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  • Storytelling In Games: Time And Space

    - Robert Renke
  • Chapter 6: Time and Space in an interactive medium

    Of course, in the end, the personal story is always experienced linearly - even if it is built out of non-linear components. (Claussen, 2017)

    Herman(2002) coins the term storyworld, referring to the digital world created through the player's mental construction bridging the gaps left in-between textual, visual, auditory, and haptic cues. (Wei et al, 2010)

    Games are a temporal narrative medium (Wei et al, 2010) in that players drive the plot forward through gameplay over time(Dinehart, 2019). Citing Arsenault and Perron, Wei et al. argue that time and space can be seen as separate, yet connected aspects of experience, "since gameplay occurs through a series of interactions that take place in patterns of reflexive and cyclic progression. In our construction of a story world, time and space are two aspects that complement and reference each other."

    There is extensive research evidence that mature comprehenders engage in the necessary cognitive processes to encode causal connections in memory. Adult comprehenders remember events that have more causal connections and rate them as more important to the narrative. (Lynch et al., 2008)

    The cognitive process of narrative comprehension is analogous to player experience during gameplay. As Jenkins observes, players form their "mental maps of the narrative action and the story space" and act upon those mental maps "to test them against the game world itself". Nitsche views narrative as "a form of understanding of the events a player causes, triggers, and encounters inside a video game space". (Wei et al., 2010) 


    • Storyworld: fictional world resulting from the player's mental construction

    • Game world: tangible source of the storyworld

    • Narrative comprehension: process of learning to understand a story

    Space and time connected

    Aarseth(2001) claims spatiality to be the defining element in digital games. "Games are essentially concerned with spatial representation and negotiation; therefore the classification of a computer game can be based on how it represents or, perhaps, implements space".

    Wei et. Al(2010) follow up on Aarseth's claim, stating that various classifications of game space exist, including Wolf's 11 spatial structures based on film theory's on-off screen dichotomy, or Boron's historical approach defining his 15 types of game space.

    Jenkins(2002) suggests four ways in which the structuring of game space can facilitate narrative experience. (Wei et al., 2010)

    According to Jenkins, "spatial stories can evoke pre-existing narrative associations; they can provide a staging ground where narrative events are enacted; they may embed narrative information within their mise-en-scene; or they provide resources for emergent narratives"

    Nitsche(2007) argues that mapping game time onto game space can only be done with spatial reference thanks to the continuity of space. Time in games can be stopped, reversed, or altered, which can cause problems when trying to denote a specific time point. Spatial reference is, therefore, more stable. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Using an architectural approach, Nitsche categorizes spatial structures into tracks/rails, labyrinths/mazes, and arenas. Similar to Jenkins, he observes that evocative narrative elements can be organized according to spatial structure - the player's experience is therefore driven by space. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Bakhtin(1937) challenged the opposition of time and space proposing the term chronotope, referring to the connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships. Juul(2004) and Zagal and Matea(2008) build upon Bakhtin's notion to define their frameworks for space-time in games. (Wei et al., 2010)


    • Chronotope: connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships
    • Jenkins' 4 narrative options:
      • Evoked narratives: spatial design either enhances sense of immersion within a familiar world or communicates a fresh perspective by altering established details
      • Enacted narratives: the story is structured around the character's movement through space, and environmental features are used to retard or accelerate plot trajectory
      • Embedded narratives: Game space becomes a "memory palace" whose contents must be deciphered to reconstruct the plot
      • Emergent narratives: Game spaces are designed to enable story construction by players
    • Nitsche's 3 spatial structures:
      • Tracks/rails: linear spatial organization
      • Labyrinths/mazes: branching spatial organization
      • Arenas: open spatial organization

    Classification of narrative time

    Most approaches depart from the distinction of two temporalities, storytime and discourse time.

    Storytime is the basic sequence of events, the chronological order in which events happen. Discourse time, on the other hand, can be seen as "time as told", and thus be understood differently according to the context. In digital games, storytime remains similar, while discourse time becomes more complex. It should refer to both "reading time" and "acting time". Thus, we refer to operational time to refer to the running process of a game driven by player's actions and the game's autonomous mechanisms. (Wei et al., 2010)

    The relationships between those two schemes can produce many interesting narrative effects. These relationships are classified by Genette as order, duration, and frequency. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Herman uses "fuzzy temporality" to describe temporal relations that involve intentional inexactitude. He defines "polychrony" to cover all types of narration with fuzzy temporality. This notion complements Genette's classification as a fourth category of temporal relations. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Juul proposes the classification into playtime and fictional time, and uses the term projection to describe the link between playtime and fictional time. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Juul argues that variable speed can influence the mapping of playtime and event time. Many action games, such as Quake III offer a direct temporal mapping, while in a game such as SimCity the construction of buildings takes only minutes or seconds. (Nitsche, 2007)

    Following the mechanics given by building simulators such as SimCity, the realm of Free-to-Play opens up for a common use of projection in matters of monetization, as illustrated here by GoodGame Empire:

    Figure 1: GoodGame Empire. GoodGame Studios.

    Hitchens extends on Nitsche to present a new model for game time, dividing it into playtime, game world time, engine time, and game progress time. Tychsen et al. Build upon Juul's model in the context of multiplayer role-playing games, creating their seven-layer model. Zagal and Matea propose four temporal frames for games: real-world time, gameworld time, coordination time, and fictive time. (Wei et al., 2010)


    • Storytime: chronological order in which story events happen
    • Discourse time: chronological order in which story events are told
    • Operational time: running time of a game is driven by both player's actions and the game's autonomous mechanisms
    • Genette's temporal relationships:
      • Order: relation between the order of events in discourse time and chronological sequence in storytime
      • Duration: relation between the speed of events in discourse time and duration of happenings in storytime
      • Frequency: relation between frequency of events in discourse time and storytime
    • Fuzzy temporality: temporal relations of intentional inexactitude
    • Polychrony: any ordering within the realm of fuzzy temporality
    • Juul's model of time in games:
      • Game state: The state of the game at a given time
      • Playtime: The time used by the player to play the game
      • Event time: The time of the events in the game
      • Mapping/Projection: Process of claiming that what the player does also happens in event time
      • Speed: relation between playtime and event time

    Order against linearity

    Herman(2002) rejects narrative time to be determinable or indeterminable. Citing Margolin's notes, he states that a given set of events can be ordered in four ways: Full ordering(possible to assign an order), random ordering(all orderings are equally possible), alternative or multiple ordering(probability of one ordering can be higher than the other), and partial ordering(events can be "uniquely sequenced relative to all others, some only relative to some others, and some relative to none" ). (Wei et al., 2010)

    In a polychronic narrative, events can be inexactly ordered, inexactly coded, or both. A common method of creating nonlinear story is to allow varied orderings. To ensure that the game still follows an overarching story, foldback structure is very popular, used to balance agency at a local level with narrative at a global level. Foldback structure divides the game into several chapters and accommodates multiple plot variations. While players can go through a different set of events or a different order, inevitable events or gates occur between parts. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Figure 2: Van de Meer, A., (2019). Structures of choice in narratives in gamification and games. UX Collective.

    Order concerns the relation between the order of events (discourse time) and their chronological sequence as constructed by the viewer (storytime). In games, order is the relation between the ordering in operation and the ordering in the story. When these two orderings are consistent, it results in a linear story. As Adams points out, linear stories can have more narrative power and emotional impact, at the cost of a corresponding loss in player agency. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Managing order through logic

    Addressing the issue of order, Ingold(2018) talks about his design process as seeing all content as "atomic". He defines narrative atoms as any block of player action, including dialog. Atoms are interdependent, and their relationship is guarded by preconditions. Those preconditions must be satisfied for the atom to be allowed to surface.

    Ingold furthermore classifies preconditions into three states: world state (where is the player, what is visible, what is open/closed, what does the player have, who else is there,...), technically managed through mechanics such as trigger volumes, raycast, or state machines. Knowledge states (what does the player know, what do they need to know, what leads are they following), and recent past (what has just happened, what did the player recently do, what has the player talked about,...).

    This form of technical execution allows the designer to add atoms responsively. Thanks to the use of preconditions, non-linear flow happens naturally. however, the writing process is tedious, repetitive, and error-prone, since, on any piece of dialog, the designer needs to list every single way it would be inappropriate to say, on every single option in the game. To cope with that issue, authoring patterns are used. To solve this issue, the speaker further divides atoms into hierarchical scopes, as he puts it, "buckets of context".

    Figure 3: Ingold, J., (2018). Heaven's Vault: Creating a Dynamic Detective Story. Game Developers Conference.

    Elan Ruskin(2012) refers to Herman's(2002) concept of "fuzzy logic" as used in Left4Dead for character dialog. According to the speaker, it is easy to think of dialog in terms of conditions. On-event, a set of conditions and priorities is called to decide which line the character will say. For example, a character's dialogue line after being bitten could overwrite the default line when located in a circus environment, consecutively the circus-related line could be overwritten if bitten by a clown unless the clown-related line had already been triggered within a certain timeframe.

    Sylvester(2013) lists a variety of mechanical devices being used to enforce story ordering. Levels are a classic device. Similarly, quests offer a softer ordering device. Sylvester defines a quest as "a self-contained mini-story embedded in a larger, unordered world."

    Within the quest sequence, the order of events is fixed. But the quest could be started at any time, suspended, or eventually abandoned.

    Sometimes users are given control over the order of the story, especially in the realm of open-world games. In the Noclip documentary on The Witcher 3 quest design, Lead Quest Designer Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz explains how they solved the issue of anticipating player-acted order on the example of the "Lord of Undvik" quest, where the player could find his target before actually talking to the quest-giver. Through Herman's fuzzy logic, this narrative problem was solved the same way Left4Dead handles its dialogue, by changing the lines depending on whether state the player-perceived narration was in at the time of obtaining the quest.

    Jon Ingold(2017) addresses the issue expressed by Wei with his concept of encounters. While quests would follow a mostly linear logic, with the only controlling device being the availability of quest giver and resources, completion requisites, and triggers, encounters are built flexibly depending on the world state. In Sorcery, flowcharts were used to line out those encounters to follow the current world state:

    Figure 3,4: Ingold, J., (2017). Narrative Sorcery: Coherent Storytelling in an Open World. Game Developers Conference.

    With longer plotlines, this can get utterly complex, which in turn was solved through state machines. They are "state trees that depict the causality in your game".

    Figure 5,6: Ingold, J., (2017). Narrative Sorcery: Coherent Storytelling in an Open World. Game Developers Conference.


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