Kapzer's Realm

Narrative In Games

This essay was originally written in 2010.
The original Essay can be found here.

Human psychology dictates that people are motivated to do things for a reason.  In the case of video games, people play for more than just a high score; they play to satisfy their sense of accomplishment (Maslow, 1954).  With narrative becoming a more prominent component of modern games, people now play for the entire experience of immersion into a game world and the stories it contains as well as the ability to affect the outcome of a story through interactivity.

In passive media e.g. film, literature and audio, narrative generally takes precedent over other features because the audience is unable to affect the progress of the story.  The medium’s writers are the only people that decide what events unfold in the structure of the narrative.  This means that players can only experience what the creators want them to experience.

However, games are interactive media are based on play and experience, meaning that narrative can take a back seat to interactivity and game play.  Games provide a unique way of experiencing a story; players have options and choice, and the ability to change the course of a story and therefore the experience they have.  In video games the storytelling continuum can be interrupted compared to the linearity experienced in passive media.

On the other hand, narratives in games can still be linear.  Sometimes games provide a set story that remains unchanged, but the game remains interactive only to the extent where the player controls the main character, but cannot affect the structured story arc.

Interactivity provides a means to break linear narrative.  Players can choose to divert from the definitive plot line i.e. side quests and the ability to ignore non-playable characters.  They also usually have control over time in a game meaning they can ignore the urgency of an objective or delay progress with the quest.  There is also the possibility of players enacting alternative replays meaning their experience will be different the second time around.

Games also present their own internal narratives independent of overarching plot.  Almost all games are stories about mastering rules and overcoming obstacles.  An example of this would be “an area in which the player must reach an inn by sundown, but to do so he must cross a well-guarded river.  The player can succeed by swimming across, swinging on a vine, or defeating the troll guarding the bridge, but the important thing is that he triumph over adversity and live to the end of the day” (Bates, 2004, p. 102).  This shows that there is a choice structure that does not affect the overarching narrative yet contains its own little tale.


Narrative Structure

Games are designed to tell stories in a structured format – the narrative for a game can be composed using various methods, be it linear or non linear.  The way a person plays the game is determined by this narrative structure and how the developers designed the game to be.  A player is constrained to the framework therefore never truly free to do as they please.

There are several methods of narrative structure.  These would be:-

  • Experiential – The story is generated from a ‘conflict’ in the game as it is played.  For example a player comes across an unbeatable section in a sidescroller.  The conflict with it becomes so substantial that the player treats it as a foe.
  • Performative – The story experienced from a spectator interpreting the game.  For example they see the player perform an action they do not understand and question ‘how did you pull that off?’ The spectator may interpret that action differently to how the player does.
  • Augmentary – This involves background story and side stories; extra info providing towards the main story.  This contributes towards ludology – the lore of the game universe.
  • Descriptive – This method entails the retelling of a player’s game experience to third parties through socialising.  For example someone to talk to their friend about a certain section in a game and they would compare their experiences.
  • Meta-story – This structure involves a linear story and specific narrative creating a framework for conflict.  It is the tradition story structure for video games (see Fig. 4, left).  Metal Gear Solid is a good example of the meta-story structure.  People experience what is essentially an interactive movie, as MGS has many lengthy cut scenes that explain the story.  The game play takes a backseat to the narrative in the MGS series.
  • Story System – This consists of a rule based story system; there is a thematic background but user generated story through play.  Examples would be God games such as The Sims and Spore.  Another example would be MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) such as World of Warcraft where “some of the best moments I’ve had came through interactions with other players.  And they are narrative moments” (Walton, 2005).

Another example of the story system structure would be the classic game of chess.  In this case the player’s experience resides in strategic conflict.  There are no characters in chess, but the story is explained through ‘avatars’ and their strategic actions.  However, the game does involve narrative themes such as protecting the vulnerable King.

Many games do not use meta-story, and when they do not, they give the player one key factor that determines non-linear storytelling – choice.  Currently, choice mostly comes in two formats; the ability to make choices that affect the narrative branch that the player is experiencing, or the ability to veer away from the main story and continue it at the player’s free will.

Games generally use narrative trees (see Fig. 5, below) to structure their stories.  Players come to points in the game where they must make a decision and that will affect the rest of their experience, including the ending that they receive.

[Figure 5] Branching Tree Diagram

Narrative designers choose to do this in order to involve players more rather than watch cut scenes and be constricted by linearity.  Video games are branded as interactive media due to the possibility of choice and consequences that can have on experience.

Though designers try to involve the player more, they must set limits to the player’s interaction with the narrative, or the experience could be ruined.  The curious and exploitative nature of gamers means that designers must constrain choice and story trees.  This is because “players will quickly tire of pointless false choices…In story, choices should come at critical moments where the player really has the option to change the course of the narrative” (Erickson, 2009, p.13).  They may do this by limiting the number of choices a player has, or design the game so that whatever narrative branch players undergo, they ultimately arrive at the same or similar points later.

Another method is that critical sections of the story are told as cut scenes and not rendered in game, so the player’s actions do not ruin the experience.  However, recently many games use in-engine cut scenes.  In this case, these scenes usually trigger when a player enters a new area, so it is unaffected by the player’s actions.

“Equivalently, and as a consequence of the interactivity, games do not use the temporal possibilities of the story/discourse pair. You don’t get flashbacks or flash forwards while playing Doom, because such variations would preclude the interactivity: In a game, you are not able to first play a scene in the present, and then jump to an earlier point on the time line and have interactivity there. Because the first scene would then be determined by whatever the player does earlier on the time line. This would be to a classic time travel paradox.” (Jesper Juul, 1998)

Juul suggests that game narratives cannot be told like traditional narratives.  Passive mediums can contain a recounting of past events as a flashback, but in games events must unfold in the present.  He says this because due to interactivity, actions and choices made in the past will affect the present. Therefore if a narrative choice is made in the present, and then a choice is made in the past, the entire present that the player was originally experiencing will have changed, nullifying the previous choices and ruining the user experience.


Interactive Narration

Narratives through interactivity are approached in many different ways.  A method that has been used for a long time can be seen in the ‘choose your own adventure’ genre of books (see Fig. 7, below) such as the Fighting Fantasy series.  In this early method there is evidence of the development of the ‘first’ player quick saves; if a person makes a choice he made they have their finger on the previous page ready to go back in the case it was a bad decision.  As many pages can lead to the same one, or one page can lead to many, the whole book is carefully interconnected, resulting in a narrative choice map that looks like spaghetti.

Another system would be what I call the ‘illusion of choice’ – where players ultimately end up in the same place despite their choices (see Fig. 1).  Although the game seems like the player has a sense of freedom in terms of what they decide to do, in terms of narrative they are constrained to what is mostly a linear story arc.  An example would be Far Cry 2 that is described as “a story that really felt like it was kind of progressing along more or less independently of player action” (Patrick Redding, 2008).  This method applies to many types of games including sandbox games, platform games such as Prince of Persia, and Role Playing Games like Bioshock which involve trivial choices that do not affect the narrative.

A similar method is employed in some games that involve choices that only affect the ending a player experiences whilst the rest of the story arc is linear.  Examples of this would be Splinter Cell Double Agent and Silent Hill (see Fig. 3, below).

[Figure 7] Fighting Fantasy Diagram

[Figure 1] Choice Illusion Diagram

[Figure 3] Silent Hill Choice Diagram

Another technique entails choices at critical moments in the game affecting future events.  A good example of this would be Mass Effect in which dialogue choices feature heavily to determine the outcome a player receives (see Fig.2, below).

[Figure 2] Complex Branching Diagram

A different system can be seen in open world games such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Fallout 3.  The open world consists of lots of side quests that sometimes support the main story arc and lore of the game world, so the player chooses when to continue the narrative.

Another method would be a hybrid that involved a linear sections to explain the narrative, but some parts open world with side quests.  The player has the freedom to choose when to continue main story arc.   An example of this system would be seen in Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood (see Fig. 6, left)


Narrative and Replay Ability

Games are generally designed to be played more than once; therefore game designers implement narrative structures that involve choice.  However, when a branched narrative is replayed the complexity (or lack of) of the choice system is revealed.  It can be seen to the extent when all options are exhausted, and the limits of the narrative structure become apparent.

“But the reasons for playing are completely different. The frame stories that most computer games have are ridiculously shallow and clichéd.  It does mean that there is often no kind of narrative desire to reach the ending of the game.” (Jesper Juul, 1998)
Juul suggests that in most games stories are not written as they are in books.  They do not usually have the same level of depth and are often clichéd.  If they did, players are less likely to play the game more than once, as they are only playing to experience story, rather than enjoy the game play and discover replay value which has been intentionally created by designers in order for players to explore the game fully.

In the current state, replay ability “is best achieved via ‘bonus’ features rather than extended game spines” (Bateman & Boon, 2006, p. 213).  This means that games enforce replay value through the use of easter eggs, extra content such as costumes/armour or vehicles, unlockables, and collectibles instead of lengthening or increasing the depth of the narrative.

Therefore, games are designed with game play being the concentration rather than narrative.  However, more recently designers are attempting to make narrative a more prominent factor in games, leading to titles such as the likes of Mass Effect 2 and Heavy Rain.


Emergent Narrative

Emergent narrative is a technique used in tandem with the advancement of technology and its use in games.  It is already being implemented in some current games, and it can be distinguished as emulating a realistic and believable game world.  Features of this method can be identified in these games such as the variety of character responses dependant on choices the player has made earlier in the game.  Characters can respond differently according to reputation or which faction the player has allied them self to also.

An example of the ideology of emergent narrative would be if a player kills a monkey in a zoo, the other monkeys react to the player’s action, and therefore would hate and attack the player.  However, that is not the limit; the reaction can have the possibility of interrelation where the zookeepers are hostile towards the player also because they killed an animal.

Another example of what emergent narrative is can be seen in a role playing game.  Non playable characters should be able to affect and relate to each other, meaning their personalities and character traits become a variable factor that can be compatible or conflicting, resulting in certain party members being able to work well with others, and vice versa.

A further objective of emergent narrative is true persistence.  If an action is taken in the game, it will have a consequence in the game world that does not change and will affect the rest of the player’s experience.  There is some evidence of this seen in Fallout 3 in the character of the dog.  The dog only becomes the player’s companion if it is found in the scrapyard, otherwise it will not be a part of the player’s experience in the entire game.  Also, if the dog is lost it must be found, but if it is killed there is no way that he will return.

“Emergent narratives are not pre-structured or pre-programmed, taking shape through the game play, yet they are not as unstructured, chaotic, and frustrating as life itself.” (Henry Jenkins, 2006, p. 684)

Jenkins suggests that in the current state emergent narratives are possible in open world games, but limitations in technology mean that the objective of true persistence is not yet entirely reachable.  However, games try to cover for these boundaries as seen in Fable II.  Crowds react to the players actions, but the actions that the player can actually perform are limited, and the reactions from the crowds have little effect on the player’s experience.

However, there was one game released recently in February 2010 that makes a large step towards the success of emergent narrative and true persistence.  The narrative structure designed in Heavy Rain is so complex that almost every decision made by the player in the game affects what happens further along that particular player’s experience.  This can include a decision that results in one of the main characters dying, which does not end the game, but instead the player continues without that character in the rest of the story.  The developers claim that one character’s death could potentially be beneficial to another character’s story.

Personally, I believe that emergent narrative is the future of narrative design.  With Heavy Rain innovating in the use of this structure and its successful implementation, developers will attempt to create systems that emulate a complex narrative.  However, I believe that the narrative structure would not only need to be very complex with many branches, but would perhaps need to be designed in conjunction with artificial intelligence that adapts the story to the player’s actions.



References and Citations

Daniel Erickson (2009), “Writing for Role-Playing Games”.  In Wendy Despain (Ed.), “Writing for Video Game Genres” (p.11-19).  Massachusetts: A.K. Peters, Ltd.

Chris Bateman & Richard Boon (2006), “21st Century Game Design”, Massachusetts: Charles River Media, Inc.

Bob Bates (2004), “Game Design”, Massachusetts: Premier Press, Thomson Course Technology

Henry Jenkins (2006), “Game Design as Narrative Architecture”.  In Katie Salen & Eric Zimmerman (Ed.), “The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology” (p. -689).  Massachusetts: The MIT Press

[Figure 1] Choice Illusion Diagram, [Figure 2] Complex Branching Diagram;
Marie-Laure Ryan (2005), “Peeling the Onion: Layers of Interactivity in Digital Narrative Texts”, http://users.frii.com/mlryan/onion.htm, Date accessed 12/03/2010

[Figure 3] Silent Hill Diagram
(2005) “Story vs. Choice in Konami Games (Part 2)”, http://curmudgeongamer.com/2005_12_01_archive.html, Date accessed 12/03/2010

Quote from Marek Walton; Lewis Denby (2009), ”The Writers’ Bloc: Narrative in Games“, http://resolution-magazine.co.uk/content/the-writers-bloc-narrative-in-games/2/, Date accessed 12/03/2010

Quote from Patrick Redding; Chris Remo & Brandon Sheffield (2008), “Redefining Game Narrative: Ubisoft’s Patrick Redding on Far Cry 2” (page 1), http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3727/redefining_game_narrative_.php, Date accessed 12/03/2010

[Figure 4] Linear story diagram, [Figure 5] Branching tree diagram, [Figure 6] Foldback diagram;
Tony Hirst (2008), “An Unfortunate Sequence of Events…”, http://digitalworlds.wordpress.com/2008/04/02/an-unfortunate-sequence-of-events/. Date accessed 12/03/2010

Jesper Juul (1998), “A Clash between Game and Narrative”, http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/clash_between_game_and_narrative.html, Date accessed 12/03/2010

[Figure 7] Fighting Fantasy Diagram; Casey Reas (2008), “Interactivity”, http://classes.dma.ucla.edu/Fall08/28/exercises/. Date accessed 16/03/2010

Abraham Maslow (1954), “Motivation and Personality”, New York: Harper and Row

Wider Reading/Information

Quantic Dream developer session on Heavy Rain, Eurogamer Expo 2009, London, 31/10/2009

Stephen Totilo , “Heavy Rain Review: No Wrong Conclusion”, Kotaku, http://kotaku.com/5468585/heavy-rain-review-no-wrong-conclusion, Date accessed 12/2/2010

Leigh Alexander, “Why We Play Games, and Why We Grumble about Them”, Kotaku, http://kotaku.com/5479966/why-we-play-games-and-why-we-grumble-about-them, Date accessed 26/02/2010

Mike Fahey, “Mass Effect 2 Review: Once More Unto The Breach”, Kotaku, http://kotaku.com/5456089/mass-effect-2-review-once-more-unto-the-breach, Date accessed 30/1/2010

Christian Nutt, “Vital Game Narrative: A Conversation With Rhianna Pratchett”, Gamasutra, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4104/vital_game_narrative_a_.php, Date accessed 25/3/2010

“Death Of The Author”, Edge Magazine, http://www.edge-online.com/magazine/death-of-the-author, Date accessed 26/3/2010

Mathew Kumar, “GDC: Mass Effect 2’s Subjective Story”, Edge Magazine, http://www.edge-online.com/features/gdc-mass-effect-2%E2%80%99s-subjective-story, Date accessed 18/3/2010

Far Cry 2 (2008), Video game, Xbox 360/Playstation 3/PC, Ubisoft

World of Warcraft (2004), Video game, PC, Blizzard Entertainment

Metal Gear Solid (1998), Video game, Playstation/PC, Developer: Kojima Productions, Publisher: Konami

Mass Effect (2007), Video game, Xbox 360/PC, Developer: BioWare, Publisher: Electronic Arts

Prince of Persia (2008), Video game, Xbox 360/Playstation 3/PC, Ubisoft

Bioshock (2007), Video game, Xbox 360/Playstation 3/PC, 2K Games

Splinter Cell: Double Agent (2006), Video game, Xbox/Playstation 2/GameCube/Xbox 360/Playstation3/PC, Ubisoft

Silent Hill (1999), Video game, Playstation, Konami

Grand Theft Auto IV (2008), Video game, Xbox 360/Playstation 3/PC, Rockstar Games

Fallout 3 (2008), Video game, Xbox 360/Playstation 3/PC, Bethesda Softworks

Call of Juarez: Bound In Blood (2009), Video game, Xbox 360/Playstation 3/PC, Developer: Techland, Publisher: Ubisoft

Fable II (2008), Video game, Xbox 360, Developer: Lionhead Studios, Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Mass Effect 2 (2010), Video game, Xbox 360/PC, Developer: BioWare, Publisher: Electronic Arts

Heavy Rain (2010), Video game, Playstation 3, Developer: Quantic Dream, Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

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