The following post is in response to Francois’ excellent points and questions in the previous post on game fiction. To begin with his first comment: the unfolding of a game event is only *sometimes* driven by narrativity, and oftentimes only in collaboration with the ludic drive. In other words, the narrative drive is not always primary (or even present – Poker has plenty of ludic and absolutely no inherent narrative drive). The trick, of course, is to understand how they do co-exist when both are present. To take an example, the playing of a chess piece is not driven by narrative design (an already-in-place narrative design), but by ludic imperatives – the needs presented by the arrangement of pieces on the board at that play moment. We can discard chess as a possible candidate for game fiction.

On the other hand, a more challenging example would be Clue/Cluedo (to keep to board games for the moment). Here we do have some elements consistent with narrative – setting, character, MacGuffins galore. And here (to now get to Francois’ second point), the player must manage multiple roles. They are at once a named-character (Colonel Mustard, e.g.) and the unnamed “Investigator.” One in six times (potentially) these two roles adopted by a single player must work at cross purposes, because the Investigator may in fact implicate the same player’s character as the murderer. In other words, the good Colonel would implicate himself, without any clear motivation to do so.

Clue remains a complicated case because it is, at its heart, an emergent game, rather than progressive. There are 324 possible solutions (6 cards for characters, 9 cards for rooms, and another 6 cards for weapons), and the shuffling of cards, removal of 3, and subsequent game play all revolve around the emergent process of elimination. So, Clue (for me at least) remains this border case for game fiction. It certainly uses fiction within its ludic design, but to borrow from Chatman, I would argue that the fiction functions in service to the ludic design (see Chatman’s Coming to Terms).

So, for our third example, let us take a computer game like Half-Life, a single-player “first-person shooter” that is heavily steeped in an apocalyptic narrative: science experiment gone wrong, leading to the invasion of the world by alien beings, with one man (Gordan Freeman, the protagonist) trying to escape from the destroyed science laboratory. Is this a narrative? Some may be tempted to say no, because the action unfolds through player participation in a way that defies narrative conventions. The narrative is not medium-independent (so would say Juul, drawing from Chatman). Or it is quest-based, but not narrative (which is Aarseth’s implication in Ryan’s recent collection Narrative Across Media). Yet, Half-Life is clearly a game fiction, a ludic narrative. It is progressive, whereby the action moves in stages that are repeatable and consistent. Its purpose is one of actualization of a narrative design (more than one ending exists, but each repeatable and programmed). It is, in essence, scripted and therefore, despite the potential illusion (in play) of occurring in real time (to the player), the player works through a retelling of a pre-planned event.

These, I believe, are some of the distinctions we need to make in order to crack this nut that is at the heart of the oft-cited (and oft-maligned) ludology/narratology discussion.

With regard to the Stewart quotation – the significant shift here, of course, is we have added to the process of reading (or viewing, in the case of film) a feedback loop that is, in Aarseth’s terms, “non-trivial” (which I think is perhaps the wrong term, since reading is anything but – yet the point of physical engagement rings true). That feedback loop, what is often (mis?)called interactivity, remains one fundamental distinction between what we have traditionally called narratives and what are, in most respects, narrative games (ludological fictions, game fictions – whatever they must be called to allow us to discuss games-combined-with-narratives). But that players shift between multiple perspectives throughout their engagement with any game fiction is absolutely true, and part of what I’m talking about when I focus on the interface – rather than simply the avatar – in some of my work.

Thanks Francois, as always, for your careful reading and feedback.


8 Responses to Games, Fictions, Narratives

  1. Jason,

    I’m intrigued by your deployment of the term “narrative drive” in contrdistinction to “ludic drive”.

    My use of the term “narrativity” encompasses the notion of _script_.

    The chess and polker example. Yes the moves are limited. There is however an element of narration in game play: how the move is made.

    A game has a script, no?
    A script can be performed in different ways, no?

    A narrative is always accompanied by narration.

    For me, the concept of “game fiction” as I read your work as posted to Miscellany is the Largest Category involves the intersection of different dimenisons. In the comments to the “The End of Things” post I wrote about beginning to perceive different temporalities at play. In a sense “game fiction” offers a space, a zone if you will, where the temporality of the play, the perception of the play and the awareness of the possibilities of the next move or moves, become suspended. Phenomenologically the intersection of these three types of temporal instances can occur in the body of one player. They can also be found distributed between players, observers and designers (rule makers).

    What I am suggesting is that the research into “game fiction” might benefit from a detour around the ontological question of what? through a digression into the who? and the when? I am beginning to believe that games represent a three-body question for the gravitational world of story (narrative + narration). Games are perhaps more conducive to the meta moments that Jerome Bruner describes in Acts of Meaning.

    Hope the meandering helps… good luck with the next stages of the research and writing.


  2. I am wondering if the opposition of “narrative drive” and “ludic drive” sets up an adversarial situation — a grand narrative of manichean struggle. I construe the relation between game playing and story telling as one of encapsulation. The ludic drive as hypothesis forming and testing is a type of drive to narrativization. People play games to tell stories. People conduct experiments to tell stories. Or reshape the stories that are told.

    Yes, a drive to narrativization shifts the language of “narrative drive” towards one where the narrative and its narration are not only the originating impluse but also the product of a ludic drive.

  3. Jason says:

    A game has a script, no?

    Traditionally, no. Primarily, a game has rules. Recent game-narrative hybrids may have a script.

    A script can be performed in different ways, no?

    Again, traditionally, playing a game is not primarily interpretive (in the way we think of performing, say, Hamlet). It would probably be better described as competitive. Likewise, a game like poker is not scripted in a narrative sense. The act of poker can only become a narrative after the fact – once it is narrated. There’s an element of narration in almost anything we do – reading a poem, a ride on the Metro – which is why narrative only occurs through the retelling.

    So, as you say, narrative is always accompanied by narration. The difference, then, is those that are pre-scripted and those that are (literally) post-scripted. Progressive (and prepared) vs. emergent (and retold). Half-Life (scripted, with little variation in kernels; ) vs. chess (emergent, like life, and only narrative when – or if – retold via narration). Having narrativity, at least in the sense that Ryan (Narrative Across Media) implies, is thus distinguishable from being a narrative. Many things have narrativity (the potential for narrative), but not all are narratives without the accompanying act of retelling.

    Game fictions hold to many (but not all) conventions of narrative because they, unlike Chess, are pre-scripted. Not entirely, to be sure, but enough that we can play through again and again to distinguish the kernels from the satellites. Play through Half-Life enough times and we see the same script – the same guided play, the same characters, the same plot (that may end in a few narrow ways). The key here – and what comprises the bulk of my study – is the ways that game fictions provide narration. Just as film can narrate differently from a novel, through camera shots for example, so to do game fictions have their own narration techniques – e.g., scripted events dictated by time or space, or the use of in-game camera angles and art design, or interface components, or the inclusion of other traditional media (dialog, in-game text, cut-scenes, and so on).

    What a study of games really requires is not a microscope, but a wide-angle lens. The black-box nature of most games prevents a clear view of the pre-scripted, interconnected parts, many of which can easily be recognized as narratives (from such a view).

  4. Jason,

    Your positioning of game fiction as a genre is gaining cogency.
    It is your invocation of Marie-Laure Ryan that inspires me to take up the “script” question. As you know, Ryan in outlining the possible directions of transmedial narratology hints at the utility for the cross-modal analysis of artifacts and narratives of the concept of a script in terms very similar to the employ of this concept in the field of artificial intelligence.


    Though narrative as artifact requires both signifier and signified, i.e. both discourse and story, narrative as mental image can be formed in response to stimuli which are not material representations produced by humans. We may for instance form stories in our mind in response to life itself. While life is not a narrative, its ability to inspire the cognitive construct defined above – let me call it narrative script – means that it occasionally possesses a quality that we may call “narrativity.” The property of “being” a narrative can be predicated of any semiotic object produced with the intent to evoke a narrative script in the mind of the receiver. “Having narrativity,” on the other hand, means being able to evoke such a script.

    From the abstract to “Narratology beyond Literary Criticism” housed on the portal of the Narratology Research Group [ Forschergruppe Narratologie]

    Script: [from Gerald Prince’s _Dictionary of Narratology_] A representation of knowledge the elements of which are viewed as instructions about the proper fulfillment of certain roles.

    Look up “rule” in the same dictionary and you are in the territory of generative grammar with rewrite rules and transformation rules [No entry for “rule” alone.]

    The rules of chess, the scripts of Half Life.

    If inputs and outputs are so similar how to account for the texture of play that is so different?

    I dreamed up a sociological situation that tests your generic distinctions: someone plays chess poorly to offer a novice player the chance to get further along in their learning.

    Some games such as chess are more often, but not always, played to win. Game fictions are played to explore.

    But then there is the replay factor. Are the reasons why one would reread a book similar to the reasons that one would replay a game? The charms of familiarity.

    Children and bed time stories.
    Children and puzzles.
    Children and rhymes.

    I think some of the generic distinction is on surer ground when one considers the world-making aspects of both gaming and narrative construction. Ryan, as does Dolezel, posits a world populated and then moves on to changes in states of affairs. I have long meditated upon the ordering of this listing (a world, a world populated by a set of agents, a change in a state of affairs). I tend to approach cross-modal relations (artifacts or events that might appeal to more than one sensory modality) and transmedial narratology with an observational stance that posits “agency” as arising after a change in a state of affairs that carves out local ontologies in the world. It is a subtle point and one finds narratology veering into topology. It does allow us to resituate the relation between rules and scripts in support of the generic distinctions that Rhody’s concept of “game fiction” introduces.

    A rule is about a change of state in a world.
    A script is a rule that involves an agent in a role.

    Rules are roleless.
    Scripts are strongly social.

    Games that involve scripts would be classed as game fictions. Games that do not use scripts would not be game fictions in themselves but they could be embedded in game fictions.

    To recap: rules can control the populating of a world; scripts the movements of the population.

  5. A comment orthogonal to the question of characterizing the genre of “game fiction” but appropriate for the phenomenology of participant-approaches to games and stories. Susan Steware in On Longing (1993) in the section on the miniature writes: “The toy is the physical embodiment of the fiction: it is a device for fantasy, a point of beginning for narrative. the toy opens an interior world, lending itself to fantasy and privacy in a way that the abstract space, the playground, of social play does not.” Could this distinction between toy and playground be applied to the distinctiong between aspects of “game fiction”?

  6. Jason says:

    I need to take a closer look at Steware’s commentary and her description of the “playground”; the visual I have in my head when the word “playground” is used rarely shapes itself as an “abstract space.”

    Also, see Patrick’s recent comment on the original post (The End of Things) for another take on “playground” and “narrative templates.”

  7. Patrick says:

    Rather than address the specific terms of the discourse, I’m going to describe an indie game I’m working on (currently nearing the end of a long pre-production).

    The game’s claim to fame in the sense of rules reflecting fiction is a social AI engine for dramatic characters that allows relationships and mood and such to play a crucial role in the discourse, however this social game is nested in a wider infrastructure of a guerrilla war with more recognizable manipluations of tactics and resource management. I was describing the premise to a friend, that a bunch of Irish mages are trying to upset the control of English paladins in their country, and he asked if you could play as a paladin. I said “sure, its possible in the engine, but that wouldn’t be much of a game,” and then it hit me, like I was shot, like I was shot with a diamond, a diamond bullet right between my eyes – the genuis of that. Letting players engage in non-ludic (that is purely goal oriented) dynamics as a way of gaining counter-perspective on the thematic content of what could otherwise be reduced as a merely mechanical conflict.

    So you could say that the guerrilla warefare is the emergent part, and the social thing (which is defined by a scripting language) is scripted. You could say that, after all the way I script it can sublty effect a prescribed sequence of repeatble events, and it can do this across a variety of contexts in the wider infrastructure. But the key to this approach is that the mechanics of the verbs and materials (guerrilla war) and the dynamics of the character’s social behaviors feedback into each other, so that they parameterize each other in a complex way. The better I tune the content, the closer it gets to the peak of the triangle.

    Looks like I managed to address some of those terms anyway, good deal.

  8. Jason,

    Typo alert:
    Susan Stewart
    and bibliographic info:
    On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection ( Duke University Press, 1993)

    The passage referencing playgrounds is on page 56.

    Not much more on playgrounds per se. (The term doesn’t appear in the index.)

    However, the exchanges on about games and fiction and game/fiction haHowd me go back to third chapter (“The Game/Text Analogy: Three Paradoxes” in R. Rowdon Wilson’s book In Palamedes’ Shadow: Explorations in Play, Game, & Narrative Theory (Northeastern University Press, 1990). His discussion centres on a distinction he elaborates between conventions and rules. He is drawing in part on the work of Bernard Suits. So I consulted Suits’s The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (Toronto: Univeristy of Toronto Press, 1978) where I found the explanation open and closed games to be relevant.

    p. 137

    Yes, Skepticus, if a script is a kind of machine. For like the ping-pong machine, use of a script by players of make-believe games would be a more efficient — less risky — means for keeping a dramatic acton going than is the invention of dramatic responses on the spot, which is what the game requires. And that is precisely why sneak rejected Heuschrecke’s suggestion that he rehabilitate himself by taking up a dramatic career. From Sneak’s radically lusory point of view, acting from a script would be exactly like playing a game of solitarire with a stacked deck.
    Very well, Grasshopper, I am convicnced that our original definition is adequate to account for open as well as for closed games.
    Splendid, Skepticus. But before we leave this topic, let us return for a moment to some earlier dobuts we had about games like Cowboys and Indians and see whether our new understanding of open games can resolve them. We noted that the games of make-believe played by children are characterized by a good deal of argument about the legitimacy of the moves. And I believe our discovery — as I think we may not immodestly call it — of open games provides with an explanation of that fact. For, I suggest. such disagreement about the moves arises because the players are unclear about the differences between open and closed games. Because cops are ‘against’ robbers, and cowboys ‘against’ Indians, children are misled into treating these sets of ‘opponents’ as they would opposing football or hockey teams, so that the purely dramatic conflict of an open game becaomes confused with genuinely competitive conflict of a closed game. Arguments over a disputed move, therefore, are both muddled and, often, irreconcilable, since one party to the dispute may be tacitly appealing to a rule of an open game while the other party is tacitly appealing to a rule of a closed game. Perhaps it is for this reason that children soon abandon such pastimes in favour of standard closed games.
    Yes, for that reason and also. I should think, because standard closed games are usually competitive games, whereas open games appear to be essentially co-operative enterprises, and children love to be competing with one another.
    At any rate the children in our society do. [there follow remarks on anthropological and cross-cultural considerations]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.