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Basic Introduction to Game Design

Dramatic Elements of Games and Narrative Design

Cite this article as: Lennart Nacke. (September 19, 2014). Dramatic Elements of Games and Narrative Design. The Acagamic. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from

Welcome to the third week of class in the course: Basic Introduction to Game Design. Make sure to read the syllabus and course information before you continue. Today, we are going to discuss the dramatic elements of games and the narrative design behind games. This text follows closely from our textbooks (Game Design Workshop, Chapters 4 and Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 13); it also takes inspiration from the Salen and Zimmerman book Rules of Play (Chapter 26).

Otis in Monkey Island

The Secret of Monkey Island (Lucasfilm Games, 1990) created a wealth of memorable characters (here the prisoner Otis) often with great humour.

Narrative Design

While there has been some debate on the significance of narrative in games (the ludology vs. narratology debate), story can be highly relevant for creating your gameplay and will help give your formal game elements necessary meaning. Narrative in general helps us to process information and make sense of things in our lives. Narratives are everywhere and they are used for everything. It is obvious that they can be found in the medium of games, whether it is a story that helps us makes sense of the game or a story told by the game. Literary theorist J. Hillis Miller defines components of a narrative in the following:

  • Situation. Stories revolve around changing states (going from an initial state towards a sequence of changing states), which are representative of the events that drive a story.
  • Form. Stories provide common anchors in them, which allow us to process them using patterns and repetitions. Every aspect of a story and a theme can have patterns and repetitions to it.
  • Character. In stories, we like to personify events to make them relevant to us. The character of a story (and this can be different from personas in stories) is created out of signs.

Games do fit this definition in some way. Salen and Zimmerman examine the game of chess as having a beginning state, state changes and resulting outcomes. The representation of playing pieces and board is a stylized depiction of war. There is a highly patterned structure to chess as well, because both time and space are well defined. Time is structured in game turns and space along the grid of the checkerboard. In this sense, this definition of a narrative is very inclusive. Events, action patterns and characters are all around us. They help us understand the quality of a story, whereas the experience might need a different description to fully understand and grasp. For games, it is often better to start more abstractly (i.e., with a game’s formal elements) than with the story. The following video drives home this point.

There are two observations that we can make about how stories are told in games. We can understand stories in games along these two structures:

  1. The game can feature an interactive narrative, where the story is told to the player. Embedded narrative elements are used to create the story.
  2. The game can feature an emergent experience, where the story is told by the gameplay that players engage in. Emergent story elements are created during play and arise from the activity within the game system.

When designing stories for games, we tend to take inspiration from traditional storytelling and use frameworks that have been well-established in other media. A very common structure for this is using a story arc. The following story arcs are relatively popular for games: Aristotle’s classic three-act structure and Campbell’s hero’s journey.

The Three-Act Structure

A classic three act structure divides a story into beginning, middle and end. Aristotle referred to this as Protasis (Setup), Epitasis (Escalation) and Catastrophe (Resolution). In terms of length, the middle act is usually the longest part of the story, where all the complication happens and a dramatic reversal can occur. The first act serves as the introduction to the story. You have to find your hook or inciting moment to get the reader interested in the story. This is usually done by creating an interesting problem that complicates the life of the main character. At the start of act one, you should spend some time introducing the background of your main characters and explaining the setting and theme of the story. In games, it is important to make the hook and the initial problem relevant to the players. They need to care enough to start playing toward the first goal. Often the introduction of the core mechanics of the game is done together with introducing the narrative setting. The main problem of your main character needs to be identified by the end of the first act, so that they can then set themselves in motion in act two. Act two is where the real struggle for the main character or protagonist of the story begins. Act two usually involves some form of failure, where the protagonist finds out that they are not up to the task and then have to struggle to reverse some major feature of themselves or the plot. In addition, the second act allows writers to introduce many new subplots to the game. At the end of act two, the story seems over and about to end in defeat for the protagonist. This is where the main struggle in the story occurs. At the beginning of act three is where they start to see hope again and the main goal of the story is being resolved. This is where an either positive or negative irreversible resolution occurs. Sometimes, there might even be more than one reversal and not always are the transitions between acts smooth. The following video gives you a rundown of the three act structure in games.

Another version of this structure is called Freytag’s Pyramid, which visualizes a similar structure as the rise and fall of excitement during a plot. The parts of this triangle are as follows:

  1. Exposition. Everything and everyone is introduced.
  2. Complication. A problem occurs.
  3. Rising Action. The problem is becoming even more problematic and challenging.
  4. Climax. This is the point where nothing seems to be able to get any worse.
  5. Falling Action /Denouement. The consequences and reactions following the climax.
  6. Resolution. Everything that was set into action in the above steps falls into place. (This does not necessarily have to be solution to the main problem and can also be negative.)
  7. Conclusion. The atmosphere and emotion with which you want to leave the player..

The Hero’s Journey

The hero’s journey was described by Joseph Campbell in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (1949). He was interested in a common denominator for mythic stories, which is also why his principles are referred to as the monomyth. His investigation of many different stories involving a hero showed that they often followed the same pattern and revealed the following story arc (see also the videos):

  1. A call to adventure reaches the hero. The hero begins their journey outside of the safe world.
  2. The trail of trials. The hero passes through many different challenges on their way.
  3. The hero will struggle with a major problem or face a major evil.
  4. The hero returns to the safe world.
  5. Finally, the hero shows how they have learned something in their adventures that applies to their everyday world.


Other dramatic elements of games

Now that we have discussed story as one dramatic element of games, we turn to our Game Design Workshop textbook again to find the other relevant dramatic elements in games:

  1. Story. As we already discussed above. The story in games relies on the uncertain outcome in games.
  2. Challenge. This is a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment in the game.
  3. Play. There are different types of play and players.
  4. Premise. This establishes the main action in the game within its setting.
  5. Characters. These are the narrative agents of the game, they help us tell the story to the player.



Challenge in games does relate to player skill. When players state that they enjoyed a particularly challenging game, it often means that they could complete certain tasks in the game, which is where their feeling of satisfaction came from. You can often see game designers refer to a concept of positive psychology first discussed by Csíkszentmihályi, which is called Flow, when talking about a state of player skills matching the game challenges. There is lots to be said about flow and yours truly has written a couple of conference and journal papers about it.

Flow Skill Challenge Matching

My version of the standard Flow diagram, where skills and challenges are matching.

For now, it will suffice to remember that flow is the zone where our skills match the game’s challenges. However, please also look also at the elements necessary to achieve flow, which are discussed in your Game Design workshop textbook:

  1. A challenging activity that requires skills
  2. The merging of action and awareness
  3. Clear goals and feedback
  4. Concentration on the task at hand
  5. The paradox of control
  6. The loss of self-consciousness
  7. The transformation of time
  8. The experience being an end in itself


Have a look at this video documentary about play.

The above documentary looks at where play comes from and what play means to humans and animals. Play can occur in many different ways. It might not seem like a meaningful activity, but it can help us acquire skills. These skills will often be useful outside the magic circle of the game as well. Play can also be understood as experimentation and a way to push boundaries and try new things. Play is more an approach to an activity than just one rigid thing. The sociologist Roger Caillois distinguishes between four types of play:

  1. Agôn (Competitive Play)
  2. Alea (Chance-based Play)
  3. Mimicry (Make-believe Play)
  4. Ilinx (Vertigo Play)

Along the dimension of freedom of gameplay activity, he distinguishes between:

  • Ludus (Rule-based Play)
  • Paida (Free-form, Improvisational Play)

The following table shows an overview of examples along the dimension of ludus and paida for each type of play.

Paida Ludus
Agôn(Competition) Wrestling Chess, Football
Alea(Chance) Rolling dice Card games
Mimicry (Simulation) Imitation Film & Theatre
Ilinx(Vertigo) Dancing Tightrope walking

Many people have also discussed player types and typologies. One of the older models for the classification of players is Bartle’s four player types model, where he distinguishes between the types of players of multiuser dungeons (the predecessor of modern MMORPGs):


Bartle’s Original 4 player types.

  1. Achievers. They want to achieve the goals of the game. Their primary pleasure is challenge.
  2. Explorers. ? They want to get to know the breadth of the game. Their primary pleasure is discovery.
  3. Socializers. ? They are interested in relationships with other people. They primarily seek the pleasures of fellowship.
  4. Killers. ? They are interested in competing with and defeating others – they enjoy a mix of the pleasures of competition and destruction.

In a more recent paper (PDF), Bartle developed his multiplayer model further to include 8 different player types in online multiplayer games:

Bartle's new model

Bartle’s new 8 player type model.

  1. Opportunists are implicit Achievers.
  2. Planners are explicit Achievers.
  3. Scientists are explicit Explorers.
  4. Hackers are implicit Explorers.
  5. Networkers are explicit Socializers.
  6. Friends are implicit Socializers.
  7. Griefers are implicit Killers.
  8. Politicians are explicit Killers.

Bartle noticed a pattern in his online multiplayer types, where new players started out by killing one another. Later, they explored the virtual world. Then, they moved on to trying to win the endgame and when they won that, they stuck around and socialized. The progression went from Killer to Explorer to Achiever to Socializer, which he calls the main sequence of progression in online multiplayer games.

Chris Bateman developed a player type model called BrainHex that is based on neurobiological studies on play, which we published together. BrainHex describes seven player archetypes:

  1. Seeker. Is motivated by interest mechanism and relates to processing sensory information and memory association, curious about the game world and enjoys moments of wonder.
  2. Survivor. Likes escaping from scary situations, loves to be terrified and then feel safe again, relates to the amygdala, based on prior experience and certain instinctive aversions.
  3. Daredevil. Enjoys thrill of the chase, the excitement of risk taking and playing on the edge, navigating dizzying platforms or rushing around at high speeds while still in control, epinephrine is a reward enhancer.
  4. Mastermind. All about solving fiendish puzzles and solving problems with a strategy, efficient decision-making, orbito-frontal cortex for decisions relating to nucleus accumbens.
  5. Conqueror. Struggles until they achieve victory against adversity to experience fiero, likes competing with other players, nucleus accumbens and hypothalamus, challenge-oriented.
  6. Socialiser. People are their primary source of enjoyment, talking, helping, hanging out. Relates to oxytocin, a neurotransmitter demonstrated to have a connection with trust.
  7. Achiever. They are goal-oriented and motivated by long-term achievements. Different from Bartle, our type focuses on ticking boxes rather than defeating challenges, they are completionists (related to nucleus accumbens and dopamine).


This is a traditional drama element. It establishes the action about to happen in the game or story. It creates the setting or metaphor within which the game world functions. Dramatic premise provides some core meaning for formal game elements. In short, the premise must establish the following:

  • Time
  • Place
  • Main character(s)
  • Objective
  • Action that propels the story forward

The formal game system is driven by the premise of the game story. Here is nice video discussion of how the Portal games establish their setting and premise:

Blizzard Entertainment is masterful at creating intro cinematics that establish the premise of the story and truly make you excited about playing the game. Here is the intro cinematic from Diablo III:


Game characters are the vehicles that transport a game’s story (also see: Rhianna Pratchett on characters in games). Characters often work on a psychological level for us, they mirror our own feelings, wishes and desires. They can stand for ideas or relate to sociocultural groups. They can function as symbols. The main character of a story is called the protagonist, who can be in conflict with a main opposing character, which we call the antagonist. Often there is more than one antagonist (just think of recent superhero movies, except for The Avengers, where usually more and more villains or antagonists are introduced). To develop characters, we can use the following methods of characterization:

  • Wants. What does the character really want?
  • Needs. What does the character need?
  • Hopes. What does the player or audience hope for?
  • Fears. What is the player or audience afraid of?

Game characters in comparison to other characters often need to balance the concept of agency (allowing the player freedom of control in the game and representing the player) and empathy (relating to the player’s feelings and emotional attachment to the character). A recent publication from my research colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan and Ubisoft also looked at how players value their characters in World of Warcraft (PDF). They interviewed WoW players and found 10 distinguishing features that made player characters valuable in WoW:

  1. Utility. Some characters are valuable because of what they can do.
  2. Investment. Some characters are valuable because they represent a player’s time, effort, and achievements.
  3. Communication. Some characters have value because of what their appearance communicates to a social group.
  4. Memory. Some characters are collections of the player’s memories, recording a player’s activities in the game.
  5. Enjoyment. Some characters are valuable because they are simply fun to play.
  6. Relationships. Some characters are meaningful because they represent relationships with other players or groups.
  7. New experience. Some characters are valuable because of the new experiences that they enable.
  8. Creativity. Some characters are platforms on which the player can create aesthetically-pleasing forms.
  9. Sociability. Some characters are valuable because they allow the player to engage in activities with friends.
  10. Self-expression. Some characters are valuable because they allow a player to express a wide variety of personal attributes or beliefs.

When we create characters, we have the choice to craft either round characters or flat characters. A character with well-defined traits and a personal development through the story can be considered round, whereas characters with shallow personalities and little defined traits are considered flat.


A more memorable character in recent game history is Portal 2’s Wheatley. In the below example, Wheatley introduces the player to the game world and helps tell Portal 2’s story. Wheatly will undergo significant changes throughout the game and can be considered a round character.


  1. Write an appropriate ending to the following story. Your ending must flow naturally from what has already occurred in the story. Don’t use more 700 words to end your story.
    “In the Land of Kalgarassian, the mountains were covered deep in snow and the stormy wind blew across the white land. In a wooden house near a forest by a mountain lived a small girl called Lisa. She went to fetch wood in the deep snow for her sick little brother. When she found enough wood in the forest, she wanted to make a fire to warm herself first. She walked to a clearing and scraped the snow away from the ground, where she found a small silver key. Remembering the stories that she had heard about great treasures being hidden in these forests, she started looking for a chest that the key would fit into. After more scraping, she dug out a chest from the ground. As she looked at the chest, she could not find a keyhole and whispered to herself…” (Worth 20 XP)
  2. Create a story game based on your narrative created in assignment 1 – chose the narrative from one person in your group. The second part of this assignment is a group assignment. Work in your GDW groups (5 people) if you can. Try to procedurally represent the narrative through your actual gameplay. It can be a board game, a card game, or another type of non-digital game (it cannot be digital). Work toward a rough prototype. Make sure to document the process of creating the game and submit this for your group in Blackboard. Make sure to include all team member names and the game name. Present and submit the game in the next tutorial to your TAs. (Worth 25 XP)

Additional Reading

Am I missing something? Write a comment to this post at the very bottom of the page.

  1. Extra Credits – Game Narrative Playlist
  2. Flow in Games: Proposing a Flow Experience Model by Lennart Nacke at the Player Experience in Video Games Workshop (2012)
  3. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shooter by Tom Bissel (2012)
  4. GDC Talk: Death to the Three Act Structure! Toward a Unique Structure for Game Narratives by Abernathy and Rouse (Slides, GDC 2014).
  5. GDC Talk: Using User Research to Improve Game Narratives by D. Hendersen (Slides, GDC 2014).
  6. Stories and Games by Ian Schreiber (2009)
  7. The recipe for flow experience by Kristian Kiili
  8. BrainHex: A neurobiological gamer typology survey. Nacke, Bateman and Mandryk. Entertainment Computing 5(1), 2014.
  9. Into the Woods: A Practical Guide to the Hero’s Journey by Bob Bates (2005)
  10. What Every Game Developer Needs to Know about Story by John Sutherland (2005)
  11. Narrative, Games, and Theory by Jan Simons, Game Studies 7(1),  2007
  12. On Videogame criticism – an email exchange by Tom Bissell and Simon Ferrari (2011)
  13. The Screenwriter’s Master Chart by Mary Shomon (1996) tells you what plot is supposed to happen where in your script.

Additional Viewing



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