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  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Narrative Design

    - Nick Witsel
  • It wasn't long ago that I attended a lecture about narrative design. And as with many lectures I attended in the past, it focused solely on the spectrum between Aristotle's ‘three act' tragedy and Joseph Campbell's ‘hero's journey'.

    Now, Aristotle never actually said every story should have three acts, and Campbell only analyzed myths and wrote "a book about similarities." But that is beside the point. As a game writer, I can tell you that if you want to write a good story, be it for a video game or another medium, starting with these well-known structures is not the ingredient for success.

    Rather than talk about the structures of tragedy and heroism, I would like to focus on the foundation first: why do we tell stories, and what does it mean when we make them interactive?

    Love and Adventure

    Take a short story like What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), by Raymond Carver. Reading it will only cost you 20 minutes, tops, and it's a terrific example of a story making good use of its medium. The plot: two couples sit together and talk about love.

    The main character, one of the husbands, whose perspective we follow, makes detailed observations about how everyone in the room interacts with one another. In between the anecdotes about former lovers, we see subtle clues implying the nature of their relationships. As someone who's in a relationship, this story struck a chord with me, as I could see many of my thoughts and observations reflected in the writing. It was an interesting read that provided me with food for thought about the existence of ‘true' love.

    To me, Carver's short story (also referenced heavily in the movie Birdman (2015)) doesn't impose any moral compass as to what true love is, but rather, attempts to discuss and explore different views about the subject.

    Let's compare this to The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, a more classic story set somewhere in the 8th century, Baghdad. The plot: a porter by the name of Sinbad sits beside a mansion one day and complains to God about the injustice of the poor having to work so hard while the rich do so little. A servant of the mansion overhears him, and decides to introduce him to the owner of the estate: Sinbad the Sailor.

    For most of the story, Sinbad the Sailor tells his poorer namesake about all his exciting, yet dangerous voyages. He argues that the porter's stance on wealth and poverty is misplaced, for the pain that the porter endures in his everyday work is nothing compared to the supernatural challenges Sinbad the Sailor had to face during his adventures abroad. The wealth he managed to amass is honest compensation for all his hard work. The porter agrees with this sentiment, apologizes to his richer namesake and ends the story by stating that he feels he's made a new friend.

    The Voyages of Sinbad are obviously a very different type of story compared to the first example. It focuses on splendor and adventure, and carries a clear moral sentiment: people with a lot of wealth worked inhumanly hard to achieve it. A sentiment I personally don't agree with in the slightest. But for a hard working porter in 17th century Baghdad (around the time when the story was said to have been written) the moral might be the key for making him content with his poor, but safe, life; causing him to pass on the tale to his children.

    Truth and Revelation

    We humans are inherently curious animals, and stories are interesting because they provide us with a method of learning. For me, a book about love is interesting because I unconsciously yearn for a way to find a frame of reference for my situation. Yet, for others, a story about magical adventures and the importance of a stable job provides both a temporary distraction and an extra motivation for working hard.

    We follow stories in pursuit of a truth. And authors are there to provide answers. In a way, storytelling is a form of communication. And as with any form of communication, its interpretation is subjective too. A writer's vision can easily be misinterpreted by the audience. Or maybe what the author thinks of their work isn't even relevant.

    When wanting to tell a story, or just a brief scene, ask yourself what it is you want to express, or what you want to talk about. To what ‘revelation' does your story or scene lead? Say what you want about Fifty Shades of Grey's (2011) ‘lack of literary quality', but for many, this was the book which led them to exploring the possibility of BDSM - a story doesn't have to be well structured for it to still be interesting to a large audience of people. That's not to say I would forgo structure, but do start off with looking towards yourself and what you, as an author, want to express to the audience - what revelation you want them to lead to.

    A good exercise to test this method is to start by writing a short story about a moment within your own life, and telling it in front of an audience. You will notice that by doing so, your ability to provide structure comes naturally - but knowing what exactly your story expresses, what to focus on and how to enhance that effect - that's where the challenge lies.

    So, how does storytelling then work in video games? How does making a player part of a story factor into the equation? Let's talk about narrative design.


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