Narrativists and Ludologists

August 10, 2006

For those unfamiliar with these terms, they serve as two large camps among game theorists. Narrativists believe that games arise from stories, that the narrative is actually the keystone of game design. Their opponents have criticized this belief, noting that in its extreme form, Narrativists would create a story for each game of Pong or Poker. The largest alternative, Ludology, believes gameplay is at the heart of any game; narrative always comes second, if at all. Some Ludologists go so far as to claim that the “story” of a game serves only as artificial motivation for changing the gameplay (i.e. levels). I believe the true game experience rests somewhere in between.

Narrativism is easy to combat, considering the recent surge in the casual game industry. Very few of these titles have a specific “plot” to explain why the player must match tiles, click colorful shapes, or what have you. No card game has a back-story, nor does any interesting story form during the play of such games. It may be argued, of course, that every series of actions could be considered a “story.” Here, I must point out, we enter the world of semantics rather than useful thought. Personally, I believe a story consists of much more than a “series of events,” but there exist those who see watching paint dry as a plot.

Even if we consider every game to have an associated narrative, whether it be the back-story, or simply the actions the player took to complete the game, narrativists run into another brick wall in believing this story to be the center of the game design. We cannot consider the player’s actions to be the story associated with the game design, because this becomes the definition of Ludology. We also cannot consider the narrative envisioned by the game designers and writers to be the essence of the title because this would produce a “choose your own adventure” movie/game. These are games in the traditional sense, but they obviously do not account for the wide variety of games that really terrible one.

On the other hand, Ludology cannot account for the repetitive nature of today’s industry. If gameplay served as the only reason we played titles, we’d quickly become bored with every genre available. The most obvious example comes in the first-person shooter. Sure, terrain, weapons, and physics produce minor differences in gameplay, but the essence of most FPSs remains the same. Shoot things that move; don’t get shot. The genre has grown significantly in complexity, but if we consider any games from about the same time period, we will see they have an almost identical gameplay. Look at Perfect Dark and Goldeneye, Wolf3d and Corridor 7, Quake and Unreal. What distinguishes these games from each other is their storylines, their settings. Goldeneye and Perfect Dark were made by the same company using basically the same engine, yet the characters created in each left unique, lasting impressions.

If we investigate what people enjoy from other media, we will see that although some really enjoy getting the same experience (i.e. romance novels), most prefer a combination of a generic style (i.e. thriller) with a specific, original plot (i.e. Bourne Identity). Games are no different in this respect. Try to think of the greatest games of the past five years. How many include detailed plots? Half Life, Halo, Pokemon, Zelda, and Starcraft all rely heavily on their plots, whether they be integrated into gameplay or cutscenes between levels.

Gameplay is at the heart of almost every title, and certainly of games that expect to sell, and we must not forget this. Plenty of games offer a very intricate plot and level design, but have terrible gameplay (I’m looking at you, Turok). At the same time, for a title to be a real hit, it must spark the emotions and interests of its players, requiring a very well define plot.

So what’s the conclusion? Well, gamers don’t play stories. Good games consist of interesting gameplay that is supported (however heavily) by engaging plotlines. Every media reaches its potential only when it distinguishes itself from the others. Audio told listeners the story; video showed them. Interactive media must allow the user to experience the story. This is only possible with well designed gameplay no matter how interesting the plot.


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