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Jigsaw Storytelling in Game Narrative Design

An overview of Jigsaw Storytelling, an effective narrative strategy for in-game storytelling.
by

Edwin McRae

on 15 November 2014

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Transcript of Jigsaw Storytelling in Game Narrative Design

How to tell stories in Games!
Games are not Interactive Stories!
Am I saying that Telltale's 'The Walking Dead' is NOT a game?
At the risk of being a mottled, black and white bull dog about this...
Yes!
'The Walking Dead' is an interactive story.

A fundamentally linear narrative despite quick-time events and multiple pathways.
Moments of action and interaction...
...followed by a piece of linear narrative.
AKA this opening cinematic for Tomb Raider!
So here's a few of the usual suspects of interactive storytelling...
Pick-a-Path Books
Interactive Videos
Point and Click Adventures
Railroad Narratives!
A constant procession along a fundamentally linear path...
Movies with 'Clicky Bits'
Whereas Games are about freedom of choice.
A story to follow.
Games are Worlds to Explore
And that's where
Jigsaw Storytelling
comes in.

But first I need to define what I mean by a Game.
Jigsaw storytelling is a piecing together of story elements within a game that enables exploration, a narrative experience for the player as opposed to a ‘story to follow’.

Let's take a look at case study.
First up...
Player-Character Dialogue
And by proxy, the player's brief insight into an ancient culture.
Non-Player Character Dialogue
The Scion: They died here, in their thousands, but not when the empire fell. The shadows here feel much older.”
Here Eramir establishes the Vaal as a mysterious advanced culture that predates the Eternal Empire from which the PC is descended.
Eramir: That ancient gateway to the north-west, it’s a peculiar thing. Not of the Eternal Empire. It could be Vaal in origin... a culture I’ve seen mentioned here and there in some of the most antique of texts. It is the Vaal who began the use of Virtue Gems, well before our imperial ancestors. Little else is known about them. If only I had my old museum archives, I could have given you a more tempered theory.

Splendid. Let’s see what this page has to offer us...
[Pause as Siosa reads and translates]
It talks of Queen Atziri. Now here’s a portentous line. “She drenches her altars with the blood of those deranged enough to question her vision.” The next piece is a real eye-crosser, but I believe it refers to a ‘communion’, something to do with the harvest moon? Again, Doryani seems at the heart of it. Good, this line I can read without issue. “This will be our final night of fear, our final night of suffering.”

[Talking to himself] Sacrifice, communion, the harvest moon... an unsettling combination.

Through the in-game environment!
We marvel at their technology as we catch a ride on a pyramid that bursts up through the firmament of Wraeclast.
Or battle their sophistication and barbarism, face to ancient face.
We catch glimpses of how the Vaal themselves might have been through their undead revenants.
We witness their fascination for geometry and metallurgy in the artifacts we uncover.
Ruins, revenants, monuments and artifacts...the Jigsaw approach to Vaal Lore.
Queen Atziri of the Vaal

What about the Jigsaw approach to character development?
Case Study: Queen Atziri of the Vaal
First we develop your standard Character Profile...
Atziri was Queen of the Vaal at the time of the first Cataclysm. When it was discovered that the serial killer, Zerphi, had been able to earn himself decades of extended youth through the ritual murder of gemlings, the narcissistic queen plunged her realm into a dark age of sacrifice and terror.


Millions died due to Queen Atziri’s obsessive pursuit of eternal youth, a pursuit that finally touched The Beast and brought about a cataclysm that ended the Vaal civilization overnight.

Atziri has got what she wanted...eternal youth. But not quite in the way that she imagined it. She is an eternal slave to Nightmare, locked in an illusionary realm where she still believes she is Queen of the Vaal. And there her quest for beauty perpetual continues. Day after day of sacrificial slaughter which Atziri believes sustains her. But somewhere in the recesses of her unhinged mind, a shadow of rationality remains. It’s the voice that tells her that she is dead, that she is imprisoned within a lie.

To silence that voice she has rejuvenating blood baths and gazes longingly into her mirrors. She’s been doing that for about two thousand years now.

And then the PC turns up, looking more real and alive than anything Atziri has seen in two millennium. Their very presence threatens her illusion. She is the eternal queen of the world, yet here stands a figure from beyond her domain, from beyond her understanding. If Atziri does not rule all then her illusion shatters...she rules nothing. She is but a reflection of her long dead self.

Aztiri cannot allow herself to believe that so there’s really only one thing to do. The outsider must be destroyed, wiped from the mirror like the dirty smudge it is.

Then prior to meeting her, we use that profile to build up the player's impressions of Atziri, piece by piece...
Through NPC dialogue that speaks of her actions.
Through historical tomes that speak of her character...
"It has been written of Queen Atziri that her throne room was lined with mirrors and that she held court naked, demanding the same of those wishing her audience. The theory was that a naked man had nothing to hide, but one might easily venture that Atziri utilised her striking physical presence to influence courtly engagements in her favour."

Trinian - Intellectus Prime
A queen should be seen, admired, but never touched." - Atziri, Queen of the Vaal
Revealing her philosophies and attitudes through Flavour Text on items found and earned.
"I do not believe in disguising my disappointment." - Atziri, Queen of the Vaal
All this before you get to meet the lovely lady in person...
And then we get to hear what Atziri has to say for herself...
Upon encountering Atziri…

"Your heart beats for your Queen!"

Mid-fight Taunts…

Storm Call

"Bow to your Queen, mortal!"

Beckoning Call

"To sacrifice is to become the divine."

...and after all that, we kill her!
So why go to all this effort?
To put some 'heart' into our game.
To transform a Boss from a bunch of challenging stats and a cool animation into a living, breathing entity.
In Atziri's case, you learn about the person she used to be...
And why she deserves to die!
...and you learn about the person she is now.
Through Narrative Synthesis the player comes to understand the meaning of their actions.
That understanding leads to emotional pay-off.
Piece by piece revelations of story through...
1. PC dialogue
2. NPC dialogue
3. Historical Tomes
4. Flavour Texts
5. Environmental Features
Why use Jigsaw Storytelling?
An efficient way to build to an emotional pay-off for the player.
The player remains active as they gather and connect the story fragments.
Memory - A story delivered in bite-sized chunks is easier to digest and remember.
Jigsaw Storytelling
The Narrative Design philosophy that I hold to.
So what are the pieces that make up the Narrative jigsaw puzzle that is a game story?
Our Path of Exile PC, the Scion, is realising that she is walking through ruins and battling undead creatures that a far older than the more recently deceased 'Eternal Empire'. It's her first step in her understanding of the ancient Vaal.
On to the next piece of the puzzle...
This line, in particular, should be considered when designing informative NPC dialogue like this...

"If only I had my old museum archives, I could have given you a more tempered theory."
Eramir is telling us that he doesn't have all of the facts.
In games there's nothing worse than a character that sits there and tells you absolutely everything you need to know like a droning university professor.
That's a good thing! Throughout the game, the player should ultimately learn more than all of the NPCs put together.
So...back to the Vaal.

And if no-one's going to teach us about them, how do we learn their story?
Vaalish architecture. Sophisticated in its construction but rather barbaric in its aethetics.
An advanced culture but not a mature one.
BTW - see the symbol on the disc floating over her palm?
It look a little familiar?
That's Narrative Synthesis in action. Pieces of the Jigsaw that the player can put together, forming conncections of meaning.
Here are the pieces of the puzzle once more.
A Player-Character (PC) is the character in-game that the player directly controls.
A Non-Player Character is any in-game character that the player does NOT directly control.
Flavour Text is any writing featured on portable items that can be picked up and carried about during the game.
Narrative Synthesis = In-game story pieces that, when viewed together, create a greater understanding of the narrative as a whole.
NPC Dialogue strikes again!
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