The Narrative Design Exploratorium™: Stephen E. Dinehart: May 2008 Archives

Stephen E. Dinehart: May 2008 Archives

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?

Recently in an interview I was asked about other forms of the heroes story, if there are other types yet to be explored by games, and indeed there are. As an example, one form I’ve been playing with, both in thought and practice, is tragedy. This classic tragic hero archetype is one rarely given to players. To often contemporary video games follow a hand-holding method of play design which makes sure always to “please” the player and let them “win”, a discussion explored more in depth in Randy Smiths recent piece on

I was fortunate enough to be able to execute a single-player campaign for Company of Heroes Opposing Fronts which was in fact a tragedy, full of tragic heroes, engaged in tragic actions. In the end, the player, as the fictional Kampfgruppe Lehr, is successful at fending of the British and Americans during Operation Market Garden (OMG), but the tragic nature of the 3rd Reich’s downfall and it’s destruction of Germany is the stories true end. Giving both a positive and negative value charge to the players final moments of the campaign with Wolfgang Berger.

Born out of the nobility of imperial Prussian blood the primary protagonist Wolfgang Berger is innately full of hamartia (flawed judgment), in his support of the 3rd Reich (3rd German Empire) and its aims at increasing lebensraum (German living space). Torn between the conflicting voices of his heart and his mind, embodied respectively by his brother Alrdrich and Major General Voss, he struggles to stay honest to himself. Soon he looses close friend Wilhelm Deinhard and brother Aldrich to a tragic reversal of his fortune brought about by his devotion to the 3rd Reich. In the narrative climax of the campaign a true catharsis enters the  audience as Wolfgang cleanses his hands and mind of the blood-guilt left from his actions (the players actions) during the OMG campaign. As he comes to grip with his err over the body of his dead brother, Wolfgang’s broken heart is able to speak to it’s true antagonist the 3rd Reich, embodied by Maximillian Voss (see clip below).

Transmedial Play, A Stephen Erin Dinehart Concept
In a transmedial work the viewer/user/player (VUP) transforms the story via his or her own natural cognitive psychological abilities, and enables the Artwork to surpass medium. It is in transmedial play that the ultimate story agency, and decentralized authorship can be realized. Thus the VUP becomes the true producer of the Artwork. The Artist authored transmedia elements act a story guide for the inherently narratological nature of the human mind (see illustration) to become thought, both conscious and subconscious, in the imagination of the VUP.

“These elements, thus knit together, enclose the performer as with an atmospheric ring of Art and Nature, in which, like to the heavenly bodies, he moves secure in fullest orbit, and whence, withal, he is free to radiate on every side his feelings and his views of life- broadened to infinity, and showered as it were on distances as measureless as those on which the stars of heaven cast their rays of light…”

Richard Wagner

Everyday in a game studio, artists do their painting, sculpting, modeling, and rendering; Play makers script and direct the balance and mechanics of play; filmmakers cut, edit, storyboard, and script; programmers and writers write, write and rewrite; animators choreograph cubist ballets; audio specialists compose music and design sound; it is there in the ether all the arts fuse together to create the total interactive art experiences we call videogames. 

The threshold now stands just beyond reach, ready to create a new form of story, an interactive one. It’s been a long time coming, for over 150 years people have been trying to bring it forth, but heralding its coming most was Richard Wagner, ever famous German composer/conductor/theorist. He called this new form “Gesamtkunstwerk” or the total artwork, the embodiment of all the arts into one fusion in which the fourth wall is dissolved and the spectator becomes actor-player. The video game medium can create drama that is unlike any other; via
projection or role-play a game experience can turn the viewer-user into
a Shakespearian player, making the game world a stage. Role Playing Gamers have been aiming at this form for quite some time. At their highest form games or “plays” inspire in a human being all that is noble, inviting the living to engage in acts without real-world consequences, to live and live again as jester, warrior, wizard or wonder kin.

Since the beginning of the video game industry story, or narrative, has always seemed to be given the backseat in development. Elements of games like repetitive combative play mechanics, audio and ever improving visual graphics are given priority over story except in rare production environments. The industry continually strives to incorporate cinematic like interactive storytelling, but for the most part seems to miss the mark, bringing writers in at the end of production to make sense of the mess, leaving a lot of games looking as undeveloped derivatives.

This is changing, evidence of that fact is abound; maturing next generation gaming audiences are demanding more rich narrative experiences through better-crafted game and story play; not simply a repetitive set of mechanics with over embellished cut-scenes. Some pioneers have brought the medium and the craft forward, but now is a time which demands more than iterative product development we need a restructuring of the business as a whole to reflect the importance of story in video games.

Most current video game production models treat story as a misnomer at most, given small budget allotments as a disposable commodity. Writers are contracted for brief periods, usually off-site, and rarely have the chance to work with a team to define the direction of a game. It would be as if the ever-famous PIXAR Studios began production by animating for a year, or more, to figure out what the movie and animation is, then after a long period of development, and looming deadlines, scrapping together some contracted talent to make some sense out of the omni-directional chaos with a written script.

The video game industry has subscribed to a model that does just that. For sake of players, game-makers and purse holders all, a model akin to traditional media production where the preproduction planning of a product by professionally trained interactive storytellers, narrative designers, through written documentation which acts as reference for a team during agile development, must be implemented.

Firstly, what is the substance of ‘good’ narrative?

Experience? User-story? Be that a user of any system, closed or open. The human mind is the creator of story, since the beginning our not so simple act of perception has had us telling ourselves stories over and over again, in an effort to understand, to believe, and to create fundamental assumptions so one can simply live. From moment to moment the human mind ties together seeming coincidence into a meaningful ballet of destiny; all things interwoven into a tapestry of purpose. Good story, good narrative, allows us to remember the meaning of being, our own being in this place. To believe in something that is ethereal, the triumph of will over darkness, change over stagnation, love over hate. A good narrative designer creates a tapestry that allows someone to believe cognitively, without overt thought. Therein the substance of a ‘good’ narrative is the seemingly unattainable, the belief in the viewer/user/player of an otherwise delusional perception.

What is the highest ideal we can have for a game in relation to narrative?

My definition of that high ideal would be a compelling interactive story experience which provides the illusion of unlimited agency and satisfactory archplot within the limits of current technologies. By that token, I again say that day is upon us. In the user-story drawn from the opinion piece in Gamasutra by Chris Plante, he alludes to this idea that somehow through Crackdowns limited agency he feels unlimited empowerment. Most of the RPGs I played in my youth had a similar effect, though not with the same cinematic glory.

What similarities would this ideal narrative driven game have to a film?

All good films regardless of genre do one thing, they satisfy the audiences cognitive needs. Like any good film, an ideal narrative driven game would be a streamlined temporal experience which fills ‘all’ narrative holes and leaves one as an audience member feeling satisfied, not for blowing things up, but cognitively satisfied in the belief that one understands a whole experience. While anti-structure and minimalist plots may allow a digression from the norm of the good guy, in the end, everyone wants to be superman. In my eyes GTA IV is hitting the mark, while Niko is not your traditional Übermensch by any means, in today’s world the good, the bad, and the ugly, aren’t so clean cut.

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About this NDE Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by Stephen E. Dinehart in May 2008.

Stephen E. Dinehart: April 2008 is the previous archive.

Stephen E. Dinehart: June 2008 is the next archive.

Welcome to the Narrative Design Exploratorium. Please feel free to browse and comment.

Author Stephen E. Dinehart is a producer, designer, writer, and artist. You can find out more about him on his self-titled website.

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