The Challenges of Interactive Storytelling

This semester, I took a class on gaming. We studied the evolution of games and learned about gameplay structure, but what fascinated me most was the possibilities of interactive storytelling. A love of story is wired into human psychology, so it's exciting for me to see that played out in the growing world of gaming as well.

However, it's extremely difficult to maintain a consistent theme in gaming narrative. What's unique about the medium is that the burden of storytelling is shared between the game creators and the players themselves. Game designer and educator Marc LeBlanc came up with some useful terms to describe this, calling the designer's story the "embedded narrative" and the player's story the "emergent narrative."

As you can imagine, the best games connect both narratives - but it's extremely complicated to find the right balance. One of the biggest challenges is that when players are given choices, it creates branching narratives that exponentially complicate the game design. With so many options, it’s nearly impossible to keep a consistent theme or even a predictable character arc.

Linear Narrative versus Branching Narrative
Linear Narrative versus Branching Narrative

As a result, game designers have learned to make the trade-off between storytelling and interactivity. Some games focus on the embedded narrative, with little input from the players. But game design blogger Alexander Freed describes how a lack of player input “can damage or destroy the empathetic relationship between player and player character, as control, once the keystone of the story experience, is wrested away...” When games don’t deliver on the promise of interactivity, the players are disappointed, regardless of how compelling the story arc may be. Other games offer little story at all, placing the burden of the emergent narrative entirely on players. These games might have difficulty keeping the attention and investment of their players, with little motivation to accomplish the tasks of the game.

Another problem arises when the embedded narrative and the gameplay don’t match up thematically. This is called ludonarrative dissonance, a term coined by game designer Clint Hocking in a blog post he wrote critiquing Bioshock: the game “seems to suffer from a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story. By throwing the narrative and ludic elements of the work into opposition, the game seems to openly mock the player for having believed in the fiction of the game at all."

The point is that both the story and the gameplay communicate a message, so both need to be carefully considered when designing a game. So how do we infuse great gameplay with a meaningful story? Join me next time for a few possibilities.