The Uneasy Merging of Narrative and Gameplay
January 26, 2010 Page 2 of 6
You Got Gameplay in My Narrative... or Narrative in My Gameplay?
Narrative and gameplay are arguably the two most prominent forms of expression that can be found in a modern video game. But before we wade into the deep end of the pool, let's get precise about what we mean by narrative and gameplay respectively.
Gameplay is relatively simple to define for our purposes. Any action in the game that is occurs by way of interaction between the player and the game, we call gameplay.
Generically speaking, a narrative is just the description of a series of events. At its most atomic level, virtually any visual component of a game can carry a sort of narrative with it, telling you something about its context and history.
When we normally talk about narrative in the context of games, we mean things like cutscenes, plots, relationships between characters, and stories that are expressed continuously through the course of a game.
However, a scene of two characters arguing about where to go next is as valid a narrative as simply looking at a graphic of a bright blood-stained and nicked sword.
The main difference is one of complexity and sophistication. In the latter example, the narrative is expressed as a single visual: I see a sword, it has recently drawn blood, it has struck a very hard object. In the former example, the narrative is communicated via visuals, like setting and choice of dress, but also via actor performance, which includes all kinds of details like gesticulation, subtle body language, voice, and so on.
There's an important implication here -- if a game has any discernable graphics at all, there is always some sort of story, or narrative, being told to you (or at least being interpreted by you) as you play. Indeed, humans are really good at constructing narratives about what happened to that bloody, nicked sword, even if one wasn't offered or intended. Even pure action/zero story games cannot be wholly divorced from narrative, because the player will always extract meaning, and thereby a story, from graphics.
The point is that there exist very different levels and techniques of narrative expression, and each comes with its corresponding set of prerequisites that must be satisfied before the player (or viewer) is able to apprehend a game's narrative.
You only need to look at the sword for a few seconds to understand that it has likely just killed somebody and that it has been through some rough times. But now consider our example of two characters arguing about where to go next. Before we can understand how and what and why they are arguing, as well as the nature of their relationship, we have to observe them for a much longer period of time, and we cannot interrupt their exchange prematurely.
The kind of narrative being communicated to the player, if the communication is to be successful, carries along with it some requirements. If these requirements aren't satisfied, then the narrative element cannot be successfully conveyed.
This is why most games don't let you kill characters that are essential to the expression of certain narratives. If we jump in and kill one of the two characters who have just begun arguing, then we will never learn why they are arguing with each other. We have just destroyed the narrative's mode of communicating to the player by way of third party conversation.
Since the idea of narrative is just so broad, for the purposes of this discussion we need to be very specific about exactly what kind of narrative we are talking about.
It's clear that games have spent a lot of time in this rudimentary combination of gameplay and visual narrative. When I play Gradius, there is a narrative going on even when there is no substantial story to speak of. I'm controlling a ship, I'm in space, I'm shooting the bad guys. I'm going to shoot all the bad guys I see until I get to the baddest one, and then I'm going to shoot that one too. It's not the most interesting narrative, but there it is.
So the apparent desire of the industry and many of its luminaries is not to strictly combine gameplay and visual narrative -- we have been doing that ever since we could make something look like an embattled sword instead of a line of white pixels. The desire is in fact to elegantly combine the richest expressions of gameplay with the richest expressions of narrative without a compromise of either.
For our purposes, when we talk about narrative henceforth, we mean the kind of narrative that's more substantial than sprite or background graphics, the kind that's slower to digest -- conversational narrative, narrative that involves characters, their relationships and dispositions towards each other, and the like.
Let's take a survey of how some of the best attempts at combining gameplay and substantial narrative have fared thus far. We'll limit our scope to scenarios where gameplay and narrative as we defined it actually occur simultaneously.
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