Over the past few months, I’ve immersed myself, or deep-dived to use topical jargon, into creating narrative adventure experiences for teams and/or groups in corporate or educational environments. And with creating these experiences, I’ve explored a great many variations on how to bring across an activity that is supposed to allow for an environment where certain skills can be applied and practised, while keeping it engaging as well.
My ‘go-to’ to keep anything engaging, and by extension therefore entertaining, is to add an interesting narrative to the experience. People love a good story in which they can immerse themselves. As I developed these experiences, which I call adventures as they are activity-based narrative experiences, I tried to create some sort of standardized methodology. I realized after a while that you essentially need a toolset of narrative structures that you can use as a base to work from when building these adventures.
The key purpose in these adventures is that the player has a sense of agency and that this sense is augmented through offering choices, hopefully, meaningful ones. The structure then of these adventures becomes a branching network of possible choices. So, my first lesson was visualizing these networks, through the use of a kind of topological design that represented those structures.
I looked at network theory and how it, with the concept of nodes and paths, could aid me in better representing intended player journeys through an adventure. Researching this and from my own experience, I came up with a few narrative structures that I would like to share with you. These have become the tools in my storytelling box when I start the process of building a new adventure narrative.
Structures, networks and choices
I’ve chosen to list six types of structured narrative networks that I have come across, used and/or experimented with. It is important to know that each of these is based on the idea that they all start with a goal, either stated or player-defined, which then should have the effect of motivating the player to reach a resolution. The story aspect added on to the goal is the incitement to the player, giving them a sense of agency. As the player moves through the story and the experience, the eventual resolution will either take the shape of an ending or a climax. This is because the resolution can be open-ended in certain structures or can have a definitive moment of closure in others.
This may come across vague and theoretical, but the variations are explored in each of the following six types of narrative structure.
The Basic-Linear narrative
This is the most common of narrative structures that you will come across anywhere. It almost doesn’t need to be mentioned, but it does give a good primer of the methodology and the visual representation that we will be following for all of the other structures.
The basic-linear narrative is the straight-forward story progression of starting at A, going to B and ending at C. It is the three-act structure, the monomyth, and so on. Any book, movie or theatre production uses this model to let its stories flow. An issue with this structure is that if it used in an interactive experience, it “railroads” the player in the experience. The term is borrowed from role-playing games, where the player has little to no choice in the path they take. This results in a low agency, as the player cannot determine their fate and the experience overall becomes vicarious in nature as everything happens to the player, they are not making it happen.
Regardless of the lack of agency, the usefulness of such a structure though is if you need to show or teach something that allows for very little deviation from the chosen path. Teaching a specific delicate procedure requires a very specific railroad to learn correctly for example.
The Trial narrative
This narrative structure is an expanded version of the basic-linear narrative. It has a few splits that branch off, creating minimal challenges and pitfalls for the player, in other words; trials. You may be familiar with its basic structure from Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, where the reader is still for all intents and purposes on a kind of ‘railroad’, but is at least given a small sense of agency in being able to choose which ‘railroad’ to go on to.
The ‘railroad’ branches off in some directions, such as optional side stories, which will generally lead back to the main story, or will lead to a dead-end. This is the usual outcome as fulfilling all of these side possibilities in such a book would create several volumes for readers to explore.
The benefit of this expanded structure over the previous one is that it allows for players to have some sense of control over their own choices. The choices may be limited but they are there. The recommendation would be to use certain mechanics such as a retry ability, or time-travel (if you want a more story-like term) or allow for experimentation and reflection. This at least gives the player the opportunity to return to the original path and continue with the main story.
The experience is a bit more engaging than the basic-linear narrative structure, but the disadvantage of it is that there is almost no replayability, as once a player has gone through it, they know it all. Escape Rooms, and similar use this structure and both benefit and suffer from its finite nature.
The Open-World Tree narrative
The open-world tree is a structure that has multiple endings that give it a feeling of being open-ended. But like a tree, each branch does come to an end. It generally has a single fixed starting point for the player, and from there a selection of choices, each has an equal amount of weight and consequence associated with it. As the player continues through the experience, they can pick from any number of choices and each will lead to a different resolution of said experience.
A good example of where this structured is used well is within games like The Stanley Parable. In this particular game you will always start in your dreary office and from there you will make choices, no one choice seems better or worse than the next, all are equal. But each turn, each door, each step that is different from the previous playthrough will lead you to a different outcome. It has a divergent structure, and each of its branches will never merge with another branch.
This structure, unlike the trial narrative, allows for countless replayability. The number of times it can be replayed is down to how many endings you choose to create. Creating such an experience can quickly become enormous and will require a lot of work to build. In the example of The Stanley Parable, the choices are kept simple, and the endings are kept visually simple, for the most part, the variation comes from the narrative voice-over. Leaving a lot of the workload as it were to the imagination of the player. This is likely done with intent so as not create an unfinishable project for the designers. The lesson that can be taken from that is to refine your experience until you have the minimum possible required for the maximum possible results.
The Branch & Gate narrative
This is the most basic and common form for any of the adventure narrative experiences that I create and develop. The structure of this type of narrative is that the shape of this network is typified by its use of nexus points or gates at various points in the narrative.
The player is essentially still on a linear path but is able at various points to make several choices on how to get to the next gate. Normally the player is pushed along to these choices for the next gate through temporal mechanics, such as a ticking clock. Once they reach the next gate, they need to overcome a challenge before they are allowed to continue onward. The process of choice and gate is then repeated until the player reaches the end of the experience.
This structure has the ability to be expanded upon by adding multiple gates to various closed experience loops, thus also allowing for multiple endings. Or creating in such a way that each gate has major and minor pre-requisites that need to be met to allow for a specific type of end-resolution.
This is probably the best structure to follow when designing experiences for workshops or live-action events, as these are all governed by a set amount of time and allow the player a sense of agency and (the illusion) of choice as they make their way through the experience. The disadvantage is that the start of these experiences is always identical, but the advantage of that is that onboarding can be very quick. After the initial standardised starting point, the experience will always quickly diverge into different path choices, making it unique for the players again.
The Adventure Narrative
The Adventure narrative structure is the advanced version of the Branch & Gate structure. It is also the closest to what network theory illustrates, where each node has at least one path that connects to another node, and that through the network created, every node is only removed from another by roughly six steps. The idea of six degrees of separation.
The adventure narrative network structure is characterised by its smaller modular pockets that can be seen as miniature networked feedback loops within the overall structure. These mini-feedback loops are self-contained experiences where the player can situate themselves for a brief amount of time and then continue with the larger narrative. These modules can loop back in on themselves and have varying paths to follow before the player reaches a pseudo-gate that opens for them to continue onwards. Examples of these interconnected networks with smaller modules can be found in the ‘quest’ structures of games like World of Warcraft, The Witcher 3 and larger Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. Each of these has an overall narrative that the player can follow but be able to follow it, they have often diverted to smaller self-contained adventures the link back and unlock the next part of the grander adventure narrative.
Having such freedom of choice in this structure, therefore, gives players the greatest sense of agency out of any of the previously named narrative structures. It is, however, the one that requires that most amounts of work and development make it any good. A recommendation for this choice is to build experiences that can be episodic in their nature. Each self-contained module experience is the episode in a larger ‘season’. Think of the X-Files, each episode had its storyline, but it always connected back to the larger narrative of the aliens and the abductions that Mulder was investigating.
Doing it episodic means that you give players clear breaks, opportunities to reflect on experiences and allowing them to re-enter the next session refreshed.
The Sandbox narrative
The final narrative structure is the sandbox. This is similar in concept to the open-world tree structure, but it allows far greater freedom to the player and has no clear resolution or climax. In this structure, players can double-back, change their choices, traverse new areas, create new experiences, go back and retry to see if there are different outcomes, all without undermining current or prior choices and paths.
These types of experiential structures are closer to the act of Play rather than that of a story-based experience. Due to the freeform nature of the choices available to the player, they can go anywhere they want. There generally isn’t a clearly stated goal at the start, the goal often becomes player defined as they move through the world and the experiences. Examples of this are improvised role-playing games, where players go where they want and a game-master is simply there as a mediator and adjudicator. Others are games like Minecraft or The Sims, a general goal of survival and the best you can be is stated at the start, but beyond that, each player chooses what their win-condition is for themselves. The player agency in this structure is the most intrinsic it can be out of any of the others mentioned so far.
It must be noted that the use of this narrative structure is very specific. It commonly works well in experiences where you may wish that the player explores something inherent to themselves and should reflect on that, either or alone or as a group activity. Facilitated freeform play workshops such as LEGO Serious Play, or variations of that, are examples that come close to this structure, as these generally have a few starting guidelines for the players and then leave the players to determine their resolutions and how best they get to that.
Final Thoughts: Systems & Structures
What you need to remember is that these explanations of the narrative structures are not hard and fast rules. But by knowing the base variations out there it will hopefully help you to consider how you want your narratives to flow in your experiences, or understand how the flow works in experiences that you have taken part in. And by knowing the rules, you will be able to break or subvert them to create new and unique variations.
The best way to approach the above six listed narrative structures is by doing so through the lens of systems thinking. Delve a bit into the theories and methodologies of systems thinking and view these structures from that model’s holistic point of view. Taking into account all the inherent parts of the structure, how they are connected and what happens to each part over time.
From there you will be able to determine within those structures what objects and actions are in them, which are the best and the most useful, and which are not. You will be able to see how the network connects, what the different layers are within the narrative structure that players can go through, how these interact, how they flow, what their evolution over time is and what the progression is for the player.
Being able to view these from such a vantage point and gaining the understanding of how they function will help you in creating better narratives for gamified experiences and games. And if your intent is not creation, then perhaps it will give you an insight into the complexities and work required to create some of these experiences, and help you to judge a good production from a bad one, or a shallow one from one that has an engaging level of depth to it.
I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.
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