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In my opening article, I arrived at Story as a topic by combining Narrative and Fantasy, which I defined as the events and setting of a story. Although these topics are typically lumped together, each has something unique to contribute to the conversation so I'll address them separately. First, we'll cover Story as narrative.
In games, there is a strong tendency to think of story as the non-interactive part of the experience, something that exists in cutscenes and dialog. And this makes a certain kind of sense; story is traditionally a passive experience, books and movies are experienced with no influence over the outcome.
Yet, in other ways, this doesn't make sense. Story doesn't have to be passive. Oral stories, especially those which are improvised, can be influenced by suggestions from the audience and the theatrical concept of improv is based entirely on the idea of an interactive story.
There is a fascinating card game called Once Upon a Time in which players compete to incorporate topics, drawn from cards, into a collectively-told improvised story.
If you play Once Upon a Time, one thing you'll notice is that the stories it tells are meandering; they don't have a coherent structure and there is no pacing or logical progression from beginning to end. And this, I believe, is the biggest break in expectations between the traditional passive form of movie/book narrative and interactive improvisational/game narrative.
Passive Narrative vs. Interactive Narrative
The most satisfying narratives are carefully crafted. They have clearly defined character arcs, tantalizing mysteries, dramatic shifts and a plotted progression of emotional highs and lows. Robert McKee's highly regarded screenwriting guide Story outlines the entire process in detail.
Yet, there's one difficulty for a game-developer looking to use his model: his prescriptions are entirely impossible in an interactive environment. Interactive stories between a player and a system inevitably meander, slave to the free will of the player, who might spend entirely too long on a puzzle or miss it altogether, refuse to open a particular door or find a certain battle entirely too easy or too challenging. As a basic tenant, the less linear the gameplay, the less control you, as the designer, will have over the story.
The advantages of a passive narrative are optimized levels of expectation and emotion, while the advantages of an interactive narrative are increased choice and personalization. Most games likely involve some blend of the two and we've already talked previously about the advantages of choice and identity. Therefore the focus of this discussion will be the passive side of narrative.
I just described the value of passive narrative as expectation and emotion and I'll cover both of these in detail.
Expectation. When I mention expectation, I'm talking about a few things, drawn from both McKee and my own observations. Stories tend to engage the audience's expectations by including some or all of the following:
These three things all create expectation: the first two combine to ask, what will happen next? The last asks, will my solution or philosophy be validated? Does the author agree with me?
Emotion. The other advantage of the passive narrative is emotion. In a previous article, I already covered emotions, as experienced by the player, but here we'll acknowledge emotions as observed by the player.
While people enjoy experiencing emotion in a safe, controlled environment, direct emotions can still be stressful. A further step back from the direct emotions of games are the vicarious emotions of stories. With stories, an additional level of removal has been added -- the viewer experiences emotion either through the trials and victories of a protagonist or through the morals of society condemning an antagonist (and occasionally both at the same time, as in the case of a movie like Bad Lieutenant).