Instructional games work best when there is a narrative that provides the learner with the proper context for the learning that needs to take place. Narrative or story is the element that propels a learner toward a goal as well as sets the parameters for what the learner should focus upon during the instructional experience.
Narrative typically has a situation which is a series of events that unfold over time. In a game, the time frame is usually compressed so that something that typically takes a year might only be 5 minutes of game play.
Next there are characters. The characters should represent the learner in some way so the learner can identify with the characters in the story and see themselves learning or performing the correct tasks as is modeled within the game environment. The characters that do something undesirable should be played by characters the learner would not want to become.
Stories then have a plot, something happens. These are the elements that move the learner from a point of unknown to the point of knowing or realizing new knowledge. The elements of the story are either emergent–meaning the elements are a result of what the learner does within the context of the game to drive the story or pre-determined which means that the elements are pre-generated and the learner’s actions triggers that element or part of the story. For example, a branching simulation has many pre-generated decision points. A virtual world role-play with people acting as different characters in a digital role-play may have many opportunities for emergent story progression within the confines of the stated scenario.
The story will take place in some type of fictional world which will both inform and be shaped by the narrative. Story events will help expand the fictional world while the world will serve, in some ways, to constrict the action and movements within the fictional world. (this is like having a wall in a video game at the edge of a space to keep the player confined to the world and to keep the world manageable by the game developer.)
Think of an instructional game as a narrative system in which the experience of the leaner arises from interacting with the fictional world, associated characters, the plot of the game and the rules and mechanics that are associated with the game play. Finally, the narrative system has to move the learner toward both the game goal as well as the instructional goal.