Sunday, December 19, 2010

Narrative needs more than gameplay

So before reading today's blog post, I'll direct everyone to watch this video.

Done? Okay, now I have to say that I pretty much disagree wholeheartedly with their argument.

Admittedly I was fairly young when I played missile command - I believe I actually played one of its clones on a BBC Micro rather than the original game itself, but the mechanics were exactly the same. Now, the creator might have intended the game to be a reflection on the futility of nuclear war, and impart the gravity of the situation on the player, but I didn't get it at all. And funnily enough, I could go back now and have exactly the same reaction. If that was the intention of the creator, then all credit to him, but I'm afraid it didn't work.

As far as I was concerned, I was protecting moon bases from being blown up from alien attack. There was no moral dilemma inherent in the game of me deciding between whether to sacrifice the lives of the few versus the many or protecting civilians versus missiles bases. The game for me was reduced entirely to an arbitrary defense game that had no grave moral implications or story, and certainly didn't make me go away feeling emotionally beaten at the harsh reality of fighting a losing battle. I typically came away frustrated because I'd lost or failed to shoot down a particular incoming missile. That was it. Any stress or tension was only borne out of the mechanics themselves rather than any narrative behind them.

I don't argue that narrative can't be assisted by gameplay mechanics, but I would argue that it is impossible to provide good narrative solely through gameplay mechanics. Gameplay does not tell a story, it allows a player to tell their own story - which may be vastly different from the story that the designers had in mind. Obviously there were vast technical limitations in Missile Command's day that meant that it wasn't possible to deliver the same level of storytelling that we can today. But could we read a similiar amount of story into Asteroids? Geometry Wars? How about Minesweeper?

I maintain it is not possible to deliver a consistent narrative purely through mechanics. Without some supporting evidence, creator is providing a framework for interpretation, not a narrative. What is the narrative of The Mona Lisa? Or the Venus de Milo? How about a photograph of Omaha Beach?

This might tell a story, but a different story for everyone

If a "narrative" is delivered by gameplay alone, the designer is not telling a story, they are letting the player tell their own story - and this is an important distinction. While the latter situation could potential make the player feel more involved in the game because they're using their imagination to make it more personal, this is not because of the designer's skill in delivering narrative - because that's exactly what they aren't doing. A designer can't tell a consistent story without stating some things explicitly.

A player can fill in a lot of gaps in a story, and generally when the player is told less about a story within a game they'll "fill in the blanks" more between the pieces of the story they are told. The human brain loves stories, and likes to string events together using them, but in order for this to happen the players must be told some story. This must be done if the designer wants a solid and consistent narrative to be delivered to their audience. Without any sort of explicit narrative, the player is just playing a game to achieve goals rather than as part of a story or more cohesive experience, which I'd contend is just about as far away from art as one can get.


  1. I think you're equating "narrative" with "story" and as technical terms, they aren't the same. Narrative is a sequence of events, whereas story is a realization of those sequence of events in a particular way, focussing on character, dialogue, setting and so forth. In this way, a lot of what you say is true. The designer sets up a narrative for them to frame their own story around.

    The other problem you fall into was addressed by postmodernist thought (particularly literary theory) last century. You seem to suggest that there is a single story from a single text that a player must experience, and that story is the one specified by the designer. Even in something totally (traditionally) noninteractive as books, this is false. Whatever the designer intended is completely secondary to what the reader reads. Art is the engagement of the art object with a viewer and whatever comes out, comes out. The designer can try to bias it in some way, but they have no control over the result. Not only can a viewer fill in what hasn't been explicitly stated, but they can interpret what *is* in whatever way they like and the designer has no say in it. In this way the narrative is concrete, but the story is malleable.

  2. Fair points. If narrative is technically defined as nothing more than a series of events, then I guess it is possible to create narrative from gameplay alone. However, I've never got the impression that this is what Extra Credits believes is "narrative", particularly not when it comes to games.

    As for the "single story" syndrome, I may have come across a little heavy there. I'm all for allowing the reader/viewer/player leeway in terms of their interpretation of the story. In fact, I think it's a great thing. But if the slate is so open that the entire context of the story can be removed or adjusted entirely, then surely this weakens the story? Imagine if every story was so open that you felt as though you could say "then he woke up and it was all just a dream" at the end? The impact of the story would be lost in a great many cases.

    I don't disagree that players can and should be allowed to have their own interpretations of a story; countless debates about endings or character motivations or actions demonstrate without doubt that such ambiguity is a good thing. My argument is that gameplay mechanics alone can't deliver this, though they definitely can do a lot to augment storytelling within a game.

  3. First:
    I think the difference between story and narrative isn't related with the topic here. And it help only to get confused.

    Just to be simple. A story is an experience lived (in their minds) by the players (also readers and others, but I want to focus on Videogames).
    A story could be communicated in many kind of ways.

    About the statement: "gameplay mechanics alone can't deliver this [a story]".
    I'm doubtful.
    I mean gameplay alone surely can. Defend the moon from alien invaders IS a story. Delivered by graphics, without words.
    Maybe you mean to say that it's not compelling enough, and I can agree with this.

    "But in order for this to happen the players must be told some story."
    In writing there's the rule "Show don't tell". And I think is appliable (with some alteration) also in videogames.
    Plain narrative can be used, but it's more boring.


    Graphics can deliver a story (for example can show the character social class).
    Gameplay can deliver a story (for example can show the character motivation to defend the moon).
    Dialogues can deliver a story (don't abuse this :p, otherwise it goes to plain narrative).

    And all three of these can be melted. Graphics can be melted to gamplay and deliver a story, and the same is for dialogues.
    I think that, yes, it's not a mistake to use dialogues alone, or graphics alone. Such as a really nice view doesn't need to be tied to the gameplay. The same for the story-dialogues or story-alone-events.

    But I think is better to melt them with gameplay.