The Game Narrative Triangle

There doesn't seem to be a lot going on in the game scene right now (at least for people not interested in motion controls, ever-more-unsettling modern war shooters and misjudged forum policies), so I'm taking advantage of the quiet time to go back some of the basic structures in games. Today I'm taking a first-principles look at the kinds of stories videog ames tell.

It's generally agreed that there are two types of game stories: what the script says and what the player does. Or as Valve writer Erik Wolpaw put it in a presentation at the Game Developers Conference in 2008:

Games tell two stories: the story story – the narrative story that's the sum total of a game's cutscenes and dialogue; and the gameplay story – the story described by the actions the player takes in the game world.

Game designer Marc LeBlanc proposed the names "embedded narrative", for the story set into the game by the designers, and "emergent narrative", for the story that emerges from the process of playing.

There's a third type of story in video games, but I'll get to that in a minute.

The distinction between embedded and emergent narrative can get a little blurry. No game is entirely composed of one or the other; every game contains at least one embedded story (even if it's as minimal and abstract as Tetris) and at least two potential emergent stories (in the simplest kind of game, a coin toss: heads or tails, win or lose).

Some atomic elements of game narrative can be definitively classified as embedded or emergent. Individual cut scenes and scripted dialogue are purely embedded, as the player has no control over them. Direct communication between players in a multiplayer match is purely emergent, as the game creator has no control over it. However most events fall somewhere in between: the actions of a player's avatar, for example, are directed by the player but performed in a framework of rules, animations, sound effects and story context designed by the game's creators.

We could represent this with a scale:

This scale is missing one factor, however. Video game narrative elements come from three sources: the game designer, the player and the computer. In a complex system, the game software will throw up events or images the designers didn't directly create, and may not have been able to predict. This is another form of emergent narrative, distinct from what the player or designer puts into the game.

Take an open world game for example. If you were to describe "the story of Grand Theft Auto IV", you would talk about Niko Bellic, his dark past, his search for the American dream and redemption, his rise through the underworld hierarchies of Liberty City and his ultimate disillusionment. The game tells this story with cut-scenes that interrupt the gameplay and scripted dialogue that plays over the top of the gameplay. There are other stories that play out over the radio, some related to you, some not. These are embedded narrative elements, directly created by the game designer.

If you were to describe "what you do in Grand Theft Auto IV", you would talk about stealing cars, speeding through crowded intersections, running from the police, jumping from buildings, making squealing handbrake turns and gunning down opponents. These are emergent narrative elements, created by the player.

If you were to describe "what happens in Liberty City", aside from the havoc you wreak directly as the player and the scripted story elements told in cut scenes, you would talk about pedestrians walking beside roads, garbage trucks cruising the streets early in the morning, police officers patrolling, cars stopping at traffic lights and negotiating corners – civilians fleeing your gunshots in panic, police officers chasing your car at high speeds, gangsters pulling guns as you approach and cars smashing into other cars in panic as the traffic flow is churned into chaos. All of these things are controlled by the computer. In one sense, it is all embedded behaviour, as the rules and AI that govern when and how each action will occur are coded in advance by the game's designers; however, when the moment-to-moment outcomes of that behaviour could not be predicted by the creators, they are emergent narrative elements, effectively created by the computer.

Now the game narrative scale looks like this:

In a complex narrative game like GTAIV, almost nothing is purely one kind of narrative or another. Anything that could be considered a spoiler is almost certainly embedded; cut-scenes, for example, are purely embedded narrative (unless you consider the player's experience of watching them more broadly, taking into account their context, knowledge and emotional state, in which case they have a shade of player-created narrative to them). A more interactive experience, like a police pursuit, is a fluid concoction of embedded, player-created and procedural elements, each reacting to the others and shifting from moment to moment.

In practice, only very specific narrative elements can be precisely pinned down to a point on this narrative triangle. Nevertheless, I think it's a useful schema for considering the status of narrative elements in games. If nothing else, it's a good shorthand illustration for one of the reasons game narratives are so much more complex than they outwardly appear.

If you have a different idea, of course I'd like to hear it. Perhaps a narrative hexagon or a four-dimensional story hypercube?  Or is there a game that just doesn't fit this model at all?

Republished with permission.

Fraser Allison is currently writing a thesis at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology on how video game mechanics create meaning for players. He writes about this, and many other game issues, at


    Now we just need to super impose the tri-force...

    There is nothing here literary devices haven't already proposed and refined for the past hundreds of years. Hell, the film medium is head and shoulders above Video-game narrative. Post-modern films like Memento, Tarantino's work etc have always been shaking up the traditional linearity.

    As much as I love gaming, there is nothing in this article in which other story-telling media do not exceed. Even the supposed magnum opus; Bioshock, has more running and gunning than clever Ayn Rand references or thought provocation.

    This sort of article is identifying complexity and intent where none exists. Videogame narrative still, serves as a garnish to "shooting up bad guys.", an incredibly juvenile philosophy that does not justify all this pontification.

    It's like the old English teacher looking for hidden meaning about why a Kangaroo jumps into the bush."The Kangaroo, represents the Australian economy and the toils of the working class. Jumping into the bush symbolises the collapse of society" - Or how about, The kangaroo just wanted to jump into the goddamn bush?

    There is no Emergent/Embedded liberal arts nonsense here. Talk about how the Liberty City world is constructed of 'real stories' which we, the player intermingle with, and 'experience' is as disingenuous as deriving false narrative from tin soldiers. A videogame world is created purely from code, whose existence is justified purely by the player's purchase of the game, funding the developer to keep creating the material. There is nothing more to see here.

      Wow, you really think that? Do you honestly believe no-one played GTA3 because they wanted to experience the story of a gangster constantly trying to work his way up and getting stuffed over? I loved the story that the game presented, as well as being able to play my character how I wanted to play him.

      Granted literary devices certainly have proposed and refined elements of story telling for the past hundreds of years... but do you believe that means that games are incapable of having a story, and that it is only there to garnish your shooting of bad guys?

      Personally I love many games for the storys just as much as I love books (and I love books), if I want to just mindlessly shoot at stuff I'll go play TF2 sure, but if I want an immersive story then I love games like Knights of the Old Republic, Zelda games or even the campaigns of Warcraft III.

      I believe games have an amazing amount to offer to storytelling, that can learn from the hundreds of years of experience that literacy has, but is still unique and different in itself and deserves being explored and built upon.

      What on earth are you talking about?

      If you are really so cynical to believe that games only exist for gmae publishers to make money, why on earth do you play games?

      AAA games are only MADE to make game publishers money, certainly. But they EXIST for many many many more reasons.

      Certainly, game stories are yet to reach the same literary level as novels and films, but that is because they are still so young and we are still laying the foundations of the theory--in articles exactly like this. You want better stories in your games? Well first we gotta figure out how to do that because audience interactivy changes EVERYTHING when it comes to crafting a story. And a good place to start for that is by thinking about it with articles like this.

    I wonder how missingno from pokemon would fit in, it was the glitch that captured everyone's imagination.

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