Role of Narrative in Gameplay

Andrew has a fantastic question up. Towards the end, he actually completely changes subjects, but I think it’s important to start at the beginning. He asks:

I keep thinking about what it is that narrative does. I’m not especially interested in the ‘effects’ of narrative on the player so much as the ‘function’ of narrative. That is, what role does narrative have in the process of playing of a game?

What indeed! After a quick brainstorm:

  • A framework and metaphor for expectations that creates predictable system reactions
  • Goal communication
  • Immersion expectations and world impacts leading to long term investment
  • A skeleton to build post-play reflection around
  • Rules that can be explored

Of these, these, the first 3 we are great at, the 4th we do ok, and the last, well. While the role-playing conversation games have used the player’s understanding of narrative structure to do morality games and plays (Ultima IV, Bioware, etc), only a few games have let players play with the narrative structure itself. Obviously Facade comes to mind, and I’m sure there’s a few more. But it has yet to catch on in the mainstream, and until (or unless) it does, narrative seems likely to remain only in a feedback role, thus a non-interactive role.


3 thoughts on “Role of Narrative in Gameplay

  1. Rather conveniently, I find myself in a position to test any hypothesis about the function of game narrative you care to suggest. I’m playing through Defense Grid: The Awakening with a central narrative element (in the game narrator) missing due to a DirectX bug preventing sound from working (which Microsoft has not fixed in nearly a year). How does this affect the way I play the game?


  2. I’m not clear how the absence of narrative proves the impact of narrative on gameplay. Is there still narrative without the sound? If so, how about: How does the narrative affect the options (mechanics), play space (dynamics), and experience (aesthetics) compared to playing it without the narrative elements.

  3. There is still narrative without sound: art assets (including level design) and the names of levels provide some narrative elements. But the central point of a tower defense game doesn’t require narrative: you always know what to do. I’m not sure what point I’m making here… I think I need to play it with sound to be able to compare.

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