Primary Probability Stew

As I continue to contemplate the feature of post-primary narrative, I’ve begun to wonder just what place “primary” has in it at all. Of course, there is always a primary. Something must always come first. In games with a multipathed narrative though, what comes first may be different for everyone. I will continue to use Dragon Age: Origins as an example.

There are 6 entry paths available to the narrative in DA:O. These are the “Origins”. However, although there are these finite beginnings, they are able to be colored differently by the players themselves. The dialogue trees in the game offer different perspectives and responses from various game characters. Although in the Origin, the player-character is destined to eventually end up at the same place, they can do so with varied experiences. Rather than 6 individual primary paths, there are actually 6 probability clouds of primary paths. And this is only the Origin. After that, the diagram would get much more complicated.

How then do we analyze a primary narrative experience? Rather than working with traditional methodologies of narrative, we may need to create a theory that acknowledges a model of narrative that has little to no stable text or primary foundation. It can be argued that any text will result in different initial readings depending on the reader, but in those cases, there is a stable text common to all.

In a multipathed narrative like in DA:O, what is common to all? The narrative is a stew of variables rather than a string of constants. There are certain plot points which do occur for everyone, but they still offer multiple avenues of experience through player choice. Although we may all journey to visit Arl Eamon, what actually takes place there at his castle may be quite different for each of us. There are many possible intratextualities and many possible cross-references, but many of them could only come to light in particular post-primary experiences, in which case, the reader’s particular primary experience of the narrative would be greatly influential.

Does this then mean that a single reader could never fully experience the entire narrative? If some post-primary features are dependent on one’s particular primary experience (of which there can only be one, naturally), then a single reader could only experience those which his particular primary allows.

Are his experiences intertextually related to another’s? These are not separate texts that readers experience, and yet, they are different.

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Longasc
    Jan 18, 2010 @ 15:15:43

    I think you cannot experience the full story if you just play it one time.

    But there is a core narrative. As you noticed, regardless of origin, you end up in Ostagar. Then you get the next set of options, which can be a slightly different experience depending on your origin. One could expect a different experience in the dwarf city for a dwarf than for an elf.

    Regardless which path you take, in the end you will always have a choice who becomes king – you or X. Your gender also does not matter that much, in that case you could marry X. But as I told you, I intend to get rid of X and become king myself. For some reasons the sucker likes me more than Leliana does, and that after dozens of expensive gifts. 😦

    Now I need to use a SPOILER ALERT …

    (if you kill the possessed child in Redcliffe, or sacrifice his mother, you miss out on an entire sequence in which the mages come to your help.)


    But this does not matter, the story then continues as usual.

    So one cannot say he experiences an entirely different story if he starts playing the game again – but he has another origin, another viewpoint and a chance to experiment, to influence the personal experience/story somewhat.

    You cannot do this with a novel. But there are always exceptions, I know “adventure books” that ask you to make choices now and then, and then you continue reading on the page mentioned below the choice.

    This works, but it is rather clumsy given the options a computer game offers in this regard. One thing is for sure, the more options you want to offer, the more complicated it gets for the makers of said game/novel. At a certain point there will always be “Ostagars”, central parts of a core narrative, where different strains flow together again.

    There is of course some kind of “intertextual” (I am about as hesitant as you to use this term regarding different Dragon Age origins) experience to Dragon Age. Our decisions in our next playthrough most probably will be different because we want to explore other options.

    Also knowledge acquired on the internet can influence our experience of the narrative… I know that someone is to become king in the end, and after X confessed he is bastard of the royal line, I told you on Twitter… his fate is sealed! 🙂

    I wonder what happens if Redcliffe gets totally wasted and not saved…


  2. Arun
    Jan 18, 2010 @ 16:22:03

    Have not played dragon age origins yet, about to get it though. so i cannot really comment on this game yet. on the other hand, i was wondering… Would you attempt a similar reading with king Arthur the role playing wargame? i could do a reasonable comparitive reading even though the genres of the games are largely different. the narrative structure is interesting since its very loose to an extent that there is no ‘single’ core narrative(gameplay is naturally affected). I see a lose narrative structure with a minimal ‘core’ narrative which seemingly randomized to be immersive enough. Particularly the blend of RTS improves (in my opinion) access to the larger narrative on which the game is based.

    I have problem by terming the overall narrative as a ‘primary narrative’, if you mean primary by accessibility then there are multiple narratives that exist in a semantic field out of which one particular narrative becomes or is anchored. any post structuralist reading i would assume breaks down the concept of the ‘primary’ text, talking of which another thing just occurred to me, Origins and beginnings are very different conceptually/ideologically loaded terms, particularly when dealing with narrative. so questions of primary to the text and flowing out maybe difficult to locate, what might be an interesting approach is to locate beginnings and not origins… this struck me when i was reading the response by Longasc particularly when he mentions another ‘origin’ viewpoint etc interestingly metagaming is brought in, knowledge from outside the game influencing in-game decisions, have not considered how that affects the narrative structure in terms of reader response.

    Could you please provide an elaboration of the image you posted up here? its quite interesting in the way a core narrative is located but i was wondering if reading it without the ‘centre’ would be worthwhile? if so would you attempt something similar on King Arthur?


    • Adarel
      Jan 18, 2010 @ 17:06:36

      Hey – thanks for the comment. I have not played King Arthur yet though I have looked at it a little. I will keep my comments general for the moment, but will go see what I can dig up about KA and see if I can recover my original thoughts.

      First, a couple points on terminology. What I term a “primary narrative” is really the first experience of the narrative that the player has. You could simply term it the first playthrough if you like. The only anchor it provides is a very subjective one in that it is unique to each reader and influences how they view later experiences of the narrative whether through other playthroughs, re-playthroughs, other player’s experiences, player-created narratives through screenshot/video, etc., etc. Looking at the narrative as a whole without any reader in mind, there is no “primary narrative”. There is simply a soup of possible beginnings and events.

      This brings me to the origin/beginning comment you made. They are termed “Origins” in the game so I was preconditioned I guess to use the term. They are origins of player-characters in that one learns the history, background, setting of their character in the origin and also has the chance to decide through the dialogue trees what kind of personality they want to play as. They provide beginnings to the narrative in that they are the only entry points to the game one can have and they must be one of the six options.

      As to the image, like I said above, the top six probability soups are the six possible entry points into the narrative. The central plot point is perhaps the only one in the game that will happen the same for everyone – by “the same”, I mean only one decision option, one ending, one pathway through this portion of the plot. The next four soup blobs will happen for everyone, but can be quite different and can be in any order. One could certainly read the narrative without thinking of Ostagar as a ‘centre’ particularly. It’s really almost another starting point in the narrative, or at least that is how I viewed it when I played through it. One’s personal reading of it would already be colored by their individual Origin experience, so even this seemingly core plot point is really just another in a personally influenced narrative path.

      I have not really thought of metagaming either. In a way, it may be akin to skipping to the last page of a book. It certainly influences one’s personal experience of the narrative, but I am not sure to what extent.


  3. Dan
    Jan 18, 2010 @ 16:56:58

    Wittgenstein says that language is a game: that game changes depending on who is playing, every time it is played. Ergo, the narrative is different every time it is experienced.

    I think this argument is called ‘Wittgenstein’s hammer’, a way of turning every argument into an unsolvable language game. 😛


  4. Arun
    Jan 18, 2010 @ 18:05:58

    Thank you for responding- let me try out dragon age before engaging with these concepts in further detail. but a few points that i am still grappling with.

    when you say primary narrative as the first experience of the playthrough, the first connection that occurs to me is the ‘one’ standard narrative set by the developer (in normal instances) and then other multiple parallel narratives (in case of KA and maybe even DA:O) which run along side. maybe a bad analogy but the whole point of the multiple narratives is to break centrality right? so should we really be looking at or attempting to locate the central narrative at all? even in terms of reader response to it?

    also in terms of origins and as a response to dan there seem to be narrative variations in every instance and at every choice, in such a state, would reader response not be sufficiently fragmented? as in its not multiple responses to one single narrative but the same to multiple variations of the narrative. so applying wittgenstein (i must admit my ignorance on wittgenstein) here might just fragment this discourse further.

    In looking at KA (king arthur the ….. game) with this perspective i would easily locate a fragmented narrative that provides the room for reader response, incorporated in such a way that story telling is bound by a lose structure which may not always be accomplished (by looking at the post on DA:O by Longasc i am assuming that there is an imposed end goal)

    On metagaming, our activity here if it influences ingame decisions in anyway, even as a matter of study i think would safely be ascribed to metagaming. Cheating as metagaming has altogether different connotations but one that i find interesting… is the breaking of the central (or centralised) narrative which is made possible through cheats. such a break in the central narrative is provided in the multiple narratives that simultaneously progress.

    I do not know if you have been exposed to A.I.M designed by skyriver studios, its not exceptional except for its clan wars theme in the second edition which drew out of the first one. The ability of the player to follow multiple narratives in such a way that there is always a certain level and amount of re-playability is interesting although a central narrative is not broken, the multiple narratives allow for different goals and conclusions.

    Do keep me posted on any developments on KA and any thoughts on how a non linear structure may work there.

    thanks again


  5. Evan
    Jan 18, 2010 @ 19:32:23

    I still haven’t played Dragon Age, but it doesn’t seem overwhelmingly different from other western PC-based role-playing games, so I will try to find some common ground with which to discuss things. We have certainly moved well beyond simply being offered the same list of dialogue options for different characters, prefaced by or even “You’re an Elf! I like Elves/You’re a Dwarf! I do not like Dwarves…here is your mission independent of whether or not I like your species,” but in my experience, this still rarely leads to a functionally different storyline. There is something to be gained in the way the NPCs are characterized, but does having an NPC say to your character “I don’t like you! You’re from Guilder!” characterize them better than saying “I don’t trust those people from Guilder!”? I guess on some level we need to consider the degree to which a player is identifying with their character and how hard they intend to act out this role (which is historically quite variable, and obviously derived from tabletop games where the players are required to act and imagine harder because they don’t have visual representations or a game world capable of reacting to their actions), and it seems like that this speaks to my bias as a reader and player than anything else.

    As the first poster mentioned, I think it is very safe to assume that the reason why there are not choices which will lead to entirely divergent plotlines and narratives is because doing such a thing would require to program, in effect, multiple games and market them as a single one; for better or worse, this is not a decision I see many publishers making. It is for this reason that we have games that offer a core narrative with an array of optional and required sub-quests that can be completed in any order, but this seems like a problem to me in terms of storytelling. If it is non-required, it should not involve critical information about the characters or plot, otherwise people run the risk of not actually hearing the entire story, and if they can be completed in any order, they will have difficulty addressing one another and working in concert to reveal to the player things about the world, the plot, or the characters. In Arcanum (a game that came out a while ago, but which has features that I have heard you describe in Dragon Age (moral decision-making (to the point that it affects parties), large world with a core story that flexibly interacts with character background and sub-quest decisions), for example, there was a Good way to execute the narrative and a Evil way, but these involved minimal differences in procedure. So, there is a point at which you need to infiltrate a Dark Elf village to learn about the ancient evil conspiracy afoot and once there, you can decide to tell them truth about who you are and join them, or simply spy on them and never return. Obviously, defecting to the Evil storyline involves an initiation quest which you don’t get otherwise, but there are evil agents spread throughout the world in almost exactly the same places the good agents are (many of whom are different NPC, but they ask you to do almost exactly the same thing their good counterparts would (or the diametrical opposite)) and you have access to all of the same quests.

    Some games do have different characters with completely different stories who either meet up and form The Party or who behave as NPCs in each others’ stories, but I don’t believe I have seen examples which do not feature a central story. Is there a good example of such a thing? I am way behind on non-console games (and console games, but much farther behind in the former than the latter). I find your ideas exceedingly fascinating and robust, but I fear that the best ways of addressing them is by moving away from the model set forth by Bioware, et al. I would like to play Dragon Age to see what territory should be explored in excess of this, but I have seen little to suggest that non-linear story elements are not more of a creative liability than an asset. Again, as a writer/English student, this bias (which may easily be entirely unfair and unfounded) is pretty simple to explain. We should talk about this further, with drinking and possibly baking.


  6. Arun
    Jan 19, 2010 @ 05:41:26

    @ Evan

    I have not played dragon age yet so cannot really comment on its gameplay. Will procure the same in a few days so will be able to better address these issues. I am largely using King Arthur which i find similar (not in terms of genre but in terms of narrative structure).

    What i was trying to posit was a shift in the way immersive narratives work. earlier narratives have central plots that cannot be manipulated. to add to your example Bioshock also has a good ending and a bad ending and although there is very little deviation from the main plotline in terms of choices the basic choice offered seems to be to either rescue ‘the little sister’ or harvest it for ‘Adam’… depending on which tennenbaum (hope i got the name right) sends you occasional gifts near the gatherers garden. These details are largely irrelevant except to posit the low possibilities of a break from the central narrative.

    I do not know if this suffices but a random map on something like Age of wonders, although using characters from the campaign has in effect a decentralized narrative… would you agree? there are still quests to be completed but is then independent of the central narrative. I do not know if hero’s of might and magic works along the same lines.. its been a while since i played a homam and do not remember its narrative structure.

    For this reason perhaps empire building games particularly on a random map would be an interesting read since they do not have a core narrative. what do you guys think? wrong way to put it?


  7. Arun
    Jan 22, 2010 @ 10:35:11

    hey Ada,
    I am posting a derivative work based on this in my official blog, redirecting here.

    you can put a link back to

    if it suits your purpose.


  8. Adarel
    Jan 26, 2010 @ 01:17:14

    @Evan: On your first paragraph, DA:O has two kinds of role-playing options. There is the kind you mention where you can be nice or rude, some things will still occur the same. However, there are actual moral choices the character has to make as well. Often they go along with the personality choices (a rude character presumably chooses rude dialogue options and will make more off-putting moral choices), but they are much more. They often change the plot to a high degree.

    People never see everything in a novel, film, game, etc. the first time. They just don’t. A game makes the missing parts more obvious in a way, but the story (if done well) never feels incomplete without them, just as a good novel doesn’t feel incomplete simply because you didn’t read it from every imaginable perspective. It often takes multiple playthroughs to experience the whole thing. Does that mean some parts of the characters are never discovered if one only plays through once? Yes. And that’s fine in my opinion. They still feel like they have completed a complete storyline and game. Compared to the example you give where playing it through barely changes anything, I am quite happy to have the option of an enjoyable playthrough or a very deep and interesting adventure into discovering new aspects of the land and its inhabitants.

    I do not disagree that DA:O is a limited example. It is somewhat unique in how well it has managed to create both a single primary narrative, regardless of what your primary happens to be, and also having reasons to make a second playthrough desirable and entertaining. Rather than simply forcing people to do so though, it allows them to make the choices of what they want to experience as it goes. It feels much closer to co-authorship between the designer and the player rather than just a scripted jaunt through someone else’s story.


  9. Adarel
    Jan 26, 2010 @ 01:24:41

    @Arun: I think there may be a danger of seeing narratives where there actually aren’t any or at least nothing more than the bare minimum of a beginning of some sort, events in the middle, and an end. For a game, this really requires no actual characters, changes of setting, plot twists. One could “read” a random map kind of RTS game like that if they wanted. The Americans founded a settlement on the flood plain. 3000 years passed without incident until the Mayan attacked (dundundun). After struggles to create and manage a vast army of Revolutionaries, the Mayan were defeated and America ruled the world. Huzzah. But the player’s experience is not the same as in something where they have actual plot directives and choices to make about the coming events. There may be similarities between strategic choices in an RTS and “moral” choices in an RPG, but I don’t know how useful it would be to compare them. It really depends on the question you’re asking.

    For me, the question is really, how do these multiple levels of narrative interact with each other? How do we create both seamless primary narratives (first playthroughs) and also meaningful post-primary narratives (secondary+ playthroughs)? How can we use this form of narrative to create meaning and better understand human experience and decision-making? How can we further blend narrative and mechanics to push the boundaries of this medium? How do we analyze narratives where the text is far from static? Etc., etc. It’s like the Heisenberg principle except for narrative. We can measure a certain narrative path or we can look at it all from a distance, but we can never fully understand both at the same time. I don’t like the words “never fully understand”. 🙂

    I will go check out your blog and add it to the blogroll list I have in progress.


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