Storytelling in Games: An Introduction

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Storytelling in Games

Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.


Ever since the first men and women huddled in fire-lit caves, telling – and enjoying – stories has been part of the human experience. And as we mastered technology, we unlocked new ways to tell stories: the written word, radio, film, television, and most recently, video games. Each medium brought its own techniques – prose, sound effects, camerawork, visual effects, CGI – while also building on the techniques introduced by previous media.


Games are no exception. Like movies, they are an audio-visual product, and as such they (typically) contain dialogue presented as text, voice-acted or both; graphics; and sound and music. But they add a new dimension: interactivity. Now, the actual gameplay mechanics become one more technique in the storyteller’s repertoire.


As such, games offer two types of storytelling experiences. On the one hand, there is the traditional “I have a yarn, and let me tell it to you” experience seen in every medium. In games, this manifests itself in backstory, cut-scenes, narration and scripted sequences. Let’s call this Type I, scripted, storytelling. On the other, there is the game used as a toolbox or backdrop, which you can then use to enact your own tale. When you excitedly babble about your virtual adventures, when characters you care about and situations that leave you on the edge of your seat emerge on their own, that is a form of storytelling unique to games. Call it Type II, mechanics-driven, storytelling.


Now, some players prefer one form of storytelling to the other. But to me, they’re equally valid. While I think every game’s mechanics should at least complement the experience that the designers want the player to take away (type II or mechanics-driven storytelling), good writing (type I or scripted) can still be an invaluable part of that experience.. And for that reason, over time, I plan to write a feature series about games that told great stories, whether scripted, mechanics-driven or both. For well-done storytelling, and the worlds of wonder that it creates, are what separate the great games from the merely good, and greatness is something that always deserves to be discussed and feted.


To quickly find this, or other posts in my Storytelling in Games series, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

Storytelling in Games: “What’s it all about?” Or, the importance of gameplay mechanics

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Storytelling in Games

Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.


“What’s the story all about?”


At its heart, every story or creative work comes down to that deceptively simple question. Deceptively, because “what a story is about” encompasses many things:


  • It includes the capsule summary: “Star Wars is a space opera about a dreamy kid who turns out to be the saviour of the galaxy.” “Yes, Minister is about a British politician who’s constantly thwarted by his chief civil servant.”


  • It includes the general feel of the work: “Band of Brothers is about what it would be like to be a US paratrooper in World War 2.” “The Black Company is about what it would be like to be a foot soldier in a world dominated by immortal wizards.”


  • And it includes theme, the central ideas that underpin the story: “Fallout 3 is a game about sacrifice.” “Lord of the Rings is about the ability of power to corrupt; and the fading of beauty from the world; and that even after the defeat of evil, the world will never be the same again.” Or, to return to an earlier example, “Yes, Minister is about the grubby little compromises needed in order to stay in power; and what a weak thing human nature is.”


Ultimately, “what it’s about” is what the reader, viewer or player takes away from the experience once it’s all over. It is the sum of plot and characterisation and worldbuilding and prose, motifs and messages – and, relevantly, gameplay mechanics. And this is the big strength of games as a storytelling medium: it adds a new layer to the experience.


To be sure, gameplay can’t provide plot or dialogue. And it’s not a panacea: sometimes it works at cross-purposes to other aspects of the storytelling experience. In his twopart series, “Theme is Not Meaning”, Soren Johnson gives some examples: while Civilization is ostensibly a game about history, its mechanics are as far removed from history as you can get. Civilisations can instigate a neat revolution on command to shake up their social systems; while rise and fall are replaced by static borders that only change in response to external invasion. The net effect, to quote Soren: “… the games mechanics tell us less about world history than they do about what it would be like to be part of a league of ancient gods, who pit their subjects against each other for fun.


But consider what gameplay can do, when it does work together with the rest of the game’s narrative elements:


  • Gameplay can be used to flesh out characters: in Valkyria Chronicles, Marina the loner sniper will sometimes take a penalty if she’s too close to fellow squaddies, while ladies’ man Salinas can receive bonuses from being near female comrades. How well would I have remembered those two minor characters had their personality quirks not had in-game effects?


  • Gameplay excels at worldbuilding: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior showed us what a post-apocalyptic world would look like, but it’s even more effective to discover that world for ourselves by wandering around in Fallout 3, being poisoned by radiation with each gulp of water we drink; and reading the journal of a nurse dying from radiation sickness after the bombs fell, or the notes of a man who resorted to slave labour in his hunger to rebuild civilisation.


  • Gameplay is, I think, second to none at creating a “feel” or “mood”: we may read epic, high-magic fantasy novels, but to get the experience of being a warlord in one of their worlds, nothing beats playing Dominions 3. Star Control 2 (aka The Ur-Quan Masters) captures the experience of being an space captain, boldly going where no explorer has gone before, in a way that a book or a TV series or a movie can’t.


  • Gameplay can even bring across theme: UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-Com: UFO Defense is a game about sacrifice and struggle in the face of an overwhelming foe.


In short, gameplay is one of the most powerful storytelling tools around. In response to the original question, “So, what’s the story all about?”, for any other medium, we would point to the experience created by words and images and sounds. When the mechanics of a game are at their best, we should point to the experience created by words and images and sounds… and to what we actually did.


To quickly find this, or other posts in my Storytelling in Games series, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

Storytelling in Star Control II: Playing space detective

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Storytelling in Games

Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.



If you were a hero, tasked with saving the world from an overwhelming menace, how would you go about it? You would gather information about your foe. You would arm yourself with the best weapons possible. You would recruit allies to your banner. And while you might wish for these things on a platter, in order to find them, you would have to explore the world. You would seek out clues and piece them together, one hint leading you to the next, until you found what you were searching for.


No game captures this experience as well as Star Control II (SC2), the 1994 game from Toys for Bob (rereleased for free as The Ur-Quan Masters). SC2 cast you as a starship captain from a long-lost settlement, given command of a rediscovered ancient wonder weapon. As far as you know at the start of the game, your objective is simple: journey to Earth with your starship, rejoin the fleet, and help defend humanity against the alien Ur-Quan. And after one of the best opening plot hooks I have seen in a game, the stage is set for you to explore the galaxy in pursuit of that goal. Along the way, expect a fantastic storytelling experience, delivered through a combination of (a) top-notch writing and (b) gameplay mechanics that place the responsibility for uncovering that story in your hands.


What made SC2’s writing so good? If you were to read a synopsis of the game’s universe, you would find it pretty familiar if you had any previous experience with space opera (say, Larry Niven’s novels, the Wing Commander games, or even Star Wars). Your wondrous starship was originally built by long-vanished Precursors. There is a craven species, the Spathi, who echo Niven’s Pierson’s puppeteers. There are warlike species, the proud Yehat and humorously stupid Thraddash, echoing the Kzinti and Kilrathi.  There are space merchants, the Melnorme and the Druuge. There are even blue space babes, the Syreen. So far, nothing really out of the ordinary.


But what was out of the ordinary was the quality of the game’s writing and dialogue, which allowed SC2’s universe to transcend the dry summary I provided above. Most of the time, it was hilarious, often because it explored what a given space opera trope would REALLY look like. To name just one example, the Thraddash were not the first alien species to love a fight, but here, their entire backstory is structured around that trait, with… entertaining… results. For another example, try boasting to the Spathi about your “unique” Precursor starship. But SC2 could be serious when it wanted to. The tragic backstory of another race did not excuse its deeds in the present, but it did make me understand, even empathise, with why they chose the path they did. SC2’s writing proves that it doesn’t matter if someone else has used a concept before; the important thing is execution.


Beyond the writing, SC2’s gameplay also helped flesh out its alien species. Each species used a unique spacecraft in combat, with its own speed, defences, firepower, and special abilities. And these designs usually reflected the personalities established through dialogue. For example, the Spathi weren’t just cowards when you spoke to them. Their spacecraft’s most powerful weapon points backwards, so taking a Spathi ship into battle requires that you think and act as a Spathi would, in other words, that you run away. The slave-trading Druuge reveal the depths of their wickedness in battle, where their special ability allows them to recharge energy by throwing slaves into their ships’ furnaces.


But as good as Star Control II’s writing, dialogue and alien design were, ultimately it stands out for the gameplay-driven way in which its story unfolded. Most games that I’ve played will give you a clear objective and tell you what to do. Even in open-world games such as Brutal Legend, Fallout 3 and Oblivion, the main quest is clearly marked: Go to such-and-such a place and talk to such-and-such a person, who will tell you what to do next. Star Control II, however, gives you a scattering of clues and then makes you play detective. For example, you might be told:


1.     Strange signals were detected coming from the direction of Rigel;

2.     Humanity’s old allies discovered something interesting in a certain direction from Procyon;

3.     One species’ homeworld is in the Gruis constellation.


Following up each of these clues would lead you, in turn, to a few more hints. What might you discover at the source of the strange signal? What would the aliens at Gruis tell you? And then there’s what you’d discover from exploring worlds along the way,  A warlord might give you a device you need, if you retrieve something whose location he can’t pinpoint with any more precision than “near a yellow star in a constellation shaped like a long, thin beast”. A trader might offer to sell you information about the history of the galaxy, which you’d then use to make sense of some of the other facts you’d learned. At each step along the process, you would take notes (this game was from the days before quest journals!).  Ultimately, while you would start with a few pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, it was your responsibility to look for the rest, and once you’d found them, work out how to put them together. In other words, you would do the things that a space captain would have to do in-world: exploring, interviewing, recording and then analysing data. And with that, SC2 conveyed what it would be like to be the main character.


When all is said and done, Star Control II offers one of the most unique storytelling experiences I’ve seen in a game. And it provides a lesson to all game designers caught between the two sides of an old argument: is it better for a game to be well-written and packed with snappy dialogue, or to provide gameplay mechanics that allow you to feel as though you’re telling a story of your own? By excelling in both areas, Star Control II shows what a false choice this is.


I hope you enjoyed this post! If you’d like to play Star Control 2 for yourself, you can obtain its free remake, The Ur-Quan Masters, here. There are install files available for Windows, MacOS X, and Linux.

To quickly find this, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

An extraordinary life: storytelling in Fallout 3

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Storytelling in Games

Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.



Warning: this post contains extensive spoilers for Fallout 3, including its ending!


Ask people what they enjoyed about Fallout 3 (2008), the post-apocalyptic RPG from Bethesda, and most would point to its setting, the ruined Capital Wasteland where Washington DC once stood. It’s a truly impressive world, both for its sheer scope and for the little touches that went into each area. But there was also a story far more character-driven than the game usually gets credit for. At its heart, Fallout 3’s main plotline revolved around the journey of its protagonist, the Lone Wanderer. It explored themes of hope, courage, and sacrifice, made all the stronger for their bleak backdrop. Ultimately, it’s a story I’m glad to have played.

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the game world, but what stood out for me was its interconnectedness. At one point, the Lone Wanderer is trapped in a virtual reality where a vicious scientist has tormented his victims for centuries. Who would voluntarily risk a run-in with such a man? Well, later on, a quest took me to another scientist, Horace Pinkerton, a recluse established as egotistical and brilliant in equal measures. In true RPG fashion, I took the time to look at Pinkerton’s notes – and found he stole some of his equipment from the madman, as easily as taking candy “from a little girl”. How did he know where to look? Once he made it there, how did he get in? And most importantly, how did he get out? The game doesn’t elaborate on those points, preferring to leave it up to our imaginations. But it says a lot about Pinkerton: he must have been both incredibly brave (or plain arrogant), and incredibly skilful. And it hints at adventures in the wasteland beyond what we ourselves experienced.

One aspect of the world becomes very clear, very fast: its tone. The Capital did not become a Wasteland because of aliens, dragons or long-sealed ancient evil. It became that way because of people, in all our greed, our stupidity, our selfishness. And the game goes to great lengths to drive home the resulting gloom. The surroundings are desolate, of course: beyond the shattered buildings and treeless desert, what sticks in my mind is a skeleton on a subway-station bench, slumped next to a handgun and a bloodstain. It’s pretty clear what happened all those centuries ago, and why.

But what we see is just the tip of the iceberg, compared to what we do. For Fallout 3 dared to put you into situations where there was no happy ending. One side quest (which I haven’t played, but which I did read up on), involving a dispute between bigoted humans and the hideously mutated ghouls, presents RPG players with a familiar choice. Do you sign on as a hired gun for the humans, or for the ghouls? Or do you go for the peaceful solution: reconcile the two sides? Clearly, only one of these is a win-win solution. Except it’s not. If the ghouls settle their differences and move in alongside the humans, they will go on to massacre their new neighbours anyway. Today’s victims, the game tells us, may become tomorrow’s oppressors, given the opportunity.

Still, as bleak as this world is, it’s not hopeless. There are spots of light woven in here and there, as individuals try to make what difference they can: Three Dog the DJ sets up a radio station to bring news and information to the survivors of the waste; Moira the shopkeeper-cum-tinkerer decides to pen a “Wasteland Survival Guide”; Dr Madison Li sets up hydroponics labs to feed her adopted home. And then there are your own deeds. Even small acts of kindness, on your part, can make a huge difference to their recipients’ lives: give an orphaned woman the last message left by her dying father, and listen to the gratitude in her voice. Or retrieve the last Stradivarius in the world for an elderly widow, and hear the airwaves come alive with her music.

Hope and valour exist on a grander scale, too. The second thing I love about Fallout 3 is the hero(ine)’s character arc, as chronicled by the main plotline. From the very beginning, Fallout 3 is something special. The first we see of the Capital Wasteland is an operating theatre, as the Lone Wanderer is born – and the moment the Wanderer’s parents learn his/her gender and appearance is the same moment in which we choose them. As we learn how to move in the game, the Wanderer takes his or her first baby steps; the Wanderer receiving a BB gun for a birthday present is the occasion on which we learn how to aim and shoot. We’ve all sat through character generation and tutorial segments in games before, but none immersed me so much as Fallout 3’s integration of these mechanics with its story.

But it’s not until later on that we discover the significance of the Lone Wanderer’s birth. Early on, we learn the hard way: water in the game world is almost always irradiated. And during the course of the story, we eventually find out: the Lone Wanderer’s parents were working in a near-war zone to create Project Purity, a device capable of supplying enough clean water for the entire Wasteland. It could have transformed the game world, had it succeeded… but the Wanderer’s father, James, abandoned the project after the Wanderer’s mother died giving birth to their child. James didn’t throw away Project Purity and the future of the Capital Wasteland for the hell of it. He didn’t do it because he lost heart without his wife. He did it because now that his child was born, the constant attacks on the purifier were too risky for him to bear. And eventually, James gives up his own life, too, arranging an explosion so his child can flee an onrushing invasion.

This takes us to the game’s much-maligned ending. The finale confronts the Lone Wanderer with a choice. Run into an irradiated control room a la Spock and sacrifice his/her life to prevent the now almost-functional, but critically damaged purifier, from exploding? Or be a coward, and ask an accompanying soldier to lay down her own life instead? (The original ending has a nasty plot hole – you have allies who could survive the radiation, but instead of helping, they spout lame excuses about it being “your destiny” to die in there. No wonder people were mad*! The Broken Steel DLC revised this, so now the Wanderer ultimately survives even if you opt for self-sacrifice, and it finally allows you the third option of sending in a rad-immune buddy.)

But with the benefit of Broken Steel, I love the ending for how it rounds off the Lone Wanderer’s story arc. It takes the Wanderer full circle: back to the purifier, not far from where he or she entered the world. And just as the Wanderer’s birth, at the start of the game, triggered James to sacrifice the greater good for the sake of his child, the end of the game asks: can that child make good James’ sacrifice by paying the debt forward? Will the child be a true hero and ensure James didn’t die in vain? It is one of the most satisfying, moving endings I have ever played through.

Last but not least, from a storytelling perspective, I loved so many more things about Fallout 3. Some of the characters I met, such as Amata, the Lone Wanderer’s childhood friend; and Fawkes, the intelligent, principled mutant who swears friendship after you rescue him from the cell where he’s been imprisoned for centuries. The set-piece battles worthy of Hollywood. The unscripted canyon shoot-out against a gang of hit-men, which put me into Clint Eastwood’s shoes. “The world” and “the main character’s journey” would mean nothing if they were boring, but thanks to the characters I encountered and the battles I fought in the Capital Wasteland, my experience was punctuated with humour, pathos, and excitement.

I would have liked any one of Fallout 3’s storytelling elements, in itself.  The game is deservedly recognised for its world’s size and attention to detail, and that world struck a perfectly appropriate tone, dark but not hopeless. But I also loved the Lone Wanderer’s character arc, as presented through the game’s main plot. Viewed from this angle, Fallout 3 is the story of an extraordinary life, from birth to death (or near-death, if you have Broken Steel), book-ended by sacrifice. And it was a story made all the better by the other characters, both friend and foe, I encountered along the way. Putting all these elements together, Fallout 3 is one of my favourite games ever. And after 85+ hours, I can walk away with a smile.


* This interview explains why the companions were so badly worked into the original ending sequence: the ending was written before the companions were added to the game!

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

The price of heroism: storytelling in X-Com

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series Storytelling in Games

Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.



Almost every game out there casts the player as a hero: someone who accomplishes great feats in the face of extraordinary odds. By the time we finish, we’ll have vanquished tyrants, terrorists, aliens and ancient evils. But few titles have had gameplay mechanics that convey heroism better than X-Com: UFO Defense (aka UFO: Enemy Unknown), the 1994 strategy game from Microprose where you led a multinational force – soldiers, scientists, pilots and purchasing officers – against an alien invasion. And X-Com managed this without a single line of dialogue or scripted plot event.


First, being a squad-level game gave X-Com an immediate advantage: it was built around individual characters. It was individual characters whose stats, ranging from marksmanship to carrying capacity to reaction speed, you pored over at base. It was individual characters whom you controlled in battle, telling this one to take cover behind a wall, while his sergeant prepared a grenade and a tank scouted ahead. It was individuals you named for friends and colleagues (you could freely rename soldiers), individuals who saved the day with lucky shots and well-placed grenades, and individuals whose progress you followed as their stats and kill counts inched higher with every mission.


So far, so good. But I could say the same of any RPG, tactical RPG or squad-level game. Thus, while the focus on individual feats was necessary to X-Com’s storytelling appeal, it was not sufficient.  And this was where the “overwhelming odds” part of the formula became important.


For in X-Com, those feats came at a terrible cost in lives. Think of any science fiction scene where human soldiers plink away at armoured monstrosities, only to be slaughtered once the aliens open fire; that’s what the start of X-Com felt like, especially when the aliens showed up with heavy weapons. As your technology improved – once your soldiers started bringing home alien guns and grenades for your scientists to reverse-engineer, once your workshops began turning out armour made from the same material as UFO hulls – the situation did grow less dire, and by the endgame, the balance shifted decisively in favour of a human player who brought an “A” squad loaded with the game’s most powerful weapons.


Yet that lethality never completely disappeared, because even with the best armour in the game, one (un)lucky shot could still kill. You may have become better at preventing the aliens from ever getting the chance to move and shoot, but your finest marksman, your most seasoned veteran would die as quickly as the raw recruit once the aliens drew a bead on him or her.  As a result, this was one game where it was so tempting to reach for the reload button when something went wrong – but where it was equally rewarding to resist that urge. For it was that sense of overcoming the odds, of bouncing back from slaughter and catastrophe, which made victory in X-Com so sweet.


I remember Swordlily the sniper, a key player on my “A” team and one who steadily rose through the ranks. I gave her one of the most accurate weapons I had, and a suit of advanced armour to keep her intact. Then one day, an alien fired a shot right into the transport plane – where she should have been safe, at the far end of the troop compartment – and killed her where she stood.


I remember the time three soldiers, the last survivors of their ten-strong squad, straggled across a field to storm a giant UFO by themselves – and won.


I remember when the aliens came swarming in to assault an outpost manned by my “B” squad, undergunned and underskilled rookies. A guided missile sped around a corner and right into the midst of my defensive layout, turning half the squad to ash. One survivor, wounded and panicked, dropped her gun. But right opposite her was the less fortunate soldier who had carried my squad’s missile launcher. So on my next turn, once she pulled herself together, I sent her racing out of her hiding spot. Across the hallway she ran. With a few clicks, she grabbed the dead man’s launcher. With a few more, she returned fire with a missile of her own. And it worked. I salvaged that battle and saved the base. Not a bad accomplishment considering the odds – and it rested on one soldier’s courage.


If that isn’t a tale of heroism, one that X-Com made possible as so few other games could have done, I don’t know what is.


I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

A history of heroes: storytelling in Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Storytelling in Games

Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.


(Note: this article contains moderate spoilers for the game.)


Elaborate backstories are part and parcel of speculative fiction. Fantasy’s defining work, Lord of the Rings, is above all a work of worldbuilding, while science fiction authors have long created detailed “future histories” to tie their works together. Given the extent to which RPGs grew out of this literary genre, it’s no surprise that RPG designers followed suit – a trend at its most visible in the lore codices of recent titles such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age. But in my opinion, few games have done it as well as a little-known 2006 Playstation 2 JRPG, Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria (developed by tri-Ace and published by Square Enix).


Very, very, very loosely inspired by Norse mythology, VP2 followed the adventures of Alicia, an exiled princess sharing a body with the valkyrie Silmeria*. The game offered a lengthy plot featuring wrathful gods, magic MacGuffins, swordsmen and sorcerers – but if the plot were all VP2 had, I would not be writing this post. It simply wasn’t that great for the first two-thirds of the game, though it did pick up sharply towards the end. Rather more satisfying was VP2’s character growth: Alicia went from a frightened girl dependent on Silmeria (this wallpaper says it all) to a mature, confident heroine, complete with new voice clips in battle. But while this was rewarding, it was still anything but groundbreaking – after all, character growth is the bread and butter of fiction.


Where VP2 uniquely shone was the way it brought its world, past and present, to life. Part of this was a combination of art design and music. The soundtrack was serene as you traversed the sunlit idyll of the Kythena Plains; ponderous in a dark, haunted forest and lilting in a magical one; chirpy in the metropolis of Villnore and ethereal as you crossed Bifrost, the breathtakingly spectacular bridge to the heavens. Even ruins, the stock setting of fantasy RPGs, were distinct: when Alicia journeyed through a half-submerged temple, the pensive music echoed the lost splendour around her – very different from the conventionally heroic theme that accompanied a trip through an ancient volcano.


And the wonders of VP2’s world were more than skin deep. While your party included plenty of storyline characters, you could also recruit up to 20 einherjar – the spirits of long-dead warriors, chosen by Silmeria to fight for the gods – randomly chosen from a pool of 40. The storyline characters (who appeared in the game’s plentiful cut-scenes) were far more fleshed-out than any one einherjar (who had only a few lines of dialogue apiece**). But as a group, I think the einherjar received by far the better deal. That was because each character, storyline or einherjar, had backstory in the form of a character profile accessed from the party screen – and the einherjar backstories, spread over a thousand years of in-game history, were extensively woven together. They interwove with the towns you visited in-game (your party might include a given location’s mythical founders), but more importantly, they interwove with each other. If you read the profiles of two or three einherjar, you might find that they’d journeyed together in their youth; split up to take opposite sides in a war; and met their separate ends after that. A kingdom home to four or five einherjar in one generation might disappear a hundred years later, brought down by an einherjar from a rival land; that conqueror in turn might die ignominiously to a poisoned arrow.


This would have been impressive enough on its own. But there was also a second, deeper layer: the profiles weren’t always true. For instance, this is what the game had to say about Woltar the sorcerer, who joined in one of the earliest dungeons:


A ruthless alchemist who kidnapped the Queen of Crell Monferaigne in 746 C.C. Hiding out in the hinterland of Salerno, Woltar was rumoured to have spent his days and nights engrossed in horrifying experiments. However, in 752 C.C. he was found and punished by officers from Crell Monferaigne. A month after the queen was rescued from her prison, she took her own life by throwing herself  from atop the castle wall.


The mental images are horrific – but false. Here’s what really happened: Woltar and the queen eloped. They lived happily and even had a daughter together, before the king’s men found Woltar, killed him, and brought the queen back, only for her to kill herself out of grief for her lover. Their daughter’s ending was no happier, as you found out if you recruited her: she was murdered years later on the orders of her stepbrother, the prince.


The tragic tale of Woltar and family was just the tip of the iceberg. The einherjar backstories were packed with sorrow: the woman who, believing false accusations, arranged for her sister’s death – and who killed herself upon discovering the truth; friends who met on the battlefield after supporting rival kings; the loyal sorcerer whose suspicious liege abandoned him to torture and death. And while the game played fast and loose with its Norse inspiration, this was one area where it felt absolutely true to my knowledge of myths from round the world – look at how few of the ancient Greek heroes made it to a happy ending.


But the einherjar backstories weren’t just about sorrow, containing as they did other emotions that we should feel in the presence of epics. These were warriors brave enough to be chosen as the champions of the gods, and thus, heroism – and triumph even in death – were prominent: the friends whose sacrifice saved their home from conquest; the trio who sealed off the gateway to the netherworld, something which could probably have made a story in its own right. There was even poetic justice: the sorcerer responsible for the deaths of four other einherjar never got to enjoy his triumph, courtesy of an arrow through the heart. His assassin? None other than another einherjar.


Unfortunately, despite all the above, rock-solid gameplay*** and praise from the critics, VP2 never achieved even the cult-classic status of its predecessor. Sales (according to VGchartz’ estimates) were measly, and even within the JRPG genre, it seems to have ended up little more than an obscure footnote. But it left its impression on me. Long after details of gameplay and plot faded from my mind, I remember the game’s locations, beautiful, diverse, and filled with character. I remember the game’s spiderweb of einherjar relationships, complex and deep enough to do any novelist proud. I remember how enthralled I was to see the pitiless history of VP2’s world played out through the lives and deaths of the einherjar; and I remember the emotions their stories provoked. True, this is not a method that could be used by many games, given how the valkyrie/einherjar conceit tied in with the game’s lore – but VP2 made the most of it. To this day, I’m glad to have experienced VP2’s storytelling, and it remains one of my favourite games.



* An invention of the game, not an actual mythological figure.


** Unlike the first game, where every character you recruited was an einherjar, each of whom received an introductory cut-scene of his/her own.


*** To be fair, sometimes it was a bit too rock-solid – the game was rather hard.




Eurogamer review

Order Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria from Amazon (US)


I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

Love, Hate, and Stories: The Visual Novels of Christine Love

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Storytelling in Games

To what heights – and depths – of emotion can we be moved by text in a game? This is the question posed by two of the best games I’ve played recently: Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story and Analogue: A Hate Story.


Perhaps I shouldn’t call them games so much as I should call them interactive works of epistolary fiction, in which the player pieces together a story from documents and messages. The two titles contain very little in the way of abstract systems – apart from a couple of puzzles, there are no rules to be mastered here. This doesn’t mean the player is uninvolved! While both games rely on plenty of text, they also deploy that interactivity to good effect. They would not work in any other medium, something we’ll see with Digital.

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