A lack of narrative structure, as you know, will cause anxiety.John Dufresne
Over the years and within several teams and studios, I’ve collaborated on many narrative experiences. One of the main issues I encounter still to this day is the ability to align creatively with a variety of individuals on what a “good” narrative experience is, particularly in the early stages of the production. Getting the narrative experience to a good place takes time. If the work on the story doesn’t start early enough, it creates anxiety around the quality of the narrative experience. The solution is to have checkpoints during production to alleviate this anxiety and creatively align all stakeholders from the start. A known roadmap also protects the story from being challenged. Creating a video game is an adventure; there are so many obstacles, surprises, ordeals to overcomes. The story is often what breaks first or what leadership sacrifice first. The following is my proposed answer to many issues encountered while collaborating: a framework to break down a story and a tool to collaborate.
A collaborative work
As Narrative Designers, we, of course, want to tell a good story. But above all, we strive to give players an emotional journey that stays with them for years to come. Every member of the team shares the same goal and we need the whole team to move in the same direction to be successful. We may be the experts in storytelling, but we can’t expect other teams to have the same knowledge and understanding. We all need to learn and teach how to use the same tools and talk the same language. One of the best tools I’ve found to facilitate this process is to rely on a narrative structure.
A narrative structure
Using a narrative structure as a reference allows us to share vocabulary with collaborators from other disciplines and provides a framework for creative alignment. Each step of this framework has a clear purpose in the player experience, while their compounding effect will emotionally culminate in the climax. To arrive at the emotional moment that we want (let’s call it “C”), we must first set it up correctly with “A” and “B.” Only by taking the right steps in the correct order, we will achieve the full emotional potential of the story beat: A + B = C. Without a strong structure, we may lose track of those beats that are setting up the emotion. We leave aside too much of the potential emotion that comes from building up and release, expectations and deception, mysteries and suspense. A narrative structure helps us cultivate those yet untapped emotions.
A Practiced and Proved Model
A lot of people before us have been studying the structure of storytelling and here, I only repeat those findings through the lens of video game systems. Whether it’s Aristotle (Poetics) or more recent screenplay theorist (Robert McKee, Syd field, etc.) or even psychology studies (Hedonic treadmill), many great thinkers have been studying these phenomenons for centuries. Here, we take the time to examine these findings through the unique lens of video game systems. Countless creators use this proven structure across narrative media. It’s a powerful tool when mastered and wielded just like a pencil, a saw, or the Golden Ratio. But, if asserted without spirit or vision, the path leads to uninspiring work. This tool has helped build stories across a diverse spectrum, including:
- Star Wars
- Harry Potter
- An episode of a sitcom like Friends
- An episode of a reality show
- An indie film
- A documentary
- A Shakespearean play
- Musical composition