I recently gave a short speech at Sydney AFTRS GameJam 09, which was great fun, not to mention a good opportunity to meet like-minded people.  I was given the opportunity to talk about one of my favourite topics, story, which I'd like to present here for anyone interested:

"There were some early talks by some of my erstwhile IGDA peers, touching on story and narrative.  Dan Graf looked at the anatomy of game story, Chris Lee delved into non-linearity, and Daniel Dresser talked about story vs game.

As a freelance creative writer looking to climb further and further into the field of Narrative Design, these types of topics are quite appealing.  But I'd like to take a step back from the techniques of writing for the purposes of this session.

My good friend Chris lobbed an academic grenade at me the other day during a Skype session, and challenged me with the question of "why is narrative important in computer games?".

I wanted to laugh and dismiss such a comment and reply with a flippant, 'well of course everyone knows narrative is important in games, that's obvious!'.

But the important quantifier in Chris' wry yet torturous statement was the simple word, "WHY".  And for the purposes of my discussion I'll use both 'story' and 'narrative' interchangeably.  I hope no one falls over in spasms if I do.

The question of 'why' is a particularly difficult one to answer, especially for someone like myself who has always assumed that story, like breathing, is absolutely integral to survival, without knowing the full complex processes of oxygenisation.

After some consideration, I think that there are several main reasons why narrative is important.

The first is that it gets our imagination going.

In the early days of gaming, development teams didn't have a lot to work with in terms of graphics and audio, and games couldn't realistically compete with cinema or radio in terms of observable quality.  A story was a necessity to get players to engage in playing.

They helped explain why a stick figure could force a hole in the ground, so that another stick figure could fall into it, as was the case in Lode Runner.  My mind's eye could even see the looks on the enemies' faces as they fell helplessly to their doom, and their struggles to escape before said holes closed in around them.  I chuckled mercilessly at their perceived suffering.

Narrative gave an Odyssean feel to Arkanoid, as we tried to help an otherwise lack-lustre cylinder break out of it's blocky, otherworldly prison.

Narrative transformed mere numerical digits into living, breathing, and fully functioning sentient robots, each with their own personalities, hell-bent on my destruction, in Paradroid.

And the background of Wizball helped convince me that a wizard could be a master mixer and exterior design extraordinaire, and that a cat was the most loyal creature in the universe.  I could imagine, through the established narrative, that the planes represented in Wizball were whole worlds, and could even imagine myself exploring them someday as though they were corporeal and real, and merely waiting for an astronaut to land on them.

So Narrative added a layer of depth to the classics.  I read what was presented either on the backs of game boxes, or in the manuals, or displayed on screen.  Those words informed my imagination, and my imagination interacted with my gaming activities to create a whole new unique, complete, and thoroughly enjoyable subjective experience.

Ah, the golden age of the classics.  Of course, narrative is by no means restricted to the classics, and is (ideally) used more creatively and constructively than ever, now with the current titles available.

The second reason why narrative is important is that it because it helps fill in the blanks, which is an enjoyable experience in and of itself.  That is to say that games are informative, in different ways.

I'm sure that many of you enjoy a good murder-mystery.  Whether we admit it or not, we all like to guess who the killer is, and leap to reasons why the killer did it.

Quite a few years ago I was blown away by a movie called 'The Usual Suspects', where I had no clue as to who the real villain was.  Towards the very end of the movie, it was pretty-much forcible revealed to me who it was, and when all of the pieces fitted together - I remember the wonder and awe that washed over me (and of course, I had to watch the movie again straight away).

Another good cinema example was 'Fight Club'.  Unfortunately in my first sitting of this movie I was distracted towards the end, and missed the last 20 minutes.  I remember questioning what was so important about the movie; why had it received so many rave reviews?  It seemed so very ho-hum to me at the time.  Regardless, I forced myself to watch the movie a second time, all the way through to the end.  My god, I finally got it!  Again, all the pieces fit so well, I was dumb-founded.  And again, I had to re-watch another movie immediately.

In the same way, narrative joins the dots in games, and I'm not just talking about the extreme 'holy shit, kaiser sozai was here in our office' moments, but there does seem to be a part of the human psyche that craves knowledge and understanding.  And this is the part of us that story appeals to.

Story can inform us about possibilities and greater goings-on in the universe.  It can help us to understand why we don't simply shoot all of the engineers in the head.  It can help us to identify with artwork, to the point where we can say, 'hey, the crippled black-robed wizard defines me as a person, that's who I want to be'. 

So gaining information, about ourselves, our universe, and other possibilities that we hadn't even considered before, can be very enjoyable activities.

Narrative also provides context for our digital actions.  A knife can be plunged into flesh, but is that a 'good' or 'bad' action?  It depends on the context of course - is a surgeon trying to save a life, or is a robber trying to despatch a victim?

Speaking of the classics, story made sure I was morally in the right as I was The Last Ninja, and not merely a bloodthirsty thug hell-bent on senseless mass murder, and as such it provided an appealing context.

I interacted with the narrative in both the first and second Knights of the Old Republic, where I even had some say in what actions I used, to mould contexts somewhat to my will.  Especially as I was oft quick to reply with force lightning as often as allowed.

So narrative is also important in games because it provides context, and defines situations, characters, actions, and so much more, making them identifiable, relatable, desirable or detestable.

The three topics that I've touched on so far are imagination, information, and context.  Which brings me to the last reason why narrative is important which I will discuss today.

And this is where you may call me a soulless, bitter bastard - because I believe in the almighty dollar - we are willing to pay for these experiences.

Even the most entertaining games in the universe may wither into obscurity unless they are marketable.  And stories can go a long way towards increasing a game's marketability.

When was the last time you bought a game without reading a review?  Or without looking at the back of a box?  Or without hearing some favourable words from your friends or respected colleagues?

And how many of you have been let down by a game that had a poor ending, swearing to never go back to that game, or worse, blacklisting a developer because of a dissatisfying end sequence?

So narrative is important to games because it value-adds to the game product, hopefully providing a better ROI, or return on investment.  And what makes a commercially viable story appealing enough to entice us to part with our hard-earned cash?  It is because using our imagination, gaining information, and being supported by context, are all enjoyable pursuits, provided they are done correctly.

So when you are madly building your assets, your GDDs, your engines and so on, hurtling at break-neck speeds towards and through your milestones, spare a thought for the narrative; and not just whether you're using Myer-Briggs personality types, or the hero's journey, or the three-act structure.

Ask yourself whether your narrative and game are inviting the players to engage their imagination.  Whether they add to the player's knowledge and understanding of themself and their inner universe.  Ask if the game's context supports the player, so that the events you want to describe are accurately decoded by your players.  Consider whether your story has mass appeal and marketable attributes.  And lastly consider whether your story adds further enjoyment to the game.  If you keep all of these things in mind, then your story is bound to."