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!

Cursor in Fabula

In this article I will have a look at how point&click interfaces work in the articulation of a game’s story. First I will draw a distinction between three fundamental narrative layers. Then I will define the types of narrative articulation that an interface must support for a meaningful and compelling gameplay experience. Finally I will have a look at the game Diablo to describe in more detail how its point&click interface is utilized in achieving the construction of its story.

 

The Fundamental Layers of Narratives

We can distinguish three layers [1] that work together to build the structure of a narrative. These are:

    • Events: This layer entails all narrated (see Narration below) action that initiates, continues and terminates a logically connected sequence of events. [2]

 

  • Actants (story persons): the fictional beings who carry out the actions which articulate as events. [3]

 

  • Narration: the various audio-visual elements and stylistic devices through which the actants and events are constructed and presented: animations, sound effects, POV, camera movement etc.

In the video game, these layers are open to interference/alteration. What enables such interference is of course the ‘interface’, which is a set of input devices that re-configure a user as to identify with, and perform as, a fictional entity in a fictional universe. [4]

 

The Articulation of Narrative Elements via the Interface

An interface will enable the articulation of narrative elements that belong to the three layers mentioned above. In other words, we can speak of three types of narrative articulation that take place as we use the game interface.

  • Chrono-logical articulation: this is the articulation of Events through initiating, manipulating and terminating sequences of actions. Moving a group of soldiers through a desert by clicking on the interface is an example for this.

 

  • Audio-visual articulation: the player’s interferences on the audio-visual continuum that is in progress. Clicking on a mini-map to view different areas of the game world is an example for this. This type of articulation works on the Narration layer since it modifies the way events are presented to us.

 

  • Actantial articulation: gradually unvealing and altering a ‘paradigm of traits’ (=character) [5] through the use of affordances and the making of choice. Every choice we make, and every gameplay option we use will add up to shape and define a story character with specific abilities, skills and personality. This is connected to Actant layer.

As each three types of articulation take place as a result of player interference, the game narrative, which is the combined structure of Events, Actants and Narration, comes to life.

Blizzard’s Diablo: Articulating Three Narrative Layers with One Click

Diablo is one of the best examples to illustrate the successful articulation of a game narrative via a point&click interface. In this game, only by clicking on the interface, a player puts all three types of narrative articulation simultaneously into motion. The result is one of the most addictive games that has ever been created. Using the cursor as the focal point around which all other game systems (such as the camera) are built, provides the player with extremely fluent gameplay that fosters a very strong narrative feel. Let’s have a look in detail at how it happens:

This diagram illustrates how the point&click interface in the game Diablo articulates narrative layers to create a compelling story

At the center of the game flow is the click. A click results in articulation on all three narrative layers:

  • Actantial: A choice is being made, and an affordance is being used. Both are elements that shape and define character.

 

  • Chrono-logical: An action like walking, looting or fighting is carried out. These create a sequences of events. They form the basis of the narrative.

 

  • Audio-visual: Elements of narration, such as camera action and sound, are put into motion. For example the camera performs a travel when our avatar walks, and we hear her footsteps.

As the player continues to interfere with the open work, gameplay builds the narrative.

 

Conclusion

In this article I tried to illustrate through the game Diablo how game narrative can be tied to a game interface in a simple yet striking way. The better we understand the role of particular player interferences in the articulation of narrative layers, the higher are our chances to provide gameplay with a strong feel of story progress.

Notes

[1] A fourth layer, which has been left out of the scope of this article, is the Narrative Situation. For a broader description of these layers, check out my earlier article “Four Categories of Interaction“.

[2] We are speaking of ‘event’ here in a strictly narrative sense, as things that take place in a fictional universe. The narrative event (for example killing a monster) is, although both are obviously connected, not to be confused with the user event itself (like clicking on the interface). This would ignore the process of mediation and synchronization that takes place in order to immerse a being primarily external to the fictional game universe into a primarily fictional role within that game universe. Furthermore, the Events layer cannot be limited to events originating from player input since a variety of events are performed/simulated by the game system itself (like actions of NPCs).

[3] Again, we are not talking about real players/users but narrative entities whose actions and traits are narrated/mediated to us. An actant’s presence is always a narrated one. Hence it is not identical with the real person that gives her input to decide the actions of that narrated presence. Besides, user input is only one of the many ingredients that are used by the game engine to construct the actants presence. Also, games feature many actants which are not controlled by the player but the game system.

[4] An interface isn’t simply the extension of a real person. The role of the interface is to re-configure and synchronize our real presence with an in-game presence that is designed to possess the qualities that drive the plot forward. This is crucial in creating a feel of immediacy between, and identification  with, the actant’s role that we will perform in the game world.

[5] The definition of character as a ‘paradigm of traits’ has been put forward by the American narratologist Seymour Chatman.

References

Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film.

New Series of Articles on Game Narrativity

I’ve been busy writing a series of articles on game narrativity. Meanwhile they’re three and it keeps coming. They’re all on Gamasutra, so just check out the links below.

Combining Reward Structures With Narrative Bits

Rewarding Players Over Multiple Narrative Layers

Narrative Structure in Formal Games

Enjoy!

Choosing is Believing

A year ago or so, someone over at the IGDA Forums had an interesting question. The person referred to the famous cinema-mantra “show, don’t tell” and asked what the equivalent for games would be.

Many answers came of course. My initial two answers were “Wright, don’t tell” (which was a little word play on legendary game designer Will Wright) and “it’s play, not a play” (which put emphasis on participation and interaction).

I choose, therefore I am.

I choose, therefore I am.

Recenty someone responded to the almost dead thread and revitalized it. This spawned a group of new proposals for game design mantras. As I spent some time to find better solutions than my previous ones, suddenly this sentence popped into my mind: “Choosing is believing.”

Which fighter to go for?

Which fighter to go for?

I’m not yet fully aware what this sentence implies, but I think I found something that could be a starting point to explain verisimilitude and immersion in games. If games need to identify players with their roles, I think choice is the first step that the player makes.  If you can choose, you are part of it. If you can’t, you lose connection. Hence, choosing is believing.

Yes or no?

Yes or no?

Game Narrativity

On the night from September 14 to September 15, I wrote down the following:

“The video game is a narrative which requires additional levels of communication in order to allow the three basic narrative levels -functions, actants and narration- to engage into the necessary complementary relationship. Only after this complementary relation has been made possible, the process of signification can continue towards its ultimate level: that of the narrative itself.

And more.

One of these additional levels of communication takes place between the expositum (the “so-far” exposed) and the impostor (the one to respond to the logical system (situation, argument) that the game state equals to at a given moment). The “language” that enables the communication between the both defines a grammatical process that requires the matching of player actions (via the use of a set of tokens embedded into game controls) with world objects that are made present and accessible through a system of classification graphically woven into the texture of and presented as a user interface. Each combined system of controllers and interfaces equals to an unique language system with its own tokens, ways of coding/articulation, and the possibilities, limitations and sensibilies that it creates for the various “utterances” that it enables through its configuration. These systems do not simply reflect the world that has been designed; they actively construct the world with all its subjects, objects, verbs and adjectives.

The interface is basically the graphical embodiment of a group of binary oppositions woven into the texture of a surface through the establishment of figure-background dichotomies. It can be seen as an arrangement of “contours” that “exist” against a often “dead” background. Neither of them can be present alone; they require each other. However the “background” is silenced into a state of functional death as soon as the countour has created the functiomal figure/foreground. The figures which can be called/mobilized through the use of the controllers, divide the virtual world into two basic groups of objects which make up the highest rank of all binary oppositions in the world of the game narrative:  Existents and interactibles. The interface is calling these object classes into life by “naming” (objectifiying) them and is therefore turning them into “beings” that can be subject to the “verbs” (actions) of the “speaker” (the user) of the language (the figure-control key arrangements). Therefore, like in any other language, the interface (and the lexic body that it proposes) does not simply reflect the virtual world; but, like natural language, it does construct it. Using game controls to connect interface objects (or Names) with actions (verbs) assigned to certain keys, can be seen then as parole (an utterance) guided by langage (the sign system of controls and interface). This is a system with its very own grammar, since we have to “spell” our actions “correctly”, if we want to “mean” what we say. The possible “words” that can be said through this system of signs make up an Actionary, rather than a dictionary. Indeed, narrative are often said to be constructs made out of predicates.

It took so long. But it’s finally there. Now I have something to continue with.