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Dramatic Play - Interactive Narrative DiagramMy article Dramatic play was published recently on and has created some interesting discussion on various sights and forums.

What is Dramatic play? Dramatic play is a new niche, a paradigm
that is the focus of interactive narrative design, the craft that meets
at the apex of ludology and narratology and conjoins the theories into
functional video game development methodologies. To the right is a model I created based on Aritotles Dramatic Thoery as adapted for video games.

If you’d like to read the article it is available @

I think the article was best rephrased by AJ Glasser for Kataku as “You sorta owe Dead Space to Aristotle.” Read the thread @

The ‘game system’ fires up, the fans roar (or hopefully not so much), and the once black screen ignites. Immediately the player engages the video game and encounters stimuli; text; main menus, loading screens, cinematics, play mechanics, player characters, non-player characters, etc. They take witness and navigate the system using designed actions, play mechanics. Using these mechanics, the player acts as an agent within the participatory dramatic spectacle. An agent is a person or thing that takes an active role.  The player moves forward through a series of events acting with designed mechanics to bring about change in the system in order to achieve some desired outcome. To act is to cause or experience events. An event is a transition from one state to another. As a player acts he assembles a series of logical and chronologically related events, a fabula. This is the story, a series of events cognitively assembled and perceived by the player. The player authors this story through the reading of the text; the video game.

“A narrative text is a text in which an agent relates a story in a particular medium” [Bal 1994]. The video game is related, or narrated, by the video game engine to the player through both active and passive means. Text, imagery, feedback, sound, and temporal sequences are read, perceived and judged. The game engine presents a narrative text to the player and says read me; understand what I am; and immerse yourself in the simulation.

Some are better readers, better players, but all the players read and absorb the experience. As the player progresses in his play these judgments about the events, experienced as a result of his actions, cause him to modify his play to produce desired results. Reading allows the player to determine the next action needed to achieve a specific objective, or ‘object of desire.’ The story is needed by the player to convey the subjective meaning associated with the narrative read in the video game. A dramatic pattern that when assembled by the player creates a [player] story; a communication about the way things are within a particular system.

Interactive Narrative Design is a craft
which focuses on creating dramatic play
meaningful participatory experiences with interactive systems. An interactive
narrative designer seeks to craft systems which deliver narremes, narrative elements,
to a player in such a fashion that the player may craft a story cognitively based on
their navigation within said system. When narrative design is successful the
player believes that they are experiencing a story driven out of their own agency
within a navigated dataspace or
played video game. While the aims of Interactive Narrative Design are similar
to Game Writing and Game Design, and
surely involves the crafts, this hybrid craft aims to allow story to take center stage so that
the systems engaged by the player are centered around the core thematic aim of the
writers story.

Interactive Narrative Design is a craft that
meets at the apex of Ludology and Narratology and turns the conjoining into
functional interactive entertainment development methodologies. Ludology being the study of play that has
become very fashionable in the game design community within the past 2 decades. Narratology is the theory of narratives,
of spectacles, cultural artifacts that ‘tell a story’. Video games allow the
player to witness data as a navigable,
participatory dramatic spectacles,
unfolding before their eyes in real-time.

The aim is to
transport the player through play into the video game by all means of his
visual and aural faculties, so that
he may forget the confines of reality and live and breathe in the video game
which seems as life itself and on the screen which seems the wide
expanse of a whole world. The craft to bring about that paradigm shift is Interactive Narrative Design.

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.

Life And Narrative Structure

This is an idea I’ve thought of for many years, beginning in 2000, in Detroit, while studying multidimensional reality, and paradigm shifts under the brilliant professor Dr. Diane Voss.

Life as a game (playful navigation through a system) the artifact of that game is narrative. Conscious reality exists as a series of relative experiences; displayed sentient for one to behold. As ones being moves through the forth dimension it displays the characteristics of a string, a point displaced over time. What one can quantify empirically are fragments of data gleaned from the localization of totality. Ones life can be summed up as a series of multidimensional experiences interwoven by being. Thus the story of ones life may be: I was at 1, and I saw A1, I then acted, and it brought me to B2:2, and so on. In that, it is possible to foresee how one might begin to structure and game based on the abstracted reduced mechanics of human life.

αβ³δ¹A¹B¹C↑H¹-I¹K4↓w° “(1)

The formula shown above is for a Russian Folktale as described by Vladimir Propp in his book Morphology of the Folktale, the formula reads “A tsar, three daughters (α). The daughters go walking (β³),
overstay in the garden (δ¹). A dragon kidnaps them (A¹). A call for aid
(B¹). Quest of three heroes (C↑). Three battles with the dragon
(H¹-I¹), rescue of the maidens (K4). Return (↓), reward (w°).” (1)
While Proop’s semiotics may seem too formulaic for free souls, in practical application his truth stands firm as Aristotle’s Poetics. His structuralist approach to classical
literary design easily adapts to interactive experiences, and clearly points to the exponential narratological complexity associated with non-linear experiences. In order to maintain narrative integrity throughout an interactive experience a rigid structure must be adhered to, narrative design was born into the world to bring classical structure back into modern storytelling.

Narrative design is 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 for the reader/viewer/user/player.
The term “narrative design” was described by Madison Smartt Bell as
“[the] form or structure of…final importance to any work of
fiction…”Bell (2) Believable narrative structures are created from well designed narremes. These elements rest within a greater narrative structure, think
of the mushroom in Mario or the sword in the stone. Narrative design is
the structuralist architecture of literary semiotics that together form
a work of fiction. Creative adherence to a well designed narrative structure will result in greater entertainment value and thematic communication.

is an umbrella of a term which has grown even wider in today’s web 2.0
world; our span of fiction’s have begun to take on many forms. “After
the novel, and subsequently cinema privileged narrative as the key form
of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces
its correlate – database.”Manovich (3) Design of the story related
elements, or narremes, of this database and their causal relationship
as a metanarrative within said database
is narrative design. Digital games are interactive database narratives.
Database narrative refers to narratives whose structure exposes the
dual processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of
all stories, particular data – characters, images, sounds, events – are
selected from a series of databases or paradigms, which are then
combined by the player, through action and thought, to generate
specific stories.(4)

Game mechanics give a player
navigational functionality within the ‘data-space’ of multimedia
narrative (game). “Choices about the design and organization
of game spaces have narratological
consequences”Jenkins (5). Media theorist Henry Jenkins, continues to
describe the crafting of fiction within games as narrative
architecture. Crafting more believable interactive fiction requires
coherent narrative design to ensure maximum entertainment value. When executed with skill, a narrative design
strategy innately provides the reader/viewer/user/player/ with a wider cognitive
palette from which they can self-author more emotive and visceral
interactive fiction experiences.

1. Vladimir Propp. Morphology of the Folktale. via Wikipedia 1928
2. Madison Smartt Bell. Narrative Design: A Writer’s Guide to Structure. W. W. Norton & Company.1997
3. Lev Manovich. Database as symbolic Form. Cambridge:
MIT Press, 2001.

4. Stephen Erin Dinehart. RTS as Database Narrative. Narrative Design Exploratorium. 2007
5. Henry Jenkins. Game Design as Narrative Architecture. MIT Press. 200? 

“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.

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.

RTS is a very different beast from the 1st-person, or singular 3rd-person perspectives of most other genres. How do you tell a story that encompasses many perspectives into a cohesive whole? It has been answered in part, by the history of RTS story-telling mechanics and its evolution. But there is much more work to do.

The Westwood RTS game “Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis” used simple stills, animation, and text. Some how I believed I was playing the Harkonin, harvesting spice felt good, everything was fun, battling for resources, killing sandworms, and conquering you’re enemy. I felt like Conan, “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.” This was fun!

The entire gaming experience not only has become more vivid since then, the devices are more refined, and the craft unto itself has evolved; all lending to better experiences for the player. RTS of yesteryear and today still share one thing in common with most none video games, the combination of linear Cinematic sequences and non-linear Gameplay, that when combined create a cohesive experience for the player.

Database narrative refers to narratives whose structure exposes the dual processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all stories, particular data – characters, images, sounds, events – are selected from a series of databases or paradigms, which are then combined by the player, through action and thought, to generate specific stories.

RTS Narrative Path Diagram

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About this NDE Archive

This page is a archive of recent articles in the Interactive Narrative Design category.

Game Writers in the Trenches™ is the previous category.

Masters of Narrative Design™ 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 @

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