What is game narrative? It’s a question that developers, writers, reviewers, and publishers have been trying to answer for years with only limited success. Like many other things in this still-young industry, narrative is an area where definitions are still being stretched, formulated, and tried on for size. It is crucial, however, to formalize a definition of game narrative before attempting to create one. Otherwise, you’re trying to hit a moving target with an entire development team waiting for you to make the perfect shot, with a limited chance of success.
To begin with, it is helpful to define what we mean by narrative, which is itself a term replete with ambiguity. For the purpose of this book, we define narrative as the methods by which the story materials are communicated to the audience. We’ll return to this definition and pursue it in more depth in a later chapter. Some game genres are more narrative-friendly, by definition, than others. A multiplayer strategy experience such as Battlefield 1942 (Digital Illusions, 2002) doesn’t have or even need much of a narrative. The game takes a familiar context (World War II) and situation (here’s a battle—go win it) and turns the players loose. Fighting games are also light on narrative. After the central conceit of beating the snot out of the other guy—whomever or whatever he may be—has been established, the narrative exists simply to string the series of bouts together toward the ultimate goal.
On the other hand, some genres of game are heavily dependent on narrative. Adventure games are almost entirely narrative-driven, and platformers and First Person Shooters (FPSs) often have strong narrative components as well. Computer Role Playing Games (cRPGs) are yet another category that depends almost entirely on narrative—the play experience through the game corresponds precisely to the character growth through the course of the narrative. To put it another way, without narrative, Sora, the protagonist of Kingdom Hearts (Square, 2002), stays on the island, sparring with his friends and eating fruit forever. It may be an idyllic existence, but is really fun to play?
The greatest mistake that is made in defining game narrative is the attempt to reduce it to story and story alone. Story is a good start for the narrative, but if story were all there were, then we would be discussing fiction, not games. The story is a launching point for the narrative, not the narrative in toto. By the same token, elements cannot be excised from the narrative as a whole simply because they don’t appear to fit in at first blush. Backstory may often be viewed as nothing more than content to splash on a Web page to create buzz, but a good, coherent backstory may be necessary to support and contextualize the narrative as a whole. Which game feels like it has a stronger narrative, a generic fantasy hack ’n’ slash or one derived from The Lord of the Rings? The answer to this, unlike the question of what is narrative, is comparatively obvious.
Ultimately, narrative comes down to one simple question: What happens? That
is the heart of game narrative—what happens in the game? What story do the players create through their actions as they advance through the challenges, decisions,
and rewards laid out for them by the development team? All the other questions—
what is the world like, who are the characters, why is the player doing this—are secondary to that essential query. Understand what happens, and you understand
narrative. Understand how to create a good answer for that question, and you understand how to create good game narrative.
Numerous techniques underpin this quest to create a narrative, including—cut scenes, character, dialogue, and more. All of these are useful tools for creating the overall construct of the narrative, but they cannot and should not be confused with the narrative itself. They’re part of the process, not the process itself.