Minimalist Storytelling: The Realm of Video Games?

So since I’m pretty sure my last post got me onto several federal watchlists and I still need more time to try and dissect the plot from character driven stories, today we’ll be focusing on something new: minimalist storytelling, and why I think the video games are the first medium that can really unlock their potential. First though, what is minimalist storytelling?

A minimalist story is a story where both plot and character take a backseat; stories that are more about depicting a specific experience than actually telling a specific story. James Joyce’s Ulysses is a good example of minimalist storytelling because there’s not really much of a “story” to it, as such. Instead you simply experience the day-to-day thoughts and actions of the characters in the book. Most of these thoughts and actions are quite mundane, with character’s describing how they feel about the food they’re eating or the weather or most of the minutia we all think about. More recently, The Road by Cormac McCarthy was very minimalist, though certainly not to the extent of Ulysses. The Road, simply put, is a brutal and realistic tale of survival in a post-apocalyptic world. We don’t even learn the character’s names, they are simply the Boy and the Man.

Minimalist storytelling is able to tell some unique stories that a heavy plot or character development would otherwise inhibit. The Road is pretty unique, showing us mankind reduced to its most basic instincts as the man and boy try to survive in a world that is no longer inhabitable. The only backstory we really get is a bit of exposition about the Man’s wife committing suicide. Had the Road gone with a more traditional story, going through a blow by blow description of how the apocalypse occurred or a long storied background for each of the characters, the Road would probably have turned out much like the dozen other apocalypse stories out there. Of course the problem is that, by its very nature, minimalist storytelling is sometimes difficult to read and watch.

I know Ulysses could use its own Rosetta Stone

Ulysses is one of the most difficult to read books in existence. I’ll admit right now that I never did complete Ulysses, and most people who try experience the same difficulty. The Road was commercially successful only because it wasn’t completely minimalist like Ulysses, we still got some characterization of the boy and man, and there was still a coherent plot even if it was bare bones (survive and move south was basically the whole plot). However, you can look at minimalist movies like Tree of Life or Melancholia to see that most people don’t really want to watch those kinds of movies. Critics tend to like these movies because they’re film lovers; they can enjoy the unique film making strategies like cinematography, acting, and that sort of thing. To them, the story doesn’t matter.

For most people though, we want to be told a story. It’s just human nature because, after all, we’re all storytellers in a way. When you describe how your day was to your friend or partner, you’re telling them a story. It might be based on facts, but that doesn’t make it any less of a story. You arrange your story into a coherent form, whether chronologically or by how important different events were, and then tell it as a first-person narrative. We embellish, or sometimes outright lie, to make our stories more interesting to our listener. It’s the same thing we’ve been doing since our stupid, hairy ancestors gathered around a fire and told stories of how “dude, I just totally punched a sabertooth tiger in the mouth today.” Or something like that. Point is, we like stories and we like the characters we hear about and relate with, minimalist storytelling is just a very difficult concept for our minds to process. There’s no real character or plot to help us structure the story, rather the story just comes at us and we need to make sense of it ourselves. I’ll admit that I usually end up hating most of the “arty” minimalist movies that come out. Melancholia, I thought, was a terrible movie in almost every respect except the superb acting. Same with Tree of Life.

I’ve never been so happy to see the Earth destroyed…

However, while minimalist stories struggle to survive in books and movies, some of the absolute best video games I’ve ever played have all had minimalist stories. Video games have become more than just something to waste time with at the local arcade. In fact, far from being a brain atrophying disease like some old pundits would have us believe, video games have opened a whole new medium to tell unique stories that we would not otherwise be able to tell. It might be very well the only medium that can make a minimalist story successful and accessible to a wide audience. For example, here are two of my favorite games that all feature minimalist stories:

2. Shadow of the Colossus

One of the most well known and well regarded games in video game history, this adventure/puzzler/action game took a very minimalist approach to telling its story and succeeded in making that story emotionally engaging on top of it.

Shadow of the Colossus features a young man trying to ressurect his dead girlfriend: yawn. Who cares right? I mean that’s a story that has been told so many times its just gotten old. That’s what I thought too, until Shadow of the Colossus took my preconceptions, pounded them into the dirt, and turned that dirt into diamonds. We don’t get overwrought shakespearean soliloquies from the main character about the death of his beloved, in fact we get very little dialogue of any kind. Instead, a mysterious God instructs you to kill the gigantic creature known as Colossus, of which there are many. These creatures range from towering behemoths of stone, to elegant bird-like forms that sweep through the air like eagles.

Okay…this could be a problem.

Then of course, there’s your faithful horse Agro, your only companion in the game and one of the most memorable characters I’ve seen in a video game, precisely because it’s a horse. This game came out in 2005 as well, so they couldn’t rely on HD graphics to realistically portray a horse either. I mean I’m a sucker for a horse’s eyes, even video game horse eyes look emotional and its easy for me to fall prey to actually caring about a bunch of pixels and code. However Shadow of the Colossus made you care about Agro through making her an integral part of the gameplay; the main character and the horse were sharing their journey. You needed Agro to help take down Colossi, solve puzzles, and travel the vast distances of the game world. She was important to you. And then, just as Agro becomes like family to you, after you’ve taken down countless Colossi and survived every hazard the game can throw at you, this happens (1:30):

I was reaching out right along with the main character, I loved that god damn horse. The rest of the climb to face the final Colossus was one the loneliest moments in the game. You succeed of course, destroying the final Colossus, returning home to get your reward: the woman you love. Of course it also ends up that the “god” you’ve been helping is actually a demon, and the Colossi were keeping it trapped….the Colossi that are now just so much rubble thanks to you. Now I already saw this coming, but what I didn’t see coming was that I would have to play the part of the demon.

The game actually forces you to take control of the demon, and I admit it’s kind of fun to crush the foolish mortals who try to stop you. Then, however, the monk escapes and creates a white swirling vortex that begins sucking the demon into it. Slowly the black form of the demon is swept away, and only the main character remains, and this was the greatest moment in the entire game:

The video doesn’t make it apparent, but you’re still controlling your character as he’s struggling against the vortex. After everything you’ve done, all the hardship you’ve survived and the enemies you’ve defeated…so close to the one thing you want…and they let you control it. I nearly broke my controller apart trying to fight the vortex, struggling to reach the far end of the room…clawing desperately to get a happy ending. The guy in the video doesn’t struggle against it because the inevitable truth is that you can’t escape. No matter what you do, you always get sucked into the vortex. You’re pulled in: defeated at the threshold of victory…

But then the girl wakes up. Our old friend Agro shows up, limping and clearly in a lot of pain, but alive. The two things you care about most in the world are now left to live out the rest of their lives in peace….you succeeded, even if you didn’t live to see it.

Hang on…I’ve got something in my eye…

1. Half-Life 1 & 2

This is perhaps the best example of how video games can tell a minimalist story that is still compelling and exciting. In fact it was Half-Life that first showed me the exciting potential of video games as a storytelling tool. You start off as Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist working in a top-secret facility called Black Mesa and…well that’s it really. You’re given no other information whatsoever. You meet some scientists whose names you never learn, you encounter aliens whose motivations are never explained (at least not upfront),  you wander through strange experimental laboratories as you try to escape the facility. On the surface, Half-Life seems to have have no story.

However, and it’s a big however, as you progress through the game more and more of the story is slowly revealed to the player. Sometimes you don’t even know it’s there, and that’s what makes it great. In a video game you want the player to retain as much control as possible, we tend to get annoyed when control is taken away from us. In video games, a minimalist story is also an unobtrusive story, it is perhaps tailor made to use minimalist stories. I first played Half-Life when I was like 12 or 13 years old, so I was mostly into it for the fun of blasting aliens with shotguns. When I play through it now though, I can see the story that Half-Life is telling simply by observing the environment. For instance, at first glance you might think all of the aliens in the facility are just different types of soldiers sent to the invasion, but if you look carefully and observe before shooting, you can see the different enemies actually fighting each other. Eventually you come to understand that these are just animals from a different world; they’re not invading so much as they’ve been pulled into our world by an experiment gone wrong.

Dude…you got something on your head…

I didn’t even bother to look at the aliens who shoot green electricity, I didn’t much care as long as they were dead. However, if you do look close you can see green bracelets around their neck and arms. Are they ornamental? Some form of alien weapon? Or are they some kind of restraint?

And then there was the enigmatic G-man: a man in a business suit who appears seemingly at random in various areas in the game. He doesn’t interact with you (until the end anyway), instead he seems to simply be observing you. Despite the fact that hundreds of people have been slaughtered in this facility, this harmless looking man isn’t even mussed. No blood on his jacket. He moves deliberately and calmly. And somehow he’s alive, even though he possesses no apparent weapon. All of this adds up to one thing: this man is clearly not who he appears to be. The game doesn’t tell you this, and in fact its possible to go through the game and completely miss over half of his appearances. Its only through the player’s deductions can we come to the conclusion this man is something…different.

That’s the great thing about minimalist storytelling in a game, it encourages you to actively seek out answers rather than simply handing them over to you. In a book or movie that can be frustrating because you’re limited to what you’re being shown through text and images, but in a game we can move around and explore. We can examine. We can investigate.

We can smack aliens in the face with a crowbar

I will say that Half-Life’s minimalist storytelling does begin to fall apart during the final levels of the game on Xen, the alien homeworld, and this is the danger of minimalist storytelling in games as well. Because it’s the game environment itself that is telling the story in Half-Life, if that environment starts getting half-assed, the story starts going downhill right along with it. At the conclusion of Half-Life we’re met with a thoroughly uninteresting environment, pieces of rock hovering in mid-air, most of the textures are a bland brown, and the final battle is thoroughly mundane, playing out like the final villain in an arcade game. We should have been greeted with the sight of an alien homeworld that actually looks like it could sustain the life we’ve seen throughout the game, wandering through strange forests and watching these beasts in their natural habitat. Seen remnants of their civilization, collapsed buildings or strange writing. Something. To Valve’s credit, however, they learned from this mistake and brought us back into the story with the excellent Half-Life 2.

Half-Life 2 did have a few more story elements than Half-Life 1; we had a pair of wonderful characters to relate with this time, Eli Vance and his daughter Alex. We had a more tangible enemy with clearer motivations in the Combine and their puppet leader Dr. Breen. We even had a pet Dog.

Well his name is Dog anyway…

However, even though it wasn’t quite as minimalist as its predecessor, Half-Life 2 still told most of its story through the environment around you. After a bone-chilling introduction by the G-man, we’re thrust onto a train heading for City 17. What city 17 is…we don’t know. Why did the G-man place us here?  How many years have passed since Half-Life 1? These are all questions that are answered through the game’s environment.

As soon as we get off the train, everything from Dr. Breen’s crooked smile on the TV screen to the drab blue uniforms of the citizenry tells us that this city is not a place of freedom or happiness. The faceless guards wearing strange uniforms begin abusing people as soon as they step off the train. Walking outside we see a massive metal spire shooting up from the ground which is clearly not of human design. You may not even realize it at the time, but just through the environments themselves, we have been given a ton of information:

1. The results of the Black Mesa incident clearly had long reaching consequences, and are the most likely reason for the circumstances we see in the game.

2. Some kind of alien species has assumed control of Earth, probably through military force.

3. Earth is now a conquered planet. Everything we know about our Earth no longer applies here.

4. Their sense of fashion leaves much to be desired.

Those three facts convey to the player all the information they need to know; the rest they can find out for themselves. If you really pay attention you can see vaguely cyrillic looking characters on some of the buildings, which if you a history buff, you’ll recognize as having a very Soviet/Warsaw-pact design to them: functional, yet not made for comfort or aesthetics. All of that points to the fact that we’re somewhere in Eastern Europe or possibly Russia. There are several levels that feature rivers, oceans and locks…and all of them look as if the water level is much too low…and that it has been low for quite some time. Beached ships miles away from a water source are common sights, as are canals that have clearly been dry of water for long enough that people have taken up permanent residence in them.

Why would the water be lower? Is that why these aliens are here? Draining the planet of all its natural resources, including H2O?

Half-Life 2 is absolutely dense in terms of story, with so many elements that it boggles the mind. Look at this timeline. Half-Life is a story that features interdimensional wars, strange and seemingly omniscient creatures capable of altering space-time as we know it, and particle physics that defy understanding. In fact, in the overall scheme of Half-Life’s canon, makinds enslavement and fight for freedom is relatively small part. A critical part, but still small. I honestly don’t know how else you could tell the story of Half-Life in any other way than a minimalist approach, as Valve did. If you try to fit all that information into expository dialogue or long winded speeches, you’d just confuse the hell out of everybody.

Valve’s solution to their dazzlingly complex story line is as elegant as it is simple: let the player unravel the story at his own rate. The story is there for you to find, but it is spread out in such a way that we can slowly put these varied and confusing pieces together into a coherent form in our own minds. They’re basically letting us tell the story to ourselves; after all, we’re all storytellers. Who’s more qualified to tell us a story than ourselves?

Besides Mark Twain I mean…


  1. Hmm…I played Half-Life 2 and couldn’t figure out who these people are, what was going on and why I should care. I thought I might had more of a connection to the characters if I played the first one but it seems I didn’t miss much. Still, it’s nice to see the game’s minimalist stories in perspective. Shadow of the Colossus is one of the games that has been on my list to play for years along with Team Ico’s previous and future games; their games seem original and simple When I think of minimalist storytelling in video games, I think back to the old games that had very little story, most of which you had to read the manual for. Nowadays, it seems that almost all video games try too hard to have high graphics and complicated stories which makes it overall mediocre.

    My first computer game which is near and dear to my heart is Drakan: Order of the Flame didn’t have a very minimalist story because they tried a bit to hard to have a back story and history to the world but I remember it minimally: save your brother from an evil force with a legendary dragon by your side. Some of the more fun, memorial, and lovable games are the simple ones.

    1. That’s always the risk of minimalist stories of course, which is why a lot of them aren’t very popular. It can be very easy to miss what’s going on

  2. Kotaku reports on a patent for epic storytelling in videogames: ““Player Encounters Hooker”: This Might Be the Most Epic Video Game Patent Application Ever. Dr. Elliot McGucken’s application for a “System And Method For Creating Exalted Video Games and Virtual Realities Wherein Ideas Have Consequences” might be the boldest, craziest and, yes, scariest game patent dream ever.”
    Vampire Zombie Communist Hookers? Patent It!

    IAN BOGOST TWEETS: 5 days ago from web ibogost: System and Method for Creating Exalted Video Games and Virtual Realities Wherein Ideas Have Consequences (via @ncroal) “Strangest storytelling patent filing ever?”

    “Dantes Inferno was not a hugely well reviewed game – metacritic, at time of writing, puts its average marks somewhere around the 73 mark, depending on platform. It especially came under fire from people who, you know, had actually read Dante’s Inferno and felt that EA’s handling of it was less than faithful to the subject matter.

    Fast forward to March 1st 2012. It was on this day that, for one Dr Elliot McGucken of Los Angeles, the rage that had clearly been building since the game’s 2010 release got all too much, and they submitted a US patent outlining the “System and Method for the Heros Journey Mythology Code of Honor Video Game Engine and Heros Journey Code of Honor Spy Games Wherein One Must Fake the Enemy’s Ideology En Route to Winning”. Now I’m no master in patent reading, but as far as I can tell, the good Doctor is trying to patent various mythological systems of morality and their gaming applications, while throughout making thinly veiled references to how much EA ruined the mythos of Dante’s Inferno.

    The patent is full of nonsensical gibberish that reads like a gaming madman’s handbook. Swinging wildly between heated sarcasm, overuse of the word ‘exalted’ and attacking string theorists of all things, this patent gives many branching flowcharts explaining each moral choice in a hypothetical game, culminating in the death of Hitler. This patent, and a lot of the Dr’s work in general from a swift google, is a great example of just how angry some people can get when source material is messed with.”

    You can find the storytelling patent here:

    Crazy Patent Gives Ideas Consequences
    March 27th, 2012 at 12:51 pm –

    Many of you may know the famous quote from V for Vendetta that says “Ideas are Bulletproof”, well beyond being bulletproof according to a patent recently filed they also have consequences. A recent patent application filed by Elliot McGucken shows an idea for a game where Ideas have consequences on the game world. This is a very impressive and scary game idea in the way that it gives players a sociological god power with ideas. Many of you know how Mass Effect has plenty of consequences for your actions and words but this patent is something different. Imagine running a virtual society where you can quote famous people, icons, celebrity’s , historical figures, etc. and use their ideas to create different outcomes based on changes in society? sounds pretty intense right? Well if someone decides to take this patent and run with it we might just have a VERY influential game!”


    New Gold 45 Revolver Video Game Technologies Exalting Story in Games

    All of a sudden people started talking about this patent and the novel game types it proposes:

    Over at the Something Awful forums, a Bethesda employee stated:

    “This may be the first time in history that, rather than blaming video games as the root of society’s problems, they’re being blamed for NOT being the solution.”

    And I answered:

    Yes! That’s what I’m saying! There’s a vast opportunity for epic, exalted art which inpsires the soul!

    And videogames can lead the way with a paradigm shift that both a) leads to deeper storyteling and b) exalts classical ideals and heroic idealism.

    And so, sensing I was a bit ahead of my time after trying to explain it to some MBAs at major gaming companies, I buried it all in a patent or two. It was as if they were against both a)making money and b) exalting art and culture.

    So I figured, if that’s the way they wanted it, then that’s the way they’d get it–they’d come to me.”

    Vampire Zombie Communist Hookers? Patent It!

    Such natural buzz is worth millions, especially when it is based on simple, innovative technologies and design concepts that could easily be added to existing game engines, with far-ranging consequences and new gameplay mechanics, resulting in newfound, superior educational and commercial opportunities:

    “a fallout 3 mod based on this shit would be boss as f$%$.”
    “What’s scary, for me, is that this might be exactly what gamers want.” –
    “What scares me most is I agree with the core pillars of what you are saying.” –

    @SIMDYNASTY: “I didn’t bother reading it, but my friend (who found it) said “did you notice he quotes the Declaration of Independence, Gandhi and then talks about Clint Eastwood and Eminem?”” –
    “That thing is the proverbial gift that keeps on giving.” –
    “Fuck! I actually have to come back and read this later as it will take too long right now. Fucking hell though!”
    @TWITTER: Wow! Most amazing videogame patent ever. Save the earth from communism by not shooting the hooker! 120page WIN –

    “actually a fallout 3 mod based on this shit would be boss as f#@&. you could totally do it, you fight the communist chinese ghouls and use speech trees to save the wasteland from collectivism” –perianwyr

    “All of us who have been struggling to work out how to make meaningful games and interactive narratives can rest easy. The problem has been solved.” –

    “Video Game Idea of the Century!” –Garp
    “This would be the most abstract game ever. I’d play it.” –Dutch
    “That game would be so different that it would have to be good. I’d definitely play it!” –Z A C K
    “I’d play it.” –Bleeding Black

    “here is my concept art for a communist zombie please hire me to make your video game ”
    – –perianwyr

    “This is the greatest videogame patent I’ve ever read.” –EmCeeGramr
    “I think this guy has golden humour.” –Foxspirit
    “Do a Google search on Dr. Elliot McGucken, the dude who filed for the patent. It will blow your mind.” –Zealous D.
    “That’s awesome.” –Tentacle
    “Is this a patent or the insane ratings of mad man?” –speculawyer
    “This thread is so full of win I hardly know what to do with it.”
    “Each line, I keep thinking, ‘This is the funniest shit ever.’ And then I read another line, and…HOW DOES IT KEEP GETTING BETTER?” –alistairw
    “Can you imagine having the guy as your physics professor?”
    “Thread is amazing, though. I can’t help but hope that he’s somehow trolling the patent system…it must be amazing to be a patent worker trying to review it. “And then the player must choose to not quote Marx, thus exalting his classical soul?!””

    “Fu&*^! I actually have to come back and read this later as it will take too long right now. Fucking hell though!”

    “”One man with a gun can control 100 without one. I will suck your blood. Sounds fun. ”
    “the name is “System and method for creating exalted video games and virtual realities wherein ideas have consequences its part of public record, the publication number is 20090017866. Put that number into google and it shows up. The free patent places online generally have the description, but none of the images (which are all similar flow charts). I didnt bother reading it, but my friend (who found it) said “did you notice he quotes the Declaration of Independence, Gandhi and then talks about Clint Eastwood and Eminem?” ”

    “You are clearly a very intelligent, self-driven, inspired and passionate person with vision. What scares me most is I agree with the core pillars of what you are saying. That said some of your flowcharts kill me, I almost died laughing today both from your patent and the Neogaf thread. “When the worst student is told about the way he laughs out loud; if he did not laugh, it would not be good enough to be the way.” -Lao Tzu

    I admire you for your boldness. Honestly don’t think your patent is enforceable, but if you are looking to develop work in the multi-threaded vain your work suggests, you are certainly creating a lot of buzz to leverage. You’ve managed to steer this thread in a different direction…” –Stephen Dinehart

    Ranger, I was not aware of that work, and many of the ideas that I am trying to work out are in there. However, I have a fundamental beef with some parts of it, such as the uselessness of the Hero’s Journey as a narrative structure, the fact that it is a method, not a story, and the fact that it is about game implementation rather than story creation. On the other hand, if such a system ever actually sees the light of day, it would be the perfect tool for creating truly epic interactive stories. My other beef is its generality; I can see three generations of academic debate over just one of the 21 statements: “The method in claim 1 where the said ideas are based upon the pivotal plot points of the great books and classics.” –Jeff Spock

    “Why couldn’t there be a version where, in order to win, you must distribute Marx, Bakunin, and Kropotkin, creating solidarity among the prostitutes, leading to rebellion against the pimps and the establishment of a prostitute’s union?”

    “LF: where the character can battle for said ideas that are based upon classical moral and economic principles of famous philosophers” –Total Hell –

    “dude this is pretty interesting i hope you keep posting around here for a while” –Jay B. Bulworth –

    “mcgucken i would totally buy the shit out of your game ” –Goatstein

    “One of the reasons Spore fell flat is that it forgot to incorproate the mechanisms which separate humanity from the rest of the universe–our moral soul’s natural, exalted longing for truth, beauty, and justice–the fruits of epic storytelling and exalted mytholgies.” –Dr. E

    “You, sir, are fascinating. So much so that I’m not sure where to start.” –Hayt,

    Publius says:
    “I’d probably plop down $45 bucks for your band of revolutionaries versus Marxist zombies shoot-em-up/philosophize-em-up video game.”

    “EA has been struggling to develop new hits to bolster its lineup of reliable sequels to games like the John Madden football series. The company said in late September that it had sold to retailers roughly two million copies of Spore, an ambitious evolution-themed PC game, but it is not clear if Spore was a hit or a profitable game.” –

    “The company also has been under pressure from investors and game makers to come up with creative new game franchises, and critics say it has struggled to do so. The somewhat more iconoclastic Take-Two publishing house was seen by some investors as a union that could bolster Electronic Arts’ creative efforts.” –

    Well, why not incorporate ideas that have consequences and open the floodgates for billions in revenue and a new generation of games?

    “here is my concept art for a communist zombie please hire me to make your video game ”
    – –perianwyr

    Sunday Sundries: “NPC1 becomes vampire/communist” “A video game method and system for creating games where ideas have consequences, incorporating branching paths that correspond to a player’s choices, wherein paths correspond to decisions founded upon ideals, resulting in exalted games with deeper soul and story, enhanced characters and meanings, and exalted gameplay.” Includes a communist vampire.

    Yes–building a prototype will happen in a natural manner, and probably soon, though I am patient!

    Soon we will be able to walk into Best Buy & pick up such novel games incorproating the Gold 45 Revolver/Ideas Have consequences/Moral Premise technologies!

    There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this luke-warmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it. – Niccolo Machiavelli

    twitterfeed runcibleansible: RT @ibogost: System and Method for Creating Exalted Video Games and Virtual Realities Wherein Ideas Have Consequences 5 days ago from DestroyTwitter juliandibbell: RT @ibogost

    5 days ago from web ibogost: System and Method for Creating Exalted Video Games and Virtual Realities Wherein Ideas Have Consequences (via @ncroal) 5 days ago from Tweetie arminbw: patent: System and method for creating exalted video games and VRs wherein ideas have consequences – (via @MituK)

  3. Dark Souls, and it’s beautiful. You are there and you don’t know why, and you got no options but move foward.

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