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  • Key Principles Of Region-Based Narrative

    [10.29.19]
    - Nathan Savant
  • In my last article, I described the three act structure in video games by tearing out the linearity of the classic structure and including another dimension to it, reflecting the players' ability to choose and approach game moments in any way they like.

    In this article I'm going to look at each "Act" and how that pizza chart format can be used to chart the individual elements within, allowing greater flexibility to design regardless of your overall structure.

    When we look at a Metroidvania title, we see an open world to progress through and at various points in our linear progression we see abilities that allow us to move through the world in a new way, giving us access to more of the map.

    A Zelda title is much the same, except that we are given access to most of the world from the start, and what we unlock is the ability to go into specific spaces called "dungeons" that offer a more curated experience.

    Holistically, Metroid and Zelda pacing structures are the same, you have an open possibility space that you explore until you are blocked, and then you search for a new ability to unblock yourself. The story in these games uses each dungeon as a narrative note, and the time before and after that dungeon act as the lead up to and the transition between those beats, preparing or expanding on story moments with NPC comments, environmental changes, etc. Each game will use the open space differently, so let's look at an example:


    This is Link's Awakening. Each dungeon is housed in an area that you gain access to by completing subsequent dungeons. As you explore, you unlock more and more of the world, and find more dungeons. What we also see in this chart is a demonstration of pacing, in that the area associated with Dungeon 1 is just the starting village and a small area south of that.

    Dungeon 2 expands that slightly, but mostly reinforces our knowledge of the same space we learned in the first section. Dungeon 3, however, is a huge expansion, giving us access to roughly half the remaining map. Dungeons 4 and 5 have us exploring that massive open space, and increasing its size even more. Dungeons 6, 7, and 8 all isolate us into much smaller areas of the game, acknowledging that by now we've explored and are ready to spend more time in the now-much-longer dungeon areas.

    What happens in these open world spaces varies from dungeon to dungeon, most of the earlier ones simply let you explore spaces and talk to the people who live there, while later dungeons tend to have you go to a specific place to reveal some hidden treasure that had been under your nose all along.

    So to map an example of this onto that pizza chart I mentioned last time, here's the lead up into the first dungeon:


    Link's Awakening is a very linear game as a whole, so there's not a lot of open exploration in its collectibles (though it does offer quite a number of side objectives you can do in any order, and plenty of time/incentive to explore). However, imagine if you could get the sword at any time in this sequence. Imagine also, if the Toadstool, Magic Powder, and Tarin quests were all unrelated to each other and you could tackle them in any order; or if the Key could be obtained at any time after you had done those prerequisite tasks.

    This entire area before Dungeon 1 is a miniature open world game, a microcosm of the game as a whole. In this case that microcosm is as linear as the game as a whole, but we see a loosening of the reins in more modern titles. Breath of the Wild was a great crystallization of this concept, even if its dungeons weren't quite as narratively developed as those in Link's Awakening.

    This structure exists well outside the Zelda formula as well. In Super Metroid, Norfair acts as a specific story moment in its entirety. The world around you has become dangerous and full of fire and that conveys a strong sense of tone. The Ghost Ship acts as a strong, linear experience almost like a Zelda dungeon. Maridia is full of water and walls that must be blasted open, which provides us with a particular feeling as we explore, and is home to the first Metroids we see in this game.

    While Super Metroid is light on story, you get a solid feeling for each area, because the tone is presented as you play, and the narrative information you need to know is simply present in the world you explore, or forced in front of you in the form of a boss. If you wanted, you could even include more specific ‘dungeon' sequences in a Metroidvania game, highlighting more specific narrative moments with a space catered to telling that story.

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