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May 25, 2020
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Narrative vs Gameplay: a Toolbox for Harmonious Coexistence

by Valerio De Simone on 05/21/20 10:30:00 am   Featured Blogs

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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.

 

Overview

The interactive narrative is still uncharted territory. Designers haven’t quite figured out where to stand between player agency and guided storytelling, branching stories and linear ones, and other huge matters about stories in games.
This exploration is far from over, but it’s moving fast. Every day new narrative-based games come out, and many of them are actually trying new ways to convey narrative.
Anyway, I’m not here to go further in this exploration. As game designers, we must not only conceive the story, but find a way to deliver it. Interactivity means this too. The audience of our story won’t just sit and listen to it. Our audience will look for the story, or run into it while experiencing pure gameplay. On the opposite, sometimes our audience will do everything he can to avoid it. Our job is to let them be immersed in our narrative, without necessarily force them to stop playing while doing so. However, sometimes we forget about the existence of many ways and spaces for our stories to be experienced. I’ve come up with the following list as a reminder of these ways. It’s a memento of gameplay moments, items, styles, and every possible part of the game that can be actually used as an instrument for narrative delivery.

Before we start, take into account the following golden rules:

  1. Don’t stick to only one. Almost every game uses multiple ways to deliver narrative. If you do so, you will prevent monotony. Furthermore, every player is different. Some will avoid some kind of ways, but will eventually occur in others, more fitting their personal gameplay style. You need to diversify
  2. Those methods are NOT mutually exclusive. In fact, many of your narrative moments will fall into multiple categories
  3. Interactivity vs Narrative. Playing and understanding the story at the same time can be hard. If a player is busy in a complex gameplay moment, he could have some problem following someone speaking to him. This doesn’t mean narrative and gameplay moments should be separate: on the opposite, the more we merge those features, the more harmony in the experience will be achieved. But keep always in consideration the player and his multitasking limit

Show > Tell

The use of words is reduced. The player understands the story not while reading something, but with visual tools: pictures, photos, NPCs, and creatures' behaviors towards him and between one each other, object degradation, level design, pace, and much more. More than a single tool, it is a quality that can be applied to other methods. Do it as much as possible, always.

PROS yes

  • The most elegant way of delivering narrative
  • Highly effective, understandable at every level of interest by the player, from the overall tone of the game to small details of the story
  • Immediate and immersive

CONS no

  • The hardest to build. It requires combined work by different roles of the team. It requires a strong art direction
  • Detailed info is harder to deliver, only proactive players will understand deep narrative

EXAMPLES enlightened

  • Half-Life 2
  • Journey
  • Inside

Interrupting gameplay / Cutscenes

The gameplay is paused, forcing the player to deal ONLY with the narrative, having sometimes the opportunity to skip it according to the importance of the passage. Cutscenes are the classic and most expensive way to do it. Use it when you need the player to experience some beat of the story.

PROS yes

  • The player receives the content completely, with no distraction, preventing missing important passages
  • Overall high control on the passage
  • High quality perceived
  • If well done, it can be highly rewarding, preventing the player to suffer for the agency deprivation

CONS no

  • No interactivity. Players could drop the controller, something you never want to happen
  • The narrative must be engaging.
  • Can be highly expensive
  • Requires competence in cinematography

EXAMPLES enlightened

  • Metal Gear Saga
  • Final Fantasy Saga

Remote Communication

NPCs talk to the character directly through some communication device or ability.

PROS yes

  • Every moment is ok to deliver content
  • It can potentially deliver a lot of information

CONS no

  • It needs a coherent explanation for consistent communication
  • It requires a high amount of dubbing
  • Depending on the gameplay moment, the player could ignore it

EXAMPLES enlightened

  • Borderlands Saga
  • Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
  • Prey

Proximity Communication

NPCs or other PCs talk to the character vis-à-vis. Sometimes they wait to be spoken with, sometimes they reach the player themselves.

PROS yes

  • The world looks alive
  • Different NPCs can express different opinions and points of view
  • Players go looking for NPCs for many gameplay reasons, like equipment and quests

CONS no

  • Potentially high use of models, dubbing, writing
  • The more NPCs there are, the more players is likely to skip dialogues and go back to the main gameplay

EXAMPLES enlightened

  • Fallout Saga
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
  • Final Fantasy Saga
  • Undertale

Companion

An NPC follows the main character, communicating with him regularly. Alternatively, the player guides a group of characters, which interact with each other.

PROS yes

  • Every moment is ok to deliver content
  • Great bonding with the NPC

CONS no

  • A lot of AI programming
  • Strong game design choice. NPC must be designed to be useful to the player, and never an obstacle, for example

EXAMPLES enlightened

  • The Last of Us
  • Baldur’s Gate saga
  • Oxenfree

Transitions/Traversal

Often used to hide level loadings, to calm the pace of the game, to give cheap game time, or to simply make the player move from an area to another with map and space coherence. These moments, usually, have a low level of interactivity.

PROS yes

  • It fills an empty but necessary moment, with few, mostly mechanical gameplay and distractions for the player
  • Especially useful in combination with backtracking

CONS no

  • When the destination is reached, the dialogue suddenly interrupts, unless the player chooses to wait for it to end. A rough choice, he would do nothing but listen to the narrative

EXAMPLES enlightened

  • God of War (2018)
  • Red Dead Redemption

Items

Places to visit and objects to gather are scattered over the world. Once reached, the item delivers a piece of the story/theme/setting. Very common, almost every game delivers narrative this way.

PROS yes

  • Players are encouraged to explore areas far from his main path, looking for items
  • Often related to the achiever player type, players often look for items to achieve an objective

CONS no

  • Weak, few players linger in reading books and item descriptions
    • This effect can be prevented with audio registration or comment by the character, but that requires more dubbing

EXAMPLES enlightened

  • The Witcher Saga
  • Dishonored Saga
  • Divinity: Original Sin 2

Loading Screen

The narrative is delivered during game loading, usually with text and images.

PROS yes

  • It fills an empty but necessary moment, with no gameplay and distraction for the player

CONS no

  • Limited time to deliver it, hardly can give deep pieces of information
  • Dependent on the quality and quantity of loading screens. Forcing a loading screen just to deliver a narrative is not recommended

EXAMPLES enlightened

  • Dark Souls
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Specific Player Ability

The player uses some specific mechanic to get in-game info.

PROS yes

  • The player is not forced to get any narrative, usually obtaining it alongside gameplay knowledge
  • The player perceives agency upon discovering the narrative

CONS no

  • No control. The skill must be cheap and useful to increase the chances the player uses it, unlocking gameplay features and upgrades

EXAMPLES enlightened

  • Final Fantasy Saga (Scan Magic)
  • Prey

Patrolling and Public Newsreaders

NPCs deliver news about the world. They don’t address directly the main character.

PROS yes

  • The world looks alive and ever-changing while keeping coherence and familiarity
  • The same assets can be easily recycled through the game.

CONS no

  • Must change as the story progress
  • Only doable in certain specific settings

EXAMPLES enlightened

  • Fallout Saga
  • Dishonored

Monologue / Soliloquy

A character (could be the main one or another one) speaks to the player or to some generic “reader” of the story.

PROS yes

  • Every moment is ok to deliver content
  • No need for feedback or response from the game or character
  • Meta-narration is a cheap way to speak about things usually hard to explain, such as feelings and thoughts

CONS no

  • It requires a lot of dubbing
  • Higher writing skills needed

EXAMPLES enlightened

  • Alan Wake
  • The Stanley’s Parable

Environment

The level enrichment always tells a story. This tool is strongly linked to level design prophecies. There are several ways to apply this method, from a vague atmosphere to specific writings on walls.

PROS yes

  • Every space is an opportunity to tell a story
  • Low programming required

CONS no

  • Often ignored in fast-paced experiences
  • Passive tool: the player could decide to ignore it

EXAMPLES enlightened

  • Portal 2
  • What Remains of Edith Finch

Different Perspective

Playing different characters, the player learns the same story from different points of view.

PROS yes

  • Wow moments, twists and turns
  • It can be cheap in terms of level design: the same spaces traversed by different characters means new emotions with old levels

CONS no

  • Requires deeper narrative design: the same story seen from different perspectives could result incoherent
  • If the new character, and his story, doesn’t differ enough from the original, the player could feel mocked

EXAMPLES enlightened

  • Prince of Persia: Warrior Within
  • Nier: Automata

Conclusion

Here we are at the end of this study. I draw on this list as a tool, with two basic functions:

  1. Remember ways to deliver narrative I tend to forget.
  2. Remember risks and opportunities that lie in every way.

I wish it will help you as well, and inspire more discussions: in fact, this list is far from over. I can't wait to perfect it, make it deeper, as complete as possible. Hopefully, I will soon be able to release a 2.0, with more ways and some more specific examples.


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