The importance of embedded narrative

Good news everyone! I’m back from my holidays, which I’ll persist in calling “holidays” despite there being nothing holy about them out of a sort of misguided nationalistic pride for a country I’m not even from.

Anyway, today I wanted to talk about why back-story is important if you want people to understand how to play your game…

Should we surrender authorship?

“Rules of Play” makes reference to two types of narrative in games: “embedded” and “emergent“. Simply put, the former is the designer’s story, the latter is the player’s:

  • Embedded elements are pre-generated narrative components such as video clips and scripted scenes.
  • Emergent narrative elements are created on-the-fly as the player interacts with the game, arising from the operation of the game system.

The above is quoted from the book, though in my opinion all the artwork, sound, music and flavour-text that sets the scene, not just cut-scenes and scripted sequences, is part of the embedded narrative.

Now, any disciple of Chris Crawford will probably say that the only truly game narrative is the emergent sort, and that games should “surrender authorship to the player” rather than forcing a pre-baked story down their throats.This means championing games like Dwarf Fortress, for example, which are all about the player.

This has been my opinion for some time, as I feel that games, especially triple-A games, tend to emulate the worst kind of action films a little too much. Needless to say I’m not a big fan of cut-scenes. But does this mean that embedded narrative should be done with altogether?

Is embedded narrative just cut-scenes?

When I took the older HTML5 version of “Black Dog” to the tigsource forums the most common complaint received from my peers was that they didn’t understand the objective, that they didn’t understand or didn’t see the UI indicators. Specifically they didn’t understand why suddenly they couldn’t fly any more (when they ran out of feathers), nor did they comprehend why losing weights (if they realised they were weights at all) didn’t make them lighter.

Looking into the problems and talking to Black Corn made me realise that the root cause was a confused embedded narrative. Wait a minute, how can there have been an embedded narrative if there were no cinematics, no cut-scenes, not even flavour-text?

Easily: through graphics, sound, music… the game was at once a reference to Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and a metaphor for depression (known as “black dog”) but the whole thing was left rather vague and ambiguous even in my own mind. The weights were added because I wanted players escaping, so sloughing off their chains rather than earning a score, which seem to game-y. Unfortunately as mentioned above this didn’t read well with most of my testers. Perhaps games just work better if they’re, you know, a little bit game-y…

Are “affordances” part of the embedded narrative?

This made me think: the game would be functionally the identical if I replaced all the graphics with geometric shapes. Yet graphics are not irrelevant because they provide “affordances“: queues to the players tell them what should be done. “Dwarf Fortress” might spurn high-resolution graphics, but it’s full of visual affordances – even the name provides clues as to how the game should be played: there are dwarves and they build a fortress!

Without this embedded back-story to frame the action taking place in the game, players would likely have trouble understanding how to play. Indeed, this is precisely what happened with my game. Embedded narrative has gotten a bad wrap from a lot of people in the past, myself included, but surrendering authorship should not be taken to the extreme.

What is the Golden Mean between embedded and emergent narrative?

To conclude now: it is brought home to me that the job of any game design is to create a coherent universe with objectives and obstacles and with logical rules that can be manipulated by players in order to pursue the objectives and avoid the obstacles. This rules-objective-obstacle triad can be communicated via tutorials or cut-scenes, but a more subtle embedded narrative tends to be more appreciated and, I’d argue, more effective (most testers completely ignore tutorials).

To fix “Black Dog” for the Android version, I will be giving the dog more than a cameo appearance, as threats should be ever-present. Objectives should also always be in sight, so a fleeing willow-wisp now floats just out of reach, dropping orbs of light for the player to collect – this also forces a text-book trade-off choice between safety and progress, but more on this some other time. Perhaps it is our natural human-acquisitiveness, by collecting things feels a lot more satisfying than dropping them.

The confusing weights have also been removed in favour of a progression from the left to the right-hand side of the screen in pursuit of the wisp and away from the dog. Hopefully this and other changes will help clarify what the game universe is all about.

Do you have any thoughts on embedded and emergent narrative? Leave me a comment or send me an email: feedback is the best way to learn, and there’s certainly a lot left for me to learn about ;)

  • qubodup

    Bit confused when you’re talking about narrative and when about instructions and what you mean by ‘embedded’.

    In Cow Attack, as the “sound” “designer” I tried to embed game instructions THROUGH SONG in the intromusic.ogg! But it might have helped to have subtitles. ^^Not much of narrative in it though. That surely could have been improved.

    • Wilbefast

      I seem to have missed all the game jams while travelling around the Mediterranean :’( next time I’ll get an interail pass and see Northern Europe I think: England, Scandinavia and Germany seem to concentrate 90% of European game developers.

      I’ve added a citation from the book and also a clarification of my own to explain exactly what I mean by “embedded”: “all the artwork, sound, music and flavour-text that sets the scene, not
      just cut-scenes and scripted sequences, is part of the embedded
      narrative.” So your song most assuredly is!