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 low agency, as the player cannot determine their own 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.