The Common Structure of Stories and Its Classification
Some rough ideas while I was working on a new version control software (the ideas here are not related to the software though). I wish I could deduct new idea out of this but I don't think I can. Expect word salad.
The four structural levels of story
Currently all the stories (that I have ever read/experienced) can be classified into four levels.
Structure, plot, and plot structure
Here I use the word "plot" differently:
- The plot of a story is what the player actually experiences in sequence while consuming the story.
- The structure of the plot, or the plot structure, is the structure the plot receives from the structure of the story when the plot sequence was mapped back onto the story.
Each time the player experience a story from the beginning to the end, heshethey always experience events in a linear (chronological) manner (of course). To them, each time, the plot is strictly linear; but the structure of that experience, when mapped back to the structure of the story, can be non-linear.
I think I should introduce the concept of linearity (for stories of course, not maths) here:
- The linearity of a story refers to how strict the plot structure of a story conforms to a linear manner. The phrase "a linear manner" means the story (and the vesself of the story) has an explicit beginning and an explicit ending.
- A story is strictly linear when there's only one possible plot.
- A story is weakly linear when there's multiple (but definite) possible non-intersecting plot.
- A story is quasi-linear when there's intersection (most of the time, loops) in the story flow.
- Fixed-number loops in a quasi-linear story can be described as a weakly linear one with something I dubbed the "loop unwinding"; I consider this to be an encoding thing, and the fact that this is possible will not disqualify fixed-number loop stories from being considered quasi-linear.
- A story is non-linear when it satisfies none of the conditions above and there's no explicit ending.
Almost all stories have at least some kind of linearity (or else they wouldn't be called stories). The higher the levels, the lower the linearity.
Level 1 is the most common. Just plain old stories, from a beginning to an end.
Some examples of level-1 stories:
- Plain old fiction and non-fiction novels.
- Visual novels with no branching points (yes they exists).
A diagram illustrating the structure, plot and plot structure of a level 1 story.
A story is considered to be in level 2 when there are branching points within the story that leads to different plots. From level-2 onwards, the fact that some events depend on the previous occurence of other events - event dependency is introduced with the player's interactive selection.
Level 2 can be further divided into level 2a and level 2b.
A story is considered in level 2a when the plot structure is weakly linear but not strictly linear, e.g. there are branching points to which the overall plot depends.
A diagram illustrating the structure, plot and plot structure of a level 2a story.
A diagram illustrating the structure, plot and plot structure of a level 2a story. The linkage from END1 to Node 2 represents the action of reloading a savefile. Note that the act of save/load is not a part of the structure of the story unless it's explicitly taken advantage of, which means the plot structure is not (weakly) linear, making the story a level 2b story.
Some examples of level 2a stories:
- Visual novels that have branching points.
- "Choose Your Own Adventure" story books.
A story is considered in level 2b when the plot structure is not weakly linear but quasi-linear. Level 2b stories take advantages of plot devices and media mechanisms like time travel, save/load and New Game Plus (N周目 "N-shuume", lit. the N-th time in Japanese; mostly used is 二周目 the second time).
A diagram illustrating the use of New Game+. The box after Node 2 signifies that this is not an explicit branching point - it's an implicit one that depends on how many times you've completed the story.
A diagram illustrating the use of time travel. The Greek letters represent different timelines. The box at the end represents "changed future". As the plot diagram shows, fixed-time loops like this can be encoded into strict or weakly linear forms.
Some examples of level 2b stories:
- Ever17 (of course the well-known all-time classic. Haven't played it though.)
- Doki Doki Literature Club (?)
- Pretty much all "meta" visual novels exist on this level.
Level 3 & 4
Starting from level 3 the idea of "the main plot" begins to fade into unnecessity. Instead of one whole story, some people might argue this is A level-3 story is more like a bunch of inter-connected lower-level stories. The difference between level 3 and level 4 is that in a level 4 story event dependencies themselves can be freely dependent on other event dependencies.
Some examples of level 3 & level 4 stories:
- Pretty much all "open-world" games with side quests belong in level 3.
- Including text adventure games like Zork.
- Fallen London from Failbetter Games
- Minecraft (?)
Level Infinity (?)
Example of level-infinity stories:
- None, except for the real world.
Beyond the four levels
What would be the definitive characteristics of a level 5 (or 6, or 7, or 8, or...) story? Is it even possible to have such a story? To be honest I don't know; that's what I'm trying to find out by coming up with this whole "level" idea. I thought after arranging them this way I can find out the common principle and deduct higher-level stories (and media for such stories) from there, and now I think I may have failed.
But there's one idea I'm working on that may just be enough to be called a level 5 story.
Superimposed events: hyper-narrating and parallelism
When two events are superimposed one of the two things happens:
- Different (conceptual) places, same time.
- Same place, same time.
Parallelism: different places, same time
A diagram of a basic parallel structure. The player is on the `a` line, while the `b` line is happening independent of `a` *without the player knowing* until node X. Node X is the superimposition point, where the two storyline crosses: maybe the player did something that will affect the characters in the `b` line, maybe there's a global event independent from the will of the player. It could be used as a device for old-fashioned boy-meets-girl love story or something like "all hell breaks loose". The choice is yours.
Normally there should be mechanisms for players to peek or even switch into the
b line, or else it would just be a pretentious level 1 story.
Hyper-narrating: same place, same time
A diagram of a basic hyper-narrating structure. The nodes 2a, 2b and 2c happens in the same place & at the same time (same for node 4a and 4b).
To be honest, this is not that much about stories: I originally envisioned this as some kind of "smart e-Learning" thing where node 2a, 2b and 2c (and similarily node 4a & 4b) would be about the same topic but at different difficulty level.