A “Narrative Game” By Any Other Name?

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 itself—a plot with dramatic arc, characters with dialog, themes (beyond “win or die”), and so on.

This dichotomy—between narratively-oriented games and those relatively unconcerned with narrative—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 ‘narrative’ would be a more interesting player experience” (p. 16)—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 them—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.

Further Considerations

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 up—in agreement, in disagreement, or to help figure out what we should call this sort of game.

12 thoughts on “A “Narrative Game” By Any Other Name?

  1. A lot to think about here, so I’m just going to noodle through a thread at random. The thing that sticks with me is the vastly different aspects within many games.

    I’m going to go back to my old standby, “Marathon.” You can play this game three ways: you can run through the levels, in which case it’s pure feedback entertainment ala Tetris. You can run through the levels AND ponder the messages from the terminals, in which case it’s like a game of tetris that periodically gives you pages from a mystery novel. Finally, you can ditch all that and just play the multiplayer version, in which case levels and story go out the window, and it’s a sport.

    So, it’s more than one game. As you’ve mentioned, that’s no longer unusual. I think my point is that terms are conflated. There’s the *release* (ie, the “game” you buy) and the *game* (ie, the game or game-variant you are playing.) “The Orange Box” seems to have this spelled out to an unusual degree (NB, I’ve never played it.)

    The reason I mentioned “Marathon” is that it’s very hard for an outsider to determine HOW a player is playing the single-player version. Are you paying attention to the terminals, or aren’t you? In in-game terms, it makes little difference. Much like Lex Luthor’s admonishment that “Some people can read ‘War and Peace’ and come away thinking it’s an adventure novel…”

    Originally, I was going to caution against using literature (or any other genre) to define this genre, but there are obviously parallels that are useful as we blindly feel this elephant.

  2. Ah, Marathon! Nice to see that reference.

    I don’t see the problem with the term ‘narrative’, although I am unaware of what baggage it might be carrying. It just seems like the most accurate word. As always, though, it’s a sliding scale, from Asteroids to FFVII and Mass Effect. What’s interesting is that lately we are seeing the narrativization of many previously non-narrative game genres, especially the puzzle game, as with Portal and Puzzle Quest.

    Many games apply narrative as if it were an icing on the cake of gameplay, as in Marathon, Halo etc. But generally, while the gameplay must be interactive, that sort of narrative is itself non-interactive, in the sense that the player’s actions have no effect on it. So it is perhaps a special case when the narrative itself is something you can interact with, as in Mass Effect and any game with branching storylines.

  3. I think my point is that terms are conflated. There’s the *release* (ie, the “game” you buy) and the *game* (ie, the game or game-variant you are playing.)

    Yeah, that makes sense. This is kind of like the distinction that linguists/semioticians make between langue and parole—that is, the general, formal system of a language versus any one specific utterance in actual speech. I don’t know if anybody else is as much a theory nerd here as me, but I felt the need to point that out.

    I think that you can design the “release” to encourage certain types of played “games” by the user. Some “releases” are more explicitly built to be played to resemble classic narrative structures, like a game that has action sequences punctuated by fairly linear cut scenes. If the cut scenes can be skipped in the process of playing through the game (or if narrative needs to be actively sought out, like with the Marathon terminals), I’d say storytelling was less of a priority in that release.

    I don’t see the problem with the term ‘narrative’, although I am unaware of what baggage it might be carrying.

    Narratologists have often argued that ‘narrative’ is the basic structure for how we think about the world. As a result, everything can be described as ‘narrative.’ Based on how some have interpreted this, Tetris could be described as a “narrative game” just as much as Mass Effect. I suppose a more vexing example, though, would be Pac-man—look, there are characters, there’s conflict, so why isn’t this a “narrative game”?

    You could just say it’s further away from “narrative” on the spectrum of narrative games, I suppose, but I feel like it would be convenient to not even have to qualify it that much at all.

    So it is perhaps a special case when the narrative itself is something you can interact with, as in Mass Effect and any game with branching storylines.

    This is a very interesting point. Should I be asking not to come up with a name for narrative games, but to come up with a name for games that create the illusion of player control over narrative? Then again, the most interesting parts of Bioshock‘s narrative are the scenes you can’t control, in my opinion (but perhaps those are all the more relevant because you do have some control over how you treat the Little Sisters).

    Perhaps it’s enough to at least make reference to the notion of player agency; in some games, it’s a big deal that you play through scenes you can’t win as opposed to just seeing them happen as cut scenes…

  4. I’ll answer the half that isn’t kidding:

    Aside from the fact that Choose Your Own Adventureâ„¢ is a trademarked series by Bantam, the term applies just fine and dandy to game stories that have branching narratives built into them, and applies especially well to those that have multiple branches (Mass Effect has many; Bioshock basically has two).

    I don’t think it applies well to other sorts of narrative games, though. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is most certainly a “narrative game” in that it is very centrally about following a plot and seeking out clues from plot elements (including listening to conversations and reading through found documents), but there’s really only one path of events you can take through it if you want to survive and finish the game.

    [Edited to add this paragraph for clarification…]

    I guess if you’re going to group CoC: Dark Corners with more choose-your-own-adventure style games like Mass Effect into some category of “narrative games,” you’re focusing on how such games mix traditional cinematic spectatorship with varying degrees of player input. I think that element of spectatorship is shared by both kind of games, and is more relevant to the gameplay experience than some theorists have acknowledged.

  5. I think campaign games is a marvelous term, precisely because it also applies to (many) tabletop games. “Cinematic game” is good too, maybe better, I don’t know.

    You are no doubt aware of the folks doing tabletop-RPG theory, and the proposed taxonomy of player expectations into “Gamist,” “Narrativist,” and “Simulationist”? (Note: anyone who is, please let’s not argue about those terms here…)

  6. Funny thing: Just occurred to me right now that “campaign game” invokes something more long-term or serialized, which is really how most videogame stories need to be experienced (and is much like how you’d play a tabletop RPG). But part of me feels like the visual spectatorship element between a videogame RPG might be a different sort of experience from the oral storytelling element of a tabletop RPG … thoughts?

    And I must sheepishly admit that while “gamist,” “narrativist,” and “simulationist” are terms I have heard (probably through Greg Costikyan), I am not very familiar with how they’ve been deployed in recent theory…

  7. I’m slightly regretting breaking this conversation into a separate post because I’m not sure where to post this now…

    … But anyway, reading up on the “simulationist” approach a bit, I realize that this does probably represent another sort of appeal that might not necessarily be equivalent to wanting a narrative. What really drove this home was idly browsing through the Mass Effect forums and stumbling upon a conversation about whether one of the potential love interests in the game is really what guys want women to be like.

    Some comments indicate that people’s response to the character was very personal—they liked or disliked her based on what they’d want in a partner themselves. In contrast, my own reaction to that character depended very much on the type of protagonist I was trying to construct—one got along with her quite well, another kind of detested her. It was much more like characters into a story than like putting myself in a character.

    The former, I suppose, is sort of a “simulationist” perspective, as opposed to a “narrativist” concern for plot, theme, and character coherence. (If I must be a stickler about my semi-rhyming terminology, I might make a distinction between “fantasy” and “story.”)

  8. I’m actually responding to this on the basis of your most recent post, in which you said: “Compare this to my suggestion…that some games might profit from being specifically designed as multiplayer or single player experiences rather than trying to shoehorn both into one interface.”

    Indeed, some games have done this. I think mainly of Quake III, which was basically designed really to be a multiplayer deathmatch game. The single-player was basically the same thing, only with AI controlled opponents instead of human players. That’s why, when Quake IV reintroduced narrative, it took its cues from Quake II, sort of pretending Quake III never happened (that’s right, Quake is the video game equivalent of Highlander).

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