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Gamification Dynamics: Identity and Story
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Gamification Dynamics: Identity and Story

February 20, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

Passive Narrative in Games

I think there may be two routes to obtaining the benefits of a passive narrative:

  • Scripted events
  • Emergent events

Scripted events. This means keeping the story on a constructed path and this is the method more than 99 percent of stories in games take. It doesn't necessarily mean 'linear' but if it isn't linear, it is going to be a lot of work as the effort-to-gameplay ratio of branching stories quickly becomes impractical.

Quantic Dream's Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit represents an extreme example of scripted linearity for the sake of passive narrative. The game even sold itself as interactive movie, with "begin new movie" on the main menu and a rewind button instead of "replay".

Many games use a linear model but do their best to create the illusion of freedom by giving the player free-reign to roam and explore between story sections, such as the overworld between dungeons in the Zelda series. Open exploration, optional stand-alone events, and sidequests contribute to a sense of choice without interfering with the overarching balanced beats of a linear story.

Emergent events. This is the idea of story created by social interaction. Given enough players and opportunities for drama, social constructs begin to emerge on their own and generate suspense, intrigue, deeper intent and the sense of a collective story as players work together, predicting and responding to the behavior of others. The story isn't so much written as it is experienced.

The purest examples of emergent story, such as Travian or Diplomacy, are well-crafted designs that contain the germ of suspense, reversal and morality in their mechanics. In the case of MMOs, designers have the opportunity to create emergent story by giving the occasional push to create tension and challenge communities along unexpected lines.

Passive Narrative in practice. Integrating passive narrative into a non-game experience really isn't any different than integrating passive narrative into a game. This is because games aren't a natural environment for a passive narrative any more than a website or application. Until recently passive stories weren't found in games at all; card games, board games and sports don't have passive stories. It wasn't until the arrival of role-playing games, followed by text adventures and simple cutscenes like the intermissions in Ms. Pac-Man, that passive narrative was introduced to gameplay.

There are two approaches to the task of adding a passive narrative to an unrelated activity, such as a game, website or activity. The first is to start with a story and layer on the context. The second is to start with the context and layer on a story.

The world of advertising is already rather adept at both. An example of the first case would be a movie where the protagonist spends a scene holding a can of Coke. An example of the second case would be a DeBeers commercial with a montage of a couple falling in love and getting engaged. It might be a stretch to call either of these examples gamification, but it seems a valuable lesson, regardless of whether games invented the concept of story or not.


The other aspect of Story, after Narrative, is Fantasy. While the word "fantasy" is often used to describe a specific genre of fiction, in the context of stories, I think it's more appropriate to understand the word as describing the world the narrative takes place in -- the locations, cultures, customs, natural phenomena and technologies. In particular, where they are different from those in the world experienced by the audience on a daily basis. In other words:

Fantasy describes the differences of a world and its inhabitants from our own.

The fantasy genre simply refers to this concept taken to its extreme -- entire worlds which are very different from our own.

Strong Fantasy

The success or strength of a fantasy (not necessarily appeal) is typically measured by its ability to adhere to its own internal reality, the rules the world must abide by. The more the introduced elements influence the culture, and the more the culture influences the characters, the more consistent and "legitimate" the fictional world will feel. A stronger fantasy does not so much describe the scope of the fantasy as the thoughtfulness put into its consistency.

If you'll bear with me, we'll use the '80s sitcom Alf as an example. In Alf, the fantasy is that a sarcastic, cat-loving, extroverted alien has crash-landed in a suburban family's garage. That's about it; the rest of the series is set in reality. The strength of the fantasy lies in the show's ability stick to the premise. If, from the beginning, Alf was able to interact with the outside world, got a job and found a human wife, the fantasy would lack consistency (although it possibly might have been a more interesting show).

This is not to say that an existing fantasy can't evolve, it just needs a believable, internally consistent explanation for the change to its rules.

The Appeal of Fantasy

The concept of escapism proposes that the goal of fantasy is to distract the audience from the nuisances of real life; the fictional world provides an alternate reality that is more appealing. This implies that the more immersive the fantasy world, the greater the potential pleasure. I don't see any faults with this reasoning, but I'm not sure it explains everything, for example, why the same fantasy can get boring.

Studies have shown that humans fear an unknown outcome more than a known bad result, yet they have also shown humans crave new experiences. Perhaps fantasy offers an opportunity to experience novelty without any of the risk. An appeal similar to the appeal of visiting a foreign nation, meeting exotic people, and seeing strange new things, all without the danger of getting lost, deceived or rejected.

Fantasy in Practice

Fantasy is a consideration when creating the setting of an experience. The more the experience can be made to resemble something it isn't, the more opportunities for creating fantasy and the more likely the user will be able to imagine they are somewhere else, somewhere they have never been.

For example, crafting a web experience to feel like a deep-jungle archeology expedition (pushing through leaves to navigate, text written on stone tablets from an ancient ruin, appropriate jungle sound effects, etc.) could introduce features under the fantasy of uncovering and experimenting with unexpected mystical artifacts.


Possibly more than any other aspect of games, fantasy represents a risk of trivializing the experience it's meant to enhance. By implying the activity needs to be hidden or changed, there is a possible implication that the activity itself lacks value.

Should fantasy be seriously considered for Gamification purposes, it needs to be thoughtfully integrated and complimentary to the primary experience in tone and objective. For example, the jungle theme given above makes more sense in the context of an activity that already involves concepts like searching or deciphering and less sense if the activity involves building or recording.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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