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Narrative Structure in Games. With your Host, ~Ellen Jurik~. Who am I?. Worked with independent company, “Sandbox Software” 2006-07 Writing, World Design, Sound, 2D Art Worked with Interzone Games 2007-09 Research, Writing, World building, Production Studied at Curtin University

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Narrative structure in games

Narrative Structure in Games

With your Host,

~Ellen Jurik~

Who am i
Who am I?

  • Worked with independent company, “Sandbox Software” 2006-07

    • Writing, World Design, Sound, 2D Art

  • Worked with Interzone Games 2007-09

    • Research, Writing, World building, Production

  • Studied at Curtin University

    • BA (Multimedia Design)/BA(Theatre) 2003-07

      • Honours: Media, Culture and Creative Arts 2009

        “Tragedy in Games for Social Change”

Who am i1
Who am I?

  • I like theatre and books and things

  • I play games

  • I watch people play games

  • I hear people whinge about games

  • I don’t know about every game

  • I like it when people tell me about games I don’t know about :)

Today i will cover
Today I will cover…

  • Stories in games – why?

  • Story vs Plot

  • Plotting the Plot

  • Active Texts

  • Good/Bad Narrative Designer

  • Interactive Storytelling

  • Puzzles

Why do we need stories
Why do we need stories?

  • Human desire

    • To explain

    • To educate

    • To inform

    • To understand

  • We look for patterns to make sense of what happens around us

Do all games need a story
Do all games need a Story?

“Should games try to tell stories? Not all of them. But they can, if we want. If we would like to involve emotions higher than an adrenaline rush, we need to reach the human spirit, not just the endocrine glands.”

(Sheldon, “Character Development and Storytelling in Games,” 6)

Why use stories in games
Why use Stories in games?

  • Player Motivation

    • Players want a reason to do something

  • More ways to reward players

    • If a player can “feel good” for doing something, they’ll want to do it again

  • Brainwash the youngins

    • Sneaky sneaky writers pushing their own agendas >:)

Why play games
Why play games?

  • Various theories exist- not for here!

  • Main game mechanic:

    • There is a problem, find the solution

  • We play games to solve problems

    • All gameplay therefore is a kind of puzzle, with certain rules restricting play

    • Rules must be enforced from the beginning or players get angry ;)

Genre and storytelling
Genre and Storytelling

  • Casual game- little story needed

    • Puzzle

    • Arcade etc

  • Twitch Games – back story needed

    • FPS

    • RTS

  • Narrative Driven – Full story needed

    • Adventure Games

    • RPGs

Genre and storytelling1
Genre and Storytelling

  • Beware Crossovers!!!

    • “Portal,” is a short, First-Person-Puzzle game with an internal narrative based on Motivational Psychology (and cake!)

    • “Braid,” is a short, Side-Scrolling Platform-Puzzle game with a complex, mindf*ck narrative, complete with socio-historic (“serious game” territory!) issues

How to tell a story in games
How to tell a Story in Games

  • Literary texts: Showing > Telling

  • Interactive texts: Doing > Seeing

  • Players don’t want to be told or even shown information. They want to discover it through doing things

  • Never reveal the whole story

Story vs plot
Story vs Plot

  • Story: the life story of one or more characters

  • Plot: the important bit of the lives of one or more characters

  • Story informs Plot, Plot is NOT Story.


  • No problem = No motivation

  • No motivation = … Well, why play in the first place?

  • If there is no problem to solve, there is no game to play

  • Stakes must be high, so we don’t want to bore the player with useless filler

Why have a backstory
Why have a backstory?

  • Backstories add life and depth to your character

  • The player should never need to know (or be forced to know) a character’s backstory

  • The backstory is for the writer

    • Fashions the character’s journey based on their previous experiences, ensuring the cause is important enough for the character to pursue

Setting vs story
Setting Vs Story

  • A rich, seamless world is NOT a rich, seamless story

  • But it will help players ignore your otherwise flawed story because they start making their own

    • This is why films with bad scripts survive better than plays with bad scripts

Plotting the plot
Plotting the Plot

  • Set your Rules

  • Know your Player Character

  • Know your world

  • Know the Goal

  • Find conflicts

  • Allow a satisfying resolution

Set your rules
Set your Rules

  • Decide how you want the player to play

    • Gameplay style can change during the game

  • The player’s expectations should stay constant or gradually change

    • Character expectations

    • World/universe expectations

  • Don’t try to be smug by making the game unfair for your player

Know your character
Know your Character

  • Backstory

    • Age, gender, appearance, relationships, defining moments, etc

  • Personality

    • Likes, dislikes, pet peeves, fears, hopes, dreams, quirks

  • This informs their actions and reactions

Know your world
Know your World

  • Spatial-Temporal location

    • Where, when; fantasy, science fiction, “reality”

  • Cultural inclinations

    • Prejudices re: gender, race, occupation, class…

  • Physical Environment

    • Climate, landscape…

  • Again, influnces your character’s actions

Know the goal
Know the Goal

  • Character Development

    • Does the character change?

  • World Development

    • Does the player character influence their world?

  • Player Development

    • Does the player learn through the character or world’s decline (Tragedy/Cautionary/”Serious”)?

Find conflicts
Find Conflicts

  • What prevents the player from achieving the goal?

    • Original discrepancy between the current state (conflict) and the desired state (goal)

    • Smaller setbacks and conflicts that seem to block every step forward the player makes

    • Path of discovery for player – difficulties are only seen as they get closer to the goal

Allow a satisfying resolution
Allow a Satisfying Resolution

  • The original problem or issue must be addressed

    • The character’s desires are met

    • The world is in order

    • The player learns something

Plot structure
Plot Structure

  • Character is happy

  • Character encounters complication

  • Character is MOTIVATED by resolution

  • Character struggles against a number of setbacks

  • Character might face one last twist (so close to the end, motivation is increased)

  • Character achieves equilibrium

Two books on plot structure
Two Books on Plot Structure

  • “Hero With a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell

    • Because everyone loves the Hero’s Journey which is based on observed trends in epic Myths

  • “Poetics,” by Aristotle

    • Because everyone loves his three-act structure which he noticed that good plays seemed to all have

Games and literature
Games and Literature

  • Games as literary texts – Y/N?

    • They are cultural artifacts

  • Can games be “read”?

  • Games are most like Plays- there is an element of real-time interaction between audience and actor  Always performed

    • Player can be audience or actor (or director!)

  • How interactive are Games, really?

Active texts
Active Texts

  • Most traditional forms of texts are controlled by the writer, guiding the reader

  • Games require active participation

  • Therefore, the player is in control…?

Active texts1
Active Texts

  • Most traditional forms of texts are controlled by the writer, guiding the reader

  • Games require active participation

  • The designer and writer are always in control, considering how players will react.

    • “Then, they will want to do something we don’t want them to. How do we stop them?”

Player driven gameplay
Player-Driven Gameplay

  • I’ll let the players do whatever they want!

    • No story, no guidelines, no goals!

      • They’ll lose interest

    • Rough story, minimal guidelines, weakly-enforced goals (except for endgame!)

      • They’ll feel more restricted when you suddenly limit/guide them

    • You WILL want to force them down a certain path at some point

Designer driven gameplay
Designer-Driven Gameplay

  • Emergent Gameplay

    • Players will always try to “break” your game

      • They will find things to do

      • Make sure they can’t do what you don’t want them to!

  • When in doubt, force linearity

    • Eventually they’ll just give in :P

      • They’ll whinge, though… unless your story is REALLY GOOD

Good narrative designer
Good Narrative Designer

  • Will make sure that:

    • The player feels they can make any choice they want (even if they can’t)

    • The player follows the character’s abilities

    • Dramatic Irony doesn’t interfere

    • The Player Character is always “in character” (character/plot consistency)

    • Circumstances and choices made to further the plot are logical

Bad narrative designer
Bad Narrative Designer

  • Will accidentally:

    • Make the player feel powerless

    • Push the player to make decisions that don’t align with their or their character’s personality

    • Create conflict between the plot direction and the player’s desired plot direction

    • Create a weak Player-Character that the player can’t identify with: seems half-formed, unrealistic or unbelievable

Writing player characters
Writing Player Characters

  • Two types of Player Characters:

    • Three-dimensional, solid, strong, clear

    • One-dimensional, mysterious, passive

  • The Player is like an Actor (“Players” perform the “Play”)

    • Create characters or situations that someone would love to play through

    • Characters are not just vehicles for the plot


  • Games are INTERACTIVE!!!


Interactive narratives
Interactive Narratives

  • “Sandbox” Games (aka “Open Worlds”)

  • Sim games (eg The Sims, Theme Park, etc)

  • MMOs (aka MMORPGs: WoW … etc)

  • “True” Interactive Storytelling ( ..?)

Sandbox games
Sandbox Games

  • Large world

  • Freedom of movement

  • No set order of objectives or activities

  • Player-developed Characters

  • Offers so many options that the player can get frustrated when you try to limit them, or force a “character-driven” choice that isn’t theirs

Simulation games
Simulation Games

  • No Narrative…

    • Allow players to create their own Narrative?

Simulation games1
Simulation Games

  • No Narrative…

    • Allow players to SEE their own Narrative

    • Players will look for a Narrative, in order to make sense of what they have done

    • Stories will emerge when the player interprets events according to a timeline


  • PvP means that there is no pre-designed content …?


  • PvP means that pre-designed content needs to be adapted to work for many concurrent players, and a flow of new players

  • Quests need to seem sustainable for many players to complete repeatedly

    • A lot of players don’t read quest dialogue!

  • A delicate balance must be kept between the influences of Players and Designers

True interactive storytelling
“True” Interactive Storytelling

  • There is no such thing as true Interactive Storytelling…?

True interactive storytelling1
“True” Interactive Storytelling

  • There are few examples of true Interactive Storytelling

    • Façade, by Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas

    • Chris Crawford’s work with Storytron

  • Highly involved design process- NPCs need AI that allows them to “improvise” like human actors

    • “iGod” and other “Alice”/”Eliza” programs

  • Puzzles

    • Puzzles allow the player to solve a conflict and “restore balance”

      • Empowers player

    • Puzzles should be formatted:

      “Oh no…!” “…I know!”

    • Good Puzzle solutions are always logical

      • Follow the game’s pre-defined rules

      • Have enough hints to make them become logical


    • Games are puzzles within puzzles within puzzles within puzzles within puzzles…

      • The player is greeted with one large puzzle: Finish the Game

      • Finishing the Game takes many steps of many smaller puzzles

    • Working through smaller conflicts leads to resolution of the major conflict


    • Giving a game a Plot increases player motivation

    • Games need only offer the illusion of player controlled choice rather than offering true choice

    • Backstories:

      • Mystery is good for players

      • Knowledge is good for designers/writers


    • When designing an interactive world:

      • Keep MMOs multiplayer-friendly

      • Have intelligent AI NPCs where possible (or don’t bother)

      • Imagine everything your player could possibly want to do (testing is good for this)

      • Don’t break immersion by forgetting your goal, your player character, your world, or the rules you give the player


    • Don’t make players hate you because you’ve made your puzzles too “clever” for them to solve

    • Always remember that you Design a game to play with the player. It’s no fun on your own

    Any questions etc
    Any Questions, etc?

    Thanks for listening!

    Also remember:

    LET’S MAKE GAMEJAM!!!Tuesday, April 28 (TONIGHT!) 6:30pm - 9:30pm eCentral (TAFE) 140 Royal Street, East Perth