Narrative. The scenes or vignettes that create a collage of emotions that once connected in the player’s mind create the story. The N in my A to Z of Gamification leads us to the importance of narrative. There’s still an on-going debate about the degree to which the video games genre can or needs to provide storytelling alongside gameplay. The difficulties with integrating narrative with gameplay lies along a spectrum, that sets at one end the need to create a sequence of events that make up a story vs. the agency and immersion a player expects from gameplay. Treating these two as only resolvable by the cut-scenes of an explicit narrative, doesn’t really work in gamification and risks missing out on interesting and more integrated ways of using other forms of narratives to create personal experiences.
The Story in the game: Explicit Narrative
Here the story is brought to life via characters and emotional touch-points created via cut-scenes and/or what is being rather sexily called “Ludonarrative”
aspects of video game storytelling that are controlled by the player. It is contrasted with fixed or embedded narrative which are the purely narrative, non-interactive aspects of the game
Cut-scenes and improved voice-acting have gradually improved in games, increasing the effectiveness of this form of narration. Over the last year, there have also been great examples of games that are favouring environmental cues and timed-interactions to tell their stories. These stories are all similar in that they are part of the experience designed tightly within the game and their failure or success is down to how artfully they have been scripted and integrated it with the requisite gameplay.
The Story of how we played: Emergent Narrative
However, looking beyond the story crafted within the game itself and how it bleeds into the bigger player experience, here is where you’ll find some of the most memorable stories of our triumphs and near deaths. The laughter or the screams shared in moments alone or with friends whilst playing a game. These stories comes from the gameplay and this kind of narrative can be as important as the stories within the games themselves. For XCOM, an alien fighting strategy game and one of my favourite games of the last few years, it was the design choices to allow you to name and customise your team of soldiers, to then have the possibility of permanent death that made the game for me. By getting players to invest themselves in the action and through this fill in the gaps to create their own narrative, it creates a personalised experience. Whilst this may not be written scene by scene by a traditional writer, these experiences are no less designed in.
My Story: Internal Narrative
The third and final narrative is one of identity and is closely linked to the player journey. Furthest from the direct control of the game designer, it is nevertheless an important part of narrative in games as a medium, precisely because any medium which requires our active engagement over time has the potential to transform us. This is not to say books and movies, don’t have this ability, but the added call and response from a player moment to moment brings it that much closer to potentially affecting our internal narratives. In a research study, participants asked to recount a personal narrative, they were found to follow seven constructs:
- Redemption from bad to good via a sacrifice, recovery, growth or learning.
- Contamination: from good to bad. Victimization, betrayal, loss, failure, illness/injury, disappointment, or disillusionment.
- Agency: knowing I can affect my own life through four possible pathways: self-mastery, status/victory, achievement/ responsibility and empowerment
- Communion: how I came to love and be loved, and understand my connection to others and the world
- Exploratory narrative processing: Getting to know oneself
- Coherent positive resolution: I can get through tough times
- Meaning Making: the moral of the story is, could range from no reflection, a concrete lesson through to deeper insight
The gamification solutions, which excite me are the ones I see linking and blending these 3 forms of narrative. When we participate in an alternate reality game, create mythical beasts in order to reach a fitness goal or solve puzzles for science, our chance to affect not just the challenge in front of us, but our own internal narratives becomes wonderfully blurred.