Losing the Plot with Game Narrative

  • Edwin McRae

Games in general, and RPGs in particular, rely too much on Plot. They neglect the power of effective, story-rich game environments. Settings that require a narrative design mindset to forge rather than a traditional 'storyliner' mindset.

This partly comes down to 'narrative' meaning different things to different people.  The term 'Narrative Structure' encourages 'Hero's Journey' and 'Three Act Structure' thinking, cinematic ways of storytelling that are holding back our 'art of game-based storytelling' in many ways.

The game writer can choose to 'structure a diegetic story' or they can choose to 'design an emergent narrative experience.'

Diegetic Story and Emergent Narrative. Basically... 'What is told' and 'What is experienced'.

What is told = Plot

What is experienced = Narrative

The trick is to remember to that, in games, we're not dealing with an audience. In games, we're dealing with players. And many players don't like to be walked through a story like a passive observer on a guided tour. 

These players want to feel like active agents in their experience. They want to 'own' the story, and to own it, they need to have a hand in its creation.

And to do that, a game needs to be designed so that all the pieces are laid out for the player to interact with. The player then has the freedom to make what they want from those pieces.

Except that we're not talking about 'sandbox' games and user-generated content like Minecraft. We're talking about a middle ground where narrative empowers player agency by offering Objectives, Guidance and Meaning.

Objective = I could choose to attain this goal within the game.

Guidance = I will be taught how to complete that goal.

Meaning = I will learn why that goal matters by the effect it has on the game world.


This is my final result in King of Dragon Pass, a combination of RPG and town-builder that, to me, epitomises this narrative middle ground.

All of the narrative pieces were laid out. It was then up to me to use those pieces to forge my own saga. My own Plot. I should've been nicer to those beast folk. :-(

So here's the 'take home message'.

It's up to the writer to lose the plot so that the player can find it.






About Edwin McRae

Edwin is a narrative consultant and mentor for the games industry.

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