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Extreme Storytelling: The Use of Narrative Mechanics

Story and gameplay have always been at odds with each other. There has been a positive trend lately of games that have tried merging these concepts into something new.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

June 11, 2012

6 Min Read

Story and gameplay have always been at odds with each other. There has been a positive trend lately of games that have tried merging these concepts into something new.

Reprinted from my blog Mind's Eye

When it comes to talking about storytelling in games, I'm usually not the first choice as I prefer to focus on game design. However, there is a positive trend I'm seeing from the indie community that I want to talk about. Narrative and gameplay have always existed as two separate entities, as the story grows and changes not based on the player's actions, but choices that are removed from the actual play. But lately I've seen the start of something new, a way of combining both of them together, using narrative mechanics.

Narrative Mechanics can be defined as the following: A mechanic or set of mechanics, which directly influence the story through player action.

Before we talk about the examples I've seen, let's briefly cover some that aren't. First are choices that affect good/evil sliders. The reason is that the narrative is still being affected by something outside of the player's action. It doesn't matter how the player is playing the game, but where a mark is on a slider that dictates the story. Second, are choices made during cut-scenes, even if they affect the gameplay afterwards, they still have no bearing from how the player has played the game up until that point.

Moving on, there are three examples of narrative mechanics that I want to talk about, starting with the oldest: Alpha Protocol. Alpha Protocol did feature a lot of its choices through dialogue options, but there were many subtle things the player did that changed the narrative or options. In many levels, the various NPC allies or enemies would comment on how the player got through the level, either by stealth or gun play. One level which asks the player to stealth-fully place recon devices in a base has a reward for people who can make it through perfectly.

Alpha Protocol

After the level is over the player has a choice to make, either to earn the respect of the base by deactivating the bugs or leave them in and ruin the relationship. However, if the player made it through without being caught at all, they have the option of turning off all the bugs... except for the one the base leader didn't catch you do. Allowing you to have your cake and eat it too.

Moving on we have Bastion, which was one of my favorite games of last year. Bastion's unique storytelling device was the reactive narrator. While the player is moving around and going through the levels, you can hear the voice of the narrator commenting on the events. Most of the comments are pre-canned about the level itself, but there are plenty that come from how the player is playing. Such as if the player is taking a lot of damage, or what weapons they decide to use. While the effect is basic, it does show how the player's use of the mechanics could affect how the narrative is being told.


Now for the example that made me think of this topic. Lone Survivor which I just posted my analysis on, which for those that haven't played it, is a 2D survival horror title. A lot of what makes Lone Survivor stand out and the subject of this post, are also very spoiler fill, so I'm going to talk as generally about the gameplay as I can, but be-aware that I'm going to be spoiling the game a little bit.

While the gameplay is basic, the game's story and ending are determined by the player's actions. The game keeps track of how you're playing the game and what actions you're taking. Everything from how many enemies you killed, to how well you've been feeding yourself and getting a good night's sleep. The only things the game tells you during play are: your health when critical, when you're starting to get hungry, and when you're starting to get tired. Everything else is hidden from the player. After you've seen the ending, the game shows you a breakdown of all your actions and what influenced your ending.

Lone Survivor

There is only one point that I saw in the game, where everything stops for the player to make a choice; most of the time it's just the actions by the player that are tracked. Checking the end of the game breakdown, it was interesting to see how even the tiniest actions were factored into the ending.

While Lone Survivor is the most recent example of narrative mechanics, I would like to see this trend further developed. Imagine playing a game where the world and situations around the player change not by their choices, but their actions in game. For example, let's say that you choose to play an action game stealth-fully, avoiding other people and teammates to go it alone. From that, in cut-scenes the people will start to look alien and be cold to the player.

Or basing the game not on whether or not the player kills enemies, but how they kill them. Instead of just shooting someone once, let's say that the player just mutilates enemies, with the most dangerous weapons and constant head shots. This time people around will start to look more animal like as the character begins to dehumanize everyone. Also it makes it harder to get information from people as they know how violent the player is.

Lastly an example of a negative response, this time let's say that the player has shown that they have trouble with platforming sections in the past. What happens is that as the player encounters new ones, they'll twist and warp to become nightmarish versions to show the character's fear or inexperience with them.

The sky is pretty much the limit with this concept and while it has been used more in the indie crowd, hopefully we'll have a chance to see this work from an AAA developer. As we've seen with the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy, video game story telling has reached the point that it can affect people beyond just a backdrop for the action. Now we just need to find a way to integrate the gameplay further into the story and we could see some amazing titles.

Josh Bycer

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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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