The Immersive Beast: Getting Right the Narrative Structure in your Game

  • 11 April 2019
  • Nick Jones

Something that’s been a bit of a hot idea in games over the past few years is that of emergent narrative or emergent gameplay. Thanks to the popularity of games like Minecraft, we see this approach being used all over, almost to the same extent as zombie epidemic stories. Most recently, the idea of the emergent has found its home in the survival genre, in which players are dropped into some kind of harsh environment and forced to keep their character alive through finding food and water, building shelters and crafting items and weapons so as to thrive in their world.

And while there have been plenty of hits that have grown out of this approach, there have also been plenty of misses. One rarely has to look any further than the first few pages of the Steam store to find emergent games that have been poorly received, and we all remember the fiasco around the initial release of No Man’s Sky

Although Hello Games – the developers of that particular project – initially promised too much in the way of emergent play, they have subsequently updated their vast space opera to mostly meet audience expectations. The initial failure and outrage around the game however, gives us enough to establish that there is an inherent risk of delving too far into the emergent.

On the other side of the coin, we have the more traditional, older approach to games – one that is founded out of developers searching for the language of interactivity in the much more established medias of film, TV and literature. This approach, which is termed as embedded narrative, while having the advantages of in most cases a strongly authored story, suffers from a lack of player agency.

Regardless of flaws, both of these approaches remain incredibly popular today with games like The Last of Us following a more embedded story, and something like Subnautica doing the exact opposite.

If you fancy yourself as a Narrative Designer, Game Writer, or anyone involved with story aspects of an interactive narrative, then it is important to have a strong understanding of both these approaches to design, as what you choose will essentially function as a skeleton or framework for the project.

So what do these terms mean exactly? Let’s look at each in turn.

Embedded Narrative

If you read my article from a couple of weeks ago Finding Meaning in Play: Defining Narrative Design, then you will recall my brief definition for the word plot as it relates to games. I differentiated plot from story in this piece, explaining that plot was “…what happens. It concerns itself with the right here, right now. It is player experience. It is conflict and character. As the player moves throughout the world, plot is there to challenge them, provoking them to act in response.”

Whereas Story was “…the bigger picture. Story is the full context of this world. When we talk about an interactive story, we’re talking about something all-encompassing and profound. An interactive story is the plot, narrative, lore and deep lore, rolled into one.”

I want to build further onto these definitions now so we can understand the nature of embedded narrative fully. To further clarify the idea of plot is to explain that, in the words of Film theoriests Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hazgener, plot is “the structured set of all causal events as we see and hear them presented in the film itself.” (Elsaesser & Hagener, 2015, p. 48)

Bringing this over to interactive narratives, we can fashion a more complete definition as being: Plot is how the player sees, hears and interacts with the events presented by the narrative.  As the player moves throughout the world, they are confronted with elements of plot structured so as to challenge the player and provoke them to react to it.

Story on the other hand, while still being the full package of what the world contains, also has the added element of referring to how the player mentally understands and constructs the chronology of what is presented to them. Whereas my definition of Narrative speaks to how we as developers structure the content of the game, Story, as an extended definition, speaks to how the player receives and understands that content.

These definitions are important to understand in the context of embedded narrative because while an embedded narrative is strongly authored and is often linear in nature, there are elements of it that do not have to be, and are often not. An embedded narrative can be sequenced in varying orders and still remain embedded.

Think of a game like 2004’s DOOM 3 for example. Taking place in the aftermath of a demonic/alien invasion, the story of DOOM 3 unfolds via cut scenes that are achieved through linear progression. However, it would be a mistake to say that cinematics are the only narrative device at play here. No, much of the context to what has occurred in the UAC Mars base is told through artifacts picked up by the player – emails, audio logs and video files. These artifacts, although being interactive collectibles, function as miniature embedded narratives alongside the larger one taking place through the linear cinematic progression. Placed together, these two devices function as prime examples of plot and story in their extended definitions. While the player experiences plot through progressing the levels and watching new cut-scenes (essentially being pulled around the game on a leash), they are forced to mentally construct the chronology of the invasion via their interpretation of the collectible artifacts – artifacts they more often than not will find out of order.

Embedded narrative then becomes an interactive experience of putting together pieces of a puzzle and making assumptions about the game world based off the knowledge they have obtained from this puzzle.

Not unlike film, this approach requires players to build subconscious maps of the narrative and then test their hypotheses which come from these maps against the game world until their internal understanding matches the external structure of the world. This means that embedded narratives become heavily focused on the ideas of right and wrong. The player’s understanding is tested, and if found wanting, they are punished by being forced to start back at an earlier position, refine their narrative maps and try again. In this way, there is really only one way to play an embedded narrative – the way the author intended it.

Moving away from the interactive element of embedded narrative, let’s look quickly at a couple other major features. As mentioned previously, this approach comes from adapting the rules of screenwriting for film, to games. Another call-back to this adaptation is the focus embedded narratives place on creating conflict and rising tension for characters and players throughout the plot. Very rarely do players have what I would call “free time” to explore and take things at their own pace. This is because the author is funneling them at a certain speed towards the pre-written ending or endings. While there are obvious disadvantages to this, one advantage of funneling means that pacing remains much more consistent than in other games – and as we are probably all aware, pacing is currently a major stumbling block in games thanks to things like loading times, the uncanny valley and players getting distracted.

Sometimes embedded narratives will use branching plot structure in an attempt to provide an illusion of non-linear interactivity. However, these branching points usually bottleneck after a period of time. Bottlenecking describes the concept of having player options branch out, then branch out again and again before coming back together at a certain point to follow the same through line of plot. Players feel like their decisions may matter – and in some cases they do – but eventually their decisions lead them to the same outcome.

Lastly I want to talk about the disconnect between the narrative and the gameplay. We’ve spoken on this before. A Narrative Designer’s most important job in this day in age is to make sure that gameplay and story reflect the themes of one another.

But in embedded narrative, that is often not the case. We end up with what Kent Hudson describes in his GDC talk Player-Driven Stories: How Do We Get There as Disparate Agency, and/or ludonarrative dissonance.

Great. More big words. What does it all mean, Nick?

In brief, disparate agency describes when the player is playing as a character who might have super abilities, or they might have – you know, regular, every day human abilities (like jumping and running), and yet, the player is unable to implement the abilities their character SHOULD have. For example – you’re playing a game where you’re trying to escape a series of labyrinthine hallways, you turn a corner and find an exit door. The problem is – there’s a pile of cargo boxes in the way. The character you’re playing as is a human – so he should be able to jump or climb over those boxes and escape – yet the game won’t let you do it. This is disparate agency – you only have access to a selection of the character’s abilities as they suit the plot.

Ludonarrative dissonance is more thematic in nature. This is when what is being conveyed through the story doesn’t match up with what is being conveyed in the gameplay. Your story is all about the horrors of war and how it can destroy a person’s psyche, yet there are no mechanical handicaps for blowing away thousands of soldiers in gory firefights. The game’s cinematics depict your character as struggling with the guilt of having murdered so many people, and yet the game rewards you with points and trophies for dispatching enemies in the nastiest, most traumatizing ways possible. This creates a disconnect between how the player is supposed to feel about the emotional core of the game and how they are actually feeling while playing it.

These two issues are regular problem-makers in the embedded narrative thanks to the author’s need to tell the story exactly how they want it – gameplay be damned, giving the players little to no option but to go along for the ride, as opposed to developing their own meaning within the story world.

So very quickly, let’s summarize:

First, the strengths of an embedded narrative:

Embedded narratives tend to have strong stories due to the focus placed on heavily authored content.
Embedded narratives can be immersive in the same way that a film, book or TV show is.
Embedded narratives are not dependent on the player’s attention span to deliver strong dramatic pacing.

The weaknesses of an embedded narrative are:

Embedded narratives mostly only create an illusion of non-linear interactivity through bottlenecking choices.
Embedded narratives don’t allow the player “free time” to explore and engage with the game world at their own pace.
Embedded narratives quickly become about the player playing the “right” way through forcing them to test hypotheses against the narrative structure until they succeed. There is only one way through the plot – alternative paths are punished with death and resets.
Embedded narratives frequently fall victim to disparate agency and ludonarrative dissonance due to players having little-to-no ability to direct the plot in a way that creates personal meaning for themselves.

 

Emergent Narrative

The emergent narrative has, as I previously mentioned seen a rise in popularity thanks to games like Minecraft, Subnautica and No Man’s Sky. But this approach is one much older than all of those games or the slew of survival titles available on various platforms. Emergent narratives find their origins arguably in board games, card games, tabletop RPGs and street games because of their focus on allowing players ultimate freedom to interact with the story world in whichever way they like, finding narrative and emotional meaning primarily in the gameplay elements rather than any presubscribed stories. Emergent play can also be found in the likes of immersive theatre shows like Sleep No More, Amusement Parks like Disneyland and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, ARPGs (Alternative Reality Games) and LARPing (Live Action Role-Playing.)

Emergent narrative’s first big break into the world of computer gaming is possibly through that of EA’s The Sims series in which players are given free reign with a large collection of vague narrative architectural items (themed houses and neighbourhoods, personality traits that can conflict with others, and props with narrative meanings – i.e. bookshelves will make your characters smarter, newspapers are for finding jobs and beds are for sleeping or “WooHooing” in.)

The Sims is a fascinating example of emergent narrative because it acts as the American video game designer Will Wright (SimCity) describes, a sandbox or dollhouse game that can be used as an authoring environment for players to write their own stories. By creating what I called vague narrative architectural items, the game allows players to string together locations, characters and props to develop their own plotlines.

As technology advanced, and players demanded more sophisticated experiences, emergent narrative made its way into being a major component of open-world games like the Elder Scroll series, in which, while there were still embedded narrative elements available, players could wander off on their own and find their own adventures at random.

This random wandering is not to be underestimated. Giving players a large world to roam, filled with things to do builds a unique kind of immersion that can’t really be found in any other form of media. I would call this task-based immersion. It’s the same kind of immersion you feel when you have a day off work and you write yourself a list of chores to get done. You get so involved in cleaning the living room, doing the dishes and weeding the garden, that before you know it, the day is gone.

Another unique kind of immersion developed primarily in emergent games is that of exploratory immersion – the player is free to adventure out into the wilderness, find points of interest and try piece together the mysteries that the world holds, effectively building an internal database of lore. Games that excel in this kind of immersion are typically ones that, while allowing for high levels of emergent play, have done a lot of world building behind the scenes. The plot may be completely absent, but the lore is complex.

Emergent narrative in its purest form relies on the player’s personal interaction with the systems presented to them in the gameplay to craft their own stories. In theory, this approach allows for an infinite number of playthroughs as every player’s story will be different. They will encounter different things and deal with challenges in different ways. Add to this approach the recent ability to have the game randomly generate levels, and you have something very unique in its storytelling capabilities.

For the game writer, this presents a particularly difficult challenge. Without the focus of an embedded story, it becomes difficult to write a story in a way that is emotionally satisfying to all players.

What do I mean by this? Without trying to be harsh, it must be pointed out that emergent narrative on its own comes with a very significant flaw. Let’s ignore the issues of pacing or of character or plot for a second. The major flaw of this approach is one of meaning. What does it all mean? Because of the random, circumstantial nature of emergent narrative, plot often becomes meaningless outside of the individual player’s experience. You may have felt the rush of excitement, the tenseness and the relief of narrowly avoiding death in your hunting down and killing of a Dragon in Skyrim, but if you try tell this story to someone else, it doesn’t mean a lot – if anything at all. There is no greater emotional truth involved. You faced off against the games systems and beat them. That’s all. There’s no purpose to it, and because there is no purpose, players can become easily bored if there’s not enough to do, or if there’s not enough variety in the tasks offered.

We also have the issues of time and consequence to think about. These issues are major ones in the genre of the MMORPG, but they extend to single-player emergent narratives as well. Without embedded narrative bringing context to the flow of time and the consequences of certain actions, pacing and rising tension is mostly thrown out the window.

Once again, let’s summarize.

The strengths of an emergent narrative are:

Emergent narratives offer a high level of interactivity to the players.
Emergent narratives offer an almost infinite amount of replayability.
Emergent narratives create task-based and exploratory immersion through a big emphasis on lore and world building.
Emergent narratives allow players to forge their own stories.

The weaknesses of an emergent narrative are:

Emergent narrative plots are often non-existent or meaningless outside of the individual player’s experience.
Emergent narratives struggle with bringing context to time and consequence which brings a clunkiness to things like pacing, rising tension and character.
Players can become easily bored if there’s not a lot to do, or there isn’t enough variety things to do as there is little to no purpose or directive pushing the player forward in the game.

Disclaimer

Let me be clear, not all emergent narrative games have these problems, and not all embedded narrative games have theirs. There are amazing examples of both sides working their magic. The issues mainly come into effect when a developer places focus on one framework over the other. Leaning too heavily into either approach makes for some problematic storytelling.

This is why the stories that work, the best kinds of games, are those that take what I term a blended approach.      

The Blended Narrative

In his essay Game Design as Narrative Architecture American Media Scholar Henry Jenkins suggests a third approach to narrative structure with the idea of spatial storytelling. He writes that “…game consoles should be regarded as machines for generating compelling spaces,” and that their “…virtual playspaces have helped to compensate for the declining place of the traditional backyard in contemporary boy culture, and that the core narratives behind many games centre around the struggle to explore, map, and master contested spaces.” (Jenkins, 2005)

Jenkins argues that the way we structure our game spaces goes towards facilitating different kinds of narrative experiences.

Senior Show Designer for Walt Disney, Don Carson also argues that games could learn a lot from the way Disney designs its amusement park attractions, explaining that: “The story element is infused into the physical space a guest walks or rides through. It is the physical space that does much of the work conveying the story the designers are trying to tell.” (Carson, 2000)

What we are talking about here, is of course, environmental storytelling – a topic that we will touch on only briefly in this article, as there will be an entire piece dedicated to it in the near future (stay tuned!). But it is important to note the power that using game world environments to facilitate both story and play has. While both embedded and emergent games do use their environments to varying degrees of success, often times they miss stunning opportunities that are right in front of them, due to their almost reverential focus on one structure over the other.

Returning to Jenkins before we move on from the environmental storytelling stuff, he writes with a great deal of insight that “Environmental storytelling creates the preconditions for an immersive narrative experience in at least one of four ways: spatial stories can evoke pre-existing narrative associations; they can provide a staging ground where narrative events are enacted; they may embed narrative information within or they provide resources for emergent narratives.” (Jenkins, 2005)

When considering how to blend the best bits of both the embedded and emergent approach together, looking through this lens of spatial storytelling is key, as with it, we are able to develop worlds that are primarily a place for the player to explore that can then be imbued with both embedded and emergent narratives.

Taking this approach, instead of looking at plot as being a linear train ride through a game world, we can look at it as a series of micro stories that are found throughout the space. Stories that may or may not be connected via a larger plot. We can also consider layering both the embedded and emergent elements on top of each other, emulsifying the two approaches into one.

Let me give you a recent example of this.

About a month ago, FromSoftware released their latest title into the world – Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – an action adventure game set in a highly fantasized version of feudal Japan. The game focuses on the exploits of Wolf, a lone Shinobi as he travels through the countryside surrounding Ashina Castle, in an attempt to stay true to the oath he has sworn to his young Lord, the immortal “Divine heir,” also known as Kuro.

Sekiro offers players a restricted open world game that is very aware of how its space can be used to build story. In it, pathways double back on each other, central hubs branch out into new and frightening areas, and the entire geography of the countryside feel at the same time authentic to the setting as well as being masterfully crafted to funnel players through the plot in multiple ways.

While much of Sekiro uses the classic embedded approach of cut scenes to advance its plot, it does several very interesting things that would categorize it, I believe, as a blended narrative.

Firstly, let’s talk about the use of space. As I mentioned before, Sekiro operates as a semi-open world which is filled with embedded stories. However it is entirely possible to miss stories altogether, as well as some bosses and most mini-bosses. What this does is create a realism to player agency. Not only does the player have the choice to explore one area over another, but they can also choose not to. And like the real world, the player may, quite by accident miss something important. Rather than making things confusing, this only adds to the mystique of the games lore and creates a desire in the player for multiple playthroughs so that they can full understand the world they have been investing in.

But by far the most fascinating elements of Sekiro as far as blended narrative is concerned, is through the use of two gameplay loops. The Dragonrot loop, and Sekiro’s approach to combat. Both of these loops exhibit completely separate approaches to narrative structure.

Firstly, Dragonrot. In the game, Dragonrot is a quasi-supernatural disease that is spread amongst NPCs as a result of the player dying over and over again. The more you die, the sicker the NPCs become. Surprisingly, FromSoftware didn’t take it as far as to have the disease kill off NPCs (killing off NPCs prematurely in other FS games is a regular), but what it does do is this: If a NPCs get too sick, it halts their storyline. Their “quest” cannot be completed until they are healthy once more. Players are able to occasionally cure Dragonrot through the use of a special item, which results in storylines being unlocked once more.

What this gameplay loop does, is it grows embedded narratives into the concepts of time and consequence. As I said, it doesn’t follow this through as far as it could (a true blended narrative would use Dragonrot to kill off NPCs entirely), but it does establish a degree of realism, a flow of time, and consequence to the players actions, without forcing them to try again when they don’t do as they’re told.

Secondly, and of more interest to me personally, is the combat system. This system is a beautiful example of not only a blended narrative, but of intelligent narrative design. Sekiro’s combat system is as Hidetaka Miyazaki describes coming “from the clash of steel between katanas. This constant clang, clang, between yourself and your foe that creates this intensity in the constant fear of death.” (Miyazaki, 2018) In the game, players are given the traditional health bar – as are their enemies, but health is arguably the least important aspect of doing battle. Alongside the health bar is another bar – this one is called your posture gauge. Posture is kind of like your defense. You have one, and your enemy has one as well. While your posture gauge is low, when you guard, it is impossible for most enemies to cause you damage. However, every hit you take while guarding will fill your posture gauge. When your posture gauge is filled to the brim, it breaks, and opens you open for a death blow at the hands of your enemy. Likewise, your aim in battle is to break the posture gauge of your enemy, allowing you a deathblow on them. Deathblows remove either significant portions of health, or health entirely, depending on the level of enemy you are facing. You can hack away at your enemies, being 100% hostile and their posture gauge will eventually fill up, but this takes forever and is risky, as attacking opens you up. The better way to fill an enemy’s posture gauge is by deflecting their attacks. Deflecting requires hitting the guard button at the exact right time of an enemies attack, and so battle in Sekiro becomes almost a kind of rhythm game, where you must hit your guard over and over in tune to the “beat” of your enemy’s attacks.

Why is this combat gameplay so important? Because combat in Sekiro is framed via an embedded narrative approach. Enemies have narrative purposes. They are real characters, are often framed within cut scenes and the player is required to defeat many of them so as to open up new areas within the game world. However, the actual clashing and clanging of swords creates a layer of emergent play within it. As you fight each enemy – no matter how weak they are, there is a real threat of death – and with it, the threat of Dragonrot – Every deflect, every strike, the delicate balance between defense and offence is a story in itself. The concept this gameplay loop was derived from – the clash of steel between katanas is a kind of story as well – two characters, conflict, rising tension and eventually – resolution for better or worse.

 

Low Risk, High Emotional Depth

The differences between embedded and emergent narrative are as plain as night and day. And while both approaches have been successful in the past, focusing heavily on one approach over the other comes with an inherent high risk. Yes, there are brilliant examples of games that tell nothing but an embedded story, and there are brilliant examples of games that tell nothing but an emergent one. But these are often few and far between. I myself tend to recoil at the idea of developing something with mass-marketability – the punk in me hates the idea of selling out, but in the context of doing what is best for your games story, it is prudent to consider the risk level in how you are building the narrative framework of your game.

And really, it’s something of a win-win situation. Using a blended narrative approach, you are covering all your bases. You are establishing something that is lower in risk, and if you’ve got some good writers on board – higher in its emotional depth. A blended narrative allows players a great deal of agency, and instead of dragging them through a plot, it subtly guides them by establishing realistic rules around time and consequence, as well as building into the game world all kinds and sizes of story through using spatial architecture and the gameplay loops players will find themselves doing regularly.

So when you and your team sit down to draft out the next No Man’s Sky or Heavy Rain, take a moment to consider how you can layer this idea of blended narrative into your game. Think of yourself not as developers or writers or producers, but as narrative architects and work on building the most immersive beast you can…


References

Carson, D. (2000, March 1). Environmental storytelling: Creating immersive 3d worlds using lessons learned from the theme park industry. Retrieved from https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/131594/environmental_storytelling_.php

Elsaesser, T., & Hagener, M. (2015). Chapter 2: Cinema as door - Screen and threshold. In Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses (2nd ed., p. 48). London, England: Routledge.

Jenkins, H. (2005, September 21). Game design as narrative architecture. Retrieved from http://homes.lmc.gatech.edu/~bogost/courses/spring07/lcc3710/readings/jenkins_game-design.pdf

Miyazaki, H. (2018, August 21). Hidetaka Miyazaki on Sekiro: Shadows die twice. Interview by D. Milner. Retrieved from https://www.gameinformer.com/interview/2018/08/21/hidetaka-miyazaki-on-sekiro-shadows-die-twice

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