What video games can teach you about storytelling

Graphic designer by day, gamer by night. Those who know me know I love to play a good (and addictive) video game. And the more action the better.

Thanks to technology, video games have come a long way — from the days of Pong and Pac-man to today’s insanely realistic graphics, to open worlds. But to me, the key to any great game isn’t just the gameplay, weapons or graphics. A quality video game also needs a strong storyline driving you forward through your missions and quests.

It was during the emotional climax of the Red Dead Redemption 2 storyline when I had a revelation: video games can remind those of us in marketing and advertising the importance of powerful stories. 

It was a dark and stormy night

The most essential part of a good story begins with the writing. This is true across all mediums, from a 300-page book to an award-winning advertising campaign — if you haven’t invested in the writing, you may lose your audience halfway through or, even worse, never engage them at all. 

Storytelling tip: pay attention to the story and write well. 

Somebody call Ramin Djawadi

The visual and the musical elements of a game are just as important as good writing and often carry a story when the writing lacks (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones Season 8). In a video game, the animation style sets the tone for what kind of story you are about to jump into. Adding in a powerful musical score has a huge emotional impact on a story. Just watch the final Harry Potter duel without the soundtrack playing, it’s just not the same. 

Storytelling tip: remember that music and visuals help your story; it’s not just words. 

Not your grandma’s deviled eggs

It’s all about the little (and often hidden) details. Every time a new game is released, so are countless YouTube videos pointing out the funny little references and hidden objects. These are called “Easter eggs” and gamers love them. When people find Easter eggs in a game, or in stories in general, it makes them feel smart. And feeling smart makes people feel good. 

While easter eggs may not be right for every marketing campaign, surprise elements should be considered as they allow people to make deeper emotional connections to a story. 

Storytelling tip: people love surprises, so let your audience have a few. 

Put the audience in the driver’s seat

One of the most unique parts of video game storytelling is that it puts the player in control of a character. This allows the player to become more emotionally invested in the characters story arc. The Red Dead Redemption series is a great example of how controlling a character in a well-written universe emotionally connects players with that character. Instead of watching a movie or reading a book and thinking “Why did they do that?” it’s more like, “Why did I do that?”.  

Storytelling tip: Tell a compelling story that will fully engage players, let them assume a role, not just be a part of your “audience.” 

So why is a marketing agency writing a blog about video games?

Advertising, marketing and branding are all rooted in storytelling and helping companies connect with their customers. Video games may seem like an odd place to learn a marketing lesson, but they provide a unique storytelling experience that can help marketers see things differently. 

Who knows, a video game could inspire your next big campaign or brand story. A great place to start your storytelling research? I’d recommend you pick up Red Dead Redemption 2, and grab a box of tissues while you’re at it.