Narrative Structure: Active and Passive

Published: July 7, 2015 1:00 PM /



How many people know how to properly define a "plot?" I know most readers here can explain the general idea of what plots are, or what can make a story interesting, or just tell a good story without really caring about how it's formally created. I can tell you from experience that the structure of a narrative (or stories, if you want to sound less pretentious) are more or less hardwired into the human mind.

Gaming, however, doesn't follow those structures as closely as other avenues of storytelling. And it's those same games that every gamer knows about – Super Mario Bros, Dark Souls, and Five Nights at Freddy's are just three of the multitude of games that flow against the normal structuring. But before we talk about what makes those interesting to examine, let's take a look at what the normal narrative structure looks like.

Dramatic Arc

Now, there's always exceptions to this idea, but for the most part a story will begin slowly and build upwards with events and conflict. Introduce the normal state of the characters and their lives; allow the viewer/reader/listener to get a sense of who we care about and why. Then an event causes these characters to change that state of normalcy, overcoming the obstacles before them. Nearly 100% of the time, there's going to be a change within the main character. Facing their own fears, becoming a better person, falling in love, making friends, acquiring the willpower to defeat the Big Bad Guy, and so on and so forth. Then we fall back down into a new state of normalcy. Roll credits and the story's over. Perhaps the story could be revisited again to glean new details, but for the most part the story's been fully fleshed out.

However, in Super Mario Bros. there's always a glaring difference from the standard procedure. In fact, the whole diagram above doesn't actually seem to fit at all within the game. The entire plot can be summed up in five words: "Hero saves princess from monster." There's no introduction to any of the three characters provided in that statement, no initial conflict to spark a transformation within Mario, in fact there's no transformation at all! Why am I even trying to apply this idea to Super Mario Bros anyways?

Super Mario

Well, it's silly and ridiculously short, but the plot is still there. "Hero saves princess from monster." That's it. That's the whole narrative and that's all it needs. A story doesn't need to follow the structure above, but it's nigh impossible to properly engage people in something like "Hero saves princess from monster" any other way except to have the other person interact in that story. 

Now, I'm not talking about interaction like you are the plot and your choices matter—that's for people smarter than me. I'm talking about the interactions of "run and jump." The simple actions are all that's needed to allow the player to immerse themselves in those five words. Suddenly, they are the hero and they experience being the hero of that incredibly simple plot.

So when I realized that (as one does in the shower), I made another realization that almost perfectly encapsulated the difference of gaming and just about every other story: It's the only way to actively experience the story. Every other story is either told or written, and people will passively experience it. However, this also puts limits on what makes the story an active one instead of a passive one. A good example of this is the critically acclaimed yet widely considered a "non game," Gone Home.

gone home

I will say right now that I didn't touch this game, but that's simply because I wasn't interested in it. It never grabbed me, and as it's a story driven game it never will. The story is set in stone, and it's not explored as fluidly to allow players to understand the sequences of events. My entire experience of Gone Home was the 40 second speedrun of it, and that was all I needed to know to see how missing a few journal entries could make the player very lost on the story.

Yet at the same time this also plays on the idea of being active within the narrative—the exploration of the house, the curiosity behind what lays behind each door, is how the story is progressed. So what makes Gone Home's story less appealing? I think the answer is rather simple: the story isn't being lived. It's being narrated through mementos and notes. The story isn't being lived by the protagonist, it's being recalled. The character is piecing together events that happen to other people, but there's hardly anything the player has to experience.

gone home 2

I must insist to remember that this idea is purely speculative; it's possible for the player to get grossly immersed within what happened to this family and enjoy it to the fullest extent. I am simply using Gone Home as a way to figure out whether this theory of passive and active narratives holds water with this example.

I certainly know it holds true to a game that's sucked up all my time recently. I had purchased Dark Souls a year or so ago, intent on enjoying it to the fullest. It was only just recently when I actually started doing that. I absolutely regret not investing my attention into it before now, though. While Dark Souls's port to PC is flawed in multiple aspects, it's still fantastic in just about every respect I can think of; but what I found to really shine through was how the story is presented.

Dark Souls 1

In fact, Dark Souls starts without any narrative. The intro video shows how the Age of Fire began and the key people who are involved. The story of you, the protagonist, is completely unknown. This aspect, found in multiple RPGs, is a huge factor in how games can immerse the player into a story and supports the idea that the narrative is being experienced actively through the player.

Most other RPGs tend to introduce large amounts of characters and backgrounds and histories to present the player with a vast amount of information to allow themselves to delve deep into the world they take part in. Dark Souls goes the exact opposite way. Everything you know about Lordran is through a handful of cryptic characters you meet—through descriptions of weapons, armor, and items you find along the way—and the players own experience. The only goal given at the very beginning is ringing the Bells of Awakening. No directions, no hints, and certainly no reasons are given or actually necessary.

The only way to progress this narrative is to be active; only then will you know that the story is about how the Chosen Undead must collect the Lordvessel and kill Gwyn, Lord of Cinder. All the characters you knew from the intro need to be killed by your hand, and this important narrative point is only known when the player (if this is their first playthrough) accomplishes the task of ringing the first Bell of Awakening on the Undead Parish, make their way through either The Depths of the Valley of Drakes to reach Blighttown, and then ring the second Bell of Awakening in Quelaag's Domain. That's a lot of work just to understand the basic goal of the game.

Dark Souls 2

Then the lore of the world; the history behind all the major bosses and all these locations are designed to be obscure just out of sight of the player until they make the effort to go find out what the city of Anor Londo is or why Quelana, sister of Quelaag and daughter of the Witch of Izalith, is in Blighttown and what her relation was to the Bed of Chaos and Ceaseless Discharge bosses.  The amount of effort the player must go through in order to fully understand this world and these connections was unlike anything I've seen, which made me love it even more.

The time I put into the game hasn't been wasted, and putting more into playing Dark Souls is an outcome that's absolutely going to happen. The replayability of Dark Souls is rather telling of how little a narrative is needed for video games, and yet the little amount of narrative that's given is enough to especially spice up an already fantastic game.

Dark Souls 3

The narrative is rather simple and can be altered in places, but it's just about as simple as a narrative can get. Not quite as simple as "Hero saves princess from monster," yet it isn't a story that would translate very well into television or movie formats. Actually, this theory of active and passive narratives really does explain how video game movies aren't good at all. Though there are most likely exceptions to the rule. I hear the next game I want to talk about is getting a movie. Five Night's at Freddy's, I think, will be one of the few exceptions where the transition from an active narrative to a passive one would be quite smooth.

Five NIghts

The whole premise is about not being able to do much besides watch the camera and close the doors/check the lights. It's as passive of a game as one can get, which actually leads me to believe Five Night's at Freddy's is a mixture of both passive and active narrative. The passive narrative is the story of this guy surviving the work week with these haunted animatronics trying to kill him—this includes using the phone calls and the video feeds as that narrative.

Yet Five Nights at Freddy's is only progressed through the active role of watching these animatronics carefully—actively reading into their patterns and behaviors. This is akin to how Gone Home uses the active role of exploring the house while the passive narrative is ... well, narrated to the player. The difference, however, is that Five Night's at Freddy's takes a page from Dark Souls' book and uses just the bare minimum of a narrative.

Most of the story is given through vague sections of dialogue, mini-games that rarely happen, and the theories made by fans that connect it all together. The lore is so ambiguous it's almost a requirement to change it to make sure the movie isn't too confusing and vague for the passive audience. The one major staple that is for sure going to be in the movie is the formerly active narration that's given through watching the animatronics and their patterns with the cameras.


Now, that active narration was done only with switch cameras and letting the player figure out the patterns for themselves. The movie, however, is going to have that pattern recognition be used as a way for the character to advance the plot. The audience will have no control over the camera and will most likely figure out the patterns and the animatronics behavior before the characters onscreen do. Yet they can't advance the plot with that knowledge, as is traditionally how passive narrative is done.

I'll continue trying to find more uses with this theory of active/passive narrative, but I figured it was an idea that hadn't been talked about at length yet so I decided to start out with presenting these example to get fellow gamers thinking about the way narration is consumed. In the end I'm not 100% sure this theory is concrete, and there will probably be exceptions to the rule.

I hope this was an interesting read for those who haven't dozed off. Is there a game you played that also might highlight whether this passive/active narrative is possible or not? Am I just talking crazy and should probably just go back to playing video games? Let me know in the comments below!

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I'm a PC player. I tend to spend all my time doing things I enjoy, games, Netflix, anime/manga, browse interweb, what-have-you. When those things pique… More about Steven