I have been thinking a lot lately about how I want to talk about a certain subset of video games, but I don’t have precise enough terminology to do so. I’ve decided to enlist you, the bright minds of the internet, in helping to figure out a phrase for what I want to discuss.
A number of theorists and writers working in game studies have attempted to describe the shared formal properties of “games” under the assumption that Tetris and Mass Effect (for example) represent not just the same physical medium, but the same artistic form, and therefore share the same sorts of appeals. The more I write about the latter, story-oriented sort of game, however, the more I find that assumptions about the former, rules-oriented sort of game sometimes get in the way. In some ways, Tetris has about as much in common with Mass Effect as a Sudoku puzzle book has in common with a sci-fi novel. Technically, each pair belongs to a shared “medium,” but more in terms of technology and ancestry than in terms of formal conventions and aesthetic aims.
In much of my writing (here and elsewhere), I have been referring to games like Mass Effect, Bioshock, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, Splinter Cell: Double Agent, and others as “narrative games.” They still clearly have learnable rule sets and the goal of “winning” as major components of their conventions, like Tetris and other puzzle games, but are clearly more designed to tell a story than puzzle games may be. Though some have argued that the story behind games is little more than dressing for the rules, this argument becomes less tenable as we see more elaborate plots in games, and as researchers (like me!) talk to actual gamers to find out why they play.
‘Narrative’ in Games
I kind of want to avoid the term ‘narrative’ in describing these games because it carries too much baggage from the humanities. Some have applied the term so broadly as to suggest that any hint of characters or fiction in a game could constitute narrative, such as when Salen and Zimmerman suggest in Rules of Play conflict implied through the Asteroids arcade cabinet art constitutes “narrative.” This is a far cry, however, from a full, classic narrative structure built into the on-screen play itselfâ€”a plot with dramatic arc, characters with dialog, themes (beyond “win or die”), and so on.
This dichotomyâ€”between narratively-oriented games and those relatively unconcerned with narrativeâ€”came up in an end-of-year roundtable between game critics hosted at Slate. There was some debate about whether Desktop Tower Defense should be considered “game of the year” with more formally ambitious (but arguably less perfected) games like Mass Effect and Bioshock coming out around the same time. Chris Suellentrop acknowledged that these might belong on two separate “best of 2007” lists much as we have separate lists for novels and non-fiction books, but he wasn’t sure how to distinguish between these two subcategories of the medium for games.
In his book Half Real, Jesper Juul attempts to categorize games as progressive or emergent (see his paper introducing the terms), but I share the aforementioned critics’ lack of enthusiasm for using these terms to differentiate story-based games from other sorts of games. Aside from their respective meanings not being immediately apparent, the distinction here is still focused on the different ways games present challenge (serially, versus open-ended variation), not necessarily with how games present a story. According to this division, the story is still a secondary consideration to the rule set, though this should not be surprising given Jesper’s theoretical inclinations. In Half Real, he suggests that “There is no compelling argument demonstrating that a well formed â€˜narrativeâ€™ would be a more interesting player experience” (p. 16)â€”though I’d argue that the massive success of deeply narrative games (in addition to comments from players such as those in my previous post) do form the basis for such an argument. We just need to get around to presenting this kind of thing in more formal research before anybody’s going to recognize (and cite) it.
So, can we come up with a terminology to differentiate “narrative games” from other sorts of games? I’d like to arrive at something that seems to intuitively make sense when you read it, but doesn’t sound like simple marketing buzz words. I’m not looking to coin the next “graphic novel,” trying to help sell games, but just to come up with something to help in describing themâ€”and that goal, in turn, may even help how we think about designing them. I’ll explain what I mean on that point more below; first, let me explain the concerns I had with the terms I’ve been batting around already.
I considered calling them story games, but it sounds kind of childish (like ‘storybooks’), and I’d rather avoid such connotations. I suppose you could call them campaign games, as so many contemporary games seem to label their own story-oriented content, but this term is probably confusing to anyone who doesn’t see the formal lineage in tabletop RPGs. I’ve also considered cinema games as a term for this, acknowledging indebtedness to certain cinematic techniques (particularly camera angles and musical score), but running the risk of being backward-looking: What if, contrary to the great examples of previous years, video game stories need to look away from cinema to work better as stories?
Not Just Narrative…
This sort of leads us to another question: Where can we most usefully draw the line between story-oriented games and those that are generally unconcerned with story? To return to one of my own favorite examples, how might we categorize Shadow of the Colossus? I think of it as being a narrative game (if I may continue to use the term for the time being) in the same way I might apply the term to Bioshock or Mass Effect, though it borrows less obviously from the visual language of Hollywood. One could argue that it is still first and foremost a puzzle game, dedicated to determining how to beat giant monsters, though I would argue that this aspect of the game is just one element that works in concert with explicitly narrative and emotive elements including character interaction and moral implications to the player’s actions.
The most honest answer, I think, is that some games could conceivably be described as belonging to more than one category or form, depending on how you play them. Will Wright has famously described Sim City not as a game, but as a toy, due to its design encouraging open-ended play, exploration, and experimentation. Grand Theft Auto games can be approached similarly, if you’re just in the mood to drive around and see how people react to being hit with cars, but these can also be approached as fairly straightforward narrative games. To some extent, then, this is matter of player choice.
At the same time, the way games are designed can help encourage or discourage certain styles of play. Some games offer multiple modes or bonus content to cater to different play styles: Halo 3, for example, offers a narrative in its campaign mode, but (arguably) a toy in its level-editor, and a sport (if we can consider another dimension) in its multiplayer competitive mode.
As I described in my Mass Effect post, even a single game mode is often designed to satisfy players with different sorts of motivations. Many or most contemporary console games are designed to capture those seeking any of a number of a appeals: fantasy, mastery, camaraderie, and tomfoolery alike. For these appeals, any one game might have a campaign mode, a sport mode, multiplayer capability, and toy-like characteristics.
Part of the reason we don’t consider these sorts of game content as separate products right now has to do with the way games are made and marketed, not necessarily because such variety is a formally universal characteristic about everything we call ‘games.’ When you tell someone, “I’m playing Halo 3,” you might be talking about the campaign mode or the competitive mode. When you tell someone, “I’m watching Fight Club,” you’re almost certainly talking about just watching the original movie; you’d probably be more specific if you were watching it with director’s commentary, or browsing other video content that comes on the disc.
Given all the mixed appeals that go into game design and marketing, then, I have to acknowledge that whatever we call “narrative games” won’t necessarily be mutually exclusive with other sorts of games. Nevertheless, I think the narrative element of game design deserves particular attention: It’s a promising direction for game aesthetics, and, as I’ve argued, there’s already demand for it among players. If we want to talk about the narrative elements of games, we need to talk about how this is designed into products, into the play experience itself.
This is where we get into the discussion of how the way we describe games may have some impact on the way games are designed. For one thing, recognizing that there are different kinds of game content can help us think about the potentially conflicted goals in developing multiple sorts of content in parallel. For example, when Mass Effect fans occasionally ask if the developers would consider multiplayer functionality in Mass Effect 2, other players tend to rise in protest, concerned that it would hurt the story.
In part, this is an issue of time: Time spent integrating the multiplayer game with the single-player game could potentially cut into the time that would otherwise be spent on improving the single-player game, or it could just delay the game. Also consider, however, that there are actual design and interface issues that may arise when changing the core function of a game; the infrastructure of the game itself might have to change in order to accommodate both “sport” and “story” functionality. This is an under-explored avenue for game critique, I think. Is there something about the interface of the single-player Bioshock, for example, that makes it more suitable for a narrative experience than the interface of Halo 3, which was simultaneously designed to be a multiplayer sport?
Not every game needs a narrative, and not every game will have one. I think the medium is already well on its way to forging its own storytelling tradition, though, and I want a better way to discuss it. I’m concerned that “story games,” “campaign games,” “cinema games,” and “narrative games” might not cut it. Please feel free to speak upâ€”in agreement, in disagreement, or to help figure out what we should call this sort of game.