A Comprehensive Game Design Methodology
From First Ideas to Spectacular Pitches and Proposals

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Level Four: Narrativity

Process Phase Level Four

Beat 2. Allocation

Function & Distribution

In this level’s Opening and in Beat 1. Arrangement, we introduced the principal tools that you have at your disposal in this territory and the most important ways to apply them. In this beat, we will discuss a number of specific functions that narrative qualities or properties can and should serve in any given dramatic unit, and how narrative qualities or properties should be distributed over the course of the game as a whole.

Let’s start with functions. Dramatic units as such, from beats to levels and beyond, are discussed in-depth in Level Five: Architectonics. But the functions they serve have been addressed on several occasions. In brief, each beat should advance the plot, portray a character, communicate an insight into the game world, highlight an aspect related to the theme or its motifs, elicit an emotion, advance player proficiency, push the player toward the goal, or any combination thereof. The functions that narrative qualities or properties should fulfill in a dramatic unit, and how could it be otherwise, have almost the exact same line-up. Whatever your dramatic unit does, and that unit will most likely be a beat in this context, narrative qualities or properties from all four perceptual domains should either support one of these functions, or add one of these functions to the beat.

One of these function, naturally, can’t be handled by narrativity: narrative qualities or properties cannot be used to advance the plot. Having no identifiable story elements, not to speak of plot points, is the very idea of narrativity, as discussed in the Preliminary phase’s Level Two: Sketching Out the Ludotronics Map and this level’s Opening. One might be tempted to say that narrative qualities or properties can at least support this function. But that isn’t what narrative qualities or properties do, if you think of it. What they can do is augment and enrich a story element or plot point with a specific emotional value, and that is a completely different function. One, actually, that narrative qualities and properties are singularly good at.

All other functions are fine. Narrative qualities or properties can portray characters, communicate insights, elicit emotions, highlight an aspect of the theme or its motifs, advance player proficiency, or push the player toward the goal. To see how narrative qualities or properties from all four perceptual domains can serve this line-up, let’s return to our stronghold in the mountains from this level’s Opening. Sketched as a single beat, it begins with the player character’s ascent to the stronghold and ends with the encounter of a stranger right in front of it.

Portray a character. A few paragraphs into Heinrich von Kleist’s famous novella Michael Kohlhaas, a character is described thus: “The castellan, buttoning a waistcoat over his spacious stomach, came, and standing aslant against the rain, asked for his passport.” If you visualize this castellan, you know everything you need to know about him, up to and including his poor moral character which turns out to be as aslant, or “schief” in the original German, as his body posture and, eventually, the whole situation. Moreover, barring first-person perspective, you can use camera distance and camera angles to provide the player with even more psychological details about a character—here, you can learn a lot from classic “camera” angles in Marvel’s or DC’s superhero comics, for example. Then, you can portray a character through sound, not only leitmotifs or speech patterns, but also foley: footsteps, the movement of their clothes, how they breathe or eat or sleep, and virtually any bodily function imaginable. Kinesthetically, the character can be portrayed through the way they move, not just the whole body, but eye and head movements, gestures, how they sit down and how they stand up, and so on. Mythologically, the character can display characteristics that relate to lore, location/environment, backstory, or setting. Our stranger in front of the stronghold, for example, could display a haircut or adornments or clothes that were worn by the very first settlers who had landed on this planet more than three hundred years ago. It says a lot about someone who likes personal adornments that are conspicuously out-of-style.

Communicate an insight. Let’s say we want to give the player a new insight into this world, namely, that the people or their backstory or backstory-related lore might not be fully trustworthy. According to them, the first group of settlers vanished a long time ago without a trace under entirely opaque, mysterious circumstances, and we want to cast some doubt about it. Now, insights are rarely gained from one single observation. More often, it’s an accumulation of observations, and the player suddenly realizes what’s really been going on all the time when yet another hint or clue comes along. It’s such hints and clues that narrative qualities or properties can convey. Which, in our case, is that the people on this planet and/or their stories are less trustworthy than the player hitherto assumed. Importantly, this is not about plot points or advancing the plot. The reason for this putative untrustworthiness qualifies as a plot point, and the revelation of what really happened a long time ago to the first settlers also qualifies as a plot point. The player’s dawning insight about the settlers’ untrustworthiness isn’t a plot point. (But insights can be part of the character development arc, or journey, which is discussed in-depth in Level Five: Architectonics.) Now, to plant one more clue, we can do the following. For the visual domain, the stronghold—presumably left behind by these original settlers—might just not look like something that had been built by settlers three hundred years ago. It might appear too old for that. Or maybe too recent. Its design patterns could be outright puzzling for that period, or for any known period whatsoever. Then, it could exhibit a particularly curious defense architecture that makes the player wonder about what kind of threat its builders had in mind, and why nobody had deigned to mention this. And so on. In the auditory domain, narrative qualities or properties can underscore these doubt. The music, e.g., can play with the stronghold’s leitmotif in a conspicuous manner. Or, it could mix into it elements from a different leitmotif—one that is attached to an antagonistic force or place or event or non-player character, anything the player has learned to associate with distrust, suspicion, or betrayal. Yes, it’s subtle, but that’s the nature of clues! The last two domains wouldn’t yield much for this beat. Communicating an insight through kinesthetic qualities or properties is certainly not impossible, but for our particular insight it would be a stretch. And the mythological domain can’t be used here because the insight is precisely about casting doubt on elements from the mythological domain, especially backstory and lore, so we would just be chasing our tail.

Elicit an emotion. In Level One: Integral Perspectives I, we introduced the three classes of emotions that are relevant for designing games: fear, pity, and fiero. Emotions from two of these classes, fear and fiero, can be directly evoked through narrative qualities or properties—fear, joy, sadness, terror as well as feelings of triumph and defeat—while pity, the third class, can only be supported by narrative qualities or properties. This applies to all four domains. Certainly, both the auditory domain and the visual domain are cut out for this job in ways that have been discussed in this level’s Opening, and the mythological domain can “prime” the player toward any of these emotions, which has been discussed as well. This time, therefore, let’s focus on narrative qualities or properties in the kinesthetic domain, and what they can do in the context of our example. Both player movement (controller, body) and in-game movement (avatar, camera) can make the ascent of the mountain terrifying or joyful (fear class) and triumphant or disgraceful (fiero class). They can work together with the other perceptual domains to create an overall mood for the beat, like sadness or desolation, as well as sudden flare-ups of fear, joy, terror, regret, or resolve. For the pity class—pity itself, worry (for characters), anger (directed at characters), contempt, love, hate, jealousy, and so on—it’s a bit different. Remember, emotions from this class can only be evoked empathically, through emotions displayed by non-player characters (or a detached player character) that the player then can empathize with. Accordingly, these emotions cannot be directly evoked through narrative qualities or properties like the emotions from the other two classes. But narrative qualities or properties from all four domains can intensify and sustain the emotions of non-player characters—with which the player then can empathize more strongly and for a prolonged period of time.

Advance player proficiency. Emotional insights can advance the player’s knowledge and understanding and support attitude change (these and other learning categories are discussed in Level Two: Interactivity).

push the player toward the goal. Finally, all four domains again can be involved in pushing the player toward the goal. That could be visual cues of any kind that induce the player to hurry, dramatic music that communicates imminent danger, terrain that doesn’t let the player rest for even a second, or having the player recognize a piece of lore that had seemed unrelated up to now but suddenly looms large and suggests, or demands, a particular course of action. That, for example, the stranger’s legs in front of the stronghold seem to end in a pair of hooves.

Perhaps you noticed that we left out the function of highlighting an aspect related to the theme or its motifs. The reason is that this function is strongly intertwined with what we will call the “world narrative,” a topic to be covered in-depth in the following Beat 3. Ambience.

As you can see, you have a lot of options, and a whole world of possible applications at your disposal. But beware! Don’t try and cram everything into one beat. Choose wisely! Just as with suspense and relief, or with action and relaxation, narrativity needs a properly operating ebb and flow system over the game as a whole. Which, not incidentally, brings us to this beat’s second topic, distribution.

Throughout the Process phase, almost every level demands sketching a conceptual map for the game as a whole. Maybe as a table or spreadsheet, maybe as something else altogether. These include: learning curves (Level Two: Interactivity), style instructions (Level Three: Plurimediality), plot developments (Level Five: Architectonics), and goal breakdowns (Level Six: Integral Perspectives II). This level is no exception. Its conceptual map is a sketch of the ebb and flow of dramatic intensity.

As with functions, intensity levels should vary. Content from all four domains, visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and mythological, should be given their crescendi and decrescendi, their fortissimi and pianissimi, their fermatas and rests, all across the map—as you would do for your plot, learning curve, goal, and style distributions. Don’t force narrativity into lockstep with other distributions. Dramatic intensity can and should work together with plot points, difficulty, or task fulfillment. But if that’s all what it is used for, a one-to-one relationship with other territories, that would demote the narrative qualities and properties of the four perceptual domains to mere supporting roles, a waste of opportunity and potential. Narrativity is one of the four major territories. It is as meaningful for game design as Interactivity, Plurimediality, and Architectonics. Narrative qualities or properties, and narrative intensity, should be designed accordingly: calculated and outlined in their own right, not pressed into service to illustrate the plot or the action.

Distributing the intensity of narrative qualities or properties over the game as a whole is part of your creative endeavor, or that of your team. Think less of dramatic structure but more of choreography. Or of a musical score.

As a good starting point, you should check out Chanel Summers’s rundown for the auditory domain in “Making the Most of Audio in Characterization, Narrative Structure, and Level Design,” with guidance and instructions for organizing “moods, intensity levels, pacing, dynamics, and transitions” into the kind of conceptual map described above. This is recommended reading. Also, you will find that many of these instructions can be adapted for the visual, kinesthetic, and mythological domains as well. From there, explore and expand!

As a collateral benefit, involving all four perceptual domains will meet many different types of learners that will be playing your game: those who lean toward visual learning style, or auditory learning style, or kinesthetic learning style. Indeed, these are three out of the four basic types of learning (the fourth being reading/writing). Is there a “mythological learning style?” Not in that exact definition. But when it comes to making sense of the world and of ourselves, the mythological domain just crushes it.

With regard to distribution and dramatic intensity, there’s one fundamental problem left to discuss: repetition. This problem pops up every time the player fails at a task and has to replay the same beat, or any other dramatic unit. Maybe again and again.

For auditory content, this problem is well-known and addressed in the literature quite a lot. Solutions, alas, are few and far between, and they usually apply only to specific types of games. In Game Sound, Karen Collins shows alongside her analysis of Myst how high dramatic intensity would be detrimental to puzzle-heavy games, where the player might be stuck in any dramatic unit for any amount of time, so that minimal, slow-paced, ambient audio would be the best choice for this type of game. But what about other types of games, games that are often built around high dramatic intensity? What about boss fights? Boss fights are designed to be difficult, and frequently necessitate multiple replays by design. Then, as Richard Stevens and Dave Raybould point out in The Game Audio Tutorial, what about different player types: those who slowly sneak their way through a dramatic unit; those who blaze through it; and those who turn every pixel upside down before they leave (creepers, blazers, and completists in Stevens & Raybould’s parlance)?

Suddenly, we have not one but two intensity problems: repetition and playing style!

What Collins, Stevens and Raybould, and many others recommend is adaptive sound, a topic briefly discussed in Level Three: Plurimediality. But adaptive sound alone doesn’t fully solve the problem of forced repetition. And it certainly doesn’t solve the problem for the other three perceptual domains. The epic vista that is revealed at the beginning of the boss fight, the spectacular monstrosity of the boss enemy itself, the sounds and taunts, the movements and combos, the arresting parade of mythical signifiers—all that, after the tenth rehearsal, will appear no less moth-eaten and irritating than the swelling strings with heavy brass stabs, or the emerging machine grooves over relentless techno beats.

Are there solutions that are more comprehensive? Possibly, but not as long as we cling to our cherished rinse-and-repeat mechanic. Up to now, player failure in games has almost always been non-diegetic. When the player character dies and respawns, that death didn’t happen in the game world. By making player failure diegetic, repeat encounters can take previous encounters into consideration and play out differently, especially in the Narrativity territory. Diegetic failure could be mission failure, or player characters who are not dead but merely “left for dead” and need to recover, or imaginative story premises combined with ingenious technological solutions like Shadow of Mordor’s undead ranger and Nemesis system. (We will discuss player failure more in-depth in Level Six: Integral Perspectives II.)