Content vs Experience: The Two Layers of Storytelling

November 18, 2018

There is huge difference between the story that is told or shown by a medium and the the story that is experienced or perceived by the audience.


Everyone is familiar with the idea of a story. At the core of it, there is a state of tranquility in the beginning. Then there is a disturbing change introduced into the tranquil system. Finally the disturbance is resolved and the system is left with an evident change.


Hold that definition with you for now as I bring to your attention something new.


If you have ever played a competitive game like Basketball, Titris or even Chess for that matter, and someone were to ask you about your playing experience; what you would recollect from your memory can still be considered a story, right?


"I wanted to sacrifice my knight as I was hoping that his king would take the bait. But I didn't. It was too risky. I sure paid the price for having waited. His Queen got the freedom to check me the very next move and there was nothing I could do to win from that point on. Such a close game; could have gone either way!"


So what's happening here? The story from your experience is a different type of story that doesn't follow the three act structure or the standard considerations as laid down by Narratology. It is an experiential narrative that is unique and intimate to you. Obviously this form of story is different from the previous one. It is mostly encountered under real life circumstances.



Asking a Basketball player for his experience after the game might not give you a classic beginning - middle - end type of story, but it still is a story.



My next question is, can the two co-exist in a single system?


There exist two dimensions or layers to any story. 

1. As communicated by the storyteller.

2. As experienced by the audience.

Lets call these the primary layer and the secondary layer respectively.


Whether you realise it or not, both these layers of stories are being experienced by you as an audience member through every medium. Let me share an example.


If you are familiar with the popular American sitcom TV series 'Friends', I have a question for you. Did you think the 'Central Perk' coffee house was in the same building as Monica's apartment?



 A scene of the six friends spending time at their favourite hang out place, Central Perk. Image courtesy: Friends, American Sitcom (1994 -2004)


Like most people, I initially had assumed that it was in the same building; 'downstairs' as the protagonists would occasionally mention. However, nowhere in the totality of the series was it ever mentioned that the two places were in the same building.

Still don't believe me?

Here's a web link that might help us to be sure:


What actually happened here was that you were not only consuming the fictional story of the TV series as it was being shown (primary layer), but also engaging in an immersive experience as perceived by your mind (secondary layer). This secondary layer of story experience is made up of all the things that either happened or might have happened but were never explicitly shown or mentioned in the primary layer. It was all in your head, inspired by the primary layer. It is also known as 'The Mental Model', of a given work of fiction, unique and intimate to any audience member.


This is most evident when you read novels. Your mind imagines the story world from whatever the author describes in his/her book. You are free to explore this world and build your own narratives, independent of the story that is being narrated by the author. The story in your mind (your perception) is influenced by the the story that the author has to present. However the inverse is not true for almost all the conventional storytelling mediums. Your imagination and interpretation of the story world will not affect the storyteller's predetermined narrative.


The above flow diagram describes the relationship between the primary and the secondary story layers in a non-interactive storytelling medium such a Video or a Book. 


Hence, most people overlook the need for any special attention that ought to be given to the design of the secondary layer. Besides, there exists a notion that the secondary layer is best achieved when it takes shape naturally (driven by the viewer's creativity) without the intervention of the narrator.


Loosely translated: The next time you sit down to write or create a story for a new TV series, you'll probably put in most of your effort on only those parts of the story that will appear on the screen. As long as the experience provided is consistent and adhering to the desired theme, you don't have to worry about how the audience will react because they cannot change the primary story.


Coming back to the question I posed earlier on this blog, there is one unique medium where the primary and the secondary layer of the story have a two way interdependent relationship. In this medium, the secondary layer of the story does have an impact on the primary layer. How you feel and perceive the story can impact the narration of the story itself. This is accomplished via your interaction with the story world. The medium I'm talking about is Digital Games.


For books and videos, the primary layer of story holds greater value as it is regarded as measure of the story's quality. For games however, greater emphasis is put on the secondary layer of the story. You almost always judge a game for how good your interaction was with the game-world (through the Game-play, the game-mechanics and the narrative). This means that success for a game will be majorly defined by the experience (the secondary layer of story) that the game provides its players. 


 The above flow diagram describes the relationship between the primary and the secondary story layers in an interactive storytelling medium such as Digital Games. 


Designing the primary story layer is simple. It refers to the act of providing context to the player's journey. What happened in the game world before the player arrived. What needs to be done to solve the impending problems? Who are the player's enemies and allies? All this information is variable and can be changed depending on the desired experience you want the game to provide.

Designing the secondary layer is a bit complicated. You need to shape elements in the game that make the player think, assess, take decisions and react in the game such that the primary story moves forward. 


E.g. 1: Let the NPCs by the fireplace talk about a secret cave in the forest that is never mentioned in the main mission. 

E.g. 2: Hint through a disrupted telephonic conversation that an ally who is dear to the player might be in danger.

E.g. 3: Leave the player to examine the crime scene and probe into every minute detail.

E.g. 4: Let the player explore the connectivity of the major locations in the game world.


Food for thought: If 'Friends' the TV series were to be a Videogame, you the player would have had the freedom to check personally how far the Central Perk coffee house was from Monica's apartment and how to get there by simply walking in the game world.


Narrative Designer, Terrence Lee aptly describes this secondary layer of story as the 'player story', while regarding the primary layer of story as the 'explicit story'.


One of the keys to use video games as a successful medium for storytelling is achieving a successful player story that is supported by a strong explicit story. You cannot create the secondary layer/the player story/the mental model for each player, but you can definitely facilitate its development with apt in-game elements.


The purpose of this article is to bring to light the difference between the above two aspects of storytelling in games and to clarify that narrative designers for interactive storytelling mediums ought to adapt an inclusive strategy focusing on both the layers of a story. More often then not, game designers who want to create a narrative driven game, end up building the primary story layer to a great extent (as they would do for a movie script or a book). But then, they fail to address the secondary story layer that defines the player's narrative experience in the game. And thus the ever familiar flawed argument arises 'Story in games is expected but not important'.


I would state that an in-game story can definitely improve player immersion. However, your approach to designing the two interdependent layers of the story will define the difference between an amazing player experience and a game that's trying too hard to fit in a story. 


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