Story and Narrative Structures in Computer Games 1



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Linear Narrative Form

As defined above, a narrative is an instance of expressing a plot. A very weak understanding of narrative may include the representation of any series of experiences that the player understands as having some kind of overall unity. However, strong conceptions of narrative conform to very specific and detailed structural models.

A common example of a very specific model of narrative form used in computer games, and especially for action games (and also commonly used in role-playing and strategy games), is the three-act restorative structure [5] ) borrowed from literature, drama and film scriptwriting. The three-act restorative structure has a beginning (the first act) in which a conflict is established, followed by the playing out of the implications of the conflict (the second act), and is completed by the final resolution of the conflict (the third act). The three-act restorative structure includes a central protagonist, a conflict introduced in the first act involving a dilemma of normative morality, a second act propelled by the hero’s false resolution of this dilemma, and a third act in which the dilemma is resolved once and for all by an act that reaffirms normative morality. Each act within the three-act structure culminates in a point of crisis, the resolution of which propels the plot into the following act, or to the final resolution.

This model, derived from Joseph Campbell’s analysis of the structure of myths, is a dominant formula for structuring narrative in commercial cinema [35]. The three-act restorative model is also widely used for designing a high level framing narrative for computer games (eg. [32]). When used in games, the central conflict form often manifests recursively (ie. the structure is repeated at different levels of temporal scale). For example, the overall restorative three-act model may be applied to frame the game experience as a whole, the game starting with cut scenes that introduce the central conflict, with the dramatic arch being completed when the user finishes the game. At this level the story is usually not interactive, since act one, key scenes or plot points within the story of act two, and the playing out of the consequences of the final resolution in act three are typically achieved by cut scenes, sequences of non-interactive, pre-rendered video or non-interactive animation sequences. The next level down within the recursive structure is that of the game level. The game level is designed for the pursuit of a goal, that of the player reaching the end of the level, which progresses the player through the second act of the higher level three-act structure of the game narrative. There is rarely if ever a one-to-one correspondence between game levels and acts; more typically, the first act and the end of the third act are presented via cut scenes, with playable game levels summing to form a highly extended second act followed by the final resolution of the third act as the end of game play (eg. by overcoming the game boss, the final and toughest enemy, usually a demonic character at the heart of the central conflict in the story). Although the interactive play content of a game level typically has much of the structure of a match, a contest, a league or a tournament, the sense of level-specific narrative development can be enhanced by increasing difficulty through a level, or by an internal dramatic structure that emphasizes the point of completing the level, such as the defeat of a level boss, the barrier creature (or threshold guardian) at the end of the level. The false resolution that drives act two of the three-act restorative model at the highest structural level may be seen manifesting repetitively with each game level: when the game level is resolved (completed), the player finds themselves at the beginning of the next game level full of conflicts.

At the next level of the recursive decomposition of action game structure, for example, there is a series of smaller scale conflicts and challenges that may include monsters to be defeated or avoided, puzzles to be solved, or treasures, clues or keys that must be found in order to progress in the current or future game levels. Usually it is only this lowest level of the game plot that is highly interactive; these are actually the individual games played by the player (by the definition of game proposed above). The linear and non-interactive cut scenes framing game play are revealed in a predefined order, and within a level all players usually start in the same place and must have completed the same set of tasks in order to complete the level. So game play usually has little or no bearing on the story being told; the story is for the most part a structure imposed on top of, and different from, game play.

Localising the Tension Between Narrative and Gameplay

There has long been debate about tensions between game play and narrative in computer games (eg. Aarseth [1], Juul, [11). However, anecdotal evidence suggests that this clash is definitely not perceived by all players in relation to the same games. Lindley [17] argues that the perceived clash is due to a conflict between the attentive demands of game-play gestalt formation and performance on one hand (together with the resulting immersion in game play) and the retention of narrative context on the other. This explanation is specifically directed at games in which the narrative is presented as a predefined frame for game play, as described in the previous section. However, the explanation cannot be taken as a universal one, since many players are not dissatisfied with the way that framing narratives function. This is partly an issue of game design quality. Good game design achieves better integration of the game-play and narrative structures of the game, using methods like continuously but unobtrusively reminding the player of the narrative context (rather than having a few perfunctory cut scenes), and using cut scenes and automated animation sequences as rewards at appropriate moments within the rhythmic patterns of game play. However, even with the best designs, some players will still not like this approach.

Given the subcategorisation of story-orientation preferences among players presented above, it is possible to be more precise about the nature of this tension perceived by some players. In particular it may be hypothesised that: narrative delivered as a predefined framing structure is perceived as being in tension with immersion in game play for players who do not have what has here been called the audience orientation to narrative reception. This includes players who simply are not interested in narrative, being more interested in socialisation, achievement, and/or griefing, or players who are interested in story from performer and/or immersionist perspectives. For these kinds of players, presentation of predefined narrative content via cut scenes is likely to be received as an unwelcome interruption of immersion within the game. Being forced to read through lines of expository story material in virtual books or dialogs is just as likely to irritate these players as cut scenes are, leading them to hit the escape key as soon as possible or abandon whatever in-game task requires subjection to this tedium.
For players who do have an audience orientation to narrative reception, cut scenes and narrative text fragments may be perfectly fine, not only as a nice pause from the general rhythms of interactive play, but placing play in a context that allows them to assimilate it into an overall sense of being in a story.

For immersionists and performers, achievement-oriented game play is likely to be regarded with similar derision as observed between categories of players in Bartle’s [2] player category system. But these players are just as likely to disdain socialisers and griefers. Hence the narrative/game play tension is no more or less of a problem than the immersionist/socialiser problem, the immersionist/killer problem, the socialiser/audience problem, etc.. In all cases it is a matter of matching (or mismatching) game mechanics with play preferences. The question for the designer is that of how many tastes to try to please, how to make it possible to allow players to choose the play styles they prefer and avoid those they don’t like, and then of how to direct a game towards those players whose play styles are accommodated by the game mechanics.


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