Narrative Vs Gameplay: A Toolbox For Harmonious Coexistence

By Valerio De Simone [05.28.20]

The interactive narrative is still uncharted territory. Designers haven't quite figured out where to stand between player agency and guided storytelling, branching stories and linear ones, and other huge matters about stories in games.

This exploration is far from over, but it's moving fast. Every day new narrative-based games come out, and many of them are actually trying new ways to convey narrative.

Anyway, I'm not here to go further in this exploration. As game designers, we must not only conceive the story, but find a way to deliver it. Interactivity means this too. The audience of our story won't just sit and listen to it. Our audience will look for the story, or run into it while experiencing pure gameplay. On the opposite, sometimes our audience will do everything he can to avoid it. Our job is to let them be immersed in our narrative, without necessarily force them to stop playing while doing so.

However, sometimes we forget about the existence of many ways and spaces for our stories to be experienced. I've come up with the following list as a reminder of these ways. It's a memento of gameplay moments, items, styles, and every possible part of the game that can be actually used as an instrument for narrative delivery.


Before we start, take into account the following golden rules:

  1. Don't stick to only one. Almost every game uses multiple ways to deliver narrative. If you do so, you will prevent monotony. Furthermore, every player is different. Some will avoid some kind of ways, but will eventually occur in others, more fitting their personal gameplay style. You need to diversify
  2. Those methods are NOT mutually exclusive. In fact, many of your narrative moments will fall into multiple categories
  3. Interactivity vs Narrative. Playing and understanding the story at the same time can be hard. If a player is busy in a complex gameplay moment, he could have some problem following someone speaking to him. This doesn't mean narrative and gameplay moments should be separate: on the opposite, the more we merge those features, the more harmony in the experience will be achieved. But keep always in consideration the player and his multitasking limit

Show > Tell

The use of words is reduced. The player understands the story not while reading something, but with visual tools: pictures, photos, NPCs, and creatures' behaviors towards him and between one each other, object degradation, level design, pace, and much more. More than a single tool, it is a quality that can be applied to other methods. Do it as much as possible, always.

PROS yes

CONS no

EXAMPLES enlightened


Interrupting gameplay / Cutscenes

The gameplay is paused, forcing the player to deal ONLY with the narrative, having sometimes the opportunity to skip it according to the importance of the passage. Cutscenes are the classic and most expensive way to do it. Use it when you need the player to experience some beat of the story.

PROS yes

CONS no

EXAMPLES enlightened


Remote Communication

NPCs talk to the character directly through some communication device or ability.

PROS yes

CONS no

EXAMPLES enlightened


Proximity Communication

NPCs or other PCs talk to the character vis-à-vis. Sometimes they wait to be spoken with, sometimes they reach the player themselves.

PROS yes

CONS no

EXAMPLES enlightened


Companion

An NPC follows the main character, communicating with him regularly. Alternatively, the player guides a group of characters, which interact with each other.

PROS yes

CONS no

EXAMPLES enlightened


Transitions/Traversal

Often used to hide level loadings, to calm the pace of the game, to give cheap game time, or to simply make the player move from an area to another with map and space coherence. These moments, usually, have a low level of interactivity.

PROS yes

CONS no

EXAMPLES enlightened


Items

Places to visit and objects to gather are scattered over the world. Once reached, the item delivers a piece of the story/theme/setting. Very common, almost every game delivers narrative this way.

PROS yes

CONS no

EXAMPLES enlightened


Loading Screen

The narrative is delivered during game loading, usually with text and images.

PROS yes

CONS no

EXAMPLES enlightened


Specific Player Ability

The player uses some specific mechanic to get in-game info.

PROS yes

CONS no

EXAMPLES enlightened


Patrolling and Public Newsreaders

NPCs deliver news about the world. They don't address directly the main character.

PROS yes

CONS no

EXAMPLES enlightened


Monologue / Soliloquy

A character (could be the main one or another one) speaks to the player or to some generic "reader" of the story.

PROS yes

CONS no

EXAMPLES enlightened


Environment

The level enrichment always tells a story. This tool is strongly linked to level design prophecies. There are several ways to apply this method, from a vague atmosphere to specific writings on walls.

PROS yes

CONS no

EXAMPLES enlightened


Different Perspective

Playing different characters, the player learns the same story from different points of view.

PROS yes

CONS no

EXAMPLES enlightened


Conclusion

Here we are at the end of this study. I draw on this list as a tool, with two basic functions:

  1. Remember ways to deliver narrative I tend to forget.
  2. Remember risks and opportunities that lie in every way.

I wish it will help you as well, and inspire more discussions: in fact, this list is far from over. I can't wait to perfect it, make it deeper, as complete as possible. Hopefully, I will soon be able to release a 2.0, with more ways and some more specific examples.

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