Forms and Functions of Multimodal Storytelling in Story-based Video Games

Bachelor Thesis 2014 35 Pages

Communications - Multimedia, Internet, New Technologies


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1 Aim of this work
1.2 Relevance of the analyses
1.3 Structure and method

2. Theoretical Framework
2.1 Working definitions
2.1.1 Working Definition of “Multimodal Storytelling”
2.1.2 Working Definition of “Story-based Video Games”
2.1.3 What is a “Visual Novel”?
2.2 Concepts used in this analysis
2.2.1 Religious Beliefs in Video Games
2.2.1 Ethics and Moral in Video Games

3. Analysis of The Elevator by Cyanide Tea
3.1 Overview
3.2 Form
3.3 Depiction of Religious Beliefs

4. Analysis of The Walking Dead by Telltale Games
4.1 Overview
4. 2 Form
4.3 Ethics and Moral Functions

5. Conclusion
5.1 Summary
5.2 Résumé
5.3 Prospects

6. Works cited

1. Introduction

1.1 Aim of this work

“’To The Moon’ has no pace, no fights, and actually it is not a game at all. Nonetheless, one thing it can do excellently: telling a touching story” (Beuth 2011) [translation by the author].

This paper focuses on the video game genres that have some kind of narrative form and offer a coherent plot, which could be compared to other types of literature. This paper serves as an analysis of story-based video games in order to prove to what extend video games can be considered literature, and how certain forms and functions are realized in these.

While both examples focus on their moral and ethical function, they feature different aspects in regard to concepts like religion, death, and what is right or wrong. Further­more, the analyses of the games in this paper show how real existing moral conventions can be exceeded, and how they can be called into question. Can video games convey moral and ethical values? And if so, in which way? Another important aspect is the portrayal of religious beliefs and how those can be compared to real existing religions.

1.2 Relevance of the analyses

Video games are often said to stir aggression and frequently they have a bad reputation. They are “[…] criticized for having too much violence and sex […]” (Wolf 2008: 283). Furthermore, many critics believe that video games can never be an art form, and that a video game always calls for a solution to a problem, that a video game always has the intention that it must be won instead of experienced.

To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic (Ebert, rogerebert.com).

One can argue that certain genres of video games cannot be considered an art form. However, there are indeed video games can be considered art forms. There are games that tell stories just like other types of literature, and one can argue that video games can even be used for didactic purposes. In the last couple of years, video games have become more complex and the amount of genres and sub-genres are almost uncount­able. Video games have been compared to movies, and some of them tell stories, which are much more complex than other works of narrative forms. There is not much research done on story-based video games and especially the visual novel genre is commonly unknown to Western audiences. The analyses in this work aim to show that video games cannot be generalized, as there are many different kind of genres, similar to other types of fiction. Furthermore, they show how forms and functions can be analyzed and that they can be implied to real existing values of society.

1.3 Structure and method

The theoretical framework demonstrates working definitions for the terms “multimodal storytelling”, “story-based video games”, and “visual novel” as used as in this paper. Visual novels will be defined in contrast to graphic novels and other genres, and a general overview will be given, seeing as the genre is mostly unknown to western audiences.

The main part of this paper will analyze two story-based video games in terms of forms and functions, and give examples on how they can be identified as story-based and how literary functions apply to those games. The first analysis focuses on the 2011 visual novel The Elevator by Cyanide Tea and the depiction of religious beliefs within the game. This also intertwines with ethics and moral functions. The second analysis features the so-called adventure game The Walking Dead by Telltale Games in terms of its ethical and moral functions based upon different concepts, such as death, forgiveness, and honesty.

The analysis of The Elevator will focus on the depiction of religious beliefs and to what extend the game can influence players in their moral values. Therefore, certain text passages will be looked at and compared to the protagonist’s development within the game.

Although The Walking Dead fulfils many different functions, in this paper it will be analyzed in terms of its ethics and moral functions. In order to do this, certain text passages and decision points will be analyzed and compared with in-game statistics provided by the game itself.

The conclusion summarizes the findings, and gives answers to the questions mentioned above. In addition, it will serve as a prediction of the future of story-driven video games.

It is important to mention that this work focuses on the narrative structures of video games and less on their medial properties. The forms of these games will indeed be analyzed; however, since most of the games mentioned and all of the games analyzed in this paper feature only small gameplay elements and focus on their plots, this will only play a subordinate role.

2. Theoretical Framework

2.1 Working definitions

2.1.1 Working Definition of “Multimodal Storytelling”

According to Silke Schauder, the “term multimodality usually describes a parallel use of different sensory channels in order to convey information” (Hampe 2011: 83). This could happen through a medial use of text, visuals, and audio in one work. For example, a movie uses multimodality to tell its story through visuals and audio. In general, more than one medium is used in order to convey meaning. Annemaree O’Brien argues that a multimodal text can be in a printed form (books, comics), digital (e-books, blogs) or even live in forms of performances or events (O’Brien, creatingmultimodaltexts.com). A video game is a digital form of interactive fiction and therefore a tool for multimodal storytelling.

In order to categorize the different layers of multimodality, Sabine Wahl uses two channels: the “visual channel” and the “audio channel” for her analysis of commercials (Maiorani 2014: 247-248). One could extend and customize this model to be fitting for video games. Therefore, a third channel, namely the “textual channel”, could be added. The visual channel would include everything you see on screen besides text, the audio channel includes music, sound effects, and voice acting if available, the new textual channel includes dialog, which is not spoken, thoughts, and/or descriptions of game objects. Metatexts, such as game manuals, main menu and options screens, will be neglected for the purpose of focusing on the storytelling aspect. All of the channels might be important for the storytelling of a video game. However, not all channels are used in every video game and one channel might be more important in one game than in another. For example, there are video games that feature no audio at all. The same applies to the other channels; some games might only focus on the textual channel, such as text adventures, or on the visual channel. This analysis focuses on multimodal storytelling and therefore the examples used in this work feature all three channels within the game.

Furthermore, the gameplay should not be neglected. In story-based games, the game­play is often realized through the textual channel, in contrast to other games where players have to solve problems by doing certain things, like driving a car, shooting a gun, or jump over obstacles.

A video game is not only made of computer programs […] it is also a creative product made of images, sound and most of all of a non material, intangible element, the game play (Guérin 2006: 306).

The gameplay mechanics in video games are as diverse as their genres. The examples used in this work feature gameplay that rely heavily on the textual channel. Further­more, all channels, that is images, sound, and text, can be displayed in different ways as well. There are all kinds of art styles in video games, and different uses of audio. One could roughly classify games into 2D games and 3D games in terms of visuals, but perspective also plays a role. There are games that feature a first‑person‑perspective and games that feature a third‑person‑perspective. In terms of audio, some games nowadays feature an original soundtrack exclusively composed for the game. Other games may include songs from real existing singers or bands. The use of multimodality in the example games is explained in their respective chapters about their forms.

2.1.2 Working Definition of “Story-based Video Games”

First of all, it is not possible to equate movies with video games. In movies, the receiver just watches. In video games, however, we always have an interactive part; that is, the receiver does not only receive anymore, they actually has to do something. The inter­action is realized through some sort of input device, such as a keyboard or a gamepad. Basically, video games are interactive forms of media that have a certain set of rules, which have to be followed by the player in order to win. James Paul Gee describes a video game as “just a set of problems; it could be anything. Doesn’t matter what the problems are. All a video game is, is a set of problems that you must solve in order to win (Gee 2011: 0:03).” However, nowadays not every game can be won, and often they offer an experience rather than a solution. In story-based or story-driven games, the narrative can be displayed in different ways. Some games use dialogs, others may use monologs. There are also games that feature a made-up language or no language at all, yet they can tell a story through visuals and audio.

There are many different types of video games, which may or may not be described as having a “story-based” framework. Evidently, genres like sports games, racing games, or fighting games do not offer a plot and cannot be considered “story-based”. However, there are genres like adventure games, role-playing games, actions games, and even genres like text adventures, visual novels, and interactive fiction, which already suggest an affinity to narrative literature. There are also mixed genres and hybrid forms that feature traits of story-based video games, but also offer other game­play methods, such as action sequences or puzzles.

Games, which are considered story-based, could be the Uncharted series and The Last of Us by Naughty Dog, which was praised for its “masterful marriage of storytelling and game design” (Hussain 2013), Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls by Quantic Dream, which are described as interactive movies, and Cinders by MoaCube, a visual novel based on the Cinderella story. All of the examples have some things in common, but are significantly different in their style and gameplay. The Uncharted series and The Last of Us could be considered hybrid forms; both games offer a rich story, but on the other hand, they also feature many action sequences. Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls are entirely different examples; the stories of these games unfold to a great extent without any interaction by the player. Cinders is yet another form, the term “visual novel” already implies that it is mostly a medium to read instead of watching and listening. It is true that certain scenes and emotions are portrayed through the visual display and the atmosphere is enhanced through the background music, but the main focus is on reading the story. In general, one can describe a story-based game as being a video game that relies mostly on their plot and characters and less on action scenes, puzzles, or similar gameplay mechanics.

2.1.3 What is a “Visual Novel”?

A “visual novel” could be described as a story-based video game, since the main focus in such games lies on plot and character development. Visual novels are a form of interactive fiction, as they prompt players to participate in the text, according to Dani Cavallaro (Cavallaro 2010: 10). One has to differentiate visual novels from graphic novels; usually a graphic novel is a book, which contains comic art, and is published in a printed form. Visual novels, however, are interactive video games, which are not available as a printed form and can only be accessed digitally. Normally, visual novels are available for personal computers and video game consoles, but recently there are also visual novels games being released for smartphones. Some popular visual novels have also been adapted into the light novels, mangas or animes, for example the adult visual novel Tsukihime (月姫, lit. Lunar Princess) by Type-Moon.

The visual novel is a video game genre from Japan where they made up nearly 70 % of the PC game titles released in 2006 (AMN and Anime Advanced Announce Anime Game Demo Downloads 2006). In other countries, the visual novel genre is not as well‑known as in Japan and therefore, there are a lot less original English language visual novels (OELVN). They feature mostly graphics in anime-style art and occasion­ally other graphic styles. Many visual novels have background music and sound effects to enhance the gaming experience.

There are also sub-genres of visual novels, for example so-called Sound Novels, which are a trademark of Chunsoft, and focus mainly on audio effects and less on visuals. There are also Kinetic Novels by Visual Art's, which feature mostly stories without branching plots and no choices, leading to a single ending. The term kinetic novel is since then also used for other non-interactive titles and not exclusively for the visual novels by Visual Art’s. Other sub-genres are so-called “otome games” (romance games aimed at a female audience), “bishōjo games” (games aimed at a male audience), or “escape the room games”. Of course, there are also hybrid forms, includ­ing RPG elements, adventure elements, or hidden-object elements. This paper, however, focuses on the umbrella term “visual novel”.

The contents of visual novels are as widespread as with printed novels. Among others, there are science fiction games, horror games, and romance games. A big amount of visual novels, however, are so-called “eroge”, which is an abbreviation of “erotic game”; they mostly feature sexual scenes and other adult content. The visual novels analyzed in this paper are not eroge, since most eroge games offer only weak plots and/or are not available in English.

In many games, the player can decide what the protagonist should do, and thereby an individual story is tailored. Branching plots lead to having to play the game multiple times in order to read the whole story. Often it is not necessary to do so, since one ending concludes the story. However, some visual novels offer so-called “true endings”, which are considered to be the real ending of a story in contrast to other endings within the game. There are even visual novels that require the player to play all other endings in order to unlock the true ending; an example is Cafe 0 ~The Drowned Mermaid~ by roseVeRte, which reveals the true story step by step.



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Justus-Liebig-University Giessen
video games multimodal multimedial visual novels storytelling literature graphic novels




Title: Forms and Functions of Multimodal Storytelling in Story-based Video Games