Round Table Fallout
The Neurotic Game Designer

Story, Plot & Narrative

Defining the terms story, plot and narrative in a form which reaches some form of consensus could well be a useful step towards advancing discussion about story/plot/narrative in games. Until we have commonly agreed terms, we run the risk of arguing over terminology instead of solving problems.

Corvus just posted his definitions of these terms in his blog, which I'm not going to quote here on the grounds that you are perfectly capable of following a link on your own. The moment I read his definitions, I knew I'd seen an attempt to do the same somewhere else... A little digging, and I found that it was in one of the chapters cut from 21st Century Game Design. Originally we were going to dig into game narrative, but this ambition was later scaled back, and the chapters cut from the book.

However, I still have the draft, which I've decided to publish here (with the caveat that what I'm quoting here is not my own words, but Richard's, and that this is draft material, not polished and final words):

A story may be defined as a collection of events which, when collated, provide some degree of meaning. A plot is a means by which to collate the events of a story, to allow it to make sense to its audience. Causality is of primary importance here. Characters must have motivation, events must display cause and effect, themes must arise from the elements of the story – or the story will not appeal to human beings.

It is considered assumed that without a good story and a good plot, there is no way that good storytelling will entertain the audience.

Narrative is a term which describes the act of telling a story. A given story with a given plot may still be told in many different ways.  Cinema ably demonstrates this – The Seven Samurai recreated as The Magnificent Seven or Battle Beyond the Stars, for instance. In each movie, the basic story (warriors are amassed to defend the downtrodden; they do so for their own reasons; a proportion of the warriors die whilst doing so) is the same, and the plot (naïve non-combatant seeks out and recruits the warriors in series before amassing them for the final battle) is also very similar. But the narrative (including aspects of setting, cinematography (dictating tone), character and pace) may be very different.

It can therefore be seen, by extension, that stories and plots in video games are much the same as stories and plots in other media (though certain media favour certain types of story and plot, depending on access time, senses engaged, and so forth). However, the media itself, to some degree, must affect the narrative - how the story is told. By telling a story via a video game, the story designer has already accepted narrative challenges unique to the medium.

Okay, so now we need to compare to Corvus' definition and attempt a synthesis.

Firstly, it seems that we are all agree that 'plot' is a description of the events of a story. Secondly, we seem to broadly agree on narrative, although I prefer the definition of narrative above which is about the way a story is told - Corvus' "narrative is everything else" is just a little too woolly for my tastes, although still broadly accurate.

So that leaves 'story'.

Corvus has:

The experiential and emotional progression of the audience while interacting with the media.

I find this both too wide and too narrow. We might relate the story of our day to a friend, in which case the only media is the universe, so terming 'story' specifically in the context of media is probably too narrow.

The definition quoted above, that a story can be seen as a collection of events which, when collated, provide some degree of meaning strikes me as defensible, but may again be too narrow a definition... It doesn't allow for meaningless stories. Should it?

I'm going to attempt to analyse the procesess to see if this sheds any new light...

If we start with a person's direct experience... They experience a series of events, which they process. This is an experience. It becomes a story if they relate it to a third party, by virtue of the narrative they relate. Similarly, if they write it down, it becomes a story by virtue of the narrative they relate. The experiences could have come from the universe, a film, a book or a game.

However, in the case of a film or most books and games, there is also a protagonist character (or characters). Here we don't have direct experience, we have vicarious experience. The person observes a series of events taking place to a protagonist, and have an experience based on the observation of or identification with the protagonist. The story now has a more objective form, in that other people can share the same events - although the individual experience will still be subjective.

From this I would conclude that we don't necessarily want the word 'story' to apply to an individual's experience, as Corvus suggests. The experience of the audience, and the story, need not be the same entity - or rather, every person experiencing the story will have a unique, personal and subjective experience which perhaps should be considered seperately from the story, rather than considering this experience to be the story.

Is this like when you crack open a fossil? You get two pieces - the mould and the cast. The mould is the impression that the fossilised animal left in the sediment. The cast is where the fossilised animal used to be - but is now replaced with minerals. The cast fossil is like the story itself (the shape of the tale) - the mould fossil is like an individual's experience of the story (shaped by the essential nature of the original fossil). The two fit together perfectly, to form one entity, "the story". Except unlike the fossil, in which there is only one mould and cast, for the story there is one "cast story" but many "mould stories" - indeed, every person has their own mould story; their own personal experience of the story.

I'm not sure I have cast any light on this matter... The more I dig into it, the more complicated it seems to become.

Plus, I've just discovered that someone has hit my car, which was sat peacefully outside, and caved in the tail light. Alas, I must stop thinking abstractly about story and start talking concretely to insurance companies...


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I'll give you some more abstract to chew on when you get done dealing with the devil.

I admit that I used the term 'media' pretty loosely in my definition. The act of presenting a narration through dialogue and physical movement should be considered 'media', as in the 'medium' of expression, or the narration.

Perhaps I should just replace media with narrative and remove the need to draw that conclusion on your own. I had descended into hyperbole by the time I hit narration, I'm afraid.

I am also rejecting the notion that "story" is a concrete element, such as a "collection of events which, when collated, provide some degree of meaning."

By my definition, I'd call the above 'plot' and point out that when done right, the audience will extract "some degree of meaning" on their own. Or, in other words, the audience will hear a story when you try and convey "your" story by providing a plot with narration.

Oh, and your fossil metaphors work well for you. You should consider overhauling the blog with a more archeologist feel. *nirg*

Let me clarify what you're saying though: The story is the impact of the narration upon the recipient. Is that what you're suggesting? If so, I whole heartedly agree.

Your point about each member of the audience having their own unique reaction is also accurate. Each audience member walks away with their own story.

Your question about "meaningless stories" hit home until I realized that the phrased should be re-tooled as "meaningless narratives" which makes more sense to me.

The temptation to let story slip into all it's various definitions is difficult to get over. I struggle with it myself. I almost said that "meaningless stories" could be the Achilles heel of my argument, until I realized that my argument doesn't allow for stories to be meaningless, and offered the alternative phrasing.

Er.. let story slip into all its _previous_ definitions, I meant. Obviously. *kniw*

I really didn't intend to turn to another fossil metaphor... It just sort of happened! :) I have to say that 'Only a Game' was only a temporary title so I could get writing. I would like to rename the blog, but I just haven't found a name I really like.

I'm not saying that the story is the impact of the narrative on the individual exclusively but rather that there are two different things we could call 'story'; the imprint left on the individual (the "mould story"), and the element which leaves those impressions (the "cast story").

I'm still not sure on this issue of defining 'story'... I'm currently in a state whereby the word has practically lost all meaning!

James - you said (in the case studies of game stories comments):

"(story being a subset of narrative.)"

Is this your view or are you quoting from someone else? I find it rather odd, because this implies there are narratives which are not stories. This doesn't fit with how I see either word being used.

Story is an extremely slippery word, but surely it must have the widest scope of any of the story-plot-narrative trinity?

For me, I side with the definition above - that a narrative is an instance of a story.

Let me know your thoughts!

Subset wasn't quite the correct word choice - story is just one part of a narrative.

In my understanding, the container class is narrative, which is an experience being related through the words of a storyteller. The narrative consists of the characters, or agents in the narrative; and the story/plot, the events that occur in the course of the narrative.

Are you using story as a synonym for plot in this instance?

Narrative and plot seem quite well defined - it is the term 'story' which is the problem area as the scope for application is huge.

"Are you using story as a synonym for plot in this instance? "


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