Why there is no perfect narrative

I was recently asked if I could show a perfect narrative composition for everyone to see. There aren’t any, I replied, and remembered the puzzled faces when giving lectures in narrative design when I avoided answering which video game I liked; since if I did I was likely to receive concepts that looked the same.

The similarities between the concepts and the game I eventually gave my approval were not due to that people were lazy or could not come up with their own ideas; rather it was because we are all experts at cognitively recognising patterns and when we have learned them we use them; which can be seen by how we use the canonical story format (exposition, complication and outcome) from film and apply it to games. So even if I wanted to point out certain parts in games for its narrative pattern there weren’t either so many examples of games that didn’t stick to other forms than the canonical story structure which generated a large scale of texts, dialogues, establishment of characters and environments, cinematic, cut-scenes, graphics, etc. And if there was a game that had something new and specific to its narrative plot pattern, it wasn’t recognised as the representative for narrative as it didn’t follow the informally agreed story structure.

But how we recognise patterns and use them wasn’t really the problem. The difficulty that made teaching narrative design tricky was due to that game research within the academics had said no to study narrative, and if not given enough of time within the programs to immerse all parts that form a narrative pattern beyond conventions, norms and preconceptions, I continued to appear oddly.

So why did I make such trouble with a narrative structure that did work and gained lots of appreciation from players that felt immersed by a canonical story structure whereby the players could take the identity of a hero to save the world? And why wouldn’t that be a perfect narrative which even I appreciated?

In the late 19th century, by accident, the illusionist and film director Georges Méliesè should find out something amazing about our ability to recognise new patterns. I´m not sure about the story´s accuracy because it tells about how Méliesè was filming a bus in 1896 and if you have seen a car from 1896 one starts to wonder if the bus Méliesè was filming could possibly exist or if it was horse-drawn. But as it´s Méliesè´s innovations that are of interest and not the development of cars, I hope you can put up with eventual inconsistency surrounding the vehicles. What happened was that the film jammed and when Méliesè turned on the camera again the bus was gone, and a hearse was driving on the street. When looking at the film, the vanishing bus being replaced by a hearse created a new cognitive pattern where people, without seeing the incident, anticipated that something deadly had happened to the passengers. There were many cognitive innovations at this time but where Méliesè became known for the many special effects he explored, which we still see today (stop motion, multi-exposures, fade in and out, etc.).

Before Méliesè the Lumière brothers were the first to publicly screen a film with a train coming into a station. As the experience was completely new to the audience, it made them scream by fear by how the new cognitive pattern was delivered by a new medium. Suppose that one had decided that the perfect narrative plot pattern could be found in Lumière´s film, what would we call later findings by Méliesè and hundreds of artists after him? Would we think that their films had no narrative as the perfect structure could be seen in Lumières´ film? Of course not, but we do it anyway when we move plot patterns and structures from film to games and think of it as the pattern.

Even if there are structures and narrative plot patterns that work very well on people´s expectations, it is important to understand that narrative in itself is neither a structure nor a story or bound to a certain medium. The narrative is like thoughts and does not exist until we start to think whereby we create causal, spatial and temporal links as to make sense of our thoughts. And since we love new patterns as much as we like to stay with the old ones, to feel in control, if one likes to explore narrative as a not media specific system in the creation of new patterns the systems form and style are a better way to go to understand narrative possibilities that work beyond conventions.

What the form represents is the pattern artist build, which contains all narrative elements that have functions and where elements of significance are repeated and highlighted. The style is the pattern techniques, and stylish elements add to the overall form, as the example with Méliesè. What style does is to define media specific elements and available techniques, which narrative can meld.

Style form book film game

What the picture above depicts are different media-specific-attributes, and since the narrative is not media-specific (bears repeating), it is essential to determine which style the narrative shall be applied to.

How form can be understood in relation to style is that form creates the pattern by its elements and where the elements have different functions.

In an earlier blog “What is narrative?” I described how elements: a book, a mirror, a girl, a real world and a fantasy world, could be seen as building bricks and by putting the bricks (narratives) together a plot pattern was created. The function of the book as an element in the story was to point the girl to find a fantasy world. But it wasn’t through reading the book, but from being angry and throwing the book at a mirror, the girl should find out about the passage to the fantasy world when the book disappeared through the mirror (which surprised both reader and girl as the narrative pattern was built on a subjective approach). In that way, the book as an element in the story had a function to call upon the girl’s attention to find the transporter. If one likes to understand and compare how this kind of function (by how the book reveals a passage to a fantasy world) would look like in a game, one needs to look at how functions are motivated and justified and how motifs of elements add to the overall form.

To build motifs in a plot pattern means that one gives elements (narratives) eligibility and where the significance of an element is repeated depending on its function to the overall form. This means that the motif of the book (in the story about a passage to a fantasy world) has to be established, which was made by a quarrel in the real world where the book as a function got its motif, which leads to another function, a mirror, where the passage to the fantasy world was revealed. So if removing the elements of a quarrel which caused anger where the book´s motif was repeated one would have to find another way how the girl should find out about the mirror (the passage).

To motivate elements relationships and their functions also apply to the style where technique and stylish choices need to be motivated by how it adds to elements´ functions. Let’s imagine that we should make a game about the girl (book, mirror, fantasy world) and work according to a plot pattern made for reading, style indicates by its technique that there other possibilities in how to create another form in games instead of turning pages when reading. What happens if we adapt the plot pattern about the girl throwing a book through a mirror to become a game it is most likely to end up creating a large scale of establishments of characters, environments, texts, etc., to expose the chain of events due to the motifs of the book that should lead the player to find the fantasy world in the same manner as the girl. It is here the example with Méliesè from the perspective of style and what it adds to the overall form gets very interesting as what Méliesè basically did was to remove meters of film by an accident with the technique leading to a “film trick”  when a bus turned into a hearse without having to show what happened in between. This also tells about how artists, when building a pattern, also work with possibilities in variation and difference of elements´ functions with the help of style to create an overall form.

To be able to see how style differs depending on which media one chooses, I will show how narrative supports style and form in a game. I shall try to not spoil the experience and only point out how two elements´ functions are motivated and how motifs are repeated from a game called “The last guardian”. But if you do not want to read anything about “The last guardian”, not even the slightest function of an element, stop right here and jump to the next part (and I will try to catch up).

– – – START SPOILER

In “The last guardian” there are two significant elements, a boy and a supernatural animal, that meet and where the player´s position is the boy. Under what circumstances that bring the two together will motivate elements´ functions for a growing relationship and cooperation between the boy and supernatural animal. The significance – motifs – of all elements that support the function of the relationship between the boy and the animal are then repeated as to immerse the relation (for example finding food and feeding the animal) where they get to know each other better and better which will give the plot pattern is form (gameplay).

– – – END SPOILER

If comparing how functions differ by style in games and ancestors of media is how motifs of elements are emphasised to encircle a core mechanic. A core mechanic is a term within a game design that represents the basic action the player is engaged to through a game. If comparing functions from the perspective of core mechanics and if one would like to make a game about the girl who throws a book through a mirror to find a passage to a fantasy world, by looking at how “The last guardian” creates elements and motivate their functions that call´s upon the player´s attention, one needs to “tie” control of narrative elements´ functions and motifs closer to the player to be a part of player´s engagement through the game. This by seeing what style offers.

By being aware of what style can offer a plot pattern, it will be a lot easier to understand what stories in literature, films, plays, etc. do to games when adapting patterns with other form and style. Since it is the pattern that is cognitively interpreted it is also a cognitive engagement one builds, which leads to an act with the help of technique and stylish elements. As style in games consist of mechanics where elements´ functions are given motifs to “assist” core mechanic, a travel through a mirror to a fantasy world could be made into a mechanic for a travel-system and were quarrels and anger could be made into a relational (like “The last guardian”) or mood-mechanic, that player can act upon provided by style. But all these kinds of decisions depend very much on which pattern one likes to build, which depend on the desired outcome. But it is through style and by knowing the available techniques one can choose how the mechanics, sound, animations, interface, controls, etc., emphasise narrative elements and functions, which forms the plot pattern (gameplay). And as narrative has no form, and it´s we that give the plot pattern its narrative form, and if we like to work with a canonical story format as we experience it from film, or reading a book, it is rather a stylistic choice that we build the pattern on since a pattern for film brings a style specified for film, not games. So next time you play a game and experience a unity or disunity, instead of thinking of narrative as cause to eventual disunity, look at style and form.

Style and form are also represented in Narrative bridging to aid the creation of a plot pattern.

Form Style Narrative Bridging 170404

Step by step I will go through the parts (the coloured squares) and explain how they support control of narrative functions based on style and form in the creation of a pattern to meet the desired outcome. But before ending, I will show how the mentioned examples from reading a story about the girl and the game “The last guardian” can be depicted with the help of Narrative bridging. And for you that are sensitive to spoilers, make sure to play “The last guardian” as I´m likely to return to the topic (and see you later).

 

Katarina Gyllenbäck

See previous parts:
Why you shouldn´t throw away ideas
Narrative bridging

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