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Game narrative: thinking outside the lines
by Elise Trinh on 02/20/14 11:47:00 pm   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.


Hello world! I am working on a personal project and here are some of the things I found so far about game narrative; they may be of interest. At least, they may lead to some discussions and discussions are nice. I love discussions.


Thinking outside the lines

In video games, people are often arguing about linear stories VS non-linear stories. How linear stories are too restrictive, and how non-linear stories are better ways to write for games.

Well, in my humble opinion... It's... wrong!

I disagree with the use of "linear" or "nonlinear" here. Narratively speaking, it is incorrect. To be more specific, I think they are overused and do not focus on what really matters regarding game storytelling.

When a narrative is "linear", events are told in a chronological order. This kind of narrative is usually represented by a straight arrow - or else.

Or else

This also means that a branching story can have a linear structure in fine...

Walking Dead, Telltale Games

When a narrative structure is nonlinear, events are told in a disorganized order - using flashforwards, flashbacks, several points of views, etc. 

Consequently, there are "nonlinear" stories in other medias - tons of them... 

Memento (Nolan)

Nonlinear stories are no better than linear ones. It just depends on the story you want to tell.

When someone talks about a "linear story" in a game, he may refer to a character-driven story. The events are commonly, but not necessarily, told in a chronological order. In fact, narrative can be either linear or nonlinear. The main concern is that events and chronology are determined by the main character's actions/decisions. Thus, players do not lead anything in this case: they are following the character's path.

When someone describes a "nonlinear" story in games, what he may actually mean is a player-driven story. In these games, storytelling is meant to be shaped by players' actions/decisions throughout the game. For example, in open-world games, players can choose which quests they will play, which one they will complete first... Players' path may be linear - if they follow one quest - or nonlinear - if they switch between quests.

Red Dead Redemption

Thus, issues about storytelling in games may not be about linearity: they could be more about the whole narrative processing. Using the words "linear" and "nonlinear" can be confusing, in a sense that they are usually refering to the course of actions, the chronology - not the "the one who is in charge of them". Knowing who is leading here is the most important thing both in terms of story AND narrative.


Differences between story and narrative

I am not a big fan of theories and narratology, but I do believe that anyone who wants to write for games should think about the difference between story and narrative. These concepts really affect what and how we write. 

To make it short:

- a story is about facts or events that are happening in a predefined world. The writer chooses to highlight some characters and some events among others.

Example: This is the story of a guy who first was nothing, and after some adventure became the Granddaddy of Them All. The End.

- narrative describes how the story is told: in a linear or in a nonlinear way, which point(s) of view will be used, etc.

Example: From the story I pitched earlier, I decide to write a 4-point-of-view narrative, with the buddy, the wife, the kid and the main character's points of view. There will also be 5 flashbacks and 3 flashforwards. The game starts by the end of the story and ends by the beginning of the story.

Do you see what I mean?

I also like foodie metaphors - they are the best ones.

Take a good baguette.

Actually, this is not exactly a baguette, but whatever. 

The story may be the list of the ingredients: flour, water, salt...

The narrative would be the way you cook all these ingredients: you can follow the "regular" recipe or improvize from it.

Now you get it, right? No?

This distinction strongly affects game narrative, especially regarding... branching stories.

From what I have seen so far, branching stories either let the player lead the narrative but not really the story: choices have mostly an impact on how the story is told, but not really on what is happening in the story, and on how it will end...

Walking Dead again

... or players can decide some key elements of the story but not the narrative: at certain points, players will make decisions, but the whole structure of the game will remain the same... 

It sure rained a lot this day

That may be why players are complaining about how their "choices do not matter" or do not have enough consequences in games. In most of the games with branching stories, players either have control over the pace of their story, or some of its content. But they can never lead both - there are of course some exceptions, but they seem quite rare to me*...

So many stories in The Sims

So if players want to lead story and narrative in games, if they want to bake their own stuff - with flour, salt and water and some personal ingredients, you can make a lot of things - then where is the writer? What can he do? How can he tell a good story anyway? How does he define/limit the world in which players will play?


Well, I am working on that. 


À bientôt!


*Please comment this post with other examples you may know! 



To see further: 

Game design as narrative architecture - H. Jenkins

Games telling stories? - J. Juuls

Narrative organization through video game space - M. Zona

Video: Player-driven stories: how do we get there - K. Hudson

The history and theory of sandbox - S. Breslin

Writing and the future of the gaming industry - O. Paciuszko

In narrative games self-expression doesn't mean empowerment - L. Alexander

Why story is not narrative - J. R Halverson

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David James Ballard
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Great post. I've always found the debate over explicit versus player-story a bit silly. While it is a perfectly valid debate, I find that most people push for a magic bullet, one-size-fits-all solution that doesn't exist. We have room in our craft for all kinds of different story/narrative methods, just like any other medium. I think we tend to over-generalize what people want out of games. There is a larger, more diverse audience of gamers today than we have ever had before and that is a great thing!

To claim that there is only one "true way" to approach narrative and still be considered a game is like claiming a song isn't music unless it contains bass, guitars, and drums. While a great deal of popular music employs these instruments, there are also countless others in a nearly infinite sea of genres - from brass bands to electronic music, film scores and symphonic music to hip hop and metal et al. These are wildly different sounds and styles, but they are all forms of music.

In games, we employ a variety of narrative methods (like instrumentation/style) and story structure (like composition) to achieve a particular kind of experience. These methods will vary in their success among sub-groups of gamers, but they not inherently right or wrong. I am actually working on a post right now about the "is it a game?" debate surrounding some of last year's releases.

Looking forward to seeing what you're working on and how you execute on granting player agency in both story and narrative. Sounds ambitious... And awesome!

Elise Trinh
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I totally agree, there is no one-size-fits-all-solution but people really wish there was one, partly because commercially speaking it is easier to make games for one audience and one audience only; also because we want to assert that 1. video games is a legitimate medium to tell stories, and 2. there is one way to prove it once and for all. But there is no magical recipe, that's for sure.

Your analogy with music is accurate; it goes the same way with movies, some are not meant to tell a story at all, but they are still movies and can be fully enjoyable without telling any "story"; others do tell a story but there are countless ways to tell a good story. I look forward to your article about "is it a game?" It is a really interesting question; it seems that the more video games become a mass media, the more we want to define it. We are discovering its powerful potentialities; defining what can be a video game or not is a way to create boundaries that will help the audience to identify it, and creative people to make "better games". Limits boost creativity... but of course it can also restrict it in a wrong way.

Haha I hope that the thing I am working on will... work, hehe.

Thanks a lot for your comment!

Alexis Hallaert
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Hi Elise,

I found interesting (and great!) that you are saying you hope your experiment in narrative design will just "work", like it "function", operate as intended, imagined. I find myself in the same state because I try to be genuine in design and I try to elaborate game structure and play dynamics from what flows from the concept. What it means to incarnate this role ? What it means to live in such an environment ? *Dont want to reveal too much here lol, because i'm not comfortable enough with it maybe*

Anyway, it appears to me a lot of game creators do risk mitigation concerning the innovations they are willing to take. I mean, most design are based on something, like genre conventions, that already had been proven to *just work*, and then a uniqueness is added, a mechanic twist or a reversal of expectations. This is a sensible attitude because interactive boundaries that emerges from a yet unknown system are hard to predict. Personally, although I believe in the strengths of traditions and legacies in my real life, I keep acting as an iconoclast regarding game development, rejecting any creative process that is not "genuine".

Just my 2 cents. Wish you the best.

Elise Trinh
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Hey! Thanks a lot :)
I agree with you about the fact that "reproducing what has always worked" has proven its limits now, especially if video games want to reach a larger audience and take full responsability of being a bigger medium - with great power comes great responsabilities, as usual.
I wish you the best too!

Nick Harris
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I don't understand the distinction you have made between the player-driven story and the character-driven story, surely the player adopts the role of the character as a prerequisite of the adventure they are undertaking? Even a game series like Grand Theft Auto is trying to compartmentalize player's random sociopathic whims to the easily accessible Online mode rather than have Michael and Franklin act out of character, whilst Trevor is just a switch of the D-Pad away if you feel like indulging your dark side. It is also hard to see, given his capabilities how you could play the role of Master Chief in the Halo series as anything other than a Heroic one with a potential for Legendary acts of Spartan bravery, given the ability to vault over explosions and hijack oncoming vehicles in mid-air, pausing only briefly to let his power armor recharge before re-entering the fray.

Elise Trinh
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About the distinction, well, if you take a RPG game - like Skyrim - players customize their characters as they want. The distinction between the player and the character is very very thin. Even if the playable character has a specific part to play regarding the whole scenario, players usually can wander as they want in the game universe, completing quests they want, in the order they want. In this case, they have some power over the pace of their story and some of its content.

The tricky point is, the presence of a playable character does not mean that this is necessarily a "character-driven" story; branching stories are designed to let you some "power" over the story and the character's mind. It's what is doing Telltale or Bioware for example.

The fact that GTA is compartmentalizing is, I think, an issue, and a common one in many open-world games. They are using both a player-driven narrative - letting players do what you call "sociopathic whims" - and a character-driven narrative - forcing the player to follow the characters' story to progress through the game. It is not satisfying in both cases: you cannot really tailor the story as you would like, and the character's story is often not really satisfactory because the "sociopathic whims" create a "nuisance" - as some have said, a "ludonarrative dissonance". I really felt that way when I played Red Dead Redemption: at first, I was just so angry that you can be a sick moron but the game story was not about that at all, so I just kept playing as a "bad guy" at first; then, because it did not make any sense with the whole story, I started to play as a "good guy" - but all the "open-world" features and gameplay felt just like a lie, or a cosmetic design and I really lost interest about them. (Except for shooting hats.)

Finally, my point is that the industry and the audience want more and more player-driven stories; but all we have achieved so far are mostly character-driven stories disguised as player-driven stories. We are "cheating" with the audience, partly because we are mixing up many concepts regarding game narrative; and the audience becomes aware of that.
But it really depends on the story you want to write, and the experience you want to create anyway.

nicolas mercier
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I think a good example of the difference would be in Battlefield/Call of Duty games, where the single-player campaign is character-driven (every player will experience the story the same, and will enjoy the story based on how much they can sympathize with the character they play) and the multi-player component is player-driven (as in, they create their character and play with it and later discuss with their friends and relate the events of the battle)

I hope I understood correctly :)

This is actually (as I write it) a point that might be talked about more: there are many games that have player driven stories: they're multiplayer games, where you give players building blocks (ingredients, in your analogy) and let players make a story as they go along.

Elise Trinh
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Yup you're absolutely right! My main focus was not about multiplayer games, but as we've seen it quite recently: players are more and more appealed by multiplayer games and some of them can achieve great things regarding "player-driven stories".

TC Weidner
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In a story driven game I just like to ask, If me and 5 other people I know play this game, at the end can all 6 of us have different experiences and different outcomes? To me this is important because I actually do want to have some power in how the story is going to unfold and how it will ultimately end. Otherwise Im just jumping through hoops in a linear "interactive" story, and to be honest I would rather just watch a movie if that is the case.

Elise Trinh
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Hehe "linear interactive story", you mean a "character-driven story" right? ;) But I agree with you! Different experiences may lead to different interpretations, and I really believe video games can achieve that. At least, that's really my main focus these days...

Christian Haumer
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Great article! I never thought about the "branched storylines are not non-linear, but still linear" thing.
What's called "Character Driven" and "Player Driven" here is described as "explicit and implicit narrative" in this great article by Jonathan Frye, "Framing Narrative: Enhancing Player Experience":
In my opinion, this article very pretty nails it down.

Elise Trinh
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Thanks a lot for your comment and for the ref!
This article about explicit/implicit narrative is really interesting and I did not know it.

I think the use of "narrative arc" can be confusing though; it's usually refering to a "psychological arc" for the main character(s) from what I know, not only to a "wrapping" content. This is one of the key elements here: should I create a real "narrative arc" - a unique narrative path in fact - or just a "diegesis" where the player can create its own path among all the possibilities?

But I totally agree with his conclusion!