In what will probably one in a long series of posts that praise how great Ian Bogost is, I thought I would tackle any interesting point that he closes an entire chapter with, one he sees fit to raise, admire for a few moments and then put away. I’ve pulled the question out as the title of this essay. The question is this: Do games need to produce stories?
While taking time out in Chapter 5 (Videogames and Expression) to talk about the many ways games might influence behavior, he can’t help but to take up space talking about the narrative vs. ludology debate. It’s something that has been raging, on and off, for several years, maybe decades. In an attempt to boil it down to something that I consider the main argument, while also ignoring any side issues, I put it as simply this: games are either part of the story-telling tradition (narrative) or are something new altogether (ludology). Both have their supporters and detractors, with most people falling somewhere in the middle or, as is often the case of deeply held theoretical beliefs, not caring either way — the “games are fun nothing else matters” crowd.
If the narrative people would have the world, everything would be a story. This, as you might imagine, is something I find intriguing. It’s often that people speak about events in their lives as their ‘personal narratives’, even going so far as to classify experiences in games the same way. Everything, according to the framework, is positioned in a way to tell a story, a narrative. It might be a short one, maybe a longer one. It might not even make sense. Yet, there is a story to the process. Everything would be based in how the story is being told, how it could be broken down via the increasing complex web of literary frameworks and paradigms. Of course, if everything was just a story then it could take any course it wanted. It could morph and change, rendering the process, on the very edge of extreme, deeply subjective. There must be some way to keep the experiences in some limited domain. Hence, rules.
The strictest ludology people, Dr. Bogost notes, would be those that would divorce the entirety of human existence, including playing game, into just a series of rules. Things that would guide our behavior. Predict our outcomes. Rule our lives. If you are worried there might be people out there believing that, there aren’t. I think. Probably not anyway. Still, those on the ludology side prefer that games — hence the ludo — be based, and analysed, in how their system, units and, above all else, rules work. How things interact, including the actions by the player, are all based in part on the guiding principles of the game, the rules. This, of course, also has some merit as a game cannot exist without rules. There are the framework that holds the “magic cycle” together for the experience, without them the cycle would forever change, expand or even collapse as each new introduction of people, ideas or concepts would disrupt the ‘world’ of the game.
Can games produce stories?
The quick answer to the question, for me, is yes, they can. Any experience, as I noted earlier, can be broken down into a personal narrative, a story of the events for the person involved. Even the most literal descriptions of the steps involved produce a chain of voluntary actions that build toward an outcome. In other words, a story. The player, if she is part of the game, must take steps, in some manner, to see that the game continue. Choices must be made. These choices, however made and for whatever reason, create a response in the player, a feedback cycle. If the player continues, the player has developed some explanation for this behavior, either in her part or the choices made through her. Even if the complexity of the narrative is no more than I want to win, it is there. The result of that session, I lost or I won, is a journey for that player.
Do games always produce stories?
My knew-jerk reaction to this, same as the last question, is that yes, they always produce stories. I have personally walked away from manner experiences, in several different games, for the very simple reason that the game is unfair or the game is cheating. For either of those reactions to be true, I must have created some narrative in my mind during the experience. I must have had the idea that the things I was participating in, the objects or people I was interacting with, were acting according to a rule set that fit within a narrative structure. That is, the people acted according to rules and that world of the game followed something that made sense in some way. There was a story, even if I was making it up from my own experiences.
The answer: yes and no
My answer to the question as to if games need to produce stories is this: no, but they will anyway. As has been pointed out, there will always be a personal journey, a subjective view for every media interacted with and explored. Since individually exists, it is a matter of that existence that the responses to media will be both totally different and within the range of possibilities. It is perhaps troubling to realize that the responses to any art — and I include games as art — is bound by the finite domain of humanity. For as long as the joy, art and love of story-telling is rooted in the human soul, there will narrative fingerprints in all works, no matter how minimal it is.