This post is intended as a non-exhaustive primer for anyone who is making games from more of a mechanics and art perspective and who might struggle a bit with story or narrative.
Let’s start with what those two words mean, because they mean different things. “Narrative” implies the existence of a narrator. While a story is a series of events – real or fictional – the narrative is the *telling* of the story.
So, let’s fast-forward and say we’ve already decided on the story. There’s some bad stuff going on in the world, because of an evil wizard. So far, so standard. But maybe the king was secretly involved? That’s slightly more interesting, but it’s only interesting if we don’t know it from the beginning.
That’s the difference between story and narrative; as narrators – in any medium – we can choose to withhold information until specific moments, when it would be more impactful to the audience to find out. Or we can reveal it in more or less interesting ways, for example, having information come from an unreliable narrator or be delivered in a way that it might be missed – like background clues in a murder mystery.
Once we understand that distinction, we can start to think of the difference between story and narrative in terms of the audience (or player) experience. When is it most impactful for the player to learn of the king’s treachery, and how should they learn about it? Reading a letter? Overhearing a conversation? A slow drip-feed of subtle visual clues on things, royal seals where they shouldn’t be, and so on?
This question of “how” brings us into design and production considerations. When I teach students to make narrative games, we often use an engine like Twine or Ren’Py which is meant specifically for creating interactive fiction. The reason for this is that the on-ramp to adding elements like voice-over, text-boxes, branching dialogue and so on to an action game in an engine like Unity or GameMaker is much longer.
So the first practical question should always be; “does this game need an explicit narrative at all?” How much background information can be inferred just through the environmental design?
Do we, as players, care why the dungeon in your action RPG exists? Perhaps not. But even if it’s not worth the time to implement a system that can deliver extensive background lore to the player, it might still be worth having the dev team work through these questions to help guide their design decisions – both aesthetic and mechanical. Knowing that the dungeon was built by a religious fundamentalist cleric, verses a scientist obsessed with cruel experiments, is going to give the whole place a different flavour even if it’s only at the level of decorative objects. But it might also have a relevant influence on gameplay flavouring when it comes to things like enemies and weapons, too.
After considering what story can be told through the environment, my next piece of advice would be to consider the cost of implementing each type of narrative device. A narrative device, broadly speaking, is any “method” for delivering story content. In a movie, this could be, for example, a regular scene, a flashback, a voice-over. Games use all of these, and more medium-specific methods (like, for example, object descriptions in the Dark Souls games).
I would then think through different ways of delivering parts of the story I want to tell, e.g:
- in the environment during gameplay
- between levels (not as cutscenes, but as short interstitials visa vie Darkest Dungeon or Mirrors Edge)
- through found documents or recordings
- through voice-over and/or text-boxes (let’s not even think about implementing player dialogue choices at this point, urgh).
The list above is, in my mind, ordered in easiest to hardest, or cheapest to most expensive, or however way you want to think of development effort/time.
Environmental storytelling is not cheap or easy to do. So why have I put it first on my list? Because it’s about making clever use of the part of the game that you have to develop anyway – assuming that you’ve already got an action/strategy game taking place in an environment of some sort. Things like “the city is ruined” or “the forest is haunted” are such generic tropes that we don’t even consider them storytelling. But they are; and the visual specifics of how the city was ruined, or why the forest is haunted, are interesting to explore, both as a developer and a player. How far can you get with placing “clues” to these questions in the environment before even having to think about having to include a different type of narrative device?
Giving the player things to notice and work out for themselves is great, but if they are fundamentally trying to play an action game, they will miss a lot unless it’s repeated. My favourite element of playing Elden Ring was observing the in-world funeral processions and gradually developing my own theory about how they tied into the gameworld’s economy in some way. Is there a document or character somewhere in the game who might have told me about this instead? Probably, but I don’t care to speak to them (they’re probably a weirdo).
Storytelling through interstitials like comics and animatics can be a relatively cheap way to give some vital information – or to provoke a sense of mystery. But my advice would be to always lean toward the latter.
When I teach narrative design, I don’t lean much on traditional Narrative Theory, but one thing we do regularly use from Roland Barthes are the concepts of action and enigma, and of paying attention to the balance between these things. To put it as simply as possible, how often is your game/book/film telling its audience something, and how often is it making the audience ask by giving some incomplete information?
This interplay is fundamentally what gets people hooked on serial TV series like Game of Thrones or Lost. Every time one question the audience may have about the world gets answered, at least one more gets thrown open. So they have to stay to find out.
So, when you decide to put that little comic-book cheap-excuse-for-a-cutscene between your levels, make it count. Don’t use it to exposit any more than you need to – let the player do the finding out during gameplay – if they can.
Let’s take Darkest Dungeon as a best-in-class example. In the interstitials we see and hear “the Ancestor” who is generally fretting over something awful he’s done. But in true Lovecraftian style, there is usually a considerable delay between hearing someone express their feeling of regretful dread and seeing the source of it. The interstitials at the beginning of a game section are used to create a call of “what have I done?” which is usually answered by the player encountering some in-game abomination. At which point they roll their eyes and say “that pesky ancestor, he’s been at it again!”
Found documents and recordings can be a great way of meeting in the middle, telling a piece of story that’s been frozen in time, but allowing the player-character to reveal it as they’re exploring the environment. They also add a bit of human character to post-apocalyptic or ruined settings which might otherwise be lacking that kind of humanity.
If you’re going to use audio notes or diaries in this way, consider the following things:
- How can I chain together entries so that the player learns a bit more each one. How do I make it so that there is a point to listening to three of these rather than condensing it into just one?
- What is the player learning from this set of recordings? If it’s something simple and local to the level (like learning where a key item is hidden) is there some way I can contextualise this in the broader world-event to add more information? (e.g. “I’ve hidden the key in the thing, because otherwise the looters…” < like that but better).
- What is the “voice” of the person recording the message? What is their unique character? Even if it’s just someone who appears for two or three diary entries, some sort of unique turn or phrase or odd preoccupation or obsession will help to satisfy players who want your story fragments to feel like genuine story and not just key items in a safe-combination puzzle.
As with most creative tasks, the truth of “how is this sausage made” comes down to planning. Make a rough table, split up what I’m going to learn about both the story and its storyteller into three parts, and maybe think about how the tone of each might change, before actually trying to write or record any of the player-facing text or speech.
The great thing about logs/diaries etc. is that, although they may be somewhat overused, they do allow you to experiment with characters telling stories in-game without having to have the characters interact dramatically in real-time. Which leads us to…
… the last category I want to talk about, which is actual real-time dialogue, where an in-world character is speaking as a voice-over or using text-boxes. In terms of “how to do this well” you want to attend to a lot of the same things I mentioned earlier:
- What am I learning in this scene/dialogue, as a player.
- Is this the most interesting way to learn about it.
- What is unique about the character talking to me? Why do I want to interact with them?
- What questions are going to remain unresolved, so that I still have some sense of mystery pulling me forward in my mission/quest?
But, those creative questions aside, in terms of implementation, you should really exhaust all the other options on the list before you attempt to implement characters talking in real-time.
You have to pause the game in a way the other methods do not require, and you have to have events/triggers which are of a magnitude more complex to get this working. If you want characters to speak during gameplay, you’ll also probably need to do stuff with sound-ducking (although the same would be true of found logs too).
If you’re making a smaller project (like a student game, for example) will the multiple weeks it takes you to get all of this working be worth it?
As with most advice I give, it’s not a hard and fast rule. Never say never. But sometimes the “cheaper” way to achieve something is genuinely better. If you want to make a first person shooter where the main character is constantly narrating things in a voiced-over internal monologue, that could be very cool, but there needs to be a good reason for choosing to do this, over other methods which might be easier (style and aesthetics can be reason enough – but you have to be able to justify them to your dev team).
Although I haven’t gone into any of these areas in massive depth, I hope this primer gives you what you need to start thinking about narrative in your games. Narrative is the method by which we allow players to encounter the story events. At the forefront there are two key areas; the form (narrative) and the content (story). In terms of content; trying to identify what would be most interesting or intriguing should be top priority. In terms of form, work through the different ways of delivering story and think about which gives you the most “bang for your buck” in terms of difficulty of implementation verses what it adds to the experience!