March 14, 2006

Overly Escapist

by Andrew Stern · , 4:01 pm

The Escapist has a new article by journalist and editor Mark Wallace, “The Play’s the Thing“, informing readers about the existence of the academic ludology/narratology debate — that it appears most game scholars are ready to move on from. Members of the IT-Copenhagen gang (Aarseth, Juul, Frasca) are quoted (Espen in fact referring to himself as a narratologist ;-) plus ex-developer Mark Barrett. Wallace (who has commented here at GTxA, skeptical of interactive stories) concludes that it’s “the wrong debate”; regarding game and narrative in interactive entertainment, “one doesn’t exist without the other”.

I doubt anyone here is interested in re-igniting this debate that we’ve followed and fed over the years (1 2 3 4 5). This post is not a salvo, just a comment: at a minimum, from a design and technology standpoint, it’s a cop-out to suggest that the relationship between gameplay and narrative is a non-issue. It’s a very real issue, as we most recently attempt to point out in our DiGRA paper from last June (be sure to read at least as far as “A Stalled Debate”). In fact, we believe this issue lies at the heart of what’s preventing interactive entertainment from appealing to more of the mass-market non-gamers out there.

Uh oh, am I one of those people “with vested interests [who] have succeeded in putting forward a masturbatory, ego-driven, politically-motivated debate that is never going to help anyone make a better interactive product” ? No doubt about it, Façade is a direct concrete attempt to make progress towards this issue, so you could argue it’s in our interest to keep the debate alive.

But could it be that there are real challenges to be addressed and researched here, highly relevant to both industry and academia, that won’t go away just because it’s a hard problem?

It’d be one thing to say, “game-stories where you have rich gameplay combined with deep, real effects on a non-linear story haven’t been built yet, but we don’t care — we’re having plenty of fun with games in their current form!” But to give up, blow it off or pretend the issue doesn’t exist seems irresponsible and incorrect.

15 Responses to “Overly Escapist”


  1. Patrick Says:

    Whew, navigating the links on GTxA is a maze of twisty little passages.

    I’d say interactive drama is a hard problem with a little “h”, not in the sense that computer pattern recognition is a Hard Problem. I’m also convince what while the debate isn’t entirely meaningless or masturbatory, as Wallace put it, a top-down approach to these issues is only useful in framing bottom-up design efforts. I’m pretty happy with this emerging first generation of drama engines, not because they satisfy the holy grail dream, but because I can see how their strengths and weaknesses might fit together to provide a framework for the second generation of platforms. I’ll be able to discuss this at the next Phrontisterion in October, at which point I’ll have fairly extensive experience with both Storytron and the Utopia engine, which will be demo-ed at GDC next week.

    But lets get theoretical for a minute, consider story form a purely academic standpoint to be about linear sequences of events, which is why language has been so useful for storytelling for such a long time. Conversely, gameplay is all about pattern recognition, navigating the dynamics of a simulation. However, in human cognition logic and pattern can synergize to create subjunctive thought, the stuff that prediction, hypothesis and dreams are made of. I’m shamelessly ripping off Chris Crawford’s body of writing, but the point is that interaction that supports and cultivates subjunctive thought is where the art and money is. When you think about how a story is told through a process of human-computer interaction (thats long hand for interactive storytelling), its essential to factor in human subjunctivity as the engine of intentionality. We’ve seen brillaint flashes of it in the classic games, Planescape: Torment, Alpha Centauri, great IFs like A Mind Forever Voyaging, but it hasn’t really been done in a way where the interaction consistently builds off the player’s subjunctivity in a cyclical feedback loop. Have I addressed the hard problem?

    In this context I’d like to re-suggest that we use the term “drama game” or “dramatic gameplay” to describe what we’re trying to do, since its fewer syllables, clearer to people in the industry and current gamers, and implies that while we’re trying to do something very new that challenges formerly untapped mental modules (social and verbal) its still the same medium.

  2. Jeff On Games » Blog Archive » Researching Story Says:

    [...]
    Researching Story

    The Escapist has an article and GrandTextAuto has a response about the Ludology vs. Narratology debate. There are a few things that I [...]

  3. Paul H Says:

    But I thought the whole point of the ‘argument’ was to work out a way of better understanding games; a way to read games. Does gaming work on the gamer as a narrative text, or is gaming non-essentially-narrative play? While the answer may still be that play and narrative have a symbiotic relationship in vids, the tone of this article suggests that this in an old issue that may now be dead. It seemed to me that the genesis of the issue in the first place was to arrive at a way of theorizing games that may borrow from other disciplines but treats the medium as a wholly new configuration of narrative and interactive play. This, certainly, has not been accomplished.

  4. Jason Says:

    > This, certainly, has not been accomplished.

    And yet, there have been numerous calls and suggestions for ways to consider video games in light of ‘old media’ but also focus on their unique material conditions. There are any number of articles, but some obvious ones include Marie-Laure Ryan’s call for a new model of narrative (see her Game Studies article), or Henry Jenkin’s preliminary sketch of different narrative types in computer games (in First Person). See also the broader discussion of narrative in new media in _Narrative Across Media_, where Ryan introduces the collection challenging old ways of viewing narrative as medium-independent and viewing the articles therein as ways to complicate our traditional form-content dichotomy.

    So, has it been accomplished? Of course not. If there was so easy an answer, it would hardly be worth studying. These are deep-rooted questions related to any number of humanities disciplines, not least of which are: what is the history of inter-arts competition and collaboration? what is the relationship of form and content? what is the relationship between the producer and consumer of a work of art? They touch on issues of genre and disciplinary boundaries; and they require close playings of individual works rather than broad assumptions about games-in-general. Rather than being a burden, as it has been occasionally cast, I see the narratology-ludology question as one of the seams that needs to be picked apart, unthreaded, and re-stitched, not as a “debate” but as a fundamental research question that on the surface got situated as a polemic, when most involved were self-professed moderates on the issue.

    It should be noted, of course, that there are also plenty of scholars intrigued by games, but who have little interest in studying them in order to “help anyone make a better interactive product,” at least in the short term. I never expected any essay I wrote on Faulkner or Morrison to help someone be a better fiction writer either. My hat is off, of course, to those like Andrew who are able to do both at the same time.

  5. andrew Says:

    >I see the narratology-ludology question as one of the seams that needs to be picked apart, unthreaded, and re-stitched …

    Well put Jason! In fact my and Michael’s emphasis on and pursuit of the design/technical possibility of high agency interactive stories is one thread in the seam; there are others, such as the basic question “are games stories, or not?”, which may already be answered to everyone’s satisfaction, and can be moved on from. (The answer being, that the question in that form is overly simplistic and reductionist, too binary and divisive.) In a sense, that was the thread that the article really was addressing — but the article failed to point out there are other important threads in the relationship of game and narrative to continue exploring and understanding.

    Gonzalo has a follow-up reaction, which was nice. For the record, I did find Wallace’s article sort of annoying because I found it misleading, not because I took personal offense.

  6. Patrick Says:

    Heres some new dichotomies for us to frame our work with:

    Structured goal-orientation vs. open player created goals (Or gameplay vs. toypaly, where in the middle is constrained but not lineated play with player INFERRED goals, which could be called storyplay)

    Competetive play vs. mimetic, co-operative play (the middle being, perhaps, tense but collaboriative play, ala Facade)

    I like this pair of dichotomies becuase if you balance both of them you get something like interactive drama. Its a better way of framing the problem, because the goal is in the balance, not in the extremes.

  7. Mark Wallace Says:

    Hi Andrew –

    I just want to point out that saying of narrative and gameplay that “one doesn’t exist without the other” is very different from saying “the relationship between gameplay and narrative is a non-issue.”

    I don’t mean to say it’s a non-issue. Rather, that you can’t really examine one without examining the other, which is the impression a lot of gamers come away with when they dip into the narratology-ludology conversation. And for the record, the article isn’t meant to rise to the level of academic debate, just to inform and be mildly entertaining for a broad audience.

  8. andrew Says:

    Hi Mark, thanks for commenting here. I interpreted your article’s conclusion to be an overly sweeping generalization that the relationship between games and narrative is understood already, ie, “move along, nothing to see here” — similar to what the tagline to your article describes (that you probably didn’t write):

    There’s an academic debate raging about whether story or gameplay reign supreme. Mark Wallace takes a look at this debate, and concludes that it doesn’t really matter. “With games, all the answers lie right at your fingertips. All you have to do is play.”

    As I mentioned in a comment above, we all agree that one thread of the relationship between game and story — an overly simplistic framing of games vs. stories, as the LvN debate had devolved to — is an unproductive and divisive way to think about it. But there’s so much more to be understood here, important to both the future of gaming and to game studies, that motivated me to speak up with my post, to remind readers what you left out.

  9. andrew Says:

    Patrick wrote, I’d like to re-suggest that we use the term “drama game” or “dramatic gameplay”

    I’ve been asking that question for a while, as well as disliking “storytelling” with interactivity (I prefer making, not telling).

    Drama game isn’t bad; but it suggests what we’re talking about is definitely a game, albeit a dramatic one. Is an experience where you can form your own goals, where there is no obvious winning condition, a game?

    Interactive drama is reasonably easy to swallow as a term; I plan to stick with that for now. I’m open to more ideas though!

  10. Patrick Says:

    “Is an experience where you can form your own goals, where there is no obvious winning condition, a game?”

    Thats the thing, I can’t hammer down a definition of game in the same way that I can’t hammer down a definition of art, I just know it when I see it. I buy into the Crawford defintion of interactivity, maybe supplemented with the Zimmerman tetrad of interactivity in different contexts (from First Person), so I have a clear idea of what the medium is. Maybe game is an unfortunate term, an anecdote of the medium’s origins but not a limit to its futures. I think the question to be asked here isn’t “what is a game?” but instead “okay, we know what we’re doing with interactivity, but whats the best way to describe that to the collegues, press, players, and the rest?” “Drama game” is probably going to get my implications across more easily at GDC, though at GTech it might only raise confusion. It would work to market to a casual/hardcore overlap of role-players and participant style gamers, but it would probably only alienate non-gamers who don’t consider Tetris a game because they can play it. Theres definetly a better term, but “drama game” is one that game designers can wrap their heads around. I used it to explain what I’m trying to do to some cute girls the other day, ehh, not so much with the head wrapping.

    Personally, I consider society a game, while often goals are imposed upon us, some people, typically the ones remembered, go radical and make their own goals and the whole system undergo’s dynamic phase transitions. Since society, in a sense, is the human condition, then an interactive drama could be considered a game. The key is to constrain so as to motivate, not to enthrall; interactive drama finds its balance between structure and anarchy, competition and co-operation, content and context (or game mechanics and embedded story). I think the challenge of inferring your own goals, or an unobvious goal, could be where the real cognitive frontier is – subjunctive play.

    For me though, the bottom line about what to call the fruition of the medium boils down to the optimum ratio of implication versus syllabic length. I first hit on this notion two weeks ago when my little brother, an MMO addict, jeered the term “interactive storytelling” as being unaccesible. “Interactive drama” is two syllables less, maybe a bit better, but “drama game” or “social game” have three syllables, and give the gist of interaction (being the same medium) without confounding the average entertianment consumer.

    Whats in a game? The play’s the thing.

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