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Feature: The Uneasy Merging of Narrative and Gameplay

Rainbow Studios senior game designer Ara Shirinian takes a fascinating look at the long-standing topic of the relationship between gameplay and narrative, in a new
January 26, 2010
A new Gamasutra feature closely examines the long-standing topic of the relationship between gameplay and narrative. As game designers are afforded more tools to convey different forms of narrative, they have more opportunities than ever to tie that into gameplay, said Rainbow Studios senior game designer Ara Shirinian. He explained his definitions of narrative and gameplay as follows: "Gameplay is relatively simple to define for our purposes. Any action in the game that is occurs by way of interaction between the player and the game, we call gameplay. "Generically speaking, a narrative is just the description of a series of events. At its most atomic level, virtually any visual component of a game can carry a sort of narrative with it, telling you something about its context and history. "When we normally talk about narrative in the context of games, we mean things like cutscenes, plots, relationships between characters, and stories that are expressed continuously through the course of a game. "However, a scene of two characters arguing about where to go next is as valid a narrative as simply looking at a graphic of a bright blood-stained and nicked sword. "The main difference is one of complexity and sophistication. In the latter example, the narrative is expressed as a single visual: I see a sword, it has recently drawn blood, it has struck a very hard object. In the former example, the narrative is communicated via visuals, like setting and choice of dress, but also via actor performance, which includes all kinds of details like gesticulation, subtle body language, voice, and so on. "There's an important implication here -- if a game has any discernable graphics at all, there is always some sort of story, or narrative, being told to you (or at least being interpreted by you) as you play. Indeed, humans are really good at constructing narratives about what happened to that bloody, nicked sword, even if one wasn't offered or intended. Even pure action/zero story games cannot be wholly divorced from narrative, because the player will always extract meaning, and thereby a story, from graphics. "The point is that there exist very different levels and techniques of narrative expression, and each comes with its corresponding set of prerequisites that must be satisfied before the player (or viewer) is able to apprehend a game's narrative." For more fascinating reading on the relationship between gameplay and narrative, and how this relationship can take on a wide array of forms, read the full Gamasutra feature, available today.

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