Mindmap: Narrative Architecture


One of my favorite games to use embedded storytelling is Outer Wilds. I could talk about why, but going into the game knowing as little as possible is ideal, so I won’t spoil it for you. To explain it vaguely, without spoiling anything: a large aspect of the game is investigating an environment by rummaging through messages and structures left by characters who occupied the spaces at some point in the past. Seriously, play Outer Wilds.

Recently, I was playing Cities: Skylines when I noticed an emergent narrative — a crazy number of buses were stalled in a line on a busy city block, waiting to pick up a massive crowd of virtual citizens and blocking the other buses and traffic while doing so. It was so ridiculous that I had to explore why this was happening and the effects it was having on my citizens, their quality of life, and the city’s economy in general. This ‘bus hell’ scenario resulted completely from a combination of the game’s rules and my inadvertent failure to design good logistics.

One of my favorite games with an evocative space is Dungeons and Dragons. I know player experiences vary wildly with this extremely broad game, but I’m designing a campaign for a group of friends inspired by the colonization of Mexico and Central America, so I’m trying to lean heavily on visual elements that are evocative of pirates, Aztec temples, and (in my interpretation, I’m not a historian) the snooty, greedy, pious conquistadors.

One of my favorite enacting stories in a game is the story of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. You can say it’s aged poorly, but there’s still something so fun about taking up the mantle of the hero of time and clearing out a bunch of blighted dungeons all over N64 Hyrule. That ambiance in the Temple of Time is just so perfect.

Recently, I played through Kirby and the Forgotten Land. I really liked the game’s environmental storytelling. Outside of the intricately crafted ruins in the game’s environments, there’s basically one sequence of dialogue in the entire game to contextualize why everything is so dilapidated. That didn’t stop me from investigating abandoned malls, overgrown streets, and shattered subways, though. In my opinion, Forgotten Land is better than Super Mario Odyssey and I hope it sells as well as it deserves to.

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