Inn the chapter on “Storytelling and Narrative” in Fundamentals of Game Design (pages 194-204), Adams & Rollings categorise stories as linear, or non-linear. Non-linear stories further subdivided as branching or foldback stories.
These story structures (or “narrative structures”) can actually be imagined, or visualised, using a mathematical technique known as “graph theory”; thinking of stories in terms of these ‘graph structures’ can often help clarify how to plan out, or construct these stories, as a narrative designer, so that they remain consistent and the storyline does not get confused.
Here is the structure of a linear story, shown as a graph:
One event (a, b, c, d etc. ) follows the previous one in a strict sequence.
Here is a branching story in which each decision leads to a new, unique point in the story:
This sort of structure happen to be know as a tree. Every event leads to another unique event. In an interactive fiction story (“do you: a) go north (turn to page 10); b) go south (turn to page 17)”) this structure corresponds to a story in which each page can only be reached from one particular preceding page. Constructing this sort of story can be very time consuming, and is hugely inefficient, as no events can be ‘reused’ in different sequences.
A more useful branching story structure should allow the same even to appear in different pathways:
However, you will notice that ensuring each possibly storyline (that is, each path through the events graph) makes sense is likely to become increasingly difficult to manage as more events need to be plotted.
The foldback story structure is build around a series of key, inevitable events through which a story must progress. In many games, user interactivity allows the player a certain amount of freedom in how they make their way between inevitable events, before folding back to the inevitable events. Foldback stories support a degree of “replayability”: that is, they are capable of keeping the player engaged if they play the game more than once, by allowing them to find a different way through it, even if they know the ending. Where a potentially unknown outcome is essential for maintaining player engagement, the final inevitable event may provide a staging point for several different endings.
In many games, a filmed live action or narrated “cutscene’ will progress the narrative at certain points of the game. Though disliked by many commentators and game players, cutscenes make a common appearance in this most common of game structures (that is, the “foldback” story).
A similar approach to characterising story structures is taken in Foundations of Interactive Storytelling (which I referred to in Mapping plotlines…and coping with interactivity… with a challenge for the reader to identify the different types of narrative structure described in that article). In particular, five story structures are identified in that article:
- linear stories: as above;
- branching stories: as in the tree structure described above;
- parallel paths: in a parallel path story, “[b]ranches recombine at the key story points, creating a structure which is a balance between linear and branching structure”; this is essentially a foldback structure model;
- threaded stories: “the course of the plot does not follow a single path in this form of structure. Rather, the story is comprised of a number of different threads that develop largely independently (at least until the closing stages of the story).”
- dynamic object oriented narrative: “Each episode consists of a number of Scenes which can use any structure – linear, branching, parallel path etc. … Episodes are broadly chronological, but Episodes that refer to events that occur concurrently (i.e. that are at the same height in the case of this diagram) can occur in any sequence.”
Think back to any computer games you are familiar with – can you identify what sort of narrative structure it had?
Reviewing the story structures described above by Adams & Rollings, what problems can you foresee in trying to plot a game story in each case? How replayable is a game constructed according to each of the structure types likely to be?
PS See also the various structures that emerge in “Create your own adventure” books: One Book, Many Stories.