"2 plus 2 but not 4" - "The clues to a great story"

Since the story and the gameplay are often seen as two separate elements within the game industry, this text treats from constructor's perspective the narrative as a cognitive process in the creation of meaning behind the scenes of the story-based games.

Previously posted on Narrative construction that is a site about the narrative as a meaning-making mechanism and provides tools and concepts on how the narrative can enhance emotions and directs attention in the construction of meaningful experiences. 

Thus the reality for they who work with narrative construction within the game industry is to work with a story-driven/based genre I will revisit the conditions I described in the first part of the series “Don´t show, involve” (visit post at Gamasutra or Narrative construction) when I paired up the writer Vince Gilligan (the creator of the television series “Breaking Bad”) and the game designer Jenova Chen (the creator of the online game “Journey”). Since the story and the gameplay are seen as two separate elements within the game industry, which easily leads to the creation of two premises to be merged into one (1) form I will take a closer look at dialogues as a stylistic element from the perspective of the narrative as a cognitive and dynamic element and how it can give meaning to an experience.

Note. If you would like to be able to watch a television series, film or play a game without ruin the experience of being a consumer, then you may avoid reading the text.

The Cinderella shoe dilemma

Because the narrative tends to grow it isn’t strange that we try to classify the framing of the narrative as a story and where we use a genre as, e.g., adventure game, first-person shooter, or crime story to define the familiar elements of a concept and its structure. However, if we take a look at a filmstrip and compare it with a pile of dice and thinking in terms to merge the two stylistic elements the dilemma of the incompatibility that occurs is usually blamed on the linearity caused by the dramatic arc of the story. In passing, the problem alludes to be “the narrative”. However, as the narrative is not a media-specific element the frustration, the linearity causes when trying to make a story of a dramatic arc to fit with the gameplay it´s reminiscent of the stepsisters’ relation to Cinderella´s shoe. As the stepsisters know what the shoe can do for them but where the inflexibility of the nasty little form of the shoe resembles their shortcoming, the same feeling can be sensed within the game industry when it comes to a narrative pattern that is influenced by the ancestors of media that won´t fit.

From a cognitive perspective on narrative, it is not the linearity that is the crux as we can see how the game industry handles the challenge of linearity very well within the genre of story-driven/based games. The dilemma though is to think of the narrative as a fixed form (like a shoe) that needs to be filled with content (a foot). What may happen if thinking of a form that can be filled and if the contents don´t fit, is that something has to be removed. Since we know that there is only one Cinderella that the shoe fits if the choice stands between a story and gameplay the gameplay will get the prince. What is funny though is while staring blindly at one shoe/form the possibility to create a new shoe is put aside by not seeing the narrative as a dynamic and assisting element, but it doesn't stop there.


When I recently looked at some advising posts about writing for games (and where I recommend reading a post written by Darby McDevitt at Gamasutra) it made me rather sad to read an example where a writer shared his experience by telling the readers to remember that the majority of people who play the game will not care or remember a thing that you have written and where most of the players won't even finish the game.

Why bother writing any lines at all? Alternatively, for that matter, why bother even making a game?

However, what most of the advises depicts is the feeling of filling a form with lines, and if you are lucky, the lines will “fit” by giving meaning through the gameplay. If not, one has to be prepared that the writing will be of no avail to the overall experience. One may think that it´s due to the narratively branched structure that has become a stylistic element in games when the linearity of a story as a form of a dramatic arc is challenged and that makes the player “miss” the lines due to a choice. But that is not what the writer depicts. If someone does not care, there must be someone that has said that there is no meaning to care about. And who could that be? The writer? The players?

An example of a game that can be played without having to read or listen to any story-related-elements, and where the player can get the information about how to solve a quest or defeat a boss from an external database, is the online game “World of Warcraft”. But what easily happens when thinking in terms of the narrative as being a story as being a fixed form when applying it to a game in the form of quests, lore, and dialogues is that one easily misses how the narrative is used to give a context meaning. So if the game developers communicate through the construction that the game can be played without reading the story that is the narrative construction, the meaning, the developer has given the game, which makes the players learn that the written lines are not required to be read in order to play the game.

So basically to think in terms of “filling a form” and the choice between making a game based on a story or gameplay it rubs of like a curse on the writers but also the players and where the expression that a game has “no narrative” is commonly used. That a game is said to have “no narrative” does not only mean that a game can be played without having to read the story related elements, but it also means that the developers have let go of the control of the narrative by marginalizing everything that is considered to be related to a story based on the stylistic elements of the ancestors of media. Moreover, if focusing exclusively on one form/shoe instead of letting the narrative be an assisting partner to the stylistic elements of a game one misses the possibility to create new patterns/shoes.

If looking at the “new shoes” within the film where the form of a pattern has been elaborated in relation to the stylistic elements for hundred years, it is this pattern of form that is cognitively used when a filmmaker likes to surprise the audience. An example of a film that surprised the audience with its pattern of form was “Pulp Fiction” from 1994 created by Quentin Tarantino. What Tarantino did was to challenge the conventions (to be restrictive with dialogues) by letting two contract killers having a long and seemingly casual conversation about hamburgers, etc. (which the audience quoted afterward). The other thing Tarantino did was to shuffle the order of the scenes of a dramatic arc in the editing (that the audience devoted a great deal of time afterward to figure out the chronological order of). It was two rather simple things Tarantino did from a cognitive perspective to the stylistic elements of the film by letting the narrative as a cognitive element presenting something unfamiliar in relation to the familiar that made the film become a success.

Thus we know that having a long conversation between two NPC would not meet the requirements of a gameplay and where the shuffling of a chronological order of scenes in the editing (that is not a flashback) doesn´t seem to fit into a game (unless you like to explore as a level designer how far you can go in disorientating the players), the question is where the game industry can find the same sort of surprises if using narrative patterns based on the stylistic elements of a film, literature, etc? However, what if the game industry would like to find their own patterns in order to have their own “Tarantino-effects” by letting the narrative assist the new technique, what would it look like?

Turning on learning

If you would like to explore the narrative as a cognitive process in creation of a meaningful experience the first step is to avoid saying that there is “no narrative”; as if we say that there is “no narrative” it´s the same as saying that there is no learning, which no one would ever say within the game industry.

The second step is to follow my reasoning when I´m going to compare a school with “World of Warcraft” from a cognitive perspective in the creation of meaning.

Since the feeling that the writer expressed was that no one cares about what you are writing the same feeling can be heard from teachers that think the pupils aren´t listening. But if you know the fundamental activity of being a human that it is to learn, if people seem not to care it´s not that they have turned off the learning but rather that someone/something has given the context a meaning that says that you don´t have to listen to everything that is said in the same way as you don´t have to read the story related content to complete a game. Since the school is a place where the Cinderella shoe dilemma can be seen by the means to think of the pupils´ heads to be filled with the knowledge we can be pretty sure that a choice has been made from what is considered to fit or not fit as content in the fixed structured form of a school. If we start to think regarding what the school may have chosen that do not fit the form, I think we can all come up with ideas from our own experiences what the school may have chosen not to be a part of the experience.

Similar to the game industry the narrative in school is considered to be a story based on a form from the ancestors of media to be told, read and seen (games are still under debate if they should become a part of the contents). What that means is that the school that we expect to know how our learning works is not considering the narrative as a cognitive process and how it can trigger our core cognitive activities towards a reciprocally shared goal to learn. Since we rapidly learn from a context by making assumptions based on our expectations that will make us come to inferences about the meaning, it is in this cognitive process the narrative can assist the stylistic elements of the context as to surprise – just like Tarantino did. As I happened to meet a teacher that got a “Tarantino-effect” on us pupils by letting the narrative assist the stylistic elements of a classroom I will turn to the writer and director of “Finding Nemo”, “Toy Story” and “Wall-E” Andrew Stanton to describe what the teacher did when letting the narrative trigger our core cognitive activities that engaged our learning.

2 plus 2 but not 4

As I have presented in the series “Don´t show, involve” the basic principles of the narrative to involve as to put something familiar in relation to something unfamiliar (see "Part 3, Don´t show, involve" at Gamasutra or Narrative construction) and where I also mentioned in the same series that filmmakers do not emphasize the learning and a feeling as a goal when formulating a premise (see Part 1), Andrew Stanton is one of the exceptions that reveals how filmmakers do think in terms of learning in the same way as game developers do.

In a Ted talk, “The clues to a great story”, Stanton says:

“The audience actually wants to work for their meal, they just don't want to know they are doing that. That is your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you are making them work for their meal.”

Stanton says that due to the reason that the audience wants to work for the meal but they don´t want to know they are doing it, Stanton coins the formula to give the audience 2 plus 2, but not 4. As to explain what Stanton means, I will return to the teacher to see how he triggered our core cognitive activities by making us do the 2 plus 2.

What the teacher did was to start the lesson by throwing a light brown glove down on the desk that was big as a frying pan (he used different objects every lecture, but the pattern was the same). The glove seemed to have been drenched in some kind of dark brown dried splatter. The teacher then began the lecture. He gave no mention of the glove but the way he told us about the rainforest, photosynthesis, and mangroves we knew that the teacher was making his way towards telling us about the glove. The funny thing was how we made assumptions about everything he said in an attempt to understand what the glove was about and before the teacher said what it was we had come to the inferences that it was a glove drenched with blood from killing an Amazonian anaconda. Amazingly, without knowing that we were working for our meal, we had learned things that I would never dream of learning.

In the third part of the series “Don´t show, involve” where I show how the constructor knows more than the player in the plotting of a gameplay in relation to the player´s learning about the plotting, what the formula 2 plus 2 but not 4 does is to help the understanding of the narrative constructor´s work to trigger the core cognitive activities. By not giving the 4 but the 2 plus 2 just in the same way as the teacher did, if the teacher would have started the lecture by saying: “this is a glove drenched in anaconda blood”, even if he had made us curious to know why the teacher had a glove drenched in blood it would have taken away the fun from the learning and "doing" the 2 plus 2 (and we wouldn´t have learned about the mangroves, etc., which was the teacher´s intention/goal).


Illustration by Linnea Österberg

How the glove became something unfamiliar in relation to something familiar based on the expectations from the context of a school is rather apparent. However, let´s say that all teachers would bring a glove drenched in anaconda blood to their lectures, what would make us feel a bit bored would not be the glove but the fact that we would know the 4. As we love the familiar the glove could be shown every day as long as something unfamiliar would be put in relation to the glove, then our core cognitive activities would start all over again by exploring something new in relation to the glove by making assumptions and inferences. So it´s not the object in itself, but the act of learning that is “the new”.

And if understanding that the surprise and the new from a narrative perspective is about triggering the core cognitive activities and allow the perceivers from the plotting of an experience to do the 2 plus 2 by putting something familiar in relation to something unfamiliar my hope is that I have now released the thinking from the fixed form of a story (a shoe) and that we are ready to look at the question how the narrative can assist the creation of patterns that surprise beyond the form of a fixed story of a dramatic arc.

What can we learn from two contract killers?

Since the dialogue as a stylistic element is the element that is most related to the stylistic element of the ancestors of media and therefore easily disregarded as a meaningful element in a game (and where I surprisingly just saw how the dialogue could even be canceled in Josef Fares´ latest game “A Way Out” that is a story-driven game), I would like to dedicate the last part of the text to the dialogue as a stylistic element as to see what we can learn from Andrew Stanton and the teacher by visiting the two contract killers Vince and Jules from “Pulp Fiction” as to see how a dialogue is given meaning.

As I usually try to track the formulation of the premise when taking the constructor´s perspective on the process of plotting I can tell that it wasn´t easy to pinpoint Quentin Tarantino´s thoughts of direction towards the plotting of “Pulp Fiction” (compared to Vince Gilligan´s and Jenova Chen´s descriptions of the premise in part 1 of Don´t show, involve). So from reading interviews with Tarantino, this was the closest I could get to a description of the premise of “Pulp Fiction”:

”Quentin Tarantino: The idea for Pulp Fiction was born even before I began writing Reservoir Dogs. I was trying to imagine how to make a film without money, so I thought of a short I’d be able to show at festivals that could be a kind of calling card. I’d be able to demonstrate what I was capa­ble of, which would allow me to shoot a feature-length film. So I thought of the story of Vincent Vega and Marsellus’s wife.”

Since my goal is to show a dialogue as a stylistic element in order to show “the 4”, what Tarantino knows (by heart), which will make the audience do “the 2 plus 2”, if doing a careful elaboration of the premise about “the story of Vincent Vega” it is about a contract killer that is losing his edge and how his detachment will lead to his downfall (by forgetting his gun on a kitchen bench when visiting the toilet when in charge of an ambush).

The scene I´m going to show is the “hamburger-dialogue” and where Vincent and his colleague Jules are driving a car on the way to complete a job for their boss Marsellus (who correspondingly to the premise has a wife).

As it can be tricky to not fall into the position of being an audience if thinking in terms that you are the constructor that knows everything and where you like the audience to learn by doing “the 2 plus 2” – keep that position. Furthermore, when I use to present a film or a game a lot of stylistic elements are lost due to the stylistic elements of the text (that are you are reading now). But if we are thinking of the minimum of information needed to trigger someone´s attention, and that it is to put something familiar in relation to the unfamiliar, we can at least add the stylistic elements of the picture together with the dialogue in order to compare the two stylistic elements (the full manuscript Pulp Fiction, written by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary, can be found here).



VINCENT: Well, in Amsterdam, you can buy beer in a movie theatre. And I don't mean in a paper cup either. They give you a glass of beer, like in a bar. In Paris, you can buy beer at MacDonald's. Also, you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

JULES: They don't call it a Quarter Pounder With Cheese?                                    

VINCENT: No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn't know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.

JULES: What'd they call it?

VINCENT: Royale with Cheese.

JULES: Royale with Cheese. What'd they call a Big Mac?

VINCENT: Big Mac's a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.

JULES: Le Big Mac. What do they call a Whopper?

VINCENT: I dunno, I didn't go a Burger King. But you know what they put on french fries in Holland instead of ketchup?

JULES: What?

VINCENT: Mayonnaise.

JULES: Goddamn!

VINCENT: do it. And I don't mean a little bit on the side of the plate, they fuckin' drown 'em in it.

JULES: Uuccch!

As to make the audience´s activity, the 2 plus 2, become even clearer we will take a look at the next scene when Vincent and Jules have stopped the car and are picking out weapons from the trunk.


JULES: We should have shotguns for this kind of deal.

VINCENT: How many up there?

JULES: Three or four.

VINCENT: Counting our guy?

JULES: I'm not sure.

VINCENT: So there could be five guys up there?

JULES: It's possible.

VINCENT: We should have fuckin' shotguns.

If returning to the teacher and where the pupils knew before the teacher even mentioned that it was a glove drenched in blood from an anaconda, what the audience learns about Jules and Vincent the characters aren’t aware of. As if Vincent would know “the 4” according to what Tarantino lets him know through the plotting that he was detached, Vincent would have been more attentive to that he was losing the edge. How the dialogue plays an important role by its seemingly causal appearance is that the contrasts (the familiar in relation to the unfamiliar) make the audience do the 2 plus 2 (going from hamburgers to the working life of a contract killer). So when Vincent gets killed later in the film, the interesting is how the audience has learned and knows before Vincent “learns”. But how or when he would lose his edge the audience may not have figured out (the surprise). However, when Vincent gets “surprised” (killed) the killing confirms the audience´s activity of the 2 plus 2 without telling the 4 (the loss of his edge).

Tarantino, Gilligan and Chen “Breaking Bad”

If we are thinking in terms that the audience knows more than Vincent and Jules in “Pulp Fiction” and that we will move the cognitive activity of the audience´s 2 plus 2 from the film to a game as to see how a dialogue as a stylistic element in a film can be given meaning a game, I will revisit the first part of the series “Don´t show, involve” as to pick up the premise from the television series “Breaking Bad”, created by Vince Gilligan. As I elaborated the premise to better suit the stylistic element of a game when pairing up Gilligan and the game designer Jenova Chen, the premise turned out like this:

“This is a game where the player will feel the insecurity of being a family guy who doesn´t see any other way of earning money than going down a criminal path. At the same time, the fear of being exposed by the family, friends, and colleagues would be an immediate problem.”

Let´s say we let a player of the game “Breaking Bad” meet the characters, Vincent and Jules, from “Pulp Fiction” (based on the premise above). Then we imagine that we put the player in the backseat of the car when Vincent and Jules have the “hamburger-dialogue”. If thinking regarding the player to do the 2 plus 2 and where we like to build up a feeling of insecurity according to the premise, the question is how we give the dialogue meaning in relation to the stylistic elements in a game?

Since we are not going to choose between a story and gameplay and where I like to give the dialogue meaning that corresponds to the expectations of a game, I will add Jenova Chen´s mechanics from “Journey” that I depicted in "Part 3, Don´t show, involve":

- the player learn about the movements (1)

- the player learn about collaboration (2)

Let´s say we start the game and take the position as a player sitting in the backseat of the car listening to Vincent´s and Jules´ “hamburger-dialogue” and where we can learn about the movements by looking around (includes the control devices, etc.) (1) and suddenly Vincent turns to us and says:

Vincent: “What did we just say?”


Vincent: Next time you hear us saying “hamburger” it means that your son and wife are nearby and may see you together with us.

From what Vincent says we will learn about the collaboration (2).

We continue.

Vincent and Jules stop the car and have the “trunk-dialogue” about the shotguns and how many guys there are “up there”. As we can move outside the car, we can also learn more about the movements (1). When Vincent and Jules tell us to wait and stay low while they are going to take care of the guys, we learn a bit more about the collaboration (2).

When Vincent and Jules have left we hear a voice:

Hank: Wanna get a hamburger brother?

We turn around to see who is talking and learn about the two-sided mechanic of the collaboration (2).

Now we have two elements added to the mechanic of collaboration (2) that concern Jules and Vincent in relation to one of the family members that turns out to be a police (that Jules and Vincent may not be aware of) and where the learning is based on the stylistic elements of a mechanic based on the dialogues. None of the characters knows the 4 because the constructor lets the player do the 2 plus 2 and where the player, step by step, learns about the behavior of the gameplay (see the premise).

The new shoe

If drawing on an analogy between the teacher and the example of “Tarantino, Gilligan, and Chen “Breaking Bad"", to understand the possibilities to create “new shoes”, it wasn’t the glove drenched in blood or the characters from Pulp Fiction that were “the new”. Rather it was the new pattern that triggered the core cognitive activities to do the 2 plus 2 by the creation of a new meaning that the players could learn from by making assumptions and inferences how to handle the elements (and where we, later on, can add to the player´s learning how Vincent is losing his edge, etc.).

However, what is even more important to pay attention to, which can be hard to get a hold on if thinking in terms of that there is “no narrative” is how the learning goes hand in hand with our feelings/emotions. Since the narrative can give meaning to a context by triggering the core cognitive activities of learning, the plotting of the experience by putting something familiar in relation to the unfamiliar to involve also works as a regulator of the feelings. Once one gets someone to do the 2 plus 2, if the premise defines a feeling (as the example of the “Breaking Bad” game) to make the player feel uncertainty (when learning), the narrative can assist the stylistic elements by making the familiar in relation to the unfamiliar into a certainty in relation to an uncertainty. 

Since my goal/premise by pairing up Tarantino, Gilligan and Chen was to show how a dialogue could be given meaning beyond the story-based games and where the "working for the meal" is driven by the plotting of the mechanics there are hundreds of different ways to create a feeling of uncertainty in an example as “Breaking Bad”. But most of all I hope that the 2 plus 2 but not 4 has opened up for the narrative as well as for everyone that works with narrative construction to come along to the ball to have fun from trying out the new dancing shoes.

Katarina Gyllenbäck

Illustration by Linnea Österberg

Related readings on Narrative construction:

Part 1, Don´t show, involve - from a thought towards a goal in the creation of an involving experience.

Part 2, Don´t show, involve – hands-on plotting of Jenova Chen´s “Journey” with Narrative bridging.

Part 3, Don´t show, involve - how the narrative can assist the stylistic elements in the creation of a form that involves and evokes emotions.






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