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On Stories & Games: Point-Based Storytelling, Implied Narrative & How Interactive Stories Work

"The key to writing in games lies both in understanding how narrative exists in games, and how it does not." In this post, I look at how and WHERE narrative truly exists in games, and methods to exploit this, using Fallout: New Vegas as an example.

Its hard to sum up just how games and stories work together.  It almost seems like we lack the language we’d need to explain it – the concept is simple, but when you try and sum it up, you end up with garbled Confucius-like phrases like:

The key to writing in games lies both in understanding how narrative exists in games, and how it does not.

A confusing sentence, for sure, but one I find myself drawn back to here because it sums up the only approach I can think of for explaining how I view narrative working in games.

Part 1: How Narrative Does Exist In Games

Every game has a story to tell, from the epic quests of adventure RPGs, down through the triumph and tragedy of sporting conquest, to the humble, bleak story of a blank screen that slowly filled with blocks until the player just couldn’t handle them any more. 

Every game can become a story – perhaps not always the most compelling one, but one that has all the great hallmarks of a narrative.  There is always a protagonist (the player), there is always something which that protagonist wishes to change, or achieve (the goals), and there is always something that stands in the way of their progress (the rules/opponents).

The thing to be remembered here is that we’re not discussing a story that is added in any way to the game – we are talking about the actual game itself.  Games don’t need to have a humanised avatar as a protagonist to have a story, just as a sport doesn’t require you to appreciate the backstory of the teams’ previous successes or personal issues in order for you to be swept away in the thrill of the game.  These things do not create the story, nor do they aim to do so – they aim to make the already existing story more compelling.

The subject of the compelling nature (or not) of gaming moments was part of a study I performed as part of my undergraduate degree.  In order to look at “Memorable Gaming Moments”, I asked people for a memory about a game.  Almost without exception, participants provided me with stories detailing the interactive sections of a game. 

Of these, the majority were divided amongst three distinct categories – emergent gaming moments in which the player created an unscripted event within a game environment, moments in which the player made a distinct choice within a narrative, and multiplayer moments in which the poignancy of the memory was bolstered by the inclusion of a third party (most commonly a sibling or parent). 

Only a very small outlying number of participants recalled non-interactive (cut-scene) elements of a game.  This implied that the most compelling storytelling takes place not in anything hung upon the gameplay, but in the gameplay itself.  There is something very compelling about interaction that causes it to overpower cutscenes and more “direct” storytelling.

Part 2: How Narrative Doesn’t Exist In Games

So we can see how narrative content exists in a game – or does it?  At what point does the narrative appear in a game?  How might we manipulate this for the sake of game design?  For the next point, it becomes important that we define what a narrative is, and how it exists in other media.

In written and oral storytelling, the point of the narrative’s creation is clear.  Whether written in first or third (or, lest we forget, the rarely-used second) person perspective, there is a clear orator of some description in traditional storytelling, and it is from this that we take the term “narrative” – a story told to us from a narrator.  Barring the inclusion of a voice-over, or old-fashioned story-cards, where does this narrative exist in cinema?

The answer – or the closest thing to a definite answer I can find – is simply that it doesn’t.  Cinema is not a direct narrative, but a series of carefully crafted and selected moving images which, when shown in the correct sequence, imply a narrative element.  The story doesn’t exist anywhere in the film itself – it is created by the viewer during the viewing.  This makes cinema a medium of “implied narrative”.

Where, then, do we say that narrative content exists in games?  In my case, I would argue that, again, it doesn’t.  Narrative doesn’t exist in the game itself, but in the playing of a game.  Just as a movie, when not viewed, loses its ability to have a story, an unplayed game has no story.

This is an important point in realising  just how we can create a more compelling game system.  We see that the aim, much like in cinema, is not to create a story with our game per se, but a system that implies a story.  More so in games, however, this has to be removed from directed storytelling, because what makes games different from cinema, and what creates the compelling and memorable experiences, is their interactivity, and their ability to let the player craft their own experience.

Part 3: Exploiting The System

One method by which we can allow this to happen is through what I call a “Point-Based Narrative”, and can be witnessed in action in Fallout: New Vegas.

In Fallout: New Vegas, the player is plunged into an open-ended free-roaming environment, with only a vague prompt towards the central story to drive them forward.  The player then simply stumbles from event to event, picking up “quests” as they explore their surroundings.  All these “quests” build to the final experience, but when examined from an academic perspective, the link between the events is vague. 

In truth, the player simply moves through a number of barely-connected events, but all of these feel like part of a larger story.  Much like the early avant-garde European filmmakers, the creators of Fallout: New Vegas exploit the weakness of the bonds between events as portrayed in their work to allow for a more compelling experience.

I refer to this as a “point-based narrative”, because it lacks a single line that one can draw through the story.  It is more truly interactive than the “side quest” system where a central storyline is augmented by secondary distractions.  It is interactive and responsive to the player, but without the developmental complexity or rigidity of the “branching narrative” system so popular in large-scale games today.

A “Point-Based Narrative” system would be one in which we do not set out to create a single story – we set out instead to create a number of smaller stories, and to drive and inspire the player to conjure, in their own mind, an overarching narrative.  We allow them to attack these points as they see fit, and to move freely between them. 

While we can feed points into one another, or have points which can only be accessed if and when other moments happen, we avoid creating bonds between points that are too obvious, in order to ensure the player feels that their own actions, and not the developer’s unseen hand, are driving the system.

Point-Based Narrative can (one might argue, must) be layered in the same way any narrative technique might be.  Any good storyteller will appreciate the fractal nature of a story – each chapter, each scene, and each moment follows the same structure (characters are introduced, a conflict arises, a resolution is reached) and pacing (rising tension to a denounement) as the whole story itself.  A single “point” of a point based narrative may then go on to contain multiple “points” of its own.

Resolving a Point-Based Narrative presents a challenge of its own.  Fallout: New Vegas attacks this by having an ultimately Point-Based conclusion to the story – the resolutions of certain important points in the game are read back to the player in a fashion akin to the “Where Are They Now?”-style endings of John Hughes movies in the 80s.  Dead Rising, a less purely-Point-Based system supported a “multiple ending” scenario by encouraging repeat playings.  A definitive example of how to do it has yet to be forthcoming.

In truth, it is worth noting that Fallout: New Vegas falls slightly short of being truly “point-based” narrative in that there is a defined central path – a player could feasibly play the game without experiencing anything outside the central story, and at times the game is reminiscent of a ”side quest” title. 

In my experience, however, I feel that the game’s developers have done such a great job of hiding this central narrative that this only becomes apparent through critical analysis of the play experience.  They have done this by loosening the bonds between the central story events, so that the player does not recognise them as any different from their other experiences, giving the illusion of a truly point-based narrative (perhaps, one might say, a further or deeper level of implication of the narrative).

Moving forward, then, we can see that games - while rich in narrative content - are, in a way, a medium twice removed from storytelling itself, but that isn’t to say that we can’t leverage this for narrative-driven entertainment.  To close this piece with the same kind of rambling, Confuscious-like statement I opened it with:

If books are about readers being told a story, and cinema about viewers being shown a story, games are about players being part of the story itself.

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