Telling a Story // The Art of Video Game Language

Watch the first Season of Level Story here:

It is a known fact that storytelling is becoming more and more prevalent in video games. As the medium grows and improves, so do the stories that are being told within the frames. For many gamers, story comes first. If the story isn't any good or nonexistent, they may not continue with the game or simply finish it on bad terms. To them, story outweighs different aspects of the game such as game-play, music, or sound design.

Older games, for the most part, consist of little to no story. And while to some this may seem like a drawback in the current climate in which we live, it is important to recognize that these games have the potential to tell a story in a non-conventional method. This is done using the language of video games.

Every medium has a language beyond the written script. For example, in film a director may shoot one actor below another actor to show their lack of control in a situation, or that they are below or less-than. In a novel, a white rose can be more than a white rose. It could symbolize a war going on inside a character, symbolizing the famous War of the Roses.

The same can be said of video games. Although many old games are lacking in the conventional story, they still tell a story / stories using the language of the video game. A great example of this is Rare's beloved Nintendo 64 title, "Banjo-Kazooie."

When it comes to story, "Banjo-Kazooie" does not excel. It gives us a basic and serviceable narrative to shed more light on gameplay and exploration. Taken at face value, there is no story to be explored what-so-ever. But if you look a little deeper, there is a lot of story elements to be consumed.

For those who have played "Banjo-Kazooie" before, you will know that the story loosely follows the tale of Snow White. The villain, a rhyming witch named Gruntilda, longs to be the fairest in the land and therefore kidnaps Tootie, our hero's sister, to steal her beauty. While Snow White is the meat of this story, there are many other fairy-tale elements that exist to snack on. For example, Gruntilda herself is a mash-up of the evil Queen from Snow White, the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz, and even has the rhyming scheme of a fairy-tale character.

On top of this, the game itself functions as a fairy-tale apart from the story and characters. The game is driven by collecting musical notes to enter new and more challenging levels. Music is often associated with nursery rhymes or fairy-tales.

On a deeper level, where "Banjo-Kazooie's" story excels is with it's characters. While the bare bones story is mediocre and overdone, a plethora of other stories exist within via the various characters we encounter in the game. We get a story from Gobi the camel, Blubber the sailor, Conga the ape, and more. Continuing on the fairy-tale train, these mini stories can resemble those from the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, or even the Bible, in that they are wacky and random and fun. Sometimes there is even a lesson to be learned.

A story is also being told through our title characters, Banjo and Kazooie. Although they are lacking internal character growth, they still grow as characters on an external level. This is done through the various moves they learn which make the increasingly difficult levels easier to maneuver and eventually overcome. Learning these moves tells a small story. Our characters can't do something, they learn something new, and they execute their new move to accomplish a task. It isn't artful storytelling but it is a form of telling a story nonetheless.

For more on story in "Banjo-Kazooie," visit to watch the first Season of Level Story talking about many of the same ideas in this blog.