29 June 2011

[Literature] Fundamentals of Game Design, ch 7: Storytelling and narrative

Include stories in games because they

  • give context,
  • attract a wider audience than bare gameplay,
  • keep players interested and offer variety in long games,
  • can be marketing/advertising tools

A game needs a story if it has characters, it's not too abstract (unlike Creepsmash), or if the designer wants to convey emotions.


A story is a credible, coherent, and dramatically meaningful series of events. Interactive story contains player-performed, NPC-initiated, and narrative events. Narrative is presentational, non-interactive. Its goal is to explain why things happen in the game world.

Players want to act, but narrative is passive. Always give the player a way to skip narrative materials.

Dramatic tension happens when a viewer realizes something important is happening and he wants to know what happens next. Dramatic tension is the essence of storytelling, thanks to cliffhangers and climax. It depends on the reader's identification with a character (ability to identify and sympathize). Dramatic events should not be repetitive or happen randomly.

Gameplay tension happens when a player wants to overcome a challenge. It is caused by uncertainty of success. Can happen randomly and be repetitive (Tetris).

Linear stories

Players can't change linear stories (but still interacts with them). Require less content. Storytelling engine does not have to store critical player decisions (because player does not decide anything, illusion of choice).Guarantee that the story makes sense and is consistent with previous events. Player has no dramatic freedom, but the story has a greater emotional power.

Non-linear stories


Branchpoint is determined by in-game (NPC) events or player events. Player events consist of effort to overcome a challenge (resulting in success or failure) or a decision about the story.
Consequence of a choice can be immediate or deferred, and punctual or cumulative (ie throughout the game). Player should know which actions have which kind of consequences, otherwise it can seem unfair.
The story engine stores a story tree and the player's current position in the tree. There can be different starts based on character skills/status or randomly. Consistency requires the same node to never be visited twice.
Advantages: player has dramatic freedom, can try to explore story tree when re-playing from start.
Drawbacks: need lot of content, expensive to implement, player has to re-start a lot to see a significantly different story branch,


Compromise between linear and branching. Players think they have control over the story the first time they play through the game, but not when they replay. Some events have no turning back because they are critical (eg death of a sidekick/ally). The designers want those events to be inevitable to convey emotions.

Emergent narrative

Story comes from play in itself. The story engine is the mechanics engine. The Sims is kind of like that. Hard because mechanics are maths, and procedurally generating emotionally meaningful stories is hard with maths.


Generate emotions. Multiple endings if you want to reflect player's dramatic choices. Choices taken when overcoming challenges do not need multiple endings (they're not emotionally meaningful).


How often the game presents narrative elements to the player. RTS have rare cut-scenes between 2 levels, their story has large granularity. Minuscule granularity means player actions are the actual story.

Mechanisms for advancing the plot

  • Series of challenges or choices: the plot advances as player overcomes challenges. Usual in large-grained games.
  • Journey: travel is a key component. Player can stay in an area at will, therefore she controls the pace.
  • Drama: advances at its own pace (player is just watching)

Emotional limits of interactive stories

Stories have characters. When player identifies/sympathizes with one, he can feel emotions. When the player takes decisions for his avatar, the designer has to accept them. However, bad decisions may result in a meaningless ending. Therefore, the designer may want to allow a single meaningfully emotional ending. Readers hardly believe that the narrator will die in the middle of the story. In games, player's avatar is telling the story. If he dies, the story has to stop. Avatar friends can die, though. Be a game designer, not a film maker. Interactivity is crucial.


  • Unlimited series: each episode opens and closes a plot strand. Episodes have no order. Ex: Simpsons
  • Serials: Plot strands start and end in any episode. Cliffhangers are used to keep viewer interested. There's no ending, and the plot focuses on a group of people rather than on a single person. Ex: soap operas
  • Limited series: plot is season-long and episodes contain sub-plots. Ex: Harry Potter movies, Dexter, 24.
  • Multi-part stories: each end of an episode should resolve a conflict. Ex: Star Wars and Terminator movies.

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