Games and narrative  
Here, hauntingly familiar faces are joined by a rogue´s gallery of fresh characters and situations, as you try to pick your prey -the armed and dangerous Nexus-6 replicants- out of the swarming crowds. They could be anyone: the guy dishing out the noodles... last night´s warm body... hell, for all you know, you could even be a skin job yourself. In this world, the ground never stays still beneath your feet and the storyline changes with every move you make.


"Games as Narrative" was the title of the third module of RE:PLAY, an online forum about electronic games held during July and August 1999 at http://www.eyebeam.org/replay/. I have substituted the conjunction to avoid the instant identification of the two concepts, an issue that generated endless discussion in the four modules of the forum. From those who thought that all games were somehow narratives to those who complained of the poor narrative component in the most successful games, all the developers, professors and experts could have been said to agree in a fundamental point: the digital medium is transforming our perception of narrative. MUDs and MOOs, hypertext, games and other hybrid electronic forms question notions like authorship, interactivity, genre, narrative and linearity; and their already massive presence in society makes them a cultural influence to take into account together with more established media like television, cinema or print fiction itself.

Games and stories are not the same thing, yet they have features in common. In his article "I Have No Words & I Must Design", game designer Greg Costikyan has given a very useful description of games, listing their characteristics and opposing them to other objects that are usually mistaken for games. According to him, games:

  • are interactive (as opposed to puzzles, that are static)
  • have goals (as opposed to toys, that don´t have any)
  • are non-linear (as opposed to stories, that are linear)
  • demand active participation (as opposed to traditional artforms, that play to a passive audience)
  • force the player to make decisions according to relevant information

He therefore concludes that "a game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal." He gives various examples to illustrate his definition, and considers "other things that strengthen games", although they are not strictly necessary, like diplomacy, color, simulation, randomness, position identification, roleplaying, socializing and narrative tension.

I agree with Costikyan´s analysis, except for his too narrow conception of "story". After decades of literary avant-garde, reader response criticism, postmodern critical theory and even hypertext (as Costikyan himself acknowledges), it´s difficult to treat literary texts as well defined, self-contained finite objects that require a passive audience for their consumption, (although it´s obvious Costikyan does this for practical reasons). It´s true that hypertext is not completely interactive, (as the story doesn´t really respond to the reader´s actions, but merely allows her to traverse its text nodes following different paths), but neither is then a game like the aforementioned Gabriel Knight I. Sins of the Fathers. In this game, the player must always solve certain puzzles and the action has only one possible outcome. Gabriel Knight I is an adventure game. I´ll examine this genre in the next section, but it already seems that these games are not like the others, in fact, following Costikyan´s definition, they wouldn´t be games at all since they have such a heavy narrative component.

For Janet Murray, games and stories are not necessarily opposed. In Hamlet on the Holodeck she says: "A game is a kind of abstract storytelling that resembles the world of common experience but compresses it in order to heighten interest. Every game, electronic or otherwise, can be experienced as a symbolic drama" (Murray 142). According to her, we engage in meaningful dramas even when we play pure luck games, like lottery, or abstract games such as Tetris. Games and narratives also share a common early ground, since both spring from the idea of contest between oponents, or agon (Murray, 145). And as Murray and Costikyan both point out, the biggest objection to comparing games and narrative may be the difficulty of combining player agency with narrative coherence, (Murray 151, Costikyan). How can we let players choose paths and endings without compromising the "quality" of the resultant tale? Why are the "losing" endings of Myst more dramatically satisfying than the "winning" ending?

The RE:PLAY forum discussed this question at length. Chris Crawford rejects the belief that interactivity and narrative cannot be reconciled:

The error here lies in identifying one particular plot with narrative in general. Yes, if Macbeth bumps off Lady Macbeth, then the result isn´t Shakespeare´s Macbeth, but does that mean that it´s ruined? There are countless variations on the basic storyline that remain true to the overall theme. This does not mean that we must permit dramatically destructive behavior on the part of the user. Giving him choices doesn´t require us to give him stupid or boring choices. We can still confine him to dramatically interesting options. (Crawford)

The important thing wouldn´t then be the concrete actions, but their relationship with a general theme or ethos. This takes a lot of work, and forces designers to think beyond mechanical puzzles or spectacular inmersive graphics, which seems to be all that the game industry means when they talk about interactivity.

This is not to say that all pleasure in games comes from narrative tension. There are many different kinds of pleasure, from the mastering of a joystick to the solving of complicated puzzles or the simple realization that your actions have some effect on the general development of the game. For a more detailed study on games from the psychological point of view (pleasure, learning, problem solving, etc), see Estallo, and about the socio-psychological signification of digital environments see Turkle.

I think narrative can help understand games in general, specially adventure games. This doesn´t mean that the old theoretical tools should be applied to the new object without a second thought, or that the two media should be compared to say "which one is best". To my mind , this is a completely useless approach that doesn´t broaden our understanding of games or narrative at all. We don´t yet have a critical language to speak about games, and many of the misunderstandings in the field arise from our lack of a common terminological starting point. This is where concepts like genre, plot or character can help, (although they are far from being dead subjects in literary studies), since they are clear enough to start the discussion. Of course we shall adapt them to our object and devise new terms for new issues