Critical Path Design in Story-Oriented Digital Games

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


A key consideration when telling stories in digital games is interactivity. Creators of story-oriented digital games must balance the various activities that a player may undertake in addition to the interpretation of story. One fundamental activity is the navigation of the environment in order to encounter and experience a ‘told story’ and progress through a game.

This paper follows the completion of a study examining how players of a story-focused digital game engage with story whilst navigating an environment. Participants played the story-oriented game Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013). Set in 1995, Gone Home involves the exploration of the player-character’s abandoned family home, searching through their belongings, reading through diaries, and investigating the environment in order to discover why the home is abandoned.

Participant responses demonstrate that players are systematic and thorough in their examination of their environment. Specifically, players attempt to determine the ‘critical path’ desired by the creators of Gone Home. The ‘critical path’ is the route the designer intends the player to take through a particular game. However, in the context of Gone Home, players attempted to determine and then avoid the critical path in order to discover all possible story information, only continuing when they were certain that a particular area had been appropriately explored. The study also suggests that players typically assess certain environmental factors in their analysis of the critical path, primarily lighting and architectural layout.

Determining the critical path is discussed by players anecdotally, often with the intention to avoid this path in favour of fully exploring an area before continuing for potential reward (Pereira, 2015). However, empirical evidence and academic discussion of player literacy with regard to critical paths, and their desire to temporarily avoid them, is lacking; particularly in the context of story-focused digital games. Consequently, such discussion has potential benefits for designers and writers of story-focused digital games. Various considerations and examples from other digital games are discussed in the paper in the context of how methods of environmental navigation may impact intended story experience.
Pereira, C. (2015). How to Play Like a Game Designer: Level Design. GameSkinny.
The Fullbright Company, M. C. (2013). Gone Home. Portland, OR and Hazlet, NJ: The Fullbright Company and Majesco Entertainment.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jun 2019
EventWriting for Screens Symposium - University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, United Kingdom
Duration: 14 Jun 201914 Jun 2019


ConferenceWriting for Screens Symposium
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • Game Design
  • Narrative
  • critical path
  • game psychology


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