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Screw Narrative Wrappers
by Richard Dansky on 06/23/14 11:30:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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.

 

And here is why I hate the term “narrative wrapper”.

What is a wrapper? It’s something that’s put around an object, not intrinsically part of the object. It’s something that’s taken apart to get to the good stuff. It’s something that’s discarded as unimportant. It’s something that, 9 times out of 10, has disgusting congealed faux-cheese on it. 

And so when we talk about the “narrative wrapper” of a game, we’re implicitly stating that the narrative is not of the game itself. It’s something we’re supposed to wrap around the gameplay to make it transportable and attractive, and keep the targeting reticule from dripping burger grease on our fingers, but it’s ultimately unattached and disposable.

Which, to be blunt, irritates me to no end.

Because yes, you can have a narrative wrapper on a game, one that you discard as soon as it’s time to start blasting or moving geometric shapes around or whatever. But I’d like to think we’ve moved past that. That we understand that narrative and gameplay are part of a unified whole that, when combined with a player’s choices, creates the play experience. That a game doesn’t have to have a lot of narrative to have an appropriate amount of narrative for what it presents, in order to provide context to the player actions and create a satisfying arc to their progression. 

But Rich, I hear you say, not every game has a narrative element. Not every game needs a narrative element. Take, for example, tower defense games. Or Minecraft. Completely narrative free!

To which I say, cunningly (because this is my blog and I win all the arguments here), that’s absolutely not the case. Because when most people think of game narrative, they think of the explicit narrative - the story of getting from point A to point B, and probably slaughtering a zillion hapless orcs/enemy soldiers/terrorists/space aliens/zombies/geometric shapes infused with dubstep along the way. 

But that’s just the explicit narrative. There’s also implicit narrative built into every game though the choice of setting, items, character design - the assets of the game tell a story, if only by their very existence. Or, to put it another way, think about the archetypal tool you get in Minecraft. It’s a pickaxe. It’s not a tricorder. It’s not a Black and Decker multi-tool. It’s a pickaxe, and through it’s very pickaxe-ness - low tech, implied manual labor, etc. - it tells part of the story of the world it exists in. Ditto for those towers in tower defense games that everyone claims come narrative free - they’re shaped like something, they’re shooting something, and those choices frame a story before word one of any dialog or plot gets written. If you’re shooting aliens in a tower defense game, you’ve established genre (science fiction) and technology (aliens with enough tech to invade, you with enough tech to fight back); your backdrop implies the course of the conflict so far, and so on. As soon as you decide what a game asset is, you’re implying the narrative that allows it to exist and function. 

Which is another way of saying that narrative is baked in, blood and marrow, to games. It’s not a wrapper, though God knows enough people have tried to separate story and gameplay like one of them has to walk home across the quad in last night’s jeans. Yes, you can divorce narrative elements from gameplay (Or as we used to call it, “put it in the cut scene”) but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the narrative elements of a game are, and how they interact, inextricably, with gameplay. If you think of narrative as something external to the game - a wrapper, perhaps - then you’re missing the point, and your game will be the worse for it.

And that’s why I hate the term “narrative wrapper” - because it damages narratives and it damages games, and it damages the understanding of how narrative works in games. And it gets crappy congealed cheese all over my deliverables, and we just can’t have that sort of thing.

 

(Note: Originally published at Dansky Macabre)


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Comments


Michael DeFazio
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If I play online backgammon or online poker do you consider these games with any "explicit" nor "implicit" narrative?

What I am driving at is that neither of these games have "narrative" and yet through their mechanics, they provide the ability to create powerful/memorable moments which we can later recount as narrative ...

(i.e. I can tell you about my narrative experience "gammoning" a Grand Master Backgammon player in the late 90's, or "Hitting My Full Boat of 9's over jacks on the river to beat a flush")

I'm not sure "narrative-less" games are a bad thing as you suggest, as a matter of fact, I think, games that allow us to create our own narrative through gameplay are powerful and enduring (if done right)...

Richard Dansky
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Thank you for not choosing Tetris as your edge case :-)

I totally agree that any game can provide the raw material of the narrative of the player's experience. I'd also argue that the artifacts of even the games you mention have narrative elements. After all, you look at a backgammon glossary and you get terms like "blitz" and "army", providing a metaphor for the movement of your units around the board. It's not a strong narrative, but it doesn't need to be (which was one of the other points I was hoping to make - there's an appropriate level of narrative to be had, and trying to cram too much in is as bad as handwaving it.)

Theresa Catalano
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Some of the best narratives in games come in the form of "wrappers." You suggest that being separate from the gameplay makes them disposable, but that is hardly the case. What it does is make them FREE... free from the constraints of being married to gameplay. There is so much more you can do with narrative by simply putting it in the form of a cutscene.

I think the lesson to learn is that "cutscene" should not be a dirty word. Very often, a game's story will be best served by them. What's important is to decide when that is the case.

Richard Dansky
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I'm not arguing against cut scenes. I'm arguing against shoving all of the explicit narrative into cut scenes so it doesn't interact with the gameplay experience, so that the player is bouncing back and forth between modes and the experience becomes disjointed. I'm also not saying that the narrative can only be delivered in conjunction with gameplay. What I am saying is that there's benefit to including narrative elements during gameplay so that the player has a unified experience, the narrative is present throughout that experience, and narrative and gameplay support each other.

Theresa Catalano
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I would argue that going back and forth between modes does not necessarily create a "disjointed" experience. It depends on how it's done. Gameplay and narrative CAN support each other even which being "separated."

I agree with you that there are benefits to delivering narrative in conjunction with gameplay... but there's also drawbacks. When gameplay has to be forced into the narrative, it severely limits what you can do narrative. Sometimes it can work well within those limitations, sometimes not. Depends on the type of story you're trying to tell.

Bottom line, "narrative wrappers" as you call them are always going to be important.

Richard Dansky
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We'll have to agree to disagree.

Richard Dansky
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Damnit, double post.

Dave Lynam
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Out of interest, what games have good narratives that you would consider a "wrapper"? That is to say, of what games do you speak when you say "Some of the best narratives in games come in the form of 'wrappers.'"

Yama Habib
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Persona.
Edit: although I'll refute my own point by saying that the spirit link mechanics do intertwine with the explicit narrative rather nicely. I think, by definition, a game cannot be exclusively composed of explicit narrative.

Theresa Catalano
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Persona does a pretty good job of mingling gameplay with narrative. It turns the "narrative" of socializing with your friends into a game. But the game's main narrative is still very much told by cutscenes and separate. If you go back to the first 2 Persona games, the narrative is told very much in a straightforward manner using cutscenes. Lots of games use this approach.

Then you have something like Virtue's Last Reward or 999, a visual novel that also has puzzle mini games attached. There is still little bits of narrative within these puzzle rooms, but the bulk of the narrative takes place visual novel style. There's some other visual novels that do a similar thing.

Dave Lynam
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I think the problem here, is that everyone is misunderstanding/differently understanding what a "narrative wrapper" is or is implied to be.

Simply stating that some of the story, or even MOST/ALL of the story happens divorced from the player's control/game mechanics isn't, I believe, the issue in question. It is the idea that one should make and design a fully functional game and then "paste on" or "wrap it up" in some veneer of narrative that exists solely to differentiate it from other identical products.

This phenomenon is rarely clear cut, there is a subjective sliding scale of "narrative integrated-ness", but I think the important thing to note is what the OP said at the beginning of the post "And so when we talk about the “narrative wrapper” of a game, we’re implicitly stating that the narrative is not of the game itself. It’s something we’re supposed to wrap around the gameplay to make it transportable and attractive.. but it’s ultimately unattached and disposable."

I might suggest and alternative way of stating this; the "Wrapper" term is NOT stating that it goes around the gameplay, but around the GAME. it is superflous to the ENTIRE gaming experience. It isn't an issue of cutscenes, it is an issue of coherence.

The player can't jump in water in InFamous because his powers are electrical. He sparks when he falls in and now not being able to swim is narrative. Altair and Ezio 'die' when they leave or enter certain areas because the player is trying to stay "in sync" with the actual events of the past and deviating too much will "de-synchronise" you. This is integral narrative that is being driven, delivered and told through gameplay. It is the gaming equivalent of "Show don't tell".

It isn't the mode of telling the narrative that is problematic, imo, it is where that abstracted layer sits. It should be a part of the game, mechanics, aesthetic, tech ect integrated and incorporated. If it isn't, at all, then it is literally a wrapper.

In the mobile world wrappers are used all the time... you copy clash of clans and wrap a new narrative around it. This is, frankly, awful storytelling and imo terrible design.

Dave Lynam
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Couldn't agree more.

We seem to have a very narrow minded view of what a "narrative" is. We are stuck in a mindset that the "modern novel" style of narration - I.E. first and third person A-B story-telling- is the only definition of narrative. This despite the fact that that particular style of narrative is at most 300 years old and humanity has told stories since time immemorial. We see the word narrative and replace it with "plot"; we hear narrative and see it as a bullet-pointed, event driven system. He did this, she did that, this caused this.

But, it is hugely telling that games such as BioShock are lauded for their narrative, and what makes these games' narrative compelling is that their plot is integrated into all aspects of the game. They design the player's agency within their world around the plot such that they are mutually reliant. Then, with masterful use of Mise en Scene, create an overarching atmosphere that reinforces the mechanics and plot.

Despite the fact many people argue for this so called wrapper, the stories we enjoy most are usually coherent, gestalt, ecosystems. Cutscenes have their place, I don't think that divorcing control from the system is as immersion breaking as people like to make out.

The seemingly unending question about "do games and narrative mix" is a non-question, unless you want to define narrative in the most restrictive, post-Austen, western print and celluloid sense.

Larry Carney
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I agree with the spirit of the blog, if not exactly the letter of it. There are some elements of game design or the act of playing a game which are not involved with narrative at all, and I think whether or not these elements are relics of a bygone era of game design that they are fundamentally the only things which make games unique from other media, so there is some value in understanding these elements and deciding as an industry, culture, and market what we want these elements to be (part of gaming or not, if part of gaming what form do they take, etc.) going forward.

Some of these elements are what you describe here:

"There’s also implicit narrative built into every game though the choice of setting, items, character design - the assets of the game tell a story, if only by their very existence. Or, to put it another way, think about the archetypal tool you get in Minecraft. It’s a pickaxe. It’s not a tricorder. It’s not a Black and Decker multi-tool. It’s a pickaxe, and through it’s very pickaxe-ness - low tech, implied manual labor, etc. - it tells part of the story of the world it exists in. Ditto for those towers in tower defense games that everyone claims come narrative free - they’re shaped like something, they’re shooting something, and those choices frame a story before word one of any dialog or plot gets written. If you’re shooting aliens in a tower defense game, you’ve established genre (science fiction) and technology (aliens with enough tech to invade, you with enough tech to fight back); your backdrop implies the course of the conflict so far, and so on. As soon as you decide what a game asset is, you’re implying the narrative that allows it to exist and function."


These are gameplay elements, not necessarily narrative elements. I make the distinction the same way as an author I would between a scene and a sentence: one is an element of narrative, the other is the mechanical structure creating the space in which that narrative is understandable to the audience, it is the user-interface of a book. That is what the elements you describe are, they are abstract, mechanical tools for navigating the space and accomplishing the gameplay goals that the game designer has created.


Now it is often the inability (for whatever reason) of a developer to not integrate these elements with the narrative, and thus the narrative serves only to move the player-audience from one gameplay goal to the next (the narrative wrapper you speak of), but I think to better move away from the "narrative wrapper" it helps to be able to know what elements are narrative elements and what elements are not, so as to know as game designers just what to do with those elements.

Dave Lynam
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I think that the bread and butter of what the OP is trying to say is that he disagrees that "These are gameplay elements, not necessarily narrative elements." and I agree with him.

Lets take a character, for example, if I am writing a novel in First Person perspective, I use the vocabulary of my character to build a narrative of who that character is, these are my sentences as you put it. The narrative only works if I can create a coherent "voice" for that character. In a game, mechanics serve the same purpose. At least in games that have characters, If I have a story about a crippled child, and the mechanics involve flying I have already built the basis of compelling, thoughtful narrative. How can we hope to claim that the flying mechanic ISN'T narrative? In war games you might hold a gun... that is narrative. The fact it isn't very "good" or insightful narrative is beside the point, but if you were holding a banana then it would change the world and the context of the plot and characters.

The very thing I think the OP is trying to say is that there IS no distinction that says these things are clearly narrative and these are mechanical because in games the mechanical IS part of the narrative whether it is intended, or consciously acknowledged.

Most people when reading a book don't think much about the kind of language the narrator uses, but that doesn't mean that omission and inclusion don't create a narrative. Your interaction with the novel and its narrator is based entirely on that choice of words, they ARE in a very real sense... the narrative. They aren't "just tools" that can be used to create some very specific a-b thing that we call narrative. that concept of the a-b narrative is a relatively new idea in story telling anyway.

AS I put elsewhere I think from reading this thread that everyone has a slightly different idea as to what is meant by a narrative wrapper. Some people just use it to mean "I don't care much" others that the story exclusively happens in cutscenes. I personally think those are missing the point of what the OP seems to be saying.

Saurian Dash
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I've never really felt that games actually require a narrative, I've always viewed narrative as nothing but a "wrapper" myself. The thing is, if a game actually relies upon a narrative to keep the player's attention, then it fails as a game and ends up better described as an "interactive movie". All of the best games I have played in recent years do have narratives, but they are not defined by their narratives; it's the brilliantly crafted game mechanics and challenging situations built outwards from these mechanics which have held my attention long after the end credits rolled.

Very often these days we see games receiving a set "running time" via the gaming press/publishers; the "value" of a game is usually expressed by the number of hours the narrative lasts for. I believe this attitude is very damaging to game design, as it is perpetuating the belief that the narrative wrapper is the sole reason to play a game. The two games I have spent the most time playing over the recent years are The Wonderful 101 and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. I have put hundreds of hours into these games (both considered "short" by the gaming press) and I have no intention of stopping playing any time soon. The narrative in these sorts of games are only entertaining during the player's first run, they become irrelevant after that. The main meat of these games are the combat mechanics and the enemy encounters built outwards from these mechanics. These sorts of game systems are timeless; they can be played indefinitely and don't need a narrative to back them up or hold a player's attention.

I believe very strongly that the player's progression and development through a game's mechanics are the most important aspect of the gaming medium; if this is backed up by a narrative then that's fantastic, but it is not the narrative which defines this process.

Sam Stephens
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I think there are two relevant points to the topic of narrative in video games.

1) Narrative is a present and necessary part of many video games. It can greatly help players relate to gameplay ideas by expressing familiar forms, functions, and concepts. A ladder and its purpose (climbing to reach something) is known to most people. Giving the player context to climb ladders creates a narrative. Making that process challenging is where the game comes in. And thus we have Donkey Kong.

2) Narrative is contextual when it comes to games and gameplay. The specifics and details aren't very important. The character roles and motivations of the story could be completely different in Donkey Kong without changing any of the gameplay. This applies to big "narrative driven" games as well such as BioShock.

In this sense, narrative is sort of like a wrapper in that many narrative elements are superficial and exchangeable for others. This isn't to downplay narrative in video games, but I think our understanding of it's purpose needs to change.

Carole Vaudry
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Just linking to Extra Credits on narrative mechanics, i.e., how some mechanics tell a story through the player's choices:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQJA5YjvHDU

Christy Marx
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Every time I've worked on a game where someone has used the term "narrative wrapper" to me, it has been in the context of wanting me to add storytelling elements as if they were an afterthought, something you simply tack on. "Here, pin this tail on the donkey and the game is done."

"Narrative" is one of those odd videogame business words that has come to take the place of saying story or storytelling, as though everyone is afraid to use those words, as though they come with excess baggage.

Videogames -- some, not every one of them -- benefit most by having the storytelling MESH with the gameplay, become an intrinsic part of it, the same way the art and animation and music and sound mesh with the gameplay. It's not a battle for supremacy to see whether gameplay trumps story or vice versa. Thinking that way guarantees a poor result.

As a writer, Narrative Designer, visual storyteller or whatever label gets slapped on me, I find it personally offensive when I am asked to provide a "narrative wrapper". Richard is spot-on.


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