1.An embedded narrative story is one that is entirely predetermined from the outset. No matter what the player does, the story plays out the same way every single time. Emergent narrative, however, changes based on the player’s decisions and actions. I don’t think one is any better than the other, but they do lend themselves to different styles of gameplay.
Dead Space is an example of a game with an “embedded narrative.” Every single time you play the game, the player must go to the same areas in the same order to experience the game. Every single playthrough, the same characters die at the same point in time and the same enemies are faced. There is some player decision with regards to which way to go (ie go left first or right first), but in no way does it influence the unfolding of the narrative.
Mass Effect and its sequel, on the other hand, are examples of a game with an “emergent narrative”. The way the story plays out is entirely dependent on what choices the player makes. Some characters may die in one playthrough or end up being the hero in another – it completely depends on the player choice.
2a.Narrative descriptors are what keep the player immersed in the game play and story. Something like dead space could be played with every enemy and character replaced with gray boxes inside of gray rooms, but it certainly wouldn’t convey the same story and it could hardly be considered the same game. While cutscenes may explicitly tell the narrative of the story itself, the narrative descriptors, such as music and art direction, within the gameplay are what tie the cutscenes together and keep the player within the narrative world.
b.Games without narrative descriptors often feel as though they have no story. I feel that there are few games nowadays like this. Pong, for example, has no narrative descriptors. There is no attempt to make the graphics or world into anything specific. Geometry Wars, similarly, doesn’t skin the shapes into anything specific or tell a story with the graphics or sounds that it presents.
c.Narrative descriptors justify and can imply operational and constitutive rules. The narrative descriptors give the designer a reason to do something. Rather than say “this gray box produces balls that fly at you and cause damage”, it can now be justified and made more interesting with “the tank is shooting at you.”
3a.Cutscenes can, depending on the player, add or detract from the gameplay. “Core” gamers will often skip them while new players will watch them to gain more context. This means that the designer cannot rely on the player having seen them and should allow the story to grow within the context of gameplay. Having cutscenes certainly isn’t bad, because it can add something extra to the story if the player so desires, but to a player, any time watching a cutscene is time not playing the game.
b.I personally am on the fence about the proper use of cutscenes. On one hand, they take the player’s control away and out of the game environment completely and make them stop everything to watch a movie. On the other, a cinematic can add a lot that can’t be had within a game. Powerful frame composition and dynamic angles can add a lot to a moment in the narrative, but these story elements often cannot be incorporated into gameplay.
In game story telling can work really well, however. Games like Dead Space and Half-Life 2 allow the story to unfold while the player is still in control, which is really nice. One thing that I hate about cinematics is that I lose the feeling of control that is inherent in games. My feeling is that cinematics should only be used when a narrative story element cannot be conveyed through ingame story telling.