Narrative Deadlines and Interactivity

Posted On: 2020-09-07

By Mark

Many common narrative devices operate differently in games, due to their interactive nature, and the concept of deadlines (or timing in general) behaves especially poorly. In written works, a deadline can reliably add tension: for example, a story about rebuilding a village can increase tension if they have to rebuild before some big event (a big storm, an important visitor, or perhaps an incoming invasion.) Adding a deadline for narrative tension is generally universally available: just about any circumstance can be made worse/more urgent by adding a timing-related stake to the situation. Yet, when it comes to writing games, this generally useful narrative tool becomes a lot more prickly - potentially bringing narrative and immersion issues that are unique to the medium.

There are generally two ways to go about implementing a narrative deadline in a game: as a purely narrative tool and as a combined narrative and mechanical tool. In the purely narrative form, the deadline establishes urgency and stakes for the character, but not for the player: in-game time only passes according to the pre-written narrative, and whether or not the characters meet the deadline is pre-determined by the writers. When a player is invested in the characters and story, this can be an engaging way of increasing narrative tension, but it often comes at the price of creating dissonance between the player's actions and the story itself. Players can wile away their time, stacking boxes or running around town talking to everyone, with no narrative ramifications. This can be immersion-breaking for some players, increasing awareness of the game as just that, a game, rather than a story that they are engaged with.

The other way to approach a narrative deadline is to tie it to some in-game mechanic. Whether it's a literal realtime timer in the game, or something a bit more lenient (such as a counter of how many optional actions are taken), the player's actions have a direct impact on whether or not the characters achieve the deadline. Such an approach, unfortunately, comes with several significant issues of its own. Firstly, the narrative difficulty and gameplay difficulty often need to be separated: sliding under a door in the nick of time may be great narrative fun*, but such a tight window of success is absolutely miserable from a gameplay perspective**. Yet, the further apart those difficulties become, the less ownership the player feels over the narrative reward of successful execution***.

The second issue with tying gameplay and narrative deadlines together is the risk of overshadowing the narrative stakes altogether. Players generally have little or no control over most narrative goals (ie. they cannot beat the "big bad" without playing through the narrative beats of the main story*.) Thus, when a player is faced with stakes that they do have influence over, it often carries additional weight. If the cost of failure is perceived to be high, this can easily overshadow other concerns that they have less control over. Consider an extreme example of this first: if a player must race to the top of a mountain to rescue a character they like, and failing to do so forces the player to permanently lose the game, then the player is likely too focused on not losing forever to emotionally engage with the narrative aspects of the rescue. While the stakes of failure in the previous example might seem unrealistic, some players invest with that same level of intensity in other circumstances as well**. Thus, mechanical stakes can (and often do) overshadow narrative stakes that should be ordinarily be higher, in part because the player has control over the outcome.

How, then, might one implement a deadline that is neither hollow nor overshadowing the narrative? While I can't say for sure, I've been keeping a close eye on a couple of strategies, to see whether either of them can solve this problem. The first strategy is to increase the number of mechanical actions that have narrative impact. If the player's control is, itself, what causes the overshadowing, then one should be able to mitigate it by having other, more important, stakes also be influenced by player control*. To put it another way, if a player's mistakes can make them lose this one battle, why can't mistakes also cause them to lose the war?

The second strategy that looks like a promising solution is increasing the narrative value of failure. All too often, the "punishment" for failing an optional objective is the removal of narrative elements (a potential party member doesn't join, future quests become unavailable, etc.) Yet, if this is the only impact of mechanics on narrative, then that sends the wrong message to the player: by removing things as a consequence of failure, players are implicitly being told that the only "complete" version of the game is perfect execution. Turning this idea on its head, it seems reasonable that one should instead add narrative elements when players fail. Losing a cherished party member in battle shouldn't only lock the player out of that character's story arc - it should also open new story arcs*. Interestingly, this seems to be something that we've already figured out in more static media: a character in a book (or movie) will try and fail multiple times - and the underlying story would be shorter and less rewarding if they simply succeeded on the first try. While we can't directly port that lesson into an interactive medium**, I still think that it's important to remember when we consider how to narratively "punish" or "reward" mechanical accomplishments.

As you can see, adding deadlines to increase tension in an interactive narrative comes with some complications. While one could simply avoid them altogether, that is not necessarily the only solution. If one is cognizant of the way player control impacts the perception of stakes, one may be able to keep the stakes correctly sized relative to each other. Further still, if we're willing to embrace the possibility of players failing - not as a shortcoming, but as an essential part of a greater journey - we may be able to give players much more control, while also making that control more narratively meaningful.