Narbs: Creating bite-sized meaning in your games

Narbs. Narrative bits of the digitally communicated narrative. Post a picture that confirms your love for English Blue cats on Facebook. Or your latest achievement on DomiNation. The school you went to and that 1992 class photo you’re tagged in. Your entire work history on LinkedIn. Your esthetic preferences, all laid out on Pinterest. The blog posts you did about playing Bioshock Infinite. Your tweets about Game of Thrones. Your star ratings on the Appstore and your reviews on Amazon. All of those bits of text and images about you, connected to you, and scattered across the digital landscape of social media. When you add them all up and collate them into a character, you get a remarkably, and perhaps disturbingly, crystal clear picture of...you! In ‘narbs’, the social media industry has offered a term that best encapsulates the next stage in the maturation of video game storytelling. Before diving into how narbs in games, it’s important to address how the games industry ancestor, television, has used narbs in their mise-en-scene to add deeper levels of context and meaning to narratives. But even before that, let’s hone in on this definition of narbs for a moment.


[caption id="attachment_44570" align="alignleft" width="150"]44568_Inline_01 Professor Ananda Mitra[/caption] The term ‘narbs’ was first coined in 2010 by Professor Ananda Mitra and his team at Wake Forest University. Through narb analysis, they created an information mining tool that enables you to construct individual profiles of media users. Narbs are little bits of narrative, of ‘story’. Fragments of information that are almost meaningless in isolation. But when you start to connect them and build them into a digital collage, a person emerges. From the narbs they’ve created, whether they are comments, photos or links, we can intuit their food, pet, fashion and sexual preferences. We gain insight into the events that they like to go to, the type of people they are likely to associate with, their political and religious leanings. We can tell if they’re an employee or a freelancer, gamer or a fitness freak, a fashionista or a Trekkie, a neo-nazi or an environmentalist. All we need to do is gather up those narbs, those trace elements of the story, and put them together into a character profile. Through narbs, you can come to really ‘know’ a person.

Narbs in TV drama

At least in the social media sense, we’re digitizing ourselves at breakneck speed. [caption id="attachment_44571" align="alignright" width="150"]44568_Inline_02 Game of Thrones' Arya Stark.
Image owned by HBO.[/caption] But how do narbs work in a storytelling sense? In a TV drama series like HBO’s Game of Thrones, for instance. Oh, and I’m sorry if you haven’t watched the first three seasons of Game of Thrones yet. There will be spoilers! Character action, dialog and, most importantly, mise-en-scene. The first two are relatively self-explanatory. What a character does and says informs us of who they are. Arya Stark is capable of killing. She drives her Needle through the throat of The Tickler, in a calm moment of cold-blooded murder. And she does this to avenge her friend, Lommy, whom The Tickler killed in the same fashion. What can we conclude from these two separate events? Arya Stark will kill out of friendship and loyalty. She has a strong, even black and white, sense of right and wrong. And that she’s not one to let empathy get in the way of justice. Here’s a sequence of events that tell us more about Arya’s character:
  • The Tickler kills Arya’s friend, Lommy.
  • Arya recites The Tickler’s name as part of her nightly ‘vengeance list’.
  • Arya kills the Tickler.
These are all narbs, bits of Arya’s character that can be difficult to interpret in isolation, but when put together can paint a clear picture of Arya’s beliefs and abilities. Let’s take a microscope to these moments, just to make it all brutally clear.
  • Arya befriending Lommy means Arya is capable of human connection, of friendship. This backs up what we already knew about Arya from her warm relationship with her half-brother, John Snow.
But there are narbs galore floating about Arya Stark, so let’s stay focused on the examples at hand.  
  • When Arya befriends Lommy, it tells us Arya is capable of friendship with a broad range of individuals from all walks of life.
  • After Arya gets upset when The Tickler murders Lommy by driving his sword through Lommy’s throat, she adds The Tickler to her ‘vengeance list’. This tells us Arya has a strong sense of justice that goes beyond her family. She believes that everyone, no matter their station, should be treated with compassion.
  • Arya is reciting her ‘vengeance list’ every night before sleep, which means she’s extremely determined. She’s also capable of dehumanizing people and reducing them to a name on a hit list.
  • When Arya kills The Tickler by driving her sword through the Tickler’s throat, we learn Arya is capable of murder in the name of justice. She’s dehumanized The Tickler in her mind, so she doesn’t feel she’s killing a man as much as she’s executing a monster. And the fact that she does so in exactly the same manner that The Tickler killed Lommy shows that Arya’s sense of justice is quite poetic.
In total, we’re talking about less than ten minutes of screen time that, through combined dialog and action narbs, provides us with a deep understanding of who Arya Stark is.

Mise-en-scene in TV

[caption id="attachment_44572" align="alignnone" width="800"]The Lannisters crest. Image owned by HBO. The red in the Lannister's crest helps portray their wealth and power.
Image owned by HBO.[/caption] Mise-en-scene is a term that covers everything we see on-screen such as costumes, landscapes, lighting, props and sets. For an example of mise-en-scene, let’s take a look at the Lannisters of Casterly Rock. The Lannisters are a family who define themselves by power and money. Power is represented for the Lannisters primarily through the color red. Their banner is a golden lion on a field of red. Their soldiers wear red cloaks and armor and the main characters are often seen wearing red in one way or another. And red’s association with power? Apart from the sheer visual weight of all the red that’s associated with a strong military and influential characters, the Iron Throne of Westeros is situated within the Red Keep. In the world of Game of Thrones, red is an environmental narb that denotes everything Lannister. Even in the much-repeated song, The Rains of Castamere, red is prominent. “In a coat of gold or a coat of red, a lion still has claws.” Which brings me to the other prominent Lannister color: Gold. Gold is literally the source of their power. Thanks to their gold mines, the Lannisters have risen to be the wealthiest family in Westeros. They’re always waving their cash around, solving any number of problems with bags of gold coins. But the visual connections are much stronger than that. For example, the golden lion on the Lannister banner, the golden hair of the Queen (and later Queen Mother) Cersei Lannister, King Joffrey’s golden hair and the golden crown of the realm. There’s also the Gold Cloaks, the military force that polices King’s Landing and the golden filigree on the armor of the Kingsguard. Once again, a color links the Lannisters to the Crown, to the highest power in the land. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Lannisters look more at home as the ruling family of Westeros than anyone else. They match the decor. Through little pieces of action and dialog, fragments of story and meaning, Game of Thrones manages to express the deepest characteristics of Arya Stark. And through color, displayed in a plethora of differing ways, Game of Thrones establishes the presence and fundamental philosophies of the powerful Lannister family. Behaviour narbs. Verbal narbs. Environmental narbs. Thousands of pieces of information that form together to create meaning and drama.

Narbs and mise-en-scene in games

[caption id="attachment_44573" align="alignleft" width="350"]44568_Inline_04 The dawn of visual storylines.
Image owned by Nintendo.[/caption] The games industry is still pretty young when compared to the TV industry. And in-game storytelling is even younger. To many, the beginning of a visual storyline came in 1981 when Donkey Kong smirked at Mario’s demise and Pauline (Mario’s girlfriend) yells “HELP!” in a classic ‘rescue the damsel’ situation. And that’s pretty much the sum of the story. Consider that The Greatest American Hero, Hill Street Blues, Dynasty, The Smurfs and Danger Mouse all started in 1981, and you have a pretty clear indication of the relative maturity of video game storytelling versus television storytelling at that time. We’ve only been telling stories in games for 34 years! So now that the games industry is producing rich narrative tales like The Last of Us, The Walking Dead and the Assassin’s Creed series, it’s safe to say that we’ve done a pretty good ‘catch up’ job. Yet while those three titles are indicative of the heights of video game narrative, they are still fundamentally linear, cinematically heavy experiences. You could argue they’re almost more of an ‘interactive television series’ than a video game. They fail to capture the true experiential nature of video games because they have yet to break down the wall that stands between narrative and gameplay. A player shouldn’t have to stop playing for any longer than a few moments in order to absorb the narrative. It’s even better if they don’t have to stop playing at all! And that’s where narbs come in. Narrative bits that can be absorbed and digested with minimal interference to the gameplay. Narrative bits can be pieced together with their full meanings becoming apparent as they’re placed in context with other narbs. As the player experiences the gameplay and explores the game, they’re also exploring the narrative and experiencing the story. And they’re doing it through an almost investigative process. Such a technique activates the player from passive audience to empowered detective.

Creating a story experience with narbs

Let’s get a bit more concrete about how narbs can be used to create a ‘story experience’ by looking at a game whose design was headed in the right direction: Bioshock Infinite. Warning, another spoiler alert! Bioshock Infinite is by no means a perfect example of narbs. After all, if there were a perfect example then there’d be no need for this article! You’d just need to play The Perfect Example. [caption id="attachment_44575" align="alignnone" width="800"]44568_Inline_05 Father Comstock offers plenty of verbal narbs in Bioshock Infinate.
Image owned by Take Two Interactive.[/caption] So let’s look at how Bioshock Infinite uses verbal narbs to establish an atmosphere of religious zealotry and prejudice.
"God forgives everything. But I'm just a prophet, so I don't have to." - Zachary H. Comstock
In the one line, the arch-villain, Comstock, establishes his fundamental hypocrisy. He’s built a city, Columbia, on the joint principles of ‘righteousness’ and ‘selfishness’. And this attitude is reflected in all of the ambient dialogue throughout Columbia. NPCs express their reverence for God and Comstock whilst succinctly expressing their condescension of women and their distaste for African-Americans, the Irish, Native Americans and anyone else who fails to live up to their middle-class, Anglo-Saxon ideals. Most of this dialogue is activated automatically as you approach NPCs, is seldom more than a couple of lines long, and don’t affect your player agency at all. You can pause to listen or you can move on. It’s up to you. There’s plenty of behavioral narbs in Bioshock Infinite as well. Two of the most striking examples are the shooting gallery and the public humiliation of a mixed-race couple at the Columbia Raffle Fair. In the shooting gallery, you use an airgun to shoot Vox Populi revolutionaries, a salient example of how Columbia dehumanizes its cultural under-classes. At the public humiliation, you have the option of throwing a baseball at a bound and publicly ridiculed mixed-race couple. In both cases, the player can become part of the Columbia’s culture of hatred, albeit temporarily. [caption id="attachment_44576" align="alignnone" width="800"]44568_Inline_06 Environmental narbs are strong in Bioshock Infinate.
Image owned by Take Two Interactive.[/caption] But environmental narbs are by far the most prevalent and effective of narrative bits in Bioshock Infinite. Everywhere in Columbia, statues, flags and symbology reinforce the adoration of God, Comstock, George Washington, and the supremacy of the Anglo-American. By contrast, the household of the Order of the Raven is rich with the imagery of white supremacy, from a rug emblazoned with the slogan ‘Protecting Our Race’, to large oil paintings that demonize Abraham Lincoln. There’s the clean, beautiful, light-filled upper levels of Columbia where the Anglo-Americans reside and the grimy, poverty-stricken lower levels where the Blacks, Irish and Chinese live. The automaton Patriots that you fight come in two flavors: George Washington for ‘white’ Columbia and Abraham Lincoln for the Vox Populi. The racial divisions are even color coded, with Columbia’s police and military donning blue and white, while red and black are the colors of the Vox Populi revolutionaries. Almost every element of the mise-en-scene is designed to reinforce the themes of racial division and cultural zealotry.  

What’s next for you?

Narbs allow you to design game narratives that move beyond the limits of linear, television storytelling. You can apply jigsaw storytelling approaches to your game design, scattering your narbs and your story pieces throughout your games. Then your players can pick them up, absorb their meanings and piece them together with other narbs to create larger meanings and more in-depth moments of understanding. Piece by piece, narb by narb, they actively create their own overarching narrative that is grown organically from your player’s interpretations and moments of epiphany. When designing jigsaw narratives that are made up of carefully placed narbs, you’re not treating your players like passive audience members. Instead, you’re making them empowered agents as their own detective of story. Just as it’s up to your players to conquer the challenges of the gameplay, it’s up to your players to gather narbs together and absorb their meaning through assembly and interpretation. Ultimately, once all the pieces have been slotted back together, one player will have the same, complete jigsaw puzzle and the same conclusion as any other player. We’re not talking about divergent pathways and multiple endings. But each player will have reached that jigsaw puzzle image through a different sequence, a different series of insights and epiphanies, a different path to understanding. A personalized journey. Narbs empower us, as game narrative designers, to embrace and create story experiences. Narratives that your players can genuinely play with. Gameplay is about activity, experience, learning and achievement. There’s no reason why game story shouldn’t be the same.