Narrative in Computer Games

James Merry Animation (MA)

June 2000



1. List of Illustrations – 2. Introduction – 3. History of Narrative in Computer Games – 4. Why Computer Games Have Narrative – 5. Influence of Film – 6. Influence of Mythology and Folktale – 7. Communication of the Narrative to the Player – 8. Conclusion – 9. Bibliography – 10.Endnotes –

page 3 page 5 page 7 page 13 page 20 page 28 page 34 page 41 page 42 page 46


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


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


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 society. 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

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?


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

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

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


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

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 Civilisation.

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).


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

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

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

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

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

graphic adventure games. These games generally worked in the same way, in that they involved the same basic exploration of locations, object


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


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

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.


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 backstory 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.


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 authorities. 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

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
1 2 3







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

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

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


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


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


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.

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


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 difficult.”11. 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

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 soldiers. 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

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


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 movie.”13 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

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

especially the case when a player returns to a game after a particularly long absence. This problem is discussed in more detail later.


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

(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

Figure 9; End of level guardian in R-Type

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-oflevel 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


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

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

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 folktales. 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

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.


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.


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

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.

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.


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

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.


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.


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.


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 interactivity. 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.


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


Rollings, A. and Morris, D. “Game Architecture and Design”, Coriolis, Scottsdale Arizona 2000 Philip, N. “Myths and Legends: Annotated Guides”, Dorling Kindersley, London 1999 Polti, G. “The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations”, The Writer Inc., Boston 1993 Poole, S. “Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames”, Fourth Estate, London 2000 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 1999 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 Publishing


Bickmann, J. “Dragon`s Lair, a Laser Disc Legend”, 12/1/98, 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 Publishing 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


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





Barret, Mark. “Irreconcilable Differences: Game vs. Story”,, 1997 2 Herz, J.C. “Joystick Nation”, Abacus, U.K. 1997, page 5 3 Poole, S. “Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames”, Fourth Estate, London 2000, page 29 4 Poole, S. “op cit.”, page 32 5 Poole, S. “op cit.”, page 32 6 Herz, J.C. “op cit.”, page 11 7 Poole, S. “op cit.”, page 107 8 Gabe Newell, managing director, Valve Software in ed. Saltzman, M. “Game Design: Secret of the Sages”, Bradygames, Indianapolis 1999, page 21 9 Campbell, J. “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, Fontana Press, London 1993, page 51 10 Campbell, J. “op cit.”, page 51 11 Bickmann, J. “Dragon’s Lair, A Laser Disc Legend”,, 12/1/98 12 “Telling Tales” in Edge issue 83, April 2000, Future Publishing, page 59 13 Poole, S. “op cit.”, page 96 14 “Size Matters” in Edge issue 82, March 2000, Future Publishing, page 47 15 Campbell, J. “op cit.”, page 245 16 “Metal Gear Solid: The Official Strategy Guide”, CyberPress Publishing and Piggyback Interactive Ltd., France and U.K. 1999, page 126 17 Propp, V. “Morphology of the Folktale”, University of Texas Press, Austin 1998 18 Dundes, A, “Introduction to the Seond Edition”, Berkeley 1968, in V.Propp. “op cit.”, page xv 19 Poole, S. “op cit.”, page 107 20 Marc Laidlaw, senior level designer, Valve Software in ed. Saltzman, M. “op cit.”, page 138 21 ed. Saltzmann, M. “op cit.”, page 113 22 Poole, S. “op cit.”, page 114 23 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

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