Lucien has a nice piece on his blog about the different ways narratives can be expressed in games, and the fact that we are still finding our feet in terms of building the narrative language of games. It also references a lot of other discussions on the subject. I stand behind Lucien's perspective that it is ridiculous to attempt to restrict the way we think about the subject... There's no one way to do anything, especially tell a story.
We have identified the following broad categories of game narrative:
- Linear Traditional: as Lucien says, the most common method used in the upper games market at the moment. No dynamic elements; the narrative language is inherited from other media. Nothing wrong with it, but it's nothing special - and there's no excuse for poor storytelling since it's basically using existing methods.
- Branching Narratives: here Lucien cites a number of games which split into separate paths (or rails as he puts it). It can be done well, but it can be heavy handed, and it can massively duplicate the material needed, and as such isn't recommended.
- Parallel Paths: when branching narratives recombine to form a set of parallel paths (or rails), it is more manageable than a strict branching narrative. These days, most branching narratives recombine their paths, to avoid the combinatorial explosion (e.g. 5 splits = 2^5 paths, 20 splits = 2^20 paths and so on) so this has all but replaced basic branching.
- Threaded: multiple narratively isolated story threads with pre-determined interconnections between threads. (Think of having several short stories, where the sequence in which the player encounters the different short stories is dynamic). I used this structure in Discworld Noir and I believe that other stories have used it too (if you know of a game that uses this narrative structure, do let me know!)
- Dynamic Narrative: highly separated narrative elements with pre-determined connection possibilities. We've also called this 'dynamic object-oriented narrative'. This is close to what is used in Façade, at least it is if I understood what the makers of the game said to me at the IGF it was featured in (that was a really impressive year for the IGF... there were loads of original games in contention). Dynamicism may come from changing relationships between the player and NPCs, or it may be simply dynamic in the way the narrative is exposed to the player. Certainly it's in a much more interesting place than linear traditional narrative.
- Implied Narrative: this is another category of narrative where, like The Sims, there really is no writer-defined narrative per se, but the stories emerge from a dynamic play environment. We used a more sophisticated (but not inherently superior) version of this with Ghost Master, which I've mentioned before.
There's a time and a place for all of these (except perhaps the basic branching narrative, which is crude and expensive to develop) - and you can bet that the more we investigate different approaches to narrative in games, the greater diversity we will see in game stories. I for one am excited to see what the future of game narrative holds.