CC: It’s interactive storytelling.
GS: And what does that mean to the common person?

CC: It’s a story you get to participate in as the protagonist. You’re the hero…and you let the story go. It’s not at all like a regular story. It’s not as if you’re just following the footsteps of the hero in a standard movie. Interactive storytelling has a more meandering feel to it. You don’t charge down a plot line towards the end, you meander through a social environment.

Video Games are Dead: A Chat with Storytronics Guru Chris Crawford

What is the value of an ending? How does the concept of an ‘end’ – and the constitution of those steps required to achieve that end – change how we view the design, and the narrativity, of a game? All game rule sets are systems of control, and most contain some sense of an ending (checkmate, Uno!, or even, “and they lived happily ever after”), but most games lean more towards one of two overall types: progressive or emergent. With the potential for vast narrative landscapes in virtual environments, bound by the limits of hardware and broadband connections rather than those of paper and ink, emergent and progressive design are two key strategies for containing space, story, and time. And yet these two genres hold radically different approaches to the alchemy of interaction and narrative.

Progressive games are arguably a narrative, adhering to many of the conventions of the word except for the (rather significant) departure from a fluid narrative communication strategy (outlined years ago by Chatman as flowing unidirectional from “Real Author” to “Real Reader” – see an example of this diagramed here). Emergent games, however, arguably are not – they may create narratives through their play, just as we might create a narrative about our walk to the park, our conversation with the homeless man we met there, or how we tripped and fell into a puddle on the way home. Those are experiences and only become narratives when they are retold. A retelling may happen almost immediately, such as a transcript generated as you play through a game of Facade, but the transcript – not the play – is the narrative.

These two overall types, emergent and progressive, are loosely defined by both the end state for the completed game, and the process by which a player or players achieve that end state. Both may use fiction as a component of the game, but the former, I argue, is the only kind that would be considered “game fiction,” a phrase I use to describe a genre of game that draws upon and uses narrative strategies to create, maintain, and lead the user through a fictional environment. Game fiction’s two most immediate and obvious connotations are prose fiction and interactive fiction (IF), and it deliberately is suggestive of narrative forms – novels, films, and the like – and yet distinguished by the ludic quality implicit in the game.1

While emergent games provide a series of game states (a shuffled deck of cards, an arrangement on the board, a set of characters or pieces) and a set of rules, the play emerges from any myriad potential combinations. The standard set of chess moves and situations (many of which chess players will keep on note cards for reference and study) is one such example. The process is less “story-telling” and more “lived experience,” which distinguishes it from narrative, a form that at its base level is a retelling of events. To paraphrase the above comment by Crawford, in emergent games “you let the game go” – making choices along the way, influencing outcomes based on skill, knowledge, or luck. And yet the outcome – the end – is not designed (one might say, authored) as the completion of a series of staged, repeatable events.

Progressive games, on the other hand, often may adhere to what Aarseth calls the “pearl chain structure” (“Quest Games” 369), although with varying degrees of sophistication, and usually providing for at least some limited choice and configurability. They offer delineated paths, often a quest (either explicit or not) toward the completion of a goal: rescue a princess, defeat the invaders, escape from certain doom, or find the missing pages of a book. Computer games that involve platform jumping, adventure games, first-person shooter (or sneaking) games, and several styles of role-playing game involve predominantly progressive play. Significantly, in progressive games any emergent behavior generally is constrained to the supplementary events (satellites in Chatman’s terms) rather the constituent ones (kernels). 2 Rather than following the footsteps of the hero, as Crawford suggests above, the player activity is more akin to following the footprints laid out on the floor by a dance instructor. With emergent games, the design process is one of stimulating potential. With progressive games, the design process is one of encouraging actualization.

Game fictions, then, include a presupposed end-game (or end-games), engendering a process by which the player interacts with the ludic design in order to actualize an ideal completion of the game’s goals — to solve a mystery, to build towards a functional system, and/or to actualize a narrative sequence. If the rise of the novel in the 18th century reflected a growing “tendency for individual experience to replace collective tradition,” as Ian Watt argues (Rise of the Novel 14), then comparatively the rise of game fiction could be seen to reflect a tendency towards collective tradition under the guise of individual experience. The interactive and competitive nature of the game fiction requires an interface for interaction and a shift in point of view, a framework guiding the player toward goals, which is most often framed as a quest, and establishing the parameters of the player character’s abilities within the game and fictional space. Just as the shift from reader to player necessitates these control systems and feedback loops, so to does the shift bring with it thematic focus: encountering new worlds, managing conflict and goals, and bringing a character under player control and managing models of understanding his or her abilities, history, and story. The individual experience is in fact collective tradition, an echo perhaps of Marie-Laure Ryan’s musing that hypertextual “aesthetic pleasure, like political harmony, is a matter not of unbridled license but of controlled freedom” (Narrative as Virtual Reality 8-9).

1 “Interactive fiction” would presumably suffice, and yet this term is so closely aligned with text-based adventure games (and some text-based procedural works that aren’t necessarily games) that expanding the use of the phrase to encompass all types of game fictions seems unlikely to be adopted. Furthermore, the term “interactive” is limited in many ways as a descriptive term – as discussed in depth by Aarseth, Manovich, and others – so as to discourage my adoption of it over “game.”

2Importantly, games may contain both emergent and progressive qualities, but just as texts, as Chatman asserts, adhere to a predominant type — Narrative, Argument, or Description — (CTT 6) so too do games, and either type can function “in service to” the other . So the games that are often heralded as more sophisticated for their non-linearity, such as Grand Theft Auto 3, Morrowind, and so on, often have a broader dose of Emergent play in service to their predominant Progressive type. Also note that games can share many qualities but lean more heavily towards one side or the other on this spectrum, e.g. Half-Life and Counterstrike, or Starcraft (Single-player) and Starcraft (Multi-player).


5 Responses to The End of Things

  1. I pause my reading to note:

    “but the transcript – not the play – is the narrative. ”

    How does the narration/narrative distinction work in this attempt to distinguish between the playing and the retelling?

    Narrative is accessed by narration. The unfolding of an event, the acutal playing of a game, is driven by narrativity i.e. the attempt to produce a narrative or to apply a narrative. Its relation to narration is secondary. It is not trying to become a narration. For that matter, the unfolding of an event is not trying to become a narrative. The temporality of game play is distinct from the temporality of story & story telling.

    Back to reading.

  2. This question about the temporality of the event of game play and the temporalities of records of game play and their relation to each other popped up again while I was reading Susan Stewart _On Longing_. She writes: “[T]he distance between the situation of reading and the situation of the depiction is bridge by description, the use of a field of familiar signs. […] Thus, whenever we speak of the context of reading, we see at work a doubling which undermines the authority of both the reading situation and the situation or locus of the depiction: the reader is not in either world, but rather moves between them, and thereby moves between varieties of partaial and transcendental vision.” [p. 44-45]

    The terms are different but suggestive: situation, locus, moves, world, partial and transcendental [synoptic?] vision. The idea of overlapping situations might be useful. The players may fluctuate between playiang the game and reading the game, all in one session.

  3. Jason says:

    Francois – see my recent post, which addresses your comments. Thanks again for your thoughtful input.

  4. Patrick says:

    A solid analysis you’ve done here, however like all theoretical dichotomies (or most, I shouldn’t over generalize) the interesting questions arise from a synthesis. Consider Civilization, or better yet Alpha Centauri, which had a much more evocative SF fiction to its largely similar rule-set, the patterns of play were emergent, yet there was also a four-fold end-game structure (conquest, technology, diplomacy or economy were all viable win-conditions) that blends seamlessly with the emergence structure and produces and interesting play arc, which feels like a story experience. I think if we made the materials and formals (the rules) consist of social agents whose behavioral parameters resemble personality (characters) then we’d be in a position to render fictions which dealt more directly with human drama and societal commentary. I’m very interested in providing a dramatic playground which tends towards actualizations of narrative templates by the feedback loops of stimulated potential, to synthesize the astute terms you embolded above.

  5. Jason says:

    Hi Patrick,
    Thanks for your comments. I would emphasize that in part I am trying to distinguish “fiction in games” from “game fiction as genre.” Many, many games use fiction, no doubt, though they might not themselves be considered game fictions. And though I try to avoid dichotomies (although, as a friend once remarked, the triangle is the new dichotomy), I do think that we do have a spectrum, at least, or perhaps better said – a tension – between actualized events and stimulating potential. Once a system of control is provided for, as it is in most “interactive” forms of art, the degree of control becomes one of the primary formal defining characteristics.

    I’m intrigued by the potential for the combinations of (as you so nicely put it) “dramatic playgrounds” and “narrative templates,” but I’m also bound somewhat by a desire to study – as Lev Manovich has articulated – “a history of the present.” It’s been a while since my strategy game days, but as I recall Civilization’s stages and technology trees, for example, they are not primarily narrative-style events (they have “narrativity,” sure). I find Starcraft a particularly intriguing example – to what degree does the single-player campaign function as a game fiction, when I would without hesitation claim that the multiplayer game does not?

    Pretty soon, I hope to share specific qualities I see in “game fictions,” which might also help clarify my position. If you didn’t see it, there is also a follow-up post to this one ( ).

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