I came across Clint Hocking’s post on ludic vs. narrative game design from Andrew Doull’s post on it, but it just as easily could have been the other way around. This has been a real hot topic, lately, peaking I think with Chris Hecker’s conclusion at GDC this year that, to paraphrase, game design will move away from stories that serve a mechanical role in the gameplay experience. But the situation seems much more nuanced then that; as Andrew points out, permadeath can be both ludic and narrative at the same time. I agree we are on a precipice of ludic design, but I’m not sure that means narrative isn’t a part of the solution.
Narrative is the most engaging activity on the planet, massively, as voted on by dollars. There’s a reason most games are built around narrative rather than ludic ideas; people love them. Why are we treating narrative like our enemy? Why does it have to be chocolate and vanilla rather then chocolate and peanut butter?
Narrrative storytelling is a giant force, but it’s not a black hole. It’s a tool for us to tame and control. Clint argues that we are failing because audiences love stories in games, rather than the games themselves. Look at the sales last year – narrative-first games are clearly dominant. I would argue though this is because designing non-interactive is the pit of easy, not because narrative design is crushing systems design. Consider graphics – it’s actually a lot easier to make great graphics then to make a great game, and graphics-first games dominated the market for years. It was only until we mastered graphics that we could meld the two together. And all along that process a growing portion of the audience demanded more then pretty pictures – meat on the bones if you will. I think this is that same cry growing against game narratives as well – people who want really systems and really narrative experiences at the same time.
This matters because mastery comes from accepting the rules you play by and owning the strengths of them. We are fundamentally an interactive medium. Narrative is a rule set with a well-defined, a rule set that can be interactive. Mastering narrative in game design means absorbing, and yes, dominating it’s form and function, but not rejecting it outright as inside or outside the box. I love interactive storytelling, in part, because it is an attempt to mastery this power. It may work, it may not, but it’s not running away from the problem, it’s embracing it and applying it.
The history of comics is not completely written; they have the time and the will to take back their form. The history of games is even less developed. There are things we know about narrative in games we haven’t tested yet, I think because when given freedom developers run to the ludic we are so rarely given a chance to explore. We have a lot more to learn about why sometimes things are ludic and sometimes narrative, about how people react (and play!) to interactive stories. Narrative, interactively, may prove that we can have our cake with frosting too. Everyone loves cake. As long as you don’t throw it out before it’s done baking.
(Edit: Apologies to Andrew. I mispelled his last name.)