Monday, February 22, 2010

Ludology, narrative, stalemate.

So it has once again been a very long time since I posted here. Since October, I have been doing quite a lot of academic reading for games. In particular, Hamlet on the Holodeck by Janet H. Murray (a good place to start), and various articles in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Thanks to the dudes who took the time to comment on my last post and give me a place to start reading. There are still a lot of names there I am yet to read, but a lot more of them are beginning to look familiar the more I read.

This semester (commencing next week) I am returning to uni. I am not starting Honours until next year (I will be doing Communication & Cultural Studies), but this semester I am doing a Media Studies research topic as I kind of precursor. I am planning on either looking at Grand Theft Auto IV or Fallout 3 in relation to Jenkins's article, "Game Design as Narrative Architecture". Specifically, his concept of examining games less as stories and more as "spaces ripe with narrative possibility".

I have also forced myself to read some articles in First Person that do not relate specifically to my interest in narrative, as well as those that fight more for ludology (out of those that still frame the issue as a debate between the two). These viewpoints that I do not normally consider have been challenging but very interesting and insightful.

So for this post, I just want to empty my head with a few ideas and things that are running around in there. They are ideas that are related, but in this post they will be presented in separate blobs.I will work on pulling them together as time passes and I get more confident with the texts I am reading. Also, I accept there is the very likely probability that I am going to a) give acknowledgement of concepts and ideas to the wrong people; ie. to the person who wrote the article I first read it in when there may very well be a previous piece that covered it first; feel free to correct me. And b) to have epiphanies and ideas that are either proven wrong already or are better worded by academics I am yet to read; again, please correct me or point me in the right direction.

So here are just a few things running around my head. Firstly:

1. Don't ask what narrative can do for games, but what games can do for narrative.

Okay, that is horribly cliche, but it is the best way I can think to describe simply what I mean. Games don't need narrative. Fact. They are able to "have narratives" (in a very vague sense that I will get to later) but they do not need narratives. Tetris does not need a narrative; Chime does not need a narrative; Geometry Wars does not need a narrative; yet all of these are still able to be amazing games.

In the introduction to "Towards Computer Game Studies", Eskelinen invokes the metaphor of colonisation:

"So if there already is or soon will be a legitimate field for computer game studies, this field is also very open to intrusions and colonisations from the already organised scholarly tribes."

This got me thinking and I kind of got carried away with the metaphor in my head. Narratologists, Cultural Studies Peoples (what do you call people who study Cultural Studies, btw?), English Literature Peoples, etc. are all looking at games and how they can be "improved", so to speak, with narrative. I guess this is similar to a bunch of Europeans riding a boat to [insert Oriental country here] and "improving" the indigenous population by civilising them. In a way, the staunch ludologists are the indigenous tribes refusing to give up their own culture and constantly pestering the advancing colonists instead of just submitting.

Until Eskelinen's article, which I only read a few hours ago, I was one of those colonists, keen to "improve" games with better narrative, whatever that means. But now I realise that I don't want to improve games with narrative, but I want to see in what ways games can make narratives more emotive, more expressive, than any previous medium could beforehand. I want to learn hunting skills and natural medicine from the locals as opposed to converting them all to Christianity, so to speak.

Now back to that thing where I said games "have narrative", which was really just me using a gap filler.

2. Games are not, and can not be narratives. They can be narrative-spaces, or (if I dare coin a term) prenarratives.

Games are not narratives. "Most naive comparisons between narratives and games usually result from too narrow, broad, or feeble definitions of the former," says Eskelinen, and I realised I agree with him. Sure, games are able to have narrative elements, but they do not have ALL the elements. You can not just conveniently forget or add certain properties of what defines 'narrative' just to make it fit. Games are narrative-ish, I suppose.

Sticking with Eskelinen for now. This has got to be one of my favourite ludology-leaning quotes so far:

"[I]f I throw a ball at you, I don't expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories."

Very true! BUT! If you throw a ball at me, and I throw it back, then perhaps later I could tell you the story of how you threw a ball at me and I threw it back. Eskelinen also says this:

"A sequence of events enacted constitutes a drama, a sequence of events taking place [constitutes] a performance, a sequence of events recounted [constitutes] a narrative, and perhaps a sequence of events produced by manipulating equipment and following formal rules constitutes a game." [bold added]

A sequence of events recounted is a narrative. This is very true. I'm sure there are hundreds of academics and theorists who have said this before me, but narratives happened in the past (before they could have been considered 'narratives' and were just events) and are recounted in the present (thus turning the events into narratives). This is why most stories are in the past tense. But games are more immediate due to the unique attribute of being interactive. Games are happenings, not recountings. BUT what about after the game is finished, what then? When that game experience, the events that constituted that playthrough, are connected in the form of a narrative with both plot and story. This is the case whether you are simply talking to your friend about something that happened to your character in Fallout 3, or writing a blog for your Sims, or creating a user video out of Grand Theft Auto IV, or recording your perma-death experiment on Far Cry 2. Games are not narratives, but the events of games can be retold as narratives. My life is not a narrative, but it can be written as a narrative once it is over.

So this leads me to Jenkins's "Game Design as Narrative Architecture" and the idea of "examining games less as stories [and more] as spaces ripe with narrative possibility." Or, more simply, narrative-spaces. To use the biography analogy again, our lives are full of choices and events capable of forming our lives into a compelling narrative if formed in the right way. As are the events and choices we make in any "story-based" video game (another term that will need clearing up).

Open world games like Bethesda titles are probably the best example, but not the only examples. I am going to use Fallout 3 as an example. The Capital Wasteland is littered with compelling narrative elements which, independently, are not narratives in their own right. A comm log here, the corpses of a raided caravan there, a town infested with Death Claws beyond that hill. But as my character threads her way across the Capital Wasteland, discovering her own character and morality by the choices she is forced to make(no different, I believe, to a character "finding herself" in any journey story), these separate elements are stitched together through my interaction with the narrative-space (the game world), and these events can then later be retold as a narrative.

So whether or not games are narratives is irrelevant. Games can be retold as narratives. The choices Qwae, my first Fallout 3 character, had to make in the final chapters of The Pitt have shaped who she is ever since. I can recall this story as clearly as I can recall any story on the bookshelf beside me, it affected me so greatly--more so because I had a role (an interaction) in the decision made.

So games are not narrative.
Games are prenarrative, perhaps. They are the building blocks, the events, that must exist before the narrative does, no less so than the events in a novel or a film or a life exist (even if only in the author's or director's head) before the narrative does. The fact that each person who plays through Fallout 3 will have a slightly different narrative to recall afterwards is what makes games so valuable to narrative (as opposed to narrative being valuable to games).


So this is quite long, but I think those are the two key things I needed to get out of my head before I forgot. Any opinions are welcomed. Am I crazy? Am I stating the obvious? Has all this already been stated far better by someone else? Has all this already been proven wrong by someone else? Let me know.


Brendan said...

Comments on these thoughts as posted on facebook

Dave Crewe
I like the idea of "narrative spaces" - it kind of encompasses what I like about storytelling in games in a way that I hadn't recognised before. In particular, I like the way that games like Bioshock or Metroid Prime develop this by leaving diaries, or audio logs or whatever for you to experience the story as you see fit - your interaction with the... See more storyline (even if it is a linear one) is as deep as you choose it to be.

This is a big step, obviously, from more traditional games with cutscenes spelling out the storyline in between the gamey bits. I definitely like that it allows for contrasting recollections or experiences of the game as narrative - two players can play the same game but encounter different elements in a different way, and enrich their understanding through a conversation. Whereas when the storytelling is just handed to you, such conversations (or narratives, if you will) are restricted to recollections of shared experiences.

Anyway, this was interesting! You should spellcheck before you post these things though :P


Brendan Keogh
*Pockets the word 'enrich' for later, excessive use.*

Thanks, Dave! The word didn't get a mention in my blog, but 'exploration' comes up a lot in these articles I read. That making the player 'search' for the story, in a sense, makes it more... compelling. I guess 'exploring' and 'finding' story elements within the game world is pretty much the same as the idea of threading a story through a narrative space.

Certainly, Bioshock became more and more enthralling as I played it more times and discovered more audie logs and was able to place them into some kind of sensical order in my head. Or Half-life 2 is still so gripping the fifth time you play through as just by looking right instead of looking left, you see an event happen, or hear a conversation, that gives sense to something later (or earlier) in the game. ... See more

So one player finds certain audio logs and misses others, while another players finds and misses others. Both players will finish the game with different understandings and empathies for different characters, and will thus interpret the 'text' of the narrative in different ways afterwards. Crazy stuff!

I would (and should) spellcheck more when I blog, especially if I want to be taken seriously. But by the time I get it all out I just cbf'ed. I used to type it into Word first so that I got the red squigglies and what not, but then blogger didnt let you post stuff over from Word >_>. I think Word adds all this sneaky html stuff when you copy paste and blogger is all "hell no!" Though, at the least, I certainly should ensure I am not using the synonymn of 'whether' that means to castrate sheep, but I have a bad feeling that is exactly the spelling I used.


Brendan said...

more facebook

Glynn Keogh
Pretty good read, lots of stuff that makes alot of sense. Definately agree with the whole 'games are events about which a narrative is formed' thing, it's a very good point. A good game narrative must be left to the interpretation/creation of the player, and not forced upon them by the designer; otherwise it is wasted in an interactive media.

Mind you, you also just about instantly dissuaded me from writing a blog, because there is no way I can write so academically...


Helen Berents
@Glynn Keogh you should absolutely write a blog with your brother!! You are allowed to have different voices (and we all know that brendan is the wankiest of brothers anyways!). So DO IT.

@Brendan - spellcheck fool. and I'm going off to read the blog and scan the article so when you rant at me later I know what you are talking about.

@all of you... you should have this conversation on Brendan's blog so other people can participate in the discussion.... which is what you want!

Brendan said...

MORE facebook

Helen Berents
aww man, i am withholding my itching-internal-anthropologist from commenting on your horrible appropriation of colonisation metaphor... because what you are actually saying is interesting, but be warned the giant stick of anthropological correctness LOOOOMS...


Brendan Keogh
more like anthroPOOlogy


Helen Berents
*spam mac spam*

Here is a thought I had, which I guess kind of, not contradicts, but complicates your argument:

You say that ... See more
"A sequence of events recounted is a narrative. This is very true. I'm sure there are hundreds of academics and theorists who have said this before me, but narratives happened in the past (before they could have been considered 'narratives' and were just events) and are recounted in the present (thus turning the events into narratives...Games are not narratives, but the events of games can be retold as narratives. My life is not a narrative, but it can be written as a narrative once it is over"

I would argue that your life IS a narrative, and more than that, that your narrative is enacted in the present tense. In the same way, playthrough of a game occurs in the present tense.

If we take the example of watching a live match of Left 4 Dead, the commentator(s) use present tense to describe the narrative of the game. You can recount that narrative in the past tense afterwards. But that doesn't discount the initial experience being in the present.

Subsequent experiences are coloured by surroundings and emotions and these add layers of complexity to someone's narrative. One player choses to kill a significant NPC, one player choses not to... they both still get to the end of the game, but their experiences of the world differ from the choice they make... but the initial narrative event is the moment they do/or don't pull the trigger.

Not sure I'm being clear, and I'm writing an epic. Will speak to you later!

Brendan said...

Final Facebook Comments, I swear!

Brendan Keogh
Brendan Keogh
It is not a metaphor I would be willing to use anywhere other than a brain-gushing blog, but I think in the simplest, broadest terms, it is useful for understanding why ludologists are so defensive against narratologists and what not.

But certainly, it is too contested and simplified to be used in a uni esay or thesis or whatnot.


Brendan Keogh
Your point makes sense, but i think I disagree. Unfortunately I do not have an article I can grab and quote here to prove my point, but I feel a narrative is not a complete narrative until it is finished. It needs a beginning, middle, and end, I suppose. The L4D commentators are commentating in real-time, but the narrative isn't complete until they have commentated the final scene.

That said, every narrative consists of smaller, micronarratives. So within the narrative of a game or a life, there can be smaller complete narratives of beginning, middle, end. So someone can tell the narrative of their experience in a certain natural disaster, for example, as a complete narrative while they are still alive, but the narrative of their entire life isn't complete yet. Just as the narrative of their experience in that natural disaster isnt complete until the disaster is over and they are still around to tell it (this is an incredibly broad, aalogy with far too many loose ends, I acknowledge).

So one of the elements within the narrative-spaces of games are complete micronarratives. Like the narrative of one particular level, I suppose.... See more

I guess my feeling is a narrative is not a narrative until it is completed in the same way a building is not a building before it is completed. It has elements of narrative, certainly, or else it could not be one once it is completed... but it isnt one yet.

Of course, then you get all tied down with how do you define a narrative as 'complete', which I could not tell you at the moment! But I feel I am on the right track, though.


Helen said...

We've had a bit of a conversation about this out in the real world (ooOOOo)... but I wanted to just mention for the sake of discussion here:

I feel you are imposing 'false' endings. You say a narrative is not a narrative until it is 'complete'... but when is a narrative 'complete'? who decides? is it not arbitrary?

I think it is ok, for the sake of academic analysis to impose 'endings' to be able to establish narrative blocs capable of being studied.

However I think a) you need to make the fact you acknowledge the 'falseness' very clear and b) I'm not sure you aren't undermining your own argument by doing this, inasmuch as you want to see how games give something 'new' to understandings of narrative, but you aren't letting them if you impose false endings to suit your needs.

Anyways, just incomplete thoughts...

chr156r33n said...

I thought the piece was very interesting, and as someone who is only just beginning to really look into the Ludology, Narrative dichotomy, it was certainly accessible without compromising on content.

The part I found most interesting was "Games are not narratives, but the events of games can be retold as narratives", mainly because its a new way of thinking about games and narrative, but also because I don't really agree with it. The issue I have is that whilst I don't really know whether gaming is a narrative medium, I do know that there is narrative and it does take place. Okay, so the distinction was that because its happening rather than happened it isn't a narrative and you make it one later, but I believe that cut scenes happen in the past tense. This might not be very true of interactive cut scenes where your actions impact on what happens (Heavy Rain) – in that case the it might not be seen as narrative, although I feel that traditional cut scenes are recounts of events even if they are occurring in front of you in much the same way that a scene within a film would be considered. I don't think the game's narrative circuit has to be completed for it to be considered a narrative event.

These are just some passing musings though, I could be wrong. Good stuff though!

Brendan said...


Hey, Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts. :)

The idea of naratives being 'retellings' and not 'happenings' seems to be where most of the criticism is focused in this post of mine. It's a definition of narrative that is quite contentious. In hignsight, I think the issue is that I am confusing 'narrative' and 'story'. Perhaps narratives happen in the present, and it is the story that is retold. These are all definitions I have to be able to define more clearly.

I am still of the opinion that games are not and can not be narratives. Rather, games are spaces where narratives are formed by the player. So the narrative is in the playing of the game, perhaps, but it is not the game itself.

Anyway, now I am just repeating myself. Certainly, though, my pressumption of narratives as past-tense needs to be reconsidered.

Fraser said...

Hi Brendan,

I'm in a similar situation to you right now - wrapping my head around academic theories of games for the first time - but maybe a few months further down the track. Like you, I'm a novice in all of this, but I have some advice that might help; take it with a pinch of salt.

First, don't buy into the ludology vs narratology debate too much. You can't avoid talking about it, but it's not as clear-cut as some (Eskelinen in particular) make it seem.

For one thing, while ludologists abound, self-described narratologists (or narrativists) are hard to find; those who have been called narratologists, such as Janet Murray and Henry Jenkins, are universally supportive of the idea that games should be studied as games, not as stories - they simply consider narrative to be one useful perspective to consider games.

To the extent the debate does exist, it’s because narratologists and ludologists define "narrative" differently. For example, this is an early argument put forth by Gonzalo Frasca for why games aren’t narrative:

"Sure, we could say, as some people do, that simulations are a different flavor of narrative, but by doing this we risk to turn "narrative" into a very vague term that could be applied to almost everthing (because, after all, for an observer ANY mediated event could be considered as a narrative)."

The problem? That is the definition of "narrative" that narratologists generally use. So ludologists and narratologists don't disagree on principles, they just want "narrative" to mean different things. It's a semantic argument - aka a waste of breath.

Frasca is one of the main culprits for propagating this debate, even when he seemed to be trying to heal the divide. Here's where he helped start the fight:
Here's where he tried to end it, but somehow made it worse:
Here's where Celia Pearce got fed up with him about it:

Note the semantic ambiguity of "narrative" causes problems for your declaration "games are not and cannot be narratives". The truth of your statement depends on the definition of "narrative" you choose.

The point you make about narrative elements is great, and the examples you gave from Fallout 3 are very apt for Henry Jenkins' concept of narrative architecture.

I've just started an honours thesis on how game mechanics create meaning for the player. If I was analysing Fallout 3, I’d look at how the upgradeable skills system gives the player a sense of increasing competence and power, and how the equipment condition/repair system conveys ideas of consumption and conservation of resources. This might or might not be considered "narrative", depending on your definition. If you're interested, I recommend reading about the speech Soren Johnson just gave at GDC:
And Eric Zimmerman's analysis of the game-story of Ms Pac-Man, in First Person - also online:

A few academic articles relevant to your topic:

You could also look at the honours thesis of a friend of mine, Daniel Golding, who proposed that "videogames are best conceptualised as navigable, spatial texts". If nothing else, the bibliography should be valuable to you:

Best of luck!


Brendan said...


Thanks a heap for stopping by and for the extensive comment! That is some really useful advice and some really useful references that I will definetly look into. Thanks!

Since writing this piece, I kind of realised that I was about five or seven years too late to the narrative vs ludology stalemate. Still, I think it is something that I needed to explore before I could form my own opinions on games as stories and what not.

Just yesterday I started reading Juul's Half-real, which pretty much states exactly what you have said: that games 'are' narrative depending on how you define narrative. Juul puts forward six definitions of narrative and shows how games do and don't fit into each definition. As I move chronologically through the the literature, approaching the present day, I seem to be realising that this 'stalemate' seems to have undergone negotiations and narrative and ludology seems to be getting along alot better than they were earlier this millinium.

My topic this semester (as I only have a 4000word essay and needed to narrow my field quite a lot) is heading towards being more of a look at how the real-world player and in-game character 'combine' (for lack of a better verb, at the moment) to share the role of 'protagonist' in a certain type of video games--that certain type being coherent-world, progression games, to carelessly use some Juul comments that I have known of for less than twenty-four hours.

I will still be looking at Fallout 3, most likely, and your points of some of the main elements worth looking at are definetly worth considering. To be honest, I hadn't even really started considering the game in any specific way yet as I am still being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of general theory I have never read before.

Anyhoo, thanks for dropping by and for the resources. Good to hear from someone else still relatively new to it all. I'd be keen to read that thesis as well, once you finish it :)