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

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Level Four: Narrativity

Process Phase Level Four


The motivational element from our interactive playing experience model associated with Narrativity, as discussed in Level One: Integral Perspectives I, is “emotional appeal.” There is some overlap between this territory and the Plurimediality territory with regard to a number of elements, but not with regard to purpose. The difference is that Plurimediality is global and Narrativity is local. In the Plurimediality territory, elements are designed and controlled from the viewpoint of functional aesthetics that work toward a game’s consistent look-and-feel for a holistic user experience. In the Narrativity territory, in contrast, elements are designed and controlled from the viewpoint of narrative qualities or properties that work toward conveying specific meaning in a specific dramatic unit for a memorable gameplay moment.

As mentioned in the Preliminary phase’s Level Two: Sketching Out the Ludotronics Map, the term Narrativity originates from film theory. It denotes narrative “qualities” or “properties” that lack identifiable plot or story elements. Thus, as Narrativity does not equal “narrative” or “story,” it doesn’t just apply to games that are dramatically complete. It’s a vital part of any game, including purely “mechanical” games built around a set of game mechanics. Narrative qualities or properties can be attached to any visual, auditory, and kinesthetic content, and also to a special class that we will call mythological content, to be explained soon.

For each of these four domains of perception, you have to differentiate two conceptual layers:

  • Your specific choice and arrangement of visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and mythological content for any given dramatic unit.
  • Your specific choice of narrative qualities or properties that you attach to this content to fill it with life and connect it with your theme and motifs.

Naturally, throughout this level, we will focus on choices that fall into the second layer. Let’s go through all four perceptive domains to establish their basic characteristics and peek into their respective toolboxes.

For visual content, narrative qualities or properties can be established by the choice of color, color range, tint, shade, tone, surface texture, brightness, contrast, exposure, hue, saturation, luminance, temperature, fluorescence, sharpness, haze, blur, noise/grain, depth, resolution, size/dimensions, lighting, lenses, filters, camera angles, subjective/objective view, and many more. This should give you an idea of just how deep this toolbox is. And you can invent or adapt your own tools!

Here’s an example. Let’s say there will be a level in your game—fantasy, contemporary, or science fiction, it doesn’t matter at this point—where the player character must approach a mysterious stronghold in the mountains. The stronghold and the mountains are your content, and how they are arranged with respect to each other is your arrangement of that content. That’s the first layer. Then, with the help of your toolbox from the visual domain, you proceed to give that stronghold in the mountains the exact narrative qualities or properties that you have in mind to fit your theme or a certain motif. Are the mountains bleak and desolate, or are they smooth with sweet meadows and the occasional sheep? Does the stronghold look brooding and menacing or rather like a robust place of refuge? Does the stronghold appear as an almost natural part of these mountains or does it stick out as alien or even misplaced? And so on, following your imagination, creativity, and theme.

Your toolbox for auditory content to attach narrative qualities or properties to the three basic types of sound introduced in Level Three: Plurimediality—music, foley, and speech—is equally deep. You can establish narrative qualities or properties through duration, loudness, timbre, pitch, intonation, modulation, inflection, rhythm, tempo, voice quality, modulation effects like distortion, reverb, or echo, and 3D audio effects, among many others, not to forget silence and the soundscape as such.

Let’s say you want to apply music and foley while your character approaches that stronghold from our example above. You have a harmony-based leitmotif for the stronghold and sounds that represent windswept cliffs, various player character footsteps for diverse and difficult terrain, and sporadic cries of a bird of prey circling over the region, but steering clear of the stronghold. All that belongs to the first layer; it is your content and the arrangement of that content. To give this content the exact narrative qualities or properties you have in mind, use your auditory toolbox. Is the bird of prey’s cry more on the aggressive, predatory side or does it evoke wide spaces and loneliness? Will the wind change in volume or will it blow steadily at a certain force? And at which force? Will the sounds produced by the character player echo or reverberate? How will your stronghold leitmotif be arranged according to instruments, volume, tempo, and such, to make it appear outright threatening, or uncanny, or subtly reminiscent of long-forgotten dreams? Again, follow your imagination, creativity, and theme.

For kinesthetic content, we first have to examine kinesthetics in the context of video games before we can look into its toolbox. The term kinesthetics itself is shorthand for two non-traditional senses: the vestibular sense for equilibrioception and the kinesthetic sense for proprioception. The first term refers to our senses of balance, acceleration (which includes both a sense of weight and of effort), and direction of movement. The second term refers to our sense of the relative positions and movements of body parts with respect to each other. The kind of kinesthetic content a game can have depends on its control scheme and this control scheme’s level of abstraction. It can be delivered through combinations of player movement, avatar movement, and camera movement. We can differentiate between three basic types. The first type is input on the highest abstraction level, as we find it in games that are controlled by keyboard and mouse, gamepad, or touchscreen commands. The second type comprises games that are controlled by body movement, among them dance and rhythm games or certain kinds of sports and shooting games. These are either played without a controller or with special controllers that mimic real-world tools, so that the input from physical movement in this type of games is on a much lower abstraction level than input in games of the first type. The third type are virtual reality games. Augmented reality doesn’t constitute a type of its own because AR games can belong to any of the three types. All three types overlap a lot, but they do structure the field in ways that can aid design decisions.

It should be stressed that there is no difference in quality between these types, or in potential for enjoyment. The first type is not “limited” in its input, and the third type is not “unconstrained.” The difference is that different levels of abstraction make different things possible and enjoyable. Would Guitar Hero be more enjoyable if players were holding real instruments in their hands within a VR environment? No, it wouldn’t. It’s the carefully crafted abstraction level that makes this game so enjoyable for so many people (including skilled musicians). Each type has its own potential richness of kinesthetic involvement.

Thus, not everything in your toolbox is applicable to every type. But there are more than enough qualities or properties to choose from: speed, acceleration, force, angle, momentum, fluidity, sureness, smoothness, rhythm, balance, economy, consistency, variety, or predictability, and more. It’s a lot to play with.

In the meantime, let’s say our player has moved into the mountain range toward the stronghold, but now needs to climb a precipice in order to proceed. For the first type of games, we can simulate kinesthetic experience like resistance, acceleration, momentum, and balance by manipulating the input/output patterns of mouse and keyboard, gamepad, or touchscreen commands. That way, the player has to provide more sensitive input than usual at times, to avoid overshooting and uncontrolled sliding, and much more rapid and even frantic input at times, to scale heights, overcome resistance, and prevent the player character from sliding back. For the second type of games, these patterns could be mapped directly to a set of arm/hand gestures for a special controller similar to the Wii Remote. For VR games, the third type, a set of leg and body movements could be added. For all three types, rhythm elements could be implemented to overcome obstacles, fluidity and economy of movement could vary with terrain, and so on. Regardless of respective abstraction levels, some physical movement is involved in all three types, so that each game provides a kinesthetic experience that should be carefully designed. (How kinesthetic qualities or properties can be enhanced through complementary audiovisual effects will be discussed in Beat 1. Arrangement.)

Mythological content, the fourth domain of perception, again needs a more thorough introduction. It is a special class with elements that resemble narrative or story elements. Its toolbox has four major compartments: setting, location/environment, backstory, and lore. Each of these compartments is packed with a dazzling array of writing tools, but we will focus only on those tools that all four have in common. Among them are archetypes, memes (self-replicating cultural units), chunks (elements clustered into higher-order units), associative relations, compression, simplification, exaggeration, metonymy/metaphor, symbolism, to name a few—again, the mythological domain is all about abstraction.

But wait! How do these count as “narrativity?” Isn’t it the case that setting, location/environment, backstory, and lore all “tell a story?”

To answer this question, let’s go back to our example, specify it as science fiction, and locate that stronghold in the mountains on a remote planet colonized for mining purposes. For all four compartments, we can attach narrative qualities or properties to: the galaxy a few decades after an interstellar war (setting); a mining colony on a remote planet (location/environment); the history of that outpost before, during, and after the war and of the people who live there (backstory); the stories people from that outpost tell themselves (lore). What differentiates these elements from “regular” narratives is that there is no dramatic structure—no exposition, no inciting incident, no plot points, no rising and falling action, no climax, and no red herrings or Chekhov’s Guns. All that is lost and can no longer be retrieved. It all happens before the story development arc begins. There is no journey to be lived through for the character development arc. There are no skills and abilities to be gained for the player development arc. (All three arcs are discussed in detail in Level Five: Architectonics.) What we’re left with is a kind of abstract, and that’s what the mythological domain is literally about: abstraction.

Now comes the interesting part. These abstractions are not altogether different from the abstractions of reality expressed through myth—traditional stories that explain the origins of a certain society or state of affairs, a certain practice, or a certain phenomenon. Such abstractions have a deep emotional appeal that can resonate over hundreds, even thousands of years. Of course, content from our mythological domain will retain recognizable story elements, and these can become docking stations for actual story and plot elements in the Architectonics territory. But here, in the Narrativity territory, these mythological abstractions operate in their own right on a psychological-emotional level, to be picked up by our “mythological sense,” so to speak. The experiences these qualities or properties from the mythological domain provide work and act very similar to those provided by the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic domains.

Fig.4.33 Artistic Processes of Abstraction
Fig.4.33 Artistic Processes of Abstraction

There’s one more thing we need to clear up. Which, as a warning, is a psychological as well as a philosophical topic that has a lot to do with art. How does narrativity work with respect to emotions? Let’s look at music. Music can’t “have” or “express” emotions—it’s not a human being, after all. So where do those emotions come from that we have when listening to music? Following the musicologist and semiologist Eero Tarasti, loosely, we can argue that the sequence of emotions caused by a piece of music is what constitutes its narrativity. That would mean that music has no narrativity by and of itself, let alone any narrative, but has certain qualities or properties that trigger sequences of emotions in the minds of the beholder and prompt this beholder to interpret the experience of these emotions in narrative terms. Similar dynamics have been observed from the psychological viewpoint, notably around the question of why people are drawn to sad music. As this question isn’t altogether different from the question of why people go into theaters and watch tragedies, Aristotle’s catharsis concept raises its hand; but again, it doesn’t seem to have the explanatory power one might wish for. (For the current state of research on this topic, Sandra Garrido’s Why Are We Attracted to Sad Music? covers all the bases.)

So far, so good. But when those qualities or properties can be “in” a piece of music, capable of triggering sequences of emotions that can be interpreted in narrative terms, how do they get there?

At this point, we have to realize that we’ve been building a working model all along—not a psycho-physiological one, but a psycho-philosophical one—that resides on the plane of art and myth. Within this model, narrative qualities and properties are defined as that which is retained when it has passed through abstraction processes that put them into art, or myth. What is retained can be a lot, as is usually the case for mythological elements, or very little, as is probably the case for kinesthetic elements. Visual and auditory elements fall somewhere in between.

Don’t worry! All this is a lot less complicated than it sounds, and the following beats in this level will all be more hands-on. (But we will refer back to this on occasion.) Especially if you happen to be an artist, you will already be deeply familiar with these exact processes. Artists who work in or with media that cannot directly tell a story work with these abstraction processes all the time. A symphony, a painting, a sculpture, or a modern performance dance: all these do not tell a story directly but trigger images and imaginations loaded with emotions, or sequences of emotions, in the beholders’ minds, to be interpreted in narrative terms that may or may not refer back to those original stories. Often, they will refer back directly when a work addresses well-known stories and experiences, like a sculpture playing on the Pygmalion myth, a painting depicting the Battle of Issus, an overture commemorating Napoleon’s defeat, or a dance that reflects the ancient theory of the four temperaments. But the original stories do not have to be well-known, or known at all. Or even exist! All this works just as well with stories that have sprung from the artist’s imagination, experience, or, indeed, vision.

That’s essentially what narrative qualities or properties are, and how they come about. It applies to art in the Louvre as well as to art in video games. But not in a direct and straightforward manner: artistic intentions cannot survive these abstraction processes fully intact, retrievable by reverse engineering. Rather, through these narrative qualities or properties of the work of art, the playing experience is artfully constrained by these intentions. The playing experience is neither fully determined by them, nor fully independent.

Again, all this might sound somewhat forbidding if you don’t happen to be an artist, but you don’t have to be an artist or think like an artist to beat this level. What you have to do is to sketch two things. First, your content and the arrangement of that content (the first layer). Then, the visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and mythological elements this content should convey (the second layer). You might even go so far and sketch a few abstraction techniques that you want to see employed. If done well, this will become the starting point for your creative team—game artists, character artists, animation artists, motion designers, camera designers, composers, audio and sound designers, game writers, and voice talent, among others.

As has been pointed out before, narrativity is a vital component in any game, including games with a pure mechanical core. It’s emotional appeal that makes a game marketable to a broader audience, and from this broader audience might eventually leap the dedicated, maybe even professionalized player base you have in mind.

From the player motivation model, the relatedness/community element is strongly involved through the insights into the game world and the characters who populate it that Narrativity provides.