Do Game Players Tell, or Create, Stories?

Part and parcel of any course on game studies – and by extension something that I guess should be mentioned in an uncourse on the same subject – is the argument between narratologists and ludologists on the role of story in games. (Some authors include a third critical position, that of commentators who view games as a form of interactive fiction; for example, “Definition of Videogames”, Grant Tavinor, 2008).

As I understand it, the narratologists were claimed to take the view that video, or computer, games can be described in much the same way that films can be described – as cultural artefacts that are constructed by their designers/producers to tell a particular story. Under this view, it is hard, though not impossible, for the casual observer to interpret the story that puzzle games such as Tetris or Bejewelled, for example, are supposed to tell…

On the other hand, the ludologists’ were seen as approaching games from the point of view of critical analysis, taking a view in which players immerse themselves within the game world that exists within the magic circle of the game. The players’ interactions with the rules of the game and the other players drive the evolution of the game (rather than any narrative the designer may have tried to impose on the game, for example).

(The interactive fiction camp seems to me to distinguish itself further by taking the view that the player engages in some sort of fictional world and plays out their own story within that world at a ‘higher’ level than just engaging with the rules. That is, they play out a story in the game world, conforming to socially accepted norms of behaviour, for example, or plausible, self-styled narrative scenarios, rather than consciously playing the game out against its predefined rules.)

One widely quoted article on the debate was penned by ludologist Jesper Juul in 1998, and is well worth a read: “ A Clash between Game and Narrative

However, in more recent years, the narratologist vs. ludologist debate is perhaps seen as wearing a bit thin, and maybe even a non-story – “Ludologists love stories, too: notes from a debate that never took place“.

Even Juul felt obliged to write on the matter in 2005:

Especially a few years ago there was a real need to take on the automatic narrativism that was floating around. I think we have wasted perhaps 25% of our research and made impossible perhaps 50% of the student projects the last 5 years due to an unhealthy obsession with narratives. If we had just talked about “player experiences” rather than trying to square the circle, we would have been much better off. [N&L: I Can’t Take it Anymore!]

This refrain is repeated in Adams and Rollings “Game Design and Development”Fundamentals of Game Design“:

In the 1990s, the academic community began to consider the issue [of what 'interactive storytelling' actually means] and drew their own battle lines. The narratologists conducted fierce and often impenetrable arguments with the ludologists in the learned pages of scholarly journals. …
These interesting and sometimes important arguments may eventually change the industry, but in the meantime you need to build a game. We suggest that you be guided by … player-centric design. Don’t worry about the theoretical arguments, Build a story into your game if you believe it will help entertain the player, and don’t build one in if it won’t.

This approach may seem a little cynical, but Adams and Rollings book - subtitled Fundamentals of Game Design - is very much intended as providing a sound set of principles for designers and developers of games, rather than critical theorists. That said, the critical approach may at times uncover certain principles that are useful to game designers.

A more detailed critique of the debate can be found in the online Game Studies journal article Narrative, Games, and Theory by Jan Simons.

Read the first two sections of Simons’ article, bearing in mind the following questions as you do so: what distinction is made between “external observers” and “involved players”, and how do their perspectives of how a story may be told, or revealed, by a game differ? What does Simons mean by agency and how is this perceived differently by the players and observers of a game?

Picking up on Juul’s “N&L: I Can’t Take it Anymore!” post, games researcher Lars Konzack comments in a post on the Ludologica blog with the practical point that:

What we need to understand is that neither the narratologist nor the ludologist perspective is actually focusing on fiction. They are in fact discussing which structure comnputer games essentially are based upon, arguing whether or not it is a narrative structure or a ludic structure.

… Games are based on a ludic structure, but may couple this with a narrative structure as we see in quest-based interactive narratives like adventure games or action-adventure games.

We ought to first analyse the structure of any game as a ludic structure and if there is narrative, we ought to analyse the narrative structure as well. These two kinds of structures or not opposites and any attempt at trying to think of them as an essential dichotomy is a failiure.

So that’s the ludologist and narratologist views accommodated. But how about the interactive fiction camp? Konzack writes further: “… [N]arrative is not the same as fiction. Fiction is often based upon a narrative structure. But fiction might likewise be based on a ludic structure as we find in many strategy games and lots of war games.”

Find somewhere to jot down down two or three points each to characterise the ludologist, narratologist and interactive fiction stances towards the storytelling structure of an interactive computer game. To what extent do you agree with Konzack’s conclusion that “[a]ny game has a ludic structure and some game has a narrative structure as well. Fiction may be based upon a narrative and/or ludic structure.”

Phew… that’s enough academic debate for now, real or imagined… but not the end of the story about stories in games. In future posts, we’ll consider how stories can be told, and what the role of the game writer is in designing games that tell stories howsoever they do…

[If you're someone who does Game Studies "for real", please feel free to pick up on, take issue with and correct any of the above... :-)]

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5 Responses to “Do Game Players Tell, or Create, Stories?”


  1. 1 Ernest Adams March 31, 2008 at 10:55 pm

    Interesting collection of observations, and I look further to your future comments. I have nothing to add to the discussion, only a correction to make. The name of Andrew Rollings’ and my book IS “Fundamentals of Game Design.” It is part of a book series by Prentice Hall entitled “Game Design and Development,” but owing to a badly-designed cover, many people mistake the series name for the book title. Our book is only about design and does not address development issues (e.g. staffing, budgeting, project planning, asset management, etc.).

  2. 2 Barry April 1, 2008 at 11:48 am

    “If you’re someone who does Game Studies “for real”, please feel free to pick up on, take issue with and correct any of the above… :-)]”

    I doubt anyone wants to go there… But I will say that the division has always struck me as weird. I make little games (with GM) for my own amusement and to serve occasional pedagogic functions. I don’t think any of them have any story worth speaking of. And yet I would guess I would be shoved in the category of a naratologist. To claim, as Henry Jenkins does, that some games tell stories, doesn’t seem much of a big deal to me — that some academics chose to focus on those games and that storytelling invited a debate about disciplinary formation that is the backstory to what you chart above.

    And I wouldn’t know how to answer the questions you pose above — I really don’t think there ever were meaningful ‘narratological stances’ towards games, just a disparate group of academics using various methodologies and schema from all over the place to look at games in their own way.

    And I don’t remember anyone worth reading simply dumping film analysis on a game.

    I am watching this develop with interest and not a little envy, and enjoying it, so thanks for being so public with the experiment.

  3. 3 Tony Hirst April 2, 2008 at 10:30 am

    Ernest – thanks for the correction. I would normally have fact checked, but when I tried to link to Live booksearch, it was down… I should have used Google books or Amazon instead, but I was pushed for time…

    Barry – “And I don’t remember anyone worth reading simply dumping film analysis on a game.”
    Wouldn’t it be possible to apply film criticism to cutscenes (though I suspect most film critics would see these as not worthy of comment, a bit like music videos, I guess?) How about people commenting on the ‘cinematography’ of game design? ( http://books.google.com/books?isbn=9781584503088 ); or does that lie outside the mainstream tradition of film criticism?)

    As games become used as film sets for machinima (another thing on my to-post-about list), then viewing the game player as auteur presumably brings film criticism into play? (I’m not there in the blog storyline yet, so maybe best to leave that question hanging for a while…?!;-)

  4. 4 Tony Hirst October 22, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    For some “educational listening” on the topic of storytelling in games, you might find the following lecture by Steve Meretzky interesting [via MIT Opencourseware - http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Comparative-Media-Studies/CMS-610Spring-2006/Readings/ ]

    http://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/CMS/CMS.610/S06/OCW_CMS-610_2006-03-16_with_IP_SlateMono.mp3 [MP3 download]

  5. 5 Dicon May 18, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    For some “educational listening” on the topic of storytelling in games, you might find the following lecture by Steve Meretzky interesting [via MIT Opencourseware - http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Comparative-Media-Studies/CMS-610Spring-2006/Readings/ ]

    Book not found.


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