I felt I should stop drifting through the ether of human experience for a while to write a short (but important) blog entry that was inspired by a fantastically enriching discussion with friends Epona Schweer and James Podesta, on the juicy topic of storytelling in games.
There was a moment in our chatter where it became clear that the vernacular was interfering somewhat with our ability to successfully communicate our ideas. Specifically, the words in this blog entry's title - story, plot and narrative - were being used interchangeably (as often happens in a casual discussion) but the distinction between these things became important to nuance.
Often in discussions about storytelling, it is critical to be clear about whether we're specifically talking story, plot or narrative when we're making our case as the argument itself changes with each distinction.
I'm writing this post to help clarify what those distinctions are for anyone who might not immediately identify them.
Starting with the most complicated element to strictly define, story is a somewhat esoteric term. It refers to almost everything that goes into a fiction and is most often used as an encapsulation of the narrative, plot, and the space in which they exist. Story is the world, the tone, the mise-en-scène, the emotional context. And most critically, story exists in pretty much everything, including those things we typically refer to as having "no story" by virtue of having no authored character arc or 3-act narrative structure: Asteroids has a story. Even Pong has a story, albeit a highly implicit and symbolic one (virtual table-tennis: These are not rectangles, they're paddles and a ping-pong ball).
Story usually encompasses the implicit elements of a fiction: The history of a world, its art and design movements, its ecosystem, its place in time and space, its religions and its science, etc. It's through attention to the story that a fictional framework is built, lending depth and complexity and facilitating immersion for our readers. What happens between the twists and turns and unraveling plot-points is the story, and it is arguably the most important aspect of story-telling in games.
Two authored works could have much the same fiction in summary, but have entirely different identities due to differing stories. Consider Half-Life versus Prey: Very similar fish-out-of-water fictions, but distinct (with arguably vast differences in quality) due in great part to the craftsmanship of the stories they inhabit. Some of our industry's most recognised works such as Bioshock, Portal, and the works of auteur Fumito Ueda (ICO and Shadow of the Colossus) are celebrated - and indeed take on a life of their own beyond the original fiction - due almost entirely to their rich, unique stories.
This is the thing that we usually refer to offhandedly as the "story" in a work. The plot is the sequence of events that occur to the protagonist (in gaming, usually the player) and other key characters between the chronological beginning and end of a narrative. Consider the plot as the protagonist's script: The series of events that the player causes or watches occur. Key moments in the fiction (called beats) are connected via segues and transitions to create a chronological sequence of cause-and-effect, which usually describes the external influences that facilitate our protagonist's character arc.
In short: Plot is the stuff that happens.
In games with a high degree of player agency, the plot can be fluid and dynamic, unique for each player. Some games allow for a personalised plot to emerge from a series of player-constructed beats, and some allow the player to connect pre-scripted beats together in their own order. When we describe our fiction to somebody, we most often talk in terms of plot as it's usually the most easily described element of our storytelling: "So there's this guy, a treasure hunter, who is brought onto a heist job by old friends to help steal some artifact that it turns out contains a hidden clue to some ancient treasure, only he's betrayed and left for dead..."
Narrative refers to the manner in which the plot and story are communicated to the reader (being the player in a game, or the viewer of a film). This might be first or third person, from the protagonist's point of view, or from that of an omniscient player-deity. Exposition could be presented through flash-backs and dream-sequences, or maybe the reader is kept in the dark. Maybe it's told from an aloof and objective vantage point, or maybe it's all over-the-shoulder, in-your-face visceral carnage.
While a plot is always chronological, a narrative has no requirement to obey the laws of time and space. The narrative of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves follows an order of events different to the plot, jumping back and forth between the 'present' precarious predicament, and flash-backs to the events leading up to it.
This of course means that the narrative of a work can be constructed in infinite ways without directly changing plot or story
Also, a basic plot can be made complex and more interesting via narrative devices. Take the film The Game starring Michael Douglas: Uncomplicated in hindsight, but with a narrative representation that makes it a paranoid, terrifying mystery right up until the last few minutes of the film. Similarly, Christopher Nolan's Memento is an absolute mind-bender of a film due to being told in reverse chronological order.
Usually, when a film or book or game falls short in storytelling, it is (arguably) the fault of a poor narrative - that is, the execution. There are many ways in which The Empire Strikes Back would have been a terrible film without changing a single element of its plot or story. Just like there may have been some way in George Lucas' brain that the prequels might have actually ended up being good films.
EXAMPLE - Bioshock
Bioshock's STORY is about the subjective morality of socialism and how it impacts on objectivity in scientific progress. It's about a militant capitalist with a grandiose vision of a Utopian society free from oppressive government regulation. It's a horror which explores human depravity in the face of objectivist rhetoric. It's about exploring the remnants of Rapture: This Art Deco meritocracy of human aspiration and idealism that has succumbed to an apocalypse of human self-interest.
Bioshock's PLOT is about a war between two men: Fontaine and Ryan (the creator of Rapture) and their use of the player character Jack as their tool in the conflict. Using a series of manipulations, Fontaine drives Jack ever forward towards the ultimate goal of wresting control of Rapture from Ryan. Along the way there are many obstacles, including the insane remnants of the city's populace, the decaying environment, security systems and Jack's discovery that Fontaine is the enemy and has been manipulating Jack through use of a control phrase. Jack ultimately breaks free of Fontaine's control and confronts him in a final conflict.
Bioshock's NARRATIVE is about thrusting the player into a hostile, twisted nightmare. After arriving in Rapture through a series of seemingly random events, the player is met with a vicious attack by something in the darkness: A shrieking, wailing thing that doesn't appear to be entirely human. Exploration leads to the discovery that this place was once a great city, and something has lead to its ruin. The player is befriended by a survivor, somewhere in the ruins, communicating via radio. This stranger is helping the player overcome the city's unexpected obstacles - and gain strange powers along the way - in exchange for rescuing his family who are being held to ransom by the city's evil architect, Andrew Ryan.
So when next you're debating the finer points of storytelling in games, it can help to be clear about what exactly you're referring to. If someone argues that "Game X had a terrible story", clarity is needed to formulate a valid response: Was the plot an illogical mess? Was the story bland and dull? Was the narrative confusing or misleading without a satisfying resolution?
And when you're writing your games, don't forget about the importance of a well crafted story beyond narrative and plot. Bioshock's story is what makes it not Prey. Minecraft's story is what makes it something more than just digital Lego. An author in any medium needs to be crystal clear on all of the elements that combine to create a great fiction, and the complexity of a good story is often overlooked in the focus on what happens to the player.
Particularly in games.
And porn. Though I'm not sure that one's measured on successful fiction.