Embracing ambiguity in narrative design: how games can tell stories better

People keep recommending me games with ‘good’ stories. You should look at my face when I realize I’m another unique protagonist on an epic quest. It’s a sad, disappointed face. I’m tired of characters who are obsessed with finding the truth. The most saturated mold in story-telling, a quest about saving the world, is no longer interesting to me.

These games almost always lack ambiguity. They rely on a style of narrative design that believes in completion through transparency. Born insecure about coming off as empty, the story spends the entire game trying to explain itself in excruciating detail. It doesn’t trust you to fill in the gaps, to interpret incorrectly but enjoyably. Choice and exploration are offered as forms of engagement. How ironic though that it comes at the expense of my freedom to imagine what might be.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by FAR: Lone Sails. This is a two-hour game without dialogue, text or cut scenes. Yet, it speaks volumes. The world would tell me just enough to connect a few dots. There was a sense of curiosity and adventure that made each clue feel like an unexpected gift. I finished this game with a lot of questions – questions I still think about years later. And I love that. When the scope of a story goes beyond what the medium is capable of, the narrative becomes memorable.

Embracing ambiguity can also encourage good level design. Look at Celeste, where the levels are often a literal representation of the story and what the main character (Madeline) is feeling. While the soundtrack resonates a certain mood, the gameplay actively drives you towards it. The dialogue sequences are not the primary narrative crutch. They are downtimes that help set the pacing. Thatgamecompany’s Journey is another incredible example of how level design and environmental story-telling can be sufficient for pushing narratives forward.

Lengthier games usually follow a two-layered structure. You’re part of a larger world with an end goal – this is essentially what the game is about. Within that world, you have smaller entities with their own dynamics which serve a more immediate purpose. The Last of Us turns this structure on its head. Two characters who don’t really matter in the big picture are now put in the forefront. This isn’t a game about curing an infection or killing zombies in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s a game about Joel and Ellie. And because ambiguity is such a core part of human relationships, they become powerful narrative devices. Besides, when the world is no longer the focus, the space for ambiguous story-telling opens up wide. You can now throw down intensely emotional letters written by people who didn’t survive. Posters and signage can hint at an ongoing war between an oppressive military and their rebellious counterpart. And corpses can be staged in certain ways to suggest tragic yet unique deaths. The possibilities are endless.

But of course, when you’re convinced that you need to hand over every piece of information you have to the player, the world you build is no longer enough. You must now look for other outlets. Immersion-breaking text pop-ups, cut scenes and markers come into the scene. They all demand your attention but none of them respect you. Effort and understanding its role here is crucial. Books, films and TV shows all let you sit back and enjoy them with minimal engagement. At most you’ll turn a page every minute or press Play. With video games, however, this goes up quite a few notches. Your constant interaction with the medium is what fuels it. Every other aspect of the experience needs to uphold that dynamic. And with the expectation of added effort, it makes sense that the narrative would benefit from a more passive role rather than popping up in your face every now and then.

Sadly, this is exactly where so many good stories stop becoming good games. There’s a big difference between uncovering a plot and discovering it. The former approach can quickly lose its charm, becoming a means to an end. The latter, on the other hand, feels like a reward on top of the enjoyment you found through gameplay. It offers but it does not impose.

Ambiguity is an extremely capable tool for video games. It can create open stories inside closed worlds and linear levels. And it can shape experiences that engage us even after they’ve ended. But we keep forgetting that games don’t have to compromise between fun interactive experiences and moving stories. It’s an identity crisis that fuels itself. Are we ‘gamers’ who enjoy mindless button presses? Or are we intellectual critics who now back up said button presses with complex narratives?

I would like to think that we are neither.

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