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Should games have stories? Exclusive GDMag Exclusive
Should games have stories?
May 8, 2013 | By Soren Johnson




A reprint from Game Developer magazine's February issue, industry veteran Soren Johnson questions whether video games should have stories, and explores various examples.

Stories and games have always had an uneasy marriage. From the beginning, designers have written stories into their games, giving the player a fixed beginning, a narrative path to follow, and a preset ending. At the same time, many players flocked to games because of their lack of narrative structure; a game experience is a chance to create a story, not to submit oneself to a designer's unpublished novel.

At the root of this problem is an almost theological dilemma - can a game designer tell a story if the player's choices actually matter? If the most important element of a game is its interactivity, then every static plot point a designer crams into the experience takes away from the centrality of the player. Put another way, if a game has a spoiler, is it really still a game?

To be clear, with the exception of a few abstract game like Tetris, almost all games benefit from story elements - an interesting setting, a distinctive tone, memorable characters, engaging dialogue, dramatic conflict, and so on. The best games have characters and settings that rival those of any other media - consider GLaDOS from Portal or Rapture from BioShock.

However, the actual narrative of a game - meaning the series of events which determines the plot - is the hardest element to reconcile with the essential interactivity of games. For this reason, narrative cannot be handled as it is with books or movies, in which the story is the core element that everything else must support.

Consider how Sid Meier added story elements to Pirates!, a game set in a period dripping with narrative possibilities. Instead of creating a single swashbuckling tale, with fixed plot points and a preset ending, he filled the game with the bits and pieces of a traditional pirate story. Depending on his choices, the player can rescue a long-lost sister, duel an evil Spaniard, survive a treasonous mutiny, discover buried treasure, escape from prison, and woo the governor's daughter. Upon retirement, the game displays the notable events of the pirate's life, chronicling the ebbs and flows of fortune. While the plot of a single playthrough would suffer in comparison to that of an authored work, the events have a special meaning for its intimate audience of one.

However, not every game is well-suited to become a dynamic story generator; some themes and mechanics are best handled against a mostly fixed backdrop. A hero needs an evil wizard to slay; a soldier needs an enemy to fight; and a plumber needs a princess to rescue. The solution is to use a light touch, to suggest rather than to dictate, to let go of the very idea of plot. Let the player explore the world and then assemble the final story in her own head.

"The Rolling Stones confirmed that lyrics are most evocative when just short of indecipherable." - Paul Evans, The Rolling Stone Album Guide

Indeed, the role of narrative in games is more akin to the role of lyrics in music. A song's words give the piece its context, its mood, and its setting while still leaving a suggestive gap for the listener's imagination. Indeed, recordings often have lyrics that are inaudible, leaving the meaning intentionally obtuse. Would a writer ever do the same with the text of a novel? Further, listeners often enjoy songs in a foreign language. How many readers pick up a book in a different tongue? The exact meaning of a lyric is not its primary role; great songs leave room - often, a great deal of room - for the listener. So too must a game's narrative leave room for the player.

Consider LIMBO, the puzzle platformer noted for its atmosphere, with its monochromatic tone and minimalist audio. The game's story revolves around a very primal quest - a boy's search for his missing sister - and raises more questions than it answers. Why is the boy looking for her in a dark, mysterious forest? Why is he chased by a monstrous spider? Who are the kids trying to attack him? Although LIMBO is completely linear, the lack of a traditional narrative - with a plot and dialogue and answers - means the story must be written by the player.

atom zombie smasher.jpgAnother example is Atom Zombie Smasher, the micro-RTS about a patchwork military trying to stop a zombie apocalypse in the fictional South American city of Nuevos Aires. The game is peppered with gonzo vignettes ("Esposito scores the winning goal. Minutes later, he's eaten alive."), showing how the citizens handle the onslaught. The epilogue is a masterpiece of bizarro narrative, with scenes of a cyborg El Presidente and AK-47 fruit trees backed by President Eisenhower's famous "military-industrial complex" speech.

Most importantly, Atom Zombie Smasher creates an evocative world without a traditional, canned narrative; the vignettes, in fact, are delivered at random during the campaign, letting the player's imagination fill in the gaps. Brendon Chung, the game's designer, points out that "piecing information together is fun and knowing the work trusts and respects you is satisfying." The effect is perhaps a bit too jarring for a mainstream audience, but the result is that Atom Zombie Smasher feels so much more open and alive than any pre-digested corridor shooter or bloated, dialogue-heavy RPG. A fixed plot is the enemy of player engagement.

"The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays." - Soren Kierkegaard

One of the most tantalizing aspects of mixing video games and narrative is the possibility of interactive fiction, in which the player gets to make the big decisions in an otherwise traditional story. So far, this potential is unrealized as the player's choices are usually limited to selecting between a few preset branches. Although there may be more than one ending, as long as the outcomes are finite, interactivity only promises a difference in degree, not in kind.

As the cost of production rises, developers cannot risk creating sections of a game without guaranteeing that the player will experience them. Thus, regardless of player choice, the interactive storyline must synchronize at key points. The plot of Knights of the Old Republic exemplifies this problem. The player can pursue a good or evil path, but both paths lead to the same place; the villain Darth Malak must be defeated, either to stop him (the good path) or to usurp him (the evil path). Even with completely divergent ethical paths, no outcome is possible without Malak's death.

These static plotlines lead to a jarring disconnect for many players, who might spend tens of hours playing an RPG but have no lasting memory of the story because it has nothing to do with the player's own interests or choices. Ultimately, people write stories to share what it means to be human. What does that goal mean in the context of games? The core element of most stories is the choices made by the characters; the core of games is the choices made by the players. Thus, what makes games meaningful must be the choices made by the players themselves. Can a game ever tell a specific story and still preserve the importance of player choice?

The action RPG Bastion successfully tackles this dilemma. The game tells the story of a mysterious "Calamity" that shattered the world into pieces. As the player progresses, he learns of why the weapon which caused the disaster was created and what went wrong when it was triggered. At the game's conclusion, the player must choose between either reversing time to possibly prevent the Calamity or to evacuate the survivors to a safer place and a new start.

What is most interesting about this decision is what happens next - which is that almost nothing happens. The game simply ends, with only a single image reflecting the player's choice. The designers do not pretend that they are giving the player actual agency with this decision. Instead, the choice becomes almost meditative, a simple reflection of the player's own nature. Would you undo your greatest mistake, or would you move forward as a new person?

In Bastion, the player learns about herself through the act of making a choice, not from seeing what some designer thinks should be the result. In The Walking Dead, the designers emphasize player choice by providing feedback on how one's choices compare with those of other players. These results similarly illuminate the player's own personality by showing which of his decisions go with or go against society at large.

Games that focus purely on the designer's plot choices ignore that the most important part of a game is the player. Putting a story, regardless of its power or depth, inside a game is actually a crutch, an easy way out that stunts the advancement of our form. Games must leave room for the player, not just within the rules and the mechanics and the systems, but within the story as well.


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Comments


Erin MacGillegowie
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Well this is a silly article. You may as well ask if music should have lyrics. Different games can be tailored for different sorts of experiences. A narrative that shows a series of events, however loose, through a protagonists eyes are no better or worse suited for games than a game that is completely open ended and lacking a story entirely. Videogames are unique in how they offer us interactivity, but that interactivity can be to deliver a mostly linear experience (like in most adventure games) or non-linear one with open-ended possibilities to the player (such as Minecraft).

Christopher Shell
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I have to agree with the sentiment that this is silly article. There is most certainly a place for stories in games. One need look no further than the fact that some of the highest selling and most critically acclaimed games of all time feature (static) stories.

I'd argue the Metal Gear Solid series wouldn't be nearly the well-respected work that it is if it weren't for its cinematic, story-driven nature. I think it's the static storytelling that often ALLOWS the creators the tell a stronger story with a solid direction. Personally, I actually attribute this to why I generally enjoy and remember stories and characters from Japanese RPGs more so than I do western RPGs. That's also I why I disagree with this statement:

"These static plotlines lead to a jarring disconnect for many players, who might spend tens of hours playing an RPG but have no lasting memory of the story because it has nothing to do with the player’s own interests or choices."

For me, a good, strong story and interesting characters in RPGs engrosses me in the experience and it becomes my interest to experience the story through. When I reminisce about memorable experiences in games, they are mostly story-related games, with the majority of them being Japanese RPGs with static storylines.

Bob Johnson
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@Erin

The author didn't say games can't have linear stories so much as he asked if a game has a spoiler is it really a game? And where he's going with that is some games are really becoming their own medium and aren't really "games." They really are CGI movies with some rote gaming experiences thrown in where the game design matters much less. You really just need the game part to be serviceable for these types of customers. It might be a disadvantage to design anything the player isn't already totally familiar with. These "games" aren't pushing the power of the medium forward because by their very definition they are played mostly for their narrative.

He also asked if a designer can tell a narrative if a player's choice really matters. And his examples all point to no he or she can't.

In my mind a designer will never be able to do this either. Look no further than the proliferation of 'choose your own adventure' books sold to those outside of middle school. Or choose your own adventure tv shows.

And a big reason (maybe the only reason) this will never take off is the practicality of it all. It ain't practical to write or design enough content let alone enough good content to cover a reasonable range of choices at every fork in the road never mind the budget costs. And so the choice is always a mirage because it is always extremely limited.


Altug Isigan
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"He also asked if a designer can tell a narrative if a player's choice really matters. And his examples all point to no he or she can't."

He's wrong. It works perfectly in games like Pac-Man, Mario Bros, Centipede, Civilization, Football Manager, Minecraft, Tekken (and in a billion of other games).

Nikolas Kolm
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Shouldn't we just differentiate between interactive narratives (Mass Effect, KotOR, similar) and other games (I can't come up with compelling genre names for the life of me).

I mean, I agree that there are difficulties with how story is represented in games, but I do not agree that the linearity of a plot in games such as KotOR are necessarily a problem. This is where people's perceptions come in. I, for one, enjoyed the narrative and the different moral choices that could be made to experience a somewhat different journey.

I also enjoy the more open form of "create-my-own-story" style games. I believe there is a place for both forms and that they are not mutually exclusive.

Bob Johnson
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I think that's the author's point. That some games aren't really games. And really should be called something else.

Anything played for the narrative first and foremost is not pushing the gaming medium forward is one of his beefs.

I don't think he said anywhere that he doesn't necessarily enjoy a "game" like KotoR. I just think he thinks of those things as truly experiences that push the power of the gaming medium forward. I think he views them as a different beast.

Jonas Kyratzes
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"Putting a story, regardless of its power or depth, inside a game is actually a crutch, an easy way out that stunts the advancement of our form."

No, it's not. It's just that the author of this article isn't particularly interested in the vast possibilities of interactive storytelling. Which is fine, but why does that have to translate to dogmatic pronouncements like this? There are plenty of games out there that tell stories that could not be told in any other format, and developers dedicated to interactive storytelling. There are also many people who primarily enjoy games of this kind.

So why do we still have to get articles like this, repeating the same tired old clichés? It's just tedious.

Bob Johnson
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They are cliches because they are true.

Altug Isigan
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Recognizing a cliché feels like the truth is speaking. They're not true. They look true because a mistake validates another one.

It's already problematic when someone says "our form". Who is "we"? What "form" does he speak of? The ludic repertoir isn't limited to what the popular imagination regards as a game, neither is it limited to what we've been told about story in the early ludology days.

Ernst-Jan van Melle
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I have no qualms about a linear plot if it is a really good plot. The industry seems to have a lack of good writers, or at least, a lack of opportunity and early involvement from the good writers out there. Video Games can be eminently suited to deliver a linear plot in an interactive manner - see Portal 2.

Robert McPherson
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It's all subjective really. As someone who enjoys reading I miss the days of truly narrative heavy games (play a full game of Planescape Torment and you've practically read a novel) but on the other hand the emergent narrative that can come from a game of X-Com or Civilization has Its own appeal.

Should a game have story? In it's own way yes... But there is such a diversity in gamers that it would be incredibly foolish and arrogant to assume games can only have certain kinds of narrative. Or even worse that gamers only want certain kinds of stories.

If gamers didn't care about developer written stories there would have been no uproar over the Mass Effect 3 ending. (even if it does open a whole other can of worms as to who really has the final word on game content and story)

Bob Johnson
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I think the author's argument is more about whether games with a spoiler are really games. It seems he doesn't think they are. They are their own thing. This seems to acknowledge that players enjoy distinctly different experiences.

He also asks whether you can really design a narrative if there is really player choice. His examples all point to no.

YOur example of ME3 only highlights this argument that it isn't practical to make narrative games with true player choice. Hence the problems with ME3's ending.


Craudimir Ascorno
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I think there is a basic mistake in this article. It assumes that the difference between a game and a book is the possibility of making choices in a game, but for me it is the difference of a regular novel and a choose-your-own-adventure book. The difference between a game and a book is that the game has a part where there are challenges that have to be overcome through skill, strategy or both. The article implies that because I am playing a game, I can't accept an ending like Lord of the Rings where Frodo destroys the ring because I wanted to choose if I want to play to destroy the evil or if I want to become the evil lord, but no, I want a game that challenge my skills, no matter the outcome.

Thus, the problem with games and narratives, especially in the RPG genre that was often mentioned in the article, is that sometimes the gaming aspect is neglected (in my opinion, of course). It doesn' t matter how involving Final Fantasy VI or VII story is, the game is still about being smart when evolving your characters and creating strategies to overcome the challenge of beating the bosses. The good thing about those games is that if you just play carelessly, focusing only on the narrative, you won't get anywhere. Someone can question excess of meaningless battles (and that is why I prefer tactical RPGs with less, but meaningful battles), but the gaming challenge is still the core of the RPGs. There is a problem when RPGs don't provide any challenge, and the "gaming" part is just an excuse to present a story, because these games are as strong as their narratives are, and more often than not the game narratives are poorer than the average book. What matters in Bastion, for example, is not the open nature of the ending, but the gameplay. If the game had a fixed ending, it would not change the gaming experience for 99.99% of the players.

When you leave the RPG genre, the gaming aspect is more evident. I don't think anyone in the world has ever played a Mario or Sonic game because of the questions their stories raise or the answers they provide, but because of the challenging levels and memorable boss fights. No one cares why Bowser kidnapped Peach and what happens after Mario rescues her, or why Mario kills monsters. The players want to be challenged with levels that challenge their skills or that require a good strategy to overcome.

People don't play games to have an evaluation of their moral choices, but for the challenges and competition the games provide. Otherwise they would not be called games. And if the view presented in the article was true, Tetris would be the worst game ever made because it doesn't get the player thinking about the moral choice of breaking the blocks or leave them in disarray because there is no choice: break them or you lose.

Luis Guimaraes
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Games are actually better at telling stories then other media. But that's only true when long as it does so in it's own way, instead of trying to mimic the other forms and being inferior at it.

Takes less than 5 minutes to play:
http://www.kongregate.com/games/pixelante/immortall

I strongly disagree where the article says that plot is the "actual narrative" of the game. The same article that correctly states that Rapture is the main character of Bioshock, lands such a conflicting (and IMO, wrong) statement right in the following paragraph.

Andrew Kelly
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It doesn't appear that they are suggesting that Rapture is the main character of
Bioshock, the article refers to characters and settings followed by what is presumably the respective examples of a character (GLaDOS) and a setting (Rapture).

John Szczepaniak
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I liked the article. Mainly because it reminded me of a fantasy I had many years ago. I often liked to imagine what kind of bizarre projects I'd work on if I won the lottery, and could basically hire a vanity dev team to do my (evil) bidding. One such project was an Action RPG which did not use save files (which I wrote an article on for The Gamer's Quarter). Another was an Action RPG with a procedurally generated storyline and game world.

This sentence reminded me of that old idea:
---
Although there may be more than one ending, as long as the outcomes are finite, interactivity only promises a difference in degree, not in kind.
---

Imagine if absolutely every aspect of the ARPG were procedurally generated. A sort of A-LIFE simulation, with an emergent narrative. Where anything is possible through player agency, or alternatively the player can sit back and watch as it writes itself. The first hurdle I considered was that randomised text adventures are awful. Randomly mixing together places and events creates garbled grammar and no literary eloquence. Basically it doesn't work: "The PERSON VERBed at the PLACE with NOUN resulting in SITUATION."

However, I considered, what if you removed all text? Create an ARPG with a complicated story, and instead of Roman alpha numerics, dialogue boxes contained purely visual symbols of what was being conveyed.

Games have this before, for example with Captain Blood, an old computer game. You communicated with aliens through symbols which had meaning, rather than words.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Captain_Blood_%28video_game%29#Game_
play


Assuming the symbols were easy to recognise, and you could attribute colours which represented pre-defined emotions, you could have procedurally generated dialogue boxes which do not suffer from grammatical awkwardness.

When you think about it, most stories have basic components. Positive feelings between characters, negative feelings, people in power, people not in power, conflict between parties, and so on. My thinking was, build up a complex web of these states in NPCs, and allow the player to influence them. Kill the designated King figure, and several NPCs will have negative feelings, some will be positive, and the player's own power may increase. Have NPCs develop positive feelings for each other, leading to situations where they help or rescue one another. Kill one of the pair, and the other will be hostile.

Obviously it's easy to describe this in theory, but there are games that extensively use symbols instead of text, and there are complex procedural A-LIFE games. Dress it up in a simplified art style akin to Cubivore or 3D Dot Heroes, and you could have a fascinating random generator on your hands. Plus there'd be no need for localisation between countries.

My apologies, I seem to have gone for a walk inside my mind and ended with an excessively long comment not even related to the main topic at hand.

tl;dr
I don't think games intrinsically need stories. I liked Gunstar Heroes and I never paid any attention to its story.

Alfa Etizado
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I think another problem is how story and gameplay demand different things and get in the way of each other, prevent each other from evolving. Specially in games based around challenge, game over.

Let's take a shooter as an example, almost any shooter you can imagine.

The game needs a lot of action to be fun, so you fight hundreds of adversaries. At this first moment the story already falls apart, as your hero goes around slaughtering hundreds of enemies and this is ignored when the story takes over. But you have even worse problems, like how the pacing of the story is dictated by gameplay.

So the game has to be fun but at the same time it needs to obey the setting. For an instance, the player's range of actions must resemble a human's. Again, from the start the gameplay is inevitably limited. The movement, the shooting, the adversaries, everything could be made to be as fun as possible if realism was disregarded.

If the gameplay still somehow involves impossible actions, such as walking on walls or flying, then either the story needs to find an excuse for this, which in most cases is detrimental for it, or the game does not care about the story and you are left wondering what was it even doing there (Just Cause 2). Or both.

If you were to divorce those two, they could evolve freely.

The story would not need to afford stupid excuses for mindless action, the gameplay could become whatever it can possibly be. Both would move beyond what we're used today. Do we need to shoot more guns, swing more swords, punch more faces?

James Margaris
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"The game needs a lot of action to be fun, so you fight hundreds of adversaries. At this first moment the story already falls apart, as your hero goes around slaughtering hundreds of enemies and this is ignored when the story takes over."

This isn't a problem in Contra. The story falls apart in most AAA shooters not because of some inherent problem but because of the specific choices those games make.

Lewis Wakeford
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The problem is that those games don't tailor the story to match the gameplay or vice versa. The connection between the two could be almost arbitrary. The two don't need separating, more effort should just be made to find stories and gameplay that pair up well.

If you make a game about killing hundreds of dudes, the story should also be about killing hundreds of dudes.

Altug Isigan
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"If you make a game about killing hundreds of dudes, the story should also be about killing hundreds of dudes."

One of the best quotes of all times.

John Flush
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If games didn't need stories, let me know what media provides interactive stories along the lines of the games that do it now - that is the entertainment I want to consume most of the time. Sure I'll pick up other games, but most of the time I have to see a framework I can imagine from (applying my own story) or enjoy someone's crafted one.

Straight up abstract, with no story, for me can be entertaining for a time, but I always hit that point where I'm wasting my time and getting nothing out of the experience except muscle memory.

Bob Johnson
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With games played mostly for the story I always feel like why put in the time playing rote gaming tropes just to get to the story bits. It's a waste of time. Why not just watch a tv show or movie or read a book instead. And either save time with the tv show or movie and get a more in depth narrative with a book.

Ozzie Smith
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I really liked this article. I would take the main point of it to be that games should not be used as a form of expression for a designer's story, but instead should be about offering a gameplay experience to players that can allow them to form their own stories about their actions in the game. Games that focus on overt narrative over gameplay experience fail to fully utilize the strength of the medium.

Nuttachai Tipprasert
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Or they did not really fail? Takes MGS series as an example. Everyone knows that the story of the games is literally linear but yet there are still million of people who play this game (me included) just for seeing what is in Hideo Kojima's mind.

Or, I can take SW: KOTOR as an another example. Despite being claimed by the article that the static plot line of the game can disconnect player from the game's world, million of people around the world still regarding this game as one of the best game ever made. Can we call this game as a failure interactive medium? I don't think so.

As the other people already pointed out, lets designer design the game they want to make and lets player decide which game they want to play. It's not anyone else business to decide 'What Game You Should Make' or 'What Game You Should Play'. As long as there's still people happily playing the game you made, you should careless about what other people saying.

Ozzie Smith
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I'm not saying that people don't like stories in games. What I am saying is that pretty much every time that story would be better delivered through another medium. I love MGS but that is more for gameplay. The crazy story is nice (for the first time around at least) but if the gameplay wasn't there I wouldn't bother with the franchise. I think a lot of people feel that way (many people feel MGS2 was the worst in the franchise because there was too much story and not enough gameplay). No one cherishes The End because of the cut-scenes around him but becuase of the battle they had with him.

Basically if you made a crappy game with a story and everyone loved the story, you still make a crappy interactive experience and the story would be better delivered in a different medium.

Artur Correa
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I really enjoyed a lot. Really a great article.

Surely there are good songs, both lyrics vague and cryptic as those who wish to narrate a message directly and unambiguously. Similarly, there are great games designed, or not, around a story.

This article certainly exposes enfatic arguments that encourage shifting focus from the story for the benefit of the player experience.

But what I appreciated is that it masterfully exposes a great way to think about the games and how they can be designed without the focus on history.

In most articles I have read about this controversial topic, the thought of the authors have a tendency to completely discard the idea of narrative, and adopt a radical ludocentric position.

This article shows that the narrative continues to exist even if we let it completely for the player's imagination. Thus, the role of the designer is to provide elements and hooks that make sense for a good story.

Congratulations for the great article

Paul Tozour
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Totally agree. This article has a terrific perspective.

Paul Marzagalli
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What's interesting to me is that, whenever I see these articles, I invariably see people poo-pooing their being written, but never quite from the same vantage points. I always find the comments as fascinating as the articles themselves, because this particular subject brings out a great number of informed but differing opinions.

Gera Hmurov
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There is one cool game as example of great static story where player still creates story between cut-scenes. It's ''Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time''. When the character dies, Prince Narrator says something like 'oh, that's not how the story ends, i've mistaken' then story rewinds, making the common player's actions matter.
Also I don't agree with this: The plot of Knights of the Old Republic exemplifies this problem. The player can pursue a good or evil path, but both paths lead to the same place; the villain Darth Malak must be defeated, either to stop him (the good path) or to usurp him (the evil path).
The player can choose only one option at a time. So the game still tells the story with important choices for the first time at least. Its like watching The Sixth Sense for the first time and then for the second time. Really two different types of fun.

Gera Hmurov
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Yeah, you nailed it. Isn't the destination of all people's life is the same but still we respect every life as different? =)
I kinda like that this article is actually far better than its title. There is so much possibilities for storytelling in games (and even option for no storytelling) and that article has examples and explanations. But the question in the title isn't a question for me today.
There were theatres, books, and films before games and every time there were the same question - is there a need for a story and 42 or only for entertainment? And every industry answers the same. Story is now almost anywhere and higly praised. And also there is entertainment media with ''vampires, girls and explosions''. So these types can co-exist. I personally prefer good stories.
Imagine Mass Effect 2 or Fahrenheit without story or Mario without gameplay. So do what must be done, do not hesitate and show no mercy.

Daniel Accardi
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Hi Soren!

Good article. I think the content is more or less right; you're pointing out some pretty solid examples of games twisting around their stories in pretty dodgy ways, and ultimately, the question of how much choice a player really has (the KotOR Malak conundrum) is definitely central to the issue.

That said, I am going to have to join the "your basic assumptions are wrong" crowd. For one thing, the "should" question is kind of deliberately misworded; I don't think any of follow an idea of prescriptivism in terms of games and stories. Our real problem is, "When games have stories, how can we employ them effectively?"
Secondly, I think some of the terms of your argument undersell interactivity in other media. Books and movies both have very slippery ways of dealing with narrative, especially when the narrative is secondary to style or genre. In point of fact, post-structuralist theory does a pretty good job of creating a vocabulary and theoretical framework for dealing with narrative in a way that is partial, fragmented, and unstable; if you read Bakhtin's theory of the novel, for instance, it's almost impossible to read a paragraph that couldn't be directly applied to games, except he was half a century early to the party!

I had the luxurious good fortune of having a year to write my thesis on games and post-structuralist theory, so obviously, my sense of context for these things is a bit, eh, skewed. However, our conclusions were largely the same - "leaving room" is often the most successful approach, or at the least, the approach best suited to the video game as a literary form, if you want to call it that.

Send me a message if you feel like chatting sometime!
--Dan

TC Weidner
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I tend to agree with the article and see it this way. A story can be and often is a key ingredient in any game, but as designers you have to be careful to use the ingredient just right in order to not spoil the whole recipe. I mean I love cake, but I dont love a cake which is 80% frosting, and not much cake.

A story when used just right can lead a player into and on a wonderful journey and experience, when used incorrectly a story can either leave a player lost, confused, or strangled within a too confining experience.

Its just another element that make game design and development an art form, and not an easy one at that.

Justin Pedersen
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I would agree with you; while the title "Should Games Have Stories" could cause a plethora of opinions, it is actually quite a great way to get people thinking about the concept of why story is un/important.

Video games have as much diversity as contemporary art (i.e. painting, sculpture, print etc etc etc), so naturally there is going to be a huge amount of variety and level to which story becomes important. I would say that depending on the developer's goals, there could be a spectrum of what they want the user to do, ranging between time-sink (in a good way, i.e. Tetris or Geometry Wars, where all you want to do is play) towards total immersion, where the goal would be to transport the user to a different state of mind.

And the level of story could end up on both sides: a heavy, linear story could either be there simply to create purpose in the game to which you simply "do", or it can be gripping enough to have the user completely invested in the character and thus the immersion. On the flip side, a minimalist approach could fulfil both the cathartic, no-thought involved enjoyment, or create a minimalist objective story that creates a world for the user to completely fabricate his/her existence in the adventure.

I would say that it would all depend on what the developer would like to do in regards to the experience s/he wants to give the users. To avoid over generalizations, it would be important to note that there are almost an infinite number of users that would love an infinite number of experiences, so "should games have stories" would all depend on what game the dev would make for which users.

Kujel Selsuru
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This is how I feel about narratives in games:

They're fine so long as they don't negatively impact the gameplay (either durring development or the actual playthrough). A story can enhance a game but only if it doesn't detract from playing the game so not letting players skip through cut scenes, having more time spent telling the story then playing the damn game, giving players no influence over the story, etc all detract from the game.

Gameplay is the core of any video game and without it you don't have a game. For this reason I don't consider the walking dead a video game (instead interactive fiction of some kind). If you can't provide good gameplay then you are wasting my time.

This reminds me of debates I've had with my sister-in-law (SIL for short) about gameplay over story. She claims she doesn't like games without a good story but she plays the sims and plants vs zombies but the sims has no story at all ad plants vs zombies has a very simple story so in the end she still chooses games based on gameplay just like me. Hell she bought LA Noir but still hasn't watched it probably because I told her it has very little gameplay (I suspect this is a subconscious response not a conscious one). In contrast I've recommened Dreamfall: the Longest Journey to her based on it's strong story elements and she's not had the slightest interest.

To conclude "It's about the fucking gameplay stupid" - what's his name who worked on the original Xbox.

Bob Johnson
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I agree. And I think the author thinks that narrative in games are not games but different experiences because narrative in games drags down the power of the medium which is interactivity/player choice.

Craig Hardgrove
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Yes, games should have stories.

I think the point here is that story in games doesn't have to come from traditional narrative like it does in other media. In video games everything in the environment can, and should, be used to tell a story.

Raph Koster
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I highly recommend that everyone who reads this piece also take a look at Matthias Worch's GDC presentation:

http://www.worch.com/2013/04/24/talking-to-the-player-how-cultura
l-currents-shape-and-level-design/

It might help with some of the "assumptions are wrong" debates.

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WILLIAM TAYLOR
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I was going to say something but Dave Smith summed it up. I wonder if you could go on some film industry site and see people asking if movies should have this thing called audio that people keep talking about?

Nick Harris
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'Can a game ever tell a specific story and still preserve the importance of player choice?'

No.

'Can a game ever convey a coherent theme and still preserve the importance of player choice?

Absolutely.

Games are nothing more than a system of rules. This system can be simple or complex. In the case of a role playing adventure game (hereafter: 'adventure', which... incidentally I prefer as a term for this new category of games that allow the player to adopt a role and explore a simulated world - often based upon refreshingly unfamiliar rules - because it does not necessary imply 'competition', 'winning', or the protagonist's 'survival'), the player must be encouraged to stay in character by being rewarded with access to more challenging roles on subsequent replays. An entire cast of dramatis personae need to be driven by sophisticated AI. They plan their strategies for a horizon of possible eventualities based upon whatever partial (or erroneous) information they are able to glean from the subordinates in their organisation. Initially, you are as unaware of them as they are of you. Your first contact may be as an innocent bystander happening upon some conflict between members of two opposing organisations. Your choices are only bounded by your desire to conform to your role (and you are never physically prevented from acting out of character should you want to, however this is something best left to a drop-in multiplayer mode that has no persistent effect on the campaign's emergent narrative history). At regular intervals the system of rules behind the adventure contrives to reassert the underlying theme through recognising patterns and adapting the plans of dramatis personae to dynamically generate situations in the likely future path of the protagonist. If the player agency takes them away from this geographically-located conflict (as the 'when' can be played fast-and-loose with if actions are implied as to be taking place off-camera / off-stage), then there are plenty of other cores in the console to speculatively generate alternative scenarios. However, the primary mechanism / glue for forging narrative skeins out of gameplay simulation is the concept of 'player entanglement'.

Player entanglement relies on building an empathy via proxy between their character and quasi-neutral NPCs that lack a conflicting agenda with the player-character's objectives. What are those objectives? Anything, to begin with (to promote the player's sense of agency), yet pretty soon their travels will lead them into contact with subordinates of organisations and it will become incumbent upon the role player to determine what their 'bosses' (for a want of a better term) plan to do next and formulate a strategy of their own. It ultimately does not matter what path the story takes, what happens when to whom, so long as the 'why' resonates with the underlying theme. By becoming entangled with an NPC by dint of their harmonious personality, the adventure can manipulate you to attend contrived set ups because they are there and need you to be for some reason. Obviously, you could abandon them and just play the game as an open world sociopath simulator on a whim at any point, but you would never be given the chance to replay the game as the villian.

Altug Isigan
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'Can a game ever tell a specific story and still preserve the importance of player choice?'

Oh man, billions of games have done this. Really, when are people going to realize that what they see as "story getting in the way of gameplay" is just a bad application of game/story design?

To say it in a very open way: A lot of designers have absolutely no idea about how to deliver story elements, more than this, they are clueless about using interaction itself as the delivery method. That's why they pack most information about the game world and characters into cutscenes or dialogue trees and bring these in front of players with the worst imaginable timing.

Can a game designer really afford to say that he's only interested in the gameplay? Must he not confess that he isn't proficient in using "his" medium when he cannot come up with ways that deliver content/story through interaction and player choice, when he hides behind the gameplay/story divide, and packs at every opportunity the things he can't manage to "make" interactive into cutscenes or suspenseless dialogue trees?

Worse than this is that they do such things exactly *because* they think that gameplay and story, choice and story, interaction and story are different things. They think they must present us the information about a boss or a situation "seperately" and call it the "story" part, whereas they could deliver this aspect of the game world's story by simply letting the boss or the situation speak for and by itself (for example by letting the story information being "acted out" during gameplay, or through the player's actions). All they need is better design technique!

And as long as they, and we, do not grasp that gameplay, player actions and any type of interaction in a game *is* inevitably *the* story, we keep discussing things from the "story vs gameplay" angle, and meanwhile designers keep doing the same horrible things because they are guided by this divide, they go about their designs with this divide in their heads. And most of the decision-makers and planners in the game development process too: they ask designer to do this, they think something is wrong with the game if designers don't do it that way.

Trying to discover the possibilities of this medium has absolutely nothing to do with getting rid of story. It's about grasping how this medium is best used to deliver its content (which are stories, however abstract or concrete, just like the ones delivered through other media). It's about having better technique as a writer/designer in using the medium's options in delivering content. And thinking that there stands a "versus" between gameplay and story, and that story is the alien element, is almost a sure way to never learn the techniques that help you in making better games.

Jonnathan Hilliard
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I'm waiting for the "story/plot engine" where the game can make up it's own story, based on what the player is doing.
That would be a win-win from both perspectives. Just a 'little' tricky to code.

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Roger Tober
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The trouble with the "no story" argument is that story is one of the main ways of differentiating one game from another. So it works, yeah, for a game or three, and then people notice this is just the same thing as that other game. Remember the Sims version whatever? People just got tired of it even when they started adding some story.

Kujel Selsuru
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Not true at all, there are countless gameplae mechanics and ways to combine them so no a story is not the main way differntiating one game from another!

Bob Johnson
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There is a difference between narrative and story elements. Most games have story elements. Atmosphere, characters, .....

I also don't think the author was exactly advocating no story in games so much as saying the true power of the medium doesn't give well with narratives and that games that are narrative-driven are really a separate entity that don't push game design forward.

Joshua Darlington
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I see this type of conversation as a territorial dominance display. Something like Ebert's classic attack on games.

Benjamin Quintero
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Without a story I probably would not be playing games today. I don't ever see myself as the man behind the camera. I am not acting out in some power fantasy. I am simply the catalyst that moves the story. Though I may enjoy geeking out over some experience that can only be explained to other people who have also played the game, I also like to talk to a non gamer and tell them about this experience that I helped to push along. Mechanics are the kinds of stories that people in-the-know can understand much like an inside joke.

Directed narratives have often left a greater impression on me than the time I threw my knife across the map and it hit someone or the time I solved a physics puzzle in a way that it wasn't meant to be solved. Those were cool moments when I was 16, but now that I'm 30-something, I am more moved by a story about human resilience and the sacrifices we make to survive. You could argue that your actions as a player are those sacrifices but I'd rather not reach at straws, sometimes a directed narrative gives your actions meaning. Sometimes its just nice to see one person's idea and not try to formulate a narrative from a sequence of breadcrumb game mechanics.

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Bob Johnson
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Yeah, but I think the author's argument is narrative-driven games aren't really games because the power of gaming is interactivity and player's choice and narrative-driven games don't push that forward. You don't get real choice in narrative-driven games.

And if you are playing games for the narrative then you can see where ultimately that will lead to -merely serviceable rote gaming tropes connected to a rich polished narrative that gets the vast majority of the budget dollars. CGI movies with game elements.

IN my mind eventually that leads to why not just watch tv shows or movies or read a book? The former two take up less time. And the latter means a deeper narrative.

Given most adults like yourself are more interested in the human experiences than game mechanics and don't have a ton of time on their hands then you can see why movies and tv shows are more popular than any narrative driven game.

In terms of impressions left by narratives it is books, tv and movies that have done that much more than games for me.

The author doesn't say there is anything inherently wrong with narrative games per se other than he doesn't believe they take full advantage of the power of the medium and push it forward. He just sees them as different experiences. Their own category. Hybrids of some sort.

Jay Anne
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In one sense, there's no such thing as "should or should not". There's only data like audience size and budgets and financial viability and audience feedback. The data on audience size seems to indicate that stories are not the prevailing activity that gamers play games for. And that seems to become truer every year.

In another sense, if games become a deep storytelling medium for a small niche elite audience, then it might not matter what society thinks.

Benjamin Quintero
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So the 15 years I've spent on building my game where you touch the screen and it changes colors (symbolism for love and life and the changing tide of techno-social democracy man!); it was all for nothing?! Noo!! =)

Jay Anne
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@Benjamin Quintero
To quote the great Ron Swanson: "It's art. Anything is anything." ;-)

Josh Griffiths
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This article is so asinine I honestly can't think of anything constructive to say. Did Spec Ops The Line, Bioshock Infinite, and The Walking Dead teach you nothing? Game narrative is at an all time high and is getting a lot better. Its still a long way off, don't get me wrong, but they're getting better.

Speechless at this article. What a joke.

Bob Johnson
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Did you read the article? No you didn't.

Val Reznitskaya
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I think narrative and interactivity complement each other really well. Interactivity opens up a new, personal spectrum of emotion in narrative. And if used effectively, narrative can provide valuable context, depth and weight to interactivity. For me, some of the most memorable games had story and "gameplay" woven together so tightly that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began.

Unfortunately, we haven't even come close to exploring all of the possibilities because rather than think of story as part of a cohesive whole from the start, many developers still treat it like salad dressing.

xavier nicolas
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games are just simply better with stories! Stories give a deeper exp of the game! Of course the best game is a game where players can create or imagine their own stories I'll say...

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Kyle McBain
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If Skyrim or Dragon Age did not have a story I would be happier. I feel obligated to read and get involved, but only to realize its a waste of time. Let me just do stuff. If you want intellect, read a book. Not to say there is no intellect in games, but I sometimes spend more time reading materials my character picks up and watching cut scenes more than I actually play the game. It's like LA Noire. What a piece of shit that game was. I loved the aesthetic but where's the game?

Bertrand Augereau
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"If Skyrim or Dragon Age did not have a story I would be happier."
If Skyrim or Dragon Age had good stories and writing I would be even happier.

Kyle McBain
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I actually re-thought this and I still feel pretty much the same but the thing about Skyrim is they use the story as a tool. There is still a lot of unnecessary writing but the story justifies Dragonborn powers and it is like I stated in my blog about relating games to architecture the story doesn't have to be the backbone so much as it is a tool.

Altug Isigan
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Depends on what the game gives you to read and how it asks you to read. Reading certain game states in Chess requires quite some intellect. You spend more time "reading" than you "play" (moving pawns). Without reading, (interpretation of options displayed by a certain set of signs), there isn't what you call choice. Pure action doesn't mean there is no text to read. If you think text is only made of letters, you're wrong.

You reduce play to action. No! Reading, (thinking, interpretation) *is* gameplay. (Have you noticed how I don't add "too" to the end of this sentence?) There is no seperate "story" track. Game = narrative.

Reading becomes stupid when the text forces you to read stuff that doesn't really matter, or stuff that has been stated already and whose re-stating is for nothing. That's not a problem caused by story/narrative, but by bad design.

"Bad dialogue" is not the same as "dialogue is bad". Please stop blaming narrative. Blame bad writers/designers. Really, most of the bad games out there are bad exactly because designers/writers think that story is something that needs to be "added" on top of the gameplay. All they need to do is to think deeper about the options that their medium provides as they try to convey the meanings they go for. If we complain about how stories ruin gameplay, it's because the divide is first and foremost in the heads of game designers and game writers. It's because people tend to equal story to words. Man, what about silent movies? They don't tell stories?

Most dialogues are so terrible because writers do not obey to the simplest rules of exposure: They use dialogue as a way to dump information onto us, often at moments we even didn't ask for that information. They have no sense of timing etc. Do that as a writer in Hollywood, and you're guaranteed not to get a second chance. Which brings us to another point: We think that "linear" is easy. It's not. Designing any type of story is difficult and requires to take into calculation an awful lot of concepts, and yes, your reader, just as a game designer must take into account a player. It's not linearity that ruins games. It's when your linear story is delivered in a shitty way. Please, mind the difference.

Kyle McBain
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I agree with a lot of what you are saying... Timing and substance. But if "Game = narrative" then instead of playing that game next time I will just read a book. Narrative on its own is not a game and the two ARE NOT equal. It is a part of the game, but is not equal to the game.

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Arjen de Jong
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I largely disagree with the article. In my eyes the writer makes an often made mistake in video game design. He sees the story and narrative as responsible for something that is not decided by the narrative but rather by the gameplay and the programming, the game design. A good example is one of his own: Mario. Were we to change the story completely, or be daring and give influence to the player into the story, and make it so that he or she can choose whatever it is he or she wants that has been kidnapped and he/she will go to rescue. This changes the story. It doesn't change the game, as the player still goes from level to level, castle to castle to save something.

Why? The architecture of the game. And that is primarily not the story, which is usually put in last to justify this architecture. The gameplay of this game and available funds, time and manpower to create it dictate that this is a good way to present it to players. The story is stuck onto it to make it perceivable as more than a system of rules and mechanics to the player.

What many (video) games need are good and creative writers who actually understand the medium and are brought in at an early stage in the process to create a good story in the game without taking away gameplay or player influence. Rather, a well designed story in a game thrives on the fact that it is played rather than read/watched. It constantly meets the gameplay and works with it to give the player a total experience. If a story is optional in a game, it is a bad story.

For more on this, see a recent blogpost of me: http://www.player-2.nl/?p=357

Soren Johnson
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Thanks for the comments, everyone. Games and stories can fit together (as do, in my analogy, music and lyrics), but I wanted to push on what that means. Specifically, focusing on character, dialogue, tone, and setting leaves more room for the player than focusing on a fixed narrative. Plot-heavy games can work fine, but designers should understand the tradeoffs involved.

Lewis Wakeford
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Sometimes but not always.

Next question?

Jacob Fleisher
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I want to see this in more games:

Synthesis - In which to play the game is to learn the story, and to learn the story is to play the game (although the latter doesn't quite make sense - I'm still working on that one).

Altug Isigan
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I'm giving up :P
(Well, not quite.)

Marius Holstad
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The question is not if games should have stories or not, but how can we best tell a story in a game?
A lot can be said about the way it is being done today, but the first thing that needs to happen is unity between story and game mechanics. It doesn't work to tell a story of colonialism when what is being done is shooting people in the face.
When it comes to choices in games this definitely has some merit, but the way it is being executed today does not have the desired effect. What needs to happen is that our decisions must have some effect on the outcome of the story, hence infusing our gameplay with meaning. Only when gameplay hold meaning can games tell stories.

Open for discussion @MariusGames

Val Reznitskaya
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A game where our decisions don't impact the outcome can carry a meaningful message. It's just not a particularly empowering message. But in some ways, it can be more realistic and thus hit closer to home.

Bob Johnson
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Problem is narrative and game mechanics aren't separate meaning you can come up with a great narrative but then maybe not so much the mechanics to fit that. Or you can come up with fun mechanics but your narrative doens't fit it.

And you might find your narrative doesn't work so you have to change your mechanics to fit that or vice versa.

CAn it work? I don't think that's the question so much as is it practical. LIke winning the lottery. Not very practical to count on that happening to you. But do people win? Yes they do.

That's how I see this fantasy of narrative and game mechanics. They both like to go their own way. To reign either in to fit the other compromises one or both.

Altug Isigan
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Just short of indecipherable - that's poetry and doesn't necessarily mean "we're better off without words".

"Indeed, recordings often have lyrics that are inaudible, leaving the meaning intentionally obtuse. Would a writer ever do the same with the text of a novel?" - Yes: James Joyce, Finnegan's Wake.

I understand what you try to say. But when you try to say that by putting gameplay against story, games against books, playing against writing, you ruin it.

Diet Schnaepp
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"As boulders kept falling from the top, I managed to form a stair on the left side of the screen. Four perfect steps lead from the ground into much higher regions -- it was in fact, the right side, I was worried about. You have no idea, how I messed up there. Some untimely buttons, even with that straight one.. Now I had to push everything to the left first before I even had time to consider my options. A T-shape! Yeah, that might work out nicely, i thought then. But being the optimistic fool that I am, I took the gamble for the Tetris instead of the quick relief. It never came. The end."

(I would rather play it.)

In some way or another everthing is a story. The question for any medium is: _which_ stories work best. Maybe you also have to take into account, that most people just like stories and would swallow their wine out of any cup. But connaiseurs prefer those thin glassed bowls and say it would purify the flavor. And even the masses call it a hit when the content fits the form (_and_ touches a nerve).

Debates are fundamentally stuck with the comparison to movies. Movies are the point of reference from which the hole debate only makes sense. One could argue that film stories themselves are by and large stuck in the 19th century. So what's the point?

Bob Johnson
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The article smashes the nail through the board.

It just shows that most people have no clue what makes up a great game and what makes video gaming a great medium. And it shows that many people just want to make CGI movies.

That's really what some of these "games" are nowadays. Just CGI movies with some rote gaming set pieces which in my mind leads towards why can't you just skip the gaming set pieces if are in for the narrative. And then why not just have the option to buy the CGI movie by itself. And then ...just watch tv and movies or read a book for narrative.

Narrative is really not a strength of this medium. That's how I read this article. The strength of the medium is interactivity aka player choice. The two aren't good companions.

What some folks are saying in reaction to this article is hey but I don't really like playing Solitaire unless it has a story attached. If it does then I can play Solitaire ad nauseum.

Others are saying well that's great, but maybe these things you like aren't "games." They certainly aren't going to push game design forward if they exist mostly for the narrative. YOu really are into CGI movies.

Altug Isigan
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Narrativity doesn't go away when a row of events is interactive. It's just that people mistake a certain format for narrative (book = narrative; movies = narrative). The issue is not that you can have either games or narrative. It's that narratives can be non-interactive and interactive, of which the latter is the case in games. That is the point that this article (and so many other articles that see them as two completely different categories) misses.

What people call "the gameplay" and think of as non-story/non-narrative can, and has been, studied as narrative.


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