If you are reading this, there’s a pretty good chance you are familiar with environmental storytelling and it’s four E’s: embedded, evoked, enacted and emergent modes of narrative. These are handy definitions to help identify broad categories but they are not much help when it comes to creating narrative in an actual game. For me, what was more inspirational was the source material of LeFebvre. Henri LeFebvre was a philosopher who wrote about how social forces produce social space. The core idea is that of a triad where design, action, and meaning work together to build spatial experience. Extrapolating all this and applying to video games means that the basic premise of environmental storytelling, that it “creates preconditions for an immersive narrative experience,” is flawed. So, forget about environmental storytelling. Instead, think about ludic storytelling as something that builds on older narrative methods to create an experience unique to video games.
Ludic storytelling incorporates visual, cinematic, theatric and environmental storytelling within its interactive framework. What this means is that as you design your ludic narrative, you must juggle three things simultaneously:
- The structural chunks of the game framework: like levels, maps, transitions and user interface (UI)
- The content: this includes props, actors, audio, themes and all the stuff of the dramatic sphere
- Action: the game mechanics, interaction and movement
Below is a quick start for the process as I understand it. This is a huge subject and a quick start like this barely scratches the surface. Note that this is a working understanding which will undoubtedly evolve over time. I’m sure that there is much I have not thought of or have misunderstood.
Quick Start: Ludic Storytelling
If you haven’t already, learn some art history.
Video games are a visual medium and if you want to be creative, then you should have some grounding in the history of other visual media like art and film. Also, see some plays.
Have a story. First this means you have a plot and some characters. However, you need to understand your story at a level deeper than the plot. This means you have to analyze it and have themes, symbols and motifs.
Decide if you care about emergent narrative. If you do, stop right here. Do not read any further. Emergent narrative is its own special beast, I think. Consider, do you really want to focus on giving the player the tools to make their own narratives? This was a nice approach in Elegy to a Dead World or Job Simulator (or any simulator) but I think these cases are in their own specific niche, for the most part. Also, can be tricky to pull off and is probably not the thing if you have a story you want to tell.
If you answered no to emergent narrative, then continue on to Step 3b.
Imagine that you are a stage director. How can you break your story down into a sequence of small experiences or scenes? What are the main scenes and transitions? What are the times and places? How will you structure this in relation to your levels?
At the same time, figure out how the mechanics will combine with your structure. How will your player act? How will you "direct" them?
Also, at the same time, think about the themes of your story. How will that mesh with the structure and mechanics?
Remember your tools. You have props/actors on your stage, sound, events, user interfaces (UI), lighting, effects, AND you have levels/maps. Your player here is both actor and audience. You can have a vast open world that the player moves over OR you can have a sequence of short maps that act in a way analogous to film scenes where map loading is analogous to a filmic cut. Who says your world has to function like the real world?
Blendo Games does a nice job of creatively using the scenes in 30 Flights of Lovin’ where they use jump cuts to move the player from the present to the past and back again.
Elision.What do you leave out? Is it important that the player be able to experience the entire time line of the story? Or will it have more impact if you cut things out? If you give the player the power to act as an editor and to cut things out by, say fast travel, think carefully about how that will impact their experience. Also consider what the transition will be, take the opportunity to combine mechanics+content (referential meaning).
Put things in your world. Remember that everything in your virtual world has meaning so don’t waste the opportunity to use the interaction with the game state by fast travel, or saving or whatever to convey meaning. Quadrilateral Cowboy does a nice job of this with their “hideout” where interacting with objects in the room connects to mission selection, saving and other functions.
Remember to repeat things, motifs and symbols, that represent your themes.
This is basically the “embedded” narrative step. However, I would like to point out that communicating ideas with representations of objects has a very long history, all the way back to cave painting. It is what artists do. Again, look to art history to see how past artists have figured out how to convey and arrange things. A great book to get started is Scott McCloud’s Making Comics - particularly the chapters on Writing with Pictures, Stories for Humans, and World Building.
Juxtaposition. When things are next to one another, people interpret them. This can be objects or images placed together. It can be the progression from scene to scene. AND in video games we have interactivity and mechanics - so what the player does and what prop or actor triggers that interaction means something.
Consider the principles defined for film by Pudovkin: contrast, parallelism, symbolism, simultaneity, leit-motif (see the Ludic Storytelling post for details) -also linked to evoking emotion.
How will structure, action and content together convey the themes of the story?
Evoke. Once you get the drama of your story mapped out into scenes that take place in different times and places, then think about evoked narrative. What emotions do you need to create in the player and how can you do that for each scene? How about pacing? What audio, interactivity and effects can you use to influence that?
Even better, can you evoke connections to cultural knowledge already in the player’s brain? Is it a horror game? Then bring in references to other horror media - most horror games do this already by using the haunted mansion trope, which allows players to bring in a bunch of horror movies and games they’ve already experienced. Playing off of famous books and fairytales is another great way to do this. Evoking cultural information external to your game is a great shorthand way of getting extra content in without having to do much – it’s already there and waiting in the player for you to unleash.
However, be careful with this. If the player doesn’t know the cultural reference, then they will almost certainly miss the point.
Minimize cinematics, voice over and text exposition. As in, try not to use them. If you have to resort to putting the player into spectator mode, you better have a very good reason. Sometimes this works really well for entire games like The Sexy Brutale or The Invisible Hours. But mostly, avoid like the plague. Instead, go back to Step 3b and imagine how to stage it so the player takes part. Try to set up the scene so that cinematics, VO and text support your story, not carry it.
For more details see the accompanying post on Ludic Storytelling for some theory and examples.