Game of Tomes: Embedded and Emergent Narrative in Video Games

Whether we like it or not, playing, discussing, and creating video games is an ever popular past time being enjoyed by an increasingly wide range of the people. This medium tends to be disregarded as without intellectual or cultural merit, unlike books and films that are highbrow, because of the negative image of those who game. It is important to appreciate just how significant video games are to our culture, as they are increasingly becoming the way in which many individuals consume stories. This essay will explore the current standard of video game narrative, the appeal of these games for those who consume them and the future of game writing and development. While there are only a few scholarly articles written on this subject, there is a high level of conversation on the subject among gamers and much of the information in this essay comes from those who engage in games the most.

Game Changers

Firstly, it is important to explore how story-driven games differ from shooting and massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, as well as the positive influence games have on those who play them. Public opinion tends to view video games as being detrimental to the development of social skills as shooting games are thought to promote violence and many games are played in isolation. Those who understand the nuances of games and attempt to defend them are players themselves that often makes personal opinions seem biased. However, psychological research reveals that video games have been found to provide educational benefits to children, from increasing communication to basic math and literature skills in early learners. (Griffiths 48-50) There are also numerous reports that show games to be beneficial to developing hand-eye coordination. (Granek, Gorbet et al) It is clear that shooters and MMO’s are not without their merits and can helpful to those who engage with them. What is most interesting to this research is the impressive rise in the attraction of narrative driven games that employ a number of techniques such as character development, cut scenes, and in game choices to draw players in to the game. Early video games were devoid of much narrative, as consoles simply could not accommodate the graphics and capacity to run them. As these consoles developed, cut scenes and deeper backstories were added to engage the player. Narrative is now so important that many MMO’s are attempting to create a deeper storyline within their gameplay to further develop the world they have created. (Wall) There is little doubt that narrative in video games adds to the immersive gaming experience. Players pay attention not only to the storyline but also to the characters they are playing, making story driven games beneficial for emotional recognition. (Bormann and Greitemeyer, 5) Gaming is not the detrimental form of entertainment that it is perceived to be and is beneficial to those who play. What is interesting about the current age of video games is that shooters and MMO’s are no longer the only formula that works. Gamers want variety, and strong narrative provides this.

Embedded Narratives

The most prominent methods of video game storytelling are embedded and emergent narrative, finding a balance between these means building a story driven game that is engaging and entertaining. Embedded narrative is the traditional method of writing for older video games, as it requires only one path to be followed, but changes in technology have led to this style taking on a new and beautiful edge. Embedded narrative refers to “those scripted narrative elements that are embedded throughout a game to form the background story” that is the pre-generated narrative that is part of the game before the player interacts with the story. (Wei 247) The premise of Mario searching for the Peach, or Link time travelling in Hyrule are both examples of embedded narrative that either preceded the player entering the game or are revealed as they play. A number of games that are heavy in embedded narrative rely on cut scenes, short, unplayable, movie-like clips that develop the story in a cinematic style. Cut scenes enhance an embedded narrative but are difficult to animate and fund, therefore they cannot appear as often in emergent narratives, as there is only a chance that the player will engage with them if they make the right choices. The Final Fantasy franchise is a prime example of embedded narrative. From their origin the player has been tasked with leading characters through the world, and are rewarded with cut scenes and text that tell more of the story. In this type of narrative, stories are “held together by broadly defined goals and conflicts and pushed forward by the character’s movement across the map”. (Jenkins) This is true of Final Fantasy as story advancement only takes place when the player arrives at certain places on the map or engages with specific non-playable characters (NPC’s). For this reason, these games can often seem formulaic and dull. One of the most popular games in recent years, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us (2013) successfully mastered the embedded narrative while keeping the game entertaining.

The Last of Us
The Last of Us

What this zombie survival game offers, according to gamer Jeremy Conrady, is not action set pieces (referring to turning points in the story), but instead the “set pieces are entirely character and the insight into their being, which in turn makes us reflect on ourselves.” (Conrady). He is not alone in his opinion as fellow gamer Gary Alexander Stott praises the game’s character development, as “the tone, performances and writing are all steeped in maturity”. (Stott) The Last of Us provides players with characters who mature and develop along with the game. What both these players are highlighting is one of the most entertaining aspects of embedded narrative; the story is completely fleshed out because there is only one path the player can tread. This makes embedded narratives more like traditional media, such as books and movies as the author can have greater control over the journey the reader will take.

Emergent Narratives

Emergent narrative differs from embedded narrative in that it arises from the interactions the player has within the game. Each decision the player makes influences the way the story develops. Research conducted on interactive storytelling defines emergent narrative as “the construction of systems in which users actively participate in the narrative process in a highly flexible realtime environment, where authorial activities are minimized”. (Louchart 1) Games like the recently released Fallout 4 allow the player to choose their own storyline, siding with various factions and allowing for a few different outcomes. This narrative is multi-dimensional as it encompasses “space, time, narrative surface, user role and the nature of narrative controls”, making the writing incredibly complex and rich. (Louchart 2) Multiple types of games exist that can be considered to have an emergent narrative. Gaming blogger Gerben Grave speaks from his experiences with the medium when he discusses the range of games that contain emergent narratives. Strategy games that require planning on the part of the player are considered emergent as the person who is creating the world decides their storyline. For example in the Civilization series by Sid Meier, players can build their own cities and set their own goals, “many players are known to create their own objectives, adhere to personal rules or limit their game progression in one way or another”. (Grave)

Sid Meier's Civilization
Sid Meier’s Civilization

Additionally, survival games like Minecraft and open-ended games like The Sims give only rough goals and are mostly defined by the player. One gamer, Dan Whitehead, argues that embedded stories make the gamer an “observer”, whereas the choices that are made in an emergent narrative allow players to “care about the characters, not because the script tells [them] to or because they’re convincingly played” but because they share the same world in-game. (Whitehead) Whitehead specifically points out the way in which The Last of Us tells a story but does not allow the player to feel part of it. What emergent games provide is the ability to immerse a player in a virtual life that they are in complete control of. There are still a number of limitations to emergent narrative, both in terms of writing and the technological capacity of the console. Currently, no video game truly has the capacity to be fully emergent, or fully choice driven. In Fallout 4 the player can chose who to side with, who to kill, and who to save, but ultimately, there are only two outcomes to the game. This is difficult to achieve as it requires “human-like thought processes: reasoning, prioritizing, connecting and evaluating” that computers are currently unable to achieve (Turing: 1 Machines: 0). (Grave) However, emergent narrative is becoming one of the most exciting development strategies in the industry, with games such as Telltale Game’s Tales from the Borderlands or Square Enix’s Life is Strange allowing the player to make their own choices. When viewing the current state of the gaming industry, it seems clear that embedded narratives are becoming increasingly obsolete. Ultimately, the greatest way to create a game that is widely enjoyed is to find a balance between these two types of narrative. Embedded narratives allow for in depth storylines while emergent narratives give the player the ability to make the game their own.

A New Breed of Writers

With the narratives of these games being developed by professional writers, it seems logical that the publishing industry should pay more attention to the medium. With increasing numbers of institutions offering courses on video game writing, it is clear that the profession is gaining both support and interest. Video game narratives give the writers opportunities to explore “multiple story progressions and endings” and are not limited to a single outcome. (Lebowitz and Klug) The writing has to be engaging and intelligent enough to consider every path the player make take. (Conrady) Video game writer Darby McDevitt (Assassin’s Creed) explains:

Game writers simply want to help designers craft an immersive, interactive narrative experience…with or without dialog, with or without characters, [they] simply want the game to start somewhere interesting, climb its way over a few emotional peaks, and end somewhere even more interesting”. (McDevitt)

McDevitt suggests the best way to create an engaging game that players will truly enjoy would mean working as a team with designers and developers to ensure the overall experience is entertaining. (McDevitt)


Assassin's Creed Unity
Assassin’s Creed Unity

Unlike any other style of writing, authors of video game narrative are aware that readers will actively engage with their storyline. Ultimately, writers have to strike a balance between what is engaging and real, with what is entertaining and playable. In video games we are able to engage in stories that are not always realistic. As author Scott Hughes points out, we suspend our disbelief “because it’s a video game”, but should we have to? (Hughes 155). In his research on The Last of Us, Hughes examines the strength of the games narrative versus the stupidity of video game logic. Writers are contending with a world in which a “character can haul around a dozen weapons, thousands of rounds of ammunition, pieces of armor or clothing he or she is not currently wearing, and a plethora of other useful or useless objects” (Hughes 150) and yet players still demand realism. Gamers will accept these unrealistic situations because having all their gear will help them complete the game. What Hughes suggests is similar to the gaming blogger Graves, that the next step for video games is hyperrealism. If a world was truly open, or “brutally real” it would leave a lasting impact on those who played it. While consoles may not be ready for this development, the recent maturation of video game writing shows that writers are up for the challenge.


Video games are, for many, an underappreciated art form. The narrative that is created by talented writers and lived by the players themselves makes video games a vessel to live another life, from the comfort of your own home. While emergent narrative is becoming more common, the marriage with embedded narrative makes contemporary games as important to our culture as any classical text.

Works Cited

Borman, Daniel and Tobias Greitemeyer, “Immersed in Virtual Worlds and Minds: Effects of In-Game Storytelling on Immersion, Need Satisfaction, and Affective Theory of Mind.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 9 Apr 2015. Web. 28 Mar 2016

Conrady, Jeremy. “The Last of Us masters storytelling in ways only a few games 7 Aug 2013. Web. 28 Mar 2016

Granek, Joshua A., Diana J. Gorbet, & Laruen E. Sergio. “Extensive video-game experience alters cortical networks for complex visuomotor transformations.” Cortex 46.9 (2010): 1165-1177. Web. 28 Mar 2016

Grave, Gerben. “Emergent narratives in games.” 7 May 2015. Web. 28 Mar 2016

Griffiths, Mark. “The educational benefits of videogames.” Education and Health 20.3 (2002): 47-51. Web. 28 Mar 2016

Hughes, Scott. “Get real: Narrative and gameplay in The Last of Us.” Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology 6.1. (2015): 149-154. Web. 28 Mar 2016

Jenkins, Henry. “Game design as narrative architecture.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin & Pat Harrigan. Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 2004. Web. 28 Mar 2016

Louchart, Sandy, and Ruth Aylett. “The Emergent Narrative theoretical investigation.” ResearchGate 12 Nov 2014. Web. 28 Mar 2016

Lebowitz, Josiah and Chris Klug. Interactive Storytelling for Video Games: A player centered Approach to Creating Memorable Characters and Stories. Florence, KY: Focal Press, 2011

McDevitt, Darby. “A Practical Guide to Game Writing.” 13 Oct 2010. Web. 28 Mar 2016

Wall, Alexander. “Bad Narrative Ruines RPGs, but MMOs Can Avoid 24 Feb 2016. Web. 28 Mar 2016

Wei, Huaxin. “Embedded narrative in game design.” Proceedings of the International Academic Conference on the Future of Game Design and Technology (2010): 247-250. Web. 28 Mar 2016

Whitehead, Dan. “Systems vs. Stories: What can we learn from comparing The Last of Us with State of Decay? 22 Jun 2013. Web. 28 Mar 2016

Stott, Gary Alexander. “Why The Last of Us is a Masterpiece of the Interactive Medium.” Backwardscompatible. Web. 28 Mar 2016


2 Replies to “Game of Tomes: Embedded and Emergent Narrative in Video Games”

  1. Hi Zoë:

    Thanks for writing another engaging essay…and on such a creative and interesting topic! As you say, there’s still shockingly little academic research on the subject—which is strange, considering that more and more people are playing games than ever before (e.g. the proportion of Canadians who gamed has more than doubled since 1998: Your essay thoroughly convinced me that this lack of research is a major oversight on the part of scholars. I’d be keen to see whether this changes in the coming years.

    You’re probably done with narrative gaming for the time being, but if not, you might want to take a look at Astrid Ensslin’s book Literary Gaming ( I found her Introduction really helpful when writing my own 802 essay (which touched briefly on narrative gaming). She also cites work by a number of other scholars who research narrative or “literary” games. Maybe there’s something in there for you too.

    That said, you do an excellent job of utilizing what little has been written about the subject. Combining your personal gaming knowledge and experience with academic findings strengthens your research while also providing readers with a unique perspective. I especially liked that you were able to contextualize your arguments with specific examples from current, popular games. It really helps ground some of the more theoretical points and just makes the whole thing feel a lot more relevant.

    However, I do wish you’d taken some time to explore the implications for publishers further. I agree that “it seems logical that the publishing industry should pay more attention to the medium,” but I’m curious what that “attention” would actually look like. How do you think publishers should engage with this research? Should publishers start investing in narrative game creation? Should fiction authors start incorporating more game-like elements into their work? Are there any publishers that you know of who are moving into a narrative game direction? What challenges might prevent others from doing so? And, of course, what might be the potential rewards of “pay[ing] more attention to the medium”? What, ultimately, can publishers learn from your work?

    There were also a few passages in your essay that I found unclear, mostly because they incorporated gaming terminology that I wasn’t familiar with myself. I’ve pointed these out in, as well as a few additional questions/concerns that came up as I read. I don’t think any of these issues are due to a lack of effort on your part, however; more likely, they are simply reflective of how well you understand this subject, how well-versed you are in the gaming “lingo”.

    Overall, this is a strong paper that is both clearly written and well-researched. It piqued my interest in emergent and embedded gaming narratives, a subject I probably never would have investigated otherwise. It had me asking questions about the future of story, interactivity, and publishing. The stunning images you incorporated were a lovely, unexpected bonus.

    Thanks (again) for an interesting and informative read!

  2. I found the discussion of the different forms of story telling to be very informative, and begins to open a conversation about the kinds of writing that is emerging as video games evolved. Both content and organization are strong, walking us through the different kinds of stories, and then leading into the writers that are tasked with creating them. However, I found the essay asked too much of the reader. It assumed a lot of knowledge about the games talked about, and the terms talked about. The examples presented took away from a larger narrative that would have been more appealing to a non-gamer audience (like myself). As a non-gamer, I would have preferred to have seen less attention to the examples, and more on how the forms change our understanding of what story telling is, who is involved in creating it, and how it can spill over into other areas. That said, as written, this essay would be a terrific start for that larger project.

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