[The Spoony Bard is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by writer James Bishop that probes the depths of the characters, dialogue and writing in video games. This week, it explores embedded and player narrative in relation to games from Final Fantasy X to Minecraft.]

A major theme throughout Final Fantasy X is the constant attention to exactly who is the center of the story. We learn of Yuna’s father’s story, as well as Jecht’s, by hearing it being told from other points of view. After all, that one single story accounts for the journey of the fathers of two major characters and the friends of a third. By exploring the effects of that story, however, we are seeing the story of another character: Yuna.

But Yuna’s story is one that we are forced to watch happen just off center due to actually playing as yet another character: Tidus. Tidus is controlled by the player, moved by the player, but ultimately is his own character and, as he states time and time again, this is his story.

If that’s not confusing enough, there’s probably enough subject matter here that Final Fantasy X alone could justify a number of paragraphs and fill some nested parentheses exploring the nature of these relationships. For the purposes of this column, however, the important take-away from this is the fact that there exists a series of multiple stories within stories.

In a sense, Tidus experiences what some consider the relationship that a player has with any given game. He acknowledges that there is a story unfolding in front of him and yet insists on imposing his own story, his own narrative, as a distinct layer on top of it.

In other words, he dabbles in player narrative.

Player Narrative Defined

A major part of any argument is defining the terms presented. Game design, game theory and the critical discussion of gaming are often hampered by vague, undefined terms. Embedded narrative is simply the narrative presented by the game itself but player narrative is bit more tricky. Possibly the best definition for player narrative that I have encountered comes straight from the pen-and-paper ancestors of the modern video game.

In a sense, the old tabletop role-playing games had to deal with interactive stories long before BioWare concerned themselves with karma systems and branching dialogue. Part of the allure is the fact that the players take on roles, defined by them, and then interact in a world that is defined by the game master (GM) or whatever you feel like calling the person running the game. At some point, these perspectives will collide.

The GM must set before the players a system of rules that they can interact within. Now, the GM may have an overall narrative arc planned out but in order to avoid causing a sense of what players refer to as “railroading,” or forcing them down a specific path, they must also be ready to allow for the players to override that goal or at least let them think they have done so.

Basically, the player is a spider trapped under a glass. They are unable to do anything outside of the realm that the GM will allow but within said realm the possibilities are near endless. They can take limited control of the game and do what they want, just as the spider can move about within its confines.

And this is why most people are already aware of player narrative as a concept if not a term. For as long as there have been games, there have been players talking about what they did in them and what they found exciting, interesting or funny about their various misadventures.

Whenever you’ve overheard someone mentioning an experience they had in a video game and how it played out, you’re listening in on them relating a portion of player narrative. Even in a mostly cinematic video game, like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, the player’s response to the external stimulus is that player’s alone. Even though I’ve played Uncharted 2 for an obscene amount of time, anyone else that’s played it has likely come away with something different even though we may agree on a few points.

Some of the best examples of player narrative come from the games that allow you to build things. They provide the support to either build alliances and social structures or actual tangible, at least within the game, structures made from stone and steel and the like. Sometimes, like in EVE Online, they allow for both. Even among this subset of video games, however, there is a major point of diversification.

Some Embedded Narrative Versus Pure Player Narrative

To go back to the analogy of the spider under the glass, in games like EVE Online, Borderlands and Urban Dead, there is both a sense of embedded narrative and player narrative. The spider isn’t alone under the glass; there are other objects in there too. These games have stories, concepts and plot at the core them.

Of the three, Urban Dead is probably the closest to the border as the plot hasn’t advanced since the game’s conception, but the rest certainly have a feeling of progression. Borderlands has a definite start and finish, even though you can play through the game multiple times, and as EVE Online continues to exist, the world continues to expand and more lore, more tech and more expansions are revealed that connect to the overall embedded narrative.

On the other side of the analogy, games like Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress and NetHack seem to have a world completely devoid of embedded narrative. These games rely on randomized environments and enemies in order to produce a completely unique player narrative. NetHack, much like Urban Dead, is closer to the border, but this time it’s because there is a beginning and end that provide a sense of progression and embedded narrative.

Video games that put a lot of stock in developing strong player narratives are those that can often seem ageless. Embedded narratives are important and still have a role to play but player narrative is something that is almost entirely unique to games. A good plot can make a good movie, or even a video game, but a game alone allows a player to explore it on the player’s terms, at their pace and in their own way.

Throwing embedded narrative to the wind can be risky, as without it there’s no dramatic arc to draw players in, but, when given the right tools, players will play games that encourage player narratives far longer than they might play games like Uncharted, God of War or Medal of Honor. The sheer number of stories out there about games like this, including the recent surge in the popularity of Minecraft, should speak for themselves.

[James Bishop is a freelance writer for various outlets, holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Indiana University Southeast and is not fond of the Oxford comma. He can be reached at jamesrollinbishop at gmail dot com.]