What Is Narrative in Video Games?
19 Jul, 2020
I’ve been making video games for the last three years, as well as have been writing for decades, which has made me think about how narrative is viewed differently in video games than in other media. Let’s talk What Is Narrative in Video Games?
What Is Narrative in Video Games?
The primary difference between video game narrative and all others, of course, is choice. In a book, you follow along as a character does things, while in a video game, you as the player control the character. You can often make choices that move the narrative in very different directions. This is a huge! (And it makes video game narrative very interesting to me as someone who both programs and writes.)
I wanted to use a few blog posts to discuss narrative in video games (when it’s important, why it’s important) as well as to give some ideas as to handle choice in video games.
What is narrative?
To start, what is narrative in general? Narrative is a chain of causal events (e.g. a thing happens that causes something else to happen). Most good narratives are due to a character wanting something and having to do something to obtain it, with consequences if they fail.
A simple example of this might be Cinderella. Cinderella wants to go to the ball. To do so, she needs a dress. She makes one (step one towards achieving goal), but her evil step-sisters destroy it. She cries under a tree until her fairy godmother arrives and gives her a new dress, along with a coach and horses. She arrives at the ball (goal obtained. If she failed, she would never have gone to the ball, which would also mean she would never have met Prince Charming, fallen in love, and lived happily ever after. The consequence is that, instead of her getting a happy ending, she’s stuck slaving away for her step-sisters forever.)
And the casual chain is Cinderella wants to go to ball --> so she makes dress --> dress is destroyed --> so she gets help from godmother --> can go to ball --> meets prince --> marries prince --> lives happily ever after. Each step is dependent upon the one before it.
What is videogame narrative?
So what is narrative in a video game? It’s literally just any story (narrative) that is being told through the medium of the game. Does it have to exist in games? No. Some games, such as “Tetris”, have literally no narrative. The blocks fall. Why do they fall? Why do you want to line them up correctly? Is there a purpose to your task? You can ask these questions, but the game in no way demands that you do so (or provides any answers to any questions you might ask).
Most games have some kind of narrative, though. I’m going to define these as low, medium, and high narrative games. For a low narrative game, the narrative doesn’t matter much. You can ignore the story and not really miss much. Think of the original “Super Mario Brothers”. Super Mario does have a goal (to save the princess) and a way of accomplishing it (jump on blocks until he reaches a castle and eventually defeats Bowser). But you could ignore this and focus on the block jumping and not really be any worse off.
A number of other games have a bit more narrative, but it’s not a Big Deal. Think of “Myst”, for example. A story is being told (a good one at that!), but a player could concentrate solely on the puzzles and be pretty content with the game. Similarly, “World of Warcraft” has a number of stories (some as one off quests, some as overarching plots) that some players love. Others ignore them all together. The narrative enhances the game, but arguably isn’t necessary for enjoyment.
Narrative driven games
Finally there are games that are entirely narrative based. Visual novels often have no gameplay other than narrative; there’s literally no point to playing one without a story. Other games also would be really boring to play if you didn’t read the text/listen to the voice over. Without its poignant narrative, “Gone Home” would literally just be about clicking on objects until something opened. The same goes for “What Became of Edith Finch”, where you’d literally just be waving a mouse around and staring at random pictures without a narrative to put the pictures in context.
So while narrative is generally found in most games, it’s not necessary for certain types of games. Platformers, puzzle games, and first person shooters can generally do without much in the way of narrative (although even these games may be enhanced by it – “Mass Effect” is a first person shooter that derives most of its charm from its narrative), while visual novels and point and click adventure games are pointless without it.
In my next post, I’ll explain about different types of choices that can be added to video games and gives some suggestions as to how to best incorporate choice into video game narratives.
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