The role of narrative units in the design of coherent plot structures for single-player action video games

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Narrative structure
Game narrative
Interactive narrative
Narrative design
Modular narrative

The implementation of interactive narrative in video games has been a challenge for game designers since the earliest days of text adventures. One way to address this challenge is to explore the relationship of narrative units and game mechanics. During the rise of structuralist attitudes in the early twentieth century, the categorization of constituent units in narrative was foregrounded in the work of the Russian Formalists, and in the writings of the literary semioticians who followed. Conversely, in contemporary Game Studies, it can be argued that narrative in games has not been adequately investigated at such a granular level. I use the classic humanities technique of close-reading to identify and analyze the role of modularized narrative units in a selection of commercial single-player game titles: NHL12, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, and the Deus Ex franchise. By looking at these artifacts, I have compiled a list of characteristics that affect the design of interactive narrative in digital games. My work concentrated on the identification and understanding of the various manifestations of the narrative arc within the experience of the unfolding story. As my basic observational tool, I relied on the phases of the narrative arc as defined by Kristin Thompson (1999): setup, complication, development, and resolution. Using these concepts, I identified distinct instantiations of the narrative arc at various scales across each game. I observed the boundaries of the narrative arcs in each game, which provided insight into how these arcs inter-relate. I noted a hierarchical system: smaller narrative modules are systematically embedded within the larger narrative arcs. In addition, I found that the narrative units were cumulative in their effect on the ongoing game story. Narrative knowledge accumulates as more modules are played. In some instances the modules are designed so that the narrative experience works regardless of the order in which they are played. This research reveals design poetics that can be applied to future interactive narrative projects. A better understanding of how to integrate story into the gameplay experience in a satisfying way benefits analysts, designers and players.

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Jim Bizzocchi
Communication, Art & Technology: School of Interactive Arts and Technology
Thesis type: 
(Thesis) Ph.D.