Following my series on narrative formats, I thought it worth thinking a little about the relationship between narrative, storytelling and games more generally.
Storytelling and narrative are central components in many forms of entertainment. In traditional dramatic media, the authored story engages the viewer emotionally through a set sequence of predetermined pieces of information, like beads on a string. If the term ‘story’ describes characters, events and plot, then ‘narrative’ describes how the story is told.
The relationship between narratives and games is well documented yet it remains contentious. At the heart of the stormy relationship is the apparent contradiction between predetermined storytelling and user control, and existing and emergent story lines.
At one end of the scale, the use of traditional narrative structures within games takes its inspiration from classic literature and Hollywood and delivers finely crafted, but largely fixed, story lines in which the player has a walled garden of opportunity. At the other end, hypertext narrative suggests stories that emerge entirely according to the user’s interactions with the game environment.
Commercial computer games rarely choose one of the extremes when approaching narrative. Instead, they seek to balance participation with presentation. This judgement is not purely artistic, there are serious pragmatic considerations with delegating control to the user or not. Given story lines provide context and player-character motivation as well as helping to control the pace of the user experience and providing respite in the activity. However, almost all single-player games structure play around a narrative containing a clear goal, some ultimate triumph and a defined finale.
‘Serious’ games have clear objectives for player achievement that are transferable to spaces outside the game world; they are rarely ends in themselves but mechanisms to improve skills in other domains. Serious games tend to provide virtual facsimiles of their target environment and its behaviour to facilitate easier transfer. Central to this portrayal is the structured, and therefore restricted, presentation of events, actions and consequences: within serious games, the role of the narrative becomes more pronounced.
However it is not just games, serious or otherwise, that benefit from the effective combination of storytelling and control. Just about any activity that involves communication benefits from the right balance between receiving and doing. Get it right and the user feels part of the experience, get it wrong and they remain separate and disengaged.