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Master and Slave

A quick examination of the differences between Classic Narrative Structure and Game Narrative Structure - where we are, and where we are going...

Steve Mallory, Blogger

December 16, 2009

12 Min Read

As a game designer, I've been investigating and examining the role of story in games.  In my discussions over at the forums on the Narrative Designers Forum (Thanks Stephen D!), led me to do more research regarding the differences between Classic and Game Narrative Structure. 

 The more research I have done, the more conflicted I have become.  Story and Classic Narrative Structure appears to be largely optional for a game.  That isn't to say that a story can't enhance a game, or, to use my definition, provide context for the rules and conflict in which the player experiences.  But, Game Narrative has a much different relationship with the Player than Classic Narrative has with the Reader (or Viewer), despite a core similarity:  both game narrative and classic narrative enjoy a Master/Slave relationship between structure and content.

When we all think of a story, we think of the usual classic dramatic structure that we've read and reread through the course of our education and professional lives.  We have exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and conclusion.  This dramatic form is well known, and we can all appreciate how this structure can be used to manipulation the emotions of the audience.  The classic narrative structure, therefore, is the Master. 

The slaves to the Classic Dramatic Structure are also well known:

  1. Theme

  2. Character

  3. Dialog

  4. Mood

  5. Setting

We can all appreciate how these elements enhance and manipulate the Narrative consumer.  Further, we all know that no matter how finely a Story has adhered to the Master Structure, if the Slaves are not properly utilized or exploited, then the Story will be a failure.  The converse is also true, no matter how properly created and utilized the Slaves are, the Master does not follow the expected structure, then the Story will be a failure.

In games, however, we have a new master:  the limitations of the player, that is, the limitations imposed on the player as determined by the rules of the game.  Games differ from traditional narrative structure by empowering the player to potentially alter the flow of the story. The caveat to this has always been how much the structure of the game allows the player to do so.

Within this new master, our list of slaves is largely the same, save for one crucial addition.  The revised list, in the context of games, is:

  1. Interactivity

  2. Theme

  3. Character

  4. Dialog

  5. Mood

  6. Setting

The addition of Interactivity is how game story differs from classic media, we can all agree, but even that can be debated as being necessary - or even the prime slave to the narrative master - simply because developers have already crafted game stories that fit the traditional media mold (Max Payne 1 and 2 - personal favorites - have game stories that follow the 3 Act structure nearly perfectly, or nearly every Legend of Zelda title to see prime examples of a linear game that follows the classic Monomyth), by providing a separation between narrative and gameplay. 

Prerendered cut scenes provide the narrative thrust, and when that portion of the story is finished being told, control is returned to the player, who then progresses the story further by playing the game more.  Interactivity in the story is non-existent;  it merely provides a context for the gameplay. 

But, limitations on how much the player can alter the story still and must exist, if for no other reason than the time needed to create content, storage for the content and processing power is not infinite.  There is only so many lines of dialog, so much art work, so many characters that design and art can create in a reasonable timeframe, and games currently have not developed an adequate speech or text parsing capabilities to provide truly Turing-worthy interactions with AI-driven NPCs.  What we are seeing now is the technology is becoming available to soften the limitations of the player in their ability to alter the story and their progression through the narrative structure.   

Another limiter that is not really realized outside of the development process is the fear that time is wasted creating content that few players, if any, will ever experience.  Few developers (Bioware, Rockstar, Bethesda) have the clout and cache to be given the time and budget needed to create more content than a player can possibly experience during the course of the story.  Given the already skyrocketing budgets in time and money required to create next generation content, this is a valid concern amongst mid and small developers. 

What we all need to realize, as designers and developers, is that the player is an agent of chaos (Thanks Steve G!  I hope we can work together again, someday) bound by the limitations of the game systems, and can only affect the story in so far as the designers can allow him to affect it. 

Once we can provide true authorial control to the player, with the designer and developers having served as stagehands and prop masters, setting the stage and letting the player determine how the story unfolds, then game narrative will find its unique voice.   This is no small feat, but once the limitations place upon the player no longer limit the narrative, when the Master changes from the Limitations of the Player to the Possibilities of the Player, then we'll have something truly special.

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