Narrative Leeway In Games

I have been thinking of something I am calling Narrative Leeway (the amount the plot is allowed to deviate from a predefined story), and I think I have finally condensed my thoughts down into something sensible. This all started when I was playing Heavy Rain a few weeks ago, and I am going to throw a spoiler warning here, I don’t go into details, but you have been warned!

Narrative choice is something most everyone in gaming thinks would be wonderful, but no one really knows how to implement. Indeed, this problem is doubly difficult, not only does adding choice to games require either additional content or addition gameplay systems, but telling stories through games is hard. Movies only have to entertain for 2 hours, and the pacing is mostly controlled, games can take over a day of playtime, spread over weeks or months. When a game IS able to tell a compelling story, as with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, the game community is impressed. While Uncharted 2 was one of the best games of 2009, structurally the narrative was no different from the tradition linear stories we have been trying to cram into games forever.

Linear Narrative Progression in Film and Games (Historically)

Since the days of the arcade, game story has been crammed between linear game levels, with little deep connection between the two. Modern games as the aforementioned Uncharted and others such as Gears of War, Final Fantasy, and Metal Gear Solid, have just gotten really good at making the transition between game and story as seamless as possible. A game which claims to buck this trend is Heavy Rain, by Quantic Dream. Now, much as been said online about the quality of the narrative in Heavy Rain, and while that impacts the play experience, here I want to focus on the structure as I did above with Uncharted 2. I propose that the narrative leeway looks like an inverted funnel, channeling the player down a limited path to an ending with far wider branching.

Heavy Rain Narrative Leeway

This observation is based upon my discussions with other players and my observation of a second play-through of the game. Whenever I recount my experience playing through the story, the part which deviates from others experience the most is how the ending of the game plays out. Before the ending scene there is limited interaction between the main characters, isolating their narrative from the actions of the player is 3/4 of the other chapters. During most of the game, a player can miss content in a scene, or end things slightly differently, but this never changes the order or tone of the following scenes (with the exception of character death, which is possible, but only in a few sections, and even then, it is hard to die), meaning the plot always stays close to the core story crafted in David Cage’s head. One possible reason for widening the possibility space at the end of the game is because nothing has to come afterwards, the game is about to end and these branches don’t have to be very deep. Another is that endings are valued by both the player and creators. Any time we talk about branching and choice, the number of possible endings comes up. An example of this obsession is the brilliant but flawed Blade Runner by Westwood Studios, packing 13 separate endings, but with a linear buildup, much like Heavy Rain.

I believe this focus on endings needs to stop for several reasons:

  1. Game are historically bad at endings, building up to a single climax worthy of 20+ hours of narrative is hard, doing it 2,3 or 13 times is almost impossible.
  2. The ending comes at the end. If players want to shape the narrative, they probably don’t want to wait till the end to do it.
    • In fact, there is this problem where a lot of players never get to the end.

Rather than focus all this energy on creating different endings, I would propose looking at ways to expand the sense of freedom during the early stages of the game. The closer the game gets to conclusion, the more locked down the narrative gets, but this is OK because tension is rising and the player is going to be focusing on that and not exploring the world, which he/she has already had hours and hours to explore. This structure would look more like a proper funnel, allowing the player lots of freedom at the start, while at the same time always moving them toward a defined ending.

This is not an original structural design, but one I think is overlooked in narrative discussions because it doesn’t work well in film or literature. The genre which this is most at home in is the open world sandbox game, most modern GTA games can be fit into this model. One of the strongest examples of this concept is Deadly Premonition, which, while flawed as a game, is well crafted as a game narrative. It is able to follow this model by giving the player a large open world, but then constricting the area that is safe to travel in as the narrative progresses. Deadly Premonition inspired this little rant, and for that reason alone, I would recommend checking it out. Another game which I have not played YET but looks to have a similar open world/developed story combo is Yakuza 3.

In our quest for better story in games, we should perhaps look at examples great storytelling in games, and try to expand on that rather than continue to steal from other media so much. The stories games are good at telling may not be the same as ones in film, but let’s look at what makes games unique first, and get to the culturally significant part later.

This all leads into a discussion of what gives a narrative depth, which I hope to post later this week.

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  1. By Narrative Volume on March 24, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    […] this structure (many of my favorite games do not), but when paired with the funnel concept of my Narrative Leeway post, I think this forms a good basis for creating an open-world narrative […]

  2. By Golf Grip on March 25, 2010 at 6:11 am

    […] Narrative Leeway In Games […]

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    Seth Marinello, game designer

    I began gaming in the early 90's during the heyday of PC shareware gaming. Somewhere during my Computer Science undergraduate studies I became interested not just in playing games, but creating them as well. I completed my Masters of Digital Media degree at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver, B.C. I am now a level designer at Visceral Games is my online notebook and portfolio. Here you will find my thoughts and presentations on gaming as well as the projects I have worked on during my studies.
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