Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.Leonardo da Vinci
A Narrative Structure as a Framework
To be clear, a narrative structure is not a template nor a “paint by number” system. A story written using a narrative structure will not feel more formulaic than a photograph taken using the rule of thirds, a painting using perspective lines or meals prepared from a recipe. It is a tool, a system that reveals the underlying structure of Story. This framework ensures we are all working towards the same goal and that each step is well-defined and understood by all.
The 3 “F’s“
What lies beneath the structure in the Emotional Journey model are the 3 “F”. 3 elements that constitute what a Story is with their unique properties but who speak and interact with each other in a very symbiotic way.
The Foundation is the baseline of the structure, the equivalent of the perspective lines of a painting, and it ensures that the story has balance and a good dynamic.
The Flow is the moment to moment, taking us from one beat to another. There needs to be a logic, something that carries the audience forward. Without it, the story feels like a series of events without connection.
The Fractal guides us to apply the foundation and the flow on multiple levels. The A story follows the structure, as well as the B story. Each act could be broken down in the same structure, down to a single scene. Thinking of this fractal aspect of the model ensures that the experience feels deep and rich.
An Invisible Foundation
The time a player spends playing a game, any game, has a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. Anything that tells a Story has a structure. The narrative structure is to a Story, what the Golden Ratio is to nature. It’s a strict rule to provide order but leaves room for freedom of expression. Ignoring it or denying its existence doesn’t mean it’s absent. It’s something that we all live with, it is part of us, intimately linked to our journey as Humans from birth to death. Most of us are already using this structure without realizing it. Some very talented storytellers have a very innate sense of structure and make it look easy. Many theories have been published that dissect what a story is, in the fields of film, theatre and even psychology. My work in mastering narrative structure is largely inspired by these theories but with a focus on storytelling in video games.
A Psychological Flow
We can’t escape it. Humanity falls subject to certain psychological behaviors. Entertainment and art trigger those psychological responses. When you understand these behaviors, you can create stimuli that capitalize on those. A narrative structure is like a psychological roadmap that maps out the necessary steps for a player’s emotional journey. One of those behaviors is the deep need for humans to find patterns and links between things. Our brain is always analyzing the information received and testing it against the already stored information. So when a story introduces a new element, the audience will try to connect it to what they know until then. The lack of connection can create mystery but can also create ambiguity or a disjointed narrative.
Story as Fractal
The emotional journey is a model that works on both the macro level and the micro. It scales up or down depending on the content, meaning that any type of contained narrative content could be mapped to the same narrative structure.
- The whole game story could be mapped on a Narrative Structure.
- The whole ACT I, a Chapter or a Mission could be mapped to the same narrative structure.
- A Player play session could be mapped on a Narrative Structure. (See PUBG analysis)
- A full game map, game activity or game event.
- A dialogued scene
You should approach any game and any part of the game with this model in mind. Think of how players will consume the game, proposed natural moment to stop and put down the controller. A game like Destiny offers many chunks of playtime that could be mapped to the model. From the 30 seconds of fun to the 1000 hours of engagement. (A patrol, a Strike, an Adventure, a Story Mission, a Raid, a Campaign, a Pinnacle Weapon pursuit, a Season and up to Triumphs that can required month to complete).