Gaming News

Gamasutra: Valerio De Simone’s Blog




The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

The interactive narrative is still uncharted territory. Designers haven’t quite figured out where to stand between player agency and guided storytelling, branching stories and linear ones, and other huge matters about stories in games.
This exploration is far from over, but it’s moving fast. Every day new narrative-based games come out, and many of them are actually trying new ways to convey narrative.
Anyway, I’m not here to go further in this exploration. As game designers, we must not only conceive the story, but find a way to deliver it. Interactivity means this too. The audience of our story won’t just sit and listen to it. Our audience will look for the story, or run into it while experiencing pure gameplay. On the opposite, sometimes our audience will do everything he can to avoid it. Our job is to let them be immersed in our narrative, without necessarily force them to stop playing while doing so. However, sometimes we forget about the existence of many ways and spaces for our stories to be experienced. I’ve come up with the following list as a reminder of these ways. It’s a memento of gameplay moments, items, styles, and every possible part of the game that can be actually used as an instrument for narrative delivery.

Before we start, take into account the following golden rules:

Don’t stick to only one. Almost every game uses multiple ways to deliver narrative. If you do so, you will prevent monotony. Furthermore, every player is different. Some will avoid some kind of ways, but will eventually occur in others, more fitting their personal gameplay style. You need to diversify
Those methods are NOT mutually exclusive. In fact, many of your narrative moments will fall into multiple categories
Interactivity vs Narrative. Playing and understanding the story at the same time can be hard. If a player is busy in a complex gameplay moment, he could have some problem following someone speaking to him. This doesn’t mean narrative and gameplay moments should be separate: on the opposite, the more we merge those features, the more harmony in the experience will be achieved. But keep always in consideration the player and his multitasking limit

The use of words is reduced. The player understands the story not while reading something, but with visual tools: pictures, photos, NPCs, and creatures’ behaviors towards him and between one each other, object degradation, level design, pace, and much more. More than a single tool, it is a quality that can be applied to other methods. Do it as much as possible, always.

PROS 

The most elegant way of delivering narrative
Highly effective, understandable at every level of interest by the player, from the overall tone of the game to small details of the story
Immediate and immersive

CONS no

The hardest to build. It requires combined work by different roles of the team. It requires a strong art direction
Detailed info is harder to deliver, only proactive players will understand deep narrative

EXAMPLES enlightened

Half-Life 2
Journey
Inside

The gameplay is paused, forcing the player to deal ONLY with the narrative, having sometimes the opportunity to skip it according to the importance of the passage. Cutscenes are the classic and most expensive way to do it. Use it when you need the player to experience some beat of the story.

PROS yes

The player receives the content completely, with no distraction, preventing missing important passages
Overall high control on the passage
High quality perceived
If well done, it can be highly rewarding, preventing the player to suffer for the agency deprivation

CONS no

No interactivity. Players could drop the controller, something you never want to happen
The narrative must be engaging.
Can be highly expensive
Requires competence in cinematography

EXAMPLES enlightened

Metal Gear Saga
Final Fantasy Saga

NPCs talk to the character directly through some communication device or ability.

PROS yes

Every moment is ok to deliver content
It can potentially deliver a lot of information

CONS no

It needs a coherent explanation for consistent communication
It requires a high amount of dubbing
Depending on the gameplay moment, the player could ignore it

EXAMPLES enlightened

Borderlands Saga
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Prey

NPCs or other PCs talk to the character vis-à-vis. Sometimes they wait to be spoken with, sometimes they reach the player themselves.

PROS yes

The world looks alive
Different NPCs can express different opinions and points of view
Players go looking for NPCs for many gameplay reasons, like equipment and quests

CONS no

Potentially high use of models, dubbing, writing
The more NPCs there are, the more players is likely to skip dialogues and go back to the main gameplay

EXAMPLES enlightened

Fallout Saga
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Final Fantasy Saga
Undertale

An NPC follows the main character, communicating with him regularly. Alternatively, the player guides a group of characters, which interact with each other.

PROS yes

Every moment is ok to deliver content
Great bonding with the NPC

CONS no

A lot of AI programming
Strong game design choice. NPC must be designed to be useful to the player, and never an obstacle, for example

EXAMPLES enlightened

The Last of Us
Baldur’s Gate saga
Oxenfree

Often used to hide level loadings, to calm the pace of the game, to give cheap game time, or to simply make the player move from an area to another with map and space coherence. These moments, usually, have a low level of interactivity.

PROS yes

It fills an empty but necessary moment, with few, mostly mechanical gameplay and distractions for the player
Especially useful in combination with backtracking

CONS no

When the destination is reached, the dialogue suddenly interrupts, unless the player chooses to wait for it to end. A rough choice, he would do nothing but listen to the narrative

EXAMPLES enlightened

God of War (2018)
Red Dead Redemption

Places to visit and objects to gather are scattered over the world. Once reached, the item delivers a piece of the story/theme/setting. Very common, almost every game delivers narrative this way.

PROS yes

Players are encouraged to explore areas far from his main path, looking for items
Often related to the achiever player type, players often look for items to achieve an objective

CONS no

Weak, few players linger in reading books and item descriptions
This effect can be prevented with audio registration or comment by the character, but that requires more dubbing

EXAMPLES enlightened

The Witcher Saga
Dishonored Saga
Divinity: Original Sin 2

The narrative is delivered during game loading, usually with text and images.

PROS yes

It fills an empty but necessary moment, with no gameplay and distraction for the player

CONS no

Limited time to deliver it, hardly can give deep pieces of information
Dependent on the quality and quantity of loading screens. Forcing a loading screen just to deliver a narrative is not recommended

EXAMPLES enlightened

Dark Souls
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The player uses some specific mechanic to get in-game info.

PROS yes

The player is not forced to get any narrative, usually obtaining it alongside gameplay knowledge
The player perceives agency upon discovering the narrative

CONS no

No control. The skill must be cheap and useful to increase the chances the player uses it, unlocking gameplay features and upgrades

EXAMPLES enlightened

Final Fantasy Saga (Scan Magic)
Prey

NPCs deliver news about the world. They don’t address directly the main character.

PROS yes

The world looks alive and ever-changing while keeping coherence and familiarity
The same assets can be easily recycled through the game.

CONS no

Must change as the story progress
Only doable in certain specific settings

EXAMPLES enlightened

A character (could be the main one or another one) speaks to the player or to some generic “reader” of the story.

PROS yes

Every moment is ok to deliver content
No need for feedback or response from the game or character
Meta-narration is a cheap way to speak about things usually hard to explain, such as feelings and thoughts

CONS no

It requires a lot of dubbing
Higher writing skills needed

EXAMPLES enlightened

Alan Wake
The Stanley’s Parable

The level enrichment always tells a story. This tool is strongly linked to level design prophecies. There are several ways to apply this method, from a vague atmosphere to specific writings on walls.

PROS yes

Every space is an opportunity to tell a story
Low programming required

CONS no

Often ignored in fast-paced experiences
Passive tool: the player could decide to ignore it

EXAMPLES enlightened

Portal 2
What Remains of Edith Finch

Playing different characters, the player learns the same story from different points of view.

PROS yes

Wow moments, twists and turns
It can be cheap in terms of level design: the same spaces traversed by different characters means new emotions with old levels

CONS no

Requires deeper narrative design: the same story seen from different perspectives could result incoherent
If the new character, and his story, doesn’t differ enough from the original, the player could feel mocked

EXAMPLES enlightened

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within
Nier: Automata

Here we are at the end of this study. I draw on this list as a tool, with two basic functions:

Remember ways to deliver narrative I tend to forget.
Remember risks and opportunities that lie in every way.

I wish it will help you as well, and inspire more discussions: in fact, this list is far from over. I can’t wait to perfect it, make it deeper, as complete as possible. Hopefully, I will soon be able to release a 2.0, with more ways and some more specific examples.

Tags
Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button
Close