Two general thoughts about how games tell stories differently from other mediums.
1> Games are a series of interesting decisions – Sid Meier
2> Games give agency to the player character.
It’s often enough said that games are a lot more interactive than books, films, and other forms of traditional storytelling. The audience isn’t just a passive receiver of story; he’s an active participant in it. Cut-scenes are all well and good when it’s the best avenue to deliver exposition and plot advancement mechanics, but they cannot be the whole of the story when it comes to games.
So, as a series of interesting decisions, games can often put players in the position of directing how he or she experiences the story. These decisions can range from anything as minute as who to shoot next, Terrorist A, or Terrorist B, to which technology should I research as I lead my empire to glorious galactic dominance. Part of the story is the cause and effect of these decisions, that’s the plot.
So these decisions have to have weight, and in the players mind, have to have interesting outcomes. These outcomes don’t always have to be foreseen, but players should be able to at least hazard a guess as to what their decision will lead to. One of the reasons I love Obsidian is their ability to put players in the position to make decisions that call into question heavier ideas like morality, philosophy and faith. Not all games have to do this of course, but I applaud the ones that do. It’s a great way to introduce ideas to their audience.
The second point is more important in the whole concept of crafting a story for games. Unlike every other medium, the player is the protagonist. With that, he brings in his own set of pre-conceptions, ideas, philosophies and experiences.
When crafting a character for any story, one of the essential elements is to give those character goals. There are different types of goals, from the life need, to the scene need, to the character need; some of these unseen, some seen. These usually form the base of understanding characters in film, television and books. The same can be applied to crafting characters for games. We don’t have to start defining the character’s life goal, or his inner desire; games are not the strongest medium for that sort of introspective agency, but we can give players a character with a clearly defined goal from the outset, and build from there.
The trick is getting the player invested in the character’s goal. I think the possibilities have moved away from saving the world from an alien invasion, or even surviving an event gone horribly wrong. Those are fine starting points, but stories are going to have to evolve from those tropes in order to write in greater themes into games.
So the idea is to begin a story by giving a relatable enough goal to the player that they can identify with their character. You can possibly pick any number of these from a list of story tropes. That’s the easy part.
The hard part comes in designing scenarios that lead into a series of events that resemble a plot and at each moment, give the player agency for decision making that invest them into the unfolding story of the world. It doesn’t have to be complicated. They don’t always have to decide between supporting the brutal utilitarian dictatorship on one hand and the corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy on the other. It can be as simple as a forked path, where one path destroys the power generators and the other cuts off supply lines, or even a puzzle to solve in order to progress; as long as the player feels like he has stakes in the story, and that he has some control over its outcome.
 As refuted by one Chris Bateman. While Chris makes a good point about Guitar Hero, he seems more stressed about the concept of decision making in games than the actual series of it. Since I’m in the process of arguing how to get players invested in the “story” of games, Meier’s observation is more relevant.
 At some point, it’ll be useful to define various terms when talking about story, if only to avoid pointless bickering over semantics, definitions and examples that break the rules.