Games, stories and narrative

Judging from Nicholas Lovell’s recent Twitter conversation about stories in games, many developers are split on whether or not games should focus on storytelling.

My own feeling on this matter is that games are not always about stories, but they do all have narratives, as do all other systems and designed objects. Narratives are accounts, recordings and portrayals of ideas about the world. They are often motivated, reflecting the interests of the people who have the most power within the relevant network of people and objects.

For example, let’s say you were comparing two different texts on the reproductive system. One of them explains that the sperm are competing for dominance inside the body of their female host, and that the strongest one will swim the fastest, survive the hostile conditions of the womb, and finally succeed in penetrating the recalcitrant walls of the egg. Another explains that the female reproductive system actually releases chemicals that siren the strongest sperm towards the egg. Both texts describe the same system, and the difference between them is their narrative. Perhaps we might discover that these texts were written at different times by different writers – the first written by an all-male team of science educators a few decades ago, the second written more recently, with writers perhaps acquainted with feminist sociologists of science. I don’t know, as I’m just referencing an off-hand example given by someone else. But that’s the sort of issue you get into when thinking about narrative.

A system itself can have a narrative. PC file systems have a narrative that valorises order, created through the metaphor of an office filing system. It’s hard to imagine PCs having any other system, so at first it seems unlikely that this is a deliberately designed structure that carries its own narrative. However, two things demonstrate that this system is heavily weighed down by the narrative of order and organisation. One is the omission of such a system from user interface of the leisure-targeted iPad. Another is the startling reality that hard disk drives need to be ‘defragmented’ as part of routine maintenance – although the file system displays all the data as if it were neatly organised into folders and sub-folders, the data is in fact scattered across the disk haphazardly. The chaotic reality of computing is concealed by the narrative of operating system design. This is an important narrative to portray if you want your expensive technology to appear trustworthy and professional.

Neither operating systems nor texts explaining the reproductive system are storytelling media. Stories are, as far as I’m concerned, a different matter entirely to narrative. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end; it features a plot, setting and characters; it’s something that is told to you by a person through some medium of communication. Stories are just one way of portraying a narrative. Not all games have stories, but all games do have narratives.

My own opinion is that narrative is far more subtle and flexible than story. Let’s say you want to make a game that portrays a Marxist narrative. You could do it through storyline, perhaps retelling the Chinese ballet ‘The red detachment of women’ in a series of cut scenes within a strategy RPG. It might be fun – my own relationship with video games began with Final Fantasy, and I always looked forward to the next FMV sequence. Would it be a remarkable example of the narrative potential of video games? No. Another thing you could do is take a look at how capitalist narrative is embedded in video game systems (such as fictional economics) and find ways to subvert and undo it in your own game. It would be subtle, but it might be more convincing – it would certainly be more creative.

I could just end the post here, having left you with an proposed distinction about narrative and story. But here’s the problem; if game developers consider narrative and story to be the same thing, how far is my distinction even relevant? As a critique, this kind of pedantic splitting of hairs is sometimes instructive, but as a description of what games are, it misses the point. Games should not be defined outside of the network in which they were created. If game developers conflate story and narrative, then for all intents and purposes, story and narrative might be the same thing in game design.

The tricky point here is that questions like ‘are games about story’ might not simply be descriptive. The context here is that Nicholas was asking for opinions as background to his talk to TV executives making decisions about what projects to put their support behind. ‘Are games about story’ is not a descriptive question here – it’s a normative one. In which case, criticism does have a role. From a critical point of view, my answer would be that narrative is always relevant, and really great work in game design never shoe-horns in a story without exploring other ways of embedding narrative.

6 thoughts on “Games, stories and narrative

  1. There is certainly room for all types of game, and I am periodically tickled by video games which, coming from years of game design, I can see actively but transparently constructing their narrative, and in the best cases, their story, without relying on explicit narration (yet another term not to be conflated with narrative and story). But if we’re getting into pedantic hair-splitting, I would also put forward the need to not conflate video games with games in general. They are uncommon, to be sure, but some games are legitimately solid games with very tenuous narrative even by your preferred definition- think Go, Solitaire or Mah Jong. Others have narrative for beginning players, but are reduced to impartiality by masters- Chess comes to mind, but I could swear I’ve seen similar reduction-to-pure-execution in communities of dedicated video game speedrunners on a variety of titles.

  2. Hi Sean, thanks for your reply! If you agree with my assertion that systems have embedded narratives – and the example of operating systems – then Go, Solitaire and Mah Jong definitely have narratives. If we re-brand ‘tenuous’ as ‘tacit’ then we’re good to go ^_^ Let’s take Go, which has a narrative about spatial domination and is often narrativised (another distinction I guess) as a form of strategic training for military generals.

  3. [didn't subscribe to replies originally, then got really busy :P] Well, I’m a computer engineer by primary training, so I know that even iOS has the traditional filesystem under the hood, the designers just chose to hide it away from userland, but I see the direction you’re taking. There can be narratives bound up in the very rule set of a game. But if we accept that they are tacit, what value do they add? It would seem to push the original discussion of the relevance of narrative off onto awkward footing if games are allowed to have narrative that remains unexpressed other than through the rules themselves. You could just say “all games have rules, which are important to their appreciation” but that doesn’t seem to be very revelatory.
    You’d need to get down to very subtle distinctions indeed, but I suppose you could say that the rules of a game are the imperative form of its narrative, or conversely that the narrative is the infinitive form of the rules.
    Or it may be time to branch off a new layer of the concept. There are some games/scenarios where you could change the narrative but keep the underlying rule/action set (your initial reproductive example comes to mind), there are others where the “narrative” is so thin on top of the core mechanics that it would be difficult indeed to change the one without changing the other. … Wow. Now I’m tempted to go off on a wild tangent on computational equivalence, but… would it be ~possible~ to create a game with a 1:1 state/transition-equivalence to the game of Go which involved none of the original aesthetic/functional/narrative components (grid/board, pieces, etc.)? I suppose so. Any time you create a digital AI program to play a game, you represent its state as combinations of variables which, at the most abstract level, need not have any particular organization in relation to each other (e.g. a chessboard being stored in a 2-dimensional data array vs 64 discontiguous locations). But once you’ve decomposed a game to its raw state machine and state variables, can you reconstruct it into a game which an outside observer would a) comprehend the coherence of the rule set (e.g. without the ‘grid’ organization, I could still describe all the legal moves of a chess piece in whatever terms the ‘squares’ were cached, but it might take me 3 pages, which wouldn’t really be playable or fun) and b) not recognize the game as the original source game? If you can transform a game in such a manner, it becomes easy to illustrate what “narrative” is, but you must acknowledge the clear proof that narrative is not fundamental to the game if it can be stripped off and reapplied so easily. If you can’t transform a given game into anything else coherent, it’s difficult to accept any delineation between narrative and mechanic.

      • Not long after replying, I got an idea to put my money where my mouth is and create a game with an identical state graph to tic-tac-toe, but with the player-choices presented in an entirely different fashion (long story short: an apocalyptic action-racer). I still have the idea, and the tools, and it should theoretically work, but I keep getting distracted by other side-projects which are, while equally obscure and unusually motivated, substantially more shiny and technical. :P

  4. Pingback: Mechanic and narrative « Zoya Street

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