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  • Structures Of Narrative: An Introduction

    [06.12.18]
    - Gregory Pellechi
  • Games have structures just as stories do, and often times those are the same structures. The original Halo: Combat Evolved has a very literary structure, which is the reason I wanted to make this episode. What good would I be at storytelling if I went and spoiled everything right at the start. But on this episode we're going to explore four narrative structures and how they can work with games.

    This isn't going to be an examination of the Hero's Journey and Dan Harmon's story circle, or the three-act versus five-act structure. There are plenty of great videos for that already out there. I'll provide links to some of them, but rest assured I will do an episode about each of those and their relevance to video games in the future.

    Other videos on story structure:

    For now I want to talk about more narrative structures that work with or on top of linear or fractured narratives as well as the hero's journey. It won't only be narrative that's affected by such structures, but character point of view, level design and more. Because of the nature of this discussion not all of my examples will have video game examples, but I'll do my best to demonstrate my examples in both video games and another medium. Probably books. Because we are talking about narrative structures and many, if not all of them, have been piloted in the novel.

    Just so we're all on the same page a linear narrative is the most common structure we encounter in stories. It's A leads to B and onto C and finally D. Most movies and games work in this manner.

    A fractured narrative is everything taking place out of order. Think Pulp Fiction or any game that lets you select the order in which you accomplish missions. Granted the second example isn't perfect as the missions can come in any order but the story can still be linear. Regardless you should have a good idea of what I mean. So now on with the fun stuff.

    The Frame Story

    Also known as a story-within-a-story, this is not a new structure. It's occurred in many cultures and dates back thousands of years. Because humans are nothing if not good at talking about themselves when trying to talk about others.

    One Thousand and One Nights, the Canterbury Tales, Wuthering Heights, and Heart of Darkness are all classic examples of frame stories, where the narrator of the story-within-a-story is taking part in a story of their own. Gears of War: Judgement is probably the best example of this in video games, because it's not used intermittently but as a structure that informs gameplay. It's a mechanic all its own.

    Judgement is also a frame story that closes out and completes both plots. Neither need be finished for a story to be told or a game to be satisfying. Lack of closure of either story is a great way to leave room for a sequel. Or to leave any resolutions up to a player's imagination. But, and here's a line anyone who's watched my previous videos should be ready for, more on that in a future episode.

    Frame stories are great for all the possibilities they present. Episodic productions are perfectly situated for such a structure. Just think of How I Met Your Mother. The entire series, not just episode to episode, involved a frame story. Tales from the Borderlands all takes place within a frame story. The characters of Fiona and Rhys are at the mercy of the stranger to whom they must relate their tale. In doing so the structure allows for something few other games do - unreliable narration.

    Unreliable narration is a nice trick to play narratively in video games, because it always leaves the player questioning what's the truth. Is what the narrator(s) saying reality, or is it the gameplay experience of the player. You may want to say at this point that it's the game play as that's what the player knows to be true given they've experiences it. However that doesn't have to be the case. Spec Ops: The Line did just this - it asked the player to question their actions and what they were seeing on the screen even as they continued to play. Loading screen texts, changes to the menu screen, everything began to play into this fractured narrative.

    This worked so well because the game mimicked reality in the lack of information provide. A black and white screen displaying the heat signatures of supposed hostiles marks no differences between combatants and civilians. So the player is forced to contend with this lack of information from the tools provided, not just the stories characters within the game are telling. Frame stories also allow for a change of perspective - telling the story from a different character's point of view. Doing so doesn't require a frame story, Halo 2, doesn't have one and with each level you switch between the Master Chief and Arbiter.

    But it provides a context within the narrative for the switch in perspective. This can play up the aforementioned unreliable narration as characters present opposing opinions of what happened. Unreliable narration and opposing views on events may not be what you actually want for your game given the way fandom has developed to want a solid canon. Fictional universes, regardless of medium, can provide that solid structure whereas reality doesn't.

    Just look at any conflict and the opposing sides' views of how it occurred and why. Hell Finland's participation in World War II is a great example. Finland fought three separate wars due to alliances and the resulting conflicts as those alliances changed. Those wars by the way were the Winter War, the Continuation War and the Lapland War. It's an interesting aspect of Finnish history and one I encourage you to read about.

    History and video games are replete with letters. It's not uncommon to find books that are a collection of letters between two famous people from history. In video games those letters are often just a means of providing exposition and world building for the player. But those letters can have a narrative.

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