Performative storytelling: a dive in - part 1

How to tell a story through mechanics? Performative storytelling is a concept that could be an answer to this question, discover in this article how it works and how it compares to traditional ways to tell a story.

We watch movies and read novels for fun, as we play games. But where is the fun? Why we keep watching a film or reading a story? It’s the plot of the events, the curiosity to know what are the consequences of the characters’ actions that make us interested in them, what makes them funny. If we could decide how a story should end the fun would be gone because we’d already know what would happen next.

Video games although works differently, and while arguably someone wouldn’t recognize that this kind of dynamics are in some measure involved, it’s quite evident that what mainly drives fun in play is interactivity. For these reasons narrative games should have a different approach on narration.

As I described in a previous post, a good way to tell effectively a story through a game is to use performative storytelling. Since games are based on interaction, the best way to integrate narration is to consider a story as a consecution of actions that can be translated into mechanics rather than consider it as a set of cause and effect relations as in traditional media.

Recently I acquired a set of story cubes, it’s a nine dices set that represent actions. It’s a quite simple game, you roll the dices and let your fantasy makes a story connecting all the nine images that come up.

With the same roll I’ll create two stories, one with a traditional approach and one suited for performative storytelling.

As you can see I arranged the dices in a row so to build a story and I numbered them to explain more clearly the development of the story, for convention I’ll call the protagonist Mr. Pink.

  • Traditional storytelling Mr. Pink is reading its new book, when he founds between the pages a letter [1]. He opens the letter and discovers that inside there is a map of the city with a signed location [2]. He walks through the streets following the indications on the map [3]. When he’s arrived he notices something on the edge of a wall just in correspondence of the sign on the map. It is unclear what it is, he try to take it, but it’s too high [4]. Therefore he calls some kids that are playing in the neighborhood for some help [5]. The mysterious object reveals itself as a box and inside it there was an incredibly rare limited edition of a Nike soccer ball. However none of them understood the value of the ball, therefore, being a little bit disappointed by what they found, they started to play with it having a lot of fun [6-7-8-9].
  • Performative storytelling Mr. Pink leafs through the pages of a book until he founds a letter [1]. He opens the letter and find a map [2]. Mr. Pink use the map to walk all the way to the signed location [3]. Arrived he sees something on a wall, he tries to take it, but it’s too high [4]. Mr. Pink sees some kids playing. He asks them for help [5]. The object is a box, he opens it and find a shiny soccer ball. He and the kids start to play with the ball [6-7-8-9].

The second version is almost the same of the first one, there is still a cause and effect relation, but actions are more evident. To make a game out of this story different kinds of gameplay are required, one for each verb. Although one can simply create a cutscene that would explain the first four points, the player would be less motivated and less involved in the game. Letting her performing all the actions instead is a way to increase interest and empathy.

Performative storytelling requires a non indifferent effort in development. But the strain to design and implement different mechanics (although sometimes simple to realize) can be overcame by reducing the overall duration of the game (less assets to produce), and repaid by a more compelling experience.

The next month I’ll provide a practical example applying performative storytelling on a simple game.


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