flesh out the world without any need for cutscenes. That's the reason why RPG Maker even has all those windows for skill, item and equipment descriptions. You can put generic descriptions, of course, but you could also put the character's opinion on the item or some lore exposition into it, making the player actually care about them.

Of course, you can argue that some elements are more or less important than I make them out to be, or another element that I haven't included is more important than one of these. I'd say these are more "strategic" writing tips I wrote down than direct tips, but I hope they will help you all the same.