Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

"Death of the Protagonist": Scripting Decentralised Narratives in Game Engine-Enabled Broadcast Media

  Luke Skarth-Hayley (2018 cohort)   www.lukeskarth.com


Broadcast narrative media is predominantly linear in presentation. Even with temporally non-linear scenes, their order as presented to the viewer is fixed and authored. In addition, most narrative media features a protagonist whose viewpoint guides the presentation and provides the “critical path” through the story. While linearity and a protagonist can serve as useful anchor-points in narratives, they may also limit opportunities for alternative modes of storytelling form and presentation.

The “death of the protagonist” – removing the need for a primary character whose actions and perspective are key to the story, relates to Barthes’s notion of, “the death of the author” [9]. As with the death of the author decoupling the text from the author and their intentions, so too it might be possible to decouple the in-narrative intentions of a central protagonist from the narrative itself, presenting a panoply of characters, each of whom might serve as the “protagonist” to a given viewer who chooses to follow them. This relates also to Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding [10], with narrative tied to the interpretation of viewer and audience, directly manifesting the viewer’s interpretation through their choices in which characters to follow and their understanding of the events they witness.

Video games are a vital medium in the 21st century [1]. Many use game engines: software frameworks and toolsets that accelerate their production. Game engines are increasingly used in film and television – such as the Storm Florence simulation [2] – and in academia for simulations, experiments and studies [3]. BBC R&D wants to use game engines for new forms of broadcast entertainment, as part of their Render Engine Broadcasting (REB) initiative [4], [5], in part in response to the loss of engagement with under-35s [6].

Game engines are particularly capable in simulating physical spaces. Taking influence from the walking simulator genre [7], and immersive theatre [8], there are forms and presentational formats at the intersection of film, television, theatre and games that break with linear, fixed presentation, and the anchoring of narrative to a protagonist.

This research will examine how game engines can be used to decentralise narrative form, removing the need for a central protagonist, and presenting it in a spatial context. This will be achieved by reviewing relevant existing research, critically analysing existing narrative media attempting similar approaches, speaking with subject-matter experts in related fields, building scriptwriting and production tools which integrate with game engines, and creating a prototype or technology probe of a decentralised experience to examine with users.

Research Questions

  1. How can decentralised narrative be formalised in a descriptive theoretical framework?

  2. Can the spatial simulation of game engines be leveraged in support of implementing decentralised narrative, and how is such a narrative presented?

  3. What modes of presence, agency and interaction are available to the viewer, and what is the “work” [11], [12] required of viewers to decode [10] and parse decentralised narratives?

  4. How can viewer journeys through the experience and their personal data feed into this and provide meaningful input to narrative design and production?


[1] “The games industry in numbers | Ukie,” The Associate for UK Interactive Entertainment, 2018. [Online]. Available: https://ukie.org.uk/research. [Accessed: 17-Nov-2018].

[2] B. Barrett, “How the Weather Channel Made That Insane Hurricane Florence Storm Surge Animation,” Wired, 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.wired.com/story/weather-channel-hurricane-florence-storm-surge-graphic/. [Accessed: 17-Nov-2018].

[3] S. D. Moffat, A. B. Zonderman, and S. M. Resnick, “Age differences in spatial memory in a virtual environment navigation task,” Neurobiol. Aging, vol. 22, no. 5, pp. 787–796, Sep. 2001.

[4] “Object-Based Media - BBC R&D.” [Online]. Available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/rd/object-based-media. [Accessed: 20-Feb-2019].

[5] “Multiplayer Broadcasting - BBC R&D,” 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/rd/projects/multiplayer-broadcasting. [Accessed: 19-Nov-2018].

[6] Z. Murphy, “Beyond 800 Words: What User Testing Taught Me About Writing News for Young People - BBC R&D,” BBC R&D Blog, 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/rd/blog/2018-12-news-user-testing-young-people. [Accessed: 24-Feb-2019].

[7] D. Pinchbeck, “Dear Esther: An Interactive Ghost Story Built Using the Source Engine,” in Joint International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, 2008, pp. 51–54.

[8] Punchdrunk, “The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable — Punchdrunk,” 2013. [Online]. Available: https://www.punchdrunk.org.uk/the-drowned-man/. [Accessed: 31-Jan-2019].

[9] R. Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image, music, text, London: Fontana, 1977, pp. 142–148.

[10] S. Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” in Culture, Media, Language, S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Love, and P. Willis, Eds. London: Hutchinson, 1980, pp. 128–138.

[11] P. Koutsouras, S. Martindale, and A. Crabtree, “The ludic takes work,” in The 15th European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, 2017, pp. 1–17.

[12] S. Reeves, B. Brown, and E. Laurier, “Experts at Play,” Games Cult., vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 205–227, Jul. 2009.

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (RCUK Grant No. EP/L015463/1) and BBC.