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Storytelling in Games and Interactive Media. Chapter 4: Structure and Devices

In this intermediate part of the series, we take a step back from the previously encountered topics to get familiar with some of the more classic literary theory.

Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.”

– Robert McKee


Introduction

In the last parts, we precised the specialization of narrative design as opposed to writing and layed out some of the problems we encounter when creating the story for an interactive medium such as games.

Let's take a step back in this part, and have a look at some of the more classic writing theory.

Frameworks

As we found out in the last part, many storytellers have tried to formalize narrative structures throughout the years.

It all began, presumably, with Aristotle's Poetics, which identified clear patterns and structure in narrated stories. Poetics state that a tragedy must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Lanouette, 2012)

This is our classic 3-act structure, which has further been adapted and theorized by a myriad of academics throughout the years.

Aristotle's 3-act structure further divides tragedy into six hierarchical categories to create the narrative design system: Plot, Character, Thought, Language, Pattern, and Spectacle. These hierarchical categories are related by formal and material causes. (Dinehart, 2019)

Figure 1: Dinehart, S. (2019). Dramatic Play. https://www.gamedeveloper.com/design/dramatic-play

The formal cause is the form that the drama takes, notion it represents, or outcome towards which is headed. The material cause compiles the physical properties that construct the drama. The causes work in reverse, moving the audience from spectacle to plot. The plot is the constructed series of events by which a writer tries to expound on a theme. The characters are formally caused by the plot and caused by their thought. Thought translates into language, which within a temporal period becomes the pattern, that forms the spectacle, which is caused by the characters' actions. (Dinehart, 2019)

Figure 2: The Nature of Writing. (n.d.). The Four Causes. https://natureofwriting.com/courses/literary-theory-1/lessons/aristotle/topic/the-four-causes/

Dinehart(2019) slightly alters the model of Aristotelian theory to suit his theory of interactive narrative. In Dinehart's model, the plot is "a constructed series of events by which an interactive designer tries to expound on a theme", as opposed to the non-interactive writer described by Aristotel. The plot formally causes the player character, which is defined by their designed action. The feedback produced by the system is a formal result of player action. This feedback loop forms a pattern, which in turn forms a spectacle. As with the original model, the material cause works in reverse moving the player from spectacle to plot.

Figure 3: Dinehart, S. (2019). Dramatic Play. https://www.gamedeveloper.com/design/dramatic-play

Notable adaptations of the Aristotelian model for screenwriting include Robert McKee's(1998) central plot and Syd Field's paradigm(1979). According to Callum Langstroth(2021), "McKee’s story structure is great for emphasizing thematic growth from beginning to middle to end. While Field’s paradigm gives you a way to describe the action that builds up to McKee’s key beats."

Figure 4: Langstroth, C. (2021). How to Misuse Story Structure for Video Game Narrative Design. https://callumlangstroth.com/2021/01/30/how-to-misuse-story-structure-for-video-game-narrative-design/#more-114

Figure 5: Langstroth, C. (2021). How to Misuse Story Structure for Video Game Narrative Design. https://callumlangstroth.com/2021/01/30/how-to-misuse-story-structure-for-video-game-narrative-design/#more-114

In his blog, Langstroth(2021) conveys that those structures are never a one-fits-all solution, and proceeds to present his fusion of the two above models. Langstroth's "Frankenstein paradigm", based on Field's paradigm while giving more importance to the inciting incident and adding the crisis, climax, and resolution elements from McKee's central plot, shows how traditional models can be adapted according to each situation:

Figure 6: Langstroth, C. (2021). How to Misuse Story Structure for Video Game Narrative Design. https://callumlangstroth.com/2021/01/30/how-to-misuse-story-structure-for-video-game-narrative-design/#more-114

The most adapted framework is possibly Joseph Campbell's monomyth or "hero's journey".

Campbell's monomyth is based on the same principles as any of the above. We can notice the same elements: Campbell's "call to adventure" equals Field's first plot point, the first threshold represents a first challenge for the protagonist and marks the beginning of the second act, a series of challenges of fluctuating intensity follows leading to a period of crisis, then climax(threshold), and finally resolution.

Figure 7: Lecture Notes on Interactive Storytelling - Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/f... [accessed 21 Feb, 2022] 

Structures:

  • Aristotelian structure: classic 3-act structure - beginning, middle, and end, divided into hierarchical causes of plot, character, thought, language, pattern, and spectacle on a scale from formal to material causes

  • McKee's central plot: 3-act structure emphasizing the singular points in time of inciting incident, crisis, climax, and resolution, with progressive complications over the second act

  • Syd Field's paradigm: 3-act structure similar to McKee's central plot, placing a midpoint and two pinches along the second act to mark tension heights

  • Hero's Journey or Monomyth: Joseph Campbell's structure outlines a journey with return after transformation, and separating the inner, or normal world(pre inciting incident and post-resolution) from the outer world

Style Devices

Narrative devices are techniques used to transmit a story. They combine things like tone, point of view, and tension to create a consistent narrative that the reader can follow throughout the story. (Indeed editorial team, 2021)

Devices can be used as parts of the plot as a whole or scattered throughout lower-level elements to drive the argument. Listed below are only a few of many devices one might encounter in any medium.

Allegory and metaphor, hyperbole, parody, and satire, are some devices often confused.

A parody imitates something else, and a satire uses elements like exaggeration and sarcasm to highlight certain qualities in people or situations. A hyperbole uses an exaggeration to make a point or add emphasis. (Indeed editorial team, 2021)

An extreme example of hyperbole can be seen in the features of stylized characters and environments. Richard Rouse III(2016) mentions this use in character design, saying that by making characters really abstract the player has to bring in his own interpretation to give sense to what is happening on the screen.

Figure 8: Rouse, R. (2016). Dynamic Stories for Dynamic Games: Six Ways to Give Each Player a Unique Narrative[20]. Game Developers Conference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsSh62mSPZE


Allegory describes the use of symbolism in characters and situations to represent actual situations or problems in society. (Indeed editorial team, 2021)

For example, the gameplay of Papers, please can be seen as an allegory, representing the conflict between the player's ethics and obligations imposed by the game world's rules. Borderlands is at its core a story about greed and consequence. Built into that theme, we can notice graffitis with the text "turtles all the way down", a sentence attributed to Bertrand Russell and describing the problem of infinite regress. Rather than a metaphor, the graffities can be seen as allegory, since it makes direct reference to that sentence instead of being an abstract, symbolic representation.

While an allegory is a literal translation of a real-world issue to a story-world symbol, a metaphor is an abstract representation of the same. Like any of those devices, it can be used on any type and scale of elements. For example, Kafka's(1920) Poseidon is represented as an overworked bureaucrat. On a higher level, the complete argument of the short story is a representation of senseless German administration, the sea itself, which is being administered by Poseidon, as a representation of our ever-moving, never steady world. The same notions are reflected in the character of Poseidon, his unhappy continuity and necessity of taking over responsibilities instead of delegating, core components of the nature of the western employee.

One step forward through the history of media, in Disney's UP!, the release of the flying house can be seen as illustrating the moment of Carl's coming to terms with his wife's death. (Maggs, 2018)

We see plenty of metaphors throughout the gaming medium itself, equally open to interpretation.

In Bioshock, for example, we are presented with the gene-altering substance "ADAM", and later its adaptation "salts" in Bioshock Infinite. This resource can essentially be seen as a form of amphetamines, granting superhuman abilities at the cost of physical and mental collapse. We might see this concept as a narrative metaphor, evoking a similarity to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World's Soma. Like Huxley's new world, Infinite's Columbia was built out of necessity on top of a world in collapse, anti-utopias functioning on castes, inculcation, chemics, and a beloved prophet figure.


“I heard the stories of the storytellers, telling the stories people wanted to hear. Everyone finds the narrative that matches the narrative they already know and want. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to share the truth. It wasn’t that I feared the response. It was that I no longer believed in a truth.”

F. Lovett,

The Moonborn: or, Moby-Dick on the Moon

Richard Rouse III mentions the power of an open-ended story. He gives Dear Esther as an example, which according to him due to its minimalist structure can only be interpreted personally. He emphasizes the need of resisting the temptation of explaining everything at the end, giving a positive example with the Shining, which grants closure towards the end but then opens up to interpretation again, allowing the spectator to keep a sufficient degree of interpretation.

Matta Haggis(2016) explains three further devices to tell more through implication: omission, apparent non-sequiturs, and unreliable narrators.

Haggis describes omission as "leaving out words or information" in order to convey more emotion that couldn't be described using words. He gives the example of Shakespeare's King Lear and the inexpressibility of true love. In that sense, fewer words but more suspense include more emotional content.

Apparent non-sequiturs are sudden changes in tone or subject that reveal a deeper internal dialogue, with Haggis' example being Girl, interrupted by Susanna Kaysen:


"It was a spring day, the sort that gives people hope: all soft winds and delicate smells of warm earth. Suicide weather."

The tone is established, followed by a sudden interruption, violently breaking and making a powerful portrait of the character's internal state. (Haggis, 2016)

Unreliable narrators can be honest mistakes or deception, which can be self-deception and ungrounded realities or plain lying. By honest mistakes, active listeners are rewarded with character insight through a contrast between certainty and fuzziness. Haggis(2016) gives Prince of Persia as an example of self-deception, as the protagonist convinces himself that he is the greatest, therein giving the spectator the ability to feel smart and anticipate the prince's self-discovery. In the same game, honest mistakes are built into the mechanic, as when respawning, the prince halts his narration, confusedly admitting "wait, this didn't happen like that", and winding back the story to the last save point.

Ungrounded realities are a narrative device that diffuses real happenings through the narrator's mouth. Haggis(2016) gives the example of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, where the reader only perceives reality through various layers as the "real" happenings have been transmitted by word-of-mouth through a variety of actors. Other examples from Haggis' presentation include Fight Club, American Psycho, and GTA5. According to Haggis, "it's engaging to try to understand what is real (and if it matters!)"

The last form of unreliable narrator is deceiving others. Haggis gives the example of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights: "There's a sense that Nelly is embellishing her story... but why? What is added? What is taken away? [...] The speaker unintentionally reveals their true selves, and the spectator gets to discover the truth by the lies they tell. It rewards players who think about reality outside the frames."

An added form of mistakes, exclusive to yet rarely used in the medium, are player mistakes. Mechanical failure can be used to fuel narrative detail and non-linearity, as Robert Kurvitz explains in an interview with CanardPC. Kurvitz gives example on how Disco Elysium uses failure and consequence to tell more about the character, and properly planned "lore dumps" to give information about the world through the "encyclopedia" skill.


we shouldn’t be afraid of confusion, because in real life people are very confused when it comes to the ‘lore’ of their own world

- Robert Kurvitz

Haggis, towards the end of his talk, gives the warning that players still need clues to begin speculating about what's happening. Clues "guide players with well-written dialog... but if possible, go beyond script." Clues can be looks (art), how lines are spoken (acting), how characters move(animation), interaction and interface, and so on.

Figure 8: Haggis, M. (2016). Writing 'Nothing': Storytelling with Unsaid Words and Unreliable Narrators.[28]. Game Developers Conference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPkbAMj-xVA


“Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change.

When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world.”

Hilary Mantel

Dramatic forces can be seen as devices to drive a story's momentum. Alexander Swords(2019) describes some of the most important forces when presenting his Forest Paths Method at GCAP 2019.
Dramatic forces can be categorized by their placement, into forces over time and forces between elements. (Swords, 2019)

Dramatic forces over time are the moments when the player gets pulled off the expected path. Depending on the direction of the new path, they can be classified into reversal of fortune(the element's state is changed to its opposite), escalation(the element's state increases dramatically), or transformation(the element's state has its context/meaning changed). An intervention is an arbitrary addition or subtraction. Interventions can break immersion for western conventional stories, but are embraced by the rest of the world as aesthetic interventions. A boss fight would be an example of intervention, as it is an artificial element placed into the narrative. (Swords, 2019)

Dramatic forces between elements are those that give the drama a new meaning. They can be opposition (elements work against each other), or synergy (elements work together), to heighten the experience. (Swords, 2019)

Both over time and between elements, there can be an absence of dramatic force. Lack of dramatic force over time is defined as progression, meaning that things progress as expected, which gives the player time to reflect and refresh. It can act as hiatus for the drama, a time for players to learn things or create memories.
The lack of dramatic force between elements is called alignment; those are the moments when the player can just play. 

Devices:

  • Mechanical narrative device: tangible method by which part of the story is transmitted

  • Literary or style device: abstract method by which part of the story is transmitted or parts of the plot interrelate

 

  • Parody: imitation of something else

  • Satire: use of elements like exaggeration and sarcasm as highlighting

  • Hyperbole: use of exaggeration for emphasis

  • Allegory: use of symbolism in characters or situations to represent actual situations

  • Metaphor: abstract representation of the represented thing

  • Omission: deliberate exclusion of information

  • Apparent non-sequitur: sudden change in tone or subject to reveal deeper internal dialogue

  • Unreliable narrators: misinforming narration, by honest mistakes, self-deception, exaggeration or underplaying, self-deception, or lies

 

  • Dramatic forces: style devices used to control the story's momentum

    • Forces over time: reversal, escalation, transformation, intervention, progression

    • Forces between elements: opposition, synergy, alignment

Conclusion

Through the ages, there have been numerous attempts to formalize storytelling. Throughout the series we will mention many more, as things get more complicated with interactivity. While it is incredibly useful to follow well-known structures from scholars and professionals such as Campbell or Field, it is important to understand that those are simply tools and the process should be adapted to the individual needs of every project and team, especially considering that we are working within a relatively innovative medium that provides the ability to come up with new storytelling techniques, as remarkably illustrated by ZA/UM's Disco Elysium.


"Change the process, change the outcome"

- Mick Gordon

Previous parts:

Part 1: Prologue

Part 2: Setting and Tools

Part 3: Freedom of Choice

Next parts:

Part 5: Character Design

Part 6: Time and Space

Part 7: From Theory to Practice

References

Lanouette, J., (2012). A History of Three-Act-Structure. https://www.screentakes.com/an-evolutionary-study-of-the-three-act-structure-model-in-drama/#:~:text=Aristotle%20is%20often%20credited%20by,a%20middle%20and%20an%20end

Dinehart, S., (2019). Dramatic Play. Game Developer. https://www.gamedeveloper.com/design/dramatic-play

Langstroth, C., (2021). How to Misuse Story Structure for Video Game Narrative Design. https://callumlangstroth.com/2021/01/30/how-to-misuse-story-structure-for-video-game-narrative-design/#more-114

Campbell, J., (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces, commemorative edition. Princeton University Press(2004). http://www.rosenfels.org/Joseph%20Campbell%20-%20The%20Hero%20With%20A%20Thousand%20Faces,%20Commemorative%20Edition%20%282004%29.pdf

Indeed, (2021). Narrative Devices: Definitions, Benefits and Tips. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/narrative-device#:~:text=A%20narrative%20device%20is%20a,can%20follow%20throughout%20a%20story

Maggs, B. (2018). Four essential elements to writing a good videogame. https://www.acmi.net.au/stories-and-ideas/play-write-four-essential-elements-to-writing-good-videogame/

Rouse III, R. (2016). Dynamic Stories for Dynamic Games: Six Ways to Give Each Player a Unique Narrative. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsSh62mSPZE

Haggis, M. (2016). Writing 'Nothing': Storytelling with Unsaid Words and Unreliable Narrators. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPkbAMj-xVA

The Nature of Writing. (n.d.). The Four Causes. https://natureofwriting.com/courses/literary-theory-1/lessons/aristotle/topic/the-four-causes/

Noviss, S., (2019). Choose your own misadventure - Part 2 - Interview with Robert Kurvitz. Steam. https://steamcommunity.com/gam...;

W, L., (2020). Disco Elysium and the Power of System-Driven Storytelling. Medium. https://medium.com/@Urzashottu...;

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