Creating Compelling Interactive Narratives

In my last post, we talked about the challenges of interactive storytelling. How do game designers strike a balance between great gameplay and meaningful narrative without compromising either element? Let’s start by looking at some basic principles of storytelling.

Last semester, I read an excellent book on narrative: Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald. Although the book's main focus is screenwriting, its principles are relevant to stories in any medium.

The first idea McDonald presents is that of “masculine” and “feminine” story lines. He describes external story elements as masculine, and internal elements as feminine: “Things that affect a character physically are masculine and visible ink. How he feels about them are feminine and invisible." It’s easy to see that masculine story elements tend to lend themselves to gaming: they are easy to embed into an interactive structure. But McDonald continues, “If you can strike a balance between these two elements, your story stands a better chance of resonating with audiences." Players will end up being more invested in what happens to the character. Thus, by developing the internal story arc as well, game designers can easily add another layer of depth to the narrative. 

McDonald also introduces the concept of “armature,” which he considers to be the foundation of story: “the armature is the idea upon which we hang our story...armature is what is called, in children’s fables, ‘the moral.’ The armature is your point. Your story is sculpted around this point." Every character and supporting plot in the story should explore the theme, dramatizing different aspects of it and ultimately drawing a conclusion. This idea transfers easily to game design. Major plot points, secondary characters and even side excursions can be designed to reflect different aspects of the theme.

Some games have already used this approach with success. For example, the platform adventure game, The Cave, has an armature that could be stated as “No matter how perfect a person may seem on the surface, everyone has a fatal flaw.” As you play through each level of the game, the dark secrets of each seemingly innocent character come to light. The armature is demonstrated in every level, each of which is tailored to one of the seven characters.

This approach does have a weakness, though. While the theme is communicated clearly, the player loses some control over the story. The first time I played The Cave, I felt cheated because I was forced to commit an atrocity in order to win the game. But the game designers made their point – and a compelling one, at that. 

So how do we focus the theme of the story while still inviting players to participate? Game design blogger Alexander Freed takes a slightly different stance than McDonald. While McDonald requires writers to draw a specific conclusion, Freed chooses to pose a question instead. This allows for multiple answers – and more interactivity. Freed says that it’s possible to design games with multiple options, while maintaining a focused theme: “You've got a clear set of themes and ideas to build decisions around. You've got some clear end points for the player character, any of which could be natural consequences of player actions. You've got a bit of middle ground to work with – your protagonist isn't required to be a saint or demon, but can fall somewhere in-between." In this model, the player gets to decide. In fact, the player is forced to make the decision. Rather than the game designers taking a stance on the theme, players can come to their own conclusions.

As games continue to develop, the opportunities for narrative and thematic exploration will continue to expand. And as technology advances, I'm excited to see the possibilities for more intricate branching narratives. I hope more games delve deeply into the meaningful dialogue that is possible between designers and players. 

Do you know of any games that strike a good balance between theme and gameplay?