Storyworld Level Design Tasks – User Control of Characters & Role in Narrative

User Control of Characters 
 
While it may be tempting to design a transmedia narrative so that users can play the role of a major character, research has shown that the audience response to that approach is generally negative. A study of the British television series Spooks and its associated transmedia gaming elements found that fans of the series did not want to step into the roles of the fictional characters seen on television (Evans, 2008).

Dena also notes that allowing game players take the roles of a limited number of major characters in a narrative is impractical if a multi-player role-playing game is part of the storyworld (Dena, 2009, pp. 208-209). A better strategy is to create classes of characters that allow potential transmedia game players to role-play a member of a certain class of players (Dena, 2009, pp. 208-209). For example, players might take on the role of a hobbit or dwarf from Lord of the Rings or a “field agent” in a game based on the Spooks program.

User Role in Narrative

Determining whether the user’s role is internal (projected into the narrative through an avatar or first person perspective) or external (situated outside the narrative) will have a significant impact on the nature of the transmedia project. If an internal user role is selected, the user is projected into the narrative either in a first person perspective or through an avatar. If the external mode, the user is situated outside the narrative as an observer able to see everything that happens within the narrative – in effect, like a god looking in from above. The user role, when linked to the degree of user agency, determines the fundamental structure of the transmedia project.

When the dimensions of user role and user agency are combined, four general categories for structuring transmedia narratives emerge (Ryan, Beyond Myth and Metaphor – The Case of Narrative in Digital Media, 2001) (see Table 1).

Table 1. User role and user agency impact on narrative structure
User Agency
(Low)
User Agency
(High)
User Role (External)
Transmedia projects with low user agency and an external user role are best suited for self-referential narratives – narratives that expose their own structure to readers. Appropriate narratives for this type of structure include:
  • Classic hypertext fiction, in which the reader selects the path between chunks of the story to reveal information but the path taken does not affect the narrative’s outcome.
Transmedia projects with high user agency and an external user role are best suited for game-like situations in which the user controls one or more characters and their environment.
Decisions the user makes can send the characters towards different destinies.
Examples of games with this type of structure include:
  • Sims
User Role
(Internal)
Transmedia narratives with low user agency and an internal user role are best suited for narratives in which  the users takes a virtual body into the virtual world and is able to move, examine objects, view the action from different points of view, investigate, and  reconstruct events in the virtual world’s past. Appropriate narratives for this type of structure include:
  • Travel and exploration (spatial) narratives in which the user moves around the virtual world and creates the story.
  • Narratives of place that focus on the in-depth exploration of a specific location through a number of “little stories” that allow the user to discover the secrets of that virtual world.
  • Narratives focused on interpersonal relationship with the user seeing the story from the character’s points of view.
  • Narratives with parallel plots, typically resulting from a large cast of characters acting simultaneously in different locations and forcing the user to move from one place to the next in order to see every thread in the story.
  • Mystery stories with two levels of narrative – one based on the actions of the detective character, and the other story being the one the user is trying to reconstruct.
Transmedia projects with high user agency and an internal user role are best suited for games in which the user is a character in the virtual world and controls his/her own fate by acting within the time and space of that virtual world. Examples of games like this are first-person “shooter” video games like:
  • Call to Duty
  • World of Warcraft
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