The Narrative Design Exploratorium™: Editorials Archives

Recently in Editorials Category

Drama is defined as “A serious play of human
conflict.” This is especially apt for video games.The basic conflict of protagonist (player 1), deuteragonist (player 2) and the antagonist is at the core of life, drama, and games. Whether it’s a Wii bowling game or a online multiplayer strategy game, conflict, and it’s resolution, is also at the core of game mechanics.

It is the same mechanic that has driven mankind forward in the religion, sciences, arts, and humanities. It is this innate conflict of life which has been at the core of human pondering for almost as long as recorded history. The ancient Chinese drawing a dualism in approaches to conflict resolution between Sun
Tzu, with life as a series of conflicts which can be overcome by a
skilled tactician to achieve his object of desire, and Buddha, with
life as suffering (conflict) and the way to overcome it as a secession
of desire.

Conflict renders life in the present. Through it’s being mankind gains purpose and meaning through the chaos of change. Too in the realm of story, in the realm of drama, conflict acts as the very catalyst which drives human life forward. A classical 3-act narrative structure is
driven by an active protagonist seeking to achieve an object of desire,
and the conflict which arises out of action to achieve that object. The
pattern repeats until a final climatic conflict occurs that drives the
protagonist to a penultimate action to achieve his object of desire.
This is resolved in the denouement, which gives or takes the object of
desire to the protagonist, in all or part, depending on the degree of

In that, games become systems to understand conflict and it’s
resolution in the drama of real life. An old friend of mine once told me that his British father
would say: “We don’t have wars in Europe anymore, we have soccer.”

There was a interesting discussion on the the IGDA‘s Game Design Special Interest Group
about the necessity of gore in games. In any other genres but action,
horror and war, I would say no, gore is not needed. That said, I do not
believe in the “gore-wars” to one-up the “real” nature of violence in
games. To me this is a childish enterprise for a grail which is never
realized. Do you remember when the Mortal Kombat arcade game
series seemed truly violent? Watching it now reveals it’s almost comic
interpretation of gore.

of horror
is to become, for a while, wired to your
subconscious mind. I’m subscribed to the “life is scary enough without
horror” group, but for the player whom is engaged in a violent game, he
is experiencing in himself as a human being,
what is often buried in the subconscious, now in the conscious. It’s a
rush of identification with
great power, with the life-force. We live in a society which chooses to
ignore the “elimnation of life” our tax dollars pay for in the day, and glamorize
brutality in the night, amongst the shadows of the 10 o’clock news. We bring real horror to the door
steps of our unwilling global neighbors, but we seek to regulate the
fantasies of adults though censorship of the arts. I ask why? We cleary have bigger issues.

Why make games?

I create games to make meaningful emotional experiences, not
to further puzzles or to encourage the slaughter of hordes of trolls. It’s not that these
puzzle slaughter games are wrong, but they aren’t meaningful for me, and that’s why I work
in games, to try and make these shoot ’em up, dry puzzle mechanics into
something the player can draw emotional, and maybe even spiritual, meaning from. The hope is that
Interactive Narrative Design can do just that, if not now, then within my

Why focus on narrative?
In the design of interactive story, actions (player agency),
characters, setting and plot and the intermeshing of characters and events is
the hardest work I’ve done, and to create a playable ending that is inevitable, but
insightful and provoking. I craft narratives that provide insight into life, ones which are satisfying;
emotionally gratifying. They are tests for how much one really understands life. I want to make and play games that end, and end well. Ones that when finished provide the player with insight about the very real human condition.

Interactive Narrative Design is a craft which focuses on creating meaningful participatory story experiences with interactive systems. Just like as a designer of artificial intelligence crafts systems to give a viewer/user/player (VUP) the perception of intelligence in virtual beings. So too a narrative designer, working in a interactive medium, seeks to craft systems which deliver narremes to a VUP in such a fashion that the VUP may craft a story cognitively based on their navigation within said system. When narrative design is successful the VUP believes that they are experiencing a story within a navigated dataspace, or played videogame.

the novel..the computer age introduces
its correlate – database.” Manovich [1] As Manovich defines the database the fiction form of our age, I too argue that a videogame is a database of multidimensional arrays containing audio, visual, and gameplay elements which when experienced in a concinnity via narrative systems creates a believable storyspace in the mind of the VUP. The then living dataspace has a depth of content which often relates to the depth of the experience as rendered linear to the VUP when navigating said dataspace with gameplay systems. Similar to my definition of Narrative Design, “a narratological craft which focuses on the structuralist, or literary semiotic creation of stories. Narremes, or story elements, are formulated into a cohesive narrative structure in such a way as to create a metanarrative or archnarrative…” Dinehart [2]. Interactive Narrative design seeks to accomplish this via VUP navigated databases.

Most recently I was asked by a rather famous game writer, whom I’ve been trying to interview, how I decide who is a candidate for the Master of Narrative Design series, rather than a Game Writer in the Trenches on the Narrative Design Exploratorium. It was the first time I was asked, realizing ego, not just my own, was at stake I did my best to cushion the response. Apparently to some being a game writer in the trenches is inherently less sexy than being a master. I suppose understandably so. That being said, it was a great question, and it got me thinking.

 Putin, Bush, and Cheney play a War-game in the parlorAccording to The Department of Defense a war game is “a simulation, by
whatever means, of a military operation involving two or more opposing
forces, using rules, data, and procedures designed to depict an actual
or assumed real life situation.”[1]  It seems that Russia, the European Union and the United States of America, are in a very real war-game about the future of new Europe.  Grabbing “living-space” for Russia in Georgia must be a move made with a greater strategy.  Certainly it must be part of a larger campaign, but what is the goal? 

Not long ago, ‘total annihilation’ had the United States and the former USSR both engaged in war-games to determine the outcome of such a scenario should it escalate to “World War III”.  Thanks to war-game strategic studies by the likes of Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), only three outcomes where determined to be possible in the confrontation between the two powers: “1. Loss of Command and Control 2. Unleashing Tactical Nuclear Weapons 3. Gas or Biological Attack“. [2]

Cetlx LogoAs elected co-leads of the IGDA WSIG Tools Initiative Ron Toland and I are happy to announce the forging of a partnership between our special interest group and open-source writing toolmaker Celtx. Celtx was first point out by Tools Initiative facilitator Corvus Elrod and he was right, Celtx is exactly the partner we need to create this potentially wall shattering tool. As AAA titles grow in magnitude having standardization in the tools used for our industry is of dire importance. Game writing increasingly affects all parts of game design, from help text to NPC dialog and beyond. Game writing tools and systems tend to remain proprietary, and subsequently leads designer and writer alike to reinvent the wheel for every title. Seeing this as a barrier to entry for talent, developers, and publishers alike, the International Game Developers Associations Writers Special Interest Group has created the Tools Initiative to forge the creation of an Universal Open-Source Game Writing Tool. Based on the free open-source writing tool Celtx, the tool will be free and modular.

I recently stumbled onto ABC’s new project “Earth 2100”, as a transmedia project it blends TV, game, journalism, and web 2.0 functionality. On the surface, their site makes the project seems simple and proactive:

“In an unprecedented television and internet event, ABC News is
asking you to help answer perhaps the most important question of our
time — What will our world be like over the next one hundred years if
we don’t act now to save our troubled planet?

“Are we living in the last century of our civilization? Is it possible
that all of our technology, knowledge and wealth cannot save us from
ourselves? Could our society actually be heading towards collapse?”

While a very compelling question unto itself, when combined with clips like the one contained withing the article: the theme becomes a bit altered and personally I found myself with a new perspective.

Eath 2100 looks like good old sensational news
reporting guised in a ‘social activism’ shell. At the core of the experience seems to be a fear propaganda campaign aimed at
increasing TV viewership. The marketing strikes some almost cliché basic psychological chords, low on Maslow’s pyramid of needs,
kinda like a kick to the viewers gut, it strikes at the very
foundations of the human subconscious, safety and physiological needs.

Maslow's Pyramid of Needs
When people get into to group psychological
mindsets strange things can happen. Just look at what people are doing for McDonald’s ARG campaign “The Lost Ring”, watch this video
below to witness the group psychology, I mean, fun, in action. Blending
media and reality like this can be dangerous to audiences, in that,
there are people out there that can be driven to great lengths when
believeing this classic apocalyptic almost biblical forecasting. Change
is important, but driving it through Ad sponsored fear, isn’t my way of
going about it.

It’s not that I don’t think this project isn’t well put
together. On the contrary, it’s so well put together that grown adults
are taking time out of their lives to enact corporate cross-media
campaigns. It’s powerful stuff, let’s hope we see it used for the
common good and not to fuel another Y2K.

Sometimes we eat our own hype way too much. It should come as no surprise that most current video game production models continue to treat story as a misnomer. Giving narrative teams small budget allotments, and for the most part treating writing as a disposable commodity it’s no wonder the promises of high drama in games has fallen short. GTA4 was the fodder for an opinion piece by Justin Marks on Gamasutra today. A link was passed around the WSIG, and being the sheep I am, I clicked. Titled “Is Gameplay As Narrative The Answer?” the quote which drove me most was:

“After all the incredible advances in their game engine, why does
Rockstar insist on making its story an accessory — a needless,
comparatively inferior element? More to the point, how did narrative
become such a side bar to the real point of gaming, i.e. our ability to
play out our deepest fantasies in a virtual world?” (1)

has remained icing on a gameplay cake for sometime. While previous
generations of games used story as a marketing device, due to
technological constraints, there is no reason that games should
continue to remain compulsion loop inducing click fests bent on force
feeding players stale repetitive mechanics.

“I say stop writing high-minded stories. Start writing games. And let the stories grow from them.” (1)

Superficially a seemingly simple statement, but what Justin calls for
here is something I’ve been protesting about for sometime. The
fundamental models of game production need to restructured to create
the environment for the development of these higher dramatic forms of
game, or interactive narrative.

action, is the substance that we use to externally move through life,
through reality. When video games developers stop mimicking old forms,
and start actually creating sets of proactive story/play mechanics
through which players can experience various forms of drama we will be
upon a new form of game. It’s not about better stories, but a well
crafted balance of meaningful play and story. This new form will need a
new name because many people are afraid of drama and games. Hell, some
people just want to have Wii-bowl tournaments,
know what I’m saying ese? For us seeking high-culture, we’ll need to
create a new form. The public is hungry for deep interactive stories,
rest assured narrative will prevail.

1. Justin Marks. Is Gameplay As Narrative The Answer?. .2008

Epiphany’s are strange and exciting and such was a moment I had yesterday while on a conference call with THQ’s studio BigHuge Games. I was interviewing with 6 individuals for a Narrative Designer position, 3 of which hold the title of narrative designer. On the surface that seems simple, but when I realized the all occupied positions I had in part created, my heart skipped a beat. By no means intending to make subjective personal judgments, I truly felt like I was on the other side of the looking glass.

I wrote the “Narrative Designer” job description for the purposes of self employment, for THQ worldwide, before I took the position with Relic Entertainment in 2006. Having crafted it with a future vision for the potential of narrative design in interactive entertainment, it was bizarre to realize that my efforts at creating the position made a ripple effect in reality. After the recent THQ layoffs I found myself on the outside. There I was on a conference call trying to convince the talented people at BigHuge that I deserved to get back in (Ah, the ironic agony of it all lol). The original Job description for the Narrative Designer position was first recognized by THQ in September 2006, here we are less than two years later and the field is really taking off! That alone makes me pretty happy. No word on the job, but it’s about the journey, right?

The Narrative Design Exploratorium

↑ Grab this Headline Animator


The Narrative Design Exploratorium proudly serves readers in more than 70 countries!

Copyright Conditions

About this NDE Archive

This page is a archive of recent articles in the Editorials category.

Creators of Transmedia Stories™ is the previous category.

Game History is the next category.

Welcome to The Narrative Design Exploratorium.

The NDE’s author Stephen E. Dinehart is a transmedia designer, writer, artist, and Creative Director at NarrWare LLC. He is currently working on unannounced projects. Read more @

Find recent articles on the main index or look in the archives to find all articles.


Technorati search

» Blogs that link here

Add to Technorati Favorites
View Technorati “blog authority”