Game Narrative Talk

During my fall semester of the 2010-2011 school year, I participated in a capstone course known as “Senior Seminar” at Shawnee State University. The overall goal of the class is to research a topic within a constraint assigned by the instructor of the course, write a 20 page persuasive essay about the topic and a conclusion drawn from the research, and give a 10 minute oral presentation along the same guidelines as the paper. The constrain assigned to the class was to explore how the human experience has changed due to technology’s ability to provide a wealth of information very quickly and easily. For my topic, I chose to explore how narratives effect game design and vise versa. After completing this exploration, I then wanted to develop a theory for how narrative and games interrelate, and how narrative may be used in game design to better achieve an effective expression of the developer’s intent. I chose this path of research due to my feelings that games as a medium take advantage of such technology to deliver stories and experiences to players in ways older mediums never could. What follows is an essay that follows my oral presentation and discusses how game design and narrative effect each other and how developers as well as consumers of the medium may benefit from understanding their relationship.

I am set to give this presentation again for an event at Shawnee State known as the “Celebration of Scholarship” this April. I hope to record this session and post the video here as an alternative to reading a lengthy essay.

What are We Talking About?

When discussing game design, two strong elements of a game always come up as significant influences on the overall experience the player is exposed to. The first is mechanical design. The collection of game mechanics, game rules, and interactive elements of a game are arguably the player’s most direct link to the game itself. A player’s decisions and actions are provided with easy translation to in-game causation because of these mechanical elements. The second significant element is the narrative contained in and expressed by the game experience. Often times when a player explains his latest gaming experience to his peers, what follows is a narrative. The player identifies a beginning of the experience, interesting and relevant details that guide listeners along the player’s latest interactive escapades, and a conclusion that draws together the player’s experiences within a common theme. This theme can vary from an astounding success, a punishing defeat, a tense conflict that had no clear conclusion until the very end, or even a feeling of general frustration with the game. What makes this second element noteworthy is not only its strong connection to the player’s impression of the game, but the source of the narrative itself. Some works offer a linear, structured narrative that never varies from play-through to play-through, while others act as sandboxes that allow players to create their own adventures based on their decisions and reactions. While these two extremes seem different enough, many conventional games merry the two philosophies in order to produce works that benefit from both narrative forms while mitigating their weaknesses. Analysis of these narrative techniques can begin to expose how a game expresses a narrative the participants can become attached to and comprehend, and therefore one can begin to develop frameworks with which future game narratives can build on and more precisely develop the interactive experiences intended by the designers and writers.

Why Should People Care?

Analysis of how game narratives and game design relate can provide a significant advantage to any game developer. For any given game, the designers and developers must constantly be aware of what experience they are providing for their audience. Understanding the underlying patterns of contemporary game narratives can produce tools for overcoming design issues with expressing specific emotions, establishing connections with characters, game elements, and even the game world itself. When a player has strong emotional ties to a game, manipulating his emotions for certain effects becomes a much easier process. Emotionally attached players are also more likely to keep playing their game, promoting it to their peers, and even participating in the construction of communities around the work. Strong emotional attachment can also provide a number of avenues for conveying meaning in the game’s elements that a casual player may miss or misinterpret. Overall, knowing how to construct and convey a narrative effectively leads to stronger player emotional connections, which in turn provides a more satisfying and impactful experience.

While the understanding of the game medium’s conventions for producing and expressing narrative offers many benefits for game developers and enthusiasts, all game consumers can also benefit from such an understanding. The current game market has a widely varied mix of games, some of which rely on known and understood conventions, while others choose to experiment with new design concepts and interpretations of the elements of a game. The audiences for these games vary just as greatly. A great majority of the gaming market consumes and enjoys games whose mechanics and narratives are rooted in well understood techniques and archetypes. Often times however, consumers of more experimental and atypical games are limited to enthusiasts and those whose understanding of the medium of the games is vast. This, like many mediums, is simply because those that understand the conventions of a medium along with their inner workings may more easily catch when a convention is altered, modified, and played with to get a different result. Catching such a change is key to understanding its implications of the work as a whole and therefore interpreting the work. As consumers of games become better educated and experienced with how games deliver information and emotion, they may then begin to more easily understand more sophisticated, unconventional works. This increase in understanding can then lead to a larger market for experimental and more sophisticated games. As the audience better understands games as a form, its creators may take more liberties with the form’s conventions and trust that their audience will catch on and understand the creator’s intentions.

What are Games?

To understand the interrelation of game narrative and game design, one must first understand what games themselves are. Games on the whole is a system of rules and mechanics. In order to enact these mechanics, a player or participant must interact with this system. The system’s mechanics drive reactions and interpretations of the player’s actions while the defined rules keep the mechanics in check, preventing the system from defying the intention of its designer. In order for the participant’s interactions to be significant, some sort of conflict must exist in the system. Overcoming or managing these conflicts becomes in some cases the goal of the participant and in other cases the means of which he achieves his own goals. Active agents must also be in place to incite and influence such conflict. Such intelligent agents may either be facades generated by algorithms or other live participants. In either case, the active agents serve to change the nature of conflict in logical, but unpredictable ways. To further introduce conflict into the system, puzzles and non-intelligent challenges are introduced. These types of challenges are systems whose rules and reactions are predictable (although obscured to make overcoming the challenge difficult). Understanding such systems and manipulating such systems is key to overcoming non-intelligent challenges and puzzles. Games of all types make use of these building blocks. Sports games use entire books of rules to control player actions of the play field, urban games and AR games useĀ  puzzles to hide clues about the story currently being told, and card games use greed as a catalyst for conflict between other players. Overall, all games offer some form of the listed elements.

What is a Narrative?

Along with games, narrative must also be understood before our analysis can begin. A narrative is in general a sequence of events, with which interpretation of its described characters, personalities, circumstances, locations, and actions produce meaning. This meaning may then be specific emotions, commentary on significant aspects of reality, novel social ideas, or simply the retelling of a moment in the author’s life. The way in which meaning is pulled from a narrative can primarily be done by observing the patterns of causation, reaction, and the human interest associated with the elements of a given example of this pattern throughout the book. This observation can be done by understanding characters, their emotional state and motivations, and all other elements and putting them together within the context presented by the expressed cause and effect. Consequently, as interpretation of such elements may be subjective, the meaning of a narrative can become very complex and inconsistent from consumer to consumer. What one person may see as an angry individual lashing out at a loved one could be interpreted by another as a downtrodden individual striking back at an oppressive force. This difference in interpretation can depend on a variety of factors ranging from the consumer’s previous artistic experiences and social differences to a lack of or great amount of understanding of the author’s disposition. Mediums of all kinds, including film, literature, painting, and music make use of the manipulation of settings, characters, emotions, and the like. The key is that by building up a pool of characters with their own emotional dispositions and relationships, rules and laws governing the described world, and settings that fit with the previous two elements. Once such a pool is established, the work’s creator may then set up a series of events that play off of these elements and produce conflicts, resolutions, and changes in the world. The intentional sequence of these events and their implications may then be interpreted to produce meaning.

Why Do Games Need Narrative?

When interpreting a work of art, three elements must be present. The first is a clear source of causation. The second is a clear depiction of an effect or result of the causation. The third element required is human interest. Without some means of which the consumer of the work may relate to the events unfolding within the work, they will carry little concern for the characters and event portrayed and ultimately give little concern for the message the work’s creator is attempting to convey. The elements of a game that do not include narrative components (mechanics, rules, and verbs for interaction) are very well suited for portraying cause and effect. When a player performs an action, the game system at large will show how that action has changed the game environment. Where elements of narrative come in to play in games is when human interest must be attached to said cause and effect relationships. When game developers utilize concepts such as characters, settings, and inter-character relationships a purpose or context for the player’s verbs and the rules that control such verbs begins to develop. This can best be explained with a simple example.

Lets say a young and happening game designer comes up with a brilliant new idea for a game. In this game the player must push a cart. The player may control the speed of the cart as well as the direction of travel. The player may also be tasked with moving the cart to a specific location. Such a game may look something like this:

Our new revolutionary gameOur game mechanics in a vacuum.

Now while one could most certainly introduce obstacles and other trick to make the game more challenging, this example still lack a couple essential elements. The player has no motivator for pushing his cart to the goal. Such a motivator can add urgency to a situation or at least help a bewildered player understand why their avatar is pushing this cart in a void. Lets say that now our cart pushing hero is delivering medical supplies:

Now we are pushing supplies for the Red Cross.

Now the player knows that these supplies must be important. Inferences may begin to be drawn regarding why such supplies are needed and who needs them. By simply changing the contents of the boxes, the context of the entire game can change:

Our boxes now contain non-descrip cartoon gadgets.

What was once an urgent, serious task for the player has now taken on a humorous tone. The tone for the game as a whole has changed by simply altering the contents of the boxes being pushed. Keep in mind that none of the existing game mechanics have changed or been added to. Mechanically, the game is the exact same as in our other two examples. We may further give context to the game’s mechanics by adding a setting to our imaginary game.

Our cart pusher must now deliver his cargo in a zany cartoon world.

Changing the setting not only alters the tone of the game, but now also further solidifies the player’s goals and understanding of the game’s challenges. Arbitrary locations in the game world may now be marked with landmarks (such as a pile of TNT, or a tunnel currently being run through by the Road Runner). Obsticles may now be traps set by Wile E. Coyote or landscape hazards. The introduction of characters can also give the player a face to match with his rivals and allies in the game. By changing the setting again, all these thematic elements may thus be altered and give new context to game mechanics as well as already established narrative elements (such as the contents of the boxes).

Our once wacky cargo has now become very ordinary.

As one can see, the narrative elements of a game may alter each other as well as the context of the game’s mechanics and rules. Our boxes, instead of storing TNT, rocket powered shoes, or a catapult, now probably contain napkins and food supplies for the Acme Burger Company. This also alters the emotional investment from the player. Instead of seeing his tasks as off the wall and zany, pushing the cart has become mundane and ordinary. The power narrative has over a game world is very significant. With very simple changes to setting, characters, and relationships a game’s mechanics and rules (and thus player actions) may be altered from exciting and fun to ordinary and civilized. The role of narrative in games above all else is to give the game’s mechanical elements context for interpretation.

Ordinary tasks may even become devious.

How Have Current Works Applied Narrative To Games?

Understanding how narrative elements influence the interpretation of a game, we can now look at a few current game examples under a new light and begin to make observations about how said games utilized narrative elements to drive home their thesis. After making such observations, we may then draw conclusions from these examples and ultimately construct tools for improving the application of narrative in games.

When studying narrative in games, few genres have been more influential than the Adventure game genre. These games by tradition involve the construction of a story with a preconceived beginning, middle, and end. Many of these games have experimented with branching paths in the constructed story, but ultimately all paths through the story are finite and known by the development staff. Any indication of dynamic story generation is a facade meant to extend play time and further draw the player into the work. One of the most significant games of this genre is Cyan World’s Myst. Myst put the player in the role of a nameless wanderer who has found himself in a technologically developed world that is seemingly uninhabited. Through the player’s various travels, he discovers sparse writings and journals detailing who created the world the player finds himself in and hints for how to use the technology of the world to travel through it. Even the puzzles and structures of the world itself are used to communicate details of how the world had been formed and functioned. As the player’s character explores the world around him, the player himself also learns more about how the world works. In this way, the player may relate to the main character and form an emotional bond. As details about the world of Myst are revealed, the player also becomes more aware of why the world is uninhabited, why many of the areas of Myst are locked down by puzzles, and why a magical book had the ability to transport the player’s character to the world in the first place. This gradual reveal of details builds the narrative being experienced by the player to a strong climax at the end of the game where a single decision draws on all the knowledge the player has collected over the course of the game. The choice the player makes at the end of the game determines one of three endings, thus giving the player some control over the destiny of his character.

Independent and experimental games, often lacking the pressure of publishers and investors, are free to explore new design concepts and applications of narrative elements in their projects. Jason Rohrer’s Passage acts as a strong example of such experimentation. In Passage, the player plays the role of a man wandering a narrow landscape. As the player navigates the environment, he may encounter a number of objects. Blocks and walls are located to the north and south ends of the map, making exploring “off the beaten path” much more difficult than just walking straight left or right. Chests may be found that either reward the player with a fun shining star animation or with an empty chest. Finally, the player may encounter a female mate. This mate offers the player companionship throughout his journey, but as a downside makes navigation of certain narrow passages impossible. As the player wanders through the landscape, his avatar (along with his mate’s if she had been found) moves from the left hand side of the screen to the right. As the avatars move to the right, they also begin to age visually. As the game reaches the five minute mark, the player’s avatar nears the right edge of the screen. His movement speed decreases as well. If the player had found his mate throughout the course of the game, she eventually dies, leaving behind a tombstone. After this point, the player himself has only moments of slow, desperate movement left before he too dies. Passage explores the paths people take in life, their trials and tribulations, and ultimately brings the experience to the same end all lives have. In this way, Passage‘s view of life can be seen through the combination of the unpredictable of the journey and the eventual, constant conclusion of death.

Sports offer a different sort of narrative. Narratives from sports games are firstly meant to not only entertain and educate the participants, but also effect the audience watching the game unfold. Secondly, most sports games share common thematic elements such as teamworks and comradery, perseverance over incredible odds, and the power of hard work and the human will. American Football acts as a good example for analysis as it is a well understood sport by the general public and it exemplifies most of the common traits of narrative building in a sports game. American Football is separated into 4 quarters. Mini climaxes are usually built up to near the end of each quarter as both competing teams attempt to score just one more touchdown before the quarter ends. The stadium that the game is played in is also constructed in such a way as to give a sense of grandeur to the game occurring at the center of it. The climactic build ups and the sense of importance given to the events of the game by having thousands of people seated, all looking at a 110 yard stretch of grass magnify the struggle each team encounters when trying to cooperate to overcome the other team’s plays and strategies. The end result is that each team’s (and their fans’) emotions are pulled and twisted as teams score points, interceptions are thrown, penalties occur, and one team ultimately prevails. The narrative expressed is ultimately one of cooperation, struggle against seemingly impossible odds, and one of triumph due to hard work and faith.

What Conclusions Can Be Drawn?

After evaluating a few current examples of games, several conclusions can be drawn from how they utilized narrative concepts. Firstly, in order to establish an emotional context with the game, emotional investment in the characters and the game world must take place. This means that relatable situations and relatable characters must be portrayed to the player. Secondly, game mechanics and narrative elements must be used in tandem, not isolation, in order to create a significant experience for the player. What this means is that in the design of the game, the plot points and narrative elements must influence the behavior of the mechanics in some way while allowing the mechanics to induce changes to the narrative in other ways. In this way, the work’s intended narrative will correlate well with the game mechanics being portrayed. Thirdly, when a developer has a great level of control over how the narrative is to progress there allows a greater likelihood of that narrative being engaging and interesting. Since the developer knows more about what emotional state characters are in and what experiences the player has been put through, changes to the plot can be engineered to induce certain emotional reactions from the player. Lastly, the more input the player has on the flow of the narrative, the greater the level of emotional investment the player has with the work. Since the player feels that their decisions are significant within the game world, they will feel a greater level of ownership over the experience.

How Do These Conclusions Play into Applying Narrative to Games?

From these conclusions, two important observations can be made. Firstly, the importance of narrative in the establishment of context for player interaction is reinforced by the fact that all the games studied made the establishment of emotional connection between the player and the game a high priority and how they accomplished such a connection through the manipulation of characters, setting, relationships, and other narrative tools. Secondly, two strong and equally important philosophies for developing narratives with games are prominent with all games. The first of these philosophies is the use of pre-determined structured narratives for guiding player decisions, goals, and motivations. This philosophy relies on the entire narrative to be planned and written, then allow the player to experience the manufactured narrative as the developer sees fit. In this discussion, this philosophy will be known as “Structured Narrative. The second philosophy leverages the cause and effect relationships native to game mechanics. Players are allowed to explore open environments, limited only by the rules of the game and the limitations of their imagination. Biases, rivalries, and goals are completely determined by the player based on their own prerogatives and curiosity. The game’s developers define rules and a limited set of verbs for the player to express themselves with, then let the player roam free to develop their own narratives based on their experiences. In this discussion, this philosophy will be known as “Emergent Narrative”.

With the understanding that these philosophies contrast each other greatly, and all games implement each philosophy in some way, we may create a gradient with each extreme representing one of the philosophies.

Our gradient of narrative philosophies.

If we were to imagine all games ever made plotted somewhere on this gradient, those games who lie closer to the emergent side would produce narratives with a greater focus on tools and techniques common to the Emergent Narrative philosophy. Likewise, those games that lie closer to the structured end of the gradient would give greater focus to techniques and tools common to the Structured Narrative style. When using this structure to graph games’ strategies for producing narratives, it becomes apparent that no game exists at either extreme. Furthermore, when more thought is given to this, one may realize that no game may lie on either extreme of the gradient. The reasoning for this is that neither philosophy is perfect in their attempts to create an engaging narrative for the player of a game. This isn’t to say both ends do not have their share of strengths, however both also have inherent weaknesses that must be mitigated if an engaging experience is to be developed.

Structured Narratives make use of traditional linear written narratives for creating emotional attachment with the player. Such a strategy offers many advantages. With Structured Narratives, the developer has a great level of control over how the narrative is to develop, how and when the player will experience important plot points, and what characters the player will encounter. This allows developers to predict the emotional state of the player and play off those assumptions to get an intended reaction from the player. Proper use of this can be very useful for expressing a specific concept to the audience. Given the traditional roots of the technique, there lies much familiarity with the devices used to create the narrative. Developers may rely on hundreds of years of proven works from literature, graphic novels, movies, and other art forms. Since Structured Narrative is finite in the number of possible experiences the player may have, the player may potentially make a choice or attempt an action the developer did not intend for. If this occurs, often the game’s mechanics and rules take over to ensure the player does not violate the narrative in place. This heavy handed denial of logical conclusion to a player’s unforeseen decision is often called an “invisible wall”. The term comes from the idea that if a player manages to break from the game world’s simulated environment, they will often be met with an invisible barrier forcing the player to remain within the confines of the intended game area. Other examples of this phenomenon can be seen when games introduce players to a hallway of doors. Only intending the player to enter a handful of the doors, developers will make the remainder of the doors “locked” or inaccessible despite their existence and the player’s often destructive arsenal of tools. Along the lines of the finite nature of the Structured Narrative, multiple playthroughs of a game will ultimately result in predictable developments in the narrative, as the player has already experienced the narrative before. If the narrative relies on the player’s lack of foreknowledge of events to come in order to get a certain emotional reaction, knowing what happens next can ruin this quickly and make the experience far less engaging. Finally, since nothing in the narrative is dynamically created, characters included, if the player does not relate to the characters portrayed they will ultimately be turned off by the narrative.

Emergent Narratives by contrast are designed to bend to the will of the player. The intention is that if the player has absolute say in how the game and its narrative develop, their emotional attachment to the narrative will be far greater. This level of control over the narrative can give a freeing feeling to the player. When the player is aware that the sky is the limit regarding how the game plays out, they are more capable of using their imagination to creating entertaining experiences that the developers themselves could never have thought of. Also, since the entire narrative is dependent on the experiences of the player, and players will most likely make different decisions from playthrough to playthrough, each playthrough will be unique. The uniqueness of each experience can ultimately lead to a feeling of ownership over the narrative, as the player in question is the only one to experience it. Sadly, since the player is the only determinant to the structure of the narrative, there is no guarantee that the narrative experienced by the player will be of any interest. Even with player ownership, an uneventful stroll through a desert will become very boring. The lack of structure, pre-defined goals, and narrative objects can also easily lead to a direction-less feeling for players. For those players who lack the initial interest needed to become curious and develop their own goals, an open world with infinite possibilities can be overwhelming and lead to the player doing nothing, becoming disengaged, and never exploring the game. This is certainly not conducive to expressing artistic intent to an audience.

At the end of the day, all games must merry elements from both ends of the gradient if they are to mitigate these flaws. More structured games must give the player some decisions in the game world if there is hope for the player feeling any need to participate at all. Likewise, adding notable landmarks or means of detecting linear progression can assist players in defining goals and communicating progress to players in emergent games. This sort of compromise can be seen in our three example games. Myst relies primarily on a structured narrative, but gives the player the final climactic decision of the game. In this way, Cyan Worlds was in full control of the flow of the narrative, but the player had some say as to how the game ended. Furthermore, the player was allowed to solve many of the puzzles in any order he wished. In this way, the player was again allowed to control the flow of the narrative on one level, but the overall progressions could still be engineered by the developer. Passage also accomplishes a compromise in a much more elegant way. The player is allowed to explore the environment at his own leisure. Slowly, as the game progresses, his avatar moves to the right. This give a sense of linear progress. No matter what path the player takes, he will ultimately die a little after the five minute mark. The developer was able to keep control over the overall flow of the game’s narrative, giving it a controllable ending while letting the player create their own journey. Plus, such a structure acts as a metaphor for the developer’s idea of life’s journey.Even American Football mixes the two strategies. The structure of the game overall is very strict. Each game is played within a time restricted 4 quarter game. This by nature creates a beginning, middle, and end which all contribute to creating a structured narrative. When one observes the activities of an individual quarter however, the climaxes, turning of advantage, and dramatic moments are not predictable or guaranteed. These are completely determined by the actions and decisions of the players on the field. The events within each quarter are therefore emergent in nature. Commonly, structured narrative tools are used to create a structured framework for a game’s narrative, guarantee a handful of interesting events that can keep the player engaged and ensure certain details come across, and bring the narrative to a logical and meaningful conclusion. Emergent tools are used to give players sandbox moments in the narrative where their decisions may influence the narrative, but ultimately cannot do much harm to the overall structure.

What Can Be Done With This Analysis?

Given what we now understand about the relationship between narrative and game design, what can one do with it? For game developers, applying these concepts to current projects can be a great way of determining whether the current narrative being expressed by their game is connected as well as it can be with players. The weaknesses of the game’s narrative can be explored. Once identified, those weaknesses can then be mitigated by utilizing the tools offered by either a structured narrative approach or an emergent narrative approach. As for those folks who do not make games, but play games all the same much can be used still. When playing a game, ask yourself if you are currently emotionally connected with the game in any way. Do you have strong feelings regarding the outcome of conflicts involving certain characters? Does the experience of defeat or success have an effect on you emotionally? If so, ask yourself why? What is it about the game world and its characters that you relate to them so? Is there a message the developer is trying to convey with these narrative elements? If not, what turns you off about the game? Are there elements that you do not understand? How could the game alter the delivery of its message to better communicate to you? Asking these questions can strengthen one’s understanding of the medium and lead to interpreting works that formerly seemed obtuse. This then comments on the overall power of this study, which is to increase one’s understanding of game design.