A Method to Plan and Structure Your Narrative and Coordinate your Game's Systems
There are numerous ways to approach designing a narrative for your games. Although at times it may appear a daunting task, especially if one considers the vast possibilities and opportunities there are when you start thinking about the story you want to tell through your game. Others may find it more intimidating simply because of the work involved in creating a compelling narrative. In this post, I will be talking primarily about an academic approach to understanding and analysing narrative events known as Kernels and Satellites, an approach by Seymour Chatman. I will not be going into the academic aspect of the concept - but will instead focus on how these can be used to help plan, structure and understand the story you are trying to tell.
What are Kernels and Satellites?
Stories can be seen as a set of events linked sequentially, often with cause-and-effect being a key part of that link. A Kernel is refers to a major event within the story, think of it as an event where a decision could lead to a very different path. For instance, picture that in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, during the beginning of the game a dragon does not attack Helgen, resulting in our escape - instead, what if the Stormcloaks caught wind of their leader being executed at Helgen and launched a desperate attack to save their leader? Would the outcome of the story be the same - or would have had a far different impression of all characters involved, and ultimately lead to a different narrative than the one we experienced in the game? One can imagine that Kernels are as such critical aspects of a narrative - that once they are modified, or event simply removed, the narrative in question can change in drastic ways. Identifying Kernels offers opportunities to not only picture how the stories we create can be different depending on the path we take in terms of decisions, and event outcomes - but it also offers a way for designers and writers to implementing branching narrative structures for instance.
Satellites on the other hand are seen as the events that come due to how Kernels have taken place. They can happen before, or after the Kernel that triggered them took place. One can view these as the events foreshadowing or as the consequences of Kernels. These are less critical than Kernels however - their existence is not necessarily critical to the narrative. Sticking to the possibility of the Stormcloaks attacking Helgen in Skyrim; we can imagine various satellites that could take place after those events - for instance, our character being invited to join the Stormcloaks by the newly-rescued Stormcloaks. Whether the player chooses to accept the invitation or not, the player will still be free to simply go roam free after the attack. The event does not necessarily dictate a major event in the narrative, but rather it is the consequence of the Stormcloaks being rescued by their brethren, similar to how the attack on Helgen by a dragon gave the Stormcloaks an opportunity to escape - until eventually the player is invited by an Imperial soldier, or a Stormcloak soldier to follow them to escape.
How can Kernels and Satellites be useful?
If you are a writer on your Game Development team - using Kernels could prove useful if the project has a branching narrative. It not only helps you as a writer visualise the situation that the characters are in and the world-state at any given time; but it can also help you communicate with your team on how to go about implementing the branching narrative into the game.
Especially if your game involves a high amount of branching paths, the narrative can get especially complex, Kernels offer a way to visualise these complexities. Satellites offer ways to add interest and content in-between Kernels. They help you plan possible content and encounters at various points in the game that help keep the narrative of the game present throughout the game-play. For instance - if we are aware that the player has just escaped from Helgen after a Stormcloak attack, we might add to the amount of Imperial patrols in the region, as they attempt to hunt down the Stormcloaks. Once the player reaches a new Kernel, we might decide that the previous Satellite has become irrelevant - and so we can disable the system related to that Satellite.
How to approach using Kernels and Satellites?
An approach to use Kernels and Satellites is shown in the provided diagram. As can be seen via the legend - squares represent Kernels, dots represent Satellites and the lines represent the narrative path that is taken based on the choice taken. As we can see - at Kernel A, we have 3 options on where the narrative can be taken based on the possibilities of that Kernel's major event. Each choice leads to a new Kernel which acts as another major event in the story-line. Satellites are dotted throughout the various narrative paths, these can represent foreshadowing events, and consequences of events for instance.
The diagram provided is a very simplistic representation of how Kernels and Satellites can be used. One can improve upon the diagram by indicating what Satellites represent foreshadowing events, or consequences. One may also list the relevant major events as labels to the Kernels rather than labelling them simply as shown. Depending on the Satellite or Kernel, one may list the relevant game systems that will be triggered or disabled.
If you would like to learn more about Seymour Chatman's work regarding Narrative Structures and Story, you can read Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. This publication also speaks of Kernels and Satellites - however it has a lot more potential relevant and useful information; for this post I chose to focus simply on Kernels and Satellites. I do hope this has given you an insightful look into how Kernels and Satellites can be useful in both the planning and structuring of your game's narrative, but also it's ability to assist in coordinating game systems, and communicate to team members key points in the game narrative!