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Basic Introduction to Game Design

Dramatic Elements of Games and Narrative Design

Welcome to the third week of class in the course: Basic Introduction to Game Design. Make sure to read the syl­labus and course infor­ma­tion before you con­tin­ue. Today, we are going to dis­cuss the dra­mat­ic ele­ments of games and the nar­ra­tive design behind games. This text fol­lows close­ly from our text­books (Game Design Workshop, Chapters 4 and Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 13); it also takes inspi­ra­tion from the Salen and Zimmerman book Rules of Play (Chapter 26).

Otis in Monkey Island

The Secret of Monkey Island (Lucasfilm Games, 1990) cre­at­ed a wealth of mem­o­rable char­ac­ters (here the pris­on­er Otis) often with great humour.

Narrative Design

While there has been some debate on the sig­nif­i­cance of nar­ra­tive in games (the ludol­o­gy vs. nar­ra­tol­ogy debate), sto­ry can be high­ly rel­e­vant for cre­at­ing your game­play and will help give your for­mal game ele­ments nec­es­sary mean­ing. Narrative in gen­er­al helps us to process infor­ma­tion and make sense of things in our lives. Narratives are every­where and they are used for every­thing. It is obvi­ous that they can be found in the medi­um of games, whether it is a sto­ry that helps us makes sense of the game or a sto­ry told by the game. Literary the­o­rist J. Hillis Miller defines com­po­nents of a nar­ra­tive in the fol­low­ing:

  • Situation. Stories revolve around chang­ing states (going from an ini­tial state towards a sequence of chang­ing states), which are rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the events that dri­ve a sto­ry.
  • Form. Stories pro­vide com­mon anchors in them, which allow us to process them using pat­terns and rep­e­ti­tions. Every aspect of a sto­ry and a theme can have pat­terns and rep­e­ti­tions to it.
  • Character. In sto­ries, we like to per­son­i­fy events to make them rel­e­vant to us. The char­ac­ter of a sto­ry (and this can be dif­fer­ent from per­sonas in sto­ries) is cre­at­ed out of signs.

Games do fit this def­i­n­i­tion in some way. Salen and Zimmerman exam­ine the game of chess as hav­ing a begin­ning state, state changes and result­ing out­comes. The rep­re­sen­ta­tion of play­ing pieces and board is a styl­ized depic­tion of war. There is a high­ly pat­terned struc­ture to chess as well, because both time and space are well defined. Time is struc­tured in game turns and space along the grid of the checker­board. In this sense, this def­i­n­i­tion of a nar­ra­tive is very inclu­sive. Events, action pat­terns and char­ac­ters are all around us. They help us under­stand the qual­i­ty of a sto­ry, where­as the expe­ri­ence might need a dif­fer­ent descrip­tion to ful­ly under­stand and grasp. For games, it is often bet­ter to start more abstract­ly (i.e., with a game’s for­mal ele­ments) than with the sto­ry. The fol­low­ing video dri­ves home this point.

There are two obser­va­tions that we can make about how sto­ries are told in games. We can under­stand sto­ries in games along these two struc­tures:

  1. The game can fea­ture an inter­ac­tive nar­ra­tive, where the sto­ry is told to the play­er. Embedded nar­ra­tive ele­ments are used to cre­ate the sto­ry.
  2. The game can fea­ture an emer­gent expe­ri­ence, where the sto­ry is told by the game­play that play­ers engage in. Emergent sto­ry ele­ments are cre­at­ed dur­ing play and arise from the activ­i­ty with­in the game sys­tem.

When design­ing sto­ries for games, we tend to take inspi­ra­tion from tra­di­tion­al sto­ry­telling and use frame­works that have been well-estab­lished in oth­er media. A very com­mon struc­ture for this is using a sto­ry arc. The fol­low­ing sto­ry arcs are rel­a­tive­ly pop­u­lar for games: Aristotle’s clas­sic three-act struc­ture and Campbell’s hero’s jour­ney.

The Three-Act Structure

A clas­sic three act struc­ture divides a sto­ry into begin­ning, mid­dle and end. Aristotle referred to this as Protasis (Setup), Epitasis (Escalation) and Catastrophe (Resolution). In terms of length, the mid­dle act is usu­al­ly the longest part of the sto­ry, where all the com­pli­ca­tion hap­pens and a dra­mat­ic rever­sal can occur. The first act serves as the intro­duc­tion to the sto­ry. You have to find your hook or incit­ing moment to get the read­er inter­est­ed in the sto­ry. This is usu­al­ly done by cre­at­ing an inter­est­ing prob­lem that com­pli­cates the life of the main char­ac­ter. At the start of act one, you should spend some time intro­duc­ing the back­ground of your main char­ac­ters and explain­ing the set­ting and theme of the sto­ry. In games, it is impor­tant to make the hook and the ini­tial prob­lem rel­e­vant to the play­ers. They need to care enough to start play­ing toward the first goal. Often the intro­duc­tion of the core mechan­ics of the game is done togeth­er with intro­duc­ing the nar­ra­tive set­ting. The main prob­lem of your main char­ac­ter needs to be iden­ti­fied by the end of the first act, so that they can then set them­selves in motion in act two. Act two is where the real strug­gle for the main char­ac­ter or pro­tag­o­nist of the sto­ry begins. Act two usu­al­ly involves some form of fail­ure, where the pro­tag­o­nist finds out that they are not up to the task and then have to strug­gle to reverse some major fea­ture of them­selves or the plot. In addi­tion, the sec­ond act allows writ­ers to intro­duce many new sub­plots to the game. At the end of act two, the sto­ry seems over and about to end in defeat for the pro­tag­o­nist. This is where the main strug­gle in the sto­ry occurs. At the begin­ning of act three is where they start to see hope again and the main goal of the sto­ry is being resolved. This is where an either pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive irre­versible res­o­lu­tion occurs. Sometimes, there might even be more than one rever­sal and not always are the tran­si­tions between acts smooth. The fol­low­ing video gives you a run­down of the three act struc­ture in games.

Another ver­sion of this struc­ture is called Freytag’s Pyramid, which visu­al­izes a sim­i­lar struc­ture as the rise and fall of excite­ment dur­ing a plot. The parts of this tri­an­gle are as fol­lows:

  1. Exposition. Everything and every­one is intro­duced.
  2. Complication. A prob­lem occurs.
  3. Rising Action. The prob­lem is becom­ing even more prob­lem­at­ic and chal­leng­ing.
  4. Climax. This is the point where noth­ing seems to be able to get any worse.
  5. Falling Action /Dénouement. The con­se­quences and reac­tions fol­low­ing the cli­max.
  6. Resolution. Everything that was set into action in the above steps falls into place. (This does not nec­es­sar­i­ly have to be solu­tion to the main prob­lem and can also be neg­a­tive.)
  7. Conclusion. The atmos­phere and emo­tion with which you want to leave the play­er..

The Hero’s Journey

The hero’s jour­ney was described by Joseph Campbell in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (1949). He was inter­est­ed in a com­mon denom­i­na­tor for myth­ic sto­ries, which is also why his prin­ci­ples are referred to as the mon­o­myth. His inves­ti­ga­tion of many dif­fer­ent sto­ries involv­ing a hero showed that they often fol­lowed the same pat­tern and revealed the fol­low­ing sto­ry arc (see also the videos):

  1. A call to adven­ture reach­es the hero. The hero begins their jour­ney out­side of the safe world.
  2. The trail of tri­als. The hero pass­es through many dif­fer­ent chal­lenges on their way.
  3. The hero will strug­gle with a major prob­lem or face a major evil.
  4. The hero returns to the safe world.
  5. Finally, the hero shows how they have learned some­thing in their adven­tures that applies to their every­day world.


Other dramatic elements of games

Now that we have dis­cussed sto­ry as one dra­mat­ic ele­ment of games, we turn to our Game Design Workshop text­book again to find the oth­er rel­e­vant dra­mat­ic ele­ments in games:

  1. Story. As we already dis­cussed above. The sto­ry in games relies on the uncer­tain out­come in games.
  2. Challenge. This is a sense of accom­plish­ment and enjoy­ment in the game.
  3. Play. There are dif­fer­ent types of play and play­ers.
  4. Premise. This estab­lish­es the main action in the game with­in its set­ting.
  5. Characters. These are the nar­ra­tive agents of the game, they help us tell the sto­ry to the play­er.



Challenge in games does relate to play­er skill. When play­ers state that they enjoyed a par­tic­u­lar­ly chal­leng­ing game, it often means that they could com­plete cer­tain tasks in the game, which is where their feel­ing of sat­is­fac­tion came from. You can often see game design­ers refer to a con­cept of pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy first dis­cussed by Csíkszentmihályi, which is called Flow, when talk­ing about a state of play­er skills match­ing the game chal­lenges. There is lots to be said about flow and yours tru­ly has writ­ten a cou­ple of con­fer­ence and jour­nal papers about it.

Flow Skill Challenge Matching

My ver­sion of the stan­dard Flow dia­gram, where skills and chal­lenges are match­ing.

For now, it will suf­fice to remem­ber that flow is the zone where our skills match the game’s chal­lenges. However, please also look also at the ele­ments nec­es­sary to achieve flow, which are dis­cussed in your Game Design work­shop text­book:

  1. A chal­leng­ing activ­i­ty that requires skills
  2. The merg­ing of action and aware­ness
  3. Clear goals and feed­back
  4. Concentration on the task at hand
  5. The para­dox of con­trol
  6. The loss of self-con­scious­ness
  7. The trans­for­ma­tion of time
  8. The expe­ri­ence being an end in itself


Have a look at this video doc­u­men­tary about play.

The above doc­u­men­tary looks at where play comes from and what play means to humans and ani­mals. Play can occur in many dif­fer­ent ways. It might not seem like a mean­ing­ful activ­i­ty, but it can help us acquire skills. These skills will often be use­ful out­side the mag­ic cir­cle of the game as well. Play can also be under­stood as exper­i­men­ta­tion and a way to push bound­aries and try new things. Play is more an approach to an activ­i­ty than just one rigid thing. The soci­ol­o­gist Roger Caillois dis­tin­guish­es between four types of play:

  1. Agôn (Competitive Play)
  2. Alea (Chance-based Play)
  3. Mimicry (Make-believe Play)
  4. Ilinx (Vertigo Play)

Along the dimen­sion of free­dom of game­play activ­i­ty, he dis­tin­guish­es between:

  • Ludus (Rule-based Play)
  • Paida (Free-form, Improvisational Play)

The fol­low­ing table shows an overview of exam­ples along the dimen­sion of ludus and pai­da for each type of play.

Paida Ludus
Agôn(Competition) Wrestling Chess, Football
Alea(Chance) Rolling dice Card games
Mimicry (Simulation) Imitation Film & Theatre
Ilinx(Vertigo) Dancing Tightrope walk­ing

Many peo­ple have also dis­cussed play­er types and typolo­gies. One of the old­er mod­els for the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of play­ers is Bartle’s four play­er types mod­el, where he dis­tin­guish­es between the types of play­ers of multi­user dun­geons (the pre­de­ces­sor of mod­ern MMORPGs):


Bartle’s Original 4 play­er types.

  1. Achievers. They want to achieve the goals of the game. Their pri­ma­ry plea­sure is chal­lenge.
  2. Explorers. ? They want to get to know the breadth of the game. Their pri­ma­ry plea­sure is dis­cov­ery.
  3. Socializers. ? They are inter­est­ed in rela­tion­ships with oth­er peo­ple. They pri­mar­i­ly seek the plea­sures of fel­low­ship.
  4. Killers. ? They are inter­est­ed in com­pet­ing with and defeat­ing oth­ers — they enjoy a mix of the plea­sures of com­pe­ti­tion and destruc­tion.

In a more recent paper (PDF), Bartle devel­oped his mul­ti­play­er mod­el fur­ther to include 8 dif­fer­ent play­er types in online mul­ti­play­er games:

Bartle's new model

Bartle’s new 8 play­er type mod­el.

  1. Opportunists are implic­it Achievers.
  2. Planners are explic­it Achievers.
  3. Scientists are explic­it Explorers.
  4. Hackers are implic­it Explorers.
  5. Networkers are explic­it Socializers.
  6. Friends are implic­it Socializers.
  7. Griefers are implic­it Killers.
  8. Politicians are explic­it Killers.

Bartle noticed a pat­tern in his online mul­ti­play­er types, where new play­ers start­ed out by killing one anoth­er. Later, they explored the vir­tu­al world. Then, they moved on to try­ing to win the endgame and when they won that, they stuck around and social­ized. The pro­gres­sion went from Killer to Explorer to Achiever to Socializer, which he calls the main sequence of pro­gres­sion in online mul­ti­play­er games.

Chris Bateman devel­oped a play­er type mod­el called BrainHex that is based on neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal stud­ies on play, which we pub­lished togeth­er. BrainHex describes sev­en play­er arche­types:

  1. Seeker. Is moti­vat­ed by inter­est mech­a­nism and relates to pro­cess­ing sen­so­ry infor­ma­tion and mem­o­ry asso­ci­a­tion, curi­ous about the game world and enjoys moments of won­der.
  2. Survivor. Likes escap­ing from scary sit­u­a­tions, loves to be ter­ri­fied and then feel safe again, relates to the amyg­dala, based on pri­or expe­ri­ence and cer­tain instinc­tive aver­sions.
  3. Daredevil. Enjoys thrill of the chase, the excite­ment of risk tak­ing and play­ing on the edge, nav­i­gat­ing dizzy­ing plat­forms or rush­ing around at high speeds while still in con­trol, epi­neph­rine is a reward enhancer.
  4. Mastermind. All about solv­ing fiendish puz­zles and solv­ing prob­lems with a strat­e­gy, effi­cient deci­sion-mak­ing, orbito-frontal cor­tex for deci­sions relat­ing to nucle­us accum­bens.
  5. Conqueror. Struggles until they achieve vic­to­ry against adver­si­ty to expe­ri­ence fiero, likes com­pet­ing with oth­er play­ers, nucle­us accum­bens and hypo­thal­a­mus, chal­lenge-ori­ent­ed.
  6. Socialiser. People are their pri­ma­ry source of enjoy­ment, talk­ing, help­ing, hang­ing out. Relates to oxy­tocin, a neu­ro­trans­mit­ter demon­strat­ed to have a con­nec­tion with trust.
  7. Achiever. They are goal-ori­ent­ed and moti­vat­ed by long-term achieve­ments. Different from Bartle, our type focus­es on tick­ing box­es rather than defeat­ing chal­lenges, they are com­ple­tion­ists (relat­ed to nucle­us accum­bens and dopamine).


This is a tra­di­tion­al dra­ma ele­ment. It estab­lish­es the action about to hap­pen in the game or sto­ry. It cre­ates the set­ting or metaphor with­in which the game world func­tions. Dramatic premise pro­vides some core mean­ing for for­mal game ele­ments. In short, the premise must estab­lish the fol­low­ing:

  • Time
  • Place
  • Main character(s)
  • Objective
  • Action that pro­pels the sto­ry for­ward

The for­mal game sys­tem is dri­ven by the premise of the game sto­ry. Here is nice video dis­cus­sion of how the Portal games estab­lish their set­ting and premise:

Blizzard Entertainment is mas­ter­ful at cre­at­ing intro cin­e­mat­ics that estab­lish the premise of the sto­ry and tru­ly make you excit­ed about play­ing the game. Here is the intro cin­e­mat­ic from Diablo III:


Game char­ac­ters are the vehi­cles that trans­port a game’s sto­ry (also see: Rhianna Pratchett on char­ac­ters in games). Characters often work on a psy­cho­log­i­cal lev­el for us, they mir­ror our own feel­ings, wish­es and desires. They can stand for ideas or relate to socio­cul­tur­al groups. They can func­tion as sym­bols. The main char­ac­ter of a sto­ry is called the pro­tag­o­nist, who can be in con­flict with a main oppos­ing char­ac­ter, which we call the antag­o­nist. Often there is more than one antag­o­nist (just think of recent super­hero movies, except for The Avengers, where usu­al­ly more and more vil­lains or antag­o­nists are intro­duced). To devel­op char­ac­ters, we can use the fol­low­ing meth­ods of char­ac­ter­i­za­tion:

  • Wants. What does the char­ac­ter real­ly want?
  • Needs. What does the char­ac­ter need?
  • Hopes. What does the play­er or audi­ence hope for?
  • Fears. What is the play­er or audi­ence afraid of?

Game char­ac­ters in com­par­i­son to oth­er char­ac­ters often need to bal­ance the con­cept of agency (allow­ing the play­er free­dom of con­trol in the game and rep­re­sent­ing the play­er) and empa­thy (relat­ing to the player’s feel­ings and emo­tion­al attach­ment to the char­ac­ter). A recent pub­li­ca­tion from my research col­leagues at the University of Saskatchewan and Ubisoft also looked at how play­ers val­ue their char­ac­ters in World of Warcraft (PDF). They inter­viewed WoW play­ers and found 10 dis­tin­guish­ing fea­tures that made play­er char­ac­ters valu­able in WoW:

  1. Utility. Some char­ac­ters are valu­able because of what they can do.
  2. Investment. Some char­ac­ters are valu­able because they rep­re­sent a player’s time, effort, and achieve­ments.
  3. Communication. Some char­ac­ters have val­ue because of what their appear­ance com­mu­ni­cates to a social group.
  4. Memory. Some char­ac­ters are col­lec­tions of the player’s mem­o­ries, record­ing a player’s activ­i­ties in the game.
  5. Enjoyment. Some char­ac­ters are valu­able because they are sim­ply fun to play.
  6. Relationships. Some char­ac­ters are mean­ing­ful because they rep­re­sent rela­tion­ships with oth­er play­ers or groups.
  7. New expe­ri­ence. Some char­ac­ters are valu­able because of the new expe­ri­ences that they enable.
  8. Creativity. Some char­ac­ters are plat­forms on which the play­er can cre­ate aes­thet­i­cal­ly-pleas­ing forms.
  9. Sociability. Some char­ac­ters are valu­able because they allow the play­er to engage in activ­i­ties with friends.
  10. Self-expres­sion. Some char­ac­ters are valu­able because they allow a play­er to express a wide vari­ety of per­son­al attrib­ut­es or beliefs.

When we cre­ate char­ac­ters, we have the choice to craft either round char­ac­ters or flat char­ac­ters. A char­ac­ter with well-defined traits and a per­son­al devel­op­ment through the sto­ry can be con­sid­ered round, where­as char­ac­ters with shal­low per­son­al­i­ties and lit­tle defined traits are con­sid­ered flat.


A more mem­o­rable char­ac­ter in recent game his­to­ry is Portal 2’s Wheatley. In the below exam­ple, Wheatley intro­duces the play­er to the game world and helps tell Portal 2’s sto­ry. Wheatly will under­go sig­nif­i­cant changes through­out the game and can be con­sid­ered a round char­ac­ter.


  1. Write an appro­pri­ate end­ing to the fol­low­ing sto­ry. Your end­ing must flow nat­u­ral­ly from what has already occurred in the sto­ry. Don’t use more 700 words to end your sto­ry.
    “In the Land of Kalgarassian, the moun­tains were cov­ered deep in snow and the stormy wind blew across the white land. In a wood­en house near a for­est by a moun­tain lived a small girl called Lisa. She went to fetch wood in the deep snow for her sick lit­tle broth­er. When she found enough wood in the for­est, she want­ed to make a fire to warm her­self first. She walked to a clear­ing and scraped the snow away from the ground, where she found a small sil­ver key. Remembering the sto­ries that she had heard about great trea­sures being hid­den in these forests, she start­ed look­ing for a chest that the key would fit into. After more scrap­ing, she dug out a chest from the ground. As she looked at the chest, she could not find a key­hole and whis­pered to her­self...” (Worth 20 XP)
  2. Create a sto­ry game based on your nar­ra­tive cre­at­ed in assign­ment 1 — chose the nar­ra­tive from one per­son in your group. The sec­ond part of this assign­ment is a group assign­ment. Work in your GDW groups (5 peo­ple) if you can. Try to pro­ce­du­ral­ly rep­re­sent the nar­ra­tive through your actu­al game­play. It can be a board game, a card game, or anoth­er type of non-dig­i­tal game (it can­not be dig­i­tal). Work toward a rough pro­to­type. Make sure to doc­u­ment the process of cre­at­ing the game and sub­mit this for your group in Blackboard. Make sure to include all team mem­ber names and the game name. Present and sub­mit the game in the next tuto­r­i­al to your TAs. (Worth 25 XP)

Additional Reading

Am I miss­ing some­thing? Write a com­ment to this post at the very bot­tom of the page.

  1. Extra Credits — Game Narrative Playlist
  2. Flow in Games: Proposing a Flow Experience Model by Lennart Nacke at the Player Experience in Video Games Workshop (2012)
  3. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shooter by Tom Bissel (2012)
  4. GDC Talk: Death to the Three Act Structure! Toward a Unique Structure for Game Narratives by Abernathy and Rouse (Slides, GDC 2014).
  5. GDC Talk: Using User Research to Improve Game Narratives by D. Hendersen (Slides, GDC 2014).
  6. Stories and Games by Ian Schreiber (2009)
  7. The recipe for flow expe­ri­ence by Kristian Kiili
  8. BrainHex: A neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal gamer typol­o­gy sur­vey. Nacke, Bateman and Mandryk. Entertainment Computing 5(1), 2014.
  9. Into the Woods: A Practical Guide to the Hero’s Journey by Bob Bates (2005)
  10. What Every Game Developer Needs to Know about Story by John Sutherland (2005)
  11. Narrative, Games, and Theory by Jan Simons, Game Studies 7(1),  2007
  12. On Videogame crit­i­cism — an email exchange by Tom Bissell and Simon Ferrari (2011)
  13. The Screenwriter’s Master Chart by Mary Shomon (1996) tells you what plot is sup­posed to hap­pen where in your script.

Additional Viewing



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