Three Types of Point-of-View in Video Games

 

 

A Different Point-of-View

Many of us share the tendency to equal point-of-view (POV) to perceptual view, that is, to visual sense-data perceived by a particular perceiver from a particular position held in space. This is what we usually mean when we say “first person” view. But we often also imply a certain distance and angle from which this pair of eyes views the world, for example when we say “third person” or “God view”. As can be easily inferred, we address through these a camera’s distance to an avatar as well as the camera’s distance to the ongoing events. Using the term POV in this way is quite practical in daily life, for instance when we want to describe a game to a friend, because using POV in this way has become part of our vocabulary.

However,  narrative designers maintain a subtler approach to the POV issue and take into account a number of nuances that improve their craft and bring in additional artistic  and narrative choices. One reason for that is that using the term POV only in its perceptual sense causes a lot of details about a broader notion of POV to get lost. In this article, I will try to show that POV is not only about seeing, but also about interpreting what is seen and whether the perceived events cause a reaction in the perceiver or not. In other words, I will speak of an eye that not only sees, but one that also thinks, and has an interest. This has several implications in regard to character creation, challenge, identification and exposure, all of which I will try to address.

 

What the Eye Sees, Thinks, and Desires

In a chapter of his book Story and Discourse, published in 1978, and since then one of the most recognized publications in the field of screen and literature studies, Seymour Chatman points out that there are at least three different types of point-of-view. He goes on to clarify that these are

  • perceptual point-of-view,
  • ideological point-of-view and,
  • point-of-view of interest

Chatman deals with each one of these POV types extensively, and looks not only at how they relate to each other, but also at how they relate to those whom they belong to: to characters, narrators, narrator-characters, or spectators for example. When I say “belong to”, I don’t mean to say that one type of point-of-view can only belong to one type of owner. It’s not for example that only characters can have a perceptual view, and only narrators an ideology. Variations between point-of-view and owner types are endless. Besides, they may be subject to change even in transitions from one shot to another. And the combinations that a narrative designer goes for, will create major differences to the player’s experience.

It could be said that in contrast to perceptual view, ideological POV and POV of interest work rather at the mental level, and are in regard to what the things we see mean to us. In that sense, they are mental pictures about perceived visual sense-data. We label them as point-of-view, because they are specific ways of filtering what we see. They are partly conscious partly unconscious frames that may cause us to ignore or misrecognize things that we see perceptually. As art critic John Berger says, what we believe to see depends on what we know to be true: We see the sun revolving around the world, but we believe into the opposite. In narrative design, this simply means that we have a lot of options to manipulate the  knowledge, thoughts and emotions of an audience so as to create immersive, intriguing and entertaining experiences.

 

Perceptual Point-of-View

The first of these three POV’s is the one most obvious to us: perceptual view. This is simply what is being perceived through a “pair of eyes” at a particular moment in time. This type of POV basically denotes the perception of visual sense-data, and thereby also implies a position that is being held in space from which this sense-data is collected. In short, perceptual view does not only yield a sight, but it also establishes a perceiver, however anonymous, in relation to an environment, like the “first person” in a shooter, or the “God” in a god game.

It’s very important to realize that the perceptual view represented on a screen is an appropriation of a view that hasn’t existed in reality. Nor has its implied perceiver. When we look at the screen, all we really see is an image procedurally generated and rendered into sight through a virtual camera. The efforts of the designer and artist in the visual constrution of this rendering must achieve that we think of this image as if it were the moment-to-moment perceptions of a perceiver. This is in particular important if the designers and artists want us to assume this perceptual construct as our own view.

In constructing this perceptual view carefully, the designers and artists goal is to make us forget about the distance between our own pair of eyes and those represented on the screen. Helping a spectator to ignore the distance between himself and the screen and make him assume the eyes implied in the visualization as his own eyes  is by no means a guaranteed thing to happen. It looks unproblematic to us, because most of the games we play have been made by experts who don’t fail in this and make it look like it is the most natural to “see” as is visualized.

Constructing such artificial perceptual view is part of character creation too, because the way we construct this image, also co-constructs and suggests the presence of a perceiver with certain attributes and traits. Hence, when a player identifies with this perceptual view and overlooks the distance between him and the screen, he not only assumes the artificial pair of eyes as if they were his own, but he also assumes the characteristics of the perceiver that is implied through this specific visual construct.

Finally, perceptual view alone may not be sufficient to express what the owner of the pair of eyes encounters. For example in a first person shooter, it becomes a problem to make a player realize that he has been hit by a bullet. For one, bullets are fast things ;) and naturally they escape the eye (in other words, their travelling through the air isn’t actually represented, although exceptions such as the bullet-representation in Max Payne exist), and second, the visual construction in first person view doesn’t allow the player to perceive the virtual body to which the pair of eyes seems to belong to. Hence, when a player is hit by a bullet, it is implied by other means that make its perception possible: the screen turns momentarily red, the health bar in the Heads-up-display gets shorter, and the cam backtracks in quick spurts like if we were pushed by something.

In other words, designers use many visual elements and embed these into the perceptual view they have constructed. Many of these visual elements however, belong already to other types of POV, ideological POV and POV of interest. Hence, what we perceive to be a perceptual view when we play, is already a combination of various POV-types.

Ideological Point-of-View

The second definition of POV takes seeing rather in the metaphorical sense and implies not only a view, but a worldview. Hence the term ideological. Here, a second lense is applied to the lense that sees: thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. What we call point-of-view has gained another dimension and is no longer only the perceived sense-data. Take this example: In a scene, we hear an old man reflecting back on events in the past (let’s say on a time in his youth when he cheated on his wife). We hear him expressing how he labels this as a foolish thing to do and how he regrets it. However, the scene itself is presented  through the perceptual view of the man when he was young yet. Thus, the scene presents both, a perceptual view and an ideological view. Not only are we presented a view of, but also a view on the event that is presented. It’s not only perception anymore, but also cognition; not mere sight, but vision. Such combined use can be found in games like Dear Eshter or Company of Myself, where a parallel narration -perceptual and ideological- takes place. Max Payne too, is an example: As the perceptual view unfolds, we also hear Max Payne‘s comments on what we perceive to happen.

We can witness this difference also in textual narration. For example in Football Manager, most of the comments during a match present a perceptual view: “Ronaldo play the ball long” or “Messi attempts a long range effort”. But some of the comments are also views on the unfolding events: “Real Madrid has now a mountain to climb” or “He knows he had a bad game”.

The ideological POV type gives many things at the disposal of a designer or writer: He may use it in order  to make it run counter against another POV-type, as it is the case in the old man reflecting on his youth, or, he can put one in the service of the other, for example by supporting a view on things with a view of things. More than that, he can introduce more views, those of others, and thereby shift the overall perspective in regard to things: What’s the wife’s point-of-view? Or that of the woman with whom the man cheated on his wife? Or those of his children? Or the child he had from the woman he cheated with on his wife? Various view that have different perceptions and thought are a great way to manipulate the player’s view and ideas on things he is presented.

Once we become aware of the  nuance between the perceptual and ideological POV, we have entered a creative space full of endless variations in order to deliver a story in an interesting way. One of the storytelling techniques that makes use of these two type of POV’s is unreliable narration: It presents an ideological POV that stands in contradiction with what is presented through perceptual view. Often the result is irony, or even sarcasm: A character who maintains a naive vision on what he sees. This may achieve comedic as well as tragic effects.

Point-of-View of Interest

The third definition may sound a bit confusing because we often think of ideology as already representing interest, which is true to some extent, but which at another level doesn’t mean that they are inseparable. The difference between the two becomes apparent when we consider that what we believe to be in our interests (ideological POV), may be in conflict with our actual interests. In other words, we may not be aware of our actual interests, or blinded by our beliefs to a degree at which we can’t perceive them thorougly. Interest, is  therefore not about perception or ideology, but rather about an awareness in regard to the consequences of events.

This can create interesting situations. For example a character may be aware of the negative consequences of a particular choice, but he may still chose to face that consequence due to his beliefs (ideology) as is the case in situations that involve sacrifice. Or sometimes a character may find himself in a dilemma: He may not be able to decide whether to follow his belief or his interests. Or a designer may come up with a plot where two equally important interests are put against each other: Chosing over one of these will cause the other one to be lost. This conflict can be then the basis of a certain ideological view that develops out of this conflict. This latter example is known as a Corneille Dilemma, named after the famous French playwright, who often put the protagonist in a situation in which he had to chose between love or reputation, and where chosing one would definitely mean to lose the other.

Another very interesting example is that of Kassandra, a figure from Homer’s Illiad, who, due to her ability to see the future, knows already the consquences of the Trojan War: the city will fall and all members of her family will be killed or fall into slavery. But because of a spell that was placed on her by Apollon, noone believes a word of what she says, and she is sentenced to watch her folk running towards its terrible fate. This is a very powerful use of POV of interest, because the character can’t do anything to prevent the consequences that she is aware of. This is similar to films in which we yell at characters things like “Don’t open that door!” or “No, don’t believe him! He wants to kill you!”. We know the consequences, but the character doesn’t. The french philosopher Gaston Bachelard has termed thereform such situations as Kassandra Complex,  and the melodrama genre in the cinema makes heavy use of it. But you may be surprised to find out how often it is also used in games. Take Lemmings for example: the poor creatures,  themselves not aware of the consequences ahead, urge us to take control of the situation, because only we as players are aware of what could happen to them.

The Spectator’s Point-of-View

As some of the examples above have already shown,  the use of various POV types becomes even more interesting when the spectator is added into the mix.

The most obvious aspect here is that of POV of interest. Assuming the POV of interest of a character is central to what we call identification.  We are scared for the protagonist when he is about to face negative consequences, and we feel happy when something happens that is in his interests. We care for his interests throughout the story. Even in films that pretend to be objective, like some documentaries, the audience will still share a certain point-of-view of interest and identify for example with a species that faces extinction and whose survival story is being told.

There are many ways to put the POV-of-interest of a in-game character that represents the player against that very player’s POV of interest. The simplest way is to give the in-game character no POV-of-interest at all. For example when in a TPS our unit is under fire, it won’t move to take cover. We must move it away from the threat, or it dies. The Sims does it a bit different though; here the contrast is partly based on different ideological POV’s: The player has a POV-of-interest, communicated to him through the general set-up of the game, however the in-game characters themselves seem to hold a different worldview (ideological POV), one which is not aware of the POV-of-interest of the player: They don’t care about working out on the bench to get a promotion, or they don’t care finding a job. Instead they watch TV or play video games all day. In many regards, their POV of interest conflicts with that of the player: They refuse to study when they are in a bad mood, put the book back to the shelf and play a round of pinball. And interestingly, while they know how to find the fridge and get food, they don’t know how to find the toilet and use it, which indicates that the fellas possess a highly fragmented overall point-of-view.

In many cases it may be the spectator himself who isn’t aware of the consequences of events, which can be a great way to create surprise when the spectator realizes that such consequence existed.

Another interesting example is the so-called MacGuffin, an object that may never be brought to our perceptual view, but which we still perceive as something that is in our interests, and that we chase therefore, just like it is the case with the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, which the two protagonists are ready to protect, even if it would cost them their lives.

In terms of ideological POV, we can say that a spectator also maintains certain beliefs as the story unfolds. He has a view on things, an ideology, partly fostered by the way the events are narrated: he distinguishes between what he thinks to be right or wrong, true or false. He may tend to believe that x is the murderer and not y, or he may believe that a character who is actually a liar “looks like a honest man”, and therefore believes his words.

 

Point-of-View Types in the Game Interface

As can be easily understood from these examples, a narrative designer can construct very interesting plots based on the manipulation of all three types of POV’s and how he constructs them differently for spectator, narrator, and characters. To give an example from Age of Empires: The perceptual view here is constructed in a way that gives the player a perceptual view over the map as a whole, but in order to see the details of the map, he has to move his units around and make use of their line-of-sight (the unit’s perceptual view) in order to complete the picture. From an ideological point-of-view, these units seem to be on his side and in full support of the case: They’d sey “yes sir” when they are assigned a duty. But on the other hand these units don’t seem to have a POV of interest: Villagers under fire keep working instead of hiding, so the player has to jump in and represent their interests. This complex structure in Age of Empires is a good example in regard to how interesting the various POV-types and their relations to player, narrators and in-game characters can be structured, and how they amount to interesting and highly immersive gaming experiences..

Consider another example, that of Need for Speed: Perceptually, it positions our car to the center and close to the lower egde of the screen. This creates focus, because one car is emphasized over others. Furthermore, this visual arrangement sets up an advantageous position that enables control. These are already enough visual clues to suggest that we must identify with the car at the center. On the other hand, the mini-map in the lower corner allows for the construction of a mental map that brings expanded screen space into our perception. In other words, it helps us to maintain a worldview, a vision about the world as a whole of which only a fragment can be seen at a particular moment in time and space. The speedometer is another visual element embedded into the perceptual field of view that helps us to maintain a vision about what we believe to be doing. Finally, the actual rankings list is a way to visualize our POV of interest, because it tells us whether things develop in our favor or not. It gives us feedback of the consequences that our performance had so far.

 

Conclusion

In this article I tried to show that there are a number of POV-types, which when combined can help in the construction of interesting gameplay experiences. I distinguished between perceptual, ideological and interest POV’s and gave examples not only in regard to how they relate to each other, but also to spectator, narrator and character. Finally I gave an example in which I briefly tried to show how these three types of POV are embedded into interfaces.

An interesting point to consider here is that what we usually call “the gameplay” has a lot to do with these intertwinings of different POV-types. It could be a good idea to make use of these concepts in order to refine our notion of gameplay, and also realize how close it is related to storytelling methods.

I believe that an awareness of the existence of various POV-types can only improve a narrative designer’s ability to create compelling and immersive gameplay experiences. I hope this article can make a contribution into that direction.

Game Idea #47

Time for a new game idea! My new game idea is inspired by a discussion on the nature of images and language. Letters are often considered as two-dimensional graphical elements, not capable of three-dimensionality. On the other hand, they are seen as a different representative system, and not associated with systems of visual representation, although they use the same basic graphical elements such as lines, dots, planes and even volumes. Therefore I like the idea to make a text adventure whose world is visually constructed through letters and words, a world that maintains the illusion of depth and can be navigated, something that uses in its representation of its world the words that are associated with objects, rather than depicting the objects themselves.

Here comes..

This is not a Word

This is not a Word is a “text-world” adventure. Its world is visually represented by letters, words and sentences that are discernible as objects. The way in which these letter-objects are displayed, changes, as we approach such object. For example if we see a “tree” and approach it, we start to identify the many “branches”, and if we get closer we see its “leaves”. Or we see a “river” in a distance, and as we approach it, we see the “water” flow, and the “fish” in it.

kaligrafi

By eliminating from or adding to the world certain letters, the way we perceive the environment changes, since without certain letters, certain “objects” can’t exist.

The game makes use of color, font families and other aesthetic parameters of typography.

The title “This is not a Word” is intented to be a pun on “This is not a World“, since I want to draw attention to the “artifical” character of any type of representation. It is also a reference to Magritte’s series of paintings titled “This is not a Pipe”, which approached the question of representation from the “other end”, yet being about the relation between images and language.

The game will be available in several languages, including dead ones. Having the game in several languages is a funny aspect, because it somehow seems not to make sense at all, but then I believe that it makes a difference because we also would look at different visual styles of representation and not merely of objects that have a same shape regardless of what languages have been used to give them their shapes.  And I’m very intrigued by the idea to use dead languages, especialy cuneiform. I somehow like the idea to see people recognize letters and words of dead languages as objects rather than text, because it seems to show how the representative values of certain combinations of lines and dots can shift culturally and historically, questioning our ways of seeing and the way cultures maintain or “forget” about distinctions that decide whether graphical elements qualify as “text” or “visual representation”. A Quipu version that uses “real” threads would be also highly interesting to use.

If we lose all letters in the game, what would we see? The world “as it is”, or “nothing”?

New Digital Games Book Release

A year ago I wrote an article for a turkish book on digital games. After almost a year of waiting the book has finally been published by the turkish publisher Der Yayınları in İstanbul: Dijital Oyunlar (eds. Gülin Terek Ünal and Uğur Batı).

The title of my article is “Dijital Oyunlarda Oyun Hakimiyeti ve Montaj Sorunu” [Video Game Controls and the Problem of Sequence Motion]. You can read a description of the book here (in turkish).

I hope you enjoy the book (and my article, of course!)

Interaction and Time

[This article has also been published on gamasutra.]

Discourse Time and Objective Time

Player input is not part of a game’s ongoing discourse until it has been processed and given back through audio-visual or tactile output. In that sense, a player is bound to the narration of his own actions by the game discourse. Only when his decisions are given back to him  can he articulate these, and make sense of them in the context of the rest of the game universe that is being narrated to him.

Based on this understanding of the relation between the player’s activity and the game’s discourse, we may distinguish between two concurrent time frames during gameplay:

1) On one hand, we have the discourse time of the game, that is, the pace and order in which the game narrates the events that take place in the game world.

2) On the other hand, we have the player, living in the objective time of the real world, whose input, unless processed and given back, is not part of this ongoing game discourse. 

These two time frames are mediated through the video game medium: Input and output devices, “throughput”, memory, processors etc.

Putting Time Frames Against Each Other

In terms of perception, interpretation and reaction to screen events, players are subject to the pace of the discourse.

Games with increasing speed in the narration of events are an example in which designers put the discourse time of the game against the objective time of players. At some point the player will simply not be able to cope anymore with the speed in which the discourse narrates the events, and the player will have difficulties to respond to the narrated feedback of the choices he makes in his own objective time: the blocks in Tetris, or the chain of balls in Zuma will move to quick to cope with.

Such games are designed so that they arrive at a point at which the illusion of real-time starts to get distorted due to the impossibility of synchronization between the actions of the player in objective time, and the representation of events in discourse time. But the distortion will set in in small portions, hence being unnoticed for large parts of the game, and reach its peak just short before defeat, which, due to the immersion that has been achieved already, will feel like a climax to the action, and not the extreme incompatibility between the two time frames, that it actually has become.

Sometimes Time is On Our Side

While in a lot of arcade games designers prefer to put time frames againts each other, in many other games, designers allow the players to adjust the discourse time to their pace in objective time.

In games like The Sims, Railroad Tycoon or Sim City, we may slow down the pace of the discourse to a level that we feel is convenient to carry out our actions without feeling we miss out something from the ongoing discourse, or we are even allowed to bring all events, except our own actions as players, to a halt. In such a state of halt, the discourse would only narrate the player’s actions, and the rest of the game world would stand still.

On the other hand, the same type of games allow us to increase the pace of the discourse in order to quickly go through sequences of the game that we believe do not require any of our modifications: When all family members are put to bed, The Sims goes over to high speed mode, until one of the familiy members wakes up, or until we feel the need to modify something. In Railroad Tycoon it happens that during a recession there is nothing else to do than to wait until the economy gets back on track, so we just can “skip” this part in high speed, until we have enough funds to start carrying out operations again.

The Virtues of Delay

Whereas many games stick with a “real-time” representation of player input, we observe that even games that care to maintain this illusion, make effective use of delay. For example in The Sims, the orders we give to in-game characters under our control, are not carried out immediately, and it is often the case that due to orders given in quick succession, we will create a pipeline of these. In other words, my order to prepare breakfast  may started to be carried out by the in-game character minutes after I’ve given it, or I may cancel it before it is being carried out. Combined with the pace of the ongoing discourse about the actual events that take place in the household, this strategy of delay, creates grounds for interesting gameplay, forcing the player to constantly review previous decisions in the light of the actual situation. The game, again, puts effectively against each other the events that have been carried out in two different time frames.

Another very successful example, with much more implications in regard to the relation between the players objective time, discourse time and delay is Braid. Just like in The Sims, previous decisions become the subject of actual gameplay, but the depth of the re-writing of previous decisions growing immensely.

Conclusion: Beyond the Interaction Paradigm

The dominant convention in the game industry is to use the medium’s capacities in order to create a number of illusions: The illusion of immediacy, the illusion of agency, the illusion of real-time gameplay, the illusion of interaction. In other words: most games will be designed in a way that fosters the feeling that our actions as players happen here and now, that our use of controllers and interfaces in objective time feels identical to their audio-visual and tactile representations in the ongoing game discourse, that as players we forget that mediation takes places, and that we can immerse ourselves into the game with the help of all these.

In our current understanding about games, the word interaction stands for this type of experience.

However, I tried to show that there is more to it than just here and now. Thinking beyond the interaction paradigm that earns us game developers our daily bread may allow us to discover more about the possibilities of the video game medium.

Top 5 Member blogs @ Gamasutra

I’m happy that my latest blog on Gamasutra made into the top 5 list of standout member blogs of the week!

I wrote about Games That Can’t Be Won, and you can check out the other standout blogs of the week here.

Narrative Design and Audio-Visual Style in Games

These are the slides of a lecture on narrative design and audio-visual style that I presented last year in December at the METU Informatics Institute Game Aestethics course. I hope you enjoy it!

Games That Can’t Be Won

[This article has been featured on gamasutra.]

Introduction

There are a lot of games that can’t be won. All we can earn ourselves in those games is a honorable spot in the high scores list.  Examples are plenty, but if we must name a few, there are Tetris, Centipede and Space İnvaders.

In discussions on whether games are stories or not, such games have often been given as examples in order to argue that games can’t be stories. However, the argument is flawed, and this article tries to explain why.

The Protagonist Takes It All?

One assumption that leads to this flawed argument is that stories are always solved in favor of the protagonist. In other words, stories are pictured by game researchers as if they’d always be “won”. Inescapably leading into defeat, non-winnable games draw a completely different picture. This makes it easier to claim that games must be very different from stories. 

However, there are a lot of stories that haven’t been “won” by their protagonists. Examples that come in mind are movies like Braveheart and Seven. So, the assumption that stories are always “won” by the protagonist proves to be wrong.

What Does Losing Really Mean?

But how come that a game or a story still makes sense despite a defeat of the protagonist? Or despite our prior knowlegde that we can never solve the problem in our own favor? After all, the Titanic will eventually sink…

Interestingly, neither games nor movies of that type seem to feel incomplete. In fact, they often make a great experience.

The answer to this lies in the relation between plot and climbing tension: A plot is build on conflict, that is, clash of interest between two opposing forces. The tension will keep climbing until one of the opposing forces is eliminated. The elimination of one of the forces brings a resolution to the conflict. The climbing tension comes to a halt, and the ‘drama’ is over. Even if the protagonist has been defeated, the story itself is being ‘complete’.

Resolution Trumps Protagonist

What confuses people is that they perceive non-winnability as the game having no end or resolution because it can’t be won. They tend to interpret this as some sort of open-endedness, which is wrong. There is a fine line to this, and we can’t afford to overlook it: defeat *is* a valid solution to a conflict, hence there is nothing wrong with a non-winnable game. It is still a completely valid story-structure: After all, a resolution may or may not be in favor of the protagonist. From a plot perspective it doesn’t matter, because what counts is that the conflict has been solved: Resolution trumps the protagonist.

In other words: The defeat that we as protagonists eventually face in a non-winnable game still brings an end to conflict and resolves the plot, hence it is completely valid as a resolution.
 

Conclusion

Non-winnability is not necessarily an indicator for absence of story. Games that can’t be won are still stories, but stories that never solve their conflict in favor of the protagonist.

The reason why we still consider these games as a complete experience is the fact that our defeat meant that the conflict has been solved, and that the story has been rounded up.

So, please enter your initials and remember this quote from Samuel Beckett:” Lose again. Lose Better.”

Story: An Introduction for Game Developers

Here are the presentation slides of the lecture I gave to the students of the game development program at the METU Informatics Institute. Enjoy!

 

Narrative Design Seminar at METU, Ankara

On Monday, October 31, I’ll be holding a lesson as a guest lecturer at the Informatics Institute, Game Development Program, METU, Ankara.

The program looks good:

11.30-13.00 Presentation as Guest Lecturer

Classic Drama Theory and Video Game Story Structure: A Comparison

This lesson gives a brief overview of the three-act-structure in classical drama, and then compares it with various story structure types in Video Games.

14.00 – 15.00 Video Game Narrativity Seminar

Four Categories of Interaction and the Articulation of Narrative Layers Through Player Input

This seminar gives a brief overview of the analytical categories used in narratology. The four basic categories will be then further studies based on game examples to give a picture on how player interaction actively manipulates narrative layers in order to articulate narrative structure as a whole.

The seminar is public, so I hope a few of you can come by.

I’ll be sharing the presenation slides here on my blog after the lessons, so stay tuned!

Game Narrativity and Interaction

[This article was first published on gamasutra.]

Introduction

This article presents a number of maps that help to frame the relationship between game narrativity and interaction. They define narrative layers and their elements in a game and tell us to what degree they are open to player manipulation.

You may use these maps to detect
 
a) the “open” and “closed” parts of your game (which of the narrative elements in your game are open to manipulation and which ones are not);

b) the focus of gameplay in your game (which narrative elements is the player asked to deal with most);

c.) which narrative layers and elements you may invest more into in order to increase the joy derived from your game.

Let us have a closer look at the maps now.

I. Main Map: Narrative Layers

Classical works on narratology distinguish between four interdependent layers that form a narrative.

The first two of these layers, Events and Actants, provide the content of the narrative.

The other two layers, Narration and Narrative Situation are regarded as the form of the narrative.

Shown as a map, it looks like this:

N/A

 
II. Detailed Maps: Narrative Form 

Narrative Form contains the first two narrative layers: Narrative Situation and Narration.

Narrative Situation

Narrative Situation addresses the broadest parameters. We usually deal with aspects of the narrative situation when we specify overall gameplay options or when we decide on a certain game mode: For example preferring a Capture the Flag mode over a Deathmatch mode are manipulations in regard to narrative situation. They are about specifying the broadest lignes of the narrative content and its narration.

Before we start to play a session of Rise of Nations or Civilization, we are allowed to specify the settings in the game (whether we’d like to play on a single continent or over a number of islands, which time frame we prefer etc), the number of existents (how many rival nations there will be, what the population limits will be etc) and their aspects (whether special abilities are allowed or not etc), the winning conditions (under what condition the conflict will be regarded as solved) etc. Moreover we can specify sight & sound settings and  change key assignments. All these operations are carried out on the narrative situation layer. Our choices will have an impact on narration and the content that will be narrated.

The bubble diagram below gives an overview of the layers of narrative form and their elements:

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Narration

Narration, on the other hand is the audio-visual and tactile presentation of the fictional game universe, its existents (including the player’s presence), and the events that take place in it (including the narration of and “feedback” on the player’s actions and decisions).  

While interaction is an distinguishing aspect of video games and often leaves the impression that there is no narration since things are done by the player in real-time, players must still be informed about their own actions and the happenings in the game world. This is an elemental part of video game narration.

Video games make use of a huge arsenal of audio-visual and tactile narration style and techniques. Some of them are based on the style and techniques of previous media, whereas others may be regarded as being unique to video games. 

A game that allows us to modify the ways in which sight, sound and other types of information are presented to us can be regarded as being open to manipulation on the narration layer. Examples would be Need for Speed, in which we can switch between first-person and third-person perspective, or Counter-Strike, in which we can modify the angle of our perspective by moving the cursor. 

Statements

Statements are medium-dependent, that is, every medium has its unique possibilities and limitations in expression.

Narration consists of Statements which may be mediated and unmediated, that is, they may be expressed through the voice of a narrator or not. In many games we will find a mix of unmediated and mediated statements.

In cases in which the statements are mediated, they are voiced by or hint at a narrator whose speech addresses a narrattee.

Mediated and Unmediated Narration

A lot of games seem to be narrated eclusively through unmediated statements, that is, they make minimal or no use of a narrator. Instead of a verbal account of things, they go for a “simulation of events”. Indeed, most “formal” games (like for example Tetris) are of this kind.

The text adventure genre on the other hand, can be given as an example in which mediated narration is preferred. In such games, the presence of a narrator and a narrattee is often very easy to detect. The narrator would simply say things like “You [the narrattee] stand in front of a closed door.”

But we should always be prepared to find a mix of mediated and unmediated statements: In a game that went with unmediated statements for a long time, you suddenly may come accross a mediated statement (and vice versa). In Railroad Tycoon 2 for example, for most parts of the game, narration is based on the simulation of events and supported with frequent appearances of newspaper headlines etc. It is difficult to trace down a narrator in all this. Thus, the ongoing narration may be regarded as to be built around unmediated statements. Yet at certain moments, a narrator pops up and gives us an account of things: “The city council of Pittsburg offers you 200 K if you connect to their city before 1872. Do you accept?”; or “Good job. You’ve connected to Chicago. You can still earn a bronze if you connect to Denver before 1879” etc. Also the intro scene of a new game level welcomes us with the speech of another narrator; an old Southerner with a torn voice. He comments about our good work in the past level, and warns us about the challenge we will face in the next one.

Pro Evolution Soccer or FIFA, in which players can turn on or off in-game commentary, the choice is in regard to whether we want a match to be accompanied by a narrator, that is, the presense of flow of mediated statements.

Narrators and Narratees

Football Manager
is a good example of how complex it can become in regard to the presence of narrators. This game uses mediated statements throughout the communication that takes place on the message boards. Here, one of the narrators uses statements like “Your assistant informs you that…” whereas our assistant might have spoken directly to us. Another narrator uses the register of sports news portals. Yet another narrator is the match commentator that accompanies with his comments the simulated events that take place during a match.   

Games that allow us to turn off tutorials are often examples for at least one narrator in the story being eliminated. 

We must distinguish between pure narrators and character-narrators. Some narrators may not be involved into the events that take place, but they may be still all-knowing about them, while others may be actively involved into the ongoing events, but yet possess limited information on the situation. An example for the latter would be Max Payne, in which the protagonist is the narrator of the mystery that he tries to solve.

When a narrator is involved, his statements are always directed towards a narrattee, that is, someone whom the speech is addressing. The narrattee isn’t necessarily the player, but may be some other character in the game world. 

The Sims is an interesting example because it allows players to narrate the lives of their characters by adding character descriptions. That means that the player may add a narrator to the story. This narrator (which could be simply the player’s self) may pretend to know the truth about the otherwise only simulated characters and events, and once this narrator gives a recount, she has already addressed a narratee (which might simply be again the player’s self). 

While modern games give us a lot of freedom in modifying the parameters of narration, we must remember that just two decades ago this was rather rare.  For example the majority of classic arcade games do not allow for manipulations on the narration layer: In games such as Centipede, Pac-Man or Space Invaders the audio-visual style and the aestetic parameters of the statements that are produced through them are not manipulable. We have no option in regard to change whether the statements are mediated or unmediated. We have no chance to manipulate the number of narrators and the style and content of their recount, nor can we modify anything on the narrattee’s side.

The bubble diagram below shows us what questions may be asked in order to tell the openness of manipulation of narrative form.

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III. Narrative Content: Actants

Actants are the characters and the settings that play a central role in the maintenance of the plot. Actants possess a degree of functionality in making the plot progress. Central to this are the actions they carry out, and how central these actions are in deciding the outcome of the narrated sequence of events. 

Degree of Importance to the Plot

A good example for the degree of importance to the plot is how we perceive our encounter with ordinary enemies and with bosses. Ordinary enemies are often just some “loot bags” to us, we often use words like “cannon fodder” when we speak of them and by doing so, we address their degree of importance to the plot. On the other hand,  the encounter with a boss is perceived as a milestone in the progress that we make. We consider this as a core event which also reveals that the boss type of actants have a degree of importance to the plot. Oviously, the actant with the highest degree of importance to the plot is our own actant.

The same counts for settings. In Rise of Nations for example, some environmental elements and existents may have no big importance to the plot, whereas resource areas are central to it.

Aspect

Aspect is in regard to the identity and qualities of the actants, such as their moods and traits. These may be detailed or shallow, depending on the game we play. Also the type of narration sets a limit on how much we know about the aspect of actants. For example in large parts of Duke Nukem we have not much knowledge about the physical appearance of Duke due to the first-person perspective that the narration is visually build around (until we come accross a mirror!).

Sometimes the aspect of actants may only become only visible through their actions. For example in Tetris, the player is an actant that becomes visible through his decisions in regard to how he moves and places blocks; whereas the “antagonist” becomes visible through his choices in regard to which block to send next. “It” challenges us by sending the blocks faster and faster, often denying us the block that we are in need of to clean the level. All these reveal aspect to a certain degree.

On the other hand, a lot of games provide us with a lot of information about the aspects of actants. In Football Manager for example, you may find information about the identities of managers and footballers, and the statements they release in the press tell us about their moods and traits. Some will always apologize when you fine them for unproper conduct whereas others will be very rejective and immediately demand to be put on the transfer list. Actually, the FM Editor provides a database that allows us to overwrite the aspect side of actants: You may change a soccer players identity, his mood (level of aggression), and his traits (likes to the chip the ball, or likes to play it around the keeper etc.) and all these will have an impact on how events will play out.

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In terms of openness of the actants layer, The Sims is a remarkable example: The detailed character creation process in the game is first and foremost about creating characters that are important to the plot. But then, it is also about defining the details of their aspect. We have great freedom in shaping the identity and qualities of characters and settings. And we can simply put an end to their importance to the plot by removing families and homes from the neighborhood. Besides, the many expansion packs of the Sims series add a great number of settings and characters, and new options to alter their aspects. 

A lot of social games (Farmville, Cityville etc) are games with focus on the manipulation of settings. However, we may consider the farms (normally just a setting) as “characters”, because they become so central to the plot. On the other hand, the connectivity of these games due to the broader network that they are part of, ensures that players come across a great number of other players. Depending on how relations develop, some of the players we meet may turn into characters (because they become central to the plot, like a “worker” that agrees to work on your farm), and some remain just as “setting” (a bunch of avatars in the bar that say stupid things anyway).

We must add however, that a lot of games do not allow for change on the actants layer. In most games we use a given character and struggle against a given set of characters. We are often not allowed to change the aspect of these characters. More than that, in such games, the characters degree of importance to the plot is also often given. This is the case in most of the games in early video game history. For example in Donkey Kong, the array of actants, their degree of importance to the plot, and their aspects are fixed.

The questions we may ask about our game in regard to its openness to manipulation of the actants layer are shown in the bubble diagram below: 

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IV. Narrative Content: Events

Events typically include the actions and happenings in the story. Whether an event is an action or a happening depends on agency, that is, the answer who carries out the action, and who is subject to it.

On the other hand, necessity marks how central an event is to the plot. An event that can be skipped or ommitted without making the narrative as whole collapse, is a sattelite, whereas an event that opens a gap in the logic and chronology when removed from the narrative, is a kernel.

Agency

Actions are the things done by actants. Happenings on the other hand are those things that happen to characters. The difference lies in agency. It must be understood that often one actants’s action equals to a happening for the actant subject to that action. For example in a multiplayer FPS, an action is when I shoot at someone, whereas for the player that is my target, the same thing is a happening.

In most single player games, players deal with the actions part, whereas the AI cares for the happenings. In Sim City for example, the actions are centered around the players decisions in regard to how to build the city, whereas the majority of other events comes in form of happenings: Traffic, smog, riots, disasters, crime rates, advisors speaking to us etc.

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Necessity
 
Events are categorized based on the level of necessity they possess. Some events are core to the story, that is, if we’d leave them out, the experience feels incomplete, as if it were truncated. The narrative simply wouldn’t be able to maintain itself without that event. Certain quests or cutscenes are kernels, because when we skip them, we may not be able to obtain a key that is necessary to unlock another level, or we may miss an important information that may be later on necessary to solve the conflict. 

Sattelites, on the other hand, are complementary, but not necessary. For example we can skip quite a lot of quests or cutscenes because the events they contain are sattelites, not kernels. The narrative can live without them.  We may ask the following questions in regard to the events layer:

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Historically, video games have been always open to manipulation on the events layer, even though to a limited degree: The archetype of video game interactivity has been the manipulation of actions. The player was given a minimum of agency by being allowed to decide on the actions carried out by an actant.

However, modern video games allow players for more than just carrying out actions. They may allow players to decide whether they want to be put through satellites (skipping cutscenes; choosing a save point to start from, being allowed to skip entire levels); they may allow to alter the freqrency of certain happenings (setting the traffic level in Need for Speed, or setting the frequency of train robberies in Railroad Tycoon 2), and they may allow to put constraints on certain actions (disabling or enabling special moves) etc.

V. Interaction Chart

The chart below present a summary of the questions we might ask about the narrative layers in a game and their degree of openness to interaction.

The questions are general, but they might be refined depending on the particular game that is being analysed.

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As a designer, you may use this chart to ask testers and gameplayers about the experience they have with the game. The feedback these players provide to you may help you to assess the narrative aspects that they are happy or unhappy with in your game.

You may also use it in design meetings with other designers to discuss certain aspects of the game that you are developing together.

As game researchers you simply may use this chart to see how certain games deal with their narrative layers. You may also apply it in historical studies, trying to follow the evolution of certain platforms or genres in regard to their openness to manipulation of particular narrative layers and their elements.

Note:

The model of narrative layers presented in this article is based on the works of Seymour Chatman and Roland Barthes.