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Narrative Structures

Narrative Structures

The structures of the stories that are unfolded by playing the game.

Having stories in games gives players both motivations for the existence of goals and challenges in the game and rewards for completing the goals by weaving the consequences of players' actions into an unfolding story. This Narrative Structure does not have to be completely fixed; many games for example allow many different kinds of endings or let players achieve goals in many different ways without affecting the overall structure of the story.

Example: The Sims does not have an explicit Narrative Structure built into the game but allows players to create their own stories by directing the actions of the Sims.

Example: The Final Fantasy series has a complex story with personal relations as an important ingredient, and playing the game may be as much for experiencing the story as the gameplay challenges it offers.

Using the pattern

The main ingredients of Narrative Structures are Characters with their goals, Ultra-Powerful Events that ensure dramatic points and challenges. The latter is commonly Enemies, with Boss Monsters representing points of extra Tension and possible Closure Points. The Right Level of Complexity of a Narrative Structure may be achieved by adding Role Reversals and Red Herrings. Narrative Structures require that at least some actions are Irreversible Actions for the narrative move forward and make Storytelling affect the game state, with Cut Scenes as the strongest form game designers have to control the flow of narrative. Reversability, however, is often used to avoid player frustration associated with forcing the players to play the same parts of the game all over again in case of failing to achieve subgoals in the Narrative Structure.

The unfolding of the story may be strengthened by not allowing players full knowledge of the events to come, i. e., giving them Limited Foresight. This can be done by ensuring Imperfect Information or not having Predictable Consequences. The former can be achieved by Levels or by not providing a good Game State Overview. The latter can be done by Randomness, requiring players to perform Leaps of Faith, or presenting Incompatible Goals to players, which they have to choose from. The problems of providing at the same time Imperfect Information and using that information without Dedicated Game Facilitators make strong Narrative Structures more difficult to use in Self-Facilitated Games.

Narrative Structures can either be used to explain changes in the Game World that give Varied Gameplay, or be used to explain players' goals. Explanations of changes often occur at Closure Points and may be needed to describe Rewards and Penalties within a Consistent Reality Logic, for example the reasons of Ability Losses or New Abilities. When used to explain players' goals, Hierarchies of Goals or Dynamic Goal Characteristics can be used to gradually unfold the structure of the narrative. Clues such as Achilles' Heels revealed by the Narrative Structure can make it more likely that players complete the goals, modulating the Right Level of Difficulty and making it more likely that the story will progress. Common specific goals used to drive Narrative Structures include Rescue, Delivery, Collection, and Traverse. Unknown Goals are essential for Narrative Structures if the story is to contain Surprises building on Betrayals. Ephemeral Goals can be used to modify Narrative Structures while they unfold, but usually require Dedicated Game Facilitators. Game Masters are especially suited for this and can intertwine Player Defined Goals and Planned Character Development into narratives that would be impossible to do otherwise.

Narrative Structures can be enabled by changing player abilities. For example, Role Reversal may represent Character Development in a story or Privileged Movement may allow new areas to be explored and initiate new events in the story. Movement of where Spawning occurs is a way to advance the Narrative Structure by moving where gameplay action occurs.


Narrative Structures are ways to design Hovering Closures and Higher-Level Closures as Gameplay Progresses and increase the potential for Tension and Anticipation. Although much of Narrative Structures are Extra-Game Consequences in the form of Illusionary Rewards, they can describe Alternative Realities through Storytelling and explain game state changes through Indirect Information. This can give players Immersion or Emotional Immersion in Game Worlds, make players feel Identification with Characters, work as Goal Indicators, as well as explain the presences of Enemies and Boss Monsters. Games that have Narrative Structures that rely on Limited Foresight and Surprises for their Emotional Immersion can have problems with Replayability due to the possibility of Trans-Game Information.

Narrative Structures usually give players a Limited Set of Actions of actions that actually advance the story, either explicitly by only providing a few actions that all affect the narrative or implicitly by only advancing the story when the player makes the game state have a specific configuration by performing actions. These limitations on influence may break players' Illusion of Influence or make Freedom of Choice pointless, as the Perceived Chance to Succeed may be the same regardless of what the player does (actually it is more often that the players cannot fail than that they cannot succeed).

It is easier to maintain and effectively deliver a Narrative Structure in Single-Player Games as the game does not have to try to time events to two different players. However, games that allow players to have Creative Control over the Narrative Structure, often through Roleplaying that is translated into game state change by Game Masters, allow for Player Constructed Worlds and Never Ending Stories in Persistent Game Worlds. This is a means for giving players Empowerment.


Instantiates: Surprises, Limited Set of Actions, Emotional Immersion, Anticipation, Identification, Immersion, Extra-Game Consequences, Tension, Higher-Level Closures as Gameplay Progresses, Right Level of Complexity, Hovering Closures

Modulates: Achilles' Heels, Unknown Goals, Persistent Game Worlds, Alternative Reality, Single-Player Games, Consistent Reality Logic, Right Level of Difficulty

Instantiated by: Hierarchy of Goals, Leaps of Faith, Irreversible Actions, Illusionary Rewards, Ultra-Powerful Events, Dedicated Game Facilitators, Game Masters, Characters, Storytelling, Cut Scenes

Modulated by: Delivery, Indirect Information, Limited Foresight, Character Development, Trans-Game Information, Red Herrings, Ephemeral Goals, Never Ending Stories, Planned Character Development, Traverse, Privileged Movement, Incompatible Goals, Role Reversal, Goal Indicators, Creative Control, Rewards, Enemies, Levels, Ability Losses, Dynamic Goal Characteristics, Imperfect Information, Player Constructed Worlds, Randomness, Rescue, Collection, Clues, Closure Points, New Abilities, Spawning, Betrayal, Empowerment, Varied Gameplay, Reversability, Roleplaying, Game State Overview

Potentially conflicting with: Penalties, Ephemeral Goals, Illusion of Influence, Replayability, Perceived Chance to Succeed, Ability Losses, Planned Character Development, Self-Facilitated Games, Player Defined Goals, Freedom of Choice

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(C) Æliens 04/09/2009

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