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Analysis: Narrative - A Montage Without Music
Analysis: Narrative - A Montage Without Music Exclusive
August 14, 2009 | By Andrew Doull

August 14, 2009 | By Andrew Doull
More: Console/PC, Columns, Exclusive

[Examining narrative in games, writer and developer Andrew Doull discusses how various gameplay types either do or don't support the development of a throughline, seeking tools that designers can use to "empower" their stories.]

Clint Hocking coined the term ludonarrative dissonance to define the conflict between game play and narrative that arises -- for his example, Bioshock -- when the elements of game play end up opposing instead of supporting the narrative and vice versa. He implies that by harmonizing ludic and narrative elements in a game will improve the game, and any gap between the two results in a less than satisfactory experience.

I argue here that there is an even more important gap in narrative design: one created by attempting to map inappropriate narrative techniques from other media onto games, created by a fundamental misunderstanding of how narrative works in games.

I define here a simple narrative theory, which leads to an alternate meta theory about the structure of narrative in games, and attempt to show how analysis of some traditional narrative techniques fail because they do not take account of the meta-narrative requirements of gameplay.

To translate into a more concrete example: I believe many game designers are doing the equivalent of writing a montage in a novel and everyone, but especially game critics, wondering why there is no music.

How Games, Narrative Snuggle Up

When discussing narrative, I’m not especially interested in the ‘effects’ of narrative on the player so much as the ‘function’ of narrative. That is, what role does narrative have in the process of playing of a game?

The simplest and most compelling theory is narrative exists to help the player continue playing the game. Narrative does this by encouraging the player to have an emotional investment in the story, by tying together a series of potentially unconnected events and places (the ice level, the fire level), and giving perceived value to repetitive actions.

This overarching function of narrative at any point in the game has two immediate goals: telling the player what actions they need to do next, and reminding the player what they have already done.

Telling the player what they need to do next can take the form of a quest diary or journal that a player can refer to at any point. It becomes increasingly important as the complexity of games has increased.

Introducing the 3rd dimension immeasurably increases the difficulty of navigating the playing space, as does other ‘realistic’ effects: dust, clouds, smoke, and moving the colour space towards brown, wet and reflective increase the requirements of filling your levels with shouty men standing where you need to be, pointing at things you need to shoot (This is epitomised in the single player campaigns in the Call of Duty series of games).

In this sense, to rephrase Clint Hocking, if the best we can achieve with narrative in games is to prevent the screen scrolling to the left, then we have failed to use it to its full capability.

Reminding the player what they have already done is in some sense less critical: it helps with the elimination process for figuring out where to go and what to do – but the necessity of repetition in games may confuse even this issue.

But it ensures the player knows what they can do – what capabilities they have at any point in time. More importantly, this aspect of narrative is what carries the emotional investment of the game – because it reminds the player if nothing else of the time they have already spent playing.

Story, From Outside To Inside

But what the narrativist debate in games is actually about is less the function of narrative, and more that this narrative experience requires an external agency for it to be effective - an author, who provides the narrative to the player through cut scenes, traditional story telling mechanics like dialog and literally dropping story text, in the form of diaries and recorded messages throughout the game space.

My experience with roguelikes suggests external agency is not a requirement. Narrative exists in roguelikes in two forms, in a similar ‘what I’ve already done’ and ‘what I have to do’ form (it would be disingenuous of me to omit the fact I’ve chosen a narrative theory that provides this correspondence).

The ‘what I’ve already done’ consists of after adventure reports (AARs) and day in the lifes (DiTL) written by players of roguelikes and posted to the forums and shared with other players. The ‘what I have to do’ form consists of a check list of items that have been learned by repeated play as necessities for successful progression in the game.

Narrative in this sense is a user generated experience – but other narrative forms are equally user centric. Literature provides this by mimicking the internal voice through the process of reading; film, television and first person shooters by superpositioning the viewer over the camera location.

Games do this by creating a space where a set of psychological needs can be replicated and fulfilled. The difference between traditional narrative and games is that with games the player is not only required to read the narrative, but must make decisions to propel it forward.

The simplest narrative is takes the ‘and then’ form – perhaps told by a child. ‘And then we went to the park. And then it was raining. And then there was a red ball. And then I fell down.’ We are remarkably adept at constructing a compelling internally consistent story from this sequence of statements. But if I was to ask you come up with the next statement in the sequence of events, you’d immediately pause.

You’d need to consider the likely sequence of events (was this child’s care giver there, were they seriously injured, is there a hospital near by, does someone have a phone) and provide a statement that follows consistently. That in itself is not difficult.

But where the current gap with games occurs, is that you must not only consider a whole set of information, the game designer must have anticipated all of this criteria as well, and provided for the set of decisions you are likely to make. The correct answer, of course, is ‘And then Zoe helped me up.’ – it’s a retelling of a game of Left4Dead.

It is the gap between the decision making capabilities of the player, and the game rules built by the game designer that makes narrative problematic. We overcome this game through repeated play, as I suggested, through learning the rules of the game and improving our skill in navigating the game space.

But linear narrative fails to provide a supporting framework for repeated play: ‘And then we went to the park. And then we went to the park. And then we went to the park. And then we went to the park.’ is a far less interesting a story. We focus a lot more on the exceptional events than the everyday.

But we need that everyday framework to ground this in – reread the first example with the insertion of ‘And then zombies attacked.’ as every second sentence to understand how this framing helps understand context.

Permadeath As A Narrative Solution?

I firmly believe that roguelikes have solved the narrative 'problem' through permadeath: which forces the player to experience this repeated play, while focusing the mind of the designer on how to provide sufficient variety with each play through to make the experience unique.

The roguelike narrative of a single play through is united, I’ve argued elsewhere, by the meta-narrative of repeated interesting and hopefully unique failure which guides the player’s learning of the rules of the game. The player overcomes essentially the same challenge over and over, as the player improves in their ability to use the resources they have, over an ever changing, ever escalating topology of surmountable obstacles.

It is no coincidence that this also describes Shadow of the Colossus, a game which has been widely lauded for its synergy of game play and narrative.

This meta-narrative theory, replaying the essentially the same game over and over but with harder to solve problems, can help explain the strength of genre in games – when you move from Doom to Half-Life to Far Cry 2 you are not so much playing new games as replaying the same game again with more complex variations. And it can help explain why some narrative devices from other media fail to survive the transition to gaming.

Imagine you are a designer of a first person shooter which has included a successful widely read writer from the beginning, lauded for the previous work he has done in this game genre.

Not only has he developed the plot, character designs, history and many script elements to support the kind of exciting, perhaps revolutionary game experience you are looking to produce, but he’s included a plot twist about a third of the way into the game which introduces and provides a coherent explanation for an innovative game mechanic element which features for the remainder of the game. How do you market the game?

In the example I’m thinking of, you go out, and demonstrate at every possible opportunity how the new game mechanic works, giving the media footage and press material showing off the technology, and help them inform and educate the gaming public.

Forget the fact that this completely destroys the plot twist for anyone who has the slightest interest in the game: in fact, you’re setting this up so that someone playing the game will spend the first third of it wondering exactly when this mechanic kicks in.

This is comparable to the Wachowski brothers before releasing The Matrix holding press conferences explaining how the machines jack people into their power plants and the BTU output you can expect from an average adult male.

Instead, the brothers chose to run one of the most innovative, audio only campaigns creating heightened anticipation of a movie property which had not yet proved itself, to ensure that the first viewing of their film leaves an indelible mark on the audience. The gaming equivalent I’ve referred to: Clive Barker’s Jericho.

Alternative, Unreliable Narrative Methods

From a traditional narrative perspective, the marketing decision made by the makers of Clive Barker’s Jericho makes no sense. The twist, a movie staple, works because subverting the expectation of the audience doesn’t suddenly cause the movie projector to fail, or the surround sound system to break down.

But subverting the expectation of someone playing a game can result in this complete mechanical failure. If the player doesn't know where to go next, or what they can do, the game can fail.

In this light, it makes perfect sense to spoil the twist in favour of explaining how the mechanic derived from this twist (the player dying and his spirit being able to 'inhabit' any one of a team of characters) is used in game.

While this is a matter of conjecture, I'm am sure early on in user testing, the need to introduce the character switching mechanic to the audience as early as possible was identified and the marketing approach derived rationally from this.

Clive Barker is intelligent enough an author to have deliberately designed the narrative twist which introduces this mechanic. He merely made the mistake of breaking the unwritten rule that any narrative twist should never affect the game play (See Metroid, Metal Gear Solid 2, Bioshock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare etc. for examples upholding this rule).

Similarly, the absence of a falling climax or denouement in most game narratives, much lamented by game critics, is easily explained when viewing the game meta-narrative as an escalating series of repeated actions.

The unreliable narrator is another narrative staple from more traditional media. GLADoS from Portal is the best example of developing an unreliable narrator in a gaming medium: in fact, you are explicitly set up early in the game play to be shown her unreliability by being told by her you cannot complete a puzzle, in direct contrast to the expectation that completing puzzles allow you to progress.

But when presented with the twist and after having been trained throughout the game to use the available tools to avoid destruction, it is still incredible to see the number of people who fail to read the situation, and proceed calmly to their death when ordered to do so (I too am guilty of this mistake). Only the game over screen rescues you from this misinterpretation.

So if these traditional narrative techniques fail to translate readily to the gaming medium, what tools can we use successfully to empower game narrative? That's part of what is so exciting about the medium - we are still in the process of building tools and exploring their utility.

I'm going to suggest two that are successful, and one more controversially so: ownership through naming, resonance and achievements. Undoubtedly there are many more.

[Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand, now based in Sydney, who spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams. He writes an irregular column for GameSetWatch.]

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Glenn Storm
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Thank you for this thoughtful position on the debate, Andrew. I can agree with some points and will disagree on some others worth mentioning.

I agree that there are inappropriate ways to apply techniques from other disciplines to narrative design in games, that gap is tangible. I can agree that 'narratives' are alive in more than one form, seen in literature as well as water-cooler accounts of the previous day's activities. I can agree that dramatic structure requires some kind of auteur to manage audience predictions, leading to surprise, for example. I agree that techniques can help to strengthen dramatic experience in games, and I further see the techniques you specifically mention at the bottom of the article to be an extension of a primal psychological need called Relatedness in self-determination theory. (These all appear to me to be a way of connecting one gamers experience with others in a meaningful way)

I do not quite agree with the distinction that narrative's role is to lead the player toward the goal and remind the player of past action or circumstance. I believe this is an effect of narrative, but as you make clear, there are other ways to do this that don't take a narrative form. I might even be brave enough to assert, you can have a narrative in an interactive experience that does not give the player that information. (I am thinking of Facade, where you literally do not know what has happened or what you can effectively do and there is no clue what possible goals may be, this is an exploration experience in the realm of interpersonal relationships.) I believe the role of a dramatic narrative is to establish sub-text for the experience (answering the "why" question for players), which can certainly lead to a stronger foundation of the game world in the player's mind, including an understanding of game goals, player autonomy, game world affordance and reflection on past experience, but it is not the same.

I made the choice to say 'dramatic narrative' just then because I want to be careful with this term: narrative. Yes, news reporters will talk about the 'narrative' of the story they are reporting. For the reporter, this is often the difference between a sensational story and one that could be cut from the daily publication. And, some of these stories (or true accounts) are fantastically exciting or dramatic, but does that make reporting equal to dramatic narrative design? I see the distinction we need in this debate as simply one between fiction and non-fiction. "Me and my buddies totally wailed on them during that raid!" is a non-fictional account. "I thought after beating the big boss I would be able to save the princess, but just then the *real* big boss showed up.", is an account of an experience in fiction that was designed to set up an expectation, which then turned left. (I expect debate on this point to come from all sides. Please ensure responders take into account I said, "an account of an experience in fiction", not, "a fictional experience" or "a fictional account".)

Again, I agree that dramatic structure requires some kind of auteur to manage audience predictions, but I do not agree that this represents an unattainable goal for an interactive system; it's just a hard problem to solve. I'm aware this touches on a sub-debate about dynamic narrative, but just to make the point, in some very meaningful ways, the AI Director in Left4Dead is effectively managing player prediction (tense and release, calm and crazy). And I think it is an indication that hard problems like this can be solved, probably one small piece at a time, and thus we have a responsibility to try. So, it behooves us to make sure we have those pieces well-defined, to bring us back to this discussion.

Lastly, I would respectfully disagree with the 'unwritten rule' that gameplay and a dramatic narrative should always be in synch in this small way: rules are meant to be broken. Not to be glib, I am saying that the very act of setting up such a rule is in fact setting up an expectation, a prediction. This is like a shiny red apple, beckoning the auteur to use that as a chance to turn left. When we activate a power up, and suddenly become more powerful with new results from our previously learned actions, are we frustrating the player because now Sonic runs too fast, or because Dr. Freeman can now suddenly catch and throw enemy troops, or because our sunflowers now give us twice as much sun?

Despite these disagreements, I invite further discussion and, again, I very much appreciate your thoughtful article. Thanks, Andrew.

Glenn Storm
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I may have gone too far to make a point. That last point I was trying to make includes examples where there is little or no ludonarrative dissonance. My bad. I think should have halted on Sonic, where the *first* time you encounter a power up, the "new results from your previously learned actions" are as yet unknown, yet they are going to be welcome to the player, not frustrating. Similar tweaks to the HL2 example there, focusing on initial experience with new mechanics or altered affects, should be made. But the PvZ example is incorrect: the player is clearly told the effects of double-sunflowers prior to use. I still hold the point, even in extreme cases like the Monsters in Uncharted 1 mentioned in a recent Gamasutra article, there could be a place for ludonarrative dissonance in a satisfying player experience.[/edit]

Glenn Storm
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Comment fail. Please disregard my last point entirely as an incomplete gut feeling about the unwritten rule. My examples don't relate well, and my Uncharted 1 reference does not relate to ludonarrative dissonnance at all.

Note to self: Proof reading must also involve thinking.

Marc Sanders
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It is interesting that you use GLADoS as an example of a failed narrative application; I think it was extremely successful. It even manages to include the psychology of the player into the story (i.e. you realize belatedly that you marched to your death). Game over isn't always a bad thing.

A game's narrative leading the player to fail is not necessarily the failing of the narrative (or the gameplay). It can be the inclusion of the player IN the narrative, in which case it is quite successful. This is based in the idea that games are repeatable, socially-consumed products (you can play them more than once and you can talk to people about them).

Portal's popularity is a testament to that.