essay, video games

Narrative as trajectory

I disagree with the idea that narrative is a mechanic. And I dislike the notion that narrative is not a mechanic too. For me, it’s not about the how, but the when. Narrative is, in my current way of thinking, a trajectory across a database of objects whose purpose and placement, which can be authorial in nature, is experienced as a series of events.  It is the mapping of spatio-temporal situations into a cohesive mental model that connects actors, actions, and their relationships into a structure within a user’s mind. A narrative is built and updated over time; stories are fixed.

I agree with Brice in that we, as players, create narratives from the games we play in and with while in connection with them. This allows for puzzle games like Tetris, fundamentally without an overall story, to have a narrative. The same tension she identifies during the play of placing blocks one on another creates in us a stream of events in which we make interesting choices and cause us to give meaning over to our decisions. Such actions lead to chains of reasoning — I put this here because of X, and that there in anticipation of piece Y — that are the basis for the narrative created during such a session. We craft the narrative from moments of interaction and reaction.

It’s in this way that I can understand why Koster might have said that “Games can and do exist without narrative.” It’s true. I completely agree with that. What we are talking about, however, is not that narrative doesn’t come from playing, but that games can lack stories. The rules to play a game and the listing of stage directions have about the same amount of story. It is in their execution though that we see the narrative arise from them; human interpretation and exploration of those same rules manifests as moments in time. As the feedback between us trying to solve a puzzle, as Koster puts it, and the system we are interacting with builds, we experience events where we must make decisions. We process the story, in these cases, if it is encoded in the content we are interacting with to make such choices.

One of the more interesting phrases in Brice’s response to Koster is in the positing of “video games are [not] just another medium for telling” (emphasis mine). That is the hole that many developers end up while making their games. They want to tell a story and pick the wrong medium in which to do it. Games can tell stories, yes, but any product will inevitably encounter problems with the agency that the medium affords to players. We create the narrative of our experiences from the composite of playing through a story (if it exists), interacting with rules, and dealing with the mechanics of the system on which the game is running as well. The totality of everything from how the controller works to what glitches we might see all roll into the narrative we create for ourselves — I pressed a button and this happened next.

The mechanics of a game, I would argue, are different than the rules of the game. While one can be added to when needed (rules), the other is based in how the metaphors of the system, as the player understands it, are put together. Interacting with the mechanics of game is about exploring relationships between objects within that system, which can be viewed as a database of objects that are linked together. The rules then either allow for or limit certain relationship expressions during a session or even the entirety of a game. Systems can be created which are collections of mechanics about how certain actions work (like D&D or, in software, effectively game engines) unto which rules can be added and a game created.

Story can also be encoded into games through the use of text, cinema or even audio presented to the player. Commonly, it is often embedded through the structure of the world (i.e. architecture) in anticipation of connections with a player’s understanding of stereotypical interactions. The over use of the ‘key-gate’ method of pacing games is an example of this. Because of the paradigm of needing to complete an action in order to open a door (e.g. turning a doorknob) is so common, game designers can use it to provoke the player, when they come upon a closed gate, to figure out the ‘key’ to opening it. Such situations create a problem for the player while also investing them in the world of the game: they have to express some form of interaction and understanding of how the relationships exist within that game to open the door and proceed.

The more emotionally invested we are in the story elements of a game, the more willing we are to give up the range of agency afforded to us in pursuit of aesthetically pleasing outcomes to choices in the game. The better the presentation of the elements in the game, the least likely we are to combine them in ways that would lead to the completion of trajectories that are highly chaotic or nonsensical in nature. We often strive to manufacture a narrative that follows a path of events that leads toward a catharsis and correct seeming resolutions for characters and plots in a game. However, the performance abilities of the player are not contained by this. Because games exist as a series of objects and relationships, we can imagine orderings that exist outside that of the known pairings within the world of the game.

The story of most games is a straightforward, perfect execution of every single action asked of the character. Without a single mistake or misstep, the character follows a path directly from place to place without fail. This is not the narrative of the player. There are periods of looping back on levels, sections or even larger areas of the game as the player learns the exact steps necessary in order to succeed. Mastery is built up over time and different variations are tried as the player learns how to combine certain objects for particular outcomes. The chronology is often one of failure, exploration, or even purposeful subversion; the player operates outside the rules and often learns by discovering a previous unknown rule within the system.

If anything, story can be said to be a mechanic that presents relationships between characters within a game that drive the plot. Divided up into possible branching points (when available), the player can pick from various storylines and combine them, through interacting with the system, into a coherent narrative in their own mind. For those games that allow it, the player can leverage agency over story choice at such a level as they might have previously only be been to decide in-game noun combinations. Often, by placing limitations on these decisions, the game can prompt an even greater emotional response from the player; the permanence of one choice leading to another can lead to a higher investment of the player as each decision takes on more meaning with its connection to a larger continuity for the characters.

We interact with games, often through the process of working within a system to solve a puzzle. Be this as a player-defined or even authored quest, we make a series of choices that we register as events toward a goal. The map we have of relationships between objects in the game is updated as we progress. When ordered along a temporal axis, we create narrative from a chain of causal reactions between ourselves and a story as parsed from a text. In video games, because of the performance aspect of the medium, our combinations of objects through time with the game reflects the composite of interactions between ourselves, the text, and is one of many possible trajectories.