So this is from a paper I wrote a couple years ago. Its a bit rough and may not be accurate to the way I think now, but I have used the diagram from this in a few talks I have given; so I wanted to provide access to it and a bit of context to go with it. Also, I know the colors are terrible, eventually I will have the time to update it a bit.
Click below to read the rest of the paper..
The issue of narrative in games is something that is often debated, splitting the conversants into two factions; the ludologists who limit the view of narrative in games and the narratologists who at the extreme believe that all games have narrative. It is my contention that the heart of this argument lies in the vagueness of the word “narrative”. After all, what is narrative? Many ludologists can concede that at least some games have narrative elements, but what does that even mean. The purpose of this paper is to provide a conceptual framework or model of narrative for games in order to apply a lens in which we can discuss and critique the role of narrative in games.
Firstly, we must divide the concept of narrative into two major types which come to light when discussing games. These types are implicit narrative and explicit narrative. All games, no matter the type contain one or both of these types of narrative. This statement will become clearer as I discuss the framework that underlies each type.
Implicit Narrative: the Player’s Narrative
The defining characteristic of implicit narrative is that it is player-focused and in most cases, player generated. Implicit narratives are derived in one of two ways; through the metaphorical understanding of the player or through the experience of the game play itself. The metaphorical understanding of the player is how the individual player or observer interprets the meaning or perpetuating story of the game. It is highly subjective and is often one of the more controversial forms of implicit narrative. An example of this is seen when theorists such as Ian Bogost can comment on the inherent narrative within Tetris as being a narrative or insight on work. The game represents the never-ending stream of things that need to be done. This is a highly subjective view of Tetris, yet is explainable and understandable to others. The metaphorical narrative comes from the player, and may or may not overlap with the visions of the game’s designers. This type of narrative is often seen as a way in which a game is given higher level meaning within society. What is this game really trying to say? What are the underlying messages that we can take away from this game? These are the questions that allow us to look for the metaphorical narrative that may exist within the game.
The second form of implicit narrative is the experience of the game play. It is what the player encounters, the content and how the player interprets what happens in the game. An example of this is when someone retells the story of how they completed a task or part of the game. It includes the way in which they interpret what occurred and what they deem as being worth mentioning. This may or may not line up with the game designers intentions. What does the player see as important? How do they recall what happened in the game? What is the story that they tell about the game? These are all parts of the experience of playing the game. This experiential narrative can be segments of game play and how the player negotiated specific parts or levels, but it can also be the overall experience of playing through the entirety of the game. It is also important to note that the experiential narrative also incorporates the strategy that the player used as part of the game play.
For example, consider two players who are playing the same scenario in a game of Starcraft. One player uses a tech heavy strategy, where they emphasize making upgrades over producing units. The purpose of this strategy is to try to produce an army of higher level units as quickly as possible. This often leaves the player vulnerable to early attacks as they spend resources manly on upgrades and sparingly on units. Now look at the other player who uses a mass unit, early attack strategy. This player does not use resources on upgrades and instead produces as many low level units as possible as quickly as possible. This player must explore the map early and attack as soon as an enemy is discovered. The strategy that this player uses is vulnerable if they cannot find the enemy fast enough and the enemy is able to build a sufficient number of units with upgrades. These two players could play the exact same scenario within Starcraft, but their experiences and therefore their descriptions and understandings of the game or story of the game will be significantly different. They may even attribute the characteristics of their play with the main characters in the story. The term “zerging” comes from a strategy in Starcraft where players would use a mass unit strategy when playing as a particular race called the “zerg”. However, although this strategy was popular, it was hardly the only way to be successful while playing that particular race. Hence, people that employed the zerging strategy had vastly different experiences that those who did not. Therefore, interpretations of the game and what game play is like are vastly different. Using the two players from our example, if you asked them to describe the game, they would likely give very different depictions. This is a form of narrative. It is the story that is created from the experience and can affect how the game is seen and how the embedded narrative (if there is one) is interpreted.
Explicit Narrative: The Designer’s Narrative
The explicit narrative of a game can be any number of elements that the designer decides to incorporate into a game in order to give it a story. The construct of explicit narrative incorporates several structures or methods that designers use in an attempt to enhance the immersion that the player experiences. The following will discuss two types of explicit narrative: the narrative arc, and micro-narratives. Although similar, these terms are not to be considered the same as embedded and emergent narrative. Embedded and emergent narratives are limited in their relationship with interactivity and mechanics, which distinguish them from each other. The narrative arc and micro-narratives are more concerned with the conceptual structure that game designers use within a game to portray stories, themes, etc.
The narrative arc can be thought of as a blanket that is wrapped around the game. It is the essence that surrounds the entirety of a game. This can be thought of as a story, composed of all the elements like plot, or it could simply be what the setting that is used throughout the game or a character that is used through the game. Whatever it is, it is an enveloping element that is seen and experienced throughout the entirety of the game. Typically, this is an entire story such as that of Halo’s master chief. It incorporates settings, characters, and a plot. Now some might say that a story and a narrative arc the same thing. Perhaps a more beneficial way to view this is that narrative is a container in which a story or multiple stories can fit along with various other elements that are not necessary to the story, but can add depth or richness to the story or in games, the experience of the story.
The narrative arc, as used in this model can also be thought of as the elements that make a game distinguishable. It is that portion of the representational layer of games that allows you to identify the game as specific and unique. It is the essence that binds games of the same series. For example, what elements allow Half-life 2 to be seen as a sequel to Half-Life 1? There is a narrative arc that not only encompasses the first game but carries on to the second, allowing you to recognize it as related. Another way to think about this is to look at the Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts. These games have very different mechanics, but there is an overarching connection between them because the same characters are used and stories are linked (although not necessarily well).
The last concept proposed here is that of micro-narratives within a game. These are short stories, decision points, and other elements that contribute to the richness of the narrative arc, but are not essential. In other words, if they were eliminated from the game, players would still understand the narrative arc, but the narrative arc would not have the same depth or immersion. These can be short stories or side missions such as those seen in Fallout 3. They can also be decisions, often as moral or ethical questions or paths that the player must choose. Micro-narratives are elements that can contribute to the main story that a game is telling, but is not necessary to make that story understandable. In this way, cut-scenes can often, but are not always considered micro-narratives depending on how much they contribute to the overall story. If they are in integral part of the main story being told, then they are part of the narrative arc; but if the main story is understandable through the game play and the cut-scenes are merely added to enhance the overall narrative, then they are micro-narratives. In other words, is the narrative arc understandable without the cut-scene? The key to micro-narratives is that they are elements used in a game to enrich the narrative arc and to enhance the player’s experience and understanding of the narrative arc.
Working Together: Case Example
In many games, there is overlap where aspects of implicit narrative and explicit narrative interact and overlap with each other. In order to provide an example of this model put to use, let’s examine the popular game of Monopoly. Although the narrative elements of this game are simple, this game can exhibit each element of the model presented. Examples of each type of narrative will be discussed, but there is a certainty that I may have missed some of the instances that occur in the game.
For this example, let’s start with the explicit narrative. In Monopoly, there is a clear and distinguishable narrative arc. Players take on the role of real estate tycoons. As real estate tycoons, they must purchase and develop properties in an attempt to gain control of and monopolize all the property. The narrative arc contains the necessary elements to make this story evident and understandable to the player, such as the setting (properties), characters (players as real estate tycoons), and transactions (ways of obtaining/selling property). The micro-narratives are the elements designed to make the narrative arc more real. The micro-narratives of Monopoly are the cards that have little stories or story elements, being able to build houses or hotels, jail, and property names/characteristics. Now it is important not to confuse micro-narratives with game mechanics, although they can be the same in certain instances. In Monopoly, there are a number of mechanics that have nothing to do with the explicit narrative, such as the number of properties, rolling the dice, or collecting money by passing “Go”.
Now let us look at the implicit narrative that is within Monopoly. In this case, the metaphorical narrative is similar to the narrative arc, but can extend beyond the narrative arc. For instance, the player may interpret Monopoly to be an expression of how a free-market economy works and eventually one person or company can take over an industry. This may or may not be an interpretation that the game designers considered, but nevertheless, is something that players may take away from the game. Metaphorical narratives are perhaps the most difficult to critique or fully understand because there are so many possibilities and interpretations that players can make. And finally, the experiential narrative of the Monopoly is how each player experiences the game. Success, failure, mistakes, good decisions, could all be part of the experiential narrative. The strategy that each player used is also part of the experiential narrative. Maybe one player decided to by any property they landed on, while another only bought high price/high payout properties. These strategies, along with other decisions and interactions that occurred affect the players experience and interpretation of the game. This also means that the experiential narrative is unique to each instance of game play.
Ludology vs. Narratology
From what I have written up to this point, it may seem like I am an ardent narratologist. After all, I did comment that all games have either implicit or explicit narrative or both. However, the point that I really want to make is that games, especially video games have arrived at a point where the argument between narratology and ludology no longer matters. While it is important that game designers have an understanding of these concepts, the argument does not propel games forward in a way in which taking the best elements of both can do. All games create an experience for the player which can be more or less guided by the designer, and whether or not this is called “narrative” really does not matter. Many games are designed with a specific story, with narrative elements of plot, characters, settings, etc. However, there are many games that contain none of these elements. Both types can be great or they could fail miserably. It is important that games of both types and on the spectrum in between continue to be made. The bottom line is that designers want to make great games and even if designers choose not to put explicit narratives into games, they are creating an experience for the player. It is my contention that we should not be looking at if games are narrative, but instead take the viewpoint that games can contain and/or create narrative.
Salen and Zimmerman (2004) on “Games as Narrative Play” shed light on important structures for how games portray a narrative such as core mechanic, embedded or emergent narrative, and narrative space. However, in my opinion, they are approaching narrative from the wrong direction. If games are these “possibility spaces” as Warren Spector calls them, why approach narrative through the limited lens of game mechanics and elements. Instead, why not think of strong narratives or messages that you want to portray, and then come up with game mechanics that will allow it to happen. Having broad, but defined characteristics of narrative allows us to create a concept for what we want players to experience, think, understand, and ultimately find pleasure in;, and then to come up with mechanics that bring these about. Not every narrative has to relate to the moment to moment activity or have inherent conflicts. The model proposed in this paper is a way of looking how narratives permeate a game as a whole and provide a guide for critique and to conceptually structure narratives.
Additionally, the purpose o this paper is not to solve the divide between narratology and ludology, but instead to say “Who cares? I just want to make great games.” And in doing that, I have provided a framework in which to examine narrative use in games in order to aid in finding out what works and what does not. This model is meant to serve as a model for critiquing how narrative is built into or arises from a game. After all, what matters most for the success of a game (in my opinion) is what the player experiences.
Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of play: Game design fundamentals. MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass.