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Cursor in Fabula
by Altug Isigan on 09/22/10 09:46:00 pm

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 this article I will have a look at how point&click interfaces work in the articulation of a game's story. First I will draw a distinction between three fundamental narrative layers. Then I will define the types of narrative articulation that an interface must support for a meaningful and compelling gameplay experience. Finally I will have a look at the game Diablo to describe in more detail how its point&click interface is utilized in achieving the construction of its story.


The Fundamental Layers of Narratives

We can distinguish three layers [1] that work together to build the structure of a narrative. These are:

  • Events: This layer entails all narrated (see Narration below) action that initiates, continues and terminates a logically connected sequence of events. [2]


  • Actants (story persons): the fictional beings who carry out the actions which articulate as events. [3]


  • Narration: the various audio-visual elements and stylistic devices through which the actants and events are constructed and presented: animations, sound effects, POV, camera movement etc.

In the video game, these layers are open to interference/alteration. What enables such interference is of course the ‘interface’, which is a set of input devices that re-configure a user as to identify with, and perform as, a fictional entity in a fictional universe. [4]


The Articulation of Narrative Elements via the Interface

An interface will enable the articulation of narrative elements that belong to the three layers mentioned above. In other words, we can speak of three types of narrative articulation that take place as we use the game interface.

  • Chrono-logical articulation: this is the articulation of Events through initiating, manipulating and terminating sequences of actions. Moving a group of soldiers through a desert by clicking on the interface is an example for this.


  • Audio-visual articulation: the player's interferences on the audio-visual continuum that is in progress. Clicking on a mini-map to view different areas of the game world is an example for this. This type of articulation works on the Narration layer since it modifies the way events are presented to us.


  • Actantial articulation: gradually unvealing and altering a ‘paradigm of traits’ (=character) [5] through the use of affordances and the making of choice. Every choice we make, and every gameplay option we use will add up to shape and define a story character with specific abilities, skills and personality. This is connected to Actant layer.

As each three types of articulation take place as a result of player interference, the game narrative, which is the combined structure of Events, Actants and Narration, comes to life.


Blizzard's Diablo: Articulating Three Narrative Layers with One Click

Diablo is one of the best examples to illustrate the successful articulation of a game narrative via a point&click interface. In this game, only by clicking on the interface, a player puts all three types of narrative articulation simultaneously into motion. The result is one of the most addictive games that has ever been created. Using the cursor as the focal point around which all other game systems (such as the camera) are built, provides the player with extremely fluent gameplay that fosters a very strong narrative feel. Let’s have a look in detail at how it happens:

This diagram illustrates how the point&click interface in the game Diablo articulates narrative layers to create a compelling story

At the center of the game flow is the click. A click results in articulation on all three narrative layers:

  • Actantial: A choice is being made, and an affordance is being used. Both are elements that shape and define character.


  • Chrono-logical: An action like walking, looting or fighting is carried out. These create a sequences of events. They form the basis of the narrative.


  • Audio-visual: Elements of narration, such as camera action and sound, are put into motion. For example the camera performs a travel when our avatar walks, and we hear her footsteps.

As the player continues to interfere with the open work, gameplay builds the narrative.



In this article I tried to illustrate through the game Diablo how game narrative can be tied to a game interface in a simple yet striking way. The better we understand the role of particular player interferences in the articulation of narrative layers, the higher are our chances to provide gameplay with a strong feel of story progress.



[1] A fourth layer, which has been left out of the scope of this article, is the Narrative Situation. For a broader description of these layers, check out my earlier article "Four Categories of Interaction".

[2] We are speaking of ‘event’ here in a strictly narrative sense, as things that take place in a fictional universe. The narrative event (for example killing a monster) is, although both are obviously connected, not to be confused with the user event itself (like clicking on the interface). This would ignore the process of mediation and synchronization that takes place in order to immerse a being primarily external to the fictional game universe into a primarily fictional role within that game universe. Furthermore, the Events layer cannot be limited to events originating from player input since a variety of events are performed/simulated by the game system itself (like actions of NPCs).

[3] Again, we are not talking about real players/users but narrative entities whose actions and traits are narrated/mediated to us. An actant's presence is always a narrated one. Hence it is not identical with the real person that gives her input to decide the actions of that narrated presence. Besides, user input is only one of the many ingredients that are used by the game engine to construct the actants presence. Also, games feature many actants which are not controlled by the player but the game system.

[4] An interface isn’t simply the extension of a real person. The role of the interface is to re-configure and synchronize our real presence with an in-game presence that is designed to possess the qualities that drive the plot forward. This is crucial in creating a feel of immediacy between, and identification  with, the actant's role that we will perform in the game world.

[5] The definition of character as a 'paradigm of traits' has been put forward by the American narratologist Seymour Chatman.



Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film.

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Max Marko
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Maybe it's just me (I had a long night finishing a project) but after going twice through your article I'm still not sure how to put into practice while developing a game.

Altug Isigan
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Just to let you know: I've edited the article to make it easier to read. I hope there's more clarity now.

Altug Isigan
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Hi Max,

Yes, unfortunately this article is rather busy setting up a theory instead of providing concrete and practical examples that can be used by game developers.

The academic agenda of this article is that it puts to test a widespread theory that claims that games can't be narratives because they're interactive. I simply try to show that such mutual exclusion is untrue by giving examples that show that player interference (interaction) is a process of narrative articulation. This might not be of much interest to people who just seek practical solutions for their design problems and don't want to mess with the theoretical side. In this case it's me who's the problem, because I come from a academic background and tend to be interested into the theoretical side of things a bit too much :)

Anyway, so far for the theoretical side. So what's still here in this article that helps in practice?

First of all, we can learn from Diablo that the click can be used as the center of the whole design. If all other peripherals (systems) are designed carefully in aiding the click, clicking can become the basis for a very fluent and immersive gameplay experience with a compelling story element.

How can this be achieved? Diablo splits the player's in-game presence into two: not only an avatar (iconic representation) but also a cursor (functional representation). This is really clever because the player is all the time busy with tieing together two ends: The order he gave by using the cursor and the click, and the action that his avatar carries out upon pointing&clicking. This puts us into a non-stop monitoring role that quickly results in immersion. The underlying principle here is 'herding'. The cursor is like the stick of a sheppard that tells the animal where to go and what to do. And we're the shepperd of course. This is such a brilliant way to get someone engaged with his visual representation.

On the other hand, arranging every single game system to perform around and for the click is an interesting concept because all that the player needs to do for a great gameplay experience is really just to click. This is a great way to hide a whole world of affordances and events under a single interaction device. Since the game world is basically divided into clickables and every other system (like the camera, sounds, animations) is designed to stage a unique event for these, ultimately it's clicking that results in the story telling itself. This is a seamless and very fluent experience that becomes even more addictive because of the underlying reward system of the game.

So what we have as our practical design take-aways here is

-the herding principle (monitoring the avatar)

-system design that is centered around a single type of user input

I hope it clicks a bit now :)

Max Marko
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Yep, it clicked now :) Thank you.

Now some comments to your comment.

"This might not be of much interest to people who just seek practical solutions for their design problems and don't want to mess with the theoretical side. In this case it's me who's the problem, because I come from a academic background and tend to be interested into the theoretical side of things a bit too much :)"

I wouldn't say "*just* seek practical solutions" nor "it's me who's the problem". It's that from what I've seen most people that visit Gamasutra are eider making games (Indi, AAA or as a hobby) or trying to make them. In other words people focused more (but not only) on practical aspects of knowledge.

"This is really clever because the player is all the time busy with tieing together two ends: The order he gave by using the cursor and the click, and the action that his avatar carries out upon pointing&clicking. This puts us into a non-stop monitoring role that quickly results in immersion."

I came to a similar conclusion (just not in so many words :) when I was trying to design a game in which your task was to manage a small squad of soldiers. The problem that arose was lack of immersion (or a very static nature of the game, if you will) due to the player being more of an observer of the on screen action than a shepherd (as you have so nicely put it).

Altug Isigan
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Haha, yeah, my sentences are too long :D I must work on this...:/

Thank you very much for your comments, Max!