The definition of narrative is open to debate, but this book uses a definition that conforms pretty closely to that used by theorists of storytelling. Narrative consists of the text or the discourse produced by the act of narration. In an interactive story, narrative is the part of the story that you, the designer, narrate to your player—as opposed to those actions that the player performs, or those events that the core mechanics create.
NARRATIVE The term narrative refers to story events that are narrated—that is, told or shown—by the game to the player. Narrative consists of the noninteractive, presentational part of the story.
The primary function of narrative in a video game is to present events over which the player has no control. Typically these events consist of things that happen to the avatar that the player cannot prevent and events that happen when the avatar is not present, but we still want the player to see or to know about them. Scenes depicting success or failure are usually narrative events.
Narrative also lets you show the player a prolog to the game or the current level if you want to. It not only introduces the player to the situation in the game—the game's main challenge—but also to the game world itself. When a football game shows the athletes running onto the field at the beginning of the game, that's a narrative event that the player can't change. It simply creates context. Although the sights and sounds of your game—the graphics and audio—create the immediate physical embodiment of your game's world (how the world looks), they can't explain its history and culture (why it looks that way). If you don't design that culture and history, the game world will feel like a theme park: all false fronts and a thin veneer over the game's mechanics. To establish a feeling of richness and depth, you must create a background, and you can reveal some of that through narration. Narrative very often serves as a reward when the player achieves a major goal of the game—he gets to see a movie or read more of the story he's playing through. Players who don't like stories in games usually ignore these narrative moments, but many players enjoy them a great deal.
Many video games use blocks of narrative material—brief episodes of noninteractive content—to tell parts of the story. Designers commonly use a narrative block as an opening sequence, to introduce the story at the beginning of the game; as an ending sequence, to wrap up the story when the player completes the game; as an
interlevel sequence that often takes the form of a briefing about what the player will encounter in the next level (or chapter or mission); or in the form of cut-scenes, that is, short noninteractive sequences presented during play that interrupt it momentarily.
The game Half-Life, for example, begins with a movie in which Gordon Freeman, the player's avatar, takes a tram ride through the Black Mesa research complex while a voice explains why he is there. This opening sequence introduces the game world and sets the stage for the experience to follow.
Narrative blocks presented between levels tend to last from 30 seconds to 4 or 5 minutes. Those at the beginning and end of the game are sometimes longer still, because they provide important narrative bookends to the entire experience. In Halo 2, the introduction scene is more than 5 minutes long.
Cut-scenes during play, on the other hand, should be shorter because they interrupt the flow and rhythm of the player's actions. Players who like fast-moving genres such as real-time strategy games or action-adventures are annoyed if you keep them listening or watching for too long without giving them something to do. Players of slower-moving games such as adventure games or role-playing games tolerate long cut-scenes better.