“‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end; then stop.’” — Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Games have structures just as stories do, and often times those are the same structures. The original Halo: Combat Evolved has a very literary structure, which is the reason I wanted to make this episode. What good would I be at storytelling if I went and spoiled everything right at the start. But on this episode we’re going to explore four narrative structures and how they can work with games.
This isn’t going to be an examination of the Hero’s Journey and Dan Harmon’s story circle, or the three-act versus five-act structure. There are plenty of great videos for that already out there. I’ll provide links to some of them, but rest assured I will do an episode about each of those and their relevance to video games in the future.
Other videos on story structure:
- Lessons from the Screenplay: The Avengers — Defining an Act
- Will Schoder: Every Story is the Same
- Just Write: What Writers Should Learn from Dan Harmon
For now I want to talk about more narrative structures that work with or on top of linear or fractured narratives as well as the hero’s journey. It won’t only be narrative that’s affected by such structures, but character point of view, level design and more. Because of the nature of this discussion not all of my examples will have video game examples, but I’ll do my best to demonstrate my examples in both video games and another medium. Probably books. Because we are talking about narrative structures and many, if not all of them, have been piloted in the novel.
Just so we’re all on the same page a linear narrative is the most common structure we encounter in stories. It’s A leads to B and onto C and finally D. Most movies and games work in this manner.
A fractured narrative is everything taking place out of order. Think Pulp Fiction or any game that lets you select the order in which you accomplish missions. Granted the second example isn’t perfect as the missions can come in any order but the story can still be linear. Regardless you should have a good idea of what I mean. So now on with the fun stuff.
The Frame Story
Also known as a story-within-a-story, this is not a new structure. It’s occurred in many cultures and dates back thousands of years. Because humans are nothing if not good at talking about themselves when trying to talk about others.
One Thousand and One Nights, the Canterbury Tales, Wuthering Heights, and Heart of Darkness are all classic examples of frame stories, where the narrator of the story-within-a-story is taking part in a story of their own. Gears of War: Judgement is probably the best example of this in video games, because it’s not used intermittently but as a structure that informs gameplay. It’s a mechanic all its own.
Judgement is also a frame story that closes out and completes both plots. Neither need be finished for a story to be told or a game to be satisfying. Lack of closure of either story is a great way to leave room for a sequel. Or to leave any resolutions up to a player’s imagination. But, and here’s a line anyone who’s watched my previous videos should be ready for, more on that in a future episode.
Frame stories are great for all the possibilities they present. Episodic productions are perfectly situated for such a structure. Just think of How I Met Your Mother. The entire series, not just episode to episode, involved a frame story. Tales from the Borderlands all takes place within a frame story. The characters of Fiona and Rhys are at the mercy of the stranger to whom they must relate their tale. In doing so the structure allows for something few other games do — unreliable narration.
Unreliable narration is a nice trick to play narratively in video games, because it always leaves the player questioning what’s the truth. Is what the narrator(s) saying reality, or is it the gameplay experience of the player. You may want to say at this point that it’s the game play as that’s what the player knows to be true given they’ve experiences it. However that doesn’t have to be the case. Spec Ops: The Line did just this — it asked the player to question their actions and what they were seeing on the screen even as they continued to play. Loading screen texts, changes to the menu screen, everything began to play into this fractured narrative.
This worked so well because the game mimicked reality in the lack of information provide. A black and white screen displaying the heat signatures of supposed hostiles marks no differences between combatants and civilians. So the player is forced to contend with this lack of information from the tools provided, not just the stories characters within the game are telling. Frame stories also allow for a change of perspective — telling the story from a different character’s point of view. Doing so doesn’t require a frame story, Halo 2, doesn’t have one and with each level you switch between the Master Chief and Arbiter.
But it provides a context within the narrative for the switch in perspective. This can play up the aforementioned unreliable narration as characters present opposing opinions of what happened. Unreliable narration and opposing views on events may not be what you actually want for your game given the way fandom has developed to want a solid canon. Fictional universes, regardless of medium, can provide that solid structure whereas reality doesn’t.
Just look at any conflict and the opposing sides’ views of how it occurred and why. Hell Finland’s participation in World War II is a great example. Finland fought three separate wars due to alliances and the resulting conflicts as those alliances changed. Those wars by the way were the Winter War, the Continuation War and the Lapland War. It’s an interesting aspect of Finnish history and one I encourage you to read about.
History and video games are replete with letters. It’s not uncommon to find books that are a collection of letters between two famous people from history. In video games those letters are often just a means of providing exposition and world building for the player. But those letters can have a narrative.
The Epistolary Novel/Story/Game
Which may not be a common form now but two of the most famous books to influence video games were written using this form — Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Dracula by Bram Stoker.
Documents, be they audio-logs, letters, newspaper clippings, or other mediums are rife within video games. But as mentioned before they more commonly used for world building. That doesn’t mean they can’t be used to tell the story of the game.
What Remains of Edith Finch is an epistolary game. The entire story is being told as a letter from the player character/narrator to their unborn child. But it’s also a frame story to tell the tales of the Finch family and their various comings and goings. The beauty of the epistolary is in its narration. It allows a narrate to speak to the player without directly address them or the players actions. In the case of What Remains of Edith Finch the narration is coming from the player character and providing context for all that’s occurring. It also allows for a more natural way of speaking on the narrator’s part as they are explicitly telling a story and not having a conversation.
The epistolary novel by and large sticks to a single point of view but it doesn’t have to. If the novel, or game in this case, is about the relationship between two parties then it makes sense for narration to switch between them and even have levels or characters change depending on who is narrating. Differing points of view mean conflict — not in the boom boom, bang bang, stabby stabby sort of way games tend towards. Rather conflict in terms of opposing ideologies, philosophies, strategies or personalities. As with the frame story, an epistolary game allows for the exploration of that perspective. It allows a game to take a side in a conflict and explore it.
Games, given their youth relative to other narrative mediums, aren’t always great at exploring a perspective. We see this time and again in AAA games that set up a world that appears to have conflicting parties, or at least one with an atrocious message. But the games end up not demonstrating how horrible those characters and their philosophy is. Instead the games end up equivocating and placing the player in a neutral position with no stake in resolving the conflict for one side or another. That neutral position a player is often placed in does little to explore the message of the antagonists, nor place them in a light that the player can feel true revulsion for. Instead the player is tasked with returning the game world to the status quo, rather than bringing about change. That lack of change and return to the way things were before does nothing to resolve the issues which brought about the rise of the antagonist in the first place.
Epistolary games can explore the world the antagonists are creating and its impacts on others. By getting personal, by sharing the effects and not merely creating a player-sized hole the story told within a game can be one about consequences and change. It can explore the message. It can eliminate equivocation.
The Chiastic Structure
This is not be confused with mirroring, which will be explored on a future episode.
Chiastic structure is sometimes called a ring structure, but we’ll get to that in a moment. For now let’s look at Halo: Combat Evolved and how it’s story and level design provides a great example of this structure.
Halo begins with the Master Chief escaping a spaceship and ends with him escaping the very same spaceship. In between those two levels he and the rest of the crew must descend to the alien artifact known as Halo and continue into its bowels to find a way to survive and fight off the Covenant. It’s in the bottom of this hell they’ll find an even greater evil, the Flood, whom they must escape and climb back out and away from Halo. Ending, as mentioned, in the escape from the very same spaceship the game began on.
Halo’s level design illustrates the chiastic structure, almost perfectly. Some may consider it boring to backtrack and go through the same or similar environments but in doing so the game is demonstrating the depths to which the protagonist, Master Chief, was plunged in his ordeal and what he must do to overcome them.
A chiastic structure, if I wasn’t clear enough, is about repeating elements of the story in a mirrored fashion. It can be locations, actions, events, themes or any combination of them that is repeated. The most common example used is the simple idea of ABBA.
No not the Swedish pop band Abba, but the concept that there are two ideas — A and B. A occurs first in the story, followed by B. Then B is repeated and the story ends with A. Of course it can be far longer and more complex than that example. It can be ABXYYXBA or any such combination. And that’s why Halo: Combat Evolved makes such a great example. It’s not merely the physical descent and return of the Master Chief, but the way the level design plays this out as well. Levels gradually get darker until the player is in the swamp where you first encounter the Flood. The Master Chief returns to the light and ascends to the heavens once more.
Now I may be waxing lyrical about Halo, it is one of my favorite games. Yet there is a degree of thought that went into the construction of the game which is often overlooked, and that’s how the design of the game can be used to emphasize or mimic the journey the player character is on. Ascents or descents through the play space do more than mirror the they character’s mission thematically. They provide a mental map for the player of where they are in the story.
Bennet Foddy’s Getting Over It is a great example of this. The mission of the player and the journey of the character are so succinctly mapped to the physical realities of the task at hand that were the game to be about descending then the relief at accomplishing it would never come given the easy at which one can do that in the game. Halo and other games that utilize the chiastic structure recognize that the task placed before the protagonist and player are not ones that are going to slacken upon reaching a certain point. Rather the return will be harder, the burden greater for all the weight that has been placed upon the shoulders of the protagonist.
In Halo, that’s the knowledge the Flood’s release brings a pending doom to the galaxy at large. The game switches from being about personal survival to being about the greater good. And all of that is placed upon the cybernetically-enhanced shoulders of Master Chief and his AI companion Cortana. What makes this form so appealing for the heroic struggle faced by the Master Chief, aside from the inherent power fantasy the game provides is the fact that we in the West have largely been exposed to this structure throughout our live. The chiastic structure is common throughout holy-texts such as the Hebrew Bible, Quran, and Book of Mormon. It’s also found in Beowulf and Paradise Lost.
It’s also why the ending of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is so long — each storyline and element is being returned to and tied up. But where Halo was a descent followed by ascent, Lord of the Rings is about the ascent of Mt. Doom and then the descent and return to the Shire.
The chiastic structure like the aforementioned frame story and epistolary story does not need to work in isolation. It can readily work with these other structures. Such that it could readily be argued that any frame story makes use of the chiastic structure given it starts with one setting, A, switches to the internal story B, and ends with the original setting A. The same is true for epistolary stories, as they allow for the repetitive or mirroring nature of the chiastic structure to also be used. Letters back and forth between two characters are ideal, depending upon your story and game, for such a structure as the first and final letter can be what prompts and summarizes the events of the story. They don’t even have to come from the player character either.
A final name for the chiastic structure is ring structure, because of the return to beginning. And in some ways this very much mimics the hero’s journey. But we’ll get more into the hero’s journey and Dan Harmon’s story circle in a future episode. As is there are plenty of videos about that very topic already, we’ll just look at how they apply to games.
The Ring Structure
Not to be confused with the chiastic structure. As mentioned we won’t spend much time on this given it’s worthy of its own episode.
But it should be noted that whereas the chiastic structure requires a certain amount of repetition or mirroring of subjects, themes, locations, ideas or plots the ring structure does not. A character can go on this journey and return to the world changed and that change can mean they’re in a different place — unable to return to their original location — but their situation has been resolved, their problem overcome. From a game design perspective the ring structure doesn’t require a return to previous levels, merely a resetting of the status quo which so readily enables a sequel. It’s part of why this structure is so appealing, it’s simple in its nature.
Problem occurs changing status quo, player tackles problem, status quo returns.
This works for alien invasions, zombie infestations, war simulations, and plenty of other conflict-defined narratives in video games. And it should come as no surprise then that as with the previous three structures — frame stories, epistolary stories, chiastic structures — the ring structure can work with any and all of its counterparts as long as the status quo is returned to.
And with that we return to the status quo. All of us writing and not just procrastinating by watching this show ,`.
Thanks for taking part in this episode of The Writing Game, I’m Gregory Pellechi. Everything I do can be found at OneGameDad.com and I can be reached there or on Twitter @OneGameDad if you want to talk writing, games, this show or even working together. The Writing Game is hosted by Third Culture Kids which can be found at ThirdCultureKids.net, where the full transcript of this episode is available. Please be sure to like & subscribe or rate and review this show on whatever platform you find it. I’ll see you on the next episode.
*Originally posted at https://www.thirdculturekids.net/blog/2018/3/structures-of-narrative