Understanding Video Games text-book
Narrative and Interactivity

Date posted: May 18, 2006
Updated: Oct 23, 2006

By Tomas Rawlings

This article aims to examine the concepts of interactivity and narrative and why, where and how developers can harness their power to make engaging games. First things first though; I feel it will help to chart the boundaries of this discussion by defining both of these words:

Narrative (Noun): A narrated account; a story. The art, technique, or process of narrating.

Interactive (Adjective) Acting or capable of acting on each other.

This sets the first important difference. Narrative is not a passive concept, indeed it does require action from the audience to fill in the blanks, for example; using clues, stereotypes and inferences to fully construct the plot. An example of this would be the famous ear cutting scene from ‘Reservoir Dogs’ where the actual torture is not shown on screen, only inferred by the camera angles and audio cues. But this process, no matter how complex or subtle the construction clues provided to the audience are, is one way. In contrast, interactivity, is a two-way process. The audience can influence the flow/shape of events and in doing so the audience becomes a user, and a player.

It is also worth considering that both can exist independently from one another. Most narrative consumed in society is one-way and non-interactive, this includes most films, books and TV. Interactivity too can exist in this ‘pure’ from; computer games such as ‘Tetris’ and ‘Tony Hawk’s Skateboarding’ are example of such an idea - they
are pure interactive entertainment, unencumbered by any narrative considerations.

The Overlap of Interactivity and Narrative
To use interactivity and narrative together the creator must search for a territory in which they overlap. In a zone where narrative can be interactive. But if the two are successful independently, why search for overlap? The main reason is because narrative is a powerful tool for interactivity; Script writer Bill Johnson remarked that “…stories promise experiences of life having meaning, a story fills a basic human need that life have purpose. All stories, then, from the simple to the complex, revolve around some issue that arises from the human need to experience that life have a discernible meaning and purpose.” In essence stories have the ability to make the interactivity vital, compelling and relevant to us as human beings.

A good way of examining this idea further is to look at the ideas in Joseph Campbell’s the ‘Masks of God’. Campbell’s work examined the primal myths of hundreds of cultures in order to distil the ideas common to all humanity. He identified a series of important areas that all myths cover. These ideas were popularised when director George Lucas used them during the writing of ‘Star Wars’.

Firstly, we need to consider the idea of ‘Separation’: “Most stories take place in two worlds, the story will begin in the ordinary world. Here the rules of this ordinary world are established. Also here, the hero/heroine decides or has the decision forced upon him/her that he/she must leave the ordinary world and enter a special world. These two worlds can be physical locations, spiritual or mental states or both!”

This idea lends itself to interactivity in a big way. For example, the creator can treat the ‘ordinary world’ as a non-interactive one and the ’special world’ or movements between different worlds can be a function of interactivity (a technique used to good effect in games such as ‘Soul Reaver: The Legend of Cain’). Games such a ‘Doom’, ‘Resident Evil’ and ‘Quake’ literary place the user in a ’special world’ inhabited by demons and monsters, while the first-person perspective, the recognisable weapons and so on are remnants of the ‘ordinary world’.

Secondly, and very importantly is the idea of ‘Characters’: “When people look to any visual or literature medium, they look for characters they can identify with. This can take the form of feeling akin to them, mapping on to the character traits they wish they possessed or even seeing somebody whom they despise. Either way people see aspects they can
recognize within these characters and so are draw into the world you are creating.”

Campbell identified the Hero/Heroine as the central and most active character, prepared to sacrifice. Heroes/Heroines in games often become the focus of the interactivity and as such, act as an avatar for the player. Skilful use of character can build-in all the human feelings we attribute to the characters of our choice, directly into both the narrative and
interaction; the narrative can advance the situations the character is in, while interaction can grow the character in the direction the player wishes to develop.

Character is a powerful tool for interaction. In the words of scriptwriter Allen White, “One of the best kinds of traits you can give a character is one that will create the maximum amount of conflict given the circumstances. For example, strictly from a perspective of dramatic conflict, who would you rather see have the very first formal contact with space aliens — a seasoned diplomat, or a loud-mouthed insensitive jerk? Or who would you rather see try to find the perfect mate via a series of blind dates — a suave seducer, or a bumbling, slovenly crackpot who constantly spouts theories of government mind-control?”

Games are full of well-known characters, Lara Croft, Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario to name but a few. To fully appreciate an interactive work with character and interactivity interwoven beautifully, examine the Dreamcast game ‘Shenmue’. This game offers a whole city for the player to explore that is full of everyday details the player can explore and yet has a strong guiding narrative that links the action together; to quote AVault’s review: “Shenmue succeeds at creating a breathing world in which the potential for interaction is enormous. Time flows naturally, as Yokosuka’s inhabitants go about their daily lives and the weather patterns shift, serving to immerse the player completely in the most accurate representation of an urban landscape ever to grace a home console. Along with breathtaking cityscapes
and an inspired direction that reaches new heights of realism and intricate detail, the gripping storyline and unique setting provide for the most compelling game in recent memory.”

Further Examples
To underline the points being made I´ll give two examples of games (on the same platform) with their respective strengths and I´ll also seek to examine where I believe they failed to fully marry the two concepts.

Metal Gear Solid is, I believe, one of the most perfectly constructed examples of interactivity available. For those that don´t know (and why don´t you?) the game concerns special forces agent Solid Snake as he foils the plans of a desperate band of terrorists. Every aspect of the characters interaction with the environment blends perfectly with the game´s ´Tactical Espionage Action´ ethos. Examples include: the rapid button press to break a guard´s neck, a hidden Solid Snake tapping on the wall to attract an enemy´s attention, and the controller-swapping moment when facing the telekinetic powers of the evil Psycho Mantis.

What about narrative? It´s true that the movie-like opening sequences, strong characters and ongoing plot are important elements of the game, but here is where I think it doesn´t achieve it´s full potential. There is an attempt to create friction between the various characters but by their very comic-book nature it´s hard to sympathise with them and so engage with the dialogue. The plot with its nuclear-armed robots and super-evil villains makes an interesting backdrop for the game but never really comes alive. Maybe something is lost in translation, but even the name of the terrorists; ´Fox Hound´ conjures more images of rural wildlife that it does fanatical killers.

On the flip side there is Silent Hill. On an interactive level it´s no innovator; the level interface with the environment is standard fare. Where the game comes alive, however, is in it´s narrative. It skilfully applies the ´two worlds´ theory mentioned previously and has recognisable and realist characters. The horror scenario is one imaginable to most people; being stranded in a ghostly town, the anxiety of a missing child and the fear of the unknown. The game has a genuine story that thrills, scares and most importantly motivates the player to discover more.

Narrative and interactivity are not areas solely confined to computer games, an example of this kind of work can be seen in Mark Amerika’s ´Grammatron´ or in books such as the ‘Fighting Fantasy’ series where the reader, when prompted, makes a choice then turns to the appropriate page to find out the result of their choice. However, it is the technology of computers that allows a designer, artist of filmmaker to weave much more with interactivity through their technological power. As such the ideas of narrative can consistently be found in computer games, as academic Jesper Juul notes, “But surprisingly, modern action-games like Doom or Unreal - the former famous for its lack of a storyline - have adopted some strategies from the narrative, especially the pause, for creating variations in speed.”

Narrative can be interactive, but for the two to work together and not jar, for they are as has been established, different concepts, care must be taken in the design of both the narrative and the interactivity. There are areas where the two overlap comfortably, just as there are areas where the two will conflict - and it is exploring these areas that new areas of creativity will be discovered.

Web links to all the areas mentioned can be found at:

Tomas is a designer at Pivotal Games

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