Story in Games

Henry Jenkins is one of my favorite authors writing about games, along with a few others such as Ian Bogost and Daniel Cook. But you're not as likely to find his writing on the web. Well, maybe you are, but that's not how I came across it. :p

One piece of his, which you may not have encountered since it was published as an academic paper rather than a blog post or online article, is called Game Design as Narrative Architecture. It examines four ways that story can be expressed through gameplay, and I found it very inspiring when I read it. I thought I'd share my notes here. :)

Spatial Stories and Environmental Storytelling

Evocative Spaces
ex: American McGee's Alice
  • play on existing mental mappings
  • fill in broadly the spaces and moods to evoke earlier mental images formed by previous storytelling experiences
  • story information spread across books, film, television, comics, games, etc.
Enacting Stories
ex: I Fell in Love With the Majesty of Colors
  • let players perform or witness narrative events
  • broadly defined goals and conflicts
  • obstacles and affordances facilitate player's movement to resolution
  • enact specific, localized incidents or micronarratives - shape emotion
  • compelling framework vs. local freedom
Embedded Narratives
ex: Myst
  • linear backstory separate from nonlinear experience of player
  • find bits of evidence to reconstruct understanding of the backstory, and test these mental maps against game world
  • distributing information across the game space, redundantly
  • can mix enacted and embedded narratives
  • melodrama based on the external project of internal states - spaces of mood, feeling, not just factual information
Emergent Narratives
ex: The Sims
  • stories emerge from player's experience with the system
  • the system is simplified, designed to maximize narrative possibilities
  • characters with desires, needs that can come into conflict, with emotional responses to events, and consequences to their choices
  • designing spaces to have poetic and symbolic potential
In Summary

evoked - new perspective on existing story

enacted - story about movement through space

embedded - discover and reconstruct story from clues

emergent - create new stories from experience

I think that games have barely scratched the surface in storytelling. If someone tells you that games can't tell stories, or that there's only one way for games to tell a story, well, I'd say they're not looking very hard. There is quite a bit of interesting experimentation going on if you know where to look. The Path and (I Fell in Love With) The Majesty of Colors are just two recent examples. Distributed narratives make up another intriguing offshoot. It's all very fascinating to me.

Another paper by Jenkins, very thought-provoking, is "Complete Freedom of Movement": Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces. It's fairly long, but well worth the read. Take a look! :)


Krystian Majewski said...

Yeah, I like some of his writings. I remember an article on Spatial Stories and Environmental Storytelling that was really great. I think I read it in Space, Time, Play.

Henry Jenkins said...

For the record, it's actually easy to find my writings on the web. I post three times a week on my blog at henryjenkins.org. I don't just write about games there, but there's been a steady stream of posts about games over the past three years.

axcho said...

Krystian, that was probably this same article. :) I first read it in The Game Design Reader.

Henry, yes, I realized that as soon as I looked. :p I did link to your blog. I guess what I meant to convey is that the people reading my blog are less likely to have come across your writing than that of, say, Daniel Cook. Anyway, thanks for the comment. I'm honored. :)