Experimental narrative structures in games

Note: This article is intentionally magniloquent and bombastic. Read it at the risk of becoming irritated and rebutting it in a forum, blog, or on Digg.

What is a first-person game? Third-person? Most can easily identify these terms as referring to a game’s “camera” and how it relates to the virtual physical space of the game world. Also utilized are omnipresent viewpoints (strategy games), and the somewhat outdated second-person (text adventures).

In literary terms, however, the concept of “perspective” is much more ambiguous. While stories are still generally narrated from the first or third-person points of view, there are no “cameras.” Rather there are imagined virtual spaces, internal thoughts, and dialogue. The point of view is limited only to the constraints of language.

We’ve devised a few ways games may be able to borrow some of this freedom to create more engrossing experiences. The current standard for in-game storytelling is, at best, equivalent to that of B movies (sans a few shining exceptions, which haven’t had to overcome much competition). Some, like Will Wright, have questioned the need to utilize linear storytelling in games, but we are not tackling that argument at the moment. With the assumption that our goal is to devise more engrossing story-driven games, we present the following hypothetical narrative structures.


Our first hypothetical game verbally narrates itself in the first-person. When the player opens a door, for example, a film noir inspired voice (think Max Payne) might narrate, “I was fearful that the slightest creak would wake my landlord.”

Ignoring the very real possibility that this could be the most irritating game ever created, it creates the potential for some interesting effects:

- It allows the story to progress smoothly, and helps to mitigate the limitations of the game engine by explaining the nuances of the character’s actions and thoughts in a literary style.

- It questions the nature of free will within the game world, and by association, reality. If the character is one step ahead of everything the player is doing as him, who is really in control of whom?

- It presents an opportunity to disorient the player. Imagine that for several hours, the narrator vocalizes every action the player is undertaking, and predicts every action he will take before he does it. Then, at some pivotal moment (similar to Bioshock’s), the player is forced to act against the will of the narrator’s dialogue. The player is left with a strange feeling of disassociation. Most games, by nature, and not by design, contain hints of this dualistic feeling - there is a natural disconnect between the player sitting on his couch and the in-game character.

By calling direct attention to this disconnect, however, the effect is amplified and experienced in one moment, rather than merely as a side effect of the game’s limitations. The Metal Gear Solid series famously breaks the fourth wall at certain points to draw the player into the game and create a sense of uneasiness.