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  • A Common Framework for Storytelling in Games

    [06.08.10]
    - Gian Mancuso
  •  Do games tell stories?

    Sure, text, artwork, voice acting and cut-scenes can all arguably tell or help tell a story, but how can you truly say that the game itself is telling the story? And by the game, I mean the actual system, the units and rules that create the possibility for gameplay. Is gameplay a form of storytelling? Maybe not in most games (to avoid the argument), but if we wanted to conceptualize gameplay as storytelling, how would we do it? And if we wanted to make a game that told its story well, what would it take?

    In short, and I'll go into more detail later in this article, yes: it can be useful to think of gameplay as a medium through which players experience a unique form of storytelling. Maybe you've experienced it yourself where for one brief moment everything-the characters, the sounds, the visuals and what you were doing-all seemed to click, and you felt truly engaged in the story being told. It's something that many gamers have felt at some point, but that no one has yet been able to consistently reproduce. "It" eludes us not because we lack the tools to describe or evaluate it, but because it crosses so many fields and disciplines. Theories of fun and swords and circuitry, research into expressive AI and dreams of Hamlet on the Holodeck all bring us closer to understanding it, but none provide that one true holistic vantage point from which a game designer can envision how to truly tell stories well through gameplay.

    A holistic approach to storytelling in games has to consider many literary and filmic concepts like story, plot, character development, cinematography, lighting, audiography and "editing". But unlike film, a holistic approach must also consider the game mechanics and expressive processes that determine the above (no small feat), all the while recognizing that games are interactive, and have spatial and haptic dimensions. Is it any wonder that a holistic view of storytelling in games has eluded us for so long? The solution isn't to mash the concepts together and hope for the best. Putting Steven Spielberg, Conrad Hall, Syd Field, Jorge Luis Borges, Chris Crawford, Nobuo Uematsu, and Michael Mateas into a room probably won't produce anything worthwhile because they have no common framework on which to have a meaningful discussion.

    To find that common framework, we have to go up the conceptual tree to find what all of these seemingly disparate disciplines share. And that shared concept is communication. Ultimately, they are all means of getting an idea from person A, across some medium, to person B. But that net might be cast a little too wide for our purposes. Storytelling is a specific form of communication, a form studied for thousands of years by that often misunderstood field of study: narratology (as it's called today).

    But I'd like to ignore Aristotle for once and instead shed some light on the modern founders of narratology, the Russian Formalists, who a hundred years ago decided to analyze literature as if the stories it told were complex machines intentionally and purposefully constructed using "devices" or "functions" that serve particular purposes. It's from this concept that we get the term "plot device". This approach to understanding storytelling is interesting because today we use complex machines to intentionally and purposefully design and program functions that serve particular purposes in order to tell stories. Somehow, this conceptual similarity has rarely been noticed.

    Unfortunately, after years of largely pointless "Ludology vs. Narratology" debates, narratology is seen as a dead horse whose body is periodically dragged out by articles like this one for yet another beating. Except that this article isn't about using narratology to "understand" games, it's about giving designers a framework on which they can use all of the tools in their toolkit, not just a few. Narratology is the foundation for a common framework that we can all use to set up and guide the shape and direction of ours stories; game design, cinematography, level design, artificial intelligence, art, sound design, etc., are the tools we use to create a story; and gameplay is the way we as players experience that story. So what is this common framework?

    Laying the Foundation

    Before describing the framework, we need to build a foundation of commonly accepted terms and definitions to stand on. One of the major stumbling blocks when it comes to talking about story in games is that we can't agree on what "story" even means. It seems like everyone in this industry has their own definition of story, plot and narrative; it's again no wonder that no one can agree on anything.

    Meanwhile, narratologists has generally agreed on specific definitions of "story" and "plot" for about a century. Although "narrative" has some academic wrinkles left in it to iron out, for our purposes a (fuzzy[1]) definition is easy enough to come to. The basic theory goes like this: a narrative is a linear sequence of events through time where it's said that things cause things to happen to other things. I think that's generic enough. Whether we're reading a book, watching a movie or playing a game, the way we experience reading, watching and playing is as a narrative. Games are experienced as narratives.

    But that's not really the useful part of the theory. What's useful is the implication that whenever something is narrated to you-whenever you have a narrative-that narrative can be described as being composed of two simultaneous planes, like two sides of a coin: the "content plane" (story) and the "expression plane" (plot). The story is the abstract chronology of events and characters behind any narrative. That movie you want to see and spoiler you avoid reading refer to the same content, the same story, even if they tell it differently.

    Plot, on the other hand, isn't used here in the everyday sense of rising action, climax and resolution; the story arc; and all that. In this article, I'd like to take use a different definition of plot. To narratologists, plot is the order of events as they're told, and plot devices are used to deliberately create certain effects, express certain meanings. The film Memento (2000, Summit Entertainment) starts at the end of its story, and scene by scene takes the viewer back to the beginning. The difference in Memento between "story order" and "the order that the story is told" is the difference between story and plot. Memento's reverse chronology is a plot device used to great effect. Without the reversal, the film would arguably be far less effective in engaging the viewer and in expressing that sense of piecing together lost memories.

    I hope the above helps clarify how we'll be using the terms story, plot and narrative in this article. I'm not so naïve to think that I can change the way people talk about storytelling with an article, but I do hope that the basic concept that we can differentiate between what is being told (the story), and the telling itself (the plot) is now apparent.

    The point? By using these definitions for story, plot and narrative we can deduce that since gameplay is experienced as a narrative, then gameplay can also be described as expressing a story by means of a dynamic plot. This deduction becomes important when considering famed literary theorist Roland Barthes's argument[2] that every aspect of how a story is told can be usefully described as a plot device.

    The choice of words, the sequence of shots, the musical score and/or the visuals that express the story are all meaningful, whether that meaning is intended or not. For game designers, this suggests that every game mechanic, art asset, animation, environment, sound effect, musical score and haptic sensation is made meaningful through play. It isn't enough to consider how a tweak in game mechanics or the placement of a door will affect the game's playability; how will it affect the story?

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