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Rewarding Players Over Multiple Narrative Layers
by Altug Isigan on 01/08/10 11:04:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


In my previous article I had a look at how narrative bits in Diablo and Tetris are combined with reward schedules. In this article I will broaden the scope of analyses towards the story persons layer and see how the relation between narrative and rewards works beyond the core functions level. This time we will be only dealing with Diablo


Narrative Layers and the Creation of Meaning

Earlier in an article,  I identified four types of interaction. The article followed the classical model of narrative layers in narratology. Here is a diagram showing those narrative layers:

This image displays the four layers of narrative based on the classical model in narratology

The classical structural analyses of narratives utilizes a linguistic model which identifies various layers of language elements aligned on a vertical axis. It's the vertical relationship through which meaning in language is achieved. The vertical relationship basically works as a synthesis between layers. Meanings are the result of the growing synthesis from the first language layer (letters) towards the upper language layers (words, sentences):

[Letters form words form sentences.]

A similar synthesis works in narratives. For example the elements on the events layer gain their ultimate meaning and significance through how they connect to the story persons layer. The story persons in the story persons layer gain their ultimate meaning and significance through how they are connected to the narration layer. Finally, all this construct of layers ultimately gains its meaning through its embeddedness into the narrative situation.

Traversing a narrative is not only to move from the beginning to the end of the story (moving horizontally), but  it also means movement throughout the various interconnected layers (vertical movement). To give an example: being rewarded with that sword can feel so cool because this single event (earning the sword) might express meaning not only on the events layer, but also on the story persons layer.

Making a Reward Work Over Multiple Narrative Layers

Let us have a brief look at Diablo to understand how rewards interact with the various layers of the game's narrative. Consider the following diagram:

This image explains how a reward in the game Diablo connects to the game narrative over various narrative layers

First and foremost, the reward mechanic is triggered on the ground layer of the narrative, the Events layer.  The player is busy carrying out core functions (like killing monsters). On (successful) completion of the task (monster killed), the underlying reward mechanism will usually spawn gold, and in rarer cases a magical item. In addition to this, the character will also receive experience points.

When we speak of experience points, however, we have already stepped over to another narrative layer, that of the story person (or character). Having a closer look at the impact of the reward, we see that it does not only reward our success on the events layer, but that it also plays a central role in character growth: While experience points will contribute to develop the skill set of the character, magical items and gold enrich the character's inventory.  

Diablo does not feature a backstory in regard to player-controlled characters, hence character development is mostly limited with the "to do" side of the character (the skills and abilities that she possesses). Other games reward players with information about the characters past and the unknown sides of her personality, the "to be" of the character. Hence these might feel a bit richer or deeper than the "to do"-oriented games.

This image presents a diagram of character growth in stories

Yet dealing with the past or the inner world of the character are optional elements in storytelling and Diablo remains fully functional although it limits character growth mostly to skills and abilities.


In this article I had a look at how rewards in the game Diablo worked over multiple narrative layers. While rewards where given out for the completion of tasks on the events layer and hence felt like belonging to the immediate and event-dense experience of battle, they also worked on a broader sense and connected to the story persons layer in order to maintain character growth. The analyses concluded that Diablo's reward structure mostly contributed to the "to do" side of the character. However, it was explained that for example through giving rewards based on backstory information of the character, it was always possible to also support the "to be" side in character development.

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Pablo Mera
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Very interesting read. As we've discussed in twitter, I find myself relating a lot to what you write. I find it interesting that this could develop up to a pretty interesting way of modeling the experience of the player from both the perspective of narrative and immersion, and the perspective of gameplay. I think what you write about here could tie in very well with some existing tools for game design. :p

Good article. Congrats. :-)

Altug Isigan
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Hello Pablo :)

Thanks a lot for your comment. Actually, these articles are a much more structured presentation on my ideas in regard to game narrativity (we talked about some of its aspect on Twitter, as you mention above). My previous article used Tetris as an example for how narrative works and that was definitely on purpose because it is the #1 example given by people when they doubt the usefulness of narratology :) I plan to expand into more formal games like Solitaire and I also want to analyse an example from sports (probably soccer).

I'm very glad to hear that you see a practical usefulness in what I've written. While I'm often told to be a very theory-oriented person, I strive to make my way of looking at things to be useful for working game designers and industry pro's. And I'm really delighted when you say that what you read here ties in with existing game design tools! :... It tells me that I get closer to the level of usefulness that I want to achieve.

Thanks again!

Glenn Storm
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Ah, I see what you mean by using the combination of layers to describe the depth of interaction and potentially the experience as a whole. Those charts above seem to tell the concept clearly to me now. A new dimension. Very cool. I can see how that last concept suggests a third. Very interesting.

I agree that these theoretical concepts are very practical to the subtle balance issues, the delicate organization of narrative elements and the progression of presentation that Game Design is concerned with. This can indeed be practically applied. I believe we just need to be asking the right questions of our designs to implement concepts such as these. I think these types of questions would be very low-level, but the answers should serve to inform the higher-level decisions designers must make on a day-to-day basis.

I'm trying to think of a way to put some of these concepts to a test; even if abstractly and hypothetically, as in through a thought experiment. Or perhaps you have identified a point in the presentation where that might be more appropriate. Neat series of articles and a nice progression, Altug. Thanks!

Altug Isigan
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Hi Glenn,

I'm happy to see that it all makes sense to you! :) I'd be very interested of course to hear how these ideas are utilized in real game design projects and how they helped designers to make design decisions or improve already existing designs...

Leandro Rocha
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Im pdfying this article... this is something to keep.
Thank you.

Altug Isigan
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Thank you very much, Leandro!