Narrative Volume

Thinking over narrative leeway got me thinking about the volume of narrative in an experience. The narrative volume of a work is a combination of the depth of characters, world and story. Often this is thought of as having a deep story, one which the audience gains a deeper understanding of through repeat experiences or reflection, but I choose to think of it as volume rather than just depth. Limiting the analysis of narrative to a single axis is not logical when thinking of narrative in a larger sense. A rich narrative can be created in many ways, and the same strategy can have different levels of effectiveness in different mediums.

In many cases, a rich narrative is created by having a complex main character and focusing on the intricacies of that person’s journey. Supporting characters will occasionally have depth, but more often than not are just a part of the evolution of the main character. The films I have screened for CG&FN recently fall into this category, Heaven and Dog Day Afternoon are both very focused tales, with the world as a backdrop for the main characters. This focus results in a story with a narrow breadth, but expansive depth, much like a well.

For static media this system works very well, the audience needs a character to follow and become invested in, change is easier to show when you are following an individual. With few exceptions (the films of Robert Altman comes to mind), most films and books do not feature an ensemble cast. In contrast to film, this approach does not work for most games because the main character is not fully under the control of the narrative. Creating a protagonist which the player does not exert some level of control over pulls the attention off of the player’s input and thus undermines the value of the interaction. A solution which RPG designers have long used is created a world filled with character, each of which has a relatively small amount of narrative. This creates a narrative that is very broad, but not particularly deep at any one point. There can be the same or more narrative volume, but less concentrated into individual characters.

Unlike the well of narrative above, this structure looks more like a lake in which the player can swim around. This encourages exploration and by placing narrative content within characters out of the players direct control, we avoid limiting the player actions to do world-building. Another advantage of this approach is that this narrative content is optional, providing the depth for explorers and not getting in the way of other players. This is not to say all games should use 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 experience.

I think this is generally understood intuitively by those working in the games industry, but explicitly  categorizing successfully approaches is the only way to gain the understanding required to move narrative in interactive media forward.

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  • About

    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

    Altereddreams.net 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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