Narrative: Part 1 1

This article originally appeared in Dev.Mag Issue 29, released in February 2009.

Game Development. The words have a way of sending a flurry of mathematical equations and complex code lines swirling through one’s head; after all, it’s exactly that which drives a game forward, isn’t it? – having your logical pathways set out so that when objects interact with one another they do what is expected. We get so hammered down on programming and gameplay that it’s easy to forget, particularly at the introductory level of game development, that there’s much more to a game than simply getting the code to compile without any errors.

This 6-part guide is here to explain and give you an idea of one of the more abstract areas of game-development: Narrative.

What is Narrative?

Now, you may be wondering why you need to care about something like Narrative. Think about the last five or so game you played. Assuming you breach the sports genre, I will hazard a guess that the majority of those games had a story on some level. Narrative has always been a massive part of the gaming industry, and in recent times, has become even more complex in structure. So naturally, as a game developer, it should be of some interest to you.

So what is it?

To put things bluntly, Narrative boils down to telling a story. Simple enough – but that’s an explanation that’s only suited for shouting to a stranger as you pass each other by in a crowded room. In the greater scale of things, narrative involves a deeper set of qualities: characterization; dialogue; sequence of events; as well as the world in which all of these things take place. The manner in which all of these qualities interact with each other, forms a narrative.

Narrative is highly flexible, and can stretch as far as your imagination (so if you’re a fan of Britney Spears, you may be in trouble here), no idea is off-limits. But there are a few things to take into consideration, and many things to avoid, but these will be covered as we get to them in the coming months. Just remember that you’re making a game, and that whatever story you imagine has to be adapted to suit that particular medium.

The Narrative scale

Okay, so now we know what narrative is, how are we going to start implementing it? Well, it’s a good idea to first determine what level of narrative structure you’re going to have before anything else. This will stop you from going too deep, or not going deep enough, in terms of the world you’re going to create.

The first mistake you will probably make is to think that genre determines narrative style. While not completely inaccurate, to let narrative be determined by genre means you will never be able to breach or expand that genre; which means that you’re essentially restricting yourself. So instead, we’re going to look at narrative on a number of levels, rather than by the genre of the game.

You will find that each level of narrative has an exception to the typical genre – which further presses the point that narrative isn’t genre-specific, and that genres, particularly today, are branching out further and further across narrative levels.

Remember: DON’T limit yourself, not even by the level explanations that follow – these are simply here to make things easier to understand; the lines are extremely blurred in practice.

Level 1 – The Sporty Spice

This is the ‘no story’ level of narrative structure. There is no cohesive tale to be told, no characters to develop and no dialogue to be had. The world in which it takes place has straight-forward rules which basically tell the player how things are done, and then leaves them to it. The focus here is gameplay and often nothing else.

  • Typical Genre: Sport, Racing, Old school
  • Games: Any Fifa Game, Gran Turismo, Tetris
  • Exception: Need for Speed Underground (Lv.3)

Level 2 – The Princess is in another Castle

This level of narrative structure gives the player a final goal (be it per level, or the game as a whole). The world is basic, offers no elaborate explanation, and the characters are recognizable and unique but share no interactions and have extremely limited dialogue. The focus is, again, on gameplay, but players are in a more diverse world.

  • Typical Genre: Platformers
  • Games: Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot
  • Exception: Jak and Daxter (Lv.4)

Level 3 – The Middle-Man

As the name implies, this is the median level of narrative, where an equal focus is placed on the story and gameplay. The world is recognizable and unique, with characters that are either previously developed or get developed to a degree (but rarely stray too far from their set characteristics such as “badass”). There are dialogue sequences that push the story forward, but interactions are often superficial.

  • Typical Genre: Film tie-ins, Action, First-Person Shooters
  • Games: Like, most FPS and Action games out there.
  • Exception: Bioshock (Lv.4)

Level 4 – The Epic journey

This level of narrative tips the scale in favour of story. While Gameplay is still a major focus (as it is a game, after all), the story becomes paramount in getting and keeping the player interested. The world is unique, diverse, developed and explained. The characters are deep and develop throughout the game, transforming as the story plays out. The characters interact through dialogue, often learning more about themselves and the world, or making decisions that affect the outcome of the story.

  • Typical Genre: RPG, Action/Adventure
  • Games: Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Grand Theft Auto
  • Exception: Fallout, Fable, Mass Effect (Lv.5)

Level 5 – The world is yours

The deepest level of narration is one that provides you with the option of how things in the story will play out. As it were, this level of Narration has many levels itself, but it ultimately it boils down to the player shaping the story to whatever degree. The characters are whoever the player makes them, and the story goes down a path the players choose. Dialogue happens the way players determine, and the outcome of the story depends entirely on those aforementioned choices.

  • Typical Genre: RPG
  • Games: Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Fable, Mass Effect
  • Exception: The Sims (Lv. 6)

Level 6 – lolwat

Indeed, you get a level of narration that’s completely non-existent, but has the potential to be the deepest level of them all. Basically, the developers have provided everything the player needs to shape the character, world, interactions and story. It is essentially a clean slate that has the potential to be whatever the player can imagine.

  • Typical Genre: Simulation
  • Games: The Sims, The Sims 2, The Sims 3
  • Exception: Real Life

Finding Direction

Now that you know what you’re getting yourself into, we can finally start tackling narrative in more detail, fleshing out each quality and building it up. For the sake of this guide, we’re going to be creating a ‘middle-man’ (level 3) narrative, which over the course of the next few months, we’ll develop into a potential indie game-ready story.

IN THE NEXT ISSUE: Once upon a time – We’ll have a look at the story as a whole; from beginning, middle to the end.

About Quinton Bronkhorst

Quinton is a designer and random rambler that really likes referring to himself in the third person. That should make you wonder: is it Quinton writing this, or perhaps some objective third party? You will never know. In unrelated news: Quinton is awesome and attractive and everyone wants to marry him. Facts. [Articles]

One thought on “Narrative: Part 1

  • alexouin

    Thank you so, so much for this series of articles. I’m developing a game and the engine is now finished but I have always pushed the narrative till the end because I’ve been too much aware of my flaws. By dissecting everything like you did, you helped me identify clearly all those concepts I understood loosely but not enough.

    I’m sure it will make a difference now, and your series gives me super high motivation to start working on my narrative now!

    Thanks a lot, and by the way, I literally burst out laughing with your humor. Two thumbs up, Quinton!

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