A little epiphany

Today I saw a diagram that looked a bit like this:

Branching narrative

It was in the chapter on Narrative from Tynan Sylvester’s Designing Games. He explains that with this this sort of structure, “any given player misses most of the content”. There’s another problem too – with this sort of structure, it’s incredibly difficult to pace the emotional rhythm of the narrative. Christopher Vogler, the screenwriter uses Joe Campbell’s Jungian analysis of Mythic structure to demonstrate how the emotional rhythm changes pace in the course of a story.

The Hero's Journey Model from Vogler, C. 2007. The Writer’s Journey 3rd Edition, Studio City: Michael Weise Productions, 8
The Hero’s Journey Model from Vogler, C. 2007. The Writer’s Journey 3rd Edition, Studio City: Michael Weise Productions, 8

In his book, Sylvester draws a curve that echo’s Vogler’s model, and describes how such an emotional curve can occur even in an unscripted game:

For example, take a multi-player match of capture the flag in any shooter … As the timer runs low, the stakes increase, and with them the tension. At the end of the match, the game approaches a climax of intensity as the players try to capture their last flag and turn the game in their favor. Afterward, the players have a few moments to cool off at the score screen. The pacing curve they experienced follows the classic three-act story formula, but instead of being predefined, its generated a little differently every game.

Sylvester doesn’t acknowledge it, but the key phrase in this description is “as the timer runs low.” With multiple players choosing from variety of actions with every event, the narrative path is infinitely branching, but the time limit is a mechanic (in game terms) that forces an emotional climax. Its the same in sport, think of the emotional stress that supporters are under for the final few minutes of a game of football. Basketball is famous for introducing all sorts of timing rules to make the game more emotionally compelling to the audience. Without a mechanic like a time limit the emotional impact of a narrative would be infinitely diluted by the infinite possible endings of a branching structure.

Now, think about the how cultural heritage institutions plan their interpretation. Many follow a model like the one Judy Rand describes in Building on your ideas (in Bicknel, S. and Farmello, G., eds. 1993. Museum visitor studies in the 90s, London: Science Museum). In such a model, one starts off with the main message, or theme, which she describes as the “single most important idea you want people to leave with.” With the theme in place, and informing all the subsequent decisions, one will arrange all the other story elements or messages into three categories:

A primary message is one that we feel we must communicate to a sizeable number of our visitors (albeit to fewer than the main message)… A secondary message is one we feel we should communicate to the visitors (although we expect even fewer visitors to receive these messages… [and] a tertiary message is one we feel it might be nice to communicate to visitors (but we expect few visitors, if any, to get these)

Rand explains that this process is more than an arrangement of the relative value of the messages, it suggests a floorplan, with primary messages becoming sub-divisions of the exhibition and secondary messages indicating the contents of individual exhibits. I must admit that I go through a very similar thought process when I first look at a new interpretive challenge. But looking at Sylvester’s diagram gave me a little epiphany.

Lets look at my version again, but this time with labels from Rand’s model.

Branching narrative+Rand

Sort of fits doesn’t it? And it makes me realise that without the challenge imposed by mechanics like an opposing team and a time limit, this structure sets us up for a narrative with a very dilute emotional climax. What it means, is that by default, musuems and other heritage sites frontload the story revealing the emotionally engaging  parts of the story early in the experience, sometimes even in the introductory video. The challenge is to retain the pacing curve so that the emotional climax happens nearer the end of the experience. One solution is  the  Thoughtden/Splash and Ripple project for National Museums Scotland, which address the issue by adding, yes…  an opposing team and a time limit:

Given that not every cultural heritage site wants to be turned into a game of Capture the Flag, how do we retain some emotional structure in the story we want to tell?  Games, Sylvester tells us, use side quests and story convergence:

Side quests put a piece of content on the side of the road, which can be consumed or not, but affects little on the main path. Story convergence offers choices that branch the main storyline, but later converge back to a single line… Often though we need to combine story-ordering devices in a more nuanced was to fit the needs of the game… This hybrid structure is popular because in combines so many advantages. The designers get to script a careful introduction which introduces the story and the game mechanics. During the softly ordered central portion, the player feels free and unconstrained. Finally, the game’s climax can be carefully authored for maximum effect.

Sounds great. But how do we apply that to real world spaces?

5 thoughts on “A little epiphany

  1. Hey! Nice article, glad you got something out of the book.

    In response to your final question, there is a diagram at the end of that chapter describing the structure of Mega Man II, Mass Effect, every BioShock level, and countless other games. It’s this:

    1. Fixed, heavily-scripted and controlled intro. This is “on rails”, but it doens’t last long.
    2. A large pool of nonlinear spaces to travel through, absorbing details and learning.
    3. A final passage out at the end with some revelatory climax. Like the intro, this part is fairly linear.

    It seems to me that this is totally doable in a realspace environment. You would need a space with separate entrances and exits and a large nonlinear central portion. You would have the introductory portion – something analogous to a hallway – set up a central premise or mystery. Then, visitors could walk through the large nonlinear area, piecing together clues and knowledge scattered about. Finally, as they proceed through the exit, you give them an opportunity to synthesize what they learned into a central lesson. In video games this lesson usually involves defeating some difficult challenge, but I can vaguely imagine a realspace version where visitors put their accumulated knowledge to use to be able to appreciate or interpret one final (and previously hidden) piece of information.

    I think I’d be excited to design a realspace exhibit. On the other hand, I suspect the logistical and financial burdens would be fairly onerous. It’s a lot easier to conjure spaces out of bits than out of bricks.

  2. Hey Tynan!

    Thanks for calling in. I was planning to say “Hi” on your blog, but only once I’d finished your (great) book.

    You are right of course, and if I’d been able to cut and paste that diagram out of my e-book, I’d have nicked it to put it in the article. 🙂

    In a way of course, many cultural heritage sites already do the first two elements, but few (none that I can think of, offhand) do your stage three. I’m suddenly recalling that I was once part of a team proposing a Sherlock Holmes/A.C. Doyle exhibit that would have used that structure, but it proved too expensive for our client.

    I guess my question should have been “how can we apply that to real world spaces at a cost that cultural heritage organisations can afford?”

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