Understanding Video Games text-book
Lost in a Forest: Finding New Paths for Narrative Gaming

Date posted: August 16, 2006
Updated: Oct 24, 2006

by Joris Dormans


Branching plot trees are not the way forward for the development of interactive storytelling or narrative gaming. By investigating the gaming nature of many computer mediated narratives and by learning from pen-and-paper role-playing games the story-world and the railroad are presented as successful, alternative structures for interactive storytelling. However, these structures are not without limitations. Taking cues from novelist Neal Stephenson and scholar Marie-Laure Ryan a new structure, the fractal story, is explored and presented as a promising format for expressive narrative gaming.


Branching plot trees are the dominant form in the popular conception of interactive fiction or interactive cinema. In this form of interactive storytelling the reader or player occasionally chooses a direction for the story to develop in from a set of pre-designed options. Many computer games are plot trees, too; the landscape of computer-mediated narrative gaming is like a forest. However, the plot tree constitutes a rather poor strategy of storytelling and gaming alike. A plot tree offers little control over the story. A forced choice between a distinct number of options does not inspire significant action on the part of the player. This contributes to a ‘mechanical’ and ‘lifeless’ story effect [8]. Worse still, the player is pulled out of the narrative world to make an often arbitrary choice and left to wonder whether the story might have been better if she had chosen differently. As Steven Poole puts it: "we don’t want to have to make crucial narrative decisions that might, in effect, spoil the story for us. We want to have our cake and eat it." [10: 123]. In this paper I will explore alternative structures of narrative gaming, drawing on the accumulated experience of pen-and-paper role-playing games and expanding on the (more) hypothetical structure of the fractal story. It is due time we cut those fictional trees down.

Narrative Games

Rule-based simulation of a game world is what sets games apart from hypertexts and many other media that do allow some forms of interaction. Interaction and simulation in games are closely tied to a notion of dynamic systems and emergent behaviour. Media of these type allow for a type of experimental, and culturally significant form of play (or paida). It might well be, as Frasca has it, that "Video games imply an enormous paradigm shift for our culture because the represent the first complex simulational media for the masses" [6: 224]. Thus, in order to understand games we must comprehend the rhetoric particular to simulation. We must understand how game and simulation rules structure our experience. How we interact with the gaming machines and enter in a cybernetic feedback loop that can consume our attention for hours on end. Not all of these game engines have a disposition to generate narrative output, but some unquestionably have. These are narrative games.

Pen-and-paper role-playing games are precursors of computer based narrative games, even though strictly speaking computer games are little older than these role-playing games. For their entire thirty year history, pen-and-paper role-playing games have had the advantage of little technological limitations and have had access to the most powerful processor available: the human mind. This has given pen-and-paper role-playing games a clear advantage over computer mediated, narrative games. This has lead to the development of different types of structures for interactive storytelling, but also has allowed these games to make much more of the interaction between the player and the game. As we shall see it is the freedom of player expression on the one hand and co-operation between players and storyteller on the other hand that make these games successful. There is no reason why computer games can make use of the same recipe. By reinvestigating possible ways of structuring interactive stories, and by giving more attention to the ways players may express themselves we might discover a way out of the forest and discover new horizons for narrative gaming.

We like to think about games as cybertexts, but from the point of view of pen-and-paper role-players the interaction in computer games remains rather limited. To them these games are little better than spreadsheets with nice textures; character-builders associated with roll-playing games instead of role-playing games. For many players expression and interaction has always been the strength of narrative gaming. As Steven Poole argues, the technology is keeping back the development of interactive narratives. We simply do not have the technology to allow for more than a handful dialogue options [10: 121]. The result is that the contribution of players to the construction of the game consists only of the options that can be selected using a mere handful of buttons. We might have to wait for the development of good speech synthesising, voice recognition and natural language parsing before the games industry start delivering dramatic game interaction, but we might as well be waiting forever.

However, there are games that do offer more ways of expressions to the player. According to Harvey Smith, lead designer of Deus Ex, that game "tried to provide the player with a host of player-expression tools and then turn him loose in an immersive, atmospheric environment" [12]. The expressions Smith talks about are extremely limited on the first glance. The player for example is offered the chance to choose between two different upgrades for his avatar. But because these upgrades "tied into analogue systems like lighting or sound" they continue to influence the game and thus actually offer a finer granularity of expression than most branching path models ever could (ibid.). In Deus Ex the way you develop your avatar became an important tool for expression, in the end it determines the way you can play the game. And this development is firmly rooted into the narrative background. In many ways Shigeru Miyamoto advocates a same approach to game development when he stated that "Another big element is that players themselves can grow. In the game you see and feel Link actually grows. At the same time, players can become better players" (quoted in [5: 240]). This prompted game-designer Doug Church to state, in a discussion on Mario 64, that "Simple though the controls are, they are very expressive, allowing rich interaction through simple movement and a small selection of jumping moves" [3].

From a semiotic or linguistic point of view the limited number of ’signs’ a player can use does not necessarily limit the number of expressions that can be build from them. In fact, a defining characteristic of language prevalent throughout all linguistic work of Noam Chomsky is that we make infinite use of finite means. Although the number of words in a language is much larger than the number of commands in a computer game, Chomsky illustrates how this ‘infinite use of finite means’ can be achieved with only a few words [2: 18-25]. Likewise semiotics, as a theory of signs, is not only interested in the way signifiers relate to signifieds, but also the way several signs combine on a syntactic axis. The expressive potential of the limited input is hardly
exhausted by the common dialogue trees. When limited commands are projected onto a world-simulation (as is the case in Deus Ex and Mario 64) their potential as tools for dramatic expression increases.

Railroads & Story-Worlds

Dungeons & Dragons is not really known for its strong plots or dramatic developments. Originally the game was designed around dungeon adventures where the players had to explore a dungeon, kill the monsters and find the treasure. At the basis of these adventures is not a set of possible scenes but a map that outlines the dungeon. The map has been prepared in advance or is taken from a commercial adventure module. The map provides details on the whereabouts of different monsters, secret doors, various pits and pendulums. The maps gives the players the freedom to explore while at the same time it limits the game within ‘natural’ boundaries. The existence of the prepared map contributes to the freedom by providing an easy and ‘fair’ method reference to the storyteller (or ‘dungeon master’). It conveys the idea that the players can truly choose their own path and destiny; contributing to a sense of agency on the part of the player. On the other hand, the players cannot ‘escape’ the dungeon. There is usually no reason for the storyteller to prepare anything outside the dungeon. The map allows her to focus on the actions of the players within its confines. It helps her prepare the game. Players are unlikely to try to go beyond the limits of the dungeon, because, after all, the whole point of playing Dungeons & Dragons is to explore the dungeon, slay the monsters and steal the treasure.

Role-playing games have evolved from their ‘dungeon-crawling’ beginnings, but still maps are the backbone of many ongoing stories. The map is a way of simulating a world; designing a map sets up a web of possibilities for the players to explore. The old dungeon adventures are crude and primitive compared to the worlds and settings created for later games. These elaborate settings define the narrative disposition of the game, by setting up an intricate simulation rife with dramatic potential. They have become story-worlds, even in those instances where a political or psychological ‘map’ forms its most defining structure.

The downside of the story-world is that the player can easily become lost in its sheer size. In most computer role-playing games that rely on huge maps the action quickly becomes repetitive. How many dungeons should one visit to gain enough experience points to be able to deal with the next part of the story? For players interested in the hack-and-slash combat these games invariably offer, this is fine, but those who wish to progress the story can find this an arduous task and may loose track of or interest in the narrative altogether, These are reason for Chris Crawford not to put too much hope in this structure [4: 261-262].

One other way to overcome the restrictions of the plot-tree is to abandon the idea of player choice altogether and drive her through a single plot narrative. Design effort can than be directed on delivering a involving story and keeping up the illusion of freedom of action. For in the end, in most games freedom is just that: an illusion. It is a strategy that is common in printed adventure modules for role-playing games. In effect the players may control her avatar and the player’s actions maybe crucial to help story advance but the story is typically constructed in such way that it will advance independent of the player’s relative success. In role-playing this structure is often referred to as railroading. The trick of a good railroaded story is to either put the players under the illusion that they are doing it all themselves or have the plot motivate their lack of control over the situation. Usually a combination of the two works best.

Many computer games that have been credited for having a good story make extensive use of the rail. A good example is Half-Life – and not only because actual trains feature prominently in the game. The survivalist narrative that drives the game makes sure the player always has a clear goal: escape the vast Black Mesa complex. As the player progresses through the various levels, the story of the technological failure and subsequent government cover-up takes form as you overhear guards, marines and scientists, that are put on your path. In Half-Life you either advance through the levels or you die, there is no other option.

There are two distinctive dangers of the railroading stories. First, the player may get frustrated when she feels she has lost control over her character. And second, the player may get the feeling that her action does not matter at all; that she plays only a small part in the story as it develops. In both cases the player’s feeling of immersive agency crumbles and she might as well read a book, watch a movie or go see a play. The agency we have in railroading stories is "micro-agency" to use Doug Church’s word, and what is lacking is "agency at a higher level" (quoted in [7])

Fractal Stories

The term fractal story is coined by Marie-Laure Ryan [11] in her discussion of Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age. With Ryan I think that the fractal story is an interesting direction in which interactive storytelling and narrative gaming might evolve. In Stephenson’s work of science-fiction a lower-class girl called Nell by chance acquires a state-of-the-art interactive book. This book is designed to educate little girls, teaching her all manner of practical skills and preparing her for the world at large. It does so by relating the adventures of princess Nell. These adventures are partly interactive, sometimes Nell has to decide what Princess Nell is going to do.

The stories of Princess Nell take the form of classic folktales. When Nell has become an experienced reader of the book she understands the basic premises of these stories and thereby understands what is expected of Princess Nell. But the book has prepared Nell also by telling her the end of the story right in the beginning. While Nell is reading the book she is not advancing the story rather she is expanding it. Where once the book simply refers to the many adventures Princess Nell has in the lands of the twelve Faery Kings, they grow into full blown interactive stories for Nell to enjoy and resolve, when those parts are read more ‘closely’ by simply flipping back the pages and start reading again. It is this ability to zoom in on the story that gives the structure its name: anfractuous with Stephenson [13: 343] and fractal with Ryan [11: 337].

In my opinion the fact that the basic structure is known and recognised by the reader is at least as important for the fractal story structure. It is a point that is stressed by The Diamond Age: "We change the script a little," Madame Ping said, "to allow for cultural differences. But the story never changes. There are many people and many tribes, but only so many stories." (p. 374, see also the quote above). The narrative database the interactive book uses is filled with generic universal folk materials. These are meant to be recognisable. This is also in line with the chosen metaphor of the mathematical structure of the fractal. For one of the characteristics of fractals in nature is that we are very good at recognising them. A coastline is fractal, but not every fractal line qualifies as coastline. To draw an imaginary and convincing coastline takes some practice. The same goes folktales. Most people will recognise a folktale quickly by reading just a few lines. It is the particular use of words, content-matter and style that makes the genre recognisable. When the story is recognised as a folktale certain expectations about its narrative structure can be made. Folktales have particular and predictable ways of developing and ending. However, this does not harm the pleasure of reading such stories in any way. In fact these aspect of storytelling goes for a great many of genres

We like to believe that we watch films or read books exactly because we do not know the story or how it will end, but this is only partly true. We often know that the hero is not going to die. Fans of horror films will often be able to make accurate guesses of who will live or die after only a few minutes. After all: "it cannot possibly be the right course of action in a Hollywood blockbuster if it wipes out the stars" [9: 88]. We often end up retelling the same story. It is not the plot that matters much; it is the process of the telling that makes it worthwhile. As Atkins puts it: "The satisfaction of such stories, at least at the level of discrete plot fragment, rests not in matter of plot sophistication, but in matters of sophistication of telling. The question is never will the prince overcome the dragon but how will the prince overcome the dragon?" [9: 43]. The retelling of old (mythical, biblical) stories is often applauded in literature, drama and cinema. Why shouldn’t it be good enough for games? Especially as games are particular good at creating telling tailored to the taste of the individual player, giving such a tale much more personal significance.

Working towards a pre-defined (if not pre-designed) goals is a common strategy among those role-players that design their own stories. Knowledge of the fantasy genre will help the players to guess the general shape of the story. In fact, The Lord of Rings helped shape many fantasy adventures to the extend that finding a particular artefact and finding out how to deal with it has become a common structure in many role-playing adventures. As long as the storyteller and the players (subconsciously) work towards the same goal, such a goal confines the game as effectively as a map in a story-world structure. The basic structure of the quest, where not the goal but the path towards it is the biggest beneficiary of the hero, is highly compatible with this structure.

The idea behind the fractal story can solve some problems of interactive narratives. It has often been argued that a good story depends on authorial control which cannot be combined with freedom of action. The structures of narrative storytelling discussed above cannot solve this dilemma entirely. The plot tree is too restrictive, the story-world often lacks strong narrative developments and the rail quickly turns into a frustrating experience when the illusion of freedom is broken. The fractal story can be seen, to some extend, as taking a position somewhere between the story-world and the rail. Like the rail it has a fixed destination, although this destination is less defined, but unlike the rail the path towards the goal is not fixed. Like the story-world it offers freedom to the players, but its boundaries are not determined by the ‘edges on the map’ but by a common goal and direction. Most likely the destination of a story is defined by the conventions of the genre. In a fantasy setting we expect the protagonists to be heroes, and since most of them do not start out as one, it is the path of becoming a hero that is the true story being told. A very extreme form is the imminent death of the hero in a classic tragedy.

A common destination of the story is the only way we can truly blur the boundary between reader and author in narrative games and this becomes a lot easier when the player knows what is expected and the storyteller knows what the player expects. Likewise, when a plot structure is known beforehand, players can experiment with different motivations that drive the plot forward. It makes it easier for the storyteller to allow the player to create those "well-turned phrases" and "elegant sentences", too [1: 44].

Still the destination of a fractal story can be reached under different conditions, changing the relevance or meaning of the destination dramatically. The film Hero offers a good illustration of this point. In Hero the same story is told again and again. The climax of the story is always the same: a duel between the nameless hero and a character called Flying Snow. However, because the events leading up to this scene change a little with each telling the emotion that drives the scene changes – from jalousie, to love and honour – giving the scene a new poetic significance with each iteration. Stories thus constructed have the power to change ones perception of certain events by offering multiple viewpoints (which would be high on my list of functions of literature or art in general). Games can do this as well. It allows a player to approach the same story from different angles by replaying, or these different perspectives can be incorporated in a game in different episodes. Imagine a game where you are required to kill a certain antagonist, and in the next sequence playing the role of the antagonist through the events that build up to his death.

One basis on which the fractal story works is that most interactive storytelling is an co-operative activity. The story is confined by self-set paida rules [6: 230] or laws of drama set by the story’s style and genre [4: 263-264]. Most players are prepared to work with each other, the game-master / game, taking latter’s lead. Just as a good game-master / game takes care to involve all the players and to ‘give them what they want’. This does not necessarily mean that she should be easy on the players, only that she is to provide the type of fun they all agreed on by playing a particular game, whether it is the quasi-mythical heroics of high-fantasy dungeon gaming or the gothic horror of playing modern-day vampires. Players and storytellers strive after closely aligned goals: the creation of interesting narrative game experiences. Games designers should do well to design a story so that it progresses to a fixed point but allows the player enough freedom of expression to breath life into the story, and change it into a personal and significant tale.

However this also is the weakness of the fractal story. No real contract is signed by the players or storyteller. Sometimes players will have different ideas of what is expected from them, sometimes storytellers cannot adjust to the wishes of her players. In a game of set in the Star Wars universe the kinaesthetic pleasures of the deep-space chase might be
the essential aspect for the player, but if the storyteller only wants to expand on the quasi-mystical of the Jedi-tradition their expectations might conflict. Like-wise, playing a deranged vampire who thinks he is a character in a cartoon because he is immortal and insists on smashing everything with an oversized-hammer is fun to some. It can harm a carefully prepared campaign about the dark-romantic love between a mortal and a vampire.


Plot trees are restrictive modes of interactive storytelling. Narrative games which combine simulation of a narrative game-world and with significant ways of player expression are much more successful modes of story-telling. Player expression can be limited to only a few commands as long as the ways these commands can be combined and interact with the simulated world can accommodate a certain level of complexity. In such games players are stimulated to immerse themselves into the gaming world.

The fractal story combines the strengths of two common and successful types of interactive stories: the story-world and the railroading story. Assuming that the players and the storyteller are co-operating in creating a compelling story, we can use that knowledge to structure the game and focus the narrative development. In such games it is not a causal plot that drives the story but the expression and significance particular players bring to it. For computer games this means that they can deliver a good story as long as they give the player room to contribute to it. Narrative depth in such games does not depend on having many different endings but on the quality and variety of expressions that can emerge from each individual ‘play’.


  1. Atkins, Barry More than a Game, The Computer Game as Fictional Form. Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK, 2003.

  2. Chomsky, Noam Syntactic Structures. Mouton, The Hague, The Netherlands, 1957.

  3. Church, Doug "Formal Abstract Design Tools" on Gamasutra, 1999. Available at http://www.gamasutra.com/features/19990716/design_tools_01.htm

  4. Crawford, Chris "Interactive Storytelling" in Mark J. P. Wolf & Bernard Perron (eds.) The Video Game Theory Reade. Routledge, New York, USA, 2003, 259-273.

  5. DeMaria, Rusel & Johnny L. Wilson High Score! The illustrated history of electronic games, Second Edition. McGraw Hill, New York, USA, 2004.

  6. Frasca, Gonzalo "Simulation versus Narrative" in Mark J. P. Wolf & Bernard Perron (eds.) The Video Game Theory Reader. Routledge, New York, USA, 2004, 221-235.

  7. Hall, Justin "The State of Church: Doug Church and the Death of PC Gaming and Future of Defining Gameplay", Gamasutra, 2004. Available at http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20041123/hall_01.shtml

  8. Jenkins, Henry "Game Design as Narrative Architecture", 2002. Available at http://web.mit.edu/21fms/www/faculty/henry3/games&narrative.htm

  9. King, Geoff Spectacular Narratives, Hollywood in the Age of the Blockbuster. I.B. Tauris Publishers, London, UK, 2000.

  10. Poole, Steven Trigger Happy, The Inner Life of Videogames. Fourth Estate, London, UK, 2000.

  11. Ryan, Marie-Laure Narrative as Virtual Reality, Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, USA, 2001.

  12. Smith, Harvey "The Future of Game Design: Moving Beyond Deus Ex and Other Dated Paradigms", 2001. On Igda.org. lt;http://www.igda.org/articles/hsmith_future.php>

  13. Stephenson, Neal The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. Bantam Spectra, New York, USA, 1995.

Joris Dormans is an independent game scholar, lecturer of game design at the College of Amsterdam and freelance designer.

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