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The Nemesis of Narrative

The recent patenting of the Nemesis system in the Middle-Earth series is a blow to the ecological system of entertainment, where the game business runs the risk of painting itself into a corner.

Many of the things I will say I've said before, but in different versions. However, I wouldn't bring up the conventions regarding the sharp line between the narrative and the game if it weren't due to a recent patenting of an engaging game pattern. So hang in there as I intend to clarify a few things concerning game creators' freedom within entertainment to explore and express themselves as meaning-makers to engage and motivate others. All links are collected at the end of the post.

This post is inspired by my brilliant fellow game- and narrative creators Shelby Carleton and Aidan Herron, who invited me to their podcast, Panic Mode, to explain what it means to approach game and narrative design from a cognitive perspective.

As game creators, we all have a cognitive approach in how we bear in mind the player’s thinking, the medium/technique, and style as possibilities to convey experiences and feelings. The only thing I do is visualizing our thinking and offering methods to control the design process in how we navigate through space to engage and motivate players.

Over the years it has been difficult to explain the extent to which the sharp line between the narrative and the game influences creators' opportunities to explore narrative possibilities beyond conventions. In order to bridge the gap between the contrasting convention of the static and scripted story structure and the dynamic and emergent data structure, the cognitive approach has been very helpful because it explains the interplay between our thinking, meaning-making, and emotions interacting with the computer’s learning.

                                                    Static story structure
                                                   Dynamic data structure

Instead of pushing the beliefs causing the border, I've embraced an evolutionary approach convinced that the creators' ecological system within entertainment will gradually bridge the gap. But when Shelby and Aidan wondered if I could give an example of a game that suffered from a lack of coherence between narrative and game design, the border made itself known.

I couldn't give an example as the answer was bigger than its parts.

The hybrid

Being a hybrid in the game business by having one foot in traditional storytelling and the other in computer science, I continually follow the evolution of a narrative understanding as my job is directly affected by the conventions of the narrative's behavior and appearance.

For example, as a narrative designer, even with a computer science background, I'm not expected to work with data flow modeling conveying the engaging and motivating forces into dynamic experiences through systems and mechanics. Exceptions are the specific story systems of branched plotlines and dialogue trees, encouraging choice-driven interaction arriving at alternative outcomes. Still, those systems proceed from the conventions about the narrative's static and scripted appearance, whose so-called embedded behavior constitutes a motive among game creators to seek the emergent gameplay structures.

I define the expectation space created by narrative conventions by drawing an interface between "screen-work" and "data-work."

                                                     Screen work
                                                      Data work                                                                                 

  • Screen work is when you are expected to give conflicts, characters, and the world an engaging push by adding a story, dialogues, and visuals to mechanics and systems.
  • Data work involves modeling the data flow, forming engaging and motivating experiences through systems and mechanics.

The interface between the screen work and data work helps me navigate (understand) the client's desires when scaling and scoping the space of possibilities beyond conventions.

If a client expresses a desire to create engaging and motivating experiences (I haven't met anyone yet who doesn't accommodate those goals) and their request is "screen-work," I'm doing the "data-work" anyway.

Motivating modes

The reason I do the "data work" is to show how the two motivating modes, the extrinsic or intrinsic motivation to learning, affect the drive of the player's behaviors and actions.

Extrinsic motivation - the act is driven by external rewards


Intrinsic motivation - the act is driven by internal joy

An extrinsically motivated design doesn't profoundly affect the player's drive like intrinsically motivated learning. The positive effect on the player from an intrinsic-driven design we commonly call exploring, an internal activity of orientation to understand by making sense of the causal, spatial and temporal links (see Hands-on guide: Predicting players' thinking).

A common misconception is that you can have an extrinsically driven design and add the story's causal network to deepen the motivating core drive. However, you can't expect narrative creators to "push" mechanics and systems by cobbling together the motivating core by attaching conflicts, characters, and dialogues to mechanics and systems.

The best is to do both the screen- and data work, as then you can form all parts into a whole to meet the desired outcome of a motivating core when setting the goal of what the player should experience or feel.

I recommend reading the writer Rhianna Pratchett's experiences from being expected to patch the narrative (story) to mechanics and systems. The backwardness is tangible if you are aware of the interface's expectations of narrative workers. The interface between writers and narrative designers can also become quite fuzzy due to the expectation interface, which Molly Maloney and Eric Stirpe describe in a GDC talk.

A listening computer

An intrinsic motivating mode is preferred because it proceeds from a cognitive friendly approach, requiring systems and mechanics "to listen in on" the player's thinking, learning, and meaning-making by observing how the player processes causal, spatial, and temporal links when navigating through space.

I'm sure many of you have heard the GDC founder Chris Crawford's Dragon Speech from 1992 on how you should make the computer appear as if it is listening (understanding). Another term often associated with the mentoring of a cognitive-friendly design is instructional scaffolding.

Worth noting if you are into research, the two examples above emerge from two different fields: Natural science and Humanities. Both fields engage in cognitive aspects of learning - the computer's (animal's) and human's learning. To understand how the narrative as a meaning-making mechanism comes into play, you need to knock at the semantic and linguistic scholar's door. To follow a scientist's progress bridging human- and computer learning, I recommend keeping an eye on Peter Gärdenfors, senior professor in cognitive science at Lunds University, Sweden (see also Putting into play and the seven-grade model of causal cognition).

An example of a game system listening to the player's meaning-making in how the computer learns/understands and responds to human learning is the Nemesis system in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War (2017).

                          Middle-earth: Shadow of War Monolith/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

The system proceeds from a "data work" of forming the computer's technique and style (graphic, audio, UI, controllers, engines, processor, RAM, and so on) into a cognitive-friendly scaffolding listener of how you simulate the computer to respond to the player's learning and meaning-making.

The system is said to be procedural by picking up the player's behavior of winning, losing, or fleeing and letting the orc objects remember and respond to the player's decisions and actions. Cognitively, the merging of human - and computer learning is prominent in how you model data flow to listen and remember player's internal and external activities over time (see Hands-on guide: Predicting players' thinking).

To get an idea of what a cognitive friendly listening system means, I recommend checking the video game journalist Mark Brown's Game Maker's toolkit on YouTube: How the Nemesis System Creates Stories.

The dream of an open space

The dream of stepping into another world to experience the story of being a hero defending and defeating evil has been a part of game development since the beginning. From a hybrid perspective, the dream has given rise to expressions such as open, emergent, and procedural spaces as a contrast to the so-called linear, embedded, and scripted dramatic story structure.

Proceeding from the desire to create an "open space" instead of the scripted dramatic structure created by an author has inspired conceptions about the players being their own storytellers. It is, of course, the player's thinking and meaning-making one refers to. However, as conventions about the narrative as scripted and authored are so strong, the possibility to access the player's thinking, i.e in the interplay between human learning and the computer's understanding, is concealed.

Unconsciously, the concealing of the cognitive activities on how we create meanings as meaning-makers has also maintained the gap between "data workers" and "narrative workers," which the narrative designer Edwin McRae expresses as follows:

"I personally think that procedural generation is a wonderful breath of fresh air, blowing away a lot of stale thinking and stale storytelling in the games industry. To be honest, it freaks the shit out of many a narrative designer. Why? Because it's impossible to rely on tried and true structures like "3 Acts" and "The Hero's Journey" when anything could happen in the game at any time."

Considering the interface between screen work and data work, what "scares the shit out of" narrative designers is probably the expectation of producing well-known story structures like Scheherazade factories until someone comes up with a new idea of making the story structure less scripted and narrative workers less useful.

What makes the Nemesis system's procedural behavior different from the scripted and embedded story structure concerns time and space. For example, if the player has won over an orc object, the object will seek vengeance over time. This "overtime," or as Edwin McRae expresses it, "any time," of how objects occur in space and time, signifies the so-called procedural behavior in opposition to the scripted and embedded narrative's static appearance.

Brief description of the opposing elements from a hybrid's perspective:


  • The objects (characters) in a scripted and linear story structure are kept strictly to a dramatic order deciding objects' appearance and behavior according to a predetermined timeline (influenced by causal elements of turning-points, plot points embedded by acts).


  • In a procedural appearance and behavior like the Nemesis system, space is added to time making the objects' occurrence "less scripted". Their memories of the player's action are released from a predetermined place on the timeline. Simply expressed, the objects' memory is a part of space "over time" and can occur "any time" from a player's perspective.

If you wonder about the term procedural, the procedural memory is connected to human learning (semantic scholars will probably agree), and the procedural generation, which Edwin mentioned, is more computer-focused. It's, however, a great example of navigating research concerning cognition.


As a hybrid, I dream of a cognitively friendly unity between minds in time and space, enabling creators to jointly explore possibilities by utilizing the medium, embedding the dynamic and motivating forces to etch the experience on memory.

During the conversation with Shelby and Aidan, the only answer I had to which obstacles games are facing, was the gap between narrative- and game creators. We collectively agreed to tear down the border to unite creators to explore possibilities beyond conventions. It was kind of wishful thinking, brushing aside doubts as to how we are supposed to tear down something that people seem pretty comfortable with.

After all, even in entertainment, conventions are not formed for nothing.

It’s actually quite tricky to explain the advantages of having a cognitive approach to both narrative- and game design. The term narrative inevitably makes the thoughts wander off to the dramatic story structure and Hero's journey like a magnet responding to iron.

Since I got hold of the 7-grade model of causal cognition three years ago, which explains how our thinking and meaning-making work (see also Putting into play and Peter Gärdenfor’s research portal), I’ve been able to bypass mentioning the narrative and proceed from how we formulate our thoughts and create meanings (narratives) to engage and motivate others (including ourselves).

But if we want to understand how experiences are etched on memory, in the mind, and emotionally, we need to understand how narrative possibilities emerge from how our meaning-making interplay with the game’s technique and style.

A narrative possibility from a cognitive friendly perspective is how you utilize the medium to convey dynamic and motivating forces by employing contrasts of familiar and unfamiliar elements to engage feelings that are etched on the memory.

Some call the engaging effect "subverting players' expectations" to keep a game from being predictable, but I call the impact sticking to the memory a surprise


                                           The surprising formula of a narrative possibility

I’m using a color fill of the familiar bar to illuminate a space we are familiar with to visualize an unfamiliar element we don’t expect. The upper bar is almost complete; there is little room for surprises as we are already familiar with it. However, the lower one is hardly filled at all, which means there is plenty of room for unforeseen events.

  • Familiar elements are experiences and knowledge we’ve built over time from learning—the experiences we store in our memory. Memories can be individual and detailed, but some are very general and work as a collective agreement and constitute our expectations on how things shall behave and appear.
  • Unfamiliar elements can only appear in relation to familiar elements. When you work in entertainment, your job is basically to make familiar elements appear in an unexpected manner. The more unexpected, the more powerful surprise.

Narrative possibilities in entertainment

Technically and media-wise, games and films differ hugely. What doesn’t diverge is the shared desire between creators in entertainment to engage and motivate the audience by employing narrative possibilities to add something new to an experience to trigger attention and engagement.

Considering other options than adding something new to the old is unthinkable for any creator in entertainment. It makes the narrative possibilities propel the ecological wheel of a self-regulating production of new experiences.

The effect you create is usually bound to time and space, and after it's consumed, it becomes a part of the familiar and expected.

Timing narrative possibilities

There are examples of artists whose narrative possibilities have a delayed effect. Vincent Van Gogh might be the most famous artist whose unawareness of today's success is often mentioned. In contrast to poverty and failure,

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