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Teaching Narrative Design: On the Importance of Narrative Game Mechanics

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Teaching Narrative Design: On the Importance of Narrative Game Mechanics

Abstract and Figures

What do stories in games have in common with political narratives? This book identifies narrative strategies as mechanisms for meaning and manipulation in games and real life. It shows that the narrative mechanics so clearly identifiable in games are increasingly used (and abused) in politics and social life. They have »many faces«, displays and interfaces. They occur as texts, recipes, stories, dramas in three acts, movies, videos, tweets, journeys of heroes, but also as rewarding stories in games and as narratives in society – such as a career from rags to riches, the concept of modernity or market economy. Below their surface, however, narrative mechanics are a particular type of motivational design – of game mechanics.
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Teaching Narrative Design
On the Importance of Narrative Game Mechanics
Teun Dubbelman
INTRODUCTION
For fifteen years now, I have been teaching the design and analysis of computer
games. Although my approach and focus have changed over the years, I have
always had a strong interest in the narrative potential of game mechanics. In my
2016 paper for the annual ICIDS conference, I coined the term narrative game
mechanics to describe mechanics that “invite agents, including the player, to per-
form actions that support the construction of engaging stories and fictional
worlds in the embodied mind of the player” (Dubbelman 2016: 43). The reason
why I have developed the idea of narrative game mechanics can be found in my
teaching experiences.
In my narrative design classes, I have noticed that students are not used to
looking at mechanics from a narrative angle, and often expect lessons on game
writing instead of game design. Also, when a team of students want to create a
narrative game on their own, they often struggle. Without guidance, the follow-
ing usually happens: Within the team, one or two students are into narrative,
meaning, they like to write. These students work on the game script and the
worldbuilding bible. They write the storyline, create the characters with their
backstories and work out the details of the game’s imaginary world. Other stu-
dents, often designers without a specific interest in storytelling, take the respon-
sibility for designing the mechanics. In most cases, they copy mechanics from a
genre they love, and add some novel twist.
When designing the mechanics, the narrative, created by the other students,
is never really taken into account. Frequently, the narrative is developed sepa-
rately from the mechanics, and is simply added to the game, at some point in
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80
time, through (spoken) in-game texts and cutscenes. In this way, narrative be-
comes an afterthought, or simply a nice but expandable add-on. The mechanics
do not really rely on the narrative; one can simply change the backstory, and the
mechanics will still make sense.
For me as a teacher, this situation poses a considerable challenge. I want my
students to come up with unusual designs, but with their design approach, the re-
sulting games are often similar to existing games, just with different (and inter-
changeable) narrative backdrops. It is important to teach students a more inte-
grated approach, showing them how mechanics can be used as a dynamic narra-
tive device, alongside other narrative devices, like dialogues or cutscenes, to
create engaging narrative experiences. I want them, for example, to discover
how, in the design process, original storylines could lead to unexpected mechan-
ics, and vice versa, that novel mechanics might produce surprising storylines.
To accomplish this, I have built my classes around the notion of narrative
game mechanics, and developed tools to help students connect mechanics and
authored narrative in practice.
As argued in previous publications, narrative design is still underdeveloped
as a creative discipline, and lacks shared vocabulary, methods and tools
(Koenitz/Dubbelman/Knoller/Roth 2016; Dubbelman/Roth/Koenitz 2018). By
sharing my approach, I hope to inspire other teachers, and by doing so, contrib-
ute to their educational efforts and the advancement of the discipline in general.
First, the article will discuss the notion of narrative game mechanics, and its
theoretical groundings. Second, it will showcase the Narrative Design Canvas as
a practical instrument for teaching narrative design. This canvas can be used by
students to analyze and design narrative games. It helps them to recognize and
establish a connection between a game’s written narrative (expressed for exam-
ple in dialogues and cutscenes) and a game’s mechanics. The article concludes
with a closer look at the game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Using the canvas,
the game’s narrative design will be analyzed. This analysis reveals how the
game succeeds in creating an engaging narrative experience by articulating de-
velopments in the authored storyline through changes in the game mechanics.
COGNITIVE NARRATOLOGY
To understand how mechanics can function as a narrative device, it is important
to first explain my understanding of the term narrative. Following the work of
cognitive narratologists like Marie-Laure Ryan and David Herman, I approach
narrative as a cognitive frame for meaning-making. This cognitive understand-
Teaching Narrative Design | 81
ing allows me to address the arguments from ludologists in game studies against
theorizing games as a narrative medium. One of the most convincing arguments
is based on the apparent differences in formal properties between games and es-
tablished narrative media, like books or movies (Eskelinen 2001; Juul 2001).
Games are interactive systems, and consequently produce dynamic output. In
contrast, books and movies lack this interactivity, and have static output. To put
it simply, a movie shows the same images every time it is played, and a game,
through system and player, does not.
When you look at these differences from a traditional understanding of nar-
rative, one could indeed make the argument that games are unsuitable as a narra-
tive medium. According to Marie-Laure Ryan, in traditional narratology, the
term narrative is seen as being synonymous with the term recounting or “telling
somebody else that something happened” (2004: 13). Ryan recognizes this tradi-
tional approach to narrative in the work of many ludologists (2006: 184). Indeed,
with this particular understanding of narrative in mind, the formal properties of
books and movies are better suited for narrative purposes. That is, their static
output makes it easier to recount; to communicate ‘this happened, then this hap-
pened, then this happened, etc.’.
However, when embracing an alternative, cognitive understanding of narra-
tive, this argument no longer holds. If you understand narrative as a mental pro-
cess of meaning-making, the output of a narrative medium does not necessarily
have to be static. The formal properties of a medium do not have to be suited for
explicitly communicating ‘this happened, then this happened, then this hap-
pened, etc.’, because the causal connections between events can be made cogni-
tively by the user. The player is actively constructing a narrative, based on their
personal engagement with the game’s imaginary world. Again, my understand-
ing of narrative stems from cognitive narratology, and echoes the work of David
Herman, who understands narrative as a “forgiving, flexible cognitive frame for
constructing, communicating, and reconstructing mentally projected worlds”
(2002: 49). In order to make sense of the presented world, the characters that in-
habit it, the events that take place, and the player’s own goals, roles and position,
the player is actively constructing and re-reconstructing a meaningful, mental
narrative.
It is important to emphasize that this construction does not happen after the
fact (retelling), but in real time, in the moment of acting (Graesser/Olde/Klettke
2002). As emphasized in narrative comprehension theory, mental narrativization
is a real-time process in which readers are continuously accessing how the status
of the narrative (of the world, the characters, the conflict, etc.) changes through
the depicted events: “[…] the mental representation of a narrative can be thought
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82
of as a complex network of states and events tied together by causal relations.”
(Fletcher/Lucas/Baron 1999: 195) Likewise, when playing a game, players are
continuously updating their understanding their narrative of the game’s im-
aginary world.
To sum up, although there are apparent differences in the formal properties
of movies and games, both can trigger processes of narrativization. Whether I
watch a movie or play a game, in both instances, a narrative can be constructed
in my mind. Indeed, these narratives are not necessarily similar and can have dif-
ferent qualities, but they can both be engaging and recognizable as narrative.
Thus, from a cognitive perspective, narrative is not in the work itself, but in the
mind of the user. Users are actively constructing a narrative while mentally (and
physically) engaging with a specific work (Herman 2009). This process of narra-
tivization happens even when there is no authorial narrative intention behind a
work. One can find a story in a painting, even though the painter never aspired to
tell it.
But are all games narrative games then? According to Ryan, we can still de-
scribe certain works as narrative works, or better, as being more narrative-
driven, because they often deliberately, but sometimes unintentionally trig-
ger more narrativization than others. Ryan calls this the property of “possessing
narrativity” (2004: 9-10). For games, the same applies. When playing a game, a
narrative can be triggered in my mind’s eye, even though the designers never
had any narrative intentions. We should, however, reserve the term narrative
games or narrative-driven games for those games where the design is (intention-
ally) catered towards triggering an engaging narrative in the player’s embodied
mind.
NARRATIVE GAMES
When looking at narrative games, we can observe a great variety in how these
games try to evoke mental narratives. Some games rely heavily on a pre-
authored storyline, taking the player through a more or less predefined narrative
path (e.g. Last of Us). Other games leave more room for the player to explore
and to direct the course of the narrative, for example through branching struc-
tures (e.g. The Walking Dead), or alternatively, through emergent structures (e.g.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor).
Regardless of how games try to trigger processes of narrativization, in each
case, mechanics and rules play a key role. As also recognized by Salen and
Zimmerman: “[…] it is the dynamic structures of games, their emergent com-
Teaching Narrative Design | 83
plexity, their participatory mechanisms, their experiential rhythms and patterns,
which are key to understanding how games construct narrative experiences.”
(2003: 382-383) Whether a game relies on a predefined narrative path, or uses
branching storylines, or creates a narrative experience through emergent struc-
tures, in each case the mechanics, in tandem with other narrative devices, are re-
sponsible for the overall narrative experience.
When we look at the current game industry, some of these narrative devices
have already been brought to fruition. For example, many of the existing critical-
ly acclaimed narrative-driven games have perfected the device of environmental
storytelling, also known as narrative architecture (Jenkins 2004; Nitsche 2008).
In games like Firewatch, What Remains of Edith Finch and Everybody’s Gone to
the Rapture, the environment is cleverly used to communicate relevant narrative
information, such as backstory, conflict and character personalities.
Alternatively, popular games like Until Dawn or Telltale’s Game of Thrones
make extensive use of on-screen choice prompts. At specific moments during
the game, the system presents the player with a limited set of predefined choices
in form of prompts on the screen. These can be mundane, like choosing which
road to take, or they can be more dramatic, like deciding which character perish-
es.
Unlike environmental storytelling and on-screen choice prompts, narrative
game mechanics are still underdeveloped in the industry, and underexamined in
academia. To counter this, I have conducted additional research on the topic
(Dubbelman 2017), and used the outcomes to develop the aforementioned tools
for aspiring game designers. One of these tools, the Narrative Design Canvas, is
discussed below.
NARRATIVE DESIGN CANVAS
The Narrative Design Canvas (Figure 1) has been developed to facilitate
discussions between students about the design of narrative games, specifically
regarding the connection between the intended player experience, the interaction
possibilities and the written narrative. The games under scrutiny can be either
existing games, analyzed in the classroom, or games that the students work on in
their projects. By facilitating design discussions, the canvas tries to break the
students’ habit of focusing solely on the written narrative, or alternatively, solely
on gameplay, as explained in the introduction.
When working on their own projects, students mainly use the canvas during
the concepting phase. Before turning to the canvas, students have already gone
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84
through an ideation phase, and have chosen the most promising idea. This idea is
then written at the top of the canvas. Subsequently, students start working on the
canvas, following this basic rule: they can start on any field of the canvas, but
are required to fill in the other two fields on the same horizonal level, before
moving up or down the canvas.
Figure 1: Narrative Design Canvas.
1
Source: Teun Dubbelman
The canvas has three pillars: experience, interaction and narrative context. Each
pillar has five key elements. In the experience pillar they are: player emotion,
player motivation, player identification, player presence and experiential flow; in
the interaction pillar: core mechanics, player goal, player role, player space and
player progression; and in the narrative context pillar: events, conflict, charac-
ters, setting and storyline.
1
For the pdf and the instructions, see: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/3438
58640_Narrative_Design_Canvas.
Teaching Narrative Design | 85
As mentioned, students are only allowed to work horizontally, not vertically. For
example, students with an interest in narrative must not work solely on the narra-
tive context and only write down the events, characters, conflict, setting and
storyline of the game. They may start with one of these elements, but before
continuing to another narrative field, they need to fill in the adjacent fields of the
experience and interaction pillar. For example, students may start by writing
down the main events of the game, but before moving on to another narrative
field, they need to write down the core mechanics and the core emotional expe-
rience of the game first.
In this way, the canvas tries to guide the creative thought process of students
towards a more integrated approach. Other teams might start with the core me-
chanics or the core emotional experience. Regardless of this, in each case, stu-
dents are invited to think about the interconnection between the three pillars,
asking themselves questions such as: what kind of emotions do we want to
evoke; what kind of mechanics do we need for this; and what kind of events do
these mechanics imply? Or, what kind of events do we want in our game; what
kind of mechanics do we need to create these events; and what kind of emotions
could these events carry?
As such, the canvas is primarily an educational tool, not a design tool. Alt-
hough the canvas may also support the actual design process, the purpose of the
canvas is to teach students a creative mindset that helps them to create engaging
narrative games; games in which the narrative experience as envisioned by the
students is not only expressed in dialogues or cutscenes, but also arises from the
interplay between mechanics and the other narrative devices in the game. When
explaining the canvas to students, it helps to show them examples of such
games. It goes beyond the scope of this article to address each field on the can-
vas, and the interconnectedness between these fields, in detail, so I will only dis-
cuss the bottom of the canvas, using one game as an example.
At the bottom of the canvas, we find the following three fields: experiential
flow (the experience pillar), player progression (the interaction pillar) and story-
line (the narrative context pillar). Although the connection between these three
horizontal fields might not be immediately obvious, upon closer examination the
connecting element appears to be time, or more precisely, development over
time. To make this clear to students, each field contains a short question for
them to answer, namely:
Experiential Flow: How do you want the experience to develop over time?
Player Progression: How do you want the interaction to develop over time?
Storyline: How do you want the story to develop over time?
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86
Students need to answer all three questions before moving further up or down
the canvas. Again, by asking the students to answer all three questions, the can-
vas lets them consider the interplay between experience, interaction and narra-
tive; something they probably would not do without the canvas. For example, it
has become common practice in game design to give players more gameplay
possibilities as a game progresses, mainly to keep them interested and chal-
lenged (Björk/Holopainen 2005). Because students are used to this convention,
they copy it, often without really considering why they incorporate it into their
designs. With the canvas, they are invited to reflect on their design decisions. It
allows them to consider that changes in gameplay might also be employed for
narrative purposes, and that changes in gameplay can carry narrative meaning
and create emotional impact.
A game that does this particularly well is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
When discussing the bottom of the canvas in class, I usually examine the game
together with students. In the next section, I share this analysis and explain how
the game succeeds in creating an engaging narrative experience by articulating
developments in the authored storyline through changes in the game mechanics.
BROTHERS: A TALE OF TWO SONS
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a third-person adventure game released in 2013
by Swedish game company Starbreeze Studios. Since it appeared, the game has
received strong critical acclaim, particularly because of its unorthodox narrative
design (Roth/Nuenen/Koenitz 2018). As will be shown, the game cleverly uses
game mechanics to express narrative meaning, in tandem with cutscenes and
spoken text. It deliberately changes the mechanics over time to articulate key
moments in the authored storyline, and by doing so, heightens their emotional
impact.
The story of the game deals with two brothers who leave their village on a
quest to find a cure for their dying father. At the start, the player is introduced to
the controls of the game. The controller’s left thumbstick and trigger button are
used to direct the older brother, while the controller’s right thumbstick and trig-
ger button are used to direct the younger brother. With the thumbsticks, the
player guides the movement of the brothers, and with the triggers, their interac-
tion with the environment. To overcome obstacles in the game, the player needs
to control both brothers at the same time and make use of their unique abilities.
For example, the older brother is strong and can move objects, while the younger
Teaching Narrative Design | 87
brother is little and can pass through small openings. It soon becomes clear that
the two brothers need each other in order to survive and fulfil their quest.
However, at some point in the storyline, the older brother dies (mainly
shown in a cutscene). Instead of using the two sides of the controller, the player
now only uses the right side, and the left stick and trigger of the older brother
become obsolete. Later in the storyline, the younger brother needs to cross a riv-
er but is scared to go into the water by himself (shown in a cutscene). When the
player directs the younger brother into the water, he refuses to swim. Before los-
ing his older brother, the younger brother crossed water by climbing on his older
sibling’s back. Only when the player presses the left trigger again (belonging to
the older brother), does the younger brother find the courage to cross the river.
Table 1: Progression in Two Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
As can be seen in the figure above (Table 1), the game deliberately changes its
mechanics (and associated control scheme) to articulate key moments in the
storyline. At the beginning of the game, the repetitive act of simultaneously ma-
nipulating the left and the right side of the controller in order to navigate the two
brothers through various perilous environments, like rivers, becomes synony-
mous with the close bond between the two and their mutually dependent rela-
tionship. When the older brother dies, the younger one suddenly finds himself
alone. The feeling of loss and loneliness felt by the latter is communicated to the
player by taking away the need to control the left stick and trigger. Having be-
come accustomed to operating both the left and the right side of the controller,
Chapter
I
II
III
Storyline
Brothers on quest to
rescue father (broth-
ers physically to-
gether)
Older brother dies
(younger brother
alone)
Younger brother
crosses the river to
complete quest
(brothers spiritually
together)
Mechanics
Swim-mechanic I
Deprivation of swim-
mechanic I
Swim-mechanic II
Controls
Left stick and trigger
to control the older
brother; Right stick
and trigger to control
the younger brother
Right stick and trigger
to control the younger
brother
Right stick and left
trigger to control the
younger brother
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88
and both characters, this change can indeed evoke a strong sensation in players
that something is missing. When the player finally reaches the river, and the
younger brother does not want to continue alone because he fears the water, the
loss of the older brother is again emphasized. When the player finds out what to
do namely, that they need to press the left trigger the older brother becomes
present again, not in body, but in spirit. This marks an emotional moment in the
storyline, where the younger brother through the memory of his older sibling,
finds the strength to continue and complete their joint quest. Although the older
brother is not physically there, the younger one, with the spiritual guidance of
his older brother, succeeds in crossing the river by himself. This moment is em-
phasized by spoken text: the younger brother briefly hears the voice of his de-
parted sibling. Shortly after this, he finishes the quest they embarked upon to-
gether.
To summarize, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons deliberately utilizes game me-
chanics for narrative purposes. By changing the controls and mechanics over
time, the game moves towards an emotional climax in the authored storyline,
where the younger brother, by remembering his older sibling and feeling his
presence, finds the strength to continue.
CONCLUSION
In this article, I have discussed an approach to teaching narrative design for
games that is centered around the notion of narrative game mechanics. The pur-
pose of this approach is to teach students a creative mindset that helps them to
create engaging narrative games; games in which the narrative experience as en-
visioned by the students is not only expressed in dialogues or cutscenes, but also
arises from the interplay between mechanics and the other narrative devices in
the game.
Not only in education, but also in the game industry, the attention to game
mechanics in narrative design is still too limited. Narrative design as a distinct
practice is relatively new, and with it, the position of narrative designer. Many of
the larger companies today employ narrative designers. Their responsibilities
differ from studio to studio, but generally focus on game writing or quest design,
and not on the design of mechanics. Although some companies try to align
gameplay and narrative by establishing a close collaboration between game de-
signers and narrative designers, this approach is vulnerable. Especially in the
case of companies who set out to create narrative games, it is almost impossible
Teaching Narrative Design | 89
to separate the process of designing mechanics from the process of developing a
game’s narrative (or quests for that matter).
An important step towards a more integrated approach of narrative design in
the industry would be to make future game developers (game designers as well
as narrative designers) more sensitive to the narrative potential of game mechan-
ics. In this article, I have shared ideas and tools for achieving this, with the hope
of making a minor contribution to the promising practice of narrative design for
games.
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Games
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Starbreeze Studios, 505 Games, 2013.
... In academia, the desire to standardize IDN language, design strategies, and theories has been emphasized by Hartmut Koenitz and other members of ARDIN [1,2,4,10,11]. The authors of a recent presentation by the Immersive Research Learning Network (IRLN), "The State of XR and Immersive Learning Outlook 2021" expressed a desire for more immersive storytelling in XR curricula as a credible pathway toward standardization [12]. ...
... Teaching an emerging practice such as Interactive Digital Narratives (IDN) is a challenge [1][2][3]. Teaching students how to implement that narrative form within the emerging medium of Virtual Reality (VR) makes achieving pedagogical goals more difficult. ...
... From left to right: (1) When the experience starts, the interactor is a young child. They are then scaled down into a gecko for the experience.(2) Interactors are made to traverse large rooms to encourage feelings of helplessness.(3)Interactors ...
Chapter
Full-text available
Immersive Media programs of study are being developed and enacted at many higher education institutions. It is proposed that a course on Interactive Digital Narratives (IDN) in Virtual Reality (VR) can familiarize undergraduate students of diverse backgrounds with the foundational technical, design, and development tenets of immersive storytelling. Course curriculum balances IDN design and immersive storytelling strategies with VR project management, user experience and interface design, spatial audio, digital scenography, introductory programming, and rudimentary artificial intelligence. The course connects technical and media affordances to theories of IDN to provide an introductory understanding of IDN in VR. The proposed course ran in the spring of 2021 at a small liberal arts college. The paper presents the course’s 15-week curriculum. An evaluation that includes student work, insights lessons, and resources is provided.
Conference Paper
Full-text available
This paper aims to expand existing knowledge on narrative game design. Specifically, the paper discusses the importance of game design patterns for the analysis of narrative game mechanics. By bringing together insights from cognitive narratology and game design theory, the paper creates a preliminary theoretical perspective for deconstructing the design of mechanic-driven narrative games. To support the theoretical argument, the paper discusses Papers, Please as case study.
Conference Paper
Full-text available
This paper explores the notion of narrative game mechanics by apposing theories from the field of cognitive narratology with design theories on game mechanics. The paper aims to disclose how narrative game mechanics invite game agents, including the player, to perform actions that support the construction of engaging stories and fictional worlds in the embodied mind of the player. The theoretical argument is supported by three case studies. The paper discusses examples of games that employ mechanics and rules to create engaging story events, focusing on: building tension through spatial conflict, evoking empathy through characterization and creating moral dilemmas through player choices.
Game Studies: The International
  • Markku Eskelinen
Eskelinen, Markku (2001): "The Gaming Situation." In: Espen Aarseth/Jessica Enevold/Markku Eskelinen/Maria Gedoz Tiep (eds.), Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research 1/1 (http://www.game studies.org/0101/eskelinen/).