DESIGN RULE Noninteractive Sequences Must Be Interruptible

All narrative material must be interruptible by the player. Provide a button that allows players to skip the sequence and go on to whatever follows, even if the sequence contains important information that players need to know to win the game. A player who has played the game before already knows what the narrative contains.

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Narrative in a video game can take many forms. A prerendered movie, a cut-scene displayed by the graphics engine, scrolling text that introduces a mission, voice­over commentary that explains the backstory of the game, or even a long monolog by a character can all be considered narrative elements of the game.

There's one exception to the definition of narrative. A single, prerecorded line of dialog spoken by a game character might be considered to be narrative because the player can't change it as it is being played back. However, dialog in games usually occurs in an interactive context, with the player choosing a line for her character to say, and the game choosing, based on what the player's avatar said, an appropri­ate line in response. Therefore, individual lines of dialog are not narrative. A long, noninteractive dialog between NPCs, on the other hand, qualifies as narrative.


Because playing games is an active process and watching a narrative is a passive one, the player notices the difference between them. A simple arcade game such as Tempest presents no narrative—it is entirely gameplay. A novel or a movie offers no gameplay—it is entirely narrative. The more narrative you include, the more the player sits doing nothing, simply observing your story.

But players don't play games in order to watch movies; they play in order to act.

Any game that includes narrative elements must find an appropriate balance between the player's desire to act and the designer's need to narrate. If you offer too much narrative and too little gameplay, players will feel that your game gives bad value for the money they paid. Players pay for the opportunity to act out a fantasy. If most of your game's content is noninteractive, they'll feel cheated—they won't get the experience that they paid for.

Too much narrative also tends to make the game feel as if it's on rails, the player's actions serving only to move the game toward a predestined conclusion. Unless you've written a game with multiple endings, the conclusion is predestined, but you want to make the player feel as if he actively participates in the story. When the designer takes over too much of the telling, the player feels as if he's being led by the nose. He doesn't have the freedom to play the game in his own way, to cre­ate his own experience for himself.

The raison d'etre of all computer gaming is interactivity: giving the player something to do. The trick, then, is to provide enough narrative to enrich the game world and motivate the player but not so much as to inhibit his freedom to meet the game's challenges in whatever way he chooses. Consider this paraphrase of the words of the wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: "We cannot choose the times in which we live. All we can decide is what to do with the time that is given us." The player cannot decide the world in which he plays; that is for you to determine. But he must have the freedom to act within that world, or there is no point in playing.

When you create your game's narrative segments, try to avoid seizing control of the play­er's avatar, and above all, do not make the avatar do something that the player might not choose to do. In too many games, the narrative suddenly takes over and makes the avatar get into a fight, walk into danger unnecessarily, or say something stupid that the player would never choose to say. It is fair to change the world around the avatar in response to the player's actions; it is less fair to take control of the avatar away from the player.

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