The Game Narrative TriangleS

There doesn't seem to be a lot going on in the game scene right now (at least for people not interested in motion controls, ever-more-unsettling modern war shooters and misjudged forum policies), so I'm taking advantage of the quiet time to go back some of the basic structures in games. Today I'm taking a first-principles look at the kinds of stories videogames tell.

It's generally agreed that there are two types of game stories: what the script says and what the player does. Or as Valve writer Erik Wolpaw put it in a presentation at the Game Developers Conference in 2008:

Games tell two stories: the story story – the narrative story that's the sum total of a game's cutscenes and dialogue; and the gameplay story – the story described by the actions the player takes in the game world.

Game designer Marc LeBlanc proposed the names "embedded narrative", for the story set into the game by the designers, and "emergent narrative", for the story that emerges from the process of playing.

There's a third type of story in videogames, but I'll get to that in a minute.

The distinction between embedded and emergent narrative can get a little blurry. No game is entirely composed of one or the other; every game contains at least one embedded story (even if it's as minimal and abstract as Tetris) and at least two potential emergent stories (in the simplest kind of game, a coin toss: heads or tails, win or lose).

Some atomic elements of game narrative can be definitively classified as embedded or emergent. Individual cut scenes and scripted dialogue are purely embedded, as the player has no control over them. Direct communication between players in a multiplayer match is purely emergent, as the game creator has no control over it. However, most events fall somewhere in between: the actions of a player's avatar, for example, are directed by the player but performed in a framework of rules, animations, sound effects and story context designed by the game's creators.

We could represent this with a scale:

The Game Narrative TriangleS

This scale is missing one factor, however. Videogame narrative elements come from three sources: the game designer, the player and the computer. In a complex system, the game software will throw up events or images the designers didn't directly create, and may not have been able to predict. This is another form of emergent narrative, distinct from what the player or designer puts into the game.

Take an open world game for example. If you were to describe "the story of Grand Theft Auto IV", you would talk about Niko Bellic, his dark past, his search for the American dream and redemption, his rise through the underworld hierarchies of Liberty City and his ultimate disillusionment. The game tells this story with cut-scenes that interrupt the gameplay and scripted dialogue that plays over the top of the gameplay. There are other stories that play out over the radio, some related to you, some not. These are embedded narrative elements, directly created by the game designer.

If you were to describe "what you do in Grand Theft Auto IV", you would talk about stealing cars, speeding through crowded intersections, running from the police, jumping from buildings, making squealing handbrake turns and gunning down opponents. These are emergent narrative elements, created by the player.

If you were to describe "what happens in Liberty City", aside from the havoc you wreak directly as the player and the scripted story elements told in cut scenes, you would talk about pedestrians walking beside roads, garbage trucks cruising the streets early in the morning, police officers patrolling, cars stopping at traffic lights and negotiating corners – civilians fleeing your gunshots in panic, police officers chasing your car at high speeds, gangsters pulling guns as you approach and cars smashing into other cars in panic as the traffic flow is churned into chaos. All of these things are controlled by the computer. In one sense, it is all embedded behaviour, as the rules and AI that govern when and how each action will occur are coded in advance by the game's designers; however, when the moment-to-moment outcomes of that behaviour could not be predicted by the creators, they are emergent narrative elements, effectively created by the computer.

Now the game narrative scale looks like this:

The Game Narrative TriangleS

In a complex narrative game like GTAIV, almost nothing is purely one kind of narrative or another. Anything that could be considered a spoiler is almost certainly embedded; cut-scenes, for example, are purely embedded narrative (unless you consider the player's experience of watching them more broadly, taking into account their context, knowledge and emotional state, in which case they have a shade of player-created narrative to them). A more interactive experience, like a police pursuit, is a fluid concoction of embedded, player-created and procedural elements, each reacting to the others and shifting from moment to moment.

In practice, only very specific narrative elements can be precisely pinned down to a point on this narrative triangle. Nevertheless, I think it's a useful schema for considering the status of narrative elements in games. If nothing else, it's a good shorthand illustration for one of the reasons game narratives are so much more complex than they outwardly appear.

If you have a different idea, of course I'd like to hear it. Perhaps a narrative hexagon or a four-dimensional story hypercube? Or is there a game that just doesn't fit this model at all?

Republished with permission.

Fraser Allison is currently writing a thesis at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology on how video game mechanics create meaning for players. He writes about this, and many other game issues, at redkingsdream.com.