Performative storytelling: a dive in - Part 2

This is a post mortem of a game never realized and the second and final part of an overview about performative storytelling. If you want to know the design decisions to take in order to tell a story through gameplay, this post is what you need. Survey included.

In the previous article about performative storytelling I explained how a story can be told just with actions. This article instead will focus on a proof of concept that implement this technique.

Inmortal was made explicitly to show some of the possibilities unleashed by telling a story through gameplay (I suggest you to play it before continuing to read). There will be also an added layer of complexity since this game is based on the short story with the same title by J. L. Borges.

The process used to translate a short story into a game was quite similar to the one used with the story cubes in the previous article. I read the text and tried to divide the actions that defined the story from the rest of them. For each action I analyzed the correspondent verb and come out with a suitable mechanic. Of course all of these decisions are subjective, and according to the chosen actions could be highlighted different aspects of the same story.

Inmortal is not entirely composed by playable scenes. Indeed, while traditional games often tell all the walkthrough from point A to point B and reduce the story to cutscenes between two levels, \textit{Inmortal} uses narrative ellipses in form of text to describe non relevant part of the plot and to fill the gap between two relevant interactive scenes. For instance it was useless, in the story economy, to tell the preparations of the protagonist for the journey, therefore they’re just explained in words and the player is directly left to play the journey itself.

One of the narrative ellipses explained with a text

But text has also another function, it often provides hints on what to do next. One of the problem of performative storytelling is that the player has to be thought about controls and mechanics each time the gameplay changes. The game has to provide a guide to the player and to not disorient her. This can be done with text and limiting the different kinds of gameplay used assigning them to determined types of narrative moments.

The first scene

With a changing gameplay it comes also changes of framing and perspective. These changes are very useful to emphasize determined actions and to give a cinematic flavour. Exactly as in movies each frame can tell the same thing in different ways. The close up in the opening scene serves to present the protagonist, and to highlight that he can’t sleep. The last scene instead want to provide a sense of departure: the protagonist is going in a place where we can’t follow him.

The last scene

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After Inmortal was developed, it was distributed a survey to understand what worked and what didn’t in its design. The following questions where posed:

  1. What did you like most in the game?
  2. What you didn’t like?
  3. Did you feel yourself involved despite the short experience?
  4. If yes, what, in your opinion, made possible this involvement? Otherwise what prevented it?
  5. Would you have preferred start to play from the desert and to have seen a video or text and images instead of passing through different sections with different kinds of interactions?
  6. How important were the different kinds of interaction for your involvement?
  7. Why?

Some questions regards general aspects of the game, while three questions (3, 5, 6) instead were focused on specific aspects of performative storytelling.

One of the fundamental aim was to understand if the player felt involved in the experience and how much of this involvement was in relation with the changing gameplay. 83\% of people returned a positive feedback about involvement (question 3) and all of them considered from important to very important the role played by the changing mechanics (question 6).

A side effect of using different kinds of gameplay (revealed by the question 7) is that it creates curiosity in the player on what there will be next, and it also helps to avoid the risk of frustration and boredom.

Overall the techniques used helped the narration, both question 1 and 3 provided sufficiently positive feedback indicating that performative storytelling is effective. Probably, in normal development, the whole beginning of the story would be told in a cutscene and the game would have jumped directly to the desert part. From the survey though, it clearly emerged that players preferred an all interactive approach (question 5), and indeed the first parts, although if they are less “gamish”, were even more appreciated.

Despite Inmortal was just a proof of concept (with bugs and flaws), it proved itself as a good example to tell stories through gameplay. Performative storytelling has still a long way to go and there’s large room for improvement and refinement, now it’s only just a matter of trial and error.

If you want to help us here there is the survey .

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