A Rallying Cry for Interactive Narratives

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.)


5 thoughts on “A Rallying Cry for Interactive Narratives

  1. And then, of course, I immediately come across this doozie of a backlash.


    Whoa! Talk about picking sides!


    for a lot of discussion on these topics. Lot’s of insightful stuff here.

    Here’s a point I forgot to add above, about Bioshock and why narrative is still significant somewhere in the equation:
    “ClickNothing @Harvey1966 yeah, I dislike binary model also. But I think, if making games, *meaning* should be in Go-like bits, not Moon-like bits
    Thu Jul 16 22:10:21 +0000 2009 in reply to Harvey1966
    Harvey1966 @ClickNothing @SorenJohnson @Xemu: I think the meaning is wherever players feel it. Little Sisters made me cry; screw the economic analysis.
    Thu Jul 16 22:14:09 +0000 2009 in reply to ClickNothing
    xemu @Harvey1966 Sure, but some meaning is derived from player, others derived from the author(s). Little Sisters weren’t that way by accident.
    Thu Jul 16 22:16:30 +0000 2009 in reply to Harvey1966”
    Recall, the Little Sisters were first ugly slugs until they realized it wasn’t effective enough.

  2. Dan: As always, appreciate the link.

    I think a large part of the attraction to narrative is that we have thousands of years of experience with narrative design, but we are still taking baby steps with game design.

    • Of course Andrew! I love your work.

      I agree – the “pit of easy”. Still, I’m surprised that we’ve sort of jumped the gap, so to speak. We’ve gone from “We love story!” to “Story bad!” without really really saying “Wait, story can be a back and forth medium!” Probably, like you imply, just because we tried and it’s hard, so let’s just all go kill some stuff and get some loot.

  3. That’s interesting that you say the top sellers last year were narrative-driven — have you seen a list of actual sales figures, or is it based on some list of the top 20 games from last year?

    The question that constantly comes up is whose story do you mean? The player’s story, or the game narrative that is built into the story? Those who say “story bad” are more about emergent narrative and glorify the story players create. Linear story tends to curtail the emergent story. The ideal is to create a player story that is inspired and feeds into the game narrative, using gameplay and systems to underline the theme or actions of the games. So going off to “kill some stuff and get some loot” is both the game narrative and the emergent narrative.

    I think we’re on the same page here! 😉

    • @Anne: I wasn’t referring to “top sellers” so much as the “majority of top sellers”. Made me go back and double-check the numbers online. It’s one of those memes in the storytelling games world, and it sort of holds up. It holds up way better in the top 50, but you get some crazy outliers in the top 10 or so that do widely well and are really game-like. A lot of this is definitional, but I don’t think it matters for the point regardless. Just the fact that narrative games (CoD4, Gears, Final Fantasy, MGS4, and on and on) do so well is testament that narrative is a powerful selling force, if data doesn’t bear out the largest selling force.

      Your second point deserves it’s own post, which will go up shortly. Thanks for the inspiration!

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