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Narrative Articulation Through Gameplay
by Altug Isigan on 05/24/12 04:00:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



In this blog post I will focus on the relationship between gameplay and narrative articulation. In particular I will try to show how the use of affordances on the player's side is connected to the ways in which the events in a game are articulated as an unfolding story. In other words, I try to show how interaction and story progression go hand in hand.

Recently more and more people have started to write about how gameplay and narrative cannot be separated. My contribution is into that direction. I perceive games as narratives whose structural units are partly generated through gameplay (or player input). The way in which the conflict is constructed may result in many interesting challenges in which player-driven actions and AI-driven happenings are put against each other. I will illustrate this point by looking at three very succussful games of the past of which all rely on different types of combinations between player-driven action and AI-driven happenings: The Sims, Diablo, and Need for Speed.

I do not support views of ludo-narrative dissonance (or resonance) because I believe that these views rely on a notion of harmony that sees gameplay and narratives as two different tracks. To me they aren't separate: Every instance of gameplay *is* at the same time a narrative value equal to those generated by the game's AI. Views that see narrative as something wrapped around gameplay miss the point that every instance of gameplay is at the same time a narrative unit. Narrative is not just cutscenes or dialogues. Moving an avatar around is narrative too. 

Some Basics - Narrative Layers and the Events Layer

The works of Roland Barthes and Seymour Chatman have shown that a narrative can be analysed on the basis of four interconnected and hierarchically structured layers. Have a look at the diagram below:

An image that display the four basic layers of narratives
At the bottom we see the events layer: An event is a sequence of logically connected actions or happenings that initiate, continue or terminate said event.

The actants layer above the events layer contains the agents that initiate, continue or terminate said events.

The narration or storytelling layer consists of the various medium-dependent storytelling methods and techniques through which said events and agents are represented and displayed to an audience.

Finally the narrative situation layer contains the clues that signal to the audience to perceive and consume a narrative as such.

Since my examination in this article only focuses on the events layer, I want to go quickly over to that topic. Have a look at the diagram below:

An image that displays the events layer in narratives in detail
As can be seen in the diagram, an event has two aspects: agency and necessity. Agency helps us to distinguish between actions and happenings. An event often consists of a combination of both. To give a simple example: When I shoot at someone, it is an action, whereas when I'm being shot at, it qualifies as a happening.

Necessity on the other hand tells us how central an event is to the plot. If an event can be skipped or omitted without making the story collapse due to inconsistencies or story holes, then we call such an event a sattelite. A kernel on the other hand will always open a hole in the story logic when removed from the narrative. In many games kernels are built around player input, that is, a certain type of player input is required to keep the story progressing. On the other hand many games feature the less important parts of the story in cutscenes or dialogues, which allows us to skip them easily, because missing them out does not create holes in the story.

These concepts provide us already with some good tools for analyses, but I will now introduce to you a few more concepts of which I think they are of good use.

Sequences, Core Functions and Cover Words

Following the French narratologist Cl. Bremond, we can call the basic structural units of an event sequences. A sequence can be defined as a row of chrono-logically connected actions and happenings that do not only stand in a sequential but consequential relationship. The actions and happenings that make up such a sequence are called core functions

Sequences always lend themselves to naming, so it is possible to summarize a sequence with so called cover words.

An image that display a sequence of events in detail
The diagram above shows a short sequence named with the cover word "phone call". The sequence consists of three core functions of which one initiates, one continues, and one terminates the event.

By using this approach, we may model any event in a game, no matter how "deep" or complex it is. In the example below for instance, we see that one of the core functions can be divided into further actions and happenings.

An image that display how a sequence of events can be divided into subsequencesOn the other hand, it is also possible to see how a complete sequence is subordinated to a higher level sequence of events. In the example below, we see that "phone call" is a sequence that is part of the higher level sequence "bank robbery".

An image that shows how a sequence may be subordinated to another sequence
We can conlude from this that designing/writing a sequence is a matter of abstraction and fidelity. Some games will maintain a high level of fidelity, and they will therefore model and represent an event in great detail, including almost every core function into the representation of the event; whereas in other games, designers will opt for higher levels of abstraction, omitting some of the core functions as they model a certain event.

It depends a lot on genre conventions and "user-friendliness". For example in a lot of First Person Shooters, players must perform many of the core functions that would take place during an ambush, but the designer would omit certain core functions such as opening a pack of health, injecting the medicine in it into the body etc. Since the matter is about fidelity and abstraction, it could be also seen as a matter of realism.

We can also easily see that this is a matter related to pacing and rhythm: What and when we omit a number of core functions has an impact on the number of moves that must be carried out during an event. This, on the other hand, may be crucial in avoiding instances of micro-management. Game designers solve such issues often by automating certain core functions, allowing the player not to be bothered with things that would slow down what is central to the action.

To give an example of sequence structure and hierarchy from a game, let's have a look at the "promotion" event in The Sims:

An image that display the sequence hierarchy of the promotion event in The Sims
As you can see, the promotion event in The Sims requires players to complete two types of sequences: Gain Skill, and Make Friends. For brevity purposes I have only modeled the Gain Skill aspect in more detail. There are a number of subsequences such as "practice speech", "read book", and "work out" under the "gain skill" sequence. When we pick one of these sunsequences, we see that they consist of a number of core functions that need to be completed. Once the required core functions are completed, the result may have an impact on the layers above, not only finishing the sequence, but gaining a skill point that may trigger promotion.

The Areas of Risk

Cl. Bremond asked himself what it is that saves narratives from premature endings. In other words, why would characters in a story always chose to do what contributes to story progression? To understand the issue better, Bremond analysed a number of narratives in order to make visible the logical circuits that are at the same time the decision nodes that may result in a premature ending if the character choses to do the "wrong" thing. The model below is a high level abstraction of such a logical circuit.

An image that describes the way Claude Bremond envisions decision nodes in narrativesAt every decision node there is the chance that the character makes the wrong choice: The character may simply fail to complete the task, or he may decide to no longer maintain interest into the unfolding events. Because of the risk of the story coming to a premature ending, Bremond calls every decision node in the logical circuitry of a narrative the "areas of risk".

However, in most narratives this is only a potential risk, because the author makes sure that the character chooses what is good for story progression, and the makes the character's choices look natural, as if they were the only logical thing to do. The author would set up the forces around the character in such a way that necessity would force the character into adopting the stance that makes the story progress. This authorial skill is the ability to create what is being called "the illusion of fate". 

What happens when it comes to games? In games, the potential risk turns into a real risk, because no matter how hard the game designer or narrative designer tries to set up necessity, the player may still do something that bring the story to a premature ending: Players may simply "try something different", or their skills may be insufficient, making them fail at the same decision node over and over again. This makes it harder for game designers and narrative designers to keep players "on track". As the diagram below shows, in a typical RPG game, every encounter with the enemy might be the node that brings the progress of the events to an halt. For example if Diablo would have had extremely hard difficulty settings, no player would have made it so far as to find out about Diablo's terrible secret.

An image that display the areas of risk in a typical monster slayer gameThe real risk in games resulted in the introduction of a number of methods that are unique to video games: Extra lives and save points for example, are two very commonly used methods to prevent premature endings and help the player to see out the end of the story. But it also resulted in the development of other approaches such as real-time difficulty adjustment. These all aid the player in surpassing certain core functions and sequences that would otherwise eliminate him and bring the events to a premature ending.

Sample Cases

In the sample cases I examine below, I try to answer the following questions:

  • How have the sequences in question been constructed in terms of core functions?
  • How do they relate to other sequences?
  • How are players involved in the articulation of the sequences in question?
  • What are the areas of risk during narrative articulation, and what options does the player have to go around them, if any?
I'm having a look at three games: The Sims, Diablo, and Need for Speed.

The Sims - Cooking Sequence

The Sims is primarily an AI-driven happenings-based game. With that I mean that a sequence of events would unfold regardless of whether the player interferes or not. Typically, the AI would assign a sequence to any of the idle characters, and the character would simply perform the core functions of which the sequence consists.

However players are given the chance to overwrite the AI's decisions and assign characters to other sequences than the one that the AI wanted them to carry out. Also, a player can terminate an ongoing sequence at any time, at any of the core functions that the sequence consists of. Still gameplay can be seen as the manipulation of happenings rather than the performance of actions. The player's use of affordances does not manifest as an action in the game, but is rather an act of co-writing a sequence of events in co-operation or in conflict with the AI. 

Through the manipulation of happenings, the player aims to meet certain goals of which only he is aware, but the in-game characters aren't. This is a major source of tension in the game: The in-game characters live for the moment, and don't seem to be aware of the career goals posed at the player. If a player doesn't interfere, the in-game characters would eat snacks all the time, do other silly things, until they run out of money and eventually die.

Due to the player's ability to terminate an ongoing sequence of events, there is always the risk of premature endings. But it is not only the player who can bring an end to ongoing events, but also the AI itself. For example in-game characters may get into each others way, or certain core functions may trigger surprise events that cause in-game characters to be assigned to new tasks.

An image that displays in detail the cooking sequence in The Sims

For example the core function "cook" may cause a new sequence "fire in the house", and once this sequence is initiated, the in-game characters would carry out sequences like "extinguish fire", "call fire department", or "run around in panic". 

The sequence comes to a natural end when all of the areas of risk have been passed through successfully, and the character serves the food on the table. After that, the in-game character would step over into idle mood, and soon either the AI or the player would assign him to a news sequence.

Diablo - Cleaning a Level

Diablo is already different from The Sims in the sense that it depends on the actions of a player-driven character if there will be any happenings at all. As long as the player doesn't move his avatar around, everything stands still. Only if the player moves his avatar around will he tap into trigger areas that cause AI-driven happenings to take place: In the case of Diablo, the AI-driven happenings come first in the form of enemy attacks, and then in the form of loot dropping.

Enemy attacks are at the same time the main areas of risk in the game since defeat would not only bring to an end the ongoing event, but the game as a whole. The game features saving options to allow the player to go around such premature endings.

An image that display the sequence structure in a typical Diablo level
Other situations that bring the ongoing event to a halt are the opening of the inventory, or when the player decides to use a teleporter to go up to the down to buy/sell things or to enter dialogues with the townspeople. However, these are not really areas of risk, but rather breaks, because once the player closes his inventory or returns back from town, he continues from the core function he was last dealing with.

A level comes to a natural end when the player reaches the level's exit.

Need for Speed - Racing Sequence

Need for Speed combines both The Sims' AI-driven happenings and Diablo's player-driven actions: The player drives a car against a number of AI-driven opponents in order to win the race. He cannot really manipulate AI-driven happenings as it is the case in the The Sims, because as a character he is part of the race and not really someone who manipulates ongoing events from an "outsider" position. He cannot terminate AI-driven happenings, but only delay them by performing his own actions as an in-game character.

A different aspect from Diablo is that the AI-driven happenings do not require to be triggered by player actions. The opponents would race towards the finish line whether the player acts or not. Therefore we can basically say that Need for Speed is a game in which player-driven in-game character actions take place against a backdrop of AI-driven happenings performed by other in-game characters. 

The player's goal is to successfully articulate a number of core functions with a high level of fidelity. Indeed, player actions require the player to give input on a second-to-second basis. While this is true for Diablo as well, it can be said that it is different from The Sims where the player spent a great deal of time watching the happenings unfold rather than performing them on a second-to-second basis. In The Sims, the player only interferes if happenings unfold in a way he didn't desire. In Diablo and Need for Speed, it is the player who must articulate in-game character actions in order to achieve the results he desires.

An image that display the sequence structure in a typical race track in Need for Speed

In terms of the areas of risk, Need for Speed seems to be very vulnerable because the player may fail at every core function that the efficient driving of the car requires. Curves, ramps, static objects, and traffic are major treats to the player's successful articulation of core functions. However, if the player is unlucky and falls behind, the game would switch to a catch-up mode that keeps the player in the game and maintains the illusion of winnability. Therefore it happens rather rarely that the player doesn't see out the end of the game. One exception here may be the Drag mode in which mistakes may cause premature endings at very early stages of the rage. The player would overcome this problem by selecting to restart the race. A racing sequence comes to a natural ending when the player's car reaches the finish line.

Moment-to-moment articulation of player-driven in-game character action increases the demand for control. While in The Sims the player may lift his eyes from the screen for a few seconds, this is not really possible in Diablo and Need for Speed, because missing out a core function almost always causes trouble, whereas in The Sims, the player seems to have more chances to make good things that didn't went the way he wanted.


I tried to show in this blog that one of the main functions of gameplay is the articulation of the events layer through the performance of actions and the manipulation of happenings that collapse into a meaningful sequence of events. I pointed out that in contrast to traditional narratives, the areas of risk in video games are not potential but real risks, and that game designers found unique ways to overcome the risk of premature endings.

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Altug Isigan
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Hi Joshua,

thanks a lot for the comment and the kind words :) In regard to you last paragraph: Actually, the original version of this article included some diagrams that illustrate how the units of a sequence can be "edited" and juxtaposed in order to achieve dramatic tension. These diagrams also addressed style issues that naturally are part of the attempt to audio-visually present a sequence of events. However, the article simply became too long, and I also thought that it would kinda go beyond the confines of the topic if I go into that stuff, so I left it out. I hope I can find some time to write another article with those.

Thanks again for taking the time to comment!

Richard Terrell
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I like the way you broke everything down. I think many things that you explained are fairly simple or obvious, but it's very important to explain them in a structured way to properly illustrate some less obvious, more complex ideas.

Great job. I'm sure we'll have a conversation about this very soon.

Altug Isigan
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Hi Richard,

Thank you very much for taking the time to read and comment on this. I'm glad to hear that you liked the approach, and I'm looking forward to talk to you soon!