Playing the Story:
Narrative Structure of RPGs
There has been a myriad of papers written looking at the evolution of the RPG genre as well as the significance of the avatar and the social implications of the MMORPG. This paper, however, considers the narrative structure of the genre that has character, story and often transmedia lore as a core element: the RPG.
This paper examines the theory of narrative structure and considers the role and function of the theory within the scope of the role playing game genre.
Direction & Scope
This paper considers narrative within the structure of games, and more specifically, the role playing game (RPG) genre. It considers the main types of RPGs and provides categories for analysis. It looks at narrative within games of emergence and games of progression and how these definitions fit with the varied forms of the RPG. Further to this, it considers both the continuous and fragmented narrative structure of RPGs and MMORPGs and finally how we can redefine narrative by looking at the narrative architecture and spatial storytelling of such games.
Traditional Narrative and the RPG
A narrative, as ludologists would argue, is linear. A story is created, characters are developed and action is sequenced in a particular and precisely chosen fashion. The reader, or viewer, has no control over the story and everything that occurs is scripted by the author to provide maximum impact. A game, on the other hand, is open to interaction. The player has control over the character, freedom and choice of movement and freedom to act within the structure of the game environment[i]. An RPG, at its core, is a game that seeks to combine these two elements of a rich world of story telling with interactive freedom of choice, both in terms of gameplay and character development. For the purpose of this paper, we can attempt to categorize RPGs into two types: continuous and fragmented. Continuous RPGs are those that follow along a fairly linear story or plot. The character develops and evolves along with the story and may even make choices along the way that effect the path the story takes, but on the whole, the player is led from place to place within the game world without a great deal of deviation along the way. Examples of this category would include games such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (LucasArts, 2003) and Mass Effect (Microsoft Game Studios, 2007). Fragmented RPG’s are those that riddle the game world with quest givers, each of whom contain a fragment of the overarching story or plot. Often, quests can be done out of order or simply ignored entirely without impacting the narrative. Examples of this category would include games such as Neverwinter Nights (Atari, 2002) and World of Warcraft (Vivendi Universal, 2004). Within these categories, we can also make a distinction between the single player RPGs and massively multiplayer online RPGs (MMORPG). This distinction will prove useful when we consider how the narrative is structured within this genre in the following paragraphs.
Emergence and Progression
Now that we have defined our categories of RPGs, what structure does narrative take within the genre? To consider this, we focus on two games which represent the main categories stated above; the single-player, continuous RPG such as Mass Effect, and the fragmented MMORPG such as World of Warcraft (WoW). Here, we can use Juul’s framework of games of emergence, and games of progression to analyse the genre. According to Juul, games of emergence are those with “simple rules combining, leading to variation” and games of progression are those with “serially introduced challenges”.[ii] Based on this framework, we could fit a MMORPG such as WoW in the emergence category due to the simple rules but variation of gameplay due to its nature and scope. However, as Juul suggests with MUDs and MMORPG’s, there are also elements of...
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