Borderlands Zed
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.

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Biometrics, Psychophysiology, Research

Caution with Biometrics, Game Evaluation and UX

My colleague Steve Fairclough recently posted an article on in which he discusses the potential pitfalls of biometric research and how it is currently being sold to the game industry. I will present some of his ideas here.

Steve outlines that “psychophysiological methods are combined with computer games in two types of context: applied psychology research and game evaluation in a commercial context.  With respect to the former, a researcher may use a computer game as a platform to study a psychological concept, such as effects of game play on aggression or how playing against a friend or a stranger influences the experience of the player.”

Similar to Mike Ambinder’s presentation of user research and game design at Valve (PDF), he makes the point that games in this context are analysed using principles of experimental psychology.

They are used as tasks or virtual worlds within which a research can study the behavior of players (you might recall John Hopson’s Gamasutra article on behavioral game design).

He characterises the experimental psychology approach by 4 features:

  1. Comparing controlled conditions
  2. Importance of statistical power (large N)
  3. Controlled participant sample
  4. Counterbalanced design (removing order effects)

He makes a point about the sensitivity of physiological data as being volatile, variable and difficult to interpret without a high level of experimental control. He warns that the use of think aloud protocol might influence the physiological data being recorded because it influences heart rate and respiration considerably.

He also warns about the oversimplification regarding the interpretation of physiological data (something I have seen way too often), regarding its one-to-many relationship to psychological impact.

For example, galvanic skin response is used too often to infer emotional qualities although it is a highly ambiguous measure regarding emotional labels.

Steve closes with a discussion of the question of how to make physiological data and experimentation valuable to the game industry. Meaning, what questions can we answer with this type of data that the game industry does not already know?

This summary was first posted on my Gamasutra blog.

(Please read Steve’s original post here, too)