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  • Storytelling In Games: Time And Space

    - Robert Renke

  • Game space in the chronotopical or operational view

    The operational structure is formed by characteristics that shape spatial operations by regulating and patterning movements, corresponding with Zoran's level of chronotopic structure. In games, being interactive, the plot is dependent on predesigned structure as well as player navigation and interaction. Zoran suggests that synchronic and diachronic relationships are the two main concerns for the level of chronotopic structure. Synchronic relationships detect the opposition of motion and rest, whereas diachronic relationships deal with movement through directions, axes, and powers through notions such as "routes, movement, directions, volume, simultaneity, and so forth". (Wei et al., 2010)

    At any given moment, characters and objects are in one spatial state: movement or rest. Some characters or objects can move between spaces while others stay in one space. The question of synchronic relationship can therefore be articulated as "what is attached to one space, what not?"

    Characters attached to one space become the "background" of the space, part of the context, especially when not interacting with the player. When players interact with these characters, the plot can change locally, and the range of that character's mobility and interaction determines the magnitude of the change. Characters that can move with greater range can play a more significant role in plot development, hence they are often the main characters that grow with the plot, along with the avatar. (Wei et al., 2010)

    A path between locations can be unidirectional or bidirectional; the latter being reversible. Axes are the principal paths connecting major events and actions that take place. In role-playing games, players usually must move along the axis to progress by pursuing the main quest but are also allowed to explore the world and interact on side quests that follow paths branching out from the main axis. This is often structured with Murray's rhizomes, which is a "tuber root system in which any point may be connected to any other point". The tuber represents the axis, whereas the roots are the paths of side quests. (Wei et al., 2010)


    • Synchronic chronotopical relations: opposition of motion and rest

    • Diachronic chronotopical relations: movement through directions, axes, and powers

    • Axes: principal paths connecting major events or actions

    • Rhizomes: connections between any point possibly deviating from the axis

    One of many forms of this rhizome structure is presented by Van De Meer(2019) as in what he calls trial narrative, side-questlines branch to lead either to a dead-end or back to the main story.

    Figure 14: Van De Meer, A. (2019). Structures of choice in narratives in gamification and games. UX collective.

    Similarly, Van De Meer proposes the "open-world tree narrative", a structure that can typically be seen in complex RPGs.

    Figure 15: Van De Meer, A. (2019). Structures of choice in narratives in gamification and games. UX collective.

    Jay Taylor-Laird(2016) explains a categorization into diagrams, amongst which he describes the notable rhizomes as "diamond" and "zipper", among others. The diamond diagram, according to the speaker, is often criticized for the lack of agency but can have some benefits such as unlocking sidequests or rewarding or punishing the player for the chosen path.

    Figure 16: Taylor-Laird, J., (2016). The Shapes in Your Story: Narrative Mapping Frameworks. Game Developers Conference.

    The "zipper" shape allows to only branch the story when strictly necessary while providing a completely authored sense of agency. An example can be seen in Black Desert, where we face many choices that have little effect on only the direct output of written text.

    Figure 17: Taylor-Laird, J., (2016). The Shapes in Your Story: Narrative Mapping Frameworks. Game Developers Conference.

    A more complex and dispersed mapping is Van de Meer's "adventure narrative", evoking the concept of choose-your-own-adventure books. According to Van De Meer, this kind of structure can be observed in larger story-driven RPG questlines like World of WarcraftThe Witcher, or pen&paper RPGs. In the author's words, "A recommendation for this choice is to build experiences that can be episodic in their nature. Each self-contained module experience is the episode in a larger ‘season'. [...]Doing it episodic means that you give players clear breaks, opportunities to reflect on experiences, and allowing them to re-enter the next session refreshed. "

    Figure 18: Van De Meer, A. (2019). Structures of choice in narratives in gamification and games. UX collective.

    Van de Meer's article ends with a "sandbox structure", where the story is built up by independent blocks, therefore being completely up to the player and modular - think MinecraftNo Man's Sky, or on a physical plane, lego blocks:

    Figure 19: Van De Meer, A. (2019). Structures of choice in narratives in gamification and games. UX collective.


    Topographical layouts (examples):

    • Linear/string of pearls: One discourse time event is played after the other, without branching

    • Branching plotlines/classic rhizome system: Each choice branches into several independent plotlines with no return, best used with procedural generation

    • Foldback/convergence structure: Different sets of events or order are provided, but eventually fold back into inevitable plot points

    • Side quests/trial: possibility to deviate from the main plotline onto small branches that lead back or can be abandoned

    • Tree structure: Axes branch into a variety of equally principle plotlines

    • Hub-and-spokes: One main level at the center through which all branches can be accessed. Blocking may or may not be used.

    • Diamond: The axis branches in order to lead to a single outcome

    • Zipper: One axis with only minor choices that all lead back to the axis

    • Adventure: minor mazes grouped into interconnected islands that lead back to the axis at the end

    • Sandbox: modular and mostly emergent structure with no definite solution

    Game space in presentational view

    Analysis on the presentational level focuses on how the game world is presented through patterns of visual, auditory, textual, haptic, and other cues, and how this presentation incorporates player actions. The first issue when presenting story space is the selection of spatial information to reveal on the screen. (Wei et al., 2010)

    In the next paragraphs, we will treat some interrelated patterns used to present spatial information: Transitions, perspective, composition, saliency, and finally, sound.

    The question of space segmentation also leads to the question of how to make the player have a fluid experience navigating through the subspaces. When subspaces are disconnected topographically, they can be displayed in the form of episodes or scene cuts. Otherwise, they may be connected to form the entirety of the game space in form of Murray's maze or rhizome. (Wei et al., 2010)

    There are four common styles of transition between unconnected subspaces: direct cut, fly-through, cut-scene, and caption. For example, in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, direct cut is used in most cases, however, in some instances, the game will play a fly-through sequence to familiarize the player with the new subspace. In other games, cut-scenes might be used as transitional means to introduce background information. In Fable II, captions simply tell the player they are to enter a new subspace. Another function of cut-scenes and captions is to entertain the player during loading time. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Parallel action, as defined by Warren Spector(2013) refers to the psychological point of view difference between the objective viewer and the character. It is an editing technique used to display two or more simultaneous happenings at different locations, an example being the FBI raid scene in Silence of the Lambs(Paul, 2016). According to Spektor, while it is an understandably conventional cinematic technique, it is a bad practice for games as it "breaks the illusion of immersion, rests control away from the player who want to be the directors of their own experience".

    Perspective can refer to two possible meanings: psychological or optical point of view. (Wei et al., 2010)

    The psychological point of view locates attitudes and emotions(Wei et al., 2010). Psychological perspective, therefore, englobes emotional and motivational parity. Optical perspective refers to the visual positioning of the frame. The source of both perspectives can be subjective(from a particular character) or objective (from an external narrator or neutral viewer). Both perspectives are often intertwined, for example, a first-person perspective can reinforce the psychological perspective of the protagonist. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Composition is important for storytelling through the environment. Composition and camera can be used to draw attention to and from certain elements or to underline what is happening on the screen. As opposed to cinema, we can't control what the player is looking at, but we can handle the story by manipulating the environment instead of the view. (Bellard, 2019)

    A central driver for composition is each object's saliency. Saliency refers to the attention-grabbing capacity of a scene object. It can be classified into two categories: bottom-up and top-down saliency. The former is about symbolism, attention-drawing shapes. Top-down saliency is dependent on the situation. For example, the abstract shape of a bottle or an apple will resonate more when we are thirsty or hungry, but there are also universal shapes that are always salient since they come from continuous necessities, like a weapon outline talking to the need for safety. Top-down is the type of saliency more active in task- or goal-oriented situations, while bottom-up is active in relaxed situations. (Bellard, 2019)

    Figure 20: Bellard, M., (2019). Environment Design as Spatial Cinematography. Game Developers Conference.

    Apart from presenting players the view based on the avatar's movement, the camera can also contribute to the game's interactive mechanism by guiding the player's attention. This is usually a direct cut or a zoom-in to an object or space (Wei et al., 2010). For example in dialogues in Black Desert Online, the camera either pans or hard-cuts to the point of interest depending on how far the point of interest is from the current focal point.

    Sound is used to set the mood, create tension, and enhance the immersion of the game world. For example, in Fable II, ambient sound helps define the environment and shape the emotional tenor of progress through the game space. When a player is exploring a town, the background music is quiet and peaceful. When he or she is on the road, the music becomes loud and ominous, and when combat begins, drumbeats kick in to intensify the fighting mood. The dynamic design of the musical soundtrack effectively creates both narrative and gameplay tensions. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Musical signature should be used to suit narrative structure, as composer Winifred Phillips(2020) explains. She compares two types of signatures on the examples of Assassins Creed: Liberation and Homefront: Revolution with the more episodic Little Big Planet. In the case of the former two games, we see a strong repetition where music is used as a mnemonic device, whereas the latter has a more episodical theme with more variation that underlines the different tone across environments since each has an entirely different story.

    Music can be equally symbolic, and sound designers can become inspiringly inventive when it comes to creating systems that convey the story. It was Richard Wagner who coined the term Leitmotif ("leading motive") to refer to musical themes associated with a particular character, object, or action in the story. The technique of Leitmotif was first brought to cinematography by Ennio Morricone in the Dollar trilogy (For a fistful of DollarsFor a few dollars more, and The good, the bad, and the ugly), however the most well-known and eventually most complex adaptation of the notion was by Howard Shore in The fellowship of the ring. (Keane, 2021)

    Doom composer Mick Gordon(2017) explains how he drew inspiration from David Bowie's production of Heroes in Berlin, where three differently instantiated microphones were used with gates to add reverb dynamically based on the input. Gordon applied this technique with further inspiration from the Doom concept art and storyline to design his system for Doom's musical theme. (Gordon, 2017)

    Game sound also has unique functions to the medium, for example, to provide feedback for player interactions, like footsteps, or hints, like suggesting an incoming attack. Such auditory cues help players perceive the game space and imagine the off-screen space. (Wei et al., 2010)


    • Psychological perspective: difference between attitudes and emotions of player and avatar

    • Optical perspective: Visual positioning including topics such as camera angle or compositing

    • Saliency: attention-grabbing capacity of an object

      • Bottom-up: saliency dependent on visual stimuli

      • Top-down: saliency dependent on goals and objectives


    Designers use planning algorithms to sequence events based on tension levels to ensure a strong dramatic and emotional tension arc. In Façade, the plot is divided into two levels of units: on a high level, the drama manager sequences dramatic beats based on the causal relationship between major events. These beats are crafted based on traditional dramatic writing, where each beat represents the smallest unit of dramatic action. On a low level, each beat contains a bag of joint dialog behaviors(jdbs). In response to player interactions, the beat dynamically selects and sequences a subset of jdbs. The system keeps track of the tension value of each beat and selects the next unused beat with the right tension value as well as other preconditions. Other systems focus more on player actions and goals, such as Barros' and Musse's Fabulator. The tension arc model here assumes that tension will rise when the player acquires more knowledge to move closer to the truth and adapts difficulty dynamically through the participation of NPCs. Thue et al. Propose a player modeling approach in PASSAGE that automatically learns the style of play preferred by the player, and uses the model dynamically to select events and deliver an adapted story, while grouping story events into phases of Campbell's monomyth.

    No matter what principle is at work for sequencing the events, narratives carefully sequence and time story events to build dramatic tension into a strong emotional arc, ultimately basing plots on the Aristotelian model. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Previous parts:

    Part 1: Prologue

    Part 2: Setting and Tools

    Part 3: Freedom of Choice

    Part 4: Structure and Devices

    Part 5: Character Design

    Next parts:

    Part 7: From Theory to Practice


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