Narrative-driven Design

 In Design notes, Uncategorized

In designing my zombie-survival card game, The Road, recently I’ve taken an approach to design that I haven’t really seen discussed before. I’m calling it “narrative-driven” design. The idea is that you choose a particular set of narratives that you want to see emerge from your game and then you design systems to enable and encourage (but not enforce) those narratives.

I’m talking here about what I have previously called “intrinsic” narratives — the stories that emerge from the gameplay — rather than “extrinsic” narratives — the stories imposed by the author. A good game should have a good intrinsic narrative, even if it has little or no extrinsic narrative. Consider sports, for example. A good game of cricket or football or whatever has an exciting narrative: Our team did this, but then their team did that. They had the edge for a while but then our start player did something amazing! It was neck and neck to the end but finally we won! There is no externally-written fantasy going on here. The story is based on the drama of the game itself.

One kind of intrinsic narrative is well known and well discussed: the heroic story. I don’t mean the Hero’s Journey so much as just the heroic process of fighting against and overcoming tougher and tougher odds until you emerge victorious (or are ground down by inevitable death). This dramatic arc is well established and thoroughly scrutinised. However this is not the limit of our ability to construct drama through gameplay.

Too often the intrinsic narrative of gameplay is at odds with the extrinsic narrative enforced by the writer, creating (that ugly term) ludo-narrative dissonance. The most common example is that of urgency. Many RPGs include quests which are supposedly ‘urgent’. Some NPC must be rescued quickly, we are told, or they will surely die! The reality undermines this: we are free to spend weeks hunting mushrooms in the woods and the NPC will remain safely ensconced in whatever dungeon until we finally embark to save them. The gameplay conventions of RPGs (that timed quests are not used) are at odds with the requirements of the story.

This will happen whenever we let our genre dictate terms to our game. The narratives we can tell will limited by the conventions of our genre. Or else there will be a disconnect between the gameplay and the extrinsic narrative, as is the case in many games. Edmund Snow Carpenter addressed this in They Became What They Beheld when he said:

If you address yourself to an audience you accept at the outset the basic premises that unite the audience. You put on the audience, repeating clichés familiar to it. But artists don’t address themselves to audiences; they create audiences.

I’ve been trying to take the opposite approach in The Road. I’ve been researching zombie stories and finding the kinds of dramatic beats I want to see in my game. Such as the scene in The Walking Dead where two men are running from a horde of zombies. They know they cannot both escape. So one turns to the other and shoots him in the leg. The zombies catch the wounded man and devour him, while the other man runs free. This is a classic narrative moment and I wanted to see it occur in my game. However rather than write it conspicuously into a particular scene, I merely set up the mechanics to encourage this response.

To achieve this, I created a combat system where players can occasionally find themselves outnumbered with no reasonably hope of winning. The choice to flee is the rational one, but the choice is still offered — some players may choose to stand and fight to a heroic death (another classic trope). The zombies have a chance to target the fleeing players. The choice is made randomly but it is weighted to prefer characters who stand and fight over those who run. This encourages small betrayals but I went a step further and gave the zombies the option of targeting a player’s corpse also, and the weighting for the corpse is high. A clever player puts two and two together and may decide that in desperate straits it is better to sacrifice their comrade to make a clean escape. The choice is never written in those terms, rather it is encoded in the mechanics of combat, so it is all the more effective for being the player’s own idea rather than a scripted decision.

As a design it is gratifying to see players find their own interesting narratives in my game. As an author I could write one story but as a designer I can write hundreds and give my players a sense of co-authorship with me. This pleases me.

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