Into the Narrative Space

(This is a follow-up to my previous essay on conceiving a game as the intersection of three spaces, world space, design space, and narrative space. If you haven’t yet, you should go back and read it now.)

Regardless of how shallowly or deeply you want to develop the design space, world space, and narrative spaces of your game, the single greatest factor of the experience players will have within that game is the connections between them. Many games treat the narrative space as the carrot, as a reward for exploring the other spaces, and will often create contrived connections to achieve that. A common example of this is the fetch quest, which forces you to endure a trivial task in the world or design spaces in order to make incremental progress in the narrative space.

Ex: Collect 8 bear asses

The end effect of such contrivances is to devalue the intrinsic rewards of exploring each individual space; exploring a world or a gameplay mechanic should be fun in their own right, not a means to an end of a scheduled narrative reward. By the same token, exploring the story should be enjoyable in its own right; many players skip through narrative sequences in games, which raises the question of, not only why they want to skip through these scenes, but why skipping through is an interaction that even makes sense. Skipping through the world exploration scenes is not an interaction that makes sense because those scenes require the player’s input in a meaningful way. What does it imply that the same, by and large, cannot be said of narrative scenes?

It’s somewhat ironic that, while the games industry claims to be trying to push the storytelling ability of the medium, the ability to explore narrative space is still by far the least developed of the three spaces. Even games which use fairly primitive techniques, such as dialogue trees and discovered audio logs, are hailed as exceptional story experiences in this environment– and, what’s worse, rightly so, since they still provide far more satisfying narrative experiences than their competition.

Also provides a more satisfying narrative experience than most games

To be fair, exploring a narrative space is a difficult thing to enable. There’s a reason why dialogue trees are popular, and it’s because they’re the closest thing we can feasibly achieve to actual conversation– which is pathetic, but there you go. Other systems, using text parsing or context sensitive interfaces and the like, either end up being abstracted versions of those same dialogue trees or being clumsy and nonsensical aberrations. In the long run, the most meaningful way to explore narrative space seems to be to transition into it from the other spaces– and yet these transitions are, as I mentioned before, often implemented in the most clumsy ways imaginable.

So what makes a good transition? What makes a bad transition? Let’s look at some of the most popular ways to expose new sections of the narrative space:

Audio Logs

90% of the results I get for a google image search on “Audio Logs” are screenshots from video games. Just sayin’.

An item your character encounters in the world space and, upon picking it up or activating it, it plays a recorded audio scene, another character’s spoken diary, or some variant on that idea. There are a few reasons why this construct has become popular: Because your character isn’t really involved in the exposition, it leaves you free to explore the world and design spaces while you listen to this bit of story, so players who might otherwise be inclined to skip narrative exposition take in the information passively while they play: It lets the writer create fairly straightforward little scenes or monologues in a way which most writers feel comfortable with: And, finally, it lets the designers expose narrative segments without requiring the player to interact with NPCs, which can be a tricky game design issue itself.

However, the audio logs often end up being incredibly contrived, either due to their content (people recording conversations for poorly explained reasons) or due to their placement (leaving each recording on its own individual audio-player scattered around a factory). The end result is that, while the story gets told and some of the individual logs may be compelling, overall the world is made less plausible.

Static Dialogue

Dames. Amirite?

The largely deprecated predecessor to the audio log, in this case the pre-written dialogue is delivered by what is nominally another character. This method was popular in older games, particularly JRPGs, but because the NPCs used for exposition are transparently lifeless it tends to make the narrative space seem contrived and unconvincing. As with audio logs, the player can explore the narrative space at his leisure with minimal-to-no interruption of his exploration of world and design spaces.

Environmental Storytelling

I almost feel like I’m there. Locked in that tiny room, waiting to die, like a convict or an old person.

Exposing narrative space by finding clues in world space. This is one of the few methods of exposing narrative space that video games excel at, since they allow the world space to be explored in a way that most other media can’t. Even a heavy-handed use of this technique usually yields good results; When used well, though, it is the unification of world space and narrative space, world exploration leading seamlessly into narrative exposition, without the player being jarred from the world or design space experience in any way.

Dialogue Trees

Unfortunately, most dialogue trees don’t consist entirely of insults. I’m entirely of the opinion that most games that feature them would be improved if they did.

Pre-written dialogue that can be navigated through a series of discrete choices. Dialogue trees are noteworthy because once you’ve entered them, usually through interacting with an NPC in world space, you’re able to explore the narrative space directly, if in a very simplified fashion. I was all set to lambaste dialogue trees as incredibly restrictive and binary, but I started thinking about what they would look like in one of the other spaces and was actually pleasantly surprised; they aren’t that bad.

Imagine, first, a museum made entirely of narrow hallways, each hallway leading to several others, and each hallway containing a painting. Sure, it might not be as freely explorable as a brilliantly architected building, but it certainly could be a worthwhile experience (depending on the quality of the paintings)– that is what a dialogue tree would look like if it could be translated to world space. Performing a similar analogy in design space, we see a game very much like checkers which, while it is a simple game to experienced players, is still complicated enough that one can easily get hours of enjoyment from it. So, dialogue trees are a valid solution– but a limiting one.

Cut-Scenes

Yeah, you’re right, I’d rather be watching this than summoning lightning and killing monsters

An animated storytelling sequence that you encounter at pre-determined points in the game. Cut-scenes are remarkably ubiquitous and, though everyone seems to agree they are a lousy solution, they somehow keep seeing use regardless (likely due to people having trouble thinking of better solutions). The cut-scene’s only advantage is that it can be written in exactly the way we’re used to writing films and television shows, with the end experience being basically sitting through a short film explaining the plot in the middle of the game (though some games pretend this isn’t the case by letting you continue to control your character, the end result is a short film with a lousy cameraman). It might be a nice short film, and it might add narrative relevance to what’s happening in-game, but it’s the narrative equivalent of a rail-shooter. You’re forced to go where it takes you.

Cut-scenes seem to me to betray a certain lack of faith on the part of the developers, both in themselves and in the audience. This raises certain comparisons to mind: I used to be a big fan of The Simpsons (as the more astute among you may have surmised by now), and one of the things that always strikes me about the newer episodes is that whenever they have a joke they will wait a moment, leaving it on screen, just to make sure you noticed there was a joke. Sometimes they’ll even have another character explain it just to make sure. Conversely, in older episodes they are entirely willing just throw great material into background jokes, which makes the episodes remain funny even after being viewed 10 or 20 times– each time, one notices another little gem. The same is true of another show I love, Arrested Development, which just packs each minute with an absurd density of humor and hidden plot elements.

To make something like those great shows takes something game developers today sorely lack: Confidence. Confidence both in their own capability to craft good material (so that they don’t need to showcase every little thing they create) and in their audience’s capability to pay enough attention to to enjoy the material. Cut-scenes are a vote of no-confidence.

Encyclopedia

Just like a real encyclopedia, except with no possible real-world application of the knowledge therein

The encyclopedia is a rather strange addition, providing any information about the world which is extraneous to the main plot of the game in a sorted file of information which the player can peruse, or not, at their leisure. The end result is useless for storytelling, since one cannot assume the player has read any of it, but does provide a little bit of extra meat to the universe for players willing to seek it out. These are more akin to extra features on a DVD than actually being part of the narrative space itself.

Background Dialogue

I can’t think of an image that represents background dialogue, so have more bear.

This is a very powerful technique which is oddly rare in practice; with this method, characters will converse during gameplay without any pause in the action except for those dictated by the status of the game world. This allows nearly as much depth of naturalistic information as a cut-scene, but the players aren’t forced to sit around for it. However, it is easy for players to miss information presented in this way, so it can be dangerous to use this as the sole channel for vital narrative information.

 

These are the methods which come to mind. There are probably more. We’re all still amateurs at constructing narrative experiences for games, which is part of what makes it all so exciting.

In conclusion:

We are the trailblazers of our own narrative spaces: We are the archaeologists who uncover the secret hidden mysteries and secret midden histories of our worlds: We are the cartographers who make the maps to lead others to our discoveries. The role of creator is the role of discoverer. Let people discover your world as you did, let them come to love it as you have, rather than naively dictating it to them what it is and why it is and how they should feel about it.

We do not value things which are forced upon us. Make your story valuable.

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