Designing a game’s narrative is a much more involved process than writing dialogue and item descriptions. Narrative design is one of those disciplines that can spread into all parts of the game development process, as all elements of a game can contribute to its narrative. For many games, a goal in the design process it to aim all elements of the game towards a single cohesive experience. A comprehensive narrative design can be the binding agent between them.
To help achieve a design like this, researchers have created frameworks to help developers better understand their narratives and to encourage them to think of different approaches to narrative design. One of these frameworks was published by Huaxin Wei in 2011 as part of their PhD thesis Analyzing the Game Narrative: Structure and Technique, based on Wei’s work with games such as Heavy Rain, Fable 2 and Assassins Creed. This framework consists of a list of questions to consider when creating the narrative design for your game.
A note before we get into the framework: as part of my Master of Game Technology thesis, I tested this framework to ascertain how useful it may be to developers. One major result of this research was that the phrasing of the questions is very difficult to work with. While the ideas are good and were deemed useful and interesting, the language used in the framework makes it somewhat inaccessible to developers. For this reason, the questions as listed in the rest of the article have been rephrased and abridged. If you’re interested in the original questions, there are links to Wei’s paper and my thesis at the end of the article.
Part 1: Composing the Game Text
This section is all about how your game tells its story. It encourages you to think both about mechanics and story structure. The questions here ask about what mechanics are used to tell the story to the player, where the player is allowed to interact with the story, and what the result and benefit of that interaction is.
Here are the questions that make up Part 1:
- Which mechanics does the game use to tell its story?
- Is the game menu used to tell the story?
- Who is the narrator of the story?
- Is the entire story told by the same narrator? Are there shifts in perspective, time, or reality?
- Are there sections of the story told by other narrators?
- What is the effect of these shifts in narrator?
- Does the narrator ever cross their boundaries sometimes? If so, what effect does this have?
- How can the player interact with the narrative?
- Can the player control or change the story?
- Are parts of the story computer-generated? Which parts?
- What is the pattern/characteristics of this emergent narrative?
Part 2: Structuring the Game Plot
This part of the framework is about the organisation of the story, as well as who is telling it. Here some rarely examined questions get brought up, with a focus being the game’s narrator, and their neutrality. This idea of who is telling the story is easy to apply to a book but gets more complex when applied to a game. The second part of the framework asks you to consider: who is holding the camera up to the game’s events, and are they presenting the truth?
Here are the questions that make up Part 2:
- How are characters introduced and established?
- Do they have traits that make them credible?
- Whose vision is the camera? Are they a character in the game?
- Does this change at any point in the game? If yes, is there a pattern to these changes?
- Is the ‘vision’ subjective?
- What kind of plot does the game have? Does the story focus mostly on the main character and their actions (epic plot)? Does it focus on a web of characters and their relationships (dramatic plot)? Does it focus on events in the past and their discovery (mystery plot)?
- If it is an epic plot, what are the distinct stages of the plot? Are there any archetypical characters performing certain roles?
- If it is a dramatic plot, does it follow the three-act structure?
- If it is a mystery plot, are there multiple plotlines?
- Are the story arcs computationally controlled in any way?
- Are flashbacks used as framing device?
- Does the visual perspective and the way it presents the space provide clues as to who the narrator is, and whether they are objective?
- Are there any other principles for structuring the plot?
Part 3: Time
Once again, the questions in this part refer to both the story and the gameplay. Apart from focusing on how the story is structured, whether it is told linearly or not, this section also brings attention to the time in moment-to-moment gameplay. Some games have played with the speed of time passing (one example being Red Dead Redemption’s Dead Eye mechanic), but elements such as time skips, freezing time to show the player scores for the level, or showing flashbacks are all choices by the developer to alter the flow of time in the narrative.
Here are the questions that make up Part 3:
- Does the time it takes to play the game equal the time the story covers?
- Are all the events in the game told chronologically?
- If not, are there flashbacks, flash-forwards or any other change in order?
- What narrative effect does this produce? What gameplay function do these devices perform?
- Is there a pattern to changes in the pace at which the narrative is told / the speed at which time passes in the story?
- Does time ever stop, slow down, speed up, or skip ahead?
- Are game events ever repeated? Does this have an impact on the player’s experience?
- Are there ways for the player to influence the story, or is it completely linear?
- Can the player change the order, speed and frequency of the events in the plot? How many orderings are possible in the game?
- Does that freedom create narrative impact?
- Is there any temporal device that is also a game mechanic?
Part 4: Space
The questions here cover how the game space is constructed and how it is used in the story. The questions direct developers to consider both how the space may react and change as part of actions of the player, as well as which parts of the space may serve specific functions for the player. While this section is not directly asking questions about the narrative design, it raises awareness of how the game spaces are laid out and which parts of it can be used to tell the story.
Here are the questions that make up Part 4:
- How is the game space laid out?
- Are there spaces designed for different uses? If yes, what is the implication for narrative and/or gameplay?
- Are there any paths the player has to follow to progress in the game?
- Are there any mobile or immobile characters? How do they influence the narrative and gameplay?
- Is the space of the world continuous? If not, how is the player transported from one location to another?
- What are the options of camera control for the player?
- How is the player’s view limited? Are there any edited sequences?
- How does the sound work in and with the space?
- Does it intensify the narrative experience?
- Does it perform guidance or other functions in gameplay?
- What roles does the camera preform? Is there any stylistic use?
- How is the interface information laid out on the screen? Is there any special use of the screen?
Not all these questions may apply to your game. And not all of them may be useful to work out completely. However, considering all of them and then choosing one or several to actively engage with when working on your narrative design can create a stronger and more robust narrative that engages the player not only through cut scenes and dialogue, but through many other parts of your game.
For easier access to these questions, download the ideation deck based on Wei’s framework by following the link below.
Effinger Narrative Design Ideation Deck: https://linktr.ee/abottleoftal...
Full Thesis: http://dx.doi.org/10.13140/RG....
Huaxin Wei - Analyzing the Game Narrative: Structure and Technique: https://www.academia.edu/35539...