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Guest post: Post-Primary Narrative

By Failbetter, August 26, 2010 · Tagged with

[This is a guest post by Emily “Adarel” Bembeneck, a Ph.D. candidate in Classical Studies at the University of Michigan. She primarily works on narrative theory in epic and games, but her interests also include Greek tragedy, myth, the hero, and various other comparative topics. We were interested in the things she had to say about repeated narrative and myth, and invited her to come over here and talk about them.]

First of all, allow me to briefly introduce myself. I am a longtime gamer, reader, and inhabitant of alternate worlds. For the last few years, I have also been a Ph.D. student in Classical Literature which means I spend a lot of time thinking about what narratives mean to their readers, how they change, and how they differ depending on their medium of expression. Due to my gaming background, my work on narrative has inevitably focused on how narrative works in games and how this relates to narrative as entertainment in the past, primarily as ancient epic.

One of the connections between these two kinds of narrative is something I call post-primary narrative.  This is a narrative which tells one story, but tells it in many ways. Depending on the primary telling that the reader or player encounters, his or her interpretation of the entire story will be different.

Post-primary narrative is not new though it has always appeared as separate texts in the past. Much of myth, epic, and some modern superhero cycles tell the same story different ways or have characters that behave differently in different tales. We can then see people arrive at different interpretations of characters or stories depending on which version of the tale they first heard. The difference between those texts and post-primary narratives in games is the opportunity of the game medium to create a single “text” that incorporates a multitude of post-primary experiences. It is one story, but it is told in many ways, all in a single game. Rather than multiple linear narratives that are all individual and written separately, a post-primary narrative in a game is not linear or separate. It is composed of many choices and events that can be combined in nearly infinite ways to create different tellings of a story.

In a post-primary narrative, a story is merely a variety of potential beginnings which all lead to a string of events which then lead to some version of the ending. A story and its characters can be told from different perspectives. In one playthrough, an event may appear positive, but in another, it could be negative. Perhaps different characters remember things differently.  Perhaps there are different timelines that explores consequences of different decisions. Whatever the reason, events and characters can and do turn out differently.
The effect of a post-primary narrative is to create a different interpretation of its tale for every variety of sequence in which the tellings of the story are encountered. One player may have encountered a kind protagonist in their first playthrough which will influence how they view the game world and the other characters within it in both the primary playthrough and all those following. A different player may have encountered the same protagonist, but in this primary experience, he or she may have a negative character. This player’s view of the game’s story will likely be quite different than that of the first player. Although both of these players could experience the same text, the order in which they do so will impact how they remember and interpret it. Both versions of the protagonist are part of the same story though only one can be encountered at a time. Whichever version is the primary influences how the player views every other telling.
The danger of post-primary narratives is that it is quite difficult to create multiple tellings of a story which complement each other while still allowing contradictions. Two tellings of the story must be different, but not so as to confuse, but to serve as a catalyst for understanding. Further, an author cannot foresee the primary experience. In fact, there is no universal primary experience. Everyone’s primary is different. Thus, the text must be written as a whole and allow for separate paths of experience that leave room for different interpretations.

In a structural view, a post-primary narrative consists of plot points and decision branches. The opening of the game is the first decision branch. The first choice a player makes is the beginning of their primary experience. From there, they are led to a series of plot points. Some plot points are minor and correspond to perhaps only a single telling. Others are major and are experienced in all tellings though through different perspectives. The end of a post-primary narrative is the final major plot point. Everyone experiences it, but it is different depending on the decision branches they have followed throughout the game.
Many existing tales can be retold in a post-primary narrative. For example, we could take the story of Cinderella and separate it into plot points and decision branches. What are the major events in the story? In those events, what decisions are available to Cinderella? In the telling we know, why does she make the decision she does? How would a different decision impact the tale? Could it still lead to the next major plot point? How many Cinderellas could we tell and still tell the story of Cinderella? At what point would the narrative break down into simply a series of actions? At what point would it be a story but not Cinderella anymore?

These kinds of questions can be used to better understand narratives we already have. However, games allow us to tell new narratives never before encountered that will never have a universal primary.  Well, they won’t unless one is artificially constructed. For example, recently Bioware announced that Dragon Age 2 would follow a narrative canon. The canon is one telling of many of the available tellings in the first game. It is not the primary for many players and has created a variety of reactions (many of them negative) and discussions related to this notion of a canon and whether it is necessary or even fitting for a game of this kind. The first Dragon Age was a post-primary narrative and this type of narrative defies the very idea of a single, universal telling or understanding of a story.  Although it may sounds dangerously close to rejecting the notion of a traditional story, it defines the limitations of narrative by reaching to the  edges of understanding.

Post-primary narrative also has its pitfalls. If a reader only experiences his primary encounter with the narrative, he will never know the entire story or the entire character and thus will have a limited view, impression, and evaluation of the work as a whole.  This cannot be avoided. However, the text of a post-primary narrative needs to be constructed in such a way that the primary reading is enough to create a full telling while allowing a second+ encounter to be just as fulfilling. All decision branches should be composed of equally viable choices and all plot points should be designed to result believably from any path through the decision branches.

A post-primary text offers both authors and readers new opportunities for extensive exploration and discovery. Not only can they help us understand how interpretations of characters and events change depending on first impressions, they can help us learn more about the limitations of narrative and what it means to tell a story.

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Jeff Russell Aug 26, 11:50pm

Great post, Emily! I have a Bachelor's in classics and a (less well developed) interest in many of the topics you touched on in this post. Is any of your other work or thoughts (whether "scholarly" or not) available online? I'd especially be interested in finding out more about what you think on epic, as I find the narrative structure of the Odyssey super compelling. Thoughts on narrative as it relates to gaming is also cool, of course :)

greg Aug 26, 5:03pm

makes me think of Diderot/Jaques the fatalist.. only game format insists on limited number of experiences or endings; thought Silent hill groundbreaking in this post-primary style you describe (i think).. though there were always points/gates in the story which couldn't be circumvented. Online games with reflexive content seems to be the only route to providing a truly amorphous simulation.