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How to Deliver a Compelling Interactive Narrative in Under Ten Minutes

By on November 2, 2009
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small worlds

I’ve just played Small Worlds by David Shute (thanks RPS). It’s a part of the 6th Casual Gameplay Design Competition, and demonstrates that games can be short, compelling and meaningful in a way that’s unique to the interactive format – without straying too far into the abstract hinterland of ‘art games’ like The Path.

The gameplay is simplistic, and the narrative linear – so what’s interesting about it? You control a three pixel man (or woman) exploring a large, pixelated platforming landscape, shrouded in fog of war. The first clever thing it does is that the perspective zooms out as you explore, from displaying at a meagre 25 x 25 resolution to start with, to finally incorporating the entire landscape.

There are only around ten words in the entire game, and this is what’s clever – the entire narrative is communicated by the exploration of the landscape. To explain is to spoil the perfectly judged pacing of exposition, but as you expand your perspective (literally and figuratively) you begin to understand exactly who / where you are, and what lead you to this point.

It’s not a message that couldn’t be (or hasn’t been) told in another medium, but the story’s conclusion is satisfying and thoughtful, and that this can even be said of a game with no traditional story telling mechanics should be praise enough.

Ultimately, what does it for me, more than anything else, is the way interactivity is employed to drip feed information; to carefully orchestrate a growing sense of understanding. This game demonstrates, in a small way, the narrative potential of interactive entertainment as a whole. Potential that’s barely beginning to be tapped.

About Tom Jubert

Tom Jubert is a freelance games writer / narrative designer, best known for his work on the Penumbra series, for which he was nominated for a Writers' Guild Award. His upcoming releases include Lost Horizon and Driver: San Francisco. He was previously the Managing Editor at GameShadow.com, and has also spent time in production.
  • Raul

    SPOILERS

    Played it and only caught on that I was on a spaceship and there was an asteroid field. The exploration mechanic was generally great, though, and the narrative could be fixed with each map being completely revealed right when the battery is found at the end.

    If the minor fix was put in, then this would definitely be a great example of an uniquely game narrative. However, the story itself is quite offensive environmental misanthropism and I wish the developer would use his talents for good and not evil.

  • Raul

    SPOILERS

    Played it and only caught on that I was on a spaceship and there was an asteroid field. The exploration mechanic was generally great, though, and the narrative could be fixed with each map being completely revealed right when the battery is found at the end.

    If the minor fix was put in, then this would definitely be a great example of an uniquely game narrative. However, the story itself is quite offensive environmental misanthropism and I wish the developer would use his talents for good and not evil.