Written by Michał Mochocki. This post is a part of an ongoing blog series by members and alumni of the CoE. See the full list of published posts and the introduction to the series.
Story beats are units of dramatic action recognised by narrative designers across interactive and less-interactive media. However, there is no agreement on the size of ‘beat’ as a story unit. In Snyder’s (2005) 15-part “Beat Sheet” for film scripting a beat is a sizeable segment comparable to a stage in Campbell’s hero monomyth. In Newman’s (2006) analysis of the narrative structure of TV series episodes, it is a short scene taking about 2 minutes of screen time. In research and design of narrative in video games, a beat as a unit of dramatic action tends to be smaller than a scene, be it for VR applications (e.g. Karam 2010), or creation of believable agents (avatars) (e.g. Mateas & Stern 2002), or general narrative-driven game design (Yorke 2013; Ganszyniec 2018; Berger 2020). This micro-scale concept of a story beat is this: a single ‘action-reaction’ pair that results in a change.
Academic literature on narrative structures rarely goes to this level of granularity, and rarely mentions story beats at all. Theories of story beats proliferate somewhere else: in practical handbooks and courses for creative writers. Novelists, playwrights, film and TV screenwriters, and game designers are advised to think in terms of story beats when they design and polish scenes. On the one hand, there is plenty of instructional literature to draw from. On the other hand, each instructor’s take on story beats is written independently, with little to no reference to prior work.
As a result, much of the material is mutually incompatible. Uniting them in an all-encompassing system would be an impossible task. Yet, there is enough overlapping space between film, fiction, drama, and games to create a comprehensive transmedial framework based on selected works. Such a framework should enable scholars to extend ludonarrative analysis from videogames to (non-ludo) narrative analysis of the less interactive genres, and back again: from film to cinematic cutscenes, from fiction to interactive fiction, from drama to dialogue trees.
Looking from the angle of game studies, narrative microstructures of character’s action may be linked to gameplay and game system behaviours, as in the classic works by Salen & Zimmerman (2004), Björk & Holopainen (2005), Galloway (2006). Narratologically, it connects with the classic structuralist tradition (e.g. Bremond & Cancalon 1966; Chatman 1980), but also with performative, experiential, and enactivist approaches. Character-driven dramatic action can be studied through the lens of character’s experientiality (Fludernik 2005) as well as readers/viewer’s embodied experience (Caracciolo 2019), the latter dependent on game-like interpretive moves (Martuszewska 2008; Upton 2018), mental simulation of character’s action (Ryan 2018), and real affective bodily responses (Alber 2019).
The big question about video games is the compatibility of story beats with player-controlled ludic action. The ‘action-reaction’ pair story beat seems to be the best choice, as it puts ludic (player’s) in-game action on the same level as dramatic (narrative) action. This model of the story beat is also found in less interactive media: e.g. in Dunne (2009; 2017) for drama, Cowley (2014; 2016) for fiction, McKee (1997) for film. Together, game studies and transmedia narratology are a good match in chasing the ideal of harmonious ludonarrative unity (as in Arjoranta 2015; Mukherjee 2015; Upton 2018; Ganszyniec 2018).
For instance, when Ciri in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (depicted at the top of the post) is on the verge of a destructive rage in Avallach’s lab, the player controls what happens with two dialogue options for Geralt: “Calm down” or “Go for it!”. With the time bar counting down time for decision, not picking an option effectively becomes a third option: inaction. Geralt speaking the words persuasively (or remaining silent) may count as action in the beat, Ciri’s resulting behaviour as the reaction. The beat happens as dramatic action by characters in the narrative layer, but is controlled by player’s gamic action in the interface.
How many types of story beats are out there? Yorke (2013) works with two categories: beats of action and beats of dialogue. Laws (2018) has another pair: dramatic and procedural beats. Dunne lists three: physical, behavioural, and inner-life. Cowley has five: action, inaction, dialogue, emotion, and description. What further complicates things, there are two parallel approaches to defining story beats: character- or audience-oriented. The former places story beats in character-centred dramatic action, the latter in the audience’s emotional response. Bringing order to this chaos seems to be a daunting task: one worth taking.
Michał Mochocki is assistant professor at Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz, Poland. As a researcher and designer of non-digital RPGs and larp, he studies games from the angles of transmedia narratology and heritage studies, with a special focus on historical settings. An advocate for game design education, academic teacher and curriculum designer, he is also leading a 3-year Erasmus project “Higher-ed Programmes for Careers in Games Design & Development”. His research on story beats at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies is funded by the “Miniatura 3” grant from the National Science Centre in Poland.
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