Explicit, Implicit and Emergent narrative
When talking about narrative in games, people often think about cutscenes and dialogue. About journal entries you find and walls of text. But what about the world the game takes place in, that isn't described in words? And what about the amazing adventures the players themselves have within this world? Surely that's part of the story as well.
Let’s take a look at the three distinct types of narrative that we deal with in game and level design: Explicit, Implicit and Emergent narrative.
Journal entries from Amnesia: Dark Descent
What actually is “narrative”?
The image from Amnesia shown above is the typical image that comes to mind for players (and some designers) when they hear the word “narrative”: interruptions of gameplay to provide exposition. By the most common definition, a narrative is: “a story or a description of a series of events”.
This means that all events that occur in a game, whether it’s during gameplay or during an interruption of it, is part of the story in one way or another. As designers it helps us to break this up into the 3 distinct forms of narrative so we can design for it and help facilitate the player-driven elements of it.
Explicit narrative, whether it’s written, spoken or shown, is clearly and directly communicated to the player. Journal entries (see image from Amnesia above) are an obvious example of explicit narrative.
Dialogue, like this example from the Mass Effect series, is also conveyed explicitly, even when the player can make choices.
This is because all dialogue trees here are pre-written. The player doesn’t truly create their own stories, it’s simply a branching narrative with some attached gameplay consequences.
Cutscene in which Arthas kills his father – Warcraft 3
Though cutscenes may contain implicit elements, they mainly serve as an explicit narrative tool to advance the plot. What’s going on story-wise is directly communicated to the player.
Another way directly conveying the narrative to the player, but without taking the control out of player’s hands, are scripted sequences during gameplay. A scripted sequence is when pre-planned events are triggered at specific moments. E.g. a building collapsing, missiles being fired, a character walking up to a machine to interact with it. Virtually anything that isn’t part of a more dynamic system but is carefully planned out to happen exactly in that manner.
In the mission “hunter killer” in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 a large battle in and around New York city takes place with the Russian fleet. The large scale battle plays out around the player in a huge scripted sequence, with helicopters, jets, missiles fired, large ships exploding or sinking to the bottom of the sea. These are epic and important moments in the game’s story and are scripted so that they’ll be the same for every single play-through.
I’m a big fan of having scripted sequences to move the plot forward while the player retains control of their character, rather than cutscenes or temporarily taking control away from the player. When control of my character is taken away from me to let events play out, it completely kills the immersion. Video games are an interactive medium, so why not let the player experience it themselves rather than interrupting play to show them?
Implicit narrative is indirectly communicated to the player. They can be conclusions a player can draw from the explicit narrative, or what we’re mostly concerned with in level design: environmental/visual clues that build on or enhance the explicit narrative
Telling a story through the “set design” or environment is sometimes referred to as mise en scène (literally: ‘putting on stage’).
Kashmir Restaurant location in Bioshock
This moment in Bioshock (2007) wonderfully demonstrates the difference between explicit and implicit narrative. The voice of Atlas is telling you explicitly about the events that ruined the city.
The restaurant implicitly reinforces the narrative. There are decorations everywhere, bottles of alcohol, remnants of costumes people wore, party hats and a large fallen down sign that says “Happy New Year 1959” while the game takes place in 1960. Even without any explicit narrative, the environment tells the player that one year ago, something dramatic and violent happened that left the city in ruins. It must have been sudden and unexpected as people were still right in the middle of a party.
Comparison of two brother’s bedrooms in Pokemon Sword
So use the environment carefully to underline or build upon the narrative. The way a character’s bedroom is dressed says a lot about their personality; whether they’re messy or organized, do they have any particular hobbies or do they like a certain genre of music? There’s a lot you can convey about the characters and the world around them without needing words at all.
Emergent narrative isn’t directly pre-planned. It’s the narrative that’s created by the player(s) themselves through their interactions with the game’s systems and/or other players.
We’ve seen that procedural generation, when done right, can be a treasure trove of emergent narrative, e.g. No Man’s Sky.
A player's self-constructed base in No Man’s Sky (2016)
In No Man’s Sky virtually any player will have their own stories to tell. For example, a player could decide to stick to one planet and build a lovely farm that they can call home. After they stop by the local space station to buy some goods they talk to one of the other lifeforms there that talks about how much they miss the freedom of travelling the galaxy. This inspiration, plus the player being annoyed by the regular storms on their home planet decides to leave the farm life behind and go on an adventure.
The flexibility of procedurally generated content often allows for non-scripted narrative to form. However, AI mixed in with a couple of game systems like local economies, dynamic weather and/or randomized encounters can create plenty of interesting scenarios as well.
Creating a believable world
When working on the spacial layout, set-dressing or really shaping your world in any way: Think about how the inhabitants of this world go about their daily business.
A level I built for March of War in 2013 when doing level design at ISOTX. During this gig I learned to think about the implicit narrative of a scene. E.g. if this is a sawmill, how do they export their product? This led me to improvise the railroad track overpass, giving the map a more distinctive look.
Of course, often gameplay is often more important, and you want to consider spacing, sightlines, balance and things like affordances first. But a good synergy between these aspects and attention to detail is what makes your world truly believable and adds that extra layer of immersion that allows players to forget that they're playing a game.
When designing locations, try to inhabit the people that live in a place like that or think through how a place like that really functions. Bringing well thought out implicit narrative elements to a location can really enhance or build on top of the explicit narrative that the game delivers, without any intrusion for the player. Explicit narrative can be a lot more than just cutscenes that interrupt gameplay. Also think about interactable elements in your scene that can help player’s forge their own stories and you’ve already come a long way in applying narrative to your environments.