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4-Layers, A Narrative Design Approach

This post presents a new way to attack the problem of combining gameplay and narrative. Instead of attacking the issue straight on a number of steps and ways of thinking are presented as a new way to approach the problem.

This was originally posted at the Frictional Games Blog.



This blog post will be about a new way to approach narrative design in games - the 4 Layers Approach. It is based on a GDC talk I gave in March this year. The approach is primarily meant to suggest a workflow that focuses on the story and makes sure the narrative and gameplay are connected. The end goal is to create games that provide a better interactive narrative.



Narrative Basics

First off, "narrative" will need to be defined. At its most fundamental level, the narrative is what happens as you play the game over a longer period. It is basically the totality of the experience; something that happens when all elements are taken together: gameplay, dialog, notes, setting, graphics etc.; the player's subjective journey through the game. I know this clashes with other definitions that refer to narrative as a separate aspect of the game, but I think this is the one that's most helpful when discussing game design. It also fits with job titles such as "narrative designer", who is a person that doesn't just deal with writing or cut-scenes, but who works at a much higher level.


Quick note: A deep dive into various story-related terminology can be found here.


Let's compare this to the other basic elements of a game. Looking at a game second-by-second, you see the core mechanics. Moving up to look at it using a time-frame of minutes, you see tactics and problem-solving (which also includes things like puzzles). Higher still, often on the scale of hours, you see the narrative. Almost all game design is focused on the two lower levels, mechanics and tactics, and narrative mostly comes out as a sort of byproduct. Designing the narrative becomes a sort of patchwork process, where you try and create a coherent sense of storytelling from the small gaps left behind by the layers below. For instance, in games based on combat mechanics the narrative usually just acts as a form of set-up for encounters and is heavily constrained by how the fights work and so forth.


So a crucial step towards better storytelling in games is to give at least as much focus to the narrative layer as to the other two layers, mechanics and tactics. It is important to not devote all the focus to the story though; having a symbiosis between all of layers is a core element of what makes video games special. If we want proper interactive story, we need to preserve this.


Simply saying that we want to put more focus on the narrative level is still pretty vague; it doesn't tell us anything useful. So I'll make it a bit more concrete by listing five required cornerstones of an interactive story. This is where we get into highly subjective territory, but that can't be helped - there's a wide span of opinions on how narrative and gameplay should work together (some would even object to having focus on the narrative layer at all!). But in order to move on we need to have something concrete; if we just continue to talk in vague terms of "improving storytelling", any suggestion can be shot down on the basis of some personal preference. Doing it like that will just get us stuck in boring discussions and it becomes much harder to set a proper goal.



Core Elements of Storytelling

The following elements shouldn't prove too controversial and I think most people will agree with them. But it still feels important to acknowledge that this is an opinion and not something I regard as an eternal truth. That said, here are my core requirements for a game with focus on narrative.


1) The focus is on storytelling.

This is a trivial requirement, but still way too uncommon.  Basically, the main goal of the game should be for the player to experience a specific story.


2) The bulk of the gameplay time is spent playing.

We want interactive storytelling, so players should play, not read notes, watch cutscenes, etc. These things are by no means forbidden, but they should not make up the bulk of the experience.


3) The interactions make narrative sense.

This means actions that:

  • Move the story forward.
  • Help the player understand their role.
  • Are coherent with the narrative.
  • Are not just there as padding.

4) There's no repetition.

Repetition leads to us noticing patterns, and noticing patterns in a game system is not far away from wanting to optimize them. And once you start thinking of the game in terms of "choices that give me the best systemic outcome", it takes a lot of focus away from the game's narrative aspects.


5) There are no major progression blocks.

There is no inherent problem with challenge, but if the goal here is to tell a story, then the player should not spend days pondering a puzzle or trying to overcome a skill-based challenge. Just as with repetition this takes the focus away from the narrative.


There is a lot more that can be said about these requirements, all of which you can find here.



Good Examples To Strive For

Now for the crucial follow up question: what games satisfy these requirements?


Does Heavy Rain manage this? Nope, there's too little gameplay (requirement #2).


Bioshock, with all the environmental storytelling? Nope, too much shooting (requirement #4).


These two games symbolize the basic issues almost all video game storytelling have: either you do not play enough, or most of what the gameplay does is not related to the narrative.


There are a few good examples, though. Thirty Flights of Loving is a game that I think lives up to the requirements. But the problem here is that the storyline is extremely fuzzy and disjointed. The game is a series of vaguely connected scenes, and is lacking a certain pure storytelling quality.




We come much closer to finding something that lives up to the requirements by looking at specific sections in games. Two good ones are the giraffe scene in The Last of Us and the end sequence in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Both of these sections have this strong sense of being inside a narrative and fulfill my requirements. You are definitely playing a story here. But these are just small scenes in a much larger game, and that larger game breaks most of the core elements that I have gone over.  So what we really want is to have a full game filled with these sorts of sections. That would be perfect!


However, that isn't possible. These scenes depend on tons of previous game content and are extremely hard to set up. You cannot just simply strive to fill the game with stuff like this, it's just not doable. In order to get a game that consistently evokes this feeling, we have to approach it from a different direction.


This leads us to the main bulk of this post, where I'll talk about a way to achieve this. This is an approach named “4 Layers” and the basic idea is to not attack the problem directly, but reduce it into steps and thereby be able to get proper interactive storytelling into just about any section of  the game.



The 4 Layers Approach

 The framework is something that's been developed between myself and Adrian Chmielarz, the man responsible for Painkiller, Bulletstorm, etc. At Frictional Games we are using this a cornerstone for our new game SOMA, and Adrian's new company, The Astronauts, is using it for their upcoming The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.





The way this approach works is that you divide the design process into four big steps. You start with the gameplay and then work your way through adding more and more layers of storytelling. The additional layers are Narrative Goal, Narrative Background and finally Mental Modeling.


Before I get more in-depth it is important to note that in order to use this approach correctly, the game must be broken down  into scenes. Each scene could be a puzzle, an enemy encounter, and so on. Normally, gameplay refers to how the game plays out as a whole, but for this framework, we must split it up into sections. This is connected with the above requirement of not having repetition, and usually means that there needs to be a lot of logic and gameplay coded into the world. I think that this is presents a crucial piece of the puzzle for having better storytelling: to drop the need for an overarching play loop and instead make the gameplay fit each specific scene of the game.


So instead of having the gameplay describe the player's overall experience of the game, the narrative will provide this structure. Exactly how this is done will become more apparent as we go through the different layers.



Layer 1: Gameplay

First we need to start with the basic gameplay and it's crucial that the narrative aspects are kept in mind from the get-go. If the gameplay doesn't fit with the story, then problems will start to accrue and it'll make the later layers much harder to achieve and reduce the final quality. As a first step for ensuring this, there are four basic rules that must be followed:


1) Coherency

The gameplay must fit with the game's world, mood and characters. There should be no need for double-thinking when performing an action; it should fit with what has been laid out by the narrative. The player should be able to think about the actions made to get a deeper understanding of the game's story. What the player does must also make some sort of sense and not just be a sequence of random or nonsensical interactions. The infamous "mustache and cat"-puzzle from Gabriel Knight 3 is a shining example of what not to do.


2) Streamlining

It is important that the gameplay is not too convoluted and doesn't have too many steps. This is partly to minimize the chance of the player getting stuck. When the player is stuck for longer periods they focus on the mechanics or tactics for gameplay. Also, we want to have situations where the player can plan ahead and feel like they understand the world. If the steps required for any moment are too complicated, it's very easy to lose immersion and to lose track of the goal. This happens very often in classic adventure games, where the solution to something straightforward requires a massive number of steps to accomplish.


3) A Sense of Accomplishment

This sort of thing is normally built into the core gameplay, but might not be as straightforward in a narrative-focused game. It is really easy to fall in the trap of doing “press button to progress” type of gameplay when the main goal is to tell a story. But in order to make the player feel agency, there must be some sense of achievement. The challenge needed to evoke this sense of accomplishment does not have to be skill or puzzle-based, though. Here are a few other things that could be used instead: memory tasks, out-of-the-box thinking,  grind,  endurance tests, difficult story choices, sequence breaks,  understanding of the plot, exploration,  navigation, maze escape,  overcoming fear and probably tons more.


4) Action Confirmation

When the player does something in the game, they must understand what it is that they are doing and why they are doing it. For basic mechanics this comes naturally, "I jumped over the hole to avoid falling down", "I shot the guy so he would not shoot me back" and so forth. But when taken to the level of a scene it is not always as straightforward. For instance, the player might accidentally activate some machinery without being aware that this was going to happen beforehand and afterwards not knowing what it accomplished. If this occurs too frequently, the player starts optimizing their thinking and stops reasoning about their actions. This then leads to an experience where the player feels as if they are just pulled along.


Getting all of these four rules into a gameplay scene and also making sure it is engaging is no small feat. Most games that want to focus on storytelling stop here. But in the 4-Layer approach this is just the first step.



Before moving on to the next layer of the framework, I will give a simple gameplay example. Say the player encounters a locked door blocking their path. Some earlier information has hinted that there a key is hidden nearby, and now they need to search the room to find it. Once they find the key they can unlock the door and progress. Very simple, and not very exciting, but it fulfills rules set up above.


1) A locked door and hidden key should not conflict with the story.

2) Given that the search space for the key is rather small, it is not likely the player will get stuck.

3) It requires enough from the player to give a sense of accomplishment.

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