Game Narratives: Whose story is it?

Anne posted an agreement in the comments of my Rallying Cry post, that, well, I didn’t agree with.  But it’s a subtle and important point that I’ve only come to after lots of practice.

She writes:

“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.”

Magic circle questions are tricky with narrative, particularly because it’s easy to confuse the game experience with the reflection experience.  But referring to the game experience itself, I think the story is always the player’s story, and beyond semantics I challenge anyone who believes otherwise.  Crafted stories are just rigid frameworks for player’s to build their stories around, but it’s still player’s story.

But I have to challenge Anne and common wisdom to push past here too, past “inspired by”.  It sounds like trying to treat the player story and game narrative as two separate, unrelated things.  The ideal should be that they are the same thing, because ultimately they are the same thing to the player.  The player’s story is their understanding of the game narrative, the game mechanics, aesthetics, dynamics, etc, all rolled into one.  This is where common wisdom gets tripped up.  And, guess what, the player’s story beats out the game narrative every time.  Crafted game narrative, by definition, feeds and inspires player story, and never the other way around as Anne puts it.  This is what makes writing for games so tricky – it really shouldn’t be writing narrative, although many people do.  Writers should be helping the player craft narrative, which is a wholly different process.  “Kill some stuff and get loot” rarely falls into the category of designer-crafted narrative for some reason, though.  There’s a huge disconnect, likely caused by fiction, between what designers desire from mechanical rewards and what they desire from narrative rewards.  Take a look at what the MMO guys are doing with narrative when faced with “kill and loot”, and how little that reflects the actual play experience.  It should.  And my experience seems to indicate this requires giving up a lot more authorial control then writers and designers typically feel comfortable with.  Until they play it.

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2 thoughts on “Game Narratives: Whose story is it?

  1. I tend to agree with you. My recently has always been that we need to get away from words like ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ because they’re too heavy. Despite knowing better, these words still conjure images of novels, which is the worst model for games.

    To replace those words I would suggest ‘atmosphere’ or ‘theme’. Because the best game stories often have a lighter touch, which I think those words imply.

  2. We talk a lot about setting and theme as alternatives too. I think it’s a good start, particularly early in the process. There’s more elements of story that comes in later, character, experience arc, tension. But I agree, it’s much easier to bring them in on their own.

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