Story vs Narrative: Implications for Videogame Design

March 25, 2019

Understanding the difference between a story and a narrative when it comes to digital games is crucial to designing a good game narrative. 

The following is an abstract from my Master's Degree Project Document that is still under progress. The title of the project is 'The Gamarative Framework: A Player Experience centric Approach to Designing a Digital Game Narrative'

 

Before proceeding with the project, one crucial step was to conduct a background study of the core concepts that were to be dealt with. Hence the following excerpt discusses the primary differences between a story and a narrative. It then proceeds to show how this difference matters in the design process of digital games.

 

What is Story?

A collection of events that occur in a specific order of sequence. Traditionally any story has a beginning, a middle and an end. There are conflicts that try to upset the balance of things and there is a resolution that concludes the story. Each story has characters that drive the story forward by performing actions and giving rise to plots. A story is pretty much independent as it can exist without the need for a storyteller. Multiple storytellers can convey their recollections of the plots and the characters, but the underlying story remains the same, independent of the consumer.

 

What is Narrative?

A Narrative is a recollection of the story events by a person who has experienced the story. This recollection of story events is subject to the perspective of the narrator (the one who forms the narrative). A narrator is usually a person from the story and sometimes a person who has experienced the narrative of another narrator. Hence the existence of a narrative is dependant on the existence of a corresponding narrator. Thus a narrative always belongs to someone or something and is just an interpretation of the story.

 

What is the difference between a story and a narrative?

A story can be regarded as the ultimate truth about the events in a given place across a given time.

A narrative is a perspective of the person who experiences the story and later recollects the series of events from his/her point of view.

 

How does this difference perceived by the audience?

A story exists independent of the perceptions of the audience members. A person who tells a story is conveying the ultimate truth about the series of events that occur in that story. There is no room for subjectivity when it comes to the details of the story.. A story has a definitive end and a conclusion.

In case of a narrative, the narrator controls and even restricts the flow of information to the audience in order to evoke emotional experiences and thus influence the manner in which the story is perceived. There is a lot of room for subjectivity as there can be multiple narrators who bring in their perspectives of the actual story. A narrative need not have a definitive end and is yet to be concluded.

 

Does a story depend on the medium of communication?

No. A story is standalone. A medium can do its best to cover as much of the story as possible, but the story remains the same independent of the medium of communication.

 

Does a narrative depend on the medium of communication?

Yes. The medium of communication turns a story into a narrative before presenting it to the audience. A medium has certain features called affordances that allow a specific type of information to be passed between the story and the audience. The way in which these affordances control the flow of information between the story and the audience influences the manner in which the story is perceived by the audience; thus having a direct impact on the narrative.

 

Examples:

 

A book is a medium of words and sometimes even static pictures. These are the affordances of the medium that describe the story world to the reader. The reader is left to imagine the story world and form the narrative based on the creative articulation and verbal description of the story events. The quality of writing that can be assisted by some static visuals influence the narrative.  

 

Audio is a medium that provides sounds as the affordance. The sounds can be music, dialogue or even noise. Things like the volume, the pitch and tempo can be used to add a level of acoustic detail to the events of the story; thereby influencing the narrative in a unique way.

 

Videos are a medium that provides both sounds and dynamic visuals together. These affordances allow the storytellers to show events of the story as if it were happening in front of the viewer. The angle of the camera, the framing of the scene and how fast/slow or steady/unstable the camera is can all provide a desired mood for the story. Not to mention the post production process that involves things like scene transitions, sound design, colour correction, also influence the viewer’s perception of the story uniquely.

 

What is the Story in a Movie?

The story of a movie is the set of events that most definitely occur in the fictional world. There might be parts of the story that a movie does not show. That does not mean that the missed events did not occur. A story is the bigger collection of events that really occurred in the story world. The movie merely chooses the events that are relevant to the desired plot and shows them in a specific manner. The ending of a story is always predetermined and inevitable. But the movie might choose whether or not to reveal the ending. It presents only one version of itself. Also, the story of a movie exists without the need for viewers.

 

What is the Narrative is a Movie?

The narrative here is a unique recollection of the events in the story as narrated by the protagonist/movie-makers and as perceived by a specific audience member. The perception of the audience is influenced by not only the cinematography and the sound design, but also by the manner of sequencing the events in the story and the deliberate emphasizing or hiding of certain parts of the story. With the help of these affordances, a viewer interprets the story in a certain way (that might have been the intention of the movie makers). Beyond the story of the movie, the viewer might even venture on to imagine certain events, characters or places of the story that were not explicitly shown by the movie. These often lead to fan-fiction around a movie or fan-theories that predict events of the story world. All of that forms the narrative that is interpreted by the viewer.

 

What is the Story in a Game?

In a game, the story is the collection of events and scenarios that are already established in the game. Often this might be referred to as the setup; the initial set of conditions that exist in the game before the player starts to play. These things exist for a fact in the game world irrespective of the player’s intervention. Everything that is definitely true in the game world and is not under the control of the player forms the game story.

 

What is Story Design in a Game?

Story design for a game will include the creation of the fictional game world, the characters and all the events that occur inevitably in the story (mostly before the player takes agency).  

 

What is the Narrative in a Game?

The narrative, as explained earlier, belongs to a either a person from the story or a specific audience member. In case of digital games, the player fills in both of those personas. Thus a narrative here is the player's perception of the events that occur in the game. This perception is heavily influenced by the videos, the sounds and the text that convey the story. However, when it comes to digital games there is one additional affordance that factors its way into influencing the player’s perception of the story. That is the opportunity for player interaction. Hence the player’s perspective of the events is most dependant on the player’s choice of interaction that leads up to a specific course of actions by the player and responses by the game world. In other words, the player’s perspective of the events that occur in the game is the direct result of the player’s experience of interacting with the game. Hence the player’s experience upon performing in-game interaction defines the game narrative.

 

What is Narrative Design in a Game?

Since narrative in a game is defined by a player’s experience upon performing in-game interactions, to design a narrative would mean to design the facilitation for the player’s perception of the game’s story by allowing for in-game interactions that would provide a desired experience.

 

What happens when the Story is missing in a Game?

If the story is missing, then the game becomes completely non-contextual. It then gets stripped down to a coded system with a set of initial conditions that can be interacted with. The player interacts with the game system to progress towards a specific outcome. The game has a narrative that belongs to the player and describes the player’s journey through the game. However the game will the lack fictional setting comprising of events, characters, locations and plots. This is the case with most outdoor sports and digital games like Pong and Tetris.

 

What happens when the Narrative is missing in a Game?

For a game to miss out on a narrative would mean the removal of the window for subjectivity from the set of events that occur in the game. The most obvious way of doing that is removing the opportunity for player interaction. The player becomes a mere spectator as the events in the game continue to occur. Thus the game gets reduced to a non-interactive story experience, something like a movie. The game’s narrative would get reduced to that of a movie. Adding another layer of complexity, to remove the narrative altogether would require an audience member to abstain from the other other affordances like the video and the sound, hence disengaging with the game entirely. The game would provide a story that has no participants who seek to experience it. Thus there will be no narrative despite the existence of the story. Realistically speaking, a game without a narrative is no longer a game.

 

When does one say that the story design is bad?

When the events of the story would seem weakly connected to one another and do not make logical sense when brought together. Another instance of a bad story is when the story does not explain the reason behind some events that define the progression of the story itself. The story is bad if the information about the story world is inconsistent at different places. Also a story may be regarded as bad if the events, the characters and the plots that constitute the story are of poor quality in general. These are but a few ways to judge a story, there may be a lot more.

 

Does a bad story make a Game bad?

Not necessarily, unless the game’s sole purpose is to tell a story and the game mechanics that frame the player’s narrative do not associate with the story. On the contrary, if a game has an addictive/engaging game mechanics that allow for well-structured Gameplay, then the players would not mind playing with a bad story. Here the player’s narrative is strong as the player assumes a narrative out of the game interactions and disregards the story. There are many games that are great even without the need for a story, like pong and tetris.

 

When does one say that the narrative design is bad?

Narrative design for digital games has been earlier defined as an act done for facilitating the player’s interpretation of the game story by allowing for player interactions that provide a desired experience. If this has to go wrong, it can go wrong at so many places: When the player is not given the freedom to interact when it matters; when the designed interactions do not provide the desired experience; when the experience of interacting in the game world turns out to be displeasing; when the narrative that is perceived while playing the game actually contradicts the story of the game.

 

Does bad narrative design make a Game bad?

Ideally, yes. If the player’s experience of living the story is poor due to any of the above mentioned scenarios, then the player would ideally not want to engage in the game. Moreover, if the players are weary of indulging in the interaction in the first place and just want to indulge in the game’s story as a spectator, then the product fails as a game despite pleasing the audience.

The only way a bad narrative design can be a part of a good game is by accident when the players assume a fun narrative in the game for themselves instead of what the designers intended for them.

 

How is Narrative unique for Digital Games?

Videogames are a unique medium that not only allows for affordance of sensory inputs to the audience member like the audio and video but also allows for another affordance - player interaction. All other mediums require a passive audience who spectate the unfolding of the story from a distance. Here the audience member is put right into the middle of the story, and hence is given the control over the story.

Not only is the story getting revealed to the audience like other mediums, but it is also, more importantly, occurring because of the audience members. The audience is now causing the story to happen. With that, the perception of the story, what we call narrative, becomes the player’s personal journey through a series of events. Consequently, unlike any other medium, in digital games, the player’s narrative fulfills the game’s story.

 

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