Narrative Design and Audio-Visual Style in Video Games

WELCOME TO NARRATIVE DESIGN &VISUAL STYLE IN VIDEO GAMES A presentation by Altug Isigan METU Informatics Institute GATE511 December 29 2010

Transcript of Narrative Design and Audio-Visual Style in Video Games



A presentation by Altug Isigan

METU Informatics Institute GATE511

December 29 2010

About Me

Background Ankara Ü. Faculty of Communication; BA, MA,

PhD Scriptwriter, game designer, academic Teaching a game design class since 2007

(with focus on board game design)

Credentials IGDA Game Design SIG; founding member Game Design Aspect of the Month; editor Global Game Jam Famagusta; organizator

A few pics: Protoypes for Saviors

Pics, continued: Global Game Jam

Pics, continued: Game Design Class

Let’s get to the meat of things, right? ;)

Enough about me...

Before we start:

Always ask for the meaning of words that you aren’t familiar with there’s a lot of terminology in here, so don’t be a shy engineer! ;)

If you have questions, write them down We’re going to have a Q&A session at the end of the presentation, and you can ask them there ;)


The Ludology-Narratology Debate

Ludologist: Someone who believes games should be studied as games

Narratologist: Someone who studies narratives and believes that games too, can be studied as narratives

Around the year 2000, when a growing number of academics started to study video games, a huge debate broke out: Should games be studied as narratives? Should they be studied by narratologists? A group of game scholars tended to be against narratology and narratologists. They were labelled Ludologists.

The Ludology-Narratology debate reaches its peak when a group of Ludologists launched the online journal Game Studies and criticised Narratology as being insufficient& invasive

The Ludology-Narratology Debate Ludologists claim that “games aren’t

stories” because...

Stories are linear, games are non-linear Readers are passive, gamers are active Stories are recounts of what happened in the past,

games happen now – they have no discourse time, only play time

Hence, they conclude that we don’t need Narratology to study games, because games are something entirely different!

Approaching Video Games as Narratives

But can we approach games still as narratives? My answer is: YES!

Here are my reasons: Video games are fictional worlds. In order to come into

existence, these worlds must be narrated by something/someone Without narration we wouldn’t know they exist. We also wouldn’t know what we are doing in this fictional world.

Video games are a process of mediation: Hence there’s a medium that brings me news from a world that I wouldn’t be able to “interface” with otherwise. The medium narrates my actions to the game world, and the happenings in the game world to me.

Approaching Video Games as Narratives

By the way: Mediation and Narration takes place even in non-digital games ;)

Think of the Dungeon Master (DM) in a typical FRP Session:

The DM is a medium: He brings me news from a world that I cannot access otherwise

The DM narrates the events and happenings in the fictional world so that I can position myself and consider my situation. He also narrates the outcome of my very own actions. As a player, I depend on the DM’s narration in order to orientate myself and make decisions.

The Video Game is basically a digitalized DM, a medium, that narrates my actions and the fictional game world

In short, Mediation and Narration are inescapable!

Approaching Video Games as Narratives

A few words on the “passive reader” notion: Contructivist theories, and Reader-Response theory have

found out that a reader is never passive, but actively involved in the construction of the meaning of the text This cancels out Ludology’s claim that readers are passive A reader is pretty much lika a player, only his “input” is “invisible”

Any “text”, including video games, works only with the active participation of the “reader”, be it by articulating letters in his mind or by hitting frantically on a keyboard

Since a narrative *is* a reciprocal relation between text and reader that aims at (or results in) signification, the logical conclusion is that any “text” (written, audial, visual or tactile) must solicit the (interpretative or physical) actions that it wants it’s “readers” to carry out It’s only that in games the “readers” actions are often more “visible” than those of “book readers”. Hence, “reading” and interpretation lie at the heart of playing.

Approaching Video Games as Narratives

“Reading” a “game text” to solicit action: Pong

Game Start The white dot comes at you

If you fail to bounce it back 0-1!

The player “interpretes” this sequence that she must bounce the ball back to avoid conceeding a goal The “game text” has solicited at least one of the actions that it wants the player to carry out

The more such actions the text solicits, the more it enables the player to constructs the narrative, which is “To win the game, score more than you conceed” Now a conflict has been established, the action has telos, and events are connected in terms of causality and chrono-logy

This is the ludic way of narration; all communicated through the game medium.

The highly abstracted world of Pong: a fictional universe narrated through a medium!

The Video Game As Open Work

Narratives have been described as “linear” by Ludologists This is to say that they can’t be changed once the writer is finished with his work. There is one single storyline that we will experience each time we traverse the narrative The medium and genre Ludologist’s think of here are books and novels.

However, Non-Linearity isn’t a new concept to literature Great examples for this are the “permutational novels” of the Oulipo

movement George Perec, Raymond Queneu etc There is also a wealth of “create your own story”-type of books These gave readers a lot of options to interprete/manipulate the text, not

just in terms of interpretation, but also plot construction.

Hence the assumption of Ludologists that narratives are linear by nature is wrong.

The Video Game As Open Work

But it took some time until in narratology someone came up with a theory of “non-linear” narratives In 1962, Umberto Eco publishes his book The Open Work and speaks about “narratives that come to life the moment the reader interferes with them”.

Eco calls narratives that develop into various directions based on the decisions made by readers “open works”. The reader can decide on the content, structure or style of the narrative. The reader isn’t any longer bound to a single way of traversing the narrative presented to him.

IOW, the author of the open work gives the reader a narrative sandbox to play with and doesn’t force onto the reader a single way to experience them.

This gives us a very strong basis to theorize video games from within narratology because when it comes to video games, we basically deal with digitalized narratives that ask for reader input on a variety of narrative layers in order to come to life and be able to progress.

The Video Game As Open Work

Another important figure in narratology is Claude Bremond.

He analyzed narratives based on decision nodes and diagrammed them as logical circuits in which the characters need to make the “right decisions” in order the story to proceed to the ending that was foreseen by its author.

Diagram taken from

The Video Game As Open Work

In theory, a character in a story could decide to do what’s not good for the story, i.e. he could decide at a decision node to do what brings the story to an unwanted end. Imagine a detective saying in the middle of a story “I’m no longer interested in solving this puzzle, good bye!”

Hence, whenever the character arrives at a decision node, there exists a risk for the story to come to an end. Therefore, Bremond calls every decision node (or switch) in the logical circuit of the narrative an “area of risk”.

However this is a potential risk The author will make sure that the conditions in the fictional world make the characters chose what’s good for the story The character choses to do what the author wants him to do, but it feels like he has chosen it by his own free will in response to the conditions surrounding him. This brings us to the notion of Fate!

The illusion of fate is achieved by using a principle in dramaturgy called neccessity A good writer will make it look like it was fate, and not his power as the author of the story, that made the character chose what’s good for the story.

The Video Game As Open Work

So what happens to the “areas of risk” when it comes to games?

They are no longer potential risks but now bear a real risk! Because ultimately, as much as the author makes sure that

necessity is in its place, a player can always decide not to do what was expected from him! It’s now the reader/player who has the final word.

This makes it a really difficult task for the game designer to make sure that the player does what’s good for the game.

The Video Game As Open Work

We can identify at least two challenges for the author of the open work (or game designer):

To maintain necessity in a “free-to-roam” world illusion of fate To maintain increasing tension of the storylines that emerge based on

the players decisions logical coherence & unity during story progress

The latter is an important problem in narrative design, because not every decision that the player makes necessarily carries the plot on higher levels.

The most important two dramaturgic risks that the designer faces here are:

stagnation (the game lacks a feeling of progress); and deviation (the game maintains a feeling of progress, but one that feels

like it leads away from what’s central to the story, and that causes confusion about the goal of the game).

Both situations often translate into the most dangerous thing for games: boredom.

The Video Game As Open Work

An additional challenge to the game narrative designer is the need to introduce the player vocabulary the means and ends that the player makes use of to exist and act in the game world.

In a video game, introducing game controls and helping the player to feel convenient using them is an elementary part of exposure. In games it is often presented in the form of Tutorials or Cutscenes rather than being gradually revealed in a process of dramatization However, both methods are under dispute

The dilemma here is: As a narrative designer you want to introduce the problem and turn it into a conflict as soon as possible. That’s why teasers are popular in film

But as a game designer, you know you can’t send the player into the conflict before you haven’t made sure he’ll get along fine with the player vocabulary.

Introducing the player vocabulary without slowing down the build-up of the story is a very difficult task and can tell the master game (or narrative) designer from the apprentice.


Narrative Layers

A narrative model of narratologist Roland Barthes identifies four narrative layers that are in a vertical relationships:

According to the model, Events gain their meaning on the Story Persons (or Actants) layer; Story persons gain their meaning on the Narration layer; and ultimately the Narration gains its meaning through the Narrative Situation it is placed within.

Narrative Layers

Events (or Functions): All actions that are carried out to initiate,

continue and terminate a logically connected sequence

An example from Diablo: Diablo is on attack  Defend yourself  Diablo dead

The Events layer implies that characters in a story are in a constant process of decision-making.

Narrative Layers

Story persons (or Actants): The fictional beings who carry out the actions

which articulate as events. Often they'll signify something larger than their particular presence and connect/equal to a "will".

Diablo example: All monsters in the game are actants or story persons. But ultimately they articulate under a narrative "force" that we can identify as "Diablo“ That’s the “will” of the antagonist in the story

Narrative Layers

Storytelling (or Narration): the various techniques and methods through

which the events and story persons to which they belong to are presented to the player.

Examples from Diablo: Exposure of information through entering dialogues with the

people in town; gothic iconography and low gamma to foster mood and to

communicate genre, isometric view, player's in-game presence visually divided into avatar and cursor


Narrative Layers

Narrative Situation: the broader rules and conventions that

shape the way in which games (game narratives) are consumed.

This is not really part of the narrative itself, but rather means the circumstances and cultural codes that allow the game narrative to be perceived and consumed as such.

Manipulating Narrative Layers

In Video Games, game controls and interfaces enable us to modify these layers and manipulate the development and outcome of the narrative.

But we shouldn’t forget that the game narrative does the same to us, as we are playing.

Interaction is a reciprocal process between “text” and “reader” The influencing is mutual

Manipulating Narrative Layers

Influencing the Events Layer: Through input, players influence how a row of

Events turns out

Gameplay built around influencing the Events layer has been the dominant mode of interaction for many decades, exemplified right from the beginning through games such as Spacewar!, Pong, Asteroids, Galaxian, Centipede, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Zaxxon

This is the archetype of video game interactivity and it remains until today fundamental to any game.

Manipulating Narrative Layers

Influencing the Story Persons Layer: Over time, game designers explored the possibilities of the other

layers of narrative.

MUDs and genres such as RPGs and Simulations put emphasis on a variety of interactions that had as their subjects story persons and other game world existents:

Players could modify or remove existing characters, create characters from scratch, change their looks, traits and behaviors.  Other games allowed us to change the environment, to add, modify or remove objects, to modify terrain etc.

Civilization, The Sims, Diablo, The Sims, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Railroad Tycoon, X-Com Apocalypse, Football Manager are games that come in mind.

Manipulating Narrative Layers

Influencing the Narration Layer: Most modern games enable players to modify

the layer of Narration

We can now modify the camera angle or behavior, switch between POVs, chose the music and gamma (ambience) that we want to set the tone of the game

world, alter the frequency of in-game commentary, switch on or off replays etc etc etc...

Pro Evolution Soccer, Need for Speed, Medal of Honor are just a few examples that come in mind.

Manipulating Narrative Layers

Influencing the Narrative Situation: This is a layer that is not part of the narrative itself,

but one that is related to our awareness that we are dealing with a narrative

It includes decisions like where to play, how to feel most convenient while playing Remember Italo Calvino’s first chapter in If in a Winter’s Night a Traveller...

Defining the game settings from the options menu, or chosing a play mode are also part of this layer

Finally, the way the game developer influences our notion of what a game and playing is, frames all this. Project Natal: “You are the Controller”

Manipulating Narrative Layers

The distinction between these layers is analytical!

During gameplay, a decision might manipulate various layers at the same time! Narrative layers form a structure and its elements are always related!

Even if we can’t interact with some of them, all layers are always present

Some Important Reminders!

Interaction as Narrative Articulation Narrative Articulation Through Interaction: Our interferences on the various narrative layers during

game play would result in an articulation of the narrative.

It is the design of game controls and interfaces that define the ways in which our interactions result in such narrative articulation:

Some games would use complex combination of input devices, others would design the whole system of articulation around a single input device.

A very good example for narrative articulation built around a single input device is the use of the cursor in Diablo.

Interaction as Narrative Articulation

I’ll see you in 10 minutes ;)



Controls versus Sequence Motion

A specific problem to game design is to balance game controls and visual variety:

The question that game designers are confronted with here is how to deal with sequence motion the subject of montage/editing in cinema

the most popular way to create sequence motion is the cut Other prominent methods are the dissolve, the fade, the wipe etc...

But why is that a problem in video games?

Controls versus Sequence Motion

The player has a twofold role in a game:

He is both Player and Spectator

As a player he wants control over his actions As a spectator he wants visual variety and


But that’s harder to achieve than one might think...

Controls versus Sequence Motion

Consider this example :

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock);

famous shower scene


Controls versus Sequence Motion

This is a phantastic example of sequence motion Over 70 cinematic cuts in around 50 seconds.

As a side note: In this scene we never really see the lady being cut ;)

Controls versus Sequence Motion

Now: what if I ask you to make this scene a... game?

Motion Types

A way to better understand the problem is to approach games in terms of the Motion Types that they stick with

We can identify three motion types in audio-visual communciation:

Primary Motion Secondary Motion Tertiary Motion

Motion TypesPrimary motion refers to object movement.

It can be best exemplified by objects or persons moving within, or, in an out of the borders of a static frame.

A great number of games are built on primary motion.

Examples with static frames are Tetris, Centipede , Space Invaders, Pac-Man

There is hardly a game that doesn’t have primary motion.

Primary motion within a static frame answers the player’s need for surveillance

Motion Types

Secondary motion denotes camera and/or optical movement.

The frame is dynamic and the camera performs a variety of moves like travelling, panning or zooming

Often such movement will go together with types of primary motion.

All games that use a moving camera can be given as examples: Zaxxon

Secondary motion creates depth and is easy to cope with as long as there is vector


Motion Types

Tertiary Motion? Modern cinema and some of its major theories

are in defense of montage, that is, tertiary motion types like the cut.

This is where visual narration in modern games differs significantly from that of cinema. Game designers must consider carefully before they ever think of using tertiary motion

This is due to tertiary motion types often being in conflict with the player’s need for control over her actions

Motion Types

In terms of visual narration (or, the visual construction of screen events), many video games build their event-dense play sequences around primary and secondary motion types.

A lot of games still make use of tertiary motion, but rarely ever does it happen that it is used in moments where control is more important than visual variety. In most cases it would be regarded as a design flaw to sacrifice controls over spectacle during actual gameplay

Need For Speed Car crash & Jumping scenes

The Long Take

The Importance of the Long Take in Video Games

In contrast to cinema, where shot variation and editing plays an important role in the construction of the screen event, many video game genres can be described as being the genres of the long take.

We travel through the worlds of these games in one long, uncut cam display, and rarely ever does it happen that we witness a cut or any other type of montage during sequences of high event density

The Long Take

The Long Take

Design Constraints on Visual Style and Narrative Design Caused by the Long Take:

If during actual gameplay we are mostly limited to the long take and need to avoid tertiary motion...

How can we still create visual versatility, and foster rhythm and pace during gameplay?

What stylistic options do we have for punctuation and transition along the visual continuum of the long take?

We will now deal with design solutions for these problems


Design Solutions

“Active” and “Anticipatory” Camera: Change in the parametres of the continuous

camera movement that delineates events (or scenes), that creates pauses, and that establishes rhythm

The camera will often function in a suggestive way, having an impact on our decision to move into this or that direction

God of War Tekken Full Spectrum Warrior

Design Solutions

Shot Scale &Angle; Figure-Ground Relations

The camera in God of War makes use of switches in scale and angle during its continuous movement.

Without breaking the visual continuum, it backs off to give a birdsview of the approaching war scene; it accelerates and drags the player behind to anticipate danger/action; it slows down and allows the player to move freely to signify a relatively safe section; it up-closes and re-adjusts to the best scale and angle during the presentation of

battle action

The switch in scale and angle also polishes and brings to the foreground the ongoing primary motion in order to enhance spectacle and experience intensity. This creates rhythm through bringing into focus one type of action over another Focus switches between figure and ground

Design Solutions

Multiple Frames & Graphication Devices

Many games use multiple frames to narrate an event from multiple scales &angles, or to present more than one of its aspects at a time.

Graphication Devices like HUD’s are other ways of exposure

Multiple frames & Graphication Devices can be used to maintain Orientation& Surveillance mini maps in AoE, mini-windows in Rollercoaster

Tycoon, the rearviewmirror in NFS To present details that otherwise would require sequence motion to be

squeezed in and would therefore be in conflict with game control needs the mini-frame with the beaten faces in International Karate

Elements of a HUD’s display are a way to expose crucial information when it is needed The speedometer in NFS, the fatigue bar in Tekken

Design Solutions

Special Effects/Visualized Status Indicators

In many FPS games we wouldn’t notice that we’re hit by the enemy’s bullet if the screen wouldn’t turn to red each time we’re getting hit

If an enemy in RoN uses an A-bomb, the screen would screen would turn completely white from the blinding light of the explosion, no matter which section of the map is being displayed at that moment.

The screen displays light rays due to our increased speed when we use a Nitro-pack in Need for Speed.

The bullets “split” the air and cause shock-waves when we fire our gun in Max Payne

Etc etc etc

Design Solutions

Object Movement Even in games with a static frame, where not only

tertiary, but also secondary motion is out of the question, object movement can be used change the pace and rhythm in the game.

In Centipede, the experience density increases when a spider comes along. the appearance of an additional moving object increases event density. In addition, the spider moves faster than all other objects and gets very close at us (no need to mention that a collision with it kills us immediately). Hence we feel an increase in pace when a spider appears. Once it has left the screen, however, we feel that we have returned to normal game pace. Hence rhythm is created.

Pac-Man: In those section in which the roles are reversed and we can be a ghostbuster for a few seconds, we feel increased game pace. The ghosts move slow now (which feels like we've become faster) and there is limited time to catch them and get the reward. But soon it's us again who'll be the hunted and the pace will normalize. The switch between hunter and hunted roles creates rhythm.

Design Solutions

Color and Lighting Other visual parametres such as color and

lighting can be used to signify scene delineation.

Section with low gamma are followed by bright sections, Sections with cold colors are followed by warm colors, etc

These would establish a feel of rhythm, and create visual delineation of scenes and sequences.

Design Solutions

Volume, Shape, Form, Texture Volume, form and shape are other important factors

that especially architecture draws attention to

For example in racing games, delineation of sequences is partly achieved through the proportion of negative volumes to positive volumes:

The varying textures of the landscape create rhythm: Need for Speed: the highway section, followed by the Chinatown section, followed by the claustrophobic tunnel section, followed by the traffic-plagued downtown section that we have to rush through before we reach the finish.

Switching between a curvy sequence and a long straight will have an impact on pacing and rhythm.

Design Solutions

The Tactile Dimension An often ignored way of pacing and rhythm in video games is the

tactile dimension of the fictional universe. This is a very important aspect in architectural design.

Change in the texture and feel of the space that we walk through has an impact on our perception and mood. A sequence of various tactile qualities will bring a series of changing moods with it and that can be used for pacing and rhythm.

For instance  the way our avatar slows down or accelerates while climbing or walking down a slope, while performing a rather unusual move like strafing, or while wading through water or mud, all these are of a tactile nature. Collin McRae Rally

Our avatar would be still presented to us through secondary motion, but despite the continuous long take that follows our actions, we would perceive a transition from one area to another, which would bring variation to the experience we have.

Design Solutions

Sound and Ambience Ambience is another issue that is very important.

Transition from one set of natural sounds to another; switching between ‘noisy’ and ‘silent’ sequences; the way that our own noise sounds due to change in the tactile

or acoustic dimension of the environment.

All these can be used to establish a feeling of variation and rhythm along the long shot. Railroad Tycoon 2

Design Solutions

Articulation of Event Chains As we move through a level, we will witness how relatively

safe and relatively dangerous sections keep replacing each other. The way in which their order is set up, is another important way to pace a level and create rhythm.

In Diablo, there are sections in which enemies are always placed within each others line-of-sight, hence we are forced into a killing spree because each new kill already triggers another monster coming at us.

The designers make sure that after such a killing spree we have a pause. The next killing spree arrangement is positioned a bit farther and waits

for us to tap into it and trigger the new action section. Inbetween the killing sprees, we would re-assess our situation, re-

arrange our inventory and make plans on what tactic or strategy to adopt next.

Since all this would be presented along a single uncut shot, we would experience a feel of delineation that is being created without the use of tertiary motion.

Design Solutions Primary Motion-Secondary Motion

Cycles In a lot of games, we witness constant switching between object motion and

camera motion as the long shot unfolds. This works in the following way: As we walk through safe sections, secondary

motion rules. We walk, and the camera moves with us. Then, as we spot the enemy and engage with it, it is rather object movement that dominates the scene.

Often the density of the attack means we’re getting stuck at that point and can only move on when the threat is eliminated, hence the camera wouldn’t move, but a lot of object motion would dominate the scene.

An example for this is Diablo where during the walkthrough of a level the rhythmic structure consists of a constant switching between exploration/spotting (secondary motion) and ambush (primary motion): the monster attack nails us to a certain spot on the map and hence the camera seems to be locked on there; then, after we’ve killed the attackers and keep moving, the camera again starts to travel with us.

Despite no use of tertiary motion, the result is  controlled change in pace, which is just another name for rhythm.

GAME OVEROk folks, that’s it!

(But remember: we’re still having a Q&A Session)

Another10 minutes for you ;)




What have we learned today?

In regard to Narrative Design Video Games can be studied as narratives, in particular as Open

Works A video game is a narrative that opens all four basic narrative layers

to player interaction One of the major functions of interaction is to articulate narrative

layers in order to bring a game’s story into existence

In regard to Visual Style Tertiary motion is often in conflict with the player’s game control

requirements. Most games stick with primary and secondary motion, and are built

around the Long Take as a major visual stylistic device There exists a broad palette of stylistic devices to pace and give rhytm

in visual narration that is built around the Long Take


Thanks for Listening!

It was a pleasure to meet you people!

Hope to see you another time!


Altug Isigan

Eastern Mediterranean University

Faculty of Communication and Media Studies

Department of Radio-TV-Film&Journalism

Gazimagusa – TRNC

Send an e-mail to:

[email protected]


The Ludosphere – my blog on games:

IGDA Game Design SIG – official blog:

Game Design Aspect of the Month – useful articles:

Gamasutra– the #1 portal for game developers:

Kafa Ayarı– quality turkish game blog:


30 mins... gotta catch a plane!