Light Mode

Gaming: How Just Dance Became An Accidental Storytelling Powerhouse

The last couple of decades has brought to life the storytelling capabilities of video games, but too many people find it easy to dismiss the medium. We’re in a world that has seen just how powerful the story of The Last of Us is after it was deemed crucial enough to warrant an HBO series, and we’ve experienced the gradual unveiling of a father in the literal God of War, who learns to let go of his past in order to look to the future of bringing his son Atreus up in the right way. It doesn’t extend merely to the script, either. Innovations to graphical output brought to the table by the likes of Ninja Theory bring us closer than ever to the details of anguish on a person’s face in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, matching up with their real-life actors. The medium has morphed to allow for some of the greatest storytelling we’ve seen and more than earned the right for video games to be considered art forms on the scale of film and TV.

Yet, though games like this exist and struggle to be taken seriously, some don’t need to have that kind of pressure. Some are designed to fire endorphins around in your brain like a loose pinball in old-school boomer shooters; some want to whisk you away to another world entirely through atmosphere alone — and others just want to get you moving. This is the case of Just Dance, the dancing series brought to life by Ubisoft, and it has resisted the movement of time in an impressive way.


- Advertisement -

The franchise found its feet as motion controls gripped global society with the advent of the Nintendo Wii, evoking the understanding of dancing as a means of control from the likes of Dance Dance Revolution and using new technologies to dive deeper — it’s not just your feet that demand movement now, it’s all of you. The resulting game was a smash hit, and Ubisoft knew this, never failing to turn out a new version of the game every year since its launch back in 2009, and even standing as one of the last franchises producing titles for the Wii even after its demise, selling incredible numbers of copies to retirement homes, rehab centers and children’s hospitals up until 2020.

Although the game’s appearances on the charts stand as a surprise to some, its history year-by-year has been one of perfectly fine successes, selling enough copies annually to warrant another update. A lot of this is thanks to the game’s immense community still pushing for high scores and using it to stay active from the comfort of their own homes. But there’s something else swimming beneath the surface. Something that nobody who picked the game up in 2009 would have expected of the series, and certainly not something that players would intentionally buy the game for.  There’s a story here, and it busts the door wide open with time travel, dimension hopping, and even the occasional interpersonal scandal.


Narrative Easter eggs have been peppered in the game for some time now, with the dance coach for Rasputin and The Bride falling in love across different tracks, blooming, peaking and falling apart by the time The Bride coaches Sweet But Psycho by Ava Max. It’s a silly little touch that helps to keep some extra spice in the tracks, fueling songs with narrativized emotion … but things were only just springing to life as players started to connect the dots along the pair’s relationship and appreciate the attention to detail from Ubisoft. And things were only about to get madder by the time fans noticed what was going on.

Just Dance‘s Traveller, a character who’s shown during the game’s Story Mode trailer to jump from dance stage to dance stage, not just from the 2023 game, but from the history of the franchise. We know he is searching for a woman, and is willing to dive through time and dimensions to find her, until he eventually does in the dance for The Weeknd & Ariana Grande’s “Save Your Tears,” in which he uses the song’s lyrics to confess that in their first meeting he was scared and ran away, but now realizes that he’s made a mistake and is finally willing to commit to her. Just Dance calls this The Dancerverse. No, really.


- Advertisement -

Narrative continues to permeate the series, with the pair’s son Wanderlust appearing in other songs, the dancer for Britney Spears’ Toxic revealed to be a secret agent involved in international espionage, and a character called Night Swan playing Wicked Witch and abducting other coaches. What’s most compelling about this, though, isn’t the events themselves, but rather, how the game’s community has embraced them.


The game’s dedicated community was once small but reliable, but since the reveal of an overarching story featuring shattered loves, multiversal travel and potential threats of terrorism (trust us, the Toxic dance raises a lot of questions), TikTok has latched on and refused to let go. A lot of what we know about the stories of Just Dance and how they intersect is thanks to those who are willing to pick it apart and tackle the visual storytelling of the dances and their nuances. Breakdowns of The Traveler’s story have amassed millions of views. In turn, they’ve led to videos of people simply dancing along to the game rocketing in popularity too. Ubisoft couldn’t have reasonably predicted this success, so it seems that entirely by accident, Just Dance has become a narrative-led adventure, albeit via some particularly exerting choreography.

Perhaps it’s the unexpected appearance of narrative threads in a game that should actively reject them at every turn that has made Just Dance so curious in this way. After all, the DDRs of the past featured polygonal avatars that would expire the moment a song concluded, so there’s so surprise that eyebrows raised the moment that the coach from the iconic Rasputin dance reappeared later on in the franchise.

The series benefits from incremental excitement much like any other yearly video game franchise. The bar for change is lower for the likes of EA Sports FC and Madden NFL; thus, when the next game in the Just Dance series is just a downloadable pack of new dances, it’s fair enough to be wowed by the attention to detail hidden in the backup dancers of each new song. Fans of the series are happy simply with the dances — so what a treat it is to get a multiversal love story to go along with it.

Shrug off storytelling in video games all you like, from award-winning scripts to minor insertions of character — but games like Just Dance are proving that the storytelling of the medium comes easy, even in franchises and genres that aren’t particularly accommodating to it. You can throw down to “Sweet But Psycho” all you like, but you’re not coming away from it without knowing what your coach has suffered through to stand before you. And, hey, if it puts more passion in your steps, then the effort was clearly worth it.

- Advertisement -


Joseph Kime is a journalist, author and podcaster from Devon, UK. He is the Senior Trending News Writer for gaming site GGRecon, writer of the self-published essay collection Building A Universe, and co-creator of The Big Screen Book Club podcast. After graduating from Plymouth’s MarJon University with a degree in Journalism, he’s written for the likes of The Digital Fix, Zavvi and FANDOM. He’s Nobuhiko Ōbayashi’s biggest fan, and will talk your ear off about the significance of Kiki’s Delivery Service.

- Advertisement -