This is an interesting week for me when it comes to writing a blog post because, other than a little bit of spillover work that didn’t get finished from last week, none of my tasks this week involved narrative work. Instead, I built one level and helped populate another, consulted on some sound and art decisions, attended some meetings, and attempted to learn Cinemachine, the camera tool our team is using.
And all that was very good, because at the present state in our production, that work was more important than further narrative work.
I’ve always been a strong believer that narrative that isn’t coordinated and in line with the rest of the game isn’t really a narrative, it’s just a story that has been pasted over the top of a game. For a game to have a good narrative, it needs to have more than just a story.
This is a little bit of a tricky distinction, because the main dictionary entry of a narrative includes the word “story”. If they are synonyms, how can they be different things? However, I find this to be a very important distinction when it comes to games, because it will change the way people approach a game’s narrative, and subsequently change the entire feel of the game.
A story is defined as “an account of past events in someone’s life or in the evolution of something”. In slightly more understandable terminology, this means that a story is a series of event that are strung together to tell a tale. Books and movies are often a story.
Narrative, on the other hand, is much more subtle and larger in scale than a story. A narrative can undoubtedly contain a story, and often does, which is part of the reason most people don’t distinguish between the two. What makes a narrative different from a story is a secondary definition, found under the common definition of “narrative is a story”. That is:
“A representation that connects and explains a set of events, experiences, or the like, intended to support a particular viewpoint or thesis.”
That’s even more obtuse than the dictionary definition of a story, but now that you know what information I’m working from, I can simplify things a bit.
A story is the characters and dialogue of a game, which tell the player about events, either those happening in a given moment, things that have happened in the past, or things that are soon to happen. A narrative, on the other hand, is the emotional experience of a game. It shapes every part of the game, the mechanics, the levels, and, yes, the story, to sway the player’s entire perception of the game.
In essence, narrative creates a game’s emotion, not through dialogue or cutscenes, but through the gameplay itself. A narrative can, and often does, include a story, but it doesn’t have to.
This gets back to what I spoke of in week two, what I’ve taken to calling “narrative branding”. It is about integrating simple elements that layer together in moment to moment gameplay to create a strong emotional reaction in the player, and tell about the game’s experience as a whole.
That is why narrative is something that has to be integrated into the game during development, because if it is tacked on towards the end of the game’s production, it won’t be incorporated into the heart of gameplay. Instead, it becomes possible for players to completely ignore the game’s narrative.
And that’s not much of a narrative at all.