This is part 4 of an ongoing series on the techniques that game designers employ to tell stories in video games. If you haven’t read part 1, part 2, and part 3, you might want to do that first.

II. Exploration

“Game designers don’t simply tell stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces.” —Henry Jenkins, Game Design as Narrative Architecture.

Expository narrative, which you can read about in the first three parts of this series, essentially encompasses the ways that games tell stories at players. Aside from postmodernists or insane persons—a David Lynch or Philip K. Dick, in whose work the viewer/reader must find their own meaning or even their own plot—most forms of media stop there. Games that do not rely primarily on exposition are different, because they allow the player to create her own experience in the game world. When this narrative emerges from the player’s exploration of the world, it falls into the category of “exploratory narrative.”

Henry Jenkins

I use the word “emerges” deliberately. The idea of emergence has been popular among the gaming literati for some time now. Sometimes it refers to players finding their own fun as a result of the unpredictable interaction of many complex systems; Grand Theft Auto III was widely touted as an exemplar of “emergent gameplay” on its release. Emergent gameplay can also result from game systems which rely heavily on the interaction of multiple human players, as in EVE Online. Other times, it refers to player-created narratives of gameplay—like this outstanding example, in which a player uses The Sims 3 to examine the problem of homelessness.

Many writers consider emergent narrative to exist somehow in opposition to the narratives that game designers present more overtly. In a recent article on GameSetWatch, James Bishop examines the extent of player control within games with predominantly designer-controlled narratives. Bishop uses the phrase “embedded narratives” to describe non-emergent narratives, and although he’s not the only one [PDF link], I think it’s worth noting that that term first appeared on my radar in the fabulous Henry Jenkins article linked at the top of this post. Jenkins wasn’t talking about designer-controlled narrative in the aggregate. He specifically meant those narrative clues that exist as part of the mise-en-scène in a virtual world.

As defined by Jenkins, exploratory narrative includes both player-created narratives of events, and embedded narratives which are “pre-structured” by the designers and “awaiting discovery.” The former type—player-controlled narratives—occupy a hazy space that lies between my notions of exploratory and interactive narrative.Does this call into question the validity of my absurd little taxonomy? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Very few games tell stories using only one of the three major techniques—the give and take between player and system, and the impossibility of identifying a single universal experience shared by all players of a given game means that they couldn’t if they wanted to. The study of storytelling will never be an exact science in any medium. Who would want it to be?

A player does not invent a narrative from whole cloth when playing a game, no matter how open-ended. She takes hundreds, even thousands of cues from the game designers. To offer just a few examples, these clues are embedded in the immediate environment, the broader setting, the behavior of non-player characters, the progression of the plot and of course the palette of options available to the player as she tries to interact with the world around her.

In his 1998 Master’s dissertation, Jesper Juul explored how games can imply narrative in the most cursory of ways, using “narrative frames” that draw on common cultural knowledge. Juul offered the example of Space Invaders, an iconic early arcade game whose simple graphics and mechanics offer less story than its very title:

The concept of invasion presupposes a time before the invasion, and from the 1950’s science fiction it draws upon, we just know that these aliens are evil and should be disposed off. So there is a story, and from the title screen we know all of it: Earth attacked, Earth freed from the alien menace. —Jesper Juul, A Clash Between Games and Narrative

Jesper Juul

In a very real sense, even player-controlled interactive narratives are authored by the game designers—just not solely. They are player-controlled because the sequence of events depends largely on the player’s actions, and because the establishment of meaning behind the events depends almost entirely on the player. But even emergent narratives that seem absent of any kind of designer voice depend on choices made by the designers. The story of a firefight in Doom is different than a firefight in Fear. The setting and atmosphere are different. The enemies are more or less human, and behave in very different ways. The tools that the player has access to are different, as are those of the AI. Even the graphical fidelity of the games makes a difference. Most of these differences exist on smaller scales within individual games, and the variations in meaning that such decisions create are also reflected on this level.

Exactly what difference these elements make—what each of them conveys, and what they convey in ever-changing combination—is difficult to divine. We can say that such and such game creates a “general impression” or “atmosphere,” but this is crude stuff. Perhaps game developers like Valve and Bungie, well known for collecting extensive play-testing data on endless variations of the same level or sequence in their games, have a good sense of how most players respond to these small changes, but even then there are players who will play differently, or think differently about what they have played. Contrast the uncertainty of exploratory and interactive narrative with the solid linearity of expository narrative, which ensures that all players experience the designer-authored narrative elements in the same way (or at least mostly the same way, allowing that different play experiences prior to or during exposition might color the experience).

Jenkins talks about the need for redundancy of information within embedded narratives, noting that “one can not assume the player will necessarily locate or recognize the significance of any given element.” The art of drawing a player’s attention to the things that matter is even more difficult in games than in traditional media. Here’s Shawn Elliot, a former games journalist and current level designer for Irrational Games, in a recent episode of the Out of the Game podcast:

It’s true that every reader of a book is different, that every viewer of a movie is different, but that agency that allows [players] to look where they want… creates such enormous complexities in game design… are we gonna spend another 300 hours getting someone to look and see this fucking enormous boss in front of them?

It’s possible to play off this very kind of freedom, of course. To cite yet another gaming podcast (and I wonder where my free time goes!), The Idle Thumbs Podcast once spent some time discussing how much the various NPC “barks” in Grand Theft Auto IV can add to the experience. The example I recall revolved around a major multi-car pileup; as the player character walked away from the debacle, an old lady on the sidewalk regarded the carnage and remarked, offhandedly, “That looks expensive.” BioShock plays with the illusion of player choice and freedom in a very different way, but I’ve written about that already.