In their paper, Exploring the Role of Narrative Puzzles in Game Storytelling Huaxin Wei and Betty Durango aim to contribute both to game analysis and game design through the study of narrative puzzles, which they claim to be crucial for narrative, guidance of the player, and the pacing of some games.
Wei and Durango claim that the observations presented in the article make room for new research and methods of design, in which narrative puzzles could advance interactive storytelling. The authors analyze the role of narrative puzzles, focusing on different ways narrative puzzles contribute to game storytelling by redefining the term narrative puzzle as “A narrative puzzle is both a narrative event (or a part of a narrative event) and a mental challenge with at least one correct solution that requires the player to discover and execute a particular series of actions.” and identifying and outlining four primary functions of narrative puzzles.
The first function Wei and Durango present is preparation and acquisition. Puzzles belonging to this group often appear to have no solution whatsoever and hence make it questionable if they are puzzles at all. Yet, solving the puzzles leads to essential steps at the beginning of a game or a game chapter. Even though the players might still be unaware of the importance of the puzzle and related items, players obtain narrative information or items to help with future puzzles. As an example, the authors use the beginnings of chapters in detective games such as L.A. Noire (2011) and Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments (2014). Such beginnings present players with the scene of the crime. The players are then expected to puzzle their way to clues through examination of the location and interviews, thus giving them the tools required for later puzzles and gameplay.
The second function is that of advancement and guidance, which the two researchers introduce by claiming that the most crucial function of narrative puzzles. There are differing ways to achieve advancement between games, however, with the authors noting how Uncharted games’ puzzles have limited effects due to the linear storytelling, and how L.A. Noire delivers a more non-linear experience. They also mention how the nonlinearity can be a double-edged sword as it might disorient the players.
Thirdly, the authors present the function of creating plot variation. In their study of detective games, the authors found a clear theme of creating branching story points through puzzles. In these puzzles, the player’s actions and efficiency would decide which plot point would follow in the game. An example of this was from Sherlock Holmes, where the player was essentially made to choose between two possible deductions, both advancing the story in a different manner.
The fourth and last function is pacing and structuring. According to the authors, narrative puzzles are important in pacing the gameplay and plot with game progression. This can be done by adjusting the level difficulty with dramatic tension or by creating a specific rhythm by utilizing diverse scales of puzzles. Additionally, narrative puzzles themselves might be used as narrative units. This can, again, be seen in adventure games with a detective theme, in the main parts of the game, e.g. investigating a scene of a crime or interviewing a person of interest.
Inspecting a character in Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and punishments
The authors mention that their main source of data came from a puzzle-focused analysis of a wide array of recent, story-driven, single-player games. Though at first, they had intended to analyze shooting and role-playing games as well, in the end, the authors decided to solely focus on adventure games. Three main categories were chosen for the final research. The first included four different detective-themed adventure titles with complicated and varied puzzle mechanics with advanced plots. The second main category was action-adventure as shown in the Uncharted series, as they analyzed three different iterations of the series. Finally, they also analyzed the puzzle-platformer Braid (2008). The aim of the three categories, according to the authors, was to examine varied narrative puzzle design from several subgenres of adventure games. Additionally, by focusing on different installments of the same series they wanted to observe if and how the design of puzzles had evolved over time.
To conclude, Wei and Durango note that although the study of narrative puzzles is still in its infancy, there lies great potential in it. Future research could, for example, analyze more varied game genres or perhaps the player’s perspective to narrative puzzles.
Durango, B. Wei, H. (2019, August). “Exploring the Role of Narrative Puzzles in Game Storytelling”. In Proceedings of DiGRA 2019 International Conference, Kyoto, Japan. http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/DiGRA_2019_paper_410.pdf
Title photo: Promotional picture of the game, taken from:
Photo: Promotional picture of the game, taken from:
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