Notes on Interactive Narrative

Interactive Narrative

In order to create meaningful narrative in games, we first need a set of vocabulary and ideas with which to discuss different aspects of interactive experience. Here I have complied the most useful terminology from notes I have taken over the last year. Significant credit should go out to George Johnson and the other students in Interactive Story class last spring, though the specific definitions here are my own and their views are not necessarily reflected here.

Often it is confusing what Story actually refers to in games. Does it mean the explicit plot and characters in the game? Does it meant the world or IP the game is based on? Does it mean the actions and experiences of a player? There are solid arguments for Story meaning any one of those things, and indeed all of these are forms of Story. With such a broad and non-specific term there can be no detailed discussion of narrative in games, as so we must think of Story as two distinct parts: Plot and Narrative Context. This division is different from the separation between structure and texture in film due to the separation between interactivity and linear story structure.


Plot includes the specific sequence of events required to move a player through the game. In most cases this should be as limited as possible as this is the non-interactive portion of the Narrative Experience. In Super Mario Brothers Plot is limited to the background story outlined in the manual and short cut-scenes in each castle. This is also called the Explicit Story.

Narrative Context

Narrative Context includes all narrative elements that are not specifically Plot. This is where the world building takes place, where the backdrop to the Narrative Experience is created. As Narrative Context includes many different elements, it is divided into three unique layers:

Setting – The location, time, and genre of the story. The setting contextualizes both the narrative events and the mechanics of the game. For example, in Call of Duty 4 the player understands the basic rules of the game and how the mechanics work because they are placed into a context familiar to the player through other media experiences.
Depth – The Depth layer provides additional information about core Plot elements, but is not part of the core sequence of events. Elements in the Depth layer build the world out beyond a standard genre piece into a fully realized environment for the player to explore.
Flavor – Elements that enhance the world but do not relate to the core Plot. Side-quests, which do not tie back into the main conflict of the game, would fall into this category.

Through these three layers, Narrative Context expands upon a genre or setting by creating depth and meaning in the game-world. This is often done through journals, posters, or bit characters the player can discover through exploration. The idea of sprinkling little bits of narrative around the game environment can be see in many modern FPS games such as BioShock and Half-Life 2.

The separation of gameplay from narrative present in most games means in any one game we normally have at least 2 genres. The first is the Gameplay Genre, which categorizes the mechanics of the game (FPS, RPG, Puzzle Game, etc). The second is the Story Genre, which includes the setting and style of the narrative (Sci-Fi, Historical War, Pirates, etc). Story Genre is important, because it forms the base of Narrative Context.

Narrative Experience
The Narrative Experience is the whole of the storytelling that takes place during gameplay. The game may tell a traditional linear story, the user may tell a friend how he/she completed a section, or the player may create a story all of his/her own based on elements of the Narrative Context. These are just examples, as we are just beginning to look at how meaningful narrative can be created in games, it is hard to place limits on what can be considered a narrative experience.

Meaningful Choice
While the interactive nature of games makes choice seem like a natural element of their narratives, creating meaningful decision points has proven very challenging for the industry. In order for a choice to be meaningful it must have these elements:

Substantive effects – The choice must have a meaningful impact on the experience of the player and the outcome of the game, both mechanically and narratively.
Emotional involvement – For a choice to have meaning the player must be invested in the outcome of the decision.
Visibility – For the effects to be substantive and the player to be invested, they must know a choice is being made. A decision loses meaning if the player does not know he/she is making one.

Good storytelling can be a way of infusing some emotional connection into choices without such components.

Implicit Story
Implicit story comes from indirect storytelling, narrative hints which the user then pieces together. These hints are normally given through elements of Narrative Context, but these elements are NOT the Implicit Story, but rather the catalyst for Implicit Story. The Implicit Story is the narrative a player builds in his/her head based upon narrative hints discovered through exploration. While Implicit Story is present in all forms of media, it is the native story-telling mechanism for games because it enhances the depth of player experience while not forcefully interrupting gameplay. The required user action of Implicit Story gives the player an element of ownership, which is important to creating the emotional investment needed for Meaningful Choice.

Emergent Story
Emergent Story is the most elusive form of narrative in games, because the creator has no direct control over it, and the granularity of control in interactive storytelling is not yet (and may never be) that refined. Emergent Story is the story of playing the game, the retelling of experience by a player outside of the game. With a totally linear game, there will be almost no significant Emergent Story created because all players will have essentially the same experience. Choice in strategy or approach, rather than in narrative choice, is key to enabling significant Emergent Story. The separation between Implicit Story and Emergent Story is tricky, and the second may be a subset of the other. Implied Story is created primarily through the player experiencing Narrative Context elements and forming a narrative within the setting of the game-world. Emergent Story is created primarily through players experiencing the mechanics of the game, and while the story may be in the Setting of the game narrative, it does not directly relate to the overall explicit Plot.