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Nailing down storytelling terminology
by Thomas Grip on 05/28/13 08:13:00 am   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.


Orignally posted In The Games of Madness

One thing lacking in game design, especially when it comes to interactive storytelling, is a proper set of terms. While I do not think having a precise terminology will directly aid in making games better, it will help us communicate better. As proper communication is crucial for progress, proper terms are indirectly an important part of making better storytelling games. Because of this, I am going to go over some terminology that I find essential, what I mean by them and why I define them in a certain manner. 

This is not meant to be a list of terms that I want everybody to adopt. Instead I want it to start a discussion so that we can come a bit closer at agreeing on the terms we use to discuss these matters. I have changed my terms quite a bit over the past few years and I am prepared to do so again. 

I need to go over a few things before I start. When choosing a term and its definition I think that, if possible, one should use an existing word and to use a definition that is close to the word's common usage. Making up new words often just adds to the confusion, making it harder to communicate. In some cases it is needed, e.g. I find "affordance" to be a very practical term, but in the case of interactive storytelling we have so much existing terminology to derive from that I do not find it necessary  By choosing a definition that is close to the common usage it also makes it possible for uninitiated people to follow a discussion; it makes misunderstandings much less likely. What constitutes "common" is of course a bit vague (to game developers? people in general?), but it at least set up some guidelines which is better than none at all. 

With that out of the way, let's start.


 - Story -
Story is arguably the most important word and probably one with the fractured meaning. I see "story" as a container word that encompass a lot of different parts. The most significant are: Theme, Setting, Characters, Plot and Narration. I will get to each of these in a bit, but before that I need to discuss why I chose this definition.

First of all, the reason why someone enjoys a story does not need to be a the exact way that the events unfold. It can be the beautiful environments, the snappy dialog, the dense atmosphere and so forth that makes the story engaging. There is never any specific criteria that makes one say "this story is good", instead there is a wide range of elements that can make a story great.

Second, the definition reflects how stories are created. A story always starts out as some seed idea; a specific person, situation, plot twist, etc, and is then built around that. A setting is determined, characters are created and other elements are fleshed out. These added elements are not the core of the story, they are there in order make the initial idea come to live in the best way possible.

Third, it makes for a very inclusive definition that suit videogames. Games often have a lot story elements, yet often lack some of the more common elements like dialog or plot. If a story is only a carefully planned sequence of events then many games, some vital for understanding interactive storytelling, are left out. At the same time the definition is not so broad as to become meaningless; Tetris is still not a game with much (or any) story, while Limbo contain tons.


- Storytelling -
Given the above way of seeing story, "storytelling" is pretty straightforward to define. It is simply a way to communicate the elements of a story to an audience. They way we are most used to doing this is in the form of a linear sequence of events, but this is not the only way to go about. When doing interactive storytelling, the story is communicated as the player interacts with systems, each representing a part of the story.


Now onto the elements of story:


- Theme -
This is sort of the holistic intent of a story. It can be things like: premise, message, subject, an intended experience; anything that deals with a core idea that permeates through the story. Despite not being a concrete part of a story, like an environment or a character, it is still something that has to be taken into account. Just like a character needs to fit with the environment, all elements of a story need to fit with the theme.


- Setting -
"Where does the story take place" is the question this term answers. It is not just the physical place, but also the time period, history, weather conditions and so on. It describes all the background conditions for the story. This is probably the story element that is most common in a game. Even games that lack all other elements can still have a very strong setting.


- Characters -
Anytime some intentional action is performed, a character is there to perform it. This term simply applies to any sentient agent that takes place in the story. It is trivial to point out characters in a book or movie, but for a game it seems like is a bit harder. For instance, are the enemy ships in Space Invader characters? How about the turtles in Super Mario Bros? In both of these examples, I think one might just as well lump them into the character element. Both of these games both have very thin stories and are not really any attempts at interactive storytelling. As far as I can tell, the vague character cases come solely from these sort of games. They never arise when there is stronger focus on the story. In Uncharted, for example, all the cannon fodder enemies are pretty clear cases of character story elements.

Also important to mention is that this term, like all the others, come with sub terms. Inside the term character are things like dialog, relationships and destinies.


- Plot -
A plot is a sequence of events, each event occurring in a specific fashion. This sequence can be a branching one; the important factor is that all is set and known beforehand. It may seem a bit strange to set this as its own separate element of a story; after all, any book or film is composed out of events laid out in a preset fashion. This notion is also why it is so common to see plot and story as pretty much the same thing. When you deal with books or movies, there is not a big problem with this view, but for games it is disastrous  If a story is something that is laid out in an exact unchangeable manner, then an interactive game is unable, by definition, to tell a story. (A line of thinking which I have seen academic papers written about).

So it seems obvious why one wants plot to be different from story; interactive storytelling other than Choose-Your-Own-Adventure would be an oxymoron. There is however a deeper, and more important, reason for this separation and it lies in how stories are created. When a writer starts a story, most of the events are unknown. Instead it starts with some seed (as discussed above) and is then fleshed out from that point. It is constantly revised and polished. During this process, the exact events, either the planned or already written, are in constant flux. Most of the time other things are much more important than a precise happening. Only a subset of events need to happen in an definite fashion; the rest are just there to realize other elements. Together, all the crucial events make up the plot.

If a person A needs to be at location B at time C, then this is part of the plot. The way in which person A accomplishes this is of less importance, and thus the manner of transportation is not a plot point. Thinking in this way makes it a lot easier to think about interactive stories.


- Narration -
The final story element is the way in which the story is told. At the highest level this deals with things like chronology, how cuts are made, the voice of the teller (e.g. first person) and the subjectivity of the telling (e.g. unreliable narrator). All these concern the basic framework for how the story is put together. It is a basic definition of narration that most agree to.

Narration can be thought of having lower levels as well. In a book or movie, most of the story can come from the protagonist simply making certain actions, but in a game the interaction makes this a lot harder and other tricks are needed. Examples of this is using audio logs or spoken narration (as heard in Bastion). Therefore I find it best if the term narration also includes very specific devices that help communicate the story.

Now that we are done with the constituents of a story, I will discuss a few connected terms:


- Narrative -
My proposed definition for this term will probably be a little harder to get a across, but I think it is a very important one. In common language "narrative" is pretty much a synonym to "story". My definition, however, is the subjective experience of the player; the personal sequence of events and emotions that the player has when playing through the game. It can be said to be a player's account of her experience, but that would not be entirely accurate since what I am after is the raw direct experience of actually playing the game.

What follows are my three main reason for using this term and definition:

First of all is that we need a word for the personal experience; story does not sum it up as it does in other media. However, this definition still applies to other media too. As explained in for the term "plot", every last detail of the final work is not a part in the story, thus it can be said the final version a book or movie is not a story, but a narrative of a story.

Second, it allows us to talk about intended narrative; the experience that we want the player to have. This can be in pretty rough terms, but it is a very helpful way to talk about it.

Third and final, why not just use the word "experience"? Because it is too broad. When we talk about narrative, we mean the story focused experience. For instance, a shoot-em-up game give rise to a very complex experience, but the story material that is communicated is very thin and simplistic. A game that is focused on a providing an engaging narrative is a game where every part of the experience is directly connected to the story.

Important to note is that a good story does not mean a good narrative. The elements in the story can be very compelling, but if they fail to be communicated in an engaging fashion, the narrative ends up a bad one.


- Gameplay -
This term is really hard to pin down as it easily becomes too wide or too narrow. One could simply say that gameplay happens anytime the player interacts with a system in the game, but that does not really hold up how most of us use it. Mostly it is only a subset of possibly interactions that serves as gameplay. For instance , if a bushes waves a bit when the player walks past, few call this gameplay. Having this wide definition also makes it so close to simply "interactions" that it becomes meaningless. On the other hand, one could say gameplay is any interaction that is framed as a goal oriented challenge. This is seems accurate as it agrees with many common forms of  gameplay (puzzle solving, shooting bad guys, matching blocks, etc). However, it becomes problematic in terms of storytelling.

If the aim of a game is to provide the most powerful narrative possible, then that goal often clashes with that of creating challenges.  When creating a game about storytelling, characters should be perceived as proper elements of the story (with emotions, motives, etc) and not just an obstacle or power-up. Because of this, a game with heavy focus on narrative might have to cut down a lot on the challenge. However, it does not seem right to say that means the game must do away with gameplay as well. If a game offers non-challenging interactions with character or other parts of a story it becomes very restrictive, and unhelpful, to instantly claim none of this can be called "gameplay". Thus, there needs some other way to define it.

My conclusion is that gameplay occurs whenever "the mental game space of the player contains a horizon of potential actions that allow for planning". This may sound a bit cryptic, so let me break it down a bit. First of, the "mental game space" is the player's subjective perception of the current state of the game. Important to note is that this does not have to match up with the actual computer state of the game. The player might imagine there is a monster behind the corner when in fact there is none and so forth. The "horizon of potential actions" are actions that the player can see themselves doing in the future. There might be potential actions that are too far away for the player to directly imagine a path to, and these are not part of the horizon. Also, there might be actions that are possible to do, but does not seem meaningful to the player (e.g. jumping off a cliff) or are hidden (e.g. an alternative path to a location). Neither of these are part of the action horizon. Finally, "allow for planning", means that there is some sort of end goal for the player and that the actions on the horizon can help in getting there.

This definition cast a pretty wide net on what gameplay can be, but at the same time also excludes a bunch of interactions. Anything that just happens by chance is not gameplay, neither are actions that lack some sort of goal. A caveat is that this definition can apply to just about any 3D editor, word processor or similar software. But when used in the context of interactive storytelling, there is no real issue.

What is good about this definition is that "gameplay" is not just a binary term. Instead, one can talk about the frequency, action width and narrative relation of the gameplay. All of these shape how the game is played. The higher the frequency of the gameplay, the quicker the action horizon change. A large action width means that the player always have a lot of options on what to do next. Finally, narrative relation means how much the gameplay connects with the underlying story. Important to note is that this term is not a value judgement. Of course, in a storytelling game we want the player to be inside a narrative, but that does not mean that gameplay always have to have narrative relationship.


- Immersion -
Normally this word is used for describing how "real" a game feels, but I think that is the wrong usage. Immersion is simply the state of being very focused on an activity. This can happen for instance when reading a book, watching TV, playing chess and of course playing a videogame. Whenever the rest of the world fades away, and your sole attention lies on a single thing, that is being immersed into something. I think this is the way the term is commonly used, and it is also the most useful for storytelling. Immersion does not rely on crafting something believable; it is simply a measurement on how much attention a game gets from the player.

However, I think it is possible to use "immersed" when talking about believability, but then one has to precise and say, for instance,  "immersed in the game's world". Now it is clear that we are not talking about any kind of focus, but very specifically about feeling strongly connected to the game's virtual world. I think it is important be very clear in this manner as discussions can otherwise become really fuzzy. For example, if I suggest that replaying breaks the immersion, then somebody might counter that they sure as hell were immersed when playing Super Meat Boy. In my statement I meant the specific usage world-immersion, but the response meant the more basic focus-immersion. Further debate becomes pointless as me and my interlocutor are talking about different things.


- Presence -
Closely related to immersion is "the sense of presence". I think this is a great term for talking about the feeling of being inside a game's world, as it basically means being present somewhere. Even though someone has never hear the term before, they can easily guess what it means, and it is harder to make false connections. This makes it a lot better to talk about presence than immersion when discussing the sense of being somewhere else..

So how to define "presence"? If we simply take it as "the feeling of present in a fictional place", then it becomes hard to know exactly what to strive for. What does it really mean to feel more "present"? With immersion, we only talked about the focus; in that case it was just a matter of how much of the player's attention is directed at the game. But "being more/less present" is either awfully close to the definition "immersion" or very fuzzy.

My suggestion for a definition is this:

  • How much how of the mental model (ie, what we use to predict and make plans) for the game overlap the with the game's story. If we treat characters like real people then presence is strong; if we treat them like robots then presence is weak.
  • How much involuntary reflexes are triggered in accordance to the story aspects of an event. If the player makes a quick jerk when an objects is coming right at their face, then presence is strong. If the player does not shiver a bit when entering a cold environment, presence is low.

The stronger the game achieve the above criteria, the stronger sense of presence it has. By thinking about the relationship between the actual story and what is going on in the player's head, we get a very clear idea of what presence really is. This makes discussions on this subject a lot easier and also makes it easier to set up goals for oneself.



These are all the terms that I wanted to bring up. There are a few more, some of which I will cover in the notes, but I think the above are the mostly commonly used and the most important ones. Keep in mind that these definitions are not meant to be something set in stone. It is the first step in a conversation and I am interested in hearing what everyone thinks of them.


Super Meat Boy is a game where the player dies A LOT. It is a very good example of when a game can be very repetitive, but remain immersive.
Script for a lecture in which I go over how challenge can be damaging to games with storytelling.
An older post that explains more of the reason for the above definition of storytelling.



  • Related to setting and characters are the words "fiction" and "lore" as well. I do not want to give any clear definitions on these, mainly because I do not use them very often, other than saying they are subsets of "story". They share a lot of the the elements in a story, but I never think one use the word as meaning exactly the same as story. Most often they are used with the meaning of something very similar to "setting".
  • Another word that can be worth touching upon is "mechanic". Normally this is just a shorter version of "gameplay mechanic", thus it is any system that helps gives rise to gameplay as defined above. This is not limited to pure code and logic, but it can also be text, graphics and sound.

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Bart Stewart
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A very nice round-up.

Something I've found useful is distinguishing plot from story in this way: plot is about what happens; story is about why it happens and why it matters.

Gene Wolfe is said to have put it something like this: "Plot is 'the King died, then the Queen died'; story is 'the King died, then the Queen died *of grief*.'"

By that working definition, computer games tend to be OK at plot, but don't do well at all at telling stories. I suspect this gas to do with not being able to see inside a character's head from an omniscient point of view as novels can be so good at doing.

Where's the computer game version of an omniscient perspective?

Daniel Accardi
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Hi Bart,

That's certainly one diagnosis, but I don't know; I'm inclined to say games aren't great at story, by this definition, simply because it's a somewhat difficult task. Maybe it's kind of a question of...personal aesthetic valuation, but if a novel relies mostly on its omniscient perspective to tell a story, I feel like it's just a poorly-written book. You don't need to say "the Queen died of grief," if it's sufficient to say, "the Queen looked at the portrait of her husband, said nothing, and closed her eyes." Games could and can tell excellent stories with their sorely limited points of view.

Also, good article, Thomas! There is a lot of work on this sort of thing already, so I'm presuming you've done your homework. Personally, I tend to lean on Gerard Genette's Narrative Discourse. Ultimately, I think the problem is this: even within literary theory, there's no consensus on what means what, so I don't know how likely it is that in game design, we'll reach a consensus on what means what borrowed from literary theory. This is a good little collection of ideas to stand alongside several of the other glossaries you might find in longer works by scholars like Juul, Aarseth, Bogost, etc. All together, we'll at least be able to keep making games alright : P


Altug Isigan
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Just to make a little correction: The "grief" example belongs to E.M. Foster (The Art of the Novel), as far as I know. He uses the example to point out the importance of causality in turning into narrative what is otherwise only a statement. Causality reframes the relationship between the subjects in the statement and creates a plot, a time vector, and a sense of fate. Through this we can infer a story behind the deaths of the king and the queen. In other words, adding *because of grief* to the end of the statement that contains the king and the queen, causes the set up of a duality between plot and story, and this elevates the set of statements to a narrative.

About the terminology review above: I'm not convinced. The reason for that is that I see confusion in regard to terms in narrative theory and drama theory. Second, the review mantains the popular but useless divide between gameplay and narrative. This terminology problem cannot be solved unless we see that games are narratives.

All games possess narrativity. To reveal its presence, you only need to ask why a character carries out a certain action: Why does Mario fight turtles? *Because* he wants to save the princess. Why is the princess in captivity? *Because* she was kidnapped by an evil monster etc. Through this underlying causal structure, which is revealed step by step, and experienced as plot, the dicourse gives you clues about, and actively invites you to ask questions on, the possible chronological order of things: A process through which one can construct the mental picture of story.

To do this, one can for example utilize a dialogue with an NPC: The talk of the NPC would reveal something about the plot and allow us to re-construct a mental picture of the story. But one can also use traces of blood on a wall to tell that prior to this moment something terrible must have happened. All these are examples of storytelling: To reveal aspects of story in the form of a plot.

"Mario is running" would remain a statement (although you could "play" such a sequence too), but "Mario is running *because* he must save the queen to restore peace" is a narrative (one that elevates play to a joyful level). That's the difference that narrativity brings to gameplay. In other words, what matters in the joy derived from a game is not just the gameplay (you can play a statement as well), but narrativity. The joy of playing Mario does not come from the jumping-around alone: How long would you continue to do that? It would feel purposeless without the goals stemming from the causal structure of the plot. What makes it so joyful to jump-around is the plot that articulates every single gameplay action into the plot and turns it into a ring of the causal chain. Only through this can you read a story out of the actions you do and the things that happen. Without narrativity, you have no game, only action.

About the terminology used in narrative theory: Narrative theory makes the following distinctions:
Narrative (A) can be seen as the sum of discourse (B) and story (C).
Story (C) is the chronological order of events, and this chronological order is only a "mental picture". What we get to see to create such picture is discourse.
Discourse (B) is the presentation of story, but often in way in which the chronological order is manipulated so as to achieve aesthetic ends". This is a plotted version of the story and the discourse delivers this plot to us through the act of storytelling and its techniques.

When the audience watches/reads/plays a narrative (A), it only encounters the discourse (B), the actual narration of events: The things seen on the screen and heard from the speakers. This stream of arranged (plotted) sense-data is mentally processed so as to construct a mental model of the story (C). Hence, consuming a narrative (A) is the dual act of processing plot (B, things in the order they are narrated by discourse) and mentally re-constructing story (C, things in the order they must have happened as infered from the order they are narrated).

The various ways in plotting a story, allows for the creation of many intriguing experiences for the audience. For example in the film Memento, the plot is designed so as to present to us events in "reverse chronological order". Tarantino also likes to do this kind of shuffling a lot.

To present an abstraction of the relation between discourse and story:

Story = A B C D E F
Discourse = B C D E F A, or F E D C B A, or any other combination.

A special case is the following one: the discourse may present events in exactly the same chronological order as that of the story (A B C D E F). However, when a story is revealed in its exact chronological order, it doesn't mean there is no discourse or plotting. It just means that all things are plotted in their chronological order. (Choosing not to change anything is one among many aesthetic choices) Sometimes this is chosen for aesthetic reasons, sometimes the limitations of the medium may force one to stick with no plotting as discursive strategy.

A final remark: Drama theory divides conflct into inner and outer conflict. Outer conflict contains the "to do" part, the actions that a character takes. And inner conflict is the "to be" part, the thoughts a character maintainss about her actions. To rephrase your argument, computer games tend to focus on outer conflict aspects more, and on inner conflict aspects less. In other words, what people call "the gameplay" is the outer conflict of the game narrative, whereas inner conflict aspects (the why's and how's) are often packed into cutsenes or lenghty dialogues.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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Wow, what a jumbled mess, please stop redefining words that work perfectly fine.

Also how is this game related?

Michael Ball
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For all that is good in this life, please stop being "that guy".

Darren Tomlyn
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I'm not really sure I should reply to any more threads on this site until I've finished what I'm working on - but I keep seeing the same problems repeating themselves, (usually related to the information represented by the following words - game, art, puzzle, competition, work, play, story, narrative etc.), and it's hard just to stand by and let these mistakes happen, (especially when they're not recognised to be mistakes, such as these).

Part of me just wants to point you towards my current blog, letting you know it has problems, (that what I'm working on deals with), and leave it at that:

But precisely because the current version of my blog has problems - especially some that you may not recognise and understand atm. - I'm not really sure that's going to fix all the problems we see here - (and everywhere else).

However, parts of my current blog should be okay, because the main problem you have is one that is covers consistently - what the basic framework has to be that everything fits within and is related to:

A consistent (enough) definition of the word story.

It is because you are lacking this, that nothing else truly exists in its proper context, based upon and within the basic rules of the language itself - which is where direct cause of these problems lie, since we do not fully know and understand what those rules are - which then affects your perception and understanding of such elements, too.

But hopefully, if you understand what a story is, you might begin to understand how and why everything else is related to it.

A consistent, (but slightly different from the one in my current blog (for a good reason)), definition of the word story would be:

Story: (An intangible thing, being used as a noun) - A form or arrangement of information of or about a series of things that happen, either real or imaginary, (created and stored within (a person's) memory).

You shouldn't have any problems relating and understanding narrate/narrative/narrator/narration to such a definition - (i.e. about telling stories). (Narrator and storyteller are technically the same thing, though a narrator is usually related to a specific story, whereas storyteller usually relates to stories in general, often/usually fictional.)

However, there is one word you've missed, which plot is closely related to, (and should therefore need to be part of fully understanding it):