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  • Storytelling In Games: Setting And Tools

    - Robert Renke
  • "To achieve in life is A hard story, But that shouldn't scare you."

    - Auliq Ice


    In the last article of the series, we learned what "narrative design" actually is in the first place, how it is different from writing or other design specializations, how it relates to those, and why it is so hard to find at the current time.

    If you are reading this, it means you are already familiar with the concept and want to make your move towards this specialization, or are already working in a related field (congrats!) and want to expand your theoretical knowledge. So let's jump straight into it, and start with: Part 2, Setting and tools.

    Simply put, narrative structure is the organizational framework of a story (MasterClass, 2021). With the oldest known records in ancient Greece, to Hollywood, many have attempted to define ideal structures.

    Setting refers to the time and place over which the story unfolds. Elements of the setting can include things like era, time of the year, time elapsed over the storytime, mood and atmosphere, location, geographic elements, and many more.

    But as described by the references in part 1, it is important to take a step away and contemplate story as not only the written word, but as anything perceived by the spectator. We refer to those visual and auditive elements as "narrative tools".

    A narrative tool is some device to form a piece of a story in a player's mind. Our narrative tools divide roughly into three main classes: scripted story, world narrative, and emergent story (Sylvester, 2013).

    While often used interchangeably, for clarity we will differentiate between mechanical tools or devices, described below, and literary or style devices, described in part four of the series.

    Let's have a look at each of the tool categories described by Sylvester.

    Scripted Story

    Scripted story is the events that are encoded directly into the game so they play out the same way (Sylvester, 2013). Examples of scripted story can therefore be: Authored dialogue, cutscenes, and every single element in which those cutscenes can be broken down. In this case, a direct synonym to screenwriting can be drawn, evoking topics such as camera angle and movement, environment art, dialogue, and so on. Things like quests could be seen as scripted story tools to some degree as they consist of pre-made tasks for the player to follow, however the form in which the player/protagonist carries out those tasks are variable.

    For example in Far Cry, the story is guided through a quest system, however most of the story results from player action, such as the order in which quests get carried out, whether an enemy camp gets silently infiltrated or the protagonist runs in guns blazing, a location is reached by foot, car, or plane, etc. World of Warcraft is a more restrictive open-world setting, however here too, it depends on the player how the story of each quest unfolds: whether it was a single hero that defeated the enemy or the effort of a large group, a collaboration between friends or an economic effort to pay for aid, and so on.

    I would therefore categorize "quests" as semi-scripted while the tools they consist of on a microlevel, such as the authored dialogue, remain fully scripted.

    Soft Scripting

    With soft scripting, the player maintains some degree of interactivity even as the scripted sequence plays out. For example, a player may be walking his character down an alley and witness a murder. Every scream and stab in the murder sequence is prerecorded and pre-animated, so the murder will always play out the same way as the player walks down that alley for the first time. The actions of the player character witnessing the murder, however, are not scripted at all. The player may walk past, stand and watch, or turn and run as the murder proceeds. [...] Every scripted sequence must balance player influence with designer control. (Sylvester, 2013)

    During the opening tramcar ride in Half-Life, the story unfolds in scenes outside of the tram while a recorded voice reads off details of facility life. The player has the choice of walking around inside the tram and looking out the different windows, but can't otherwise affect anything.

    In Dead Space 2, the player walks down the aisle of a subway car that hangs from a track in the ceiling. As the car speeds down the tunnel, a link to the track gives way and the car drops into a steep angle. The protagonist slides unstoppably down the aisle, and the player's normal movement controls are disabled. However, the player retains his shooting controls. As he slides through several train cars, monsters crash through doors and windows and the player must shoot them in time to survive. This sequence is an explosive break from the game's usual deliberate pacing. It takes away part of the player's movement controls to create a special, authored experience, but sustains flow by leaving most of the interface intact.

    Halo: Reach has a system that encodes predefined tactical hints for the computer-controlled characters. These scripted hints make enemies tend toward certain tactical moves, but still allow them to respond on a lower level to attacks by the player. [...] Designers use these hints to author higher-level strategic movements, while the AI handles moment-by-moment tactical responses to player behavior. (Sylvester, 2013)

    Another example of such guided soft scripting can be found in Bioshock Infinite's companion AI, Elizabeth. The engine uses interest points and smart terrains to guide Elizabeth's actions. Interest points can be placed in different quantity throughout the level in order to define, with a certain degree of randomness, where Elizabeth will move to or look at (Robertson, 2014). Where Elizabeth looks at, the player will most certainly perceive a point of interest as well, due to the drawing power of stimulus crowds(Milgram, 1969).

    There are also ways of scripting events which are naturally immune to interference. Mail can arrive in the player character's mailbox at a certain time. Objects or characters can appear or disappear while the player is in another room. Radio messages and loudspeaker broadcasts can play. These methods are popular because they are powerful, cheap, and don't require the careful bespoke design of a custom semi-interactive scripted sequence. (Sylvester, 2013)

    I see a broken shell and I remind myself that something might have needed setting free.

    See, broken things always have a story, don't they?

    -Sara Pennypacker


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