August 26, 2008

Week 5 reading: Interactive & Modular Storytelling

Filed under: ECU MInT,GDT3102 Writing for Games — steve @ 1:16 pm

Sheldon, L. (2004). Modular Storytelling. Character Development and Storytelling for Games (pp. 85-102). Boston, Massachusetts: Thomson Course Technology.

Glassner, A. (2004). Where We Are Plot Narrative Devices. Interactive Storytelling. Techniques for 21st Century Fiction. (pp. 10-17; 53-67; 74-75; 99-108). Natick, Massachusetts: A. K. Peters.

Sheldon (2004) takes the reader through a development of storytelling in a computer game based environment from linear (pp. 299-301), to branching (pp. 302-307), to web (pp. 307-310), and then to modular (pp. 311-320). Further explorations into the ideals of a modular approach are developed with the proposal that a modular structure could be nested to take it from a 2D to 3D development approach (pp. 319-320). Taking this one step, or many steps, further Sheldon then briefly discusses employing Chaos theory (pp. 320-321) into the structure of the game narrative.

Glassner (2004) provides some background on participation in traditional linear media and describes the difficulties in controlling the interaction between the storyteller and the audience for two-way participation (pp. 10-17). Further readings address the Plot (pp. 53-67), Conflict (pp. 74-75), and Narrative Devices (pp. 99-108).


The challenge that a game designer is presented with is in being able to take a linear narrative and present it as a non-linear sequence in a game world. A narrative is linear by nature – we do expect that a story will have a beginning, a middle, and an end – or rather the “three-act form” (Glassner, 2004, p. 53) – a progressive development of events that can be taking in by the audience and ordered in a logical manner. If in the telling of the narrative the narrator jumped all over the place without any consideration to the progressive, linear nature of an historical account then the audience would be surely left confused and wonder what was going on in the story. Our lives are, after all, linear, and even though we expect to live life with a certain expectation that we are in control of our own destiny – what we choose to do next – we look back at our experiences and view them as a progressive, time based, linear sequence. We may remember things in our past in a non sequential order of course, however we then try to place those events into an historical perspective so that we can identify those experience’s place and relevance in our ‘world’.

In the normal linear form of narrative such as in a novel or a movie the audience would be alerted to any non-sequential aspects of the narrative so that it is recognised that certain events took place prior or parallel to the current point in the narrative’s time. This might be used to describe the back-story of the plot, to put the significance of the current situation into perspective. In a computer game this could no doubt be achieved through the use of cut-scenes. So, what is wrong with the linear nature of a game narrative pieced together with a series of cut-scenes – doesn’t that linear nature make the story easier to comprehend?

Glassner describes the problems with this approach as follows:

This genre of alternating game-and-story can be a lot of fun. But there is no communication between the story and game elements: each lives in its own world. The story pieces are like books: they’re one-way communication from the game to you. The game elements are two-way while you’re playing, but then the story returns, and you’re back to one-way communication. Not all games work this way, but it’s a common approach. (2004, p. 16)

The problem, it would appear, in the computer game environment, particularly 3D games, is the Player expects to have similar control over their destiny in the game world as would be expected in real life. Real life is not about rooms with a one way door through which one enters with a one way door through which one exits, which in turn is connected to the next room via a linear movie that explains where, when or why what will happen next – actually life is a one way door through which one enters with a one way door through which one exits – however, in day to day life, we expect to be able to choose what direction life will take us. Linear computer games are more like the single entry/exit door scenario where there is only one path that the Player can take – it is in many ways predestination, and while there are those who may hold this as a philosophical perspective on their own lives, from an escapist game world reality it could be argued that predestination is not escapist enough. At first, when we enter through the entrance of the game world we would be unaware of the linear nature of the world, but once we start exiting through each level of the game world and realise that we cannot go back then it does become apparent that predestination is at work in the design of the game.

Sheldon discussed how branching (2004, pp. 302-307) has been used by game designers to overcome the linear aspect of game design and to make it more “interactive” (p. 303). However he argues that branching in its own right can create problems by unfolding the narrative in an illogical order. The structure of the narrative sequence can become fragmented and the Player is left to resolve important in game situations/tasks without the benefit of the prior knowledge to solve the problem presented. Sheldon describes it like this: “The game frequently loses track of exactly what information you have learned” (p. 302). The other issue that Sheldon raises is the use of this interactive, branch based approach to the game design is simply to provide interactivity without any real addition or extension to the narrative’s linear form: “… branches are there just to be branches. The story might shift slightly, but the differences are not meaningful” (p. 304).

Sheldon presented the concept of the web story structure: “Less linear but still with strings attached” (2004, p. 308). Perhaps what this structure can be described as is a branching system with an intelligent management system controlling how the narrative unfolds with more flexible yet still predefined pathways. Rather than a simple branching system that might be likened to additional doors in a room that the Player can exit out of into other rooms or levels in the game world the web story structure allows that but tracks what the Player has experienced in the game narrative to determine what the Player knows about the narrative. Sheldon describe it as “the first truly non-linear storytelling form” and that it “still feels familiar to gamers and reviewers because they mistake it for branching” (p. 309). Is this last point significant in the mechanics of game development?

If traditionally game worlds have been constructed from a linear arrangement of rooms or levels, with branching being an extension on that arrangement of rooms and levels, that the Player accepts for the loading of scenes or levels then yes it is a significant point that Sheldon raised. Depending on the game engine, the graphics card memory and or processing power of the GPU on the Player’s computer loading of textures or the use of procedural surfaces places limitations on what can be displayed on screen at any one time. To hope that an entire game’s world can be stored in GPU RAM in full high definition glory is perhaps, at this stage in any case, still a utopian ideal. To work within the limitations of computer hardware and to speed up loading, running and frames per second rates games are often constructed in sections or levels that are loaded as the Player leaves one section and crosses over into the next. If the Player has come to accept this a limitation of the game world then it certainly helps the developers work within the limitations of current computer hardware.

Additionally, the game developers will more than probably have several development teams working on different levels or sections of the game world at any one time. These levels need to be brought together in a reasonably seamless manner to achieve a sense of continuity and unity in the game world, no doubt, yet their development in parallel by different teams would be seen as necessary in order to get the game out on schedule. Thus a modular approach to the development of the game world would certainly be of benefit to the production of the game.

Taking this modular concept to heart Sheldon proposes a truly non-linear modular design to the game narrative – a total free for all in how the Player experiences the story though still in a three-part plot structure with a beginning and an end. The middle of the story is what Sheldon describes as “Storytelling that matches the way gamers play” (2004, p. 311). A world without predefined paths or rails that drives the Player in one particular, linear derived narrative structure” “The world doesn’t continue in a linear way, it expands” (Sheldon, p. 312). Virtual Worlds are then given as an example as to how far games have moved from a path structure (Sheldon, p. 312).

Glassner (2004) defined this three-part structure as: Act 1 – Complication (p. 53); Act II – Development (p. 56); and Act III – Resolution (p. 58). The first Act could no doubt, in a game narrative scenario, be treated with a cinematic exposition that then placed the Player into the second Act with some degree of back-story. Then the Player could be free to partake in expanding narrative that Sheldon described. During the climax in the third Act the Player either accomplishes his objectives thus completing/winning the game, or perhaps in the style of snakes and ladders, returns to an earlier stage of the second Act.

It should be noted that Sheldon does not believe that all games should be designed in a modular fashion, nor are they easy to construct as modular storytelling “requires much more effort” (2004, pp. 312-313). However Sheldon does state: “No other structure is better at integrating story and gameplay than modular” (p. 313). Despite the difficulties in the design of the narrative one can only begin to imagine the AI that would be needed to track the Player’s progress through a totally non-linear narrative game world if that game world was to be more than a social network such as Second Life. No doubt these AI systems do exist as Virtual RPG worlds exist however it could also be seen that a linear or branch based linear game narrative would be far easier to construct and manage.

It is perhaps at this point where one begins to see a crossover between a Virtual Game World engine and intelligent learning systems being developed for pedagogical use in computer based learning systems. A game world that not only tracks the Player through its world but also learns how best to present problems for the Player to solve or tasks to overcome would seem to create an unique player experience. Sun, Joy, & Griffiths (2007) in their paper “The Use of Learning Objects and Learning Styles in a Multi-Agent Education System” described the design of an intelligent learning system that adapted to the changing needs of students through the use of  a multi-agent system that was based on the Felder-Silverman Learning Style Model which defines four dimensions of learning style preferences: sensing or intuitive; visual or verbal; active or reflective; and, sequential or global. The design of a game world that adapted to the Player’s experiences would, one feels, add an extra dimension to narrative gameplay.

As Carson (2000, ¶ 3), on environmental game design, exclaimed:

Take me to a place that:

  • Lets me go somewhere I could never go.
  • Lets me be someone I could never be.
  • Lets me do things I could never do!

If a game world is a form of escapism where one enters in to a new and unknown world full of unexpected mysteries and experiences that enthrals the Player into total submersion then it could perhaps be likened to an ideal of recreating a dream like environment. Dreams are surely one of the most escapist aspects of our existence – perhaps apart from severely mind altering drugs or hysterical phenomena that perhaps could be seen to denote other more serious issues that were perhaps a perfect ideal. Dreams seem to adapt and evolve in a phantasmagorical fashion as a memory stored in the unconscious mind is “revealed to us in dreams, where it appears not as rational thought but as a symbolic image” (Jung, 1964, p. 23).These visual imageries are both fascinating, intriguing and can promote a rich tapestry of associated emotions.

One should also not forget the role that audio can play in the creation of a game world escapist fantasy. Freud stated that:

Verbal residues are derived primarily from auditory perceptions, so that the system Pcs. has, as it were, a special sensory source. The visual components of word-presentations are secondary, acquired through reading, and may to begin with be left on one side; so may the motor images of words, which, except with deaf-mutes, play the part of auxiliary indications. In essence a word is after all the mnemic residue of a word that has been heard. (Freud, 1986, p. 446)

If what Freud stated is correct then it is the audible, spoken word that has the strongest affect on the stirring of memories stored in the unconscious mind – combined with archetypical images in an intelligent learning system that adapted the game world to present a series of tasks and situations for the Player to experience perhaps then one could create a truly immersive and non-linear game environment.


Week 5 Discussion:

A. In what ways have games that you have played employed narrative? Where is the narrative located in those games?

Tomb Raider: Anniversary – Cut scenes are used to develop the linear narrative and link the levels and/or sequences together

Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind – Open-ended narrative revealed through conversations with NPCs and other in game experiences. The Player has a log/journal and a map that can be referred back to in order to keep track of quests and where one has travelled in the game world.

Max Payne – Linear problem solving level based third person shooter. Narrative is revealed by cut scenes and storyboard montages.

Half-Life 2 – Linear problem solving level based first person shooter. Narrative is revealed by NPCs through exploration of in game elements.

B. Define the difference between two linear and two non-linear narrative structures, with reference to their significance for story and game design. Try to think of examples for each.


Traditional Linear (Sheldon, 2004, pp. 299-301) or “Three Act Form” (Glassner, 2004, pp. 53-58):  A sequential ‘Graphic Novel’ approach to the unfolding of the narrative. Advancement to each subsequent level is dependent on completing tasks in the current level. Examples: Tomb Raider, Max Payne, Half-Life 2 – most FPS games.

Branching Linear (Sheldon, 2004, pp. 302-307): Still linear in nature though with additional side paths that the Player can take to provide the illusion of choice. Can present problems with the Player presented with tasks they have not had prior knowledge to solve, or paths may simply be dead-ends. Example: Myst? (Has been a very long time since playing that game.)

Non Linear:

Web [Simple non-linear] (Sheldon, 2004, pp. 307-310): Similar to Linear Branching though using an intelligent system to track the Player’s experiences throughout the game. Allows stages in the narrative to unfold in a non-linear fashion – although the overall plot would still be dependent on the completion of certain tasks for the narrative to progress. Example: Morrowind.

Modular [non-linear] (Sheldon, 2004, pp. 311-320): Open ended “Virtual World” system. Example “World of Warcraft” (haven’t played it as such).



Reference list:

Carson, D. (2000). Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry. Retrieved August 24, 2008, from http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20000301/carson_01.htm

Freud, S. & Freud, A. (1986). The Essentials of Psycho-Analysis: By Sigmund Freud. Selected and introduced by Anna Freud. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Glassner, A. (2004). Where We Are Plot Narrative Devices. Interactive Storytelling. Techniques for 21st Century Fiction. Natick, Massachusetts: A. K. Peters.

Jung, C.G., von Franz, M. -L., Henderson, J. L., Jacobi, J. & Jaffe, A. (1964). Man and his Symbols. London, England: Penguin Group

Sheldon, L. (2004). Modular Storytelling. Character Development and Storytelling for Games. Boston, Massachusetts: Thomson Course Technology.

Sun, S., Joy, M., & Griffiths, N. (2007). The Use of Learning Objects and Learning Styles in a Multi-Agent Education System. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 18(3), 381-398.  Retrieved August 13, 2008, from ProQuest Education Journals database. (Document ID: 1317096231).

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