Narrative Is a Game Mechanic

by Mattie Brice

31 January 2012

If game mechanics are meant to provide players with experiences such as fun and anxiety, then narrative actually is a game mechanic, as much as game mechanics can also be narrative elements.

Narrative is a naughty word. Its appearance in video game discussions trigger froth to arise from corners of mouths and paints internet forums red. This is most likely because of a prevailing insistence on entertaining an old binary argument: video games are just another medium for telling as opposed to narrative being an inconsequential component in games. The latter opinion, along with the ideas of ludology and formalism, mostly won out, and narrative studies maintains its underdog status in the debate. A recent addition to the barrage of anti-narratology essays is Raph Koster’s “Narrative is not a game mechanic,” which further insists on binary thinking in terms of narrative (“Narrative is not a game mechanic”, Raph Koster’s Website, 12 January 2010). Koster’s treatment of narrative as feedback and static information perpetuates a limiting attitude by misrepresenting what narrative actually is. However, it is not only one person or even the more active subscribers to this school of thought, but instead an ingrained perspective on narrative that polarizes the gaming community and stymies expression in the medium.

This discussion often hits a roadblock because most people use the terms “narrative” and “story” interchangeably. From a design perspective, they are separate ideas. Narrative refers to how something is communicated, most often it is used to refer to the way that someone tells a story. We refer to a narrator, not a “storyteller,” because the process of communicating an experience is at the heart of the word. Stories are descriptions using narrative elements, such as characters, plot events, point of view, and other mechanical techniques. Following this line of thought, Koster’s (among many others’) claim that “games can and do exist without narrative” is misleading.
Games don’t necessarily tell “embedded stories,” such as saving the world from catastrophe, but they do always have a narrative. The easiest way to know if something has a narrative is to ask a person about their experience with that thing, and if they describe abstract events, like feeling excitement or finding something difficult, there’s a narrative there. Before anyone dismisses this as some sort of postmodern babble, what the player is actually experiencing has always been at the forefront of designers’ minds, but instead of just fun, narrative enables mechanics to express multiple and complex experiences. Games are constantly communicating experiences to the player, as when the height of all your pieces in Tetris is juxtaposed against the increasing speed of the falling blocks to create tension and provoke anxiety. In fact, how the game design world talks about “experience” closely relates to what narrative actually is or where narrative goes to provoke more than just a singular feeling. By relegating narrative elements to the service of rules and objectives, Koster removes the potential for narratives unique expression in games. Looking at narrative as only the context and sometimes the content that the rules exist in restricts it to exposition, and most creative work is only partly exposition.

What makes this perspective on narrative difficult to support is its relative absence in games, though more development teams are starting to focus on it (see job descriptions of narrative designers). So far, video games rely largely on past media to tell their stories—for example, by creating cinematics or filling an experience up with text and dialogue. What we are just starting to find out is how games can tell stories in their own unique way, which often manifests in minimalistic games, often dubbed “art games.” The most popular example is Ico, which communicates the relationship between the protagonist and Yorda through a hand holding mechanic. The player receives the complex emotions of a relationship through the ludic circumstances that surround the situation that the characters find themselves in. You’re anxious when Ico has to leave Yorda on her own to solve a puzzle, breathing a sigh of relief when you find her unharmed or panicking when she’s captured. Your finger both feels at home and cramped on R1 as Ico drags her along. Without going too far into interpretation, Ico tells the typical boy-saves-girl story without relying on the narrative elements native to other mediums. Flipping the more commonly used term of ludonarrative dissonance, this is ludonarrative resonance, which would just be the successful use of game mechanics to communicate a narrative experience. In short, if game mechanics are meant to provide players with experiences such as fun and anxiety, then narrative actually is a game mechanic, as much as game mechanics can also be narrative elements.

Ludology and narratology aren’t mutually exclusive studies. In fact, their combined perspectives will improve how video games influence players. Both are formally concerned with how the player interacts with the game and receives the intended experience of the developers. Keeping these aspects separate from one another only harms progression. Instead, one should include artists such as writers in the beginning stages of development so game mechanics and narrative design add necessary layers of complexity to communicate big ideas that only games can experience.

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