Narrative Analysis: Next Steps


Game Discussed: Devil May Cry (Capcom, 2001), Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (Nintendo, 1995), Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001), The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda, 2011), Destiny, (Bungie, 2014), Portal 2 (Valve, 2011)

Yoshi's Island: Backstory
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island takes a cinematic approach to backstory, including everything the audience needs to know in the narrative.

In both reality and fiction, every place has a history, and every person has a past. When such prior events are relevant to a narrative, they become what’s known as backstory. In The Anatomy of Story, author John Truby offers a broad definition of backstory, stating: “Backstory is everything that has happened to the hero before the story you are telling begins.”1 While this is technically accurate, he then narrows the definition, as: “The audience is not interested in everything that has happened to the hero. They are interested in the essentials.2 In other words, backstory is not the total of a character’s past, but the portion of that past the audience needs to know to understand that character’s story. Some stories will have heaps of backstory; others may not have any at all. It all depends upon what kind of story the author is trying to tell and how they want to tell it. 

Video game stories can use backstory to flesh out their characters and worlds, just like other forms of narrative media. While the earliest games had to off-load their backstory to the manuals that came with the cartridges, modern games have the space for entire novels’ worth of backstory. This flexibility gives developers the freedom to choose if, when, and how they wish to divulge the past events of their stories, which has resulted in a wide variety of presentations. Some games, like Devil May Cry (Capcom, 2001) and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (Nintendo, 1996), take a cinematic approach, divulging all relevant information within the narrative itself, while other games, like Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001) and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda, 2011), use in-game books, logs, and recordings to reveal additional background details that the player can review at their leisure. More recent games like Destiny (Bungie, 2014) and Portal 2 (Valve, 2011) have taken this a step further, using online lore entries and alternate reality games to flesh out their worlds outside of the games. Each of these methods has its pros and cons, and they can all add a new dimension to stories when used properly.

How Much Backstory is Enough?

Game Discussed: Devil May Cry (Capcom, 2001), Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (Nintendo, 1995), Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001)

Silent Hill 2‘s sense of mystery comes from its complex backstory.

Some stories need a lot of backstory; some don’t need much at all. The difference is in the level of complexity of the plot, the characters, and the world. Simple stories with basic worlds and unchanging characters can get by without much backstory since they have fewer details that need explanation. According to screenwriter John Yorke, characters with limited backstory can work because: “The less backstory a character has, the more readily an audience is able to identify with them – the more we can see they’re like us and not like someone else.3 This philosophy of backstory is often seen in simpler video game narratives, especially in games driven by gameplay. For example, take two games mentioned earlier: Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island and Devil May Cry. Yoshi’s Island is a happy-go-lucky story about a tribe of friendly dinosaurs rescuing a lost baby; Devil May Cry is a gritty, gory tale about a half-demon fighting the legions of Hell to avenge his murdered family. While these games couldn’t be more different in style and tone, they’re both driven by gameplay, so they don’t need much backstory. The two protagonists, Yoshi and Dante, aren’t complex characters with conflicting wants and needs; they’re player avatars with just enough characterization to keep the audience invested in their success. In Yorke’s words, they’re characters the audience can readily identify with.

As stories become more complex, the amount of backstory they need can also grow. Characters with complex, sometimes conflicting motivations can seem inscrutable without the events that explain them, and sprawling worlds can be similarly overwhelming without accounting for important events. In video games, these types of stories occur most often in role-playing games and visual novels, but they can appear in every genre and on every platform. Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001) is a perfect example of a game that uses extensive backstory. In Silent Hill 2, players take the role of James Sunderland, a widower who’s received a mysterious letter from his long-dead wife. As players guide James through the lakeside town of Silent Hill, the information they learn about both the town and the characters recontextualizes earlier scenes. By the time players get all the backstory, they’re likely to have a completely different view of James’s relationship with his wife, which impacts their feelings on the story as a whole. Ultimately, the backstory of Silent Hill 2 is as important as the main story, as it adds layers of depth to what might have otherwise been a straightforward mystery.

When to Add Backstory

Game Discussed: Devil May Cry (Capcom, 2001), Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (Nintendo, 1995), Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001)

Devil May Cry: Backstory
Devil May Cry doesn’t have a lot of backstory, so all of it fits in its early expository scenes.

Once a writer knows how they’re going to introduce backstory, they’re faced with another question: when to introduce it. If they add too much too soon, the story’s pace will slow to a crawl and audiences will be bored. On the other hand, if they leave too much backstory out for too long, the characters’ actions and plot points will make no sense, and audiences will be confused. To strike a balance, writers should consider which backstory details are most important and when the audience needs to know them. Evan Skolnick, author of Video Game Storytelling, divides backstory details into three types: Need to Know, Could Wait, and Incidental.4 In his words, “[Need to Know] is a fact that the audience needs to know right now, before they can be satisfyingly entertained by what they are about to experience.5 Meanwhile, Could Wait is “a fact that, while potentially very important, is not necessary for the audience to understand at the current time.6 Finally, Incidental is “a fact that is relatively unimportant and will remain so throughout the story.7 Using Skolnick’s system, ‘Need To Know’ details should be introduced as soon as possible, while details in the ‘Could Wait’ category should be pushed off to when they become Need to Know. ‘Incidental details’ may not ever get used, or if they do, they may appear in optional material that the audience can choose to consume or ignore. 

Different types of video games have different requirements for when to introduce backstory. Games driven by the player action, rather than story, may front-load their backstory and let those details act as the framework for the rest of the game. Both Yoshi’s Island and Devil May Cry put all of their backstory in their opening cinematics, so the player can focus exclusively on the gameplay. Conversely, Silent Hill 2 spaces its backstory out, withholding details until they’re absolute ‘Need to Knows.’ If Silent Hill 2‘s developers had given all the backstory up-front, there would have been no mystery. Instead, by drip-feeding the backstory throughout the narrative, they gave players the opportunity to come to their own conclusions about the game’s central mysteries before revealing the solutions. Conversely, Yoshi’s Island and Devil May Cry would not have gotten anything out of spacing out their backstory the way Silent Hill 2 did, since their stories were too simple for any ongoing mysteries. While all three games are different, each one introduced backstory in a way that benefitted the main story, and all three have stood the test of time as memorable, well-loved classics. 


Backstory can be a powerful tool if used correctly. In small amounts, it adds characterization and history to simple worlds; in large amounts, it adds depth and richness to complex narratives. Writers who wish to implement backstory in their own works should consider what kind of stories they’re trying to tell and how they want to tell them. Once they have this information, they can prioritize the background details by when the audience needs to know them, then share them accordingly. By following these steps, they can flesh out characters and settings in any story without losing the audience along the way.


1-2 Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story (p. 272). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. 

Yorke, John. Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story (p. 147). Harry N. Abrams. Kindle Edition.

4-7 Skolnick, Evan. Video Game Storytelling (p. 60). Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. Kindle Edition. 

* Reference Footage (Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island): Nathan Wubs. Yoshi’s Island (Opening). YouTube, 2010. 

** Reference Footage (Devil May Cry): RapidRetrospectGames. DEVIL MAY CRY Full Game Walkthrough – No Commentary (#DevilMayCry Full Game) 2018. YouTube, 2018.

*** Reference Run: SHN Survival Horror Network. “Silent Hill 2 Enhanced Edition | 4K 60fps | Longplay Walkthrough Gameplay No Commentary.” Youtube, 2019.