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  • Storytelling In Games: Time And Space

    - Robert Renke

  • Temporal devices in interactive narrative

    The term of speed refers to the relation between the duration of events and the duration of the discourse. In games, this would be the relation between the operation of an event and the duration of that happening in real-world time. Bal summarizes five canonical tempi that can be used as relative measurements, here ordered from fast to slow: ellipsis, summary, scene, stretch, and pause. (Wei et al., 2010)

    In ellipsis, there is a skip of story events in operational time. Wei et al.(2010) give the example of Fable II, where the protagonist worked for ten years as a labourer. The game only selects three moments, from weeks 1, 38, and 137, to the present.

    Ellipsis can be used as a dramaturgical device, as Chris Remo(2019) expresses in his conference talk addressing the issue of freedom of movement in Firewatch: "how would we maintain the kind of tension and pacing that's necessary for a paranoia involving story like ours in this situation; the narrative spine of true open-world games often suffers when the sense of momentum is undercut by the player having so much freedom that the illusion of time and urgency is broken".

    In order to resolve the given conundrum, the speaker draws inspiration from the film Dallas Buyers Club, which hard-cuts through the narratively significant days, and therein underlines the sense of urgency. According to Remo, those decisions come with a lesser sense of exploration as a tradeoff, and can only be taken when having established clear priorities - in this case, storytelling over player freedom.

    Summary refers to a duration wherein operational time is shorter than storytime. As the name suggests, it is used to show a major leap without the details happening in between. For example in Fable II, the protagonist grows up in a short cutscene showing the change of seasons accompanied by a voice-over. (Wei et al., 2010)

    We increasingly see summary balanced to become a monetization and retention tool, as is the case with cooldowns, building or movement times, or to balance cost through the resource of time, such as World of Warcraft's crafting times depending on the value of the crafted item, or Age of Empire's building and recruitment times.

    In games, there is not necessarily an absolute scene speed, as events need to be computed. Wei et al.(2010) compare the duration of fighting action of two games in their thesis: Fable II, where the duration roughly matches real-time, and The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, which can be sped up through player input. They conclude that "as long as the sequence takes place within a reasonable range of duration considering the scale of the game, we can consider its speed as scene".

    Kelley(2007) suggests that syncing with real-world time, as in cases such as Animal Crossing, "intentionally draws on the passage of time to create both emotional resonance and economic value in the gameworld" (Wei et al., 2010)

    Stretch is the opposite of summary, when an event takes longer to happen in the operational time than in storytime. An example is bullet time, popularized by Matrix and adapted in games by Max Payne. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Lastly, a pause occurs when a story event is paused and the operation is taking care of something else. This is the case of the use of cutscenes to show the newly entered terrain through a camera pan, as is done in many action-adventure games like Prince of Persia: The Sands of TimeAssassin's Creed, or Tomb Raider. Another type of pause is the user-commanded pause. This type of pause can be considered a UX element, unrelated to the experience or analysis of the narrative. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Frequency refers to the relation between the number of times an event happens in the story and is presented in the operation. When an event took place several times in the story but is presented only once, it is referred to as iteration, while when an event takes place only once in the story but multiple times in operation, repetition happens. Other than in verbal narration, iteration is not common in visual mediums. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Repetition is more common, although mostly employed as a mechanic rather than a narrative device. The most common repetition is the possibility to retry a failed challenge. In this type of repetition, events in operation may vary, but story events remain the same. It helps the player master mechanical skills but is less relevant to the narrative experience. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Another type of repetition is player's choice. Players may revisit certain sections and repeat tasks, and some games offer variations for the repeated section. This type of repetition adds to the player's experience in both gameplay and narrative (Wei et al., 2010). A popular example is unlockable difficulty modes as seen in Borderlands or Diablo III, for example.

    The third type of repetition results from the player's ability to reverse time, as is the example of the Dagger of Time in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or Max's rewind ability in Life is Strange. (Wei et al., 2010)


    • ellipsis: skip of story events in operational time
    • summary: operational time is shorter than storytime
    • scene speed: operation time is equal to storytime
    • stretch speed: storytime is shorter than operational time
    • pause: pause of story and discourse time
    • event iteration: event takes place more times in story than in operation
    • event repetition: event takes place more times in operation than in the story

    Spatial devices in interactive narrative

    We consider a game's narrative space as the space of the game's storyworld. Nitsche(2008) frames game space under structure, presentation, and functionality. Discussions under structure look at how textual qualities are reshaped by 3D game space. Presentation focuses on the roles of moving images and sound, and functionality addresses the player's interactive access to the game space. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Zoran recognizes that the structure of space influences the reconstructed storyworld, and distinguishes three levels of spatial structuring: The topographical level (space as a static entity), the chronotopic level(space imposed with events and movements), and the textual level (space imposed with verbal signs). (Wei et al., 2010)

    Zoran borrows Bakhtin's notion of chronotope to address the role of time in space. At the chronotopic level, space is structured by events and movements that happen over time. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Textual structure investigates how textual patterns are imposed on the organization of space. Player actions influence the storyworld through events and movements, which in turn cause changes in the on-screen and off-screen spaces. According to Wei et. Al(2010), this calls for a modification of Zoran's two levels, defining an operational and a presentational view. In the operational view, the story unfolds over time through events, the storyworld is revealed through movements. Game operations impose movement and interactive patterns on the structure of space. In the presentational view, the dynamic presentation of the storyworld imposes its patterns on the structure of space.

    Spatial organization frameworks:

    • Zoran's three levels of spatial structuring:
      • Topographical: Space as a static entity
      • Chronotopic level: Space imposed with time
      • Textual level: Space imposed with verbal signs
    • Wei two-view model:
      • Operational view: story unfolds over time through movements and events
      • Presentational view: presentation of the storyworld imposes on space

    Game space in the topographical view

    The topographical level treats space as a static entity with fixed spatial reference, separated from temporal reference. Terms like layout, spatial organization, and spatial structure are related to the topography of game space. In this view, maps can be drawn based on ontological principles like treasure chests.

    Jesse Schell(2018) talks about elements of the topographical level referring to Christopher Alexander's patterns(1977) and how this work inspires him in environmental storytelling.

    In The Nature of Order (1981), Alexander defines 15 patterns that anything lasting has.

    Briefly listed, Alexander's 15 principles are: levels of scale (elements intensify each other when they are in different size), strong centers (a whole contains focal centers within it), boundaries(the center is intensified when bounded), alternating repetition(elements are intensified when repeated with subtle variation), positive space(a living whole has only strong centers, where every part of space has the positive shape as a center), good shape(a living whole has a good shape and is made of smaller good shapes), local symmetries (a living whole contains various symmetrical segments that interlock and overlap with each other), deep interlock and ambiguity (a living whole has some forms that interlock centers with its surroundings), contrast (elements are intensified by the sharp distinction between the character of the element and its surrounding elements), gradients(qualities vary gradually), roughness (living wholes have some local irregularities), echoes (a living whole contains deep underlying similarities within it), the void (elements are intensified by the existance of an empty center), simplicity and inner calm (a living whole has certain slowness), and finally not-separateness (elements deeply connect and melt into their surroundings). (Takashi, Shingo, 2014)

    Figure 11: Leitner, H., (2015). A Bird's-Eye View on Pattern Research - Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: [accessed 28 Feb, 2022]

    Schell compares Alexander's pattern of "levels of size" to a game narrative in that "plot" is a "big" concept, "character" is medium, and "dialog" is a small component. All of those elements compliment each other and should be seen as interdependent and equally qualitative.

    Schell argues that missing a "Strong Center" is what currently avoids choose-your-own-adventure novels to be successful.

    He references "center" as the central notion on which the game is based.

    Strong centers, according to the speaker, are created by "Boundaries", synonymous with thresholds in Campbell's Hero's Journey. He mentions the rules in Papers, Please as a form of boundaries that can be violated.

    Schell refers to "Alternating Repetition" in the context of flow theory and tension waves, the continuous alternation of rest and tension.

    "Positive Space" as opposed to negative space, according to Schell, can be seen in a narrative as dialogue as opposed to Silence. He references Oxenfree's possibility of interrupting dialog or remaining entirely quiet.

    "Good Shape" refers to shapes that are appealing and functional on their own. On a narrative level, Schell refers to "shape" in temporal terms, as the "rhythm of interaction". He refers to The Walking Dead's popup message " will remember that" as a powerful shape.

    "Local Symmetries", as opposed to global symmetry, is a concept possibly known to riggers, and can be equally seen in nature, arts, and architecture, for example.

    "deep interlock" is the interlocking of parts to create solidity. Schell references Terrence Lee, who differentiates between explicit (or scripted) and player story(world and emergent narrative or soft scripting). Interlock, according to Schell, comes into play as the notion of synergy between explicit and player story.

    Schell refers to "Contrast" via comedy, then turns to Undertale to explain this contrast: "the serious parts make the funny parts more funny, and the funny parts make the serious parts more serious".

    He references One Hour/One Life as an example of "Graded Variation", which in accordance to the speaker is not often used in games but can be really powerful.

    "Roughness" summarizes all the little imperfections that make something feel original and real.

    Schell references Cuphead to explain "Echoes", as the gameplay "echoes" the core of the story about "jumping into danger".

    "The Void" refers to empty space. Schell explains this through the notion of increased importance when entering an empty space - it gives the sense that something important is about to happen.

    Schell explains "inner calm" as that when everything else is removed, and only what is needed is left, a sense of calm is what remains.

    He references the dots in packman for simplicity, as they serve multiple functions (points, progress, etc) at the same time without the need to add further complexity.

    "Not-separateness" is how things are fundamentally connected. Schell references Brothers as an example, where two characters are controlled each with one hand.

    Adams considers a successful layout needs to be "appropriate for the storyline and to achieve the atmosphere and pacing required to keep players engaged in the game world" and gives a list of 7 common patterns of spatial layouts: open, closed, linear, parallel, ring, network, and hub-and-spoke. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Following Alexander's principles, we can conclude that the term layout, as Adams uses it, refers to both the layout of individual spaces and the mapping of connections between those spaces.

    An open layout gives the player the freedom to wander. When a player goes indoors or underground, the layout often switches to a network or combination layout. The settings mimic their corresponding real-world locations and have few spatial boundaries.

    A linear layout is not bound to any specific shape but does ensure a fixed sequence. It stands similar to Nitsche's tracks and rails.

    A parallel layout is a variation of the linear layout, that allows the player to switch from one track to another.

    A ring layout makes the player's path return to the starting point, often used in racing games.

    A network layout provides more ways of connecting spaces and grants more freedom of movement.

    And finally, a hub-and-spoke layout starts the player from a hub in the center before heading out to another space (Wei et al., 2010).

    An obvious example of hub-and-spoke can be seen in Among Us, where players are spawned at the center again at the beginning of each round. Another example is the hub in Mega Man. Each spoke is self-contained, independent from the others, and connected through the hub. (Sylvester, 2013)

    Figure 12: Sylvester, T. (2013). Designing Games. O'Reilly.

    Adams reminds us that designers are not confined to one layout (Wei et al., 2010). It is often required to combine ordering devices to fit the needs of the game. For example, Mega Man 2 starts in a hub and spokes model, allowing the player to defeat levels in any order before being able to advance to the game's linear conclusion. (Sylvester, 2013).

    Figure 13: Sylvester, T. (2013). Designing Games. O'Reilly.

    Spatial oppositions can be used to structure the story world and create the desired effect. Bal stresses that "oppositions are constructions; it is important not to forget that and "naturalize" them", and Zoran considers the map of a topographical structure as based on a series of oppositions. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Spatial oppositions are typically physical (inside/outside, city/country,...) and can be endowed with meanings or experiences. For example, in the Assassins Creed series, the rooftop is an open and safe space while on ground-level, the player needs to be careful about the taken actions. This opposition allows for personalized pacing, and "illustrates how the design of narrativized space can affect ludic play". (Wei et al., 2010)

    Apart from shaping the gameplay experience, spatial opposition can group narrative elements and simplify complex content. For example, in Masyaf in Assassins Creed, the upper part represents the mountain fortress and the lower part the village. These two places contrast in busyness and density, naturalizing a state of alert in the village part while, in contrast, the fortress serves as a home region. The convention created through spatial opposition helps players to easier adapt to the environment. This notion of opposition is reused throughout the series, although on varying scale. (Wei et al., 2010)

    For example, in World of Warcraft, it is noticeable how sudden the textures change between locations. On one hand, this transition is likely due to engine limitations at the time but functions within the narrative function of providing a clear opposition between locations.

    Figure 14: Huaxin Wei, Jim Bizzocchi, Tom Calvert, "Time and Space in Digital Game Storytelling", International Journal of Computer Games Technology, vol. 2010, Article ID 897217, 23 pages, 2010.

    The transitory space or boundary between two locations often functions as a mediator(Wei et al.(2010), citing Bal(2009)). For example, in Masyaf, the passage between the mountain fortress and the village is a gateway toward other locations in the game world. This transitory place allows the player to take a breath and get ready for the next adventure (Wei et al., 2010).


    • Spatial opposition: difference between different functional and narrative areas

    • Transitory space or boundary: space between two opposed spaces


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