What’s My Motivation? How Video Games Get You to Care About Their World

[Source: Atlus] Persona 5's stylized art style makes it a thrill to experience.

The reasons people play video games have changed throughout the years. At first, people desired to get the highest score in a single round, complete the game without using any continues, or perfect the most optimal path to beat a level. Discussions often centered around these topics, creating new types of social groups. Video games provided an experience for people to claim bragging rights. Fast forward to today, and, while those ideals have held steady over time, another element has swept into the door of forum boards and podcasts: the story. While a video game’s focal point still highlights gameplay, its narrative can create a dedicated following. In some games, the gameplay complements the storytelling rather than the story taking a backseat. This turnabout brings up an interesting question: How does a game convince the player to care about its story if the “game” aspect of a video game isn’t the main focus?

Active Decision Making

The biggest pacebreaker in any game is a verbose cutscene, where all control is taken away from the player. Unless the player is already invested in the story, there’s little reason for them to not skip the cutscenes. The classic progression of presenting the player with a story, usually in the form of a cutscene, then a gameplay level, then a second cutscene has become tired and leaves games lacking cohesion between story and gameplay elements. Thus, some games alter the formula by actively engaging the player during mandatory plot segments.

[Source: Atlus] Persona 5 gave the player more control over narration by prompting them to select an option.
Persona 5, the most recent installment in Atlus’ long-running RPG series, allows the player to voice their own decisions during cutscenes. In certain segments, the player is required to select from a list of answers in order to progress. While only a few of these choices directly impact the story, all of them reward the player with a personal response. This alteration challenges the player to carefully choose an option, encouraging them to understand the current situation. The game quickly trains the player to take on an active role by dictating how the main protagonist progresses through the adventure. By doing so, the player is incentivized to remember key events for future decisions.

[Source: Supermassive Games] Until Dawn granted players the freedom to choose how characters act, creating a unique storyline based on their actions.
Until Dawn, an action horror adventure by Supermassive Games, follows the same ideology of Persona 5, except each decision the player makes carries more weight in the story. During certain segments of the game’s narration, the player is given the task to select which action a character performs. Each action correlates to how that character is portrayed to others, which in turn changes the character’s behavior throughout the game. As a result, all of the player’s decisions alter the game’s ending whether for good or bad. This puts the player in the position of an overseer, witnessing the development of characters and their conflicts with each other. Does someone die near the beginning due to an accident the player could have easily avoided? Will one of the characters betray another over a trivial event that the player raised earlier? The power is given to the player to decide the story’s path, creating the drive to continue playing. They won’t know what will happen unless they establish it.

Real-Life Parallels

On the opposite end of the spectrum, complex stories can discourage players from taking an interest in them. When a game throws players into a complex scenario where they’re expected to care for an unknown world within the first 5 minutes of gameplay, players get lost in translation. In the worst case scenario, the bond the player is supposed to create near the game’s beginning won’t be present during key moments. This ends with the player only playing the game for whatever the experience allows them to do, akin to a power fantasy. One approach games take to lower the story threshold is forging real-world analogies to the player.

[Source: Atlus] Persona 4 exhibits real-world issues within each party member, fostering a personal connection with the player.
Returning to Atlus’ Persona series, Persona 4 demonstrates a story that is based on real-world issues. During the game, the player is introduced to other characters who are also dealing with their own troubles not too far off from what is prevalent in today’s world. These issues like gender roles, industry practices, and family ties all act as the bridge for the player to connect with the characters. Since the characters are not too far off from what the player would see in their daily life, they develop respect for them, growing an interest in their endeavors. This, in turn, allows for the story to be told effectively. The player established a sense of endearment for the characters and a desire to see their stories through to the end of the game.

[Source: Nintendo] Miitopia alters reality for the player in an ironic twist that drives the player into taking an interest in the story.
On the other hand, connecting the player to the story can be as simple as using people the player already knows about. Miitopia, a whimsical RPG by Nintendo, took a humorous approach to the standard RPG formula by having all of the in-game characters be either fan submitted avatars or player made creations. While the story itself pulls from other classic RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, the game skips the character development by allowing the player to already know the characters from the beginning. This setup allows for an amusing experience since the player’s own sense of what the characters do in reality clash with the in-game roles. In other words, seeing Bob Ross as a powerful Great Sage or tag teaming a boss with your best friend motivates the player to take an interest in a story that may not necessarily be new or engaging. While this is a different method of engaging the player, it creates a unique experience that can only be witnessed by progressing through the game.

Closing Thoughts

Creating a game where the story is the main focus is no easy task. While the two techniques mentioned are just some of the ways a player can become invested in a story, the trend for games is already reflecting these changes. Some game genres even use these as the norm such as visual novels like Ace Attorney or interactive RPGs like Mass Effect. Regardless, all games now derive two things for success: gameplay and story. If the game’s mechanics are unremarkable, the story is what drives players through the next game. If the tools used to tell that story fall apart, however, then the player might not even care about reaching the game’s end. 

Have any thoughts on what motivates a player to follow the story? Want to give a shout out to a game that exemplifies storytelling? Start a discussion below!

Written by Matthew Shiroma

Matthew Shiroma is currently an undergraduate student studying for a B.S. in Computer Science while minoring in Game Programming and Development. While his main prowess is coding, he is open to experiment with other fields such as writing and drawing. When Matthew is not buried under schoolwork and outside projects, he loves catching up on his exponential list of video games, binge watching YouTube and Netflix, or managing his gaming YouTube channel.

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