Push and Pull Narrative

‘The quintessential example of push narrative is the cut scene, in which the player is a captive audience, much as when viewing a movie. The information the game designers wish to impart is literally pushed at the player. In a pull narrative, on the other hand, the designers embed narrative elements in the world, such as the tape recorders in Bioshock (2K Games, 2008), and rely on the player to pull the narrative to them. Levine notes that players may easily miss out on narrative aspects this way, but that this is acceptable because those players who are genuinely interested in the story will commit to the exploration necessary to find it.’ Calleja, G (2011). In-Game. London, England: The MIT Press. 122-123.

It is apparent in Calleja’s writing that delivery of narration is varied and ultimately an artistic decision of the creator of a given work. The above example of Bioshock (2K Games, 2008)’s idea that narrative is something to be extracted from interaction with the environment and objects, is a particularly interesting one, as then the ‘alterbiographical narrative’ as he describes it, that is to say a player’s personal experience of narrative, is altered through their own decisions and interaction within the game world.

It could be argued that these sorts of mechanics and structure within a game present themselves as similar to other artistic forms. The decision to seek out information and understanding is greater for some than others. An example of this could be an art exhibition; visitors are free to explore the content of an exhibition at their own free will, however the length of time spent by an individual to absorb and attempt to unpick a specific painting/sculpture/photograph will vary from individual to individual, thus creating their own alterbiographical experiences of their interaction with the work, or to use another term coined from the area of mixed reality in this blog, participant trajectories.

If we consider this idea of push and pull narratives within the genre of horror gaming, to which this study is focused, we can identify examples that give us insight into how these are implemented in a gaming environment. For example, in Silent Hill 2 ( Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, 2001) The player is offered both forms of push and pull narratives. Some narratives come in the form of cut scenes, as explained by Calleja, which are push narratives. The opening sequence of the game, for example, delivers initial narrative and plot through these means. As the game progresses, however, the level of engagement with push and pull narratives fluctuate. For example, there are characters to engage with that actively push the narrative onwards, but sometimes it is not necessary for progression of the game, and merely a choice of the player. Dependent on how a player progresses through the game, there are multiple endings. Given Silent Hill 2‘s abstract nature of narrative, it is not clear to a player, without revision of the documentation of the means by which to trigger each ending, exactly how this is decided. It could be argued that the pull narrative element of Silent Hill 2 is a sub-conscious process in some part. For example, an element of how the narrative develops is dependent on how much health a player maintains whilst controlling James Sunderland, the protagonist of the story. This is difficult to be made as a conscious decision, but merely a result of the player’s actions and choices as they progress through the game. Other forms of pull narrative in Silent Hill 2 include interaction with objects. This is a conscious decision by the player, in which they can choose whether they want to interact with a particular object, such as photographs, diaries etc. The significance of objects in deciding the final ending of the game is great. Embedded into the design of this game is a sense of psychological mystery, much of the game is abstract in it’s delivery, dialogue is often confusing, and cut scenes, although they push the narrative forward, can leave the player with more sense of mystery and intrigue.

How is push and pull narrative delivered in mixed reality, as a contrast?

Rider Spoke (2007-), a location-based game for cyclists developed by Blast Theory in collaboration with the Mixed Reality Laboratory as part of the European research project IPerG, Rider Spoke encouraged players to cycle around London, as well as subsequent tours in Brighton, Budapest, Sidney, Adelaide, Athens, Copenhagen, Bristol, Liverpool and Linz, to record personal memories and speculations to be associated with particular locations. The work, which has so far been experienced by over two thousand players, allowed participants to find and listen to the responses of preceding players, built over time; each day’s recordings were loaded into the system overnight to appear in the work the following day so that the experience of the piece was always being counterpointed by it’s historicity (Chamberlain et al. 2010)…’

‘…Rider Spoke was a mobile interactive work combining elements of performance, gameplay, and interactive technology. Participants arrived at the hosting venue, either on their own bicycle or to borrow one. They registered at the reception (see figure 4.12), where they signed a disclaimer and left a deposit. They then received a briefing that covered the nature of the experience, how to use the the technology, and how to cycle safely, and also told them of an emergency paper map and phone number stored under their saddle. A receptionist logged them into the system and then sent them outside where a technician mounted their console onto the handlebar of the cycle and, for loaned cycles, adjusted their seating position so that they felt comfortable and safe. Riders then left the venue individually. The experience lasted approximately one hour.

After the first few minutes, music started playing, setting the tone for the exeprience, and a narrator, Ju Row Farr, begun giving instructions in a calm, slightly detached and melancholic voice…’ Benford, S Giannachi, G (2011). Performing Mixed Reality. London, England: The MIT Press. 182-183.

Rider Spoke delivers both a push and pull narrative in order to form the overall experience. The push narrative, the the tutorial-like explanation of the format of the game at reception, as well as the narration delivered to them, explaining what is expected of them, drawing them into what is expected of them and how they may interact with the world created within the game, which is tied to the real, corporeal, physical world in which they take part.

In contrast, the pull narrative comes in the form of what the participants choose to engage with within the performance. Given a number of places they can record messages for others for further interaction, leaving trace of their interaction, but also in seeking out messages left from others, they form their narrative of the environment and experience through their decisions in where they may choose to interact, and what of the audio they act upon, for example if somebody has left instructions. In this sense, Rider Spoke defers from the idea of a canonical narrative as it progresses, to more of a participant trajectory, which is further shared in subsequent experiences. This idea of a canonical trajectory to begin a piece of work, but subsequent decisions forming the narrative someone experiences, mirrors that of Silent Hill 2 mentioned earlier in this blog entry. Ultimately, the level to which a mixed reality experience is adaptable based on someone’s choices will vary depending on the format and decisions of those who put it together, much like video games. Some offer a more canonical approach than others in both formats, but it certainly makes for interesting research that the idea of decision based narrative is used both in gaming (specifically horror gaming, in the examples shared in this entry) and that of mixed reality.

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