The Real Impact of Narrative Design on Game Development

Narrative DesignVideo games have come a long way since Atari released Pong in 1972.

In Atari’s inaugural game, the player’s main objective was to move paddles on the screen to keep a ball bouncing back and forth.

In the 40+ years since then, gamers have encountered many different and exciting objectives. From rescuing a princess to playing as a star quarterback to stealing automobiles, the world of video games has offered seemingly endless challenges.

Additionally, as video games develop and advance, new trends emerge. For example, a recent shift in gaming has been towards narrative-based, story-telling games.

This growing trend is one that has the potential to transform the way we think about gaming. It could also grow the demographic of gamers.

Let’s take a closer look at how narrative design is impacting game development.

What is Narrative Design?

Before we can consider how narrative-based games are changing gaming, it’s important to first define our terms. What are we talking about when we refer to narrative design in games?

Simply put, narrative-based games are those where the playing experience is driven by story-telling. The game’s narrative is created by a variety of characters, plot points, conflict, and action.

What Makes Games Narrative-Based?

There’s no clear distinction between games that are narrative-based and games that are not. Rather, games exist on a spectrum.

On one end, there are games that have almost no narrative components. On the other end are games that are highly driven by narrative. Most games fall somewhere in the middle.

For example, a game like Tetris has essentially no narrative component. There is no explanation for why the different size pieces randomly fall from the top of the screen. They just do, and so the player must act quickly to stack them.

The other extreme is games that involve little action, and instead, focus on story-telling. A good example of this would be a game like The Sims. In this popular game, players simply focus on developing characters and crafting a story.

Most games feature a mix of tactical challenges and narrative components. For instance, first-person shooter games like Halo and Call of Duty feature a loose narrative aspect that provides context for the shooting challenges.

Games like BioShock or Assassin’s Creed, however, place much more emphasis on the narrative and character development.

Additionally, in many narrative-driven games, the player’s choices have the power to change the way the game ends.

How Does Narrative Design Affect Gameplay?

Plays and game designers alike have mixed feelings about the impact of narrative-driven games. While some see gaming as an innovative way to tell stories, others see games as inferior to other media.

So let’s look at some of the positive and negative aspects of focusing games on narrative.

The good: games make stories more interactive

Stories and storytelling have been part of the human experience for all of recorded history. While people have always loved telling stories, the way we tell those stories have constantly changed.

For instance, in ancient Greece, stories were passed down by oral tradition. Storytellers would often sing long stories from memory.

With the invention of the printing press, writers began mass-producing written stories and novels and distributing them to wide audiences. Then, videography opened the door for creating movies and television shows.

In this context, it’s easy to see how video games are simply the next development in finding new ways to tell stories.

Through a video game, a player can become completely immersed in the story. By acting as the character and living their experiences, the player gets a different perspective on the overall narrative. In some cases, players can even change the outcome of the story with their choices.

The good and bad: Narratives can make games more engaging

Have you ever read a book that was so exciting, you couldn’t put it down?

Giving games compelling narratives can have the same effect.

On one hand, this can be dangerous. A player can become entirely consumed in the game. This can lead to gaming addiction and sedentary behaviors.

On the other hand, this can help with moves to make games more physically and mentally stimulating.

For instance, studies show that children will play an active game longer if it contains a narrative component. A narrative can keep a child engaged with a game that requires them to perform physical challenges.

Similarly, games like Minecraft work to exercise the player’s mind. Minecraft features narrative challenges that require players to build structures and solve puzzles. At this site, you can learn more about how Minecraft and similar games exercise important cognitive functions.

The bad: The stories can be repetitive

At the moment, the gaming industry is dominated by men between the ages of 13-35. Even though a wider audience may be interested in games, most games are designed to be marketed to this audience.

This means that many of the stories games tell can be a bit basic. They tend to revolve around themes that appeal to young men in this demographic. This reinforces their behaviors and attitudes, rather than challenging them.

Bringing more diversity to games

One solution to this problem is to bring more diversity into the gaming world. If more women and people of other cultures enter the world of narrative design, we may start seeing cultural diversity in video games.

Additionally, game designers may also need to change the way they think about narrative.

Not every game needs a robust narrative. In some cases, narrative designers can infuse a story into a game where the challenges have already been mostly defined.

Bringing in a diverse group of storytellers, even at a late stage, can add more complexity to a game’s story. This would be a great way to bring new and different stories to a wider variety of games.

At the end of the day, narrative-driven games are still in their infancy. We will need more time (and more games!) before we can fully evaluate their worth.

Have you played narrative-based games? What is your take on them? How do you think these games can be improved?

Let us know in the comments!