Narrative in Computer Games

Narrative in Computer Games James Merry Animation (MA) June 2000 1


MA Thesis

Transcript of Narrative in Computer Games

Page 1: Narrative in Computer Games

Narrative in Computer Games

James Merry

Animation (MA)

June 2000


Page 2: Narrative in Computer Games


1. List of Illustrations – page 3

2. Introduction – page 5

3. History of Narrative in Computer Games – page 7

4. Why Computer Games Have Narrative – page 13

5. Influence of Film – page 20

6. Influence of Mythology and Folktale – page 28

7. Communication of the Narrative to the Player – page 34

8. Conclusion – page 41

9. Bibliography – page 42

10.Endnotes – page 46


Page 3: Narrative in Computer Games

1 – List of Illustrations

Figure 1; Java version of Spacewar, which can still be played on the Internet at – page 7

Figure 2; ZX Spectrum version of Colossal Adventure by Level 9, inspired by the

original ADVENT game. – page 10

Figure 3; Beneath a Steel Sky, an example of a point and click graphic adventure. –

page 11

Figure 4; ZX Spectrum version of Ghosts`n`Goblins - the player's character's

girlfriend is kidnapped by an evil winged beast. – page 14

Figure 5; Sequence of events leading up to the disaster in Half-Life – page 17

Figure 6; Short sequence taken from the intro animation from Civilisation: Call to

Power, which tells the story of the rise and fall and rise of a civilisation. – page 21

Figure 7; What Civilisation: Call to Power looks like when its being played. –

page 21

Figure 8; Snake’s first meeting with Meryl, in Metal Gear Solid. – page 24

Figure 9; End of level guardian in R-Type – page 30


Page 4: Narrative in Computer Games

Figure 11; A scene from ZX Spectrum version of Tir Na Nog, based on the Celtic

mythology of Cuchulain. – page 32

Figure 11; Amiga version of Guild of Thieves, text adventure with illustrations. –

page 34

Figure 12; The Codec screen in Metal Gear Solid. Narrative is communicated by

dialogue. – page 38

Figure 13; Screenshot from Bladerunner. Much of this game involves interviewing

different characters with pre-recorded dialogue. – page 39


Page 5: Narrative in Computer Games

1 – Introduction

It is important to notice that there is a fundamental difference between the

concepts of “game” and “story”. A game is generally regarded to mean a

contest involving basic human survival skills. It can involve competition,

co-operation or it could just be testing oneself. Amongst other things, this

could mean running around a racetrack in the shortest possible time,

throwing spears at a target or solving complicated logic puzzles. A game

can involve any number of participants and the final outcome is not

known until it has happened. A game can be used for the training of one’s

own skills, for the entertainment of both the participants and the

spectators, and for the determining of the player’s standing within


A narrative is an organisation of events that happen. They can be

either fictional or accounts of real life. A storyteller tells narratives to an

audience who have little or no influence over the outcome. A narrative

can be used for entertainment, for lessons and for recording events. A

narrative is linear and it is the storyteller’s job to present this in a form

that can entertain and keep the attention of an audience.

This difference between game and story is illustrated by Mark

Barrett; “Movies about sporting events are often unfulfilling because of

the preparatory effects which narratives must use to generate emotional


Page 6: Narrative in Computer Games

involvement. Because of these preparations – particularly various forms

of foreshadowing – the dramatic outcome of any story is often known, or

at least suspected, before it is revealed.”1

It is this conflict between two entirely different concepts within the

field of computer games that this dissertation intends to look at. Why it

has happened? How does it work? Or doesn’t work? And where it may

lead to next?


Page 7: Narrative in Computer Games

2 – History of Narrative in Computer Games

It would be useful to begin by defining three genres of computer game

relevant to this essay. These are Action games, Adventure games and

Strategy games. In terms of narrative in computer games, the genre of the

game is important, as different types of games will have different uses

and requirements for narrative.

Action Games

In her book, Joystick Nation, J.C. Herz2 puts the beginning of

computer games at 1962 with the completion of Spacewar on DEC’s

PDP-1 computer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Steven


Figure 1; Java version of Spacewar which can still be played on the Internet at

Page 8: Narrative in Computer Games

Poole’s Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames3 on the other hand

claims it was 1958. It was in that year when William A. Higinbotham

developed an oscilloscope tennis game as an amusing exhibit for visitors

to the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a U.S. government nuclear

research facility. What is clear, however, is that narrative wasn’t even

considered by the authors of early computer games. Games were

necessarily limited by the hardware available at the time. As Figure 1

illustrates, limited graphical capability meant that the state of play had to

be represented by the barest means possible. Simple icons represent the

player’s spacecraft. A big star at the centre of the screen represents the

gravity force. The star field in the background helps the players to judge

the speed of their spacecraft. Playing the game consists of trying to shoot

your opponent whilst avoiding being sucked into the centre. If either

event happens then the game ends and then begins again. Although the

game itself is fun to play, the only interesting narrative that could come

from this would be in the imagination of the players.

Strategy Games

Other important games that appeared in the 1960s were Lunar

Lander and Hammurabi. Lunar Lander was “…a turn based game with a

text interface that required the player to administer rocket-thruster firing


Page 9: Narrative in Computer Games

without running out of fuel before meeting the surface.”4. This game can

be regarded as the ancestor of flight simulator games we have today, such

as Microsoft’s Flight Simulator. In Hammurabi the player had to

manipulate resources and build infrastructure in order to make a

successful feudal kingdom. From this game one can trace a straight line

to the more recent sophisticated god games such as Sim City and


Adventure Games

It was not until 1967 that narrative as scripted by the game author

began to make an appearance in computer games. This was in the form of

ADVENT, which was the combination of computer technology with

Dungeons & Dragons role-playing boardgames. ADVENT was, “the first

of a lost genre of game that was hugely popular on personal computers

right up until the late 1980s. It was the first computerised version of

“interactive narrative”: the computer described a location and the user

typed in commands – “north”, ”look”, ”kill snake”, ”use torch” – to move

around the virtual world, use objects and solve fiendish puzzles.”5 (page

32, Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames, by Steven Poole,

published by Fourth Estate).


Page 10: Narrative in Computer Games

J.C. Herz describes ADVENT as, “a logical extension of the

fantasy role-playing games that suffused hackerdom, spawning cultish

extracurricular organisations like the Society for Creative Anachronism.”

J.C. Herz goes on to explain that, “A high percentage of computer

programmers were and are, not surprisingly, Dungeons and Dragons

aficionados. There’s an affinity between computer programming and

games that require reams of graph paper and twenty-sided dice. Both are

artificial universes governed by quantifiable rules, probability, and

obsessive mapping. Charting out subterranean passages and dead ends is

pretty much analogous to mapping out a circuit or debugging a piece of

code. So a combination of computers and dragon-slashing was begging to

happen. ADVENT not only took care of the scorekeeping and referee

chores, but its bone-dry humour and exploratory conventions influenced a


Figure 2; ZX Spectrum version of Colossal Adventure by Level 9, inspired by the original ADVENT game.

Page 11: Narrative in Computer Games

generation of game programmers. In Adventure and its descendants, the

emphasis was on puzzle solving and getting to some mysterious end at a

slow, novelistic pace.”6.

At this point it should be noted, within computer game

terminology, the differences between a role playing game and an

adventure game. Although often similar in terms of subject matter (e.g.;

fantasies involving dragons, gnomes and evil sorcerers, etc.), R.P.G.

games are concerned primarily with character interaction and combat

statistics. Adventure games on the other hand are more interested in

exploration, object manipulation and puzzles.

By the 1990s the text adventure games became virtually

commercially extinct, and have since been replaced by point-and-click

graphic adventure games. These games generally worked in the same

way, in that they involved the same basic exploration of locations, object


Figure 3; Beneath a Steel Sky, an example of a point and click graphic adventure.

Page 12: Narrative in Computer Games

manipulation and simple character interaction. Animated graphics

replaced text descriptions and a point-and-click user interface replaced

the text parser system.

The point-and-click adventure games have themselves, now been

superseded by 3D graphic adventures


Page 13: Narrative in Computer Games

3 – Why Computer Games Have Narrative

The main reason why a computer game should have a narrative is simple.

It is to encourage the player to play the game in an effort to find out what

happens next. Narrative can also be used to create an atmosphere for the

player to play within, e.g.; scary, tense, calm, etc. Another use for

narrative is to help create an emotional link between the player and the

characters in a game.

Within a computer game the most important thing is the gameplay

itself but, used correctly, narrative can act as a powerful carrot and stick

for the player. If the player can be encouraged to care about the characters

in the game he or she will try all more harder to help them. If a player

should ever ask him or herself why he/she should bother attempting the

latest highly complicated puzzle or the massacre a horde of gun-toting

henchmen then a narrative (or lack of narrative) can help make that

decision. Narrative is used to reward a successful player and the prospect

of narrative is used to goad an, as-yet, unsuccessful player to play on.

Someone playing a multi-player shooter game such as Quake, for

example, will have little use for narrative and will be much more

concerned with shooting his/her opponents. Indeed, many will argue that

a narrative would simply get in the way of the gameplay and diminish the

experience. Action games do often have a back-story, however, to


Page 14: Narrative in Computer Games

provide the player with an excuse to shoot opponents if nothing else. This

often involves nothing more than the player’s character’s fiancé / princess

/ kiwi friends being kidnapped by a horrible evil character (figure 3). The

fiancé / princess / kiwi friends must be rescued. This then explains why

the player must negotiate level after level of platforms and do battle with

hordes of goblins / trolls / bizarre evil turtles. The kidnapper does not

need to be motivated by anything other than by the fact that they are evil

and therefore must perform evil acts. Too much detail would get in the

way of the gameplay.

In fact, according to Steven Poole, “…the delicate balance of story

types is skewed in videogames: it is very heavily weighted towards the

diachronic.”7. What this means is that narrative in computer games are

rarely under the control of the character. The narrative puts the player

where he or she is and tells them what their goal is. Sometimes the goal

of a game is to find out what the back-story is, such as in Half-Life. This


Figure 4; ZX Spectrum version of Ghosts`n`Goblins - the player's character's girlfriend is kidnapped by an evil winged beast.

Page 15: Narrative in Computer Games

type of narrative technique can also be seen in cinema, for example in a

film such as Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. In North by Northwest the

protagonist finds himself in a bizarre and dangerous situation, and yet, he

doesn’t know exactly what is going on, or why. Much of the narrative in

the film is about how the protagonist is trying to find out the back-story.

This can work well in computer games as the story can then be relatively

complex and at the same time, be veiled from the player by a layer of

hints and clues. This can help in making the player feel that he/she is

writing his/her own narrative.

Possibly the best example of a game driven forward by its back-

story is Half-Life. This game begins by plunging you into your

character’s (Gordon Freeman) first day at his new job. The friendly

guided tour at the beginning of the game introduces the player to the

Black Mesa complex. After the tour the player is then left to explore the

reception area, locker room, staff canteen and offices before unwittingly

initiating the terrible disaster that changes everything. These rooms are

populated by scientists who are very irritable, and security guards who

are friendly but firm. Little accidents occur such as one of the computers

exploding and the general casual recklessness of the scientists but nothing

serious happens. This works as a contrast to the rest of the game after the

disaster happens.


Page 16: Narrative in Computer Games

The managing director of Valve Software, Gabe Newell, describes

the inspiration behind the narrative in Half-Life, “Prior to starting work

on Half-Life, I had been reading a bunch of Stephen King. In particular,

there was a novella he had written called “The Mist”. The primary aspect

of the story that really appealed to me was this sense of an ordinary world

spinning out of control. Setting a tentacle monster in grocery store, for

instance. There were elements of science fiction crossed with horror,

which I really liked. And in general the main character was struggling

with realising he had to be the main actor in the situation, that people who

should be on his side were turned against him, and that even though bad

things were happening, the shape of the catastrophe wasn’t very clear for

a long way into the story.”8

Figure 5 illustrates the sequence of events that lead up to the

disaster in Half-Life. After Gordon has found his H.E.V. (Hazardous

Environment Suit) he is allowed to proceed to the test chamber to begin

the day’s experiment. Outside the test chamber two scientists explain

what Gordon has to do (figure 5.1). Hints are dropped as to the

importance of the experiment and pressure on them applied by the


Once Gordon has entered the test chamber, he is prompted via his

suit’s radio link, to “start the rotors”. This involves pressing a big red

button (figure 5.3). At this point an energy beam appears in the centre of


Page 17: Narrative in Computer Games

the room and Gordon is then instructed to push a trolley holding the test

sample into it. As soon as the test sample touches the beam everything

starts to go horribly wrong (figure 5.6). Explosions happen everywhere

and the room shakes violently. Figure 5.7 shows a brief scary vision of

alien worlds that Gordon receives, before then being dumped back into

the now wrecked test chamber (figure 5.8). As Gordon makes his way

back out of the test chamber, he discovers that something very bad indeed

has happened. The entire complex has been wrecked. The corridors are

littered with corpses, there are bloodstains on the walls and there is now

the constant menace of bizarre, bloodthirsty creatures stalking the

complex. The point of all this is that is provides such a stark contrast to


1 2 3

4 5 6

7 8 9

Figure 5; Sequence of events leading up to the disaster in Half-Life

Page 18: Narrative in Computer Games

what was going on before that the player wants to know what really

happened. What was the test sample? Why did it react like it did when it

touched the energy beam? Where is everybody? What are those creatures

and where have they come from? Why was the government so interested

in this experiment? And how will I get out of this? Of course these are all

questions which lead to the cliched conspiracy theory style narrative. The

player is nonetheless made to want to get to bottom of it all and if that

means have to blast his or her way through hordes of ghastly beasts and

solving difficult puzzles then so be it.

Campbell describes this type of narrative beginning as, “A blunder

– apparently the merest chance – reveals an unsuspected world, and the

individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly

understood. As Freud has shown, blunders are not the merest chance.

They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts. They are ripples

on the surface of life, produced by unsuspected springs. And these may

be very deep – as deep as the soul itself. The blunder may amount to the

opening of a destiny.”9. For his example of this, Campbell uses the Frog

King fairy tale and declares the frog as a “herald” and “the crisis of his

appearance is the “call to adventure””10. With this in mind one can say

that the scientists in Half-Life are “heralds”. The disaster that occurs

when Gordon pushes the test sample into the energy beam is the “call to


Page 19: Narrative in Computer Games

adventure”. It is this “call to adventure” that pulls the player into the



Page 20: Narrative in Computer Games

4 – Influence of Film

As a relatively new artistic medium, computer games (in particular

narrative computer games) seem to have taken much its inspiration from

myths, folktales and contemporary cinema. This is similar in the way

early photography took much of its stylistic cues from religious paintings

and early cinema took its cues from the theatre. Visually, narrative

computer games often try to make themselves look like movies. Indeed, it

is generally expected these days that any game should come with at least

one video sequence. Even games that cannot be described as looking or

feeling remotely like a film often have a video sequence as an

introduction. Civilisation: Call to Power by Activision has a long,

bombastic intro animation (figure 6). In addition to this it also has little

video sequences that pop up every time the player has made a new

technological breakthrough. Despite these animations the actual in game

graphics (figure 7) are very abstract and iconified. What Civilisation: Call

to Power basically boils down to, is an extremely sophisticated

boardgame. If these little pieces of narrative add little to the actual

gameplay itself then what is the reason for their inclusion? For a game

like Civilisation: Call to Power, this could be quite important in terms of

sales. The images from the narrative sequences appear quite prominently


Page 21: Narrative in Computer Games


Figure 7; What Civilisation: Call to Power looks like when its being played.

Figure 6; Short sequence taken from the intro animation from Civilisation: Call to Power, which tells the story of the rise and fall and rise of a civilisation.

Page 22: Narrative in Computer Games

on the box and it is not hard for them to look that much more impressive

and dynamic than the little icons on the game map.

It must be made clear that although games can be made to look like

a movie, a game can never be a movie and a movie can never be a game.

A film is something that demands a passive audience. A game needs

participants. One cannot be passive and active at the same time.

Often, games that are designed to look like a movie fall down on

their lack of gameplay. One of the first games to sell itself on its

cinematic looks was Dragon’s Lair by the Don Bluth studios. It was

released in 1983 and it used laser disc technology. Although this game

looked stunning for its time it was critically panned for its lack of

interactivity. It was a game that really did play more like a movie. As Jim

Bickmann explains in his fanzine article, “Dragon’s Lair, A Laser Disc

Legend”, “Some players complained that laser games weren’t challenging

enough, but just based on memorisation. Others said they were too


Since the development of fast 3D graphics for games however,

attempts to make cinematic style games have generally become more

successful. Perhaps the best current example of cinematic narrative and

gameplay working together can be seen in Metal Gear Solid, released by

Konami in 1999. Despite the fact the player still has no control over the

narrative sequences in this game, the narrative sequences and the actual


Page 23: Narrative in Computer Games

gameplay have been edited together seamlessly. As stated in the April

2000 issue of Edge magazine, “…the way in which its set pieces relate to

its action is often quite effective. Snake’s initial meeting with Meryl

works well. The manner in which it blends in with the following action

sequence stands out.”12.

Figure 8 shows quite clearly the influence of film style narrative in

Metal Gear Solid. Figures 8.01 to 8.14 are all part of a narrative sequence

which lead into the game sequence depicted in figure 8.15. Previous to

this sequence Snake had just escaped from a prison cell. As he left the

cell, the player’s control over the game was taken away for this narrative

sequence. Figure 8 depicts the following Mexican stand-off with another

escapee, who later on in the game is revealed to be the Colonel’s

daughter, Meryl. In figures 8.01 and 8.02, the narrative had just cut away

to the other side of the door where a group of enemy soldiers are

preparing to burst in on them. One can see how cinematic style is used to

heighten the tension of the stand-off and at the same time of the

impending enemy attack. Metal Gear Solid uses film style narrative to set

up the next action gameplay sequence which starts in figure 8.15, where

Snake and Meryl must defend themselves against an onslaught of enemy


The narrative for Metal Gear Solid is as tightly plotted and scripted

as any number of boy’s own thriller-conspiracy-adventure stories. A good


Page 24: Narrative in Computer Games


Figure 8; Snake’s first meeting with Meryl, in Metal Gear Solid.

Page 25: Narrative in Computer Games

comparison might be seen in the Die Hard movies, which involve lots of

machismo, and stupid unbelievable things happening, but doesn’t take

itself too seriously.

Like Dragon’s Lair, however, one could hardly call Metal Gear

Solid an interactive movie. It works better than Dragon’s Lair because the

gameplay is more important that the narrative. Narrative is still linear and

unchanging. To play on the player must succeed at the tasks that the

narrative gives him or her, otherwise Snake will just get killed. The

narrative doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay though. If one wanted to

one can just click through the narrative sections and just get on with the

gameplay sections. Also as Steven Poole explains, “True montage,

meanwhile is still not used. An action movie would, for instance, cut

from a close-up of the hero’s face to his point of view of approaching

enemies, then back to a mid-shot of the hero with gun drawn, whereas

such scenes in Metal Gear Solid’s gameplay necessarily take place in

long shot [see figure 8.15]. Metal Gear Solid is a great videogame with

quasi filmic visual gimmickry, but it is nothing like an interactive


Another point to bear in mind when comparing computer games to

films, in terms of narrative, is pacing. A film relies on its short length to

be able to keep an audience interested. An audience cannot be expected to

sit down and watch a film that lasts for much more than four hours. A


Page 26: Narrative in Computer Games

filmmaker has a time limit to get his or her message across before an

audience loses interest. Bearing this in mind, editing techniques have

been developed that can compress a complex narrative into an incredibly

short time span. The extreme of this can be seen in any weekly prime

time drama episode on television that can pack a complex narrative with

numerous characters into neat thirty-minute slots.

Computer games, in contrast, can take months to complete.

According to Edge magazine Final Fantasy VIII takes over 100 hours to

complete and that, “Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a title that demands about 30

hours to complete via the most linear route from start to finish, has been

described as inadequate in length”14. In this respect a computer game may

be compared to a book in that it is something that a player may keep

coming back to, to play a little bit at a time. Unlike both books and film,

however, it is generally not the narrative that takes up the time. It is in

fact the gameplay. Indeed a player might even be stuck on a single

particularly difficult puzzle for weeks before he or she manages to break

through to the next part of the game.

This raises problems for narrative flow. As different players will

proceed through a single game at different speeds and in an erratic

manner it is difficult for game designers to create a narrative that flows

smoothly from beginning to end. This can lead to the player forgetting

what has gone on before in the game and what his or her goal is. This is


Page 27: Narrative in Computer Games

especially the case when a player returns to a game after a particularly

long absence. This problem is discussed in more detail later.


Page 28: Narrative in Computer Games

5 – Influence of Mythology and Folktale

In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell

sums up the typical mythological narrative, “The mythological hero,

setting forth from his common day hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or

else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure. There he

encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may

defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark

(brother-battle, dragon-battle; offering, charm), or be slain by the

opponent and descend into death (dismemberment, crucifixion). Beyond

the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet

strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (tests),

some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of

the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his

reward. The triumph may be represented as the hero’s sexual union with

the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition by the

father-creator (father atonement), his own divinisation (apotheosis), or

again – if the powers have remained unfriendly to him – his theft of the

boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an

expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination,

transfiguration, freedom). The final work is that of the return. If the

powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection


Page 29: Narrative in Computer Games

(emissary); if not, he flees and is pursued (transformation flight, obstacle

flight). At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain

behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread (return,

resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world (elixir).”15 (page

245, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, published by

Fontana Press).

Bearing this in mind one can look at many computer games and

pick out equivalents to match the points that Campbell has raised. In

Metal Gear Solid, the hero, Snake, is kidnapped by his employers, the

Special Forces Operations Unit, and delivered by submarine to a remote

Alaskan island. His mission is to infiltrate the top-secret base that has

been taken over by terrorists. At the beginning of Half-Life, the hero,

Gordon Freeman, is given a guided tour train ride through the huge Black

Mesa compound before being dropped off at the Anomalous Materials

section to start his day’s work. In Tomb Raider II, Lara Croft arrives at

her first location by helicopter. These examples represent the journey to

what Campbell refers to as the threshold of adventure.

The “shadow-presence” or threshold guardian is represented by

what the player must do to trigger the beginning of the actual gameplay

itself. In Half-Life’s case, it is that Gordon must insert the sample into the

energy beam before the game will begin properly. In Tomb Raider II,

Lara has climb up a massive cliff before she can get anywhere. In Metal


Page 30: Narrative in Computer Games

Gear Solid, Snake must make his way through the docks, to the elevator

without being spotted by the guards.

In game terms, “threshold guardian” can also be applied to end-of-

level guardians. These are usually particularly big and scary beasts or

particularly violent and spectacular set pieces that can be found at the end

of each level in many action games (figure 9). They must be overcome if

the player is to proceed on to the next level, or threshold (because of the

level based structure of many games, it may be considered that a game

has many thresholds whereas a myth might have only one).

Beyond the threshold then, the player of a computer game will

generally encounter both friends (helpers) and foes (tests). In Half-Life,

security guards and scientists must be protected if they are to be of

assistance. There are also objects left lying around the Black Mesa

complex, such as extra ammunition or medikits to boost Gordon’s health


Figure 9; End of level guardian in R-Type

Page 31: Narrative in Computer Games

levels. At the same time Gordon must deal with hordes of scary monsters

and government troops and solve various puzzles. These things act as

tests. In Tomb Raider, Lara Croft will generally encounter agents who

will hinder her progress and agents that will help her. The same again

applies to Metal Gear Solid and just about any other computer game one

cares to mention. This is in fact the meat of gameplay itself.

As the player approaches the end of a computer game there, it is

rare not to have a supreme challenge that he or she must overcome. In

Metal Gear Solid, Snake must engage in combat with the Metal Gear

robot itself, which is under the control of his evil brother. Metal Gear “…

contains next generation technology and is capable of annihilating an

entire city.”16. In Half-Life Gordon is transported to another world to do

battle with Gonarch.

A game might end with the overcoming of the supreme ordeal, but

sometimes the player is required to flee before a game can be finally

completed. In Metal Gear Solid for instance, Snake must escape through

a tunnel by jeep with his evil brother in hot pursuit.

The player will eventually emerge at the end of the game, having

saved the world, rescued a friend or found the talisman or elixir that he or

she originally set out to do.

In his book, Morphology of the Folktale17, Vladimir Propp states

that all folktales can be broken down to a few simple formulae. He argues


Page 32: Narrative in Computer Games

that the characters of a folktale can be reduced to a function, which can

be seen repeated in many other folktales. This theory is valid for

computer game narrative as well as for folktales. The characters as

personalities don’t really matter. Its what they do that counts; what their

function in the game is. Do they help the player? (e.g.; giving the player a

vital object or providing some important advice) Or do they hinder the

player (e.g.; killing him or her).

It is worth noting that, according to the introduction to the 2nd

edition of Morphology of the Folktale18 Propp’s Morphology theory has

actually been made into a computer program that generates its own


It is also worth noting that there are a large number of computer

games that “[dip freely] into the myth kitty by basing themselves on


Figure 11; A scene from ZX Spectrum version of Tir Na Nog, based on the Celtic mythology of Cuchulain.

Page 33: Narrative in Computer Games

Arthurian Legend (Excalibur), Celtic sagas (Tir Na Nog [figure 10] and

Dun Durach on the ZX Spectrum), Norse sagas (Valhalla), or Tolkien’s

Middle Earth (The Hobbit), not to mention science fiction and fantasy

derivatives of these basic templates.”19.


Page 34: Narrative in Computer Games

6 – The Communication of the Narrative to the Player

Books use written language and films use linear sequence of

images. In terms of narrative, both forms have their rules of editing,

which can either be adhered to or broken. For example, many of the

narrative techniques developed by early film pioneers such as Eisentein

or the German Expressionists are still in use today in mainstream cinema

and television. What about computer games, however? How do computer

games actually communicate the narrative to the player?

As we have already seen, text-based adventure games that were

popular in the 1980s communicated their narratives through the use of

text. Although later text adventure games had increasingly sophisticated


Figure 11; Amiga version of Guild of Thieves, text adventure with illustrations.

Page 35: Narrative in Computer Games

graphics, these were invariably static illustrations and added little to the

game itself (figure 11). Indeed, sometimes a text adventure game fan

would complain that graphics got in the way of the writing and that it

hindered the player’s imaginative interpretion of the text. This is a

complaint that is often echoed by those who would like storybooks to

have no pictures. Everything in an adventure game was communicated by

text, whether it was location descriptions, object descriptions or a list of

the player’s inventory.

With the constantly improving standards of graphical technology

on relatively cheap home computers, game developers have been able to

develop more visual ways of telling a story. Indeed, we have already seen

how cinema provides a strong visual reference which computer games

often try to imitate. We have also seen how we have a problem of

narrative flow in computer games, where, due to the length of time a

particular challenge in a game can take, the player can forget the

narrative. By extension of forgetting the narrative the player can forget

what the point of the game is and what his or her goal is.

The designers of Half-Life have attempted to get around this

problem by placing obvious reminders at strategic points around the

levels. Marc Laidlaw, senior level designer at Valve Software explains,

“…you can peer through a pane of glass in a fire door and see your exit at

the far end of a corridor; but since the fire door is locked, you’ll need to


Page 36: Narrative in Computer Games

explore other avenues. Clever use of obstacles can turn a completely

obvious route into a complex non-obvious route. This technique was used

numerous times in Half-Life. What’s important is to make the goal

obvious from the first, in order to give players a start on solving the

problem of how to get there. And if they forget their goal somewhere

along the way, they will experience a jolt of recognition when they finally

gain the far-off door.”20.

Roberta Williams has worked on one the first graphic adventures,

Mystery House in 1980 for Sierra On-Line. She also stresses the

importance of jogging a player’s memory, “the object that must be

noticed is twice the size it should be, and centre screen, if possible. She

also believes in “message clues” through dialogue or through items that

say something when you click on them.”21.

One of the favourite ways of passing narrative information to the

player is via other character’s dialogue. Half-Life delivers its plot

developments through the mouths of the scientists and the security guards

at the beginning of each new level. This has a two-fold function as a

reward for the player and to set up a new, tougher task(s) for the next

level. For example, when Gordon does reach the surface at the end of

level one, he finds that government troops have arrived. Contrary to

expectation, however, instead of coming to help Gordon and the other

base personnel, they are shooting at them.


Page 37: Narrative in Computer Games

Having escaped from that first encounter with government troops,

Gordon finds another scientist. “Well, so much for the army.”, says the

scientist. He then goes on to explain to Gordon that from now on the base

personnel would be on their own. Caught between the vicious alien beasts

on one side and the government troops on the other, Gordon will now

have sort out this mess himself. He can start by going into the blast pit to

reactivate the nuclear reactor. This information is communicated to the

player by the scientist’s dialogue. The hostility of the government troops

is confirmed and the player now knows what his/her main task is for the

next level.

Metal Gear Solid works in a similar way in this respect. In

this game, the player is often made to follow vast tracts of dialogue,

detailing the highly intricate plotline. Indeed, despite Metal Gear Solid’s

cinematic looks, a lot of the narrative action actually takes place via

Snake’s Codec. This is a small two-way radio-like gadget, which allows

Snake to hold a radio conversation with his bosses without making any

noise (figure 12). This means that, for many of Metal Gear Solid’s major

plot developments, the player just follows the dialogue without the game

having to work too hard at trying to come across as a movie.


Page 38: Narrative in Computer Games

Indeed Olivier Masclef, the project director for Outcast (1999),

cites dialogue as one of the main routes for development in game

narrative. In Outcast itself, “Twenty hours’ worth of character dialogue

was provided by sixteen different voice actors.”22. Masclef believes that

an important future development for computer game narrative will be the

ability to generate speech on the fly as opposed to recording actors in a

studio. To do this game developers will have to develop increasingly

powerful artificial intelligence algorithms so that computer game

characters will be able to act more independently and intelligently within

the game. This would be as opposed to a game developer placing a

character to wait in a certain location for the player to arrive and then

giving a pre-recorded speech, as in Half-Life or Metal Gear Solid.


Figure 12; The Codec screen in Metal Gear Solid. Narrative is communicated by dialogue.

Page 39: Narrative in Computer Games

The narrative in Half-Life is also hinted at in other ways. Marc

Laidlaw, who oversaw the level designs during the game’s production,

describes some of these, “We selected details that seemed appropriate to

the research environment, and that added to the underlying story. Certain

areas were tailored specifically to the study of alien creatures, which

raises questions about how long the researchers at Black Mesa have

known about the aliens, and to what exactly they were doing with them.

As much as possible, the details also provided opportunities for

gameplay; for instance, sterilizers that were used by researchers to

cleanse rooms of biohazards turn out to be just as effective for vaporising

pursuing soldiers.”23.


Figure 13; Screenshot from Bladerunner. Much of this game involves interviewing different characters with pre-recorded dialogue.

Page 40: Narrative in Computer Games

Half-Life is interesting in terms of computer game narrative, as it

does not take control away from to player to explain the story. Even as

characters are explaining the situation to Gordon, the player is free to turn

his/her back, wander around or even to shoot the scientist. Killing

characters whose help is essential if the player is to move further into the

game raises problems for the narrative, however. As the narrative has no

way of progressing any further, the game has no option other than to end,

even though Gordon is still alive. Even so, the transparency of the game

works well as it increases the immersion for the player. Gabe Newell, the

project director of Half-Life describes the techniques used for this, “The

character of Gordon Freeman [was left] as transparent as possible to the

player. There’s no voiceover, no third-person camera or mirrors. We tried

never to pull the player out of the experience through cut-scenes,

voiceovers, or even Easter eggs or other obviously authorial devices. We

made the other characters in the game sympathetic and helpful, and then

we did horrible things to them to try a get the player to feel both loss and

the sense that the world was actually dangerous. We left a lot of

ambiguity in the story to allow the player to write the story however he

wanted to, from what he was experiencing.”24.


Page 41: Narrative in Computer Games

8 – Conclusion

It can be seen that although narrative and games are in many ways

incompatible with one another, they can still be used to complement each

other in other ways. The term “interactive fiction” is misleading, as the

narrative of a computer game is invariably non-interactive. Although a

computer may well have a choice of narrative threads that a player can

follow, they will always be pre-written by the authors. The player will

have very little influence over the narrative itself. What the narrative does

do, however, is provide a frame from which the gameplay can be hung.

For example, in Metal Gear Solid, Snake will get captured and tortured

by Revolver Ocelot. This is narrative and the player has no influence over

this, therefore this is non-interactive. It does, however, tell the player why

he or she must try to resist the torture by pressing the buttons on the

Playstation controller as rapidly as possible, and this involves


Narrative can be projected to the player using a variety of

techniques, owing to a computer’s ability to control a range of media.

When a narrative is used in a computer game it can usually be compared

to folktales. In folktales, as in computer games, it is what the characters

do that is more important than whom they are.


Page 42: Narrative in Computer Games

9 – Bibliography


Bernays, A. and Painter, P. “What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers”, Harper

Perennial, New York 1990

Bishop, L. “Dare to be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction”, Writer’s Digest

Books, Cincinnati 1992

Campbell, J. “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, Fontana Press, London 1993

Cook, P. (ed.) “The Cinema Book”, Published by British Film Institute, London 1996

Faber, L. / State Design “Re:Play: Ultimate Game Graphics”, Laurence King

Publishing, London 1998

Gaul, L. “The Fist That Shook the World: The Cinema of Bruce Lee”, Midnight

Marquee Press Inc., Baltimore 1997

Herz, J.C. “Joystick Nation”, Abacus U.K. 1997,

Morley, S. “Horror and Fantasy in the Cinema”, Studio Vista, London 1974

Nowell-Smith, G. (ed.) “The Oxford History of World Cinema”, Published by Oxford

University Press, New York 1997

Rolleston, T.W. “The Illustrated Guide to Celtic Mythology”, Studio Editions,

London 1994


Page 43: Narrative in Computer Games

Rollings, A. and Morris, D. “Game Architecture and Design”, Coriolis, Scottsdale

Arizona 2000

Philip, N. “Myths and Legends: Annotated Guides”, Dorling Kindersley, London


Polti, G. “The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations”, The Writer Inc., Boston 1993

Poole, S. “Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames”, Fourth Estate, London


Propp, V. “Morphology of the Folktale”, University of Texas Press, Austin 1998

“Metal Gear Solid: The Official Strategy Guide”, Cyber Press Publishing S.A. and

Piggyback Interactive Limited, France and U.K. 1999

Saltzman, M. (ed.) “Game Design: Secrets of the Sages“, BradyGames, Indianapolis


Schimmel, P. (ed.) “American Narrative / Story Art: 1967 – 1977”, Contemporary

Arts Museum, Houston 1977

Stam, R., Burgoyne, R. and Flitterman-Lewis, S. “New Vocabularies in Film

Semiotics”, Routledge, London and New York 1995


Adams, E. “Three Problems for Interactive Storytellers”, 29/12/99,

Arcade, “Get Flesh at the Weekend”, February 2000, Issue 16, Published by Future



Page 44: Narrative in Computer Games

Bickmann, J. “Dragon`s Lair, a Laser Disc Legend”, 12/1/98, http://www.dragons-

Carson, D. “Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using

Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry”, 1/3/2000,

Crawford, C. “The Art of Computer Game Design”, Berkeley 1984

Edge, “An Audience with Mev Dinc”, December 1999, Issue 79, Published by Future


Edge, “But is it Art?”, December 1999, Issue 79, Published by Future Publishing

Edge, “Size Matters”, March 2000, Issue 82, Published by Future Publishing

Edge, “Telling Tales”, April 2000, Issue 83, Published by Future Publishing

Computer Games

ADVENT, 1967

Adventureland, Scott Adams 1978

Beneath a Steel Sky, Revolution Software Ltd. 1994, Published by Sold Out Software

Bladerunner, Westwood Studios Inc. 1997. Published by Electronic Arts Classics

Civilisation Call to Power, Activision 1999. Published by Activision

Colossal Adventure, Level Nine 1983

Dragon’s Lair, Magicom 1983


Page 45: Narrative in Computer Games

Final Fantasy VII, Squaresoft 1997. Published by Sony

Ghosts’n’Goblins, Japan Capsule Entertainment 1986

Guild of Thieves, Magnetic Scrolls 1987

Half-Life, Valve Software 1999. Published by Sierra-Online

Metal Gear Solid, Konami 1999. Published by Konami

Mystery House, Sierra-Online 1980

Outcast, Appeal 1999. Published by Infogrames

R-Type, Irem Corp 1987

Spacewar, Steve Russell 1962,

Tir Na Nog, Gargoyle Games 1984

Tomb Raider II, Core Design Ltd. 1997. Published by Eidos


Page 46: Narrative in Computer Games



Page 47: Narrative in Computer Games

1 Barret, Mark. “Irreconcilable Differences: Game vs. Story”,, 19972 Herz, J.C. “Joystick Nation”, Abacus, U.K. 1997, page 53 Poole, S. “Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames”, Fourth Estate, London 2000, page 294 Poole, S. “op cit.”, page 325 Poole, S. “op cit.”, page 326 Herz, J.C. “op cit.”, page 117 Poole, S. “op cit.”, page 1078 Gabe Newell, managing director, Valve Software in ed. Saltzman, M. “Game Design: Secret of the Sages”, Bradygames, Indianapolis 1999, page 219 Campbell, J. “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, Fontana Press, London 1993, page 5110 Campbell, J. “op cit.”, page 5111 Bickmann, J. “Dragon’s Lair, A Laser Disc Legend”,, 12/1/9812 “Telling Tales” in Edge issue 83, April 2000, Future Publishing, page 5913 Poole, S. “op cit.”, page 9614 “Size Matters” in Edge issue 82, March 2000, Future Publishing, page 4715 Campbell, J. “op cit.”, page 24516 “Metal Gear Solid: The Official Strategy Guide”, CyberPress Publishing and Piggyback Interactive Ltd., France and U.K. 1999, page 12617 Propp, V. “Morphology of the Folktale”, University of Texas Press, Austin 199818 Dundes, A, “Introduction to the Seond Edition”, Berkeley 1968, in V.Propp. “op cit.”, page xv19 Poole, S. “op cit.”, page 10720 Marc Laidlaw, senior level designer, Valve Software in ed. Saltzman, M. “op cit.”, page 138 21 ed. Saltzmann, M. “op cit.”, page 11322 Poole, S. “op cit.”, page 11423 Marc Laidlaw, senior level designer, Valve Software in ed. Saltzmann, M. “op cit.”, page 141,24 Gabe Newell, managing director, Valve Software in ed. Saltzmann, M. “op cit.”, page 21