Since the dawn of our species, story has been ingrained in our psyche. From cavemen, up to present day, we have craved to tell stories, and to be told stories. Sitting around a campfire in the antediluvian past, we would be regaled with tales from village elders, and even today, all across the world, Boy Scouts (or their equivalent) are sitting around campfires listening to spooky stories from their Scout Master as the darkness of the woods surrounds them….
What Is A Campfire Narrative?
Campfire narrative is a narrative technique best used for games with an emergent intention. Meaning, games that, while still desiring to include story, prefer to place a focus on the story that the player builds, rather than the one they are told. Deriving from an approach developed by the studio Failbetter Games (Fallen London, Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies), Campfire narratives are based on the idea that it is the Narrative Designer’s job to create “campfires” throughout a story world.
A campfire is a physical space or object in the game that the writer can control and feed authored plot content into. When the player “sits around” the campfire, they are being told a story. Meanwhile, the world outside - the woods surrounding the campfire - is totally dark. This darkness is the darkness of emergent narrative. The darkness of player authorship.
In that darkness, the player is given the freedom to fill in the blanks via their own engagement with the games’ systems. But, when a player arrives in the light of a crackling flame, the expectation is that they receive insight from the writer/s.
To do this correctly, the writer needs to deliver an authored plot that makes no assumption about where the player has come from, what they’ve been doing, or where they are going next. And unless the game has a system in which content can be delivered in a certain order, then the chunks need to be non-linear as well - accessible in any order.
Campfire Narrative is kind of like a mix between “main story quest” and what we would term as Story Glyphs or Flavor Texts. It usually conveys the overarching plot of the game. However it differs greatly in that it is non-linear and the player who is disinterested in story, will never have to engage with it. Meanwhile, it actively rewards those who are all about story and encourages them to explore, seek and find.
What Does A Campfire Look Like?
A Campfire in a game can mean many different things. Though it will always tend to act as a kind of “hub”, it may be outwardly expressed as anything from a peculiarly shaped statue, a literal campfire, or a specifically coloured treasure chest, all the way to the other extreme - a small township, marketplace or central square within a city. How it looks externally is up to you, and what works best for your game. The important thing is that it is
a) recognizable to players as being a location where they will be rewarded with story,
b) Is a separate, disconnected “bubble” from the “darkness” of the rest of the world
and c) has an incentive to engage with it that while being appealing, is not crucial to the completion of the game.
In terms of how the narrative is displayed within a campfire - it could be a triggered cutscene, an area dense with NPCs who are ready to chat, a Library full of story glyphs, or more - the sky's the limit, as long as it has the ability to convey authored narrative clearly, succinctly and in a way that doesn’t create ludo-narrative dissonance between itself and what is occurring out there in the deep dark “woods.”
Dark Souls artwork - https://www.deviantart.com/greathorn/art/You-Lit-The-Bonfire-394963681