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Game narrative: thinking outside the lines

About linear and non-linear stories, differences between story and narrative, and consequences on game narrative.

Hello world! I am working on a personal project and here are some of the things I found so far about game narrative; they may be of interest. At least, they may lead to some discussions and discussions are nice. I love discussions.


Thinking outside the lines

In video games, people are often arguing about linear stories VS non-linear stories. How linear stories are too restrictive, and how non-linear stories are better ways to write for games.

Well, in my humble opinion... It's... wrong!

I disagree with the use of "linear" or "nonlinear" here. Narratively speaking, it is incorrect. To be more specific, I think they are overused and do not focus on what really matters regarding game storytelling.

When a narrative is "linear", events are told in a chronological order. This kind of narrative is usually represented by a straight arrow - or else.

Or else

This also means that a branching story can have a linear structure in fine...

Walking Dead, Telltale Games

When a narrative structure is nonlinear, events are told in a disorganized order - using flashforwards, flashbacks, several points of views, etc. 

Consequently, there are "nonlinear" stories in other medias - tons of them... 

Memento (Nolan)

Nonlinear stories are no better than linear ones. It just depends on the story you want to tell.

When someone talks about a "linear story" in a game, he may refer to a character-driven story. The events are commonly, but not necessarily, told in a chronological order. In fact, narrative can be either linear or nonlinear. The main concern is that events and chronology are determined by the main character's actions/decisions. Thus, players do not lead anything in this case: they are following the character's path.

When someone describes a "nonlinear" story in games, what he may actually mean is a player-driven story. In these games, storytelling is meant to be shaped by players' actions/decisions throughout the game. For example, in open-world games, players can choose which quests they will play, which one they will complete first... Players' path may be linear - if they follow one quest - or nonlinear - if they switch between quests.

Thus, issues about storytelling in games may not be about linearity: they could be more about the whole narrative processing. Using the words "linear" and "nonlinear" can be confusing, in a sense that they are usually refering to the course of actions, the chronology - not the "the one who is in charge of them". Knowing who is leading here is the most important thing both in terms of story AND narrative.


Differences between story and narrative

I am not a big fan of theories and narratology, but I do believe that anyone who wants to write for games should think about the difference between story and narrative. These concepts really affect what and how we write. 

To make it short:

- a story is about facts or events that are happening in a predefined world. The writer chooses to highlight some characters and some events among others.

Example: This is the story of a guy who first was nothing, and after some adventure became the Granddaddy of Them All. The End.

- narrative describes how the story is told: in a linear or in a nonlinear way, which point(s) of view will be used, etc.

Example: From the story I pitched earlier, I decide to write a 4-point-of-view narrative, with the buddy, the wife, the kid and the main character's points of view. There will also be 5 flashbacks and 3 flashforwards. The game starts by the end of the story and ends by the beginning of the story.

Do you see what I mean?

I also like foodie metaphors - they are the best ones.

Take a good baguette.

Actually, this is not exactly a baguette, but whatever. 

The story may be the list of the ingredients: flour, water, salt...

The narrative would be the way you cook all these ingredients: you can follow the "regular" recipe or improvize from it.

Now you get it, right? No?

This distinction strongly affects game narrative, especially regarding... branching stories.

From what I have seen so far, branching stories either let the player lead the narrative but not really the story: choices have mostly an impact on how the story is told, but not really on what is happening in the story, and on how it will end...

Walking Dead again

... or players can decide some key elements of the story but not the narrative: at certain points, players will make decisions, but the whole structure of the game will remain the same... 

It sure rained a lot this day

That may be why players are complaining about how their "choices do not matter" or do not have enough consequences in games. In most of the games with branching stories, players either have control over the pace of their story, or some of its content. But they can never lead both - there are of course some exceptions, but they seem quite rare to me*...

So many stories in The Sims

So if players want to lead story and narrative in games, if they want to bake their own stuff - with flour, salt and water and some personal ingredients, you can make a lot of things - then where is the writer? What can he do? How can he tell a good story anyway? How does he define/limit the world in which players will play?


Well, I am working on that. 


À bientôt!


*Please comment this post with other examples you may know! 



To see further: 

Game design as narrative architecture - H. Jenkins

Games telling stories? - J. Juuls

Narrative organization through video game space - M. Zona

Video: Player-driven stories: how do we get there - K. Hudson

The history and theory of sandbox - S. Breslin

Writing and the future of the gaming industry - O. Paciuszko

In narrative games self-expression doesn't mean empowerment - L. Alexander

Why story is not narrative - J. R Halverson

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