April 25, 2004
Computer Games at SSNL’s Narrative Conference
I made it to the conference just in time for my own panel, walking in at the minute we were supposed to start and no doubt leaving panel organizer Marie-Laure Ryan quite fretful in the minutes beforehand. Because I was a latecomer to the conference, and tired from my trip, I made it to only one other panel besides this one. And, most bitterly, I didn’t even get to have any Magic Hat. To begin with something relevant, a report on the panel on computer games. The section headings are my own titles, not the official titles of the talks:
Against “Tetris Studies”
Colorado-based independent scholar Marie-Laure Ryan, author of Narrative as Virtual Reality and editor, most recently, of Narrative across Media: The Languages of Storytelling, who has offered comments here at GTxA, spoke about the ludology vs. narratology debate, admitting that she was preaching to the converted, not to the heathens…
She took on the anti-narrativst arguments advanced by Aarseth, Eskelinen, Frasca, and Juul and offered convincing answers to them. All right, I admit: I was already convinced. She suggested that a cognitive approach to narrative, which saw story as a world that had characters and objects undertaking meaningful actions, actions that had consequences in a system with rules and laws, was particularly amenable for use in understanding some computer games.
My basic reaction was, Yes! Personally, I think the anti-narrativist arguments are correct for particular games — I disputed the idea that Combat could usefully be seen in narrative or dramatic terms at the Princeton video game conference. They’re also not useful for understanding many particular aspects of other games. But really, I’d rather that we talk about theories that actually work, theories that demonstratably better our understanding of games, instead of crying out that other people’s theories won’t work. If we ban all narrativist consideration of computer games and only look at things that apply to Tetris, I’m afraid we will get a useless new field that, rather than being called game studies, should probably be called “Tetris studies.”
Next was Daniel Punday, associate professor of English at Purdue University Calumet, author of Narrative After Deconstruction and Narrative Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Narratology and a fellow ebr reviewer. He looked at the representations of material texts in video games (a burning Lewis Carrol book at the beginning of American McGee’s Alice, briefing papers displayed on a desk with other paperwork) and discussed the use of Lacanian suture, as understood in film theory, to consider computer games as well as Shelly Jackson’s Patchwork Girl and Talan Memmott’s “Lolli’s Apartment.” The burning book in Alice brought to mind for me the book falling into the chasm at the beginning of Myst … and I think the theme of discarding the book has been used in earlier media, e.g., The Tempest. (The one by Shakespeare, not the one by Graham Nelson.)
My own talk covered the main points of my article “Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction” and tried to provide some very specific and concrete instances of the general idea that Marie-Laure talked about: that narratology can be useful in considering a specific computer game/electronic literature form. To introduce interactive fiction and demonstrate the use of narratology at the same time, I showed and typed to these works: Crowther and Woods’s Adventure (Fortran 77 version); Emily Short’s Galatea; Anderson, Blank, Daniels, and Lebling’s Zork (zdungeon.z5 port); Adam Cadre’s Varicella; and Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging.
I didn’t want to sound like I was bragging or trying to credential myself at the conference by thanking Gerald Prince (who was at the panel) for closely reading “Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction” and providing me detailed and thoughtful advice, but I don’t mind bragging here, so I’ll thank him.
The Bluebeard Panel: Listening for the Plot
Sunday morning I only (barely) had time to make it to one panel, one that considered reworkings of the Bluebeard fairy tale. I have to admit that the main thing I took away from the panel — not the only thing, I hope, but the main thing — was on the level of plot summary, the tellings within the talks that related some inventive pieces of writing. (It was probably partly a result of my not being properly calibrated for Narrative panels, and partly a result of the literature that was being discussed being so marvelous: writers who work with fairy tales are often interested in innovating on the level of story and plot, and interesting things about their works can be heard in summaries of their plots at conferences.) Pamela Cooper of UNC Chapel Hill spoke erotics and work in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and in the work of Margaret Atwood. Heta Pyrhonen of the University of Helsinki discussed “Angela Carter and the Marquis de Sade,” referring to The Bloody Chamber and additionally discussing The Magic Toyshop (the one by Angela Carter, not the one by Gareth Rees.) She described how Carter reworked Barthes’ reading of de Sade’s writing practice, which described the essential constraints of exhaustion (every orifice filled, every sexual organ used) and reciprocity (every person assuming both active and passive roles). Patricia Smith of Hofstra University discussed the Bluebeard tale in Fay Weldon’s Little Sisters, which sounds dazzlingly metafictional. (I don’t know Weldon’s work at all, while I’ve read two of Carter’s books, thanks in part to Robert Coover’s published comments on her work.)
This is what the conference would have looked like to Gonzalo Frasca:
Some graduate students have a few questions
I hate to think about how Gonzalo would have reacted! But really, I wish I had gotten to attend more of the conference, and I’m glad I made the trip to present there and get a taste of what Narrative (without the “@”) was like. Not that I regret having gone to Los Angeles for Narr@tive: Digital Storytelling. Perhaps future years will allow me more time at Narrative.
April 26th, 2004 at 5:21 am
Disclaimer: what follows is not strictly an answer from Gonzalo Frasca to his good old friend Nick Montfort (even though I am a bit pissed of at him for misspelling my first name in this last post : ) Gonzalo and Nick have known each other for many years and, as the sick bastards they are, they like to play pranks on each other. This disclaimer is just to let other readers know that, while Nick tried to make a joke, he accidentally push the wrong button and Gonzalo sort-of jumped at it, not because of Nick, but because of the issues associated with the post itself. By the way, this disclaimer is written in the third person just for the sake of it, since its author is also Mr. Frasca.
Oh, Nick, I am not sure how to react in these situations anymore. Surely, I’ll keep my cool and sense of humor and I do understand that it is important that we take these things lightly if we do not want to trigger another Princeton conference blog-pong game (from which, for the record, I stood aside and tried to argue for the sake of peace and understanding, as well for as academic standards).
Anyway, first things first. Gerald Prince is probably one of the narratologists that I respect the most. I have been using his materials (notably his extremely useful definition of narrative) for a bit less than a decade now. He does not look like a Doom boss to me. Actually, his definition of narrative is extremely useful when it comes to show why games and narrative are so different (I have published extensively on this). True, I cannot go as far as saying that Marie-Laure’s work has been to me as clear and useful as Prince’s, but I have spent great deals of time analyzing it and trying to understand the points were we disagree.
Secondly, I am growing really tired of the simplification that states that ludologists strip narrative out of games. I hate to have to remind you of my curriculum, but I guess I have no option. If I just cared about game mechanics, I wouldn’t be receiving so much hate mail for September 12th. If my games were abstract, candidates for President of the United States would not ask me (and Ian) to design their games. If that was the case, I wouldn’t have spent the last years writing about social problems as discrimination, child abuse or alcoholism and how to design games that dealt with those issues. Is this Tetris-like? Are these examples deprived of narrative elements? I believe this is a fair and simple question, and I challenge anybody to argue for the negative. I am afraid that so-called narrativists are making a straw man of us. And please, do not tell me, ok, sure, you are an exception, but there is this quote from Eskelinen saying that narrative elements are ornaments from “The Gaming Situation”, because I am tired of that quote and it seems it is the only bullet so-called narrativists have (btw, I use the term “so-called” because, as I showed on my Level Up article, the real narrativists have still to stand up). I am not going to defend Markku (not only I do not think he needs to be defended, but he does not need my help for doing it). Usually, when I argue this, I am told that I am an exception and therefore not a true ludologist. If that is the case, I guess it is the proof that people have totally misunderstood what ludology is about. Please take a good reading at my 1999 article where I introduced the concept (be warned, my English writing was even worse by then). Again, I hate to quote myself, but I am tired of people playing the academic game without going to the sources. What follows are the enraged words that started this debate:
“Our intention is not to replace the narratologic approach, but to complement it” (Frasca, 1999)
“Our main goal was to show how basic concepts of ludology could be used along with narratology to better understand videogames.” (Frasca, 1999)
Again, Nick, this post is not really aimed at you, it is my chance (once again) to try to set the record straight on these issues that keep haunting me again and again. Again, have no problem accepting jokes and making fun of myself (I hope that those of you who know me personally will agree on this), but, please also understand that you, me, the GTxA team and a few other researchers who have known each other since the beginning of this adventure do get the joke and have no problem and taking a good laugh at it. But this is the online world, and there are plenty of newcomers everyday (welcome, by the way :) and some of them may get the wrong impression and they may buy into the caricature (trust me, it has happened in the past). People love academic fights, but we should provide them with real ones, not with ones based on misunderstanding and misreadings.
So, to wrap this up, I would just like to say that I do not do “Tetris Studies”. It is not my call to defend Espen, Markku or Jesper, but I think it would be almost insulting to oversimplify their work in such way (again, Nick, I am fully aware that that was not your intention in any way). I can only imagine, as I said, why so many people argue against these inexistent hard-core ludologists that supposedly leave narrative elements out of the equation (I had this same conversation with Matteo Bittanti two days ago and I think he changed his opinion after talking with me). There are no such hard core ludologists, at least, not that I know them. What there are is people who started studying this discipline from a formal approach, that I am not ashamed to admit, as I have done several times. The reason? When you stumble upon a new field of research, you must start from a certain approach, since you cannot take all the possible approaches at the same time. As simple as that.
So, to anybody out there who really believes -not as part of a friendly joke, but for real- that we are hard-core ludologist who worship Tetris, here’s a piece of advice: you are fighting against the wind. There is so much to do in this field that you should not waste your time so concerned about imaginary scholars.
Last, but not least, I encourage anybody who disagrees with what I just said to discuss it in an academic way. Certainly, we can do it here in the comments thread, but even better face to face in a conference, or even better through a nice, long academic article.
Wow, this was a long comment. I guess the can of worms is officially open :) Btw, the Doom pics are cute :)
April 26th, 2004 at 12:02 pm
First off, I do feel bad – not for generally playing a prank on Gonzalo, which is a perfectly acceptable thing to do – but specifically for trolling for a reply like this from him. It did bother me, I admit, when I wrote this (the first comment) and found that Gonzalo wasn’t inclined to reply. Not that he had to; he was probably busy and probably pretty sick of the issue at the time, and I’ve been in similar situations on discussion threads. So in part, I was trying to provoke a response on that topic. Gonzalo got me back at least a bit by sending me to comb through my last message fruitlessly looking for where I had misspelled his name.
Anyway: Gonzalo, I’m sorry for trolling you. I wasn’t intending to seriously annoy you. You’re of course right that your socially engaged games connect with the world in ways that go beyond game mechanics, and they deserve praise for that. I don’t mean to seriously characterize you as anti-narrativist or anti-narratologist, but I do think that I have different opinions from you on two counts:
I am afraid that so-called narrativists are making a straw man of us.
It probably happens, as does the reverse. But again, instead of going around and prodding one person’s characterization of another person’s argument to see if it is made of straw, I think it’s better to come up with specifically useful theories, approaches, and actual games (or games/literary works). This is why I enjoyed your article in First Person much more than Espen’s or Markku’s. Of course, Espen has already made a mighty theoretical contribution, with Cybertext, and Marrku is someone who has the kindness to insult American scholars in our own language, so I can’t complain that much, but I did find your article much more useful for thinking about games and for making games. A Boalian perspective is likely to inform my practice of making games in the future, if I ever manage to get back into doing that.
“Tetris Studies” is meant as a caricature, more than a characterization, of an “extreme game studies” approach. Actually, I don’t see a lack of narrativist approach being the biggest problem with game studies as Espen seems to conceive of it. I think the biggest problem is a lack of deep consideration of pre-computer games. But anyway, I am trying to be helpful at the heart, in this case, and only crusty and mean on my outer layer.
I do hope that people who come to a blog that has the tongue-in-cheek name “Grand Text Auto” and read my description of Gonzalo as a marine in hell will recognize that I am practicing parody. And not specifically parody of Gonzalo! Rather, parody of the whole idea that academics are violently antagonistic – that Gonzalo would act like the Doom marine and that I would think that he would. I know that senses of humor vary internationally (Uraguyans ranking near the top, as far as I can tell) and that some people might not get it, but it would seem difficult for anyone to read a list of recaptioned Doom monsters as serious critique of ludology or serious insult of anyone. I didn’t mean it that way. I was presenting a good-natured parody of the whole “ludology versus narratology debate,” as I did in another form on here before. I think people in the academic community can afford to joke with each other about issues like this, because what we’re all really doing is struggling with an understanding of computer games, not fragging each other.
April 26th, 2004 at 12:44 pm
You know, those DOOM guys are a lot less threatening after you’ve played Harry’s 21st Birthday.
April 26th, 2004 at 2:42 pm
I second the sentiment that design and analysis of most interactive experiences require the benefit of both gameplay-oriented and narrative-oriented perspectives. Rarely can only one set of tools be useful; I would hope by now that all thinkers in this field get that. They’re two great tastes that taste great together.
May all future discussions be both ludolicious and narratasty.
(terms coined in our drunken haze at GDC)
April 28th, 2004 at 1:13 pm
Rather belatedly (after a lovely trip to New England) I’d like to add my grain of salt to the matter of ludology vs. narrtivism.
As I completed the paper I presented in Burlington, I read these sad news in a review of Grand Theft Auto 3 in Game Studies by Gonzalo Frasca: “Both GTA3 and Shenmue tell a story. Yes, here you have a ludologist publicly say that games do tell stories. Spread the news !”. Without competitors, how can I still play the theoretical game “ludology versus narratology” ? I just love arguing and the attacks by ludologists on the concept of narrative have greatly helped me form my own concept of narrative. But I must say that the most recent tendency among ludologists to pronounce the debate pointless (cf. Frasca, “Ludologists Love Stories Too”) seems to me a cheap way out, for who started the debate ???? As far as I am concerned it is the narrativists who are a straw man constructed by the ludologists; for I am not aware of anybody writing that games are the same thing as novels and movies. Yes, the debate is to some extent pointless because it concerns the meaning of narrative rather than the nature of games; it now seems that the term “fictional world” has been endorsed by the ludologists to avoid the “n” word. It’s not my intent to bring the ludologists to their feet and confess their sin, but I would like to have them recognize that video games speak to the imagination—through their rich fictional worlds and narrative design- as much as they appeal to the lovers of strategic thinking. The denial of the imaginative side of video games is what Nick has in mind with “Tetris studies.” For me, video games are a unique blend of imaginative experience and strategic action, a blend that is the true contribution of the computer to gaming, because in earlier days we had either imaginative games, such as children’s games of make-believe, or abstract strategic games, such as chess and go.
In response to Frasca I think that he has made very good use of narrative concepts in his early article “ludology meets narratology,” especially of Bremond’s theory, and I could never understand why he had to declare such a strict opposition between simulation and narrative. Why couldn’t a simulative engine produce stories ? That’s what James Meehan Talespin did: it not only produced narrative texts, it also simulated a world, and kept track of the changes of state that took place in the fictional world as the story was being produced. And the story was different every time, depending on the user’s input, just as in games.
By the way, Gerald Prince tells me that he has revised his definition of narrative in the newest edition of his Dictionary of Narratology, and that it cannot be used any longer to exclude drama, movies and games. Why don’t ludologists keep up with the development of narratology, rather than freezing it to its 1980s state ?
What is at stake really is to find a way to apply narrative concepts in game studies in a way that goes beyond studies of adaptation of games to movies and novels and vice-versa, and in a way that does not isolate narrative plot from rules. Though Jesper Juul would not be caught dead using the “n” word, I think that he has taken major step in this direction in his dissertation by studying how games rules relate to the fictional world.
Finally, I think that between the position “all games are narratives because they implement a competitive situation reminiscent of the rivalry between a hero and a villain” (Murray, Pearce in First Person) and “No games are narratives because they don’t operate like movies and novels” there is ample room for more a nuanced position that views the set of all games and of all narratives as intersecting.
April 28th, 2004 at 3:35 pm
I’ve far more reason to be charicatured as a Tetris analyzer than Gonzalo (if you know me already, you’ll already know this, but you’ll otherwise have to wait until you see my ultra-abstracted game to get the hint) but even I have come to understand that, approaches aside, all of us are attempting to search out deeper understandings of what makes games.
Far from continuing in a downward spiral, inacceptant of other ideas, I’ve come to a new, happier understanding: So long as our approaches end up making sense, why worry what direction they come from?
I’m often having to correct people, but on the whole, it’s me being anal, and hopefully providing a stronger understanding of the point in hand by studying it more deeply. I’ve had countless arguements that revolved purely around terminology, while agreeing about the point in hand – and not just with people on the other side of the fence! I find that such arguements don’t really enhance my understanding at the speed I’d like, and it’s mainly due to each person’s ignorance of the other’s background. In an ideal world, right now, every ludologist would pcik up a book relating to the field they know least about. Lit crit guys: pick up a book on formal systems or HCI. Mech guys: read a book about… that, um, art shit. (:D)
If games are a subset of interactive systems, and we live in an interactive system, then there are countless legitimate perspectives to look at games – religion, gender, race, maths, literature, food, sex. None of them are wrong. It’s not pointless for me, as a trained software engineer, to try to see through a literary lens and identify sutre and metaphor. It’s not pointless for Marie-Laure to try to understand us mechanists’ obsession with soulless, deterministic rules.
It is becoming more and more pointless, however, to quarrel over who’s perspective is the best. Science deals with analysis, theories, hypotheses, and experimentation. These should be our only frontiers for debate, not all this “My School of Thought is better than yours” shit-flinging.
Let me end by quoting something superfluous, in perfect narratologist fashion :p
“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.” – Rudyard Kipling
(He says “69” because quoting people makes you sexxxy).
April 28th, 2004 at 3:48 pm
“Finally, I think that between the position “all games are narratives because they implement a competitive situation reminiscent of the rivalry between a hero and a villain” (Murray, Pearce in First Person) and “No games are narratives because they don’t operate like movies and novels” there is ample room for more a nuanced position that views the set of all games and of all narratives as intersecting. ”
Translation for the mechanist guys: Narrative control isn’t a boolean. Its degree is a design/artistic choice.
You see what I mean, now? We’re saying the same thing, and have been for a long time, but we’ve been too busy shouting “If you poke your nose in the gears, you won’t be able to smell anymore” and “Goddamn! Go fucking papercut yourself to death” at each other to notice that both parties are gaining deeper insights into games than there have been in the history of thought. Come to think of it I still have yet to see a ludological vs. narratological debate that wasn’t in contention due to a misinterpretation of the other camp’s standing.
(Sorry for posting twice in a row. Just trying to quote some more, to improve my sexyness.)
April 28th, 2004 at 4:29 pm
Just a couple of additional factoids to throw in here, perhaps supporting the each-is-closer-than-they-think sentiment — Janet Murray recently presented her own “what is a game” keynote at LevelUp last November, so now I doubt she’d consider herself a strict narrativist, if she ever did; and it’s also interesting to remember, in case some of you forgot or never knew, that Janet was Gonzalo’s adviser in the GaTech masters program.
Me, I’m a centrist, always have been — one of my first papers was called “A Hybrid Approach to Creating Lifelike Dogz and Catz”, which cherrypicked techniques from games, cartoons, drama and AI. Although lately I’ve noticed myself shifting towards the ludological end of the spectrum (if before Facade I considered myself 20% off-center on the N-side of the fence, I’m now comfortable 20% off-center on the L-side.)
April 28th, 2004 at 4:34 pm
Will someone please put together one of those “which ologist are you?” online quizzes, so that I can take it and determine whether I’m a narratologist or a ludologist?
Otherwise I may have to develop a “ludology purity test” (1500 point version) for a similar purpose.
April 28th, 2004 at 4:52 pm
And we’ll need a complementary “which ologist are you?” game…
April 29th, 2004 at 7:42 am
I am glad to be able to clarify several issues. First, about Nick’s post, I would like to state again that I know there was no harm intended and that I am still open for as many jokes as possible, but in this particular case I had some issues because they connected too closely to stereotypes about myself and some of my colleagues. Stereotypes that, I think, are clear in Marie-Laure’s post. Talking about that, let me try to answer to her points. I do take this subject very seriously, because it has generated so much academic confusion.
First of all Marie-Laure, thanks for your praise on my Bremond article. I was very proud of it at the time, but I got very little feedback from it (I guess very few people know their narratology and even less know Claude Bremond). I started studying narratology in the mid-90’s since I thought it would be a great tool for understanding videogames. I was not totally satisfied with the results and that is why I called for a discipline that I suggested to call “ludology”, as a set of tools that complemented narratology (1999). From day 1, I never discarded narratology from game studies. Surely, I do believe its use is limited but, again, from day 1 I always stated that games and stories do have similarities (as also Aarseth and Juul have repeteadly claimed). So, I am not sure why you were so surprised at reading my 2003 GTA3 article in Game Studies.
Marie-Laure says that my Level Up paper is “the cheap way out”. My point was that it never took place in a serious way. By serious way, I mean quoting articles and arguing with references, not generalizations and assumptions. This is why I am so glad that we are having this conversation.
About the “who started” this debate, well, I am afraid Marie-Laure that the so-called ludologists do not deserve the credits. Issues of narrative versus mechanics have been around for decades in the D&D community. See, for example, Greg Costikyan’s 1994 “I have no words and I must design” (Interactive Fantasy, online version available at http://www.costik.com).
Marie-Laure dixit: “Why don’t ludologists keep up with the development of narratology, rather than freezing it to its 1980s state ? Are you really making an accusation of this magnitude just because I haven’t yet read a revised edition published just 5 months ago?
Surely, we could expand the definition of narrative to fit games on it, but the risk is that the broader the definition, the less concrete it becomes. Still, of course I would love to read Prince’s new edition and study his new definitions.
Marie-Laure continues “I could never understand why (Frasca) had to declare such a strict opposition between simulation and narrative. Why couldn’t a simulative engine produce stories ?”. I think that you cannot understand the reason simply because you simply did not read my writings carefully. Of course a simulative engine produces stories. This reference is from one of my articles: “for an external observer, the outcome of a simulation is a narration” (Frasca, Simulation 101, 2001). By the way, the quote was in bold typeface in the original text, since I hoped it would catch the reader’s attention.
“The attacks of ludologists on the concept of narrative”. As far as I am aware, nobody attacked the concept of narrative. If there were any attacks, they were against overbroad or antique definitions of narrative and uncritical, naïve applications of narratology (mostly Aristotle, not exactly the most up-to-date narratologist around). Again, nobody attacked the concept of narrative itself, that would make no sense.
“It’s not my intent to bring the ludologists to their feet and confess their sin, but I would like to have them recognize that video games speak to the imagination”. I can only imagine this is a joke. “Recognize that videogames speak to the imagination”? If I wasn’t able to recognize this, then I would have no idea of what games are about. So, you are implying that imagination is the same as narrative? This is why it is hard to take narrativists seriously.
I believe that one of the biggest problems in this debate is that it is too easy to make generalizations. A clear example is when Marie-Laure states: “it now seems that the term ‘fictional world’ has been endorsed by the ludologists to avoid the ‘n’ word”. That is a statement from Jesper Juul’s recent PhD Thesis, but arguing that this is what “ludologists” believe just does not make any sense. Juul speaks for himself. As far as I am aware, there is not official ludological point of view.
I sincerely hope that these remarks contribute to a better understanding on why I think this debate has been plagued by generalizations and misunderstandings.
April 29th, 2004 at 5:17 pm
Excuse me for being horribly meta, but is there any way this blog could be configured to show comment authors’ names at the top of their posts instead of at the bottom? With the long comments it gets really silly to play “who does ‘I’ refer to, anyway?” game.
April 29th, 2004 at 5:50 pm
NICK: A very reasonable request. I have a workaround for right now, and … just kidding. I’m going to look into setting the blog up to do what you’ve asked.
April 30th, 2004 at 6:24 am
Aubrey >> “you’ll otherwise have to wait until you see my ultra-abstracted game to get the hint”
Show me yours and I’ll show you mine. :) Last year I circulated a draft paper describing a Gallilean-style abstract game and an ideal-type player to observe while using it. The game has precisely two states and a single rule. If you can go more abstract than that, I’d suggest your game may actually be a stick! :)
But I am confused how “narrative” is being redefined. Are we now adopting something akin to Grodal’s “story” as described in “Stories for Eyes, Ears, and Muscles” to broadly refer to “narrative?” It seems horribly disingenuous if this is the case; he-said-she-said. Removing linguistic context from and adding an absurd “everything in an environment goes” definition to narrative gains us what, precisely? I would no sooner want to do this than be forced to adopt equally absurd semiotics-everywhere rhetoric.
Narrative, as it is more classically known, is vital to many game forms. Do we need to express an obtuse definition (“…story as a world that had characters and objects undertaking meaningful actions, actions that had consequences in a system with rules and laws…”) just so that we can ensure games are as broadly submissible to semiotics as possible? This strikes me as jejune and ineffectual. Why scramble to misappropriate narrative “in a way that does not isolate narrative plot from rules”? Frankly, I think it’s a better understanding of the domains of rules and mechanics that will reveal this isolation is often impossible; broadening the definition of “narrative” to forcibly include rules is not only unecessary, I think its harmful.
Sorry if I am jumping to conclusions, but I fear my hero narrative might be forced to play patsy for overzealous semioticians; insecure for lack of TeXtris.
April 30th, 2004 at 9:28 am
isaac >> Wow, well you’re right. I’d be hard pressed to abstract further than a lightswitch! That’s a pretty neat point to make, by the way – that abstracted to its greatest level, in a game (well, interactive system), you’re just a dude changing data via an interface, and reaction to the change presented.
The game I’m working on is primarily abstract in its theme – you absolutely beat me on the mechanics side :). My hypothesis is that, without a realistic theme, or any hinting at direct simulation, the design of your mechanics are not led so much by preconcieved models, opening up new areas of possibility. You’re no longer simulating real world systems, and in making non-referential ones, your freedom to design is a lot wider. Also, the player is able to come into the game and does not feel like the game is “wrong” when it creates non sequitors by not reacting the way the system it refers to does. If it doesn’t *look* like anything, it’s free to act *any* way it likes without upsetting preconceptions. Hopefully hopefully players will accept it on its own terms, rather than feeling jilted about it not acting as expected. My friend, JP, is trying something similar in an FPS game. He gave the approach a nice term: “Naked Games”, which is kind of ironic, because we’re having to sell the clothes off our backs to have the freedom to attempt these trite little experiments.
God knows if I have enough time to finish it, though.
April 30th, 2004 at 12:43 pm
In response to Gonzalo’s post: My argument in favor of the narrativity of games are much more elaborate than the thumbnail presentation on my post. I’ll be more than happy to send Gonzalo the paper I presented in Burlington if he wants to read it. But I’d like to comment on a few points he raises.
About simulation: Gonzalo says that in a 2001 paper he wrote “For an external observer the outcome of a simulation is a narrative.” Well, I fully agree; and to me the player of a game is both an agent and an observer—as she takes action she looks at the picture on the screen, just as an “external observer does,” so she must be aware of the story that unfolds through this picture. I must admit I haven’t read this paper. But Gonzalo has also published statements that clearly suggest a radical opposition between narrative and simulation. For instance the title of a 2003 essay by him reads: “Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology” ? (In The Video Game Reader). Maybe my semantics are all screwed up, but the words versus suggests an exclusive relation: a semiotic object is either a simulation or a narrative. This is confirmed by other passages, for instance: “There is an alternative to representation and narrative: simulation…Traditional media are representational, not simulational. They excel at producing both descriptions of traits and sequences of events (narratives)” (223). While it is true that traditional media are representational, while games are simulatives, all this statement says is that games are not traditional media. It does not prove that they cannot suggest stories.
About: “who started the debate” between narrativism and ludology. Gonzalo thinks t never took place. May I refer him to the following articles ?
Aarseth, Espen. “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation.” Waldrip-Fruin and Harrigan, First Person, 45-55.
Aarseth, Espen. “Playing Research: Methodological Approaches to Game Analysis.” Papers of the 2003 DAC conference, Melbourne. hypertext.rmit.edu.au/dac/papers/Aarseth.pdf
Eskelinen, Markku. “The Gaming Situation.” Game Studies 1.1 (2001). http:///www.gamestudies.org/0101/eskelinen/
Frasca, Gonzalo. “Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and Difference between (Video)games and Narrative.” http://www.jacaranda.org/frasca/ludology.htm
Frasca, Gonzalo. “”Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology.” Wolf and Perron, Video Game Theory Reader, 221-35.
Juul, Jesper. “Games Telling Stories: A Brief Note on Games and Narratives.” Game Studies 1.1 (2001). http:///www.gamestudies.org/0101/juul-gts/
Is there a comparable list of “narrativists” essays claiming that the study of games is nothing more than a branch of narratology ? (I certainly would not say that !)
The articles listed above demonstrate very eloquently that games have different properties than novels, movies, and oral storytelling, and I cannot argue with that. But they eschew the central question, which is whether narrativity is an exclusive property of these genres, or a cognitive template that transcends disciplines and media. The ludologists love Prince’s original definition because it limits narrative to verbal artifacts, and thus serves their purpose. They reject cognitivist definitions because, supposedly, these definitions turn every form of thought into a narrative, but a rigorous cognitive approach would define narrative as one specific form of thought among others. (Sorry to publicize my work, but I have a few things to say about this in the introduction to my forthcoming (June 2004) book “Narrative Across Media.”)
Finally, Gonzalo asks: “Are you implying that imagination is the same as narrative” ? No, but I think that in the vast majority of cases imagination takes narrative shape. Imagination is the formation of mental images of concrete objects; you can picture a horse in your mind but you cannot picture eternity. When these mental images picture objects and worlds that evolve in time, then indeed, imagination creates a narrative.
April 30th, 2004 at 2:16 pm
This is nice – seeing people with advanced degrees squabble is rather more entertaining than the usual bloggish dilettantism, though of course they’re not mutually exclusive – but I can’t shake the feeling of smoke without a fire, here.
The only use of bickering about the label that games will forevermore have is in disciplinary claim-staking. Who was ‘first’ to use the word ludology, to claim that games were storytelling engines, to take the goddamn red pill? Who cares? What we have is a ‘field of study’ that’s still small enough to have clear queens and kings of the mountain, and those people seem quite concerned about making sure that their names get attached to one or another position.
But if the positions aren’t mutually exclusive – if games tell stories and games do other things, both of which are true as any idiot can see by now – then shouldn’t people just go on with their work, leaving the question of Who Got It All Just Right to posterity? I suppose tenure considerations come in there somewhere, but beyond that, it’s possible that one analysis of how games work will be better than another, perhaps better than all others, because it will give a fuller account of What’s Going On When Someone Plays A Game.
Looking over this thread in reverse order, I see a ‘description’ of mental activity that has nothing at all to do with brain science; a bit of nattering about the wording of a politically motivated article title; a sensible pointing-up of linguistic malfeasance in redefining ‘narrative’; the repeated mention of various posters’ involvement (and stake) in the ‘founding’ of a field of study, in good-old-boys fashion; some sensible pointing-up of the chest-pounding that accompanies these debates, along with some sexiness; some unjustified finger-pointing; some well-justified finger-pointing; and yet another person declaring the ‘can of worms’ to be open, as if everyone needed permission to be upset.
Oh, and NickM being, as always, solid and entertaining.
We now have several rather simplistic viewpoints on ‘what games are’ and how they work, along with a slowly-growing number of more nuanced theories (e.g. Zimmerman’s lengthy treatment in Rules of Play). Yet invariably games scholars spend as much time talking about one another as they do about the theories themselves. If anything, this is worse than literary studies, because at least on a lit faculty you can hide out somewhere and just go about the business of advancing the state of the field without rehashing summary judgments all the time. [Admittedly the youthfulness of the field has something to do with that. It’ll change.]
I didn’t set out to be ill-tempered when I started posting this. But it’s unavoidable, I’m afraid, when people are so territorial.
April 30th, 2004 at 4:27 pm
This is an Evergreen: how to complain that people are bickering to much, without doing the very same thing ?
April 30th, 2004 at 7:04 pm
>> “…in a game (well, interactive system)…”
O most excellent Aubrey, why must you be one of “them”? ;-) This is an interactive system, yes, but also a game. It’s got a rule that doesn’t reveal function beyond play and everything!
Yeah, I’m teasing but only slightly. This is why I’ve been unable to finish my paper, having to defend the model (against you troublemakers) by way of ontological argument. I spent the last year studying from brain science to animal behavior that I may develop grounds that games cannot, successfully, be more precisely defined than (synoptic) “a set of actions, patterned by rules, engaged for the purpose of stimulating emotions.” To do so is to begin needing clumsy allowances for exceptional “boundary cases” and, I argue, we should classify games as play objects based upon qualities rather than striking arbitrary distinctions between those we will call games and those we relegate to play.
A huge stumbling block to this field is our attempt to define the salient aspect of games while remaining preoccupied with good games or, another worse, taxonomical study of real (read: previously invented) games. This is partly why I began looking to abstract model systems (ideal-type action figure included!) for analysis. Wally brought up Rules of Play which is typical in the above respect; it assembles a faulty definition of games generally but a practical framework of “effective” games. (This would seem to be the intent and I recommend it to friends interested in the practice.) In my opinion, however, the problem exists that truly effectual critical or generative analysis cannot be done if we only construct definitions of good games, the reasons for which are obvious.
And good luck on the player acceptance! :)
May 3rd, 2004 at 7:55 am
Thank you Marie-Laure for your response. Sure, I am looking forward to reading your new article, please email it to me.
I understand that you did not read my 2001 paper, so it is perfectly understandable that you missed that quote. However, I am a bit puzzled since you admit reading my 2003 article “Simulation versus Narrative” and you missed the paragraphs where I extend the exact same idea: “To an external observer, the sequence of signs produced by both the film and the simulation could look exactly the same.” (page 224). It would seem, Marie-Laure, as if you drew your conclusions by reading just the -admittedly provocative- title of my article.
What is more, you certainly missed this footnote in the conclusion -admittedly, a footnote but, as it says, this is not the first time that I argued this-: “Actually, I have suggested in my work Videogames of the Oppressed (following Aarseth’s ideas) that simulation and representation only differ in a matter of degree. But for the sake of clarity during these early days of ludology, it may be safer to consider them as different.” (p 235)
Looking at your extensive list of “ludological” articles, I am surprised that you continue to argue that I think that the debate never took place after I made clear to you on my previous post, let me repeat it, that “My point was that it never took place in a serious way. By serious way, I mean quoting articles and arguing with references, not generalizations and assumptions.” What is even more curious is that after I sent you a reference from 1994 that beyond any reasonable doubt shows that this argument has been taking place before any “ludologist” wrote about it, you still insist on trying to give Aarseth, Juul, Eskelinen and myself a credit that clearly we do not deserve.
By the way, of course there is no similar list of articles claiming that games are nothing more than a branch of narratology, you are simply caricaturizing my points and the ones of my colleagues. Still, there are many articles about games as narratives, starting with Niesz and Holland (1984).
Anyway, the main point argued on the extense list of ludological articles that you posted is that narratology’s limitations do not allow it to be the dominant approach for understanding games. And when I mean “narratology” is am describing the set of tools and theories available at the time of the writing. The interesting thing is that on your post you blame us for correctly quoting Prince, one of the most respected narratolgists alive! What is more, you admit that according to his published work at that time, narratology clearly could not efficiently deal with videogames! That, Marie-Laure, was exactly the point that Aarseth, Eskelinen, Juul and myself were trying to make when we wrote those articles!
But you go even further than trying to blame us for the limitations of narratology. I was perplexed at your first comment about the relationship between narrative and imagination, but now I am even more surprised that, after you clarified yourself, you keep clearly stating that you see narrative everywhere. While narrative plays an essential role in our culture, it is not as pervasive as you suggest. Plenty of creative disciplines can “speak to the imagination” without being narrative. This is exactly the mistake that most narrativists make: trying to adapt their narratological tools to phenomena that is not, or at least go beyond, narrative. The failure to understand this fact while arguing that narrative stands behind most creative works, including games, shows a clear lack of understanding not only of what games are, but also of what human creativity is about. No, Marie-Laure, narrative is not everywhere, not even almost everywhere. Still, you argue that “[…] in the vast majority of cases imagination takes narrative shape”. Try explaining that to thousands of musicians, sculptors, scientists, designers, poets, architects, painters and –may I?- game designers.
May 3rd, 2004 at 11:03 am
Hi everyone. I hope you don’t mind if an naive graduate student (reading for what I believe is the world’s first taught MA in ‘Computer Game Studies’) adds his two-pence worth to this very interesting discussion.
My current interest in the debate is whether the sort of stories that games can tell, is fundamentally limited by their status as games. I suspect that this is the case, and is due to the fact that all games, no matter how rich their imaginative or fictional element, operate from a core of mathematically based rules (pace Salen and Zimmerman).
Consequently the activities of game characters need to be able to be reduced to a digitally defined set of states – which means that game characters, unlike characters in novels, films, or indeed any other sort of narrative, are always rigidly determined in what they may do, say or think (or, more accurately, ‘be thinking’).
I think this is why we are never going to have game characters that display the psychological richness or ambiguity of Molly Bloom, Anna Karenina, or Achilles, no matter how sophisticated computer game technology may eventually become. The best we can hope for is jumping from ‘open’ characters in cut-scenes back and forth to digital characters in games. (And when I say ‘digital’, I don’t mean in terms of technology, but mathematically defined by the game’s formal rules). This is, for example, what I think Metal Gear Solid games try to do: have their psychologically indeterminate character cake and eat it.
So the danger from approaching games from a narrative point of view, is that games will never be able to have the same sort of psychological richness as other narratives. Game narratives are peculiar in this way, and if we don’t recognise this we’ll always be criticising them as unsophisticated when compared to all other forms of narrative.
Many apologies if this post has been uninformed or covers previously well-trodden ground!
May 3rd, 2004 at 12:12 pm
John, thanks for your comment.
game characters, unlike characters in novels, films, or indeed any other sort of narrative, are always rigidly determined in what they may do, say or think (or, more accurately, ‘be thinking’).
Novels are sequences of words, and films are sequences of images with synchronized sound. They have their own rigid rules, rules that are in many ways much more rigid. Just as Rudolf Arnheim understood that the limitations and rules of film make it possible for film to be an artistic medium, Salen and Zimmerman understand that rules are what allow the creative possibilties of games. The idea that rules prohibit games from doing interesting things is a mischaracterization, really a reversal, of the way rules are discussed in Rules of Play – I think it’s wrong, too, but it certainly doesn’t represent their approach to games.
I invite you to make your claim “games will never be able to have the same sort of psychological richness as other narratives” into something specific, even testable. Why not state something that you think a game cannot do? We may be able to point you to a game that does it or we may have an interesting discussion about that aspect of art. Otherwise, it’s just a sort of troll, like someone saying “people will never be able to express complex thoughts in Swahili.”
May 3rd, 2004 at 4:47 pm
I’m more or less with John on this one, and have in fact made a similar argument in my essay in Marie-Laure’s forthcoming Narrative Across Media (sorry for the shameless plug, but hey, this is a blog, and when in Rome, right?) As have many other people in a number of places, including several articles in Game Studies, by Newman, Juul, Ryan, Eskelinen and Bringsjord).
When (single-user) games can compete in psychological depth with novels and film, it may be time to deem John’s argument a troll, but before that, the burden of evidence rests on the optimists, those who believe in the tired old trope that someone someday soon will become the Toni Morrison or W.G.Sebald of “interactive narratives”. (But why is nobody wondering who is going to become the Will Wright of Literature?)
As far as I know, Swahili (and occasionally, English) is actually used for complex thoughts, but, as Marie-Laure has asked, who wants to play Anna Karenina committing suicide in a game? Of course, the Anna K. game can be made (and hey, no IP licencing fees!) but I rather fear it would prove, rather than disprove, John’s point.
Of course rules in themselves do not “prohibit” interesting storytelling (but John’s more specific point as I understand it was rather that rules don’t help with the psychology of characterization, but rather the opposite: you can’t simulate believable psychology, it has to be canned). This is more a question of why we enjoy good, psychological characterization, and why this characterization by all observable cases seems to need simulation rules like a fish needs a bicycle.
Max Payne 2 – “a film noir love story” [sic]- is perhaps the most lavish and successful story-game hybrid out there. I absolutely enjoyed playing it, yet it left me completely cold in terms of its psychology, and I cared about the main “characters” much less than I care about an individual ant in my garden.
And MP2 didn’t even try to simulate the inner lives of Max and Mona, but left it to canned voices and cut scenes. Would it have been better if they did? As I pointed out in Cybertext, the simulated people inhabiting computer games appear to be only half-living. Perhaps instead of the misleading term “characters” we should call them, simply, bots.
May 3rd, 2004 at 6:25 pm
I think perhaps a more productive framing of the same question might be, “what can games do more and less fluently than media x can?” In an admitted simplistic dialectic, I have suggested before that different kinds of subjectivity are features of the textual strategies of different media forms: that novelistic subjectivity emphasizes interiority and unique experience – psychological phenomena and internal discourse can exist easily as peers with social and physical events in the ontology of the novel. Film revises and supercedes novelistic subjectivity, with one in which gesture and surface effect are the site of the subject, the map of the self. Only with great difficulty could a film do justice to Molly Bloom’s famous internal dialogue, but likewise one cannot imagine the depiction of social-field effects in a Fellini film, or the essentially visual, gestural communication of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s presence in Breathless being given adequate shrift in a novel.
I think with The Sims we see a stripped-down realization of the subject-as-a-system that is appropriate to a culture on our side of the cognitive revolution. I think we see it also in Facade. When trying to naively (as opposed to knowingly) remediate the internal/novelistic or surface-image/cinematic structures of character subjectivity, games do poorly (with a caveat – as cartoonish as the characters in a Japanese RPG like Final Fantasy may seem, there is a sort of cathexis that accompanies the work of play that gives them real emotional impact – maybe it’s the result of that play-investment.)
May 3rd, 2004 at 7:14 pm
(Sorry to skip over your comment in the beginning, William; I had drafted this offline.)
I’m look forward to your essay in Narrative Across Media, Espen, and to the rest of that book. I hope you agree that a simple contest for psychological depth between novels, film, and games is not the most productive direction. I don’t think any of us here are interested in simply reproducing the things novels or films can do in a computer game.
the burden of evidence rests on the optimists, those who believe in the tired old trope that someone someday soon will become the Toni Morrison or W.G. Sebald of “interactive narratives.”
Although I’m not sure where the trope of which you speak is currently lounging, the more interesting question seems to me to be whether there can be new media objects that combine certain enjoyable qualities of games with certain powerful, resonant qualities of literature. Not so that we can put a fish on a bicycle, but in order to develop a new art.
As exhibit A (in this particular court case) I’ve submitted Adam Cadre’s Varicella, and Stuart Moulthrop and I have written in some detail about how this game – I assume some people think it’s a game, since it won the 1999 Best Game XYZZY Award – uses both literary and ludic techniques to accomplish something new and interesting. Although psychological depth per se wasn’t the idea of Varicella or of our analysis, we did write specifically about how the literary concept of character and the computer-game concept of “NPC” worked together. If there is a better explanation for Varicella that involves Tetris or bots but not Titus Andronicus, I haven’t yet heard it.
I would hate to characterize video game scholars as being people who, if you throw them a story, begin to dribble, but there has been great neglect of some of the recent interesting computer game work that relates to literature – probably because it has happened mostly in a slew of innovative non-commercial games. Restricting your attention to commercial games is a reasonable (and perhaps financially sustainable) policy, but making claims about what all computer games can’t do, based on such studies, is really rather tenuous. I don’t own a Windows computer or a current-generation console, so my own gaming experiences are far from typical, and do not include Max Payne 2, for instance. But then, I prefer to focus on the qualities of games that do interest me greatly – IF, classic console games, abstract shooters – and not draw too many conclusions about about what is unattainable.
On the other hand, I’m not opposed to looking for special qualities and abilities of a certain form or medium, as William is doing, because you can do this by looking for positive examples.
May 3rd, 2004 at 7:20 pm
This is my FINAL post on this subject, I don’t want to sound like an academic in search of tenure (especially since I am NOT an academic). But I need to make my position on a few points clear:
1. Narrative is not necessarily an aesthetic phenomenon. We use stories for practical purposes too—in medicine, law, business, and everyday conversation. So, claiming that game stories do not match the masterwpieces of literature is not a valid argument against their capability to be interpreted in narrative terms.
2. in response to Gonzalo.
True, he says in “Ludology vs. Narratology” (224) that “to the external observer the sequence of signs produced by both the film and the simulation could look exactly he same.” But the next sentence reads: “This is what many supporters of the narrative paradigm fail to understand: their semiotic sequences might be identical, but the simulation cannot be understood just through the output.”
So, what is Gonzalo’s trying to say ?
If he is saying here that simulation can indeed produce a narrative output, he is contradicting himself, since the point of the essay is to say that simulations are not narratives. (“There is an alternative to narrative and representation: simulation”.) On the other hand, if he saying that we cannot trust the output (simulations only “look like” films), all he has shown is that simulations (=games) are not films.
May 4th, 2004 at 12:08 am
…the activities of game characters need to be able to be reduced to a digitally defined set of states – which means that game characters, unlike characters in novels, films, or indeed any other sort of narrative, are always rigidly determined in what they may do, say or think (or, more accurately, ‘be thinking’).
I think it’s a mistake to equate the state of the game as it is represented within the program with the way that that state is presented to the player. It seems to me that the latter is where the psychological depth, or lack thereof, would appear; it doesn’t (in my opinion) matter that the program states do not fully express what’s revealed by the dialogue, voice acting, etc. of the implementation. In order to have a psychologically interesting character, you don’t need to have an artificial intelligence capable of taking on all the possible mental and emotional states of that character, and building the expressions of those states from scratch. All you need is a state machine capable of taking on all the states that are going to be interesting in this particular situation, and of selecting and presenting an expression of those states (probably pre-written or assembled-from-pre-written-components). While I can’t think of any interactive fiction that approaches Anna Karenina, I can think of a number of IF characters who possess memorable and unique voices and attitudes.
So, while I agree with Nick in thinking that there doesn’t need to be a contest between games and novels and films, I do think that this comment is a bit off-base. And, for what it’s worth, IF has taken on stories about (among other things) suicidal NPCs or protagonists — some are dreadful, but some are not, and the fact that the experiment has been tried several times is itself interesting, I think.
May 4th, 2004 at 8:46 am
My point on the article was simply that while any game could be viewed as a story does not mean that games should be understood just as stories. An external observer watching, say, a film about a live action role playing game will get an idea of what the game is about, but will miss the phenomenological experience that goes on within the group of players (and that is leaving out an essential part of the object of study).
I am sorry to hear that the previous was your final post, I was under the impression that this conversation was being highly illustrative. By the way, I never had the impression that you sounded like an academic in search of tenure. For the record, I am neither on tenure track and I wouldn’t like to be either.
Anyway, I hope this conversation between Marie-Laure and myself has been helpful and clarified some of the issues that have been haunting the “ludology versus narratology” debate. Many colleagues and readers have asked why is the point of insisting on this issue. Certainly, as I have said before, I would rather been doing other things. But my chore problem is that this debate has generated a lot of unfair and unfounded remarks against my colleagues and myself (of course, in this case I can just talk for myself). I am tired of being accused on groundless basis (I want to be accused for things that I have actually claimed, that is the fun part of academics!). It is as simple as that. Tired of having people (even personal friends) caricaturizing”ludologists” of mainly focusing on Tetris or Pong (not only Nick on this thread, but also Michael Mateas on the recent First Person (“The ludologists commonly use examples such as chess, Tetris, or Space Invaders in their analyses”). That is simply not true. As I said, I have been working for the last 5 years on political games: it doesn’t get less un-Tetris than that. Maybe this means that I am not a real ludolgist anymore (bummer! I will have to get a new domain name now :(
Still, the myth of the radical, Tetris-worshipper ludologist is so strong, that people will insist in believing it even when confronted with hard evidence against the contrary.
So, every time I hear these accusations, I have no problem in engaging in a good discussion. I will do my best, as I think I did in this case, to do it providing facts and references to published materials. That is the way that, I believe, this game should be played.
May 4th, 2004 at 9:38 am
I’d like to make one qualification: suicidal characters in games I think need a different approach from suicidal characters in interactive fiction generally. My current belief (which is, of course, open to change) is that a player’s response to character is in some way limited by the goal-based nature of games. So if Anna Karenina did become a game, then the A.K. player should feel some sort of satisfaction at killing herself in-game (if the game were to stay faithful to the book). Whereas if one were to construct an interactive fiction from A.K., then an ending where A.K. marries Vronsky and lives happily ever after is just as valid as one where her fate is the same tragic end as she suffers in the book.
I realise this point is not exactly fresh or original, and depends on whether you believe that all games must have some sort of goal, or preferred outcome (as I do).
I certainly didn’t want to claim that game stories shouldn’t be interpreted in narrative terms. What I think is that there is a particular sort of narrative that suits computer games, and this sort of narrative is not psychological, but spatial. In fact, digital IF and games specifically are able to narrativise 3-D space in a way that no other medium can do; in this respect Half-Life (for example) is an extraordinary work of art.
I absolutely agree that “a simple contest for psychological depth between novels, film, and games is not the most productive direction”; that was what I was trying to argue in my first post. Profuse apologies if I came across as a troll; that was not my intention.
Like everyone else, I’m also looking forward to Espen’s article and Marie’s book. It’s a sign of a vibrant and relevant field when there’s always a groundbreaking work in press.
May 4th, 2004 at 9:41 am
Being a little pedantic here, but when Marie-Laure says (in her first post) . . .
“For me, video games are a unique blend of imaginative experience and strategic action, a blend that is the true contribution of the computer to gaming, because in earlier days we had either imaginative games, such as children’s games of make-believe, or abstract strategic games, such as chess and go.”
This is factually incorrect as it ignores the large body of commercial conflict simulations (i.e., wargames) that have been published in the US and elsewhere since the 1950s. These games were neither intended for children, nor were they abstract (they modelled both historical and hypothetical situations). Avalon Hill and SPI are the two giants here, both now defunct (though the hobby still persists). For much of the relevant history, see Greg Costikyan’s “A Farewell to Hexes”:
I would argue that the old hex and dice wargames were/are analog computers capable of producing exactly a blend of “imaginative experience and strategic action.” Be a lot of fun to write about that some day.
May 4th, 2004 at 9:52 am
You have a point, Matt K. Thanks
May 4th, 2004 at 1:54 pm
Matt K. sez:
//I would argue that the old hex and dice wargames were/are analog computers capable of producing exactly a blend of “imaginative experience and strategic action.” Be a lot of fun to write about that some day.//
Well put! Playing Nomic (yes, some people actually play Nomic) makes this metaphor even more powerful, as the Nomic ruleset is a machine for churning out gamestates, the internal workings of which machine have to be carried out by the players in very explicit, step-by-step fashion. Nomic differs from hex games in that the value-judgments animating it (the relative weighting of tokens, order of operations, &c. which are of course ‘value judgments’) must be made by the players rather than by the long-disappeared designer.
(Which is why Nomic would be the perfect tool, as I’ve written elsewhere, for teaching computer programming, i.e. for teaching algorithm design, data structures, resource management, analytic problem-solving methodology, &c.)
It would be interesting to do a taxonomy of games based on the amount of abstraction between player and ruleset. Nomic, Mao, Flux would be at one end of a spectrum; the presidential election would be at the other. SimCity would be close to the former end, Diablo II not far off, with games like Deus Ex closer to the other end. Monopoly would dwell in the middle someplace.
Then of course there’s the magnificent, inscrutable Lord of the Rings board game, in which the board is essentially a gameplayer, which adds a whole different level of complexity to the game (the board takes on a life of its own – the rules want to beat you).
May 4th, 2004 at 2:47 pm
Greg Costikyan recently posted on his blog about the lack of a term to refer to “the good stuff” (in games). He makes a few interesting points that I feel might help this discussion… (http://www.costik.com/weblog/)
In answer to Wally H. What do you mean by abstraction between player and ruleset?
May 4th, 2004 at 6:00 pm
Nick: exactly who is restricting their attention to commercial games? This is the sort of baseless nonsense that Gonzalo is reacting to, and if pressed not very hard I would have to agree that blogs and its distant relative, scholarly debate, would be none the worse without it. Ironically, literary critics would not be having this conversation – “so, you only analyse commercially published novels, how opportunistic of you” – and in this case it is neither true nor relevant to the issue at hand.
The contest between media forms is there as historic fact (and not as something we have to root for) — textual adventure games were, sadly but logically, replaced by 2D and 3D games 18-12 years ago — while in the fifties, 3D movies did not manage to capture their intended market from good old 2D. And the late age of print is running very late indeed.
We need computer games for many reasons, but there is no evidence that we need them for creating and appreciating rich psychological portraits. Text adventures would have continued their initial success if we did, since they would provide better vehicles than 2D and 3D games.
And yes, I have heard of The Sims, but they are farm animals, not soylent green. When you can tell your Sim a story, then you’re in business.
May 4th, 2004 at 7:28 pm
(After seeing the comment about text adventure games being “replaced,” I did check to make sure that the IP was in Denmark … but then, I thought, Gonzalo is in Denmark, too. And he does owe me one … would he dare? Hmm … Espen has issued text adventure death certificates a few times; not just in Cybertext, but in his First Person essay.)
Nick: exactly who is restricting their attention to commercial games?
I didn’t claim that anyone in particular was, I was just advising against drawing conclusions about all games based on commercial games. But, on the topic, I’d love to know about what substantial discussions of non-commercial games you have published in the past few years.
literary critics would not be having this conversation – “so, you only analyse commercially published novels, how opportunistic of you”
A comparison to a film department that only considered Hollywood movies would seem more apt. Or, perhaps, to an Emily Dickinson scholar who only studied the seven poems she commercially published during her lifetime. If we’re going to make the cross-media comparisons.
Of course, if you’re interested in what can be done with a large, specialized, corporate-organized team, a huge budget, the latest technology, and the range of possibilities that game companies are willing to consider – and there is, admittedly, lots to be done that might be interesting there – by all means, look exclusively at commercial games. Just as independent (and of course non-U.S.) film is worth consideration in general, I think independent and non-commercial games generally are, too.
textual adventure games were … replaced
Oh my goodness, so they have been. The hundreds of text adventures uploaded to the IF Archive since the mid-1990s are all gone – there are just a bunch of MP3s there now.
But really, I think there’s little point in trying to describe, in this space, the rich and ongoing post-commercial life of IF. The numbers, including even the fact that lots of new games have been developed in past years, don’t say much; the existence of interesting new works is what matters.
I will mention, though, that the idea of an ecology of media and forms, in which the nature of the different niches may change over time, seems much more compelling to me than is the idea of one media form being simplistically “replaced” by another.
There was no evidence that we needed to get computers to graphically simulate space battles for us before Spacewar was built; no evidence that we would want a computer to textually describe our puzzle-solving exploration of a cave before Adventure was developed; no evidence that cellular automata could be mapped to represent an entertaining simulation of growing city before SimCity was programmed; and no evidence (despite the existence of 2D, home-computer era ancestor systems like Habitat) that people would need a massive 3D gaming universe that thousands could connect to at once, until Ultima Online. So, it may be the case, as far as the needs of our global culture are concerned, that “there is no evidence that we need them for creating and appreciating rich psychological portraits.”
As I mentioned before, creating psychological depth in characters in IF is not a special creative project of mine, and studying it in IF is not a scholarly project of mine, but from what I’ve come to understand about computer gaming through IF, I’m still quite disinclined to rule it out as a possibility for IF or for computer games overall. I think some of us may be discovering no hope for a computer game with any aspects of Anna Karenina and others may see the possibility because our reading lists are different.
May 4th, 2004 at 7:50 pm
The contest between media forms is there as historic fact (and not as something we have to root for) — textual adventure games were, sadly but logically, replaced by 2D and 3D games 18-12 years ago…
We need computer games for many reasons, but there is no evidence that we need them for creating and appreciating rich psychological portraits. Text adventures would have continued their initial success if we did, since they would provide better vehicles than 2D and 3D games.
Hm. How are we defining success? Yes, they’ve mostly left the marketplace, but if you are open to the possibility of non-commercial success, then I don’t see that they’ve been replaced.
(And, for whatever it’s worth, there are several commercial IF games currently being sold and written within the last couple of years, if you feel like paying for IF: I don’t know that they’re distinctly superior to what’s being produced at an amateur level, except in some aspects of packaging, but that says more about the quality of some of the amateur work than it does about the commercial games.)
Anyway, IF is still a viable, active genre, and the context in which I do most of my thinking about game design. So it seems odd to be told, on the one hand, “games can’t do this, and no, we’re not restricting our attention to commercially successful ones”, and on the other, “this counter-example you’re bringing up doesn’t count, because no one does it any more: thus the market has proven that no one cares about those aspects in games”.
I would object to, but at least understand the logic of, an argument to the effect that IF isn’t a real game as you would choose to define gaming. But as I understand it, that’s not where you’re going. Perhaps I’m missing something, but so far this doesn’t make sense to me.
May 4th, 2004 at 9:47 pm
When I phrased the issue, I phrased it in terms of fluency, not in terms of simple ability. I still suspect that games can never be as fluent with representations of inner experience and psychological phenomena as other forms, at least not without coming to resemble those other forms more than they resemble games. The way that IF succeeds at that when it succeeds at that is through essentially novelistic strategies, not through strategies that exploit game features. Likewise, a videogame that uses cut scenes taken from Fellini will be able to achieve those cinematic subjectivity effects, but only through using cinematic conventions.
It would be perilous to be too definitive on the reasons for the success or lack thereof of different forms, but perhaps one could make the claim that IF “scratched an itch” that was already being “scratched” by traditional literary forms. From the perspectives of the needs of the reader and the pleasure of the text, it didn’t solve any problems. What have become more paragonic examples of games may have enjoyed their success largely because they addressed axes of pleasure that pre-existing forms did not.
May 4th, 2004 at 10:33 pm
I’m not sure what “problems” are exactly solved by Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Half Life, or Tomb Raider, but when you give your assessment of IF as not solving any problems, and as using “essentially novelistic strategies,” what works of interactive fiction are you talking about?
I just can’t imagine where one would get the idea that Shade, Varicella, Bad Machine, or Savoir-Faire principally functioned by using the strategies of the novel.
May 4th, 2004 at 11:19 pm
Nick, I’m specifically talking about success at novelistic interiority – an effect that visual/spatio-motor games are, by apparently common agreement, is less successful at. Varicella, for example, is great fun as game/writing, but it doesn’t have that kind of subjectivity as a design goal as far as I can tell. A better counter-example – and I’m quite receptive to it – would be one which did, in fact, demonstrate compelling psychological interiority without essentially novelistic techniques (stream of consciousness, internal discourse, narrated perception by a subject, etc.)
The “problem” solved by “paragonic” games are those haptic, spatio-motor navigation pleasures themselves. I might guess that pleasures are the “problem” in all these cases, isn’t it? (Oh, are you thinking that I meant that there are no problem-saving gamelike structures in IF? No, that’s not what I meant at all.)
May 4th, 2004 at 11:39 pm
Ok, William, I see your point; you are looking at the representational depictions of video games and “visual/spatio-motor” aspects. If you want to slice things this way it does make some sense to class IF as novel-like, although even if you only look at the reception of the text, interactors are reading to learn how to operate it, and operating it to read it, not just reading to interpret it. (A point that is not exactly the same as the “interpret in order to configure” one that Markku Eskelinen has made, but which is informed by that.) Certainly, techniques from the novel and from narrative are used – part of what started this thread – but I believe they’re used in new ways that do fundamentally involve game elements, even if there is no pursuit of “first-person shooter” subjectivity. I think there is a lot more that IF does that is new, however, and I look more to the literary riddle than to the novel for help in understanding it – and even then, the riddle provides a helpful metaphor, not a literal description of how IF works.
May 5th, 2004 at 10:45 am
Emily wrote: “I would object to, but at least understand the logic of, an argument to the effect that IF isn’t a real game as you would choose to define gaming.”
This is pretty much what I’m arguing. My impression is that something isn’t a game unless you can win it. So you could divide up the set of all IFs into IFs you can win and IFs you can’t (ie IFs to which the concept of ‘winning’ is inapplicable), and only the former set would be what I would define as games.
In other words, I think games have to have quantifiable outcomes, and you can only define quantifiable outcomes mathematically, not psychologically, or artistically, or any other way. So a game character’s principal importance will always be mathematical, to the eventual quantifiable outcome of the game; or alternatively, a player will always first of all care about whether NPCs are helping her win the game or not, with what that NPC is ‘feeling’ coming in a poor second.
However, the IF reader’s attitude toward the NPCs will be very different, because the (non-game) IF reader isn’t worrying about whether or not she is winning.
So what I’m saying is not quite that there’s “no hope for a computer game with any aspects of Anna Karenina”, it’s that the player of the Anna Karenina game -whether that game is on a computer, or board, or a series of cards- will not be able to ‘care’ about the game’s Anna and other characters in the same way that even a reader of a non-game Anna Karenina IF will care about them.
So what I seem now to be arguing is that the crucial difference lies in the distinction between the psychology of the player, and the psychology of the IF reader, not in the complexity of characters that is open to us with current technology.
Again apologies if this is opening up old ground – I’m finding this discussion very informative!
May 5th, 2004 at 11:56 am
> My impression is that something isn’t a game unless you can win it. – John
John – I’ve yet to win Space Invaders or Missle Command. And I’ve never won at a MMORPG – despite years of trying ;). I know there’s been some discussion as to how MMoRPGs aren’t games, per se, but I’m not sure I have been convinced that being able to win (or not – quantifiably) is a successful yardstick with which to measure “game.” I’d very much like to hear more thoughts as to why that strikes you as the defining characteristic … and also what we do with all those games that get played, but not finished? Not to get overly anecdotal, but if my playing habits are at all representative, I probably finish less than 50% of the games I play, although I enjoy a great many that I do not finish.
To disclose fully, I think I’ve decided that attempting to define “game” in discrete terms is a relatively fruitless endeavor, in as much as a definition of “novel” is relatively useless when you want to speak with any degree of specificity (this is not to say that a broad definition of ‘novel’ or ‘game’ isn’t useful; certainly, it is, but only in limited ways and mostly to describe the general before engaging the specific). In this case, the form of interactive fiction certainly will share qualities with other game-type objects (and I consider IF part of my broad definition of “game”), but – as with ‘novel’ – there is a spectrum of sub-genres. Acknowledging that each will, to some degree or another, debunk specific definitions of the overall form (in our case, “Tetris is not Half-Life” etc. etc.) will go a long ways towards moving to the more interesting questions of how, and why it’s significant, all grounded in the (historical, contextual, formal) specificity of the objects being considered.
(and thanks to all involved for a fascinating conversation)
May 5th, 2004 at 12:33 pm
Jose asked: What do you mean by abstraction between player and ruleset?
As always, I should’ve been clearer. That’s what blogcommenting does to me. :)
In computer science the term is ‘baring the rep’ – allowing users of the code to see the internal mechanisms that make up higher-level functions, rather than putting the nuts-n-bolts stuff behind a layer of abstraction.
Consider Diablo II – in which a player’s prowess is expressed wholly in numbers. There’s no aesthetic component to success (spells don’t get markedly more visually exciting, the PC’s appearance hardly changes, &c.). The experience point counter increments every time you kill something; it’s a bit like someone left a printf() statement in the scoring routine. Wouldn’t the game be better off without it – if the player were genuinely surprised by leveling up? To do well at the game is little more than a numerical optimization problem. And since online strategy guides make available a great deal of the game’s internal workings (e.g. the formulae determining what magic items drop, when), the layer of abstraction – i.e. the ‘hero quest’ plot and pretty graphics – is all but gone. Online Diablo II functions like a stock market rather than a MMORPG.
Dungeons and Dragons has similar ‘features’, of course (knowing precisely how many hit points you and your allies have is a kind of ‘baring the rep’ – it reveals the mechanisms by which the gameworld is formed). D&D is in an odd position, since for some it’s a structure for improvisatory theatre and for others it’s a competitive game.
Nomic is the extreme example because it is a ruleset only – and because the ‘compilation’ part of the game is carried out by the players themselves (if you think of a game engine as a kind of compiler, which produces new gamestates regularly based on user input and variables floating about the gameworld, then you can talk about rules-lawyering as a kind of ‘debugging’, though the metaphor is most apt in Nomic, where the gamestate changes in much slower and clearer steps). Mao is similar; though the values of the cards (A through 10, JQK) are arbitrary, they’re straightforward and sensible.
Is Diablo II a good game, by the way? Not particularly. The choices only seem meaningful; in reality it’s difficult to improve in any way other than mechanically, strategy is limited and too often boils down to ‘kill-get-bring-upgrade’, the story matters not at all, and the majority of players grow bored long before they ‘win’ (i.e. in multiplayer, when they reach character level 99 (clvl99)) because there’s no meaningful gradation of difficulty or reward, only more and stronger versions of the weapons, monsters, &c.
I like the ‘meaningful choices’ metric for determining what’s a good game. Of course that raises the questions of Dance Dance Revolution and September 12 (and how often do you see them in the same sentence?), neither of which I would argue is a ‘good game’, though one is enjoyable. The problem with the ‘meaningful’ label is that, in 9/12 for instance, deciding where and what to shoot seems meaningful at first. The game exists to demonstrate a point about the player’s actions. The point is meant to be meaningful, the actions themselves meaningless. Perhaps the problem is that the point of the game is made in a meaningless way – overly abstracted, to the point at which an external judgment of value is difficult. (In the same frame: it’s easy to identify with Rendezvous With Rama‘s characters, because their experiences map onto our own. Same for Tolkien, Philip K Dick, Kill Bill(!!). Easy in other words to place them on our constantly-updated significance-scale. Harder with, for instance, Quake.)
May 5th, 2004 at 2:51 pm
[Nick:] But, on the topic, I’d love to know about what substantial discussions of non-commercial games you have published in the past few years.
So, first you check my IP, and now you want my full confession?
How about this deal instead, Senator: I give you a list of names of all the people I know who are secretly plotting to rid the world of “interactive literature,” and you give me full immunity? Deal? Yes?
Seriously, it is no use complaining that game researchers don’t take your favourite games seriously enough: As an uninvested, “pure” theorist (in the sense that I have no creative ambitions that flavour my judgement) I go after what interests me the most, theoretically. And as someone who has given a fair share of attention to text adventures (Deadline is my chief example in Cybertext) you are not going to make me feel guilty about this.
There are simply so many interesting games being produced these days, commercial or not, that textual adventure games inevitably seem like a thing of the past, like vinyl records, gopher servers, and veteran cars. (Yes, I know that people still use them.)
All I am trying to say, and has been for the last decade and a half, is that there exists an unfounded, super-inflated belief in the possibilities of “serious” storytelling using games (text or graphics). This ideology has a long history of failed expectations, with designers throwing technology at what is not really a technological but a conceptual problem. Every few years someone claims that their new game will revolutionize “interactive storytelling” and it just doesn’t happen, again and again and again. Theory could help us here, but since this sort of theory is critical rather than prescriptive, it is usually ignored by technologists, not only by self-taught game designers, but also by trained researchers, who then fail the hard way.
Look at Black & White, for instance. A potentially very fine and innovative game is ruined by some ill-conceived excecutive decision to drop a storyline smack down on top of the simulated world. Just as I was learning the basics and getting to grips with the gameplay, a hole in the universe opens and I am dragged to a different world (or different place in the same world, who knows) and I quickly lose any motivation to go on playing.
To Emily: I am not – not at all – saying that text adventures like Varicella don’t count (of course they do, for the people who make them, play them, and love them). I simply say that to me they are not counter-examples of how games are actually tackling and revolutionizing psychological storytelling. But if some influential critic were to make a solid, convincing argument that they are, it would be fine with me.
May 5th, 2004 at 2:56 pm
John Wilson sez:
In other words, I think games have to have quantifiable outcomes, and you can only define quantifiable outcomes mathematically, not psychologically, or artistically, or any other way.
But IF titles being computer programs, it seems to me that they always must have quantifiable outcomes, since otherwise the underlying problem would not be computable. Why isn’t the Boolean algebra they are generally built on mathematical enough for you?
So a game character’s principal importance will always be mathematical, to the eventual quantifiable outcome of the game; or alternatively, a player will always first of all care about whether NPCs are helping her win the game or not, with what that NPC is ‘feeling’ coming in a poor second.
I think you got it the wrong way around – I don’t believe that it pays to make the PC care about what the NPC is ‘feeling’, but that the NPC should care about what the PC is ‘feeling’. Which might be an urge to win, but might also be something entirely else. Just that a game is sensitive towards different emotions than just the human drive towards triumph does not have to mean that the game cannot recognize that, too – it might just mean that the game can handle more emotions than just that one.
May 5th, 2004 at 3:50 pm
I think it’s reasonable to use quantifiable outcome (not winning, as Jason’s Space Invaders and MMORPG cases show) as part of a definition of game, but it does make sense in that case to consider things that are playable (in ludic senses, as Noah has talked about) as well as things that are games.
More importantly, I believe all of my examples of IF works that have essential literary and gaming qualities can be won (it’s certainly true of Shade, Varicella, Bad Machine, and Savoir-Faire), and so are games by your definition. So I don’t see that the distinction demonstrates what it is supposed to, that games can’t be literary.
Players of games may not care about game characters in the same way as readers of novels, but that could be said about viewers of movies and plays and people who listen to stories and poems caring about characters. (I don’t mean to draw an analogy between game play and movie-watching, just to point out that caring about characters is “a different way” doesn’t give you any real purchase on the issue.) I think people do read Anna Karenina in order to enjoy it, just as people play games in order to enjoy them. Just as it odd but true that the aesthetic appreciation of and engagement with the novel does not keep someone from sympathizing with a suffering character, I don’t see that we can deem ludic engagement particularly rules this out.
Hmm … oddly I agree with the basics of most of what you’ve said here … researchers should of course attend to whatever aspects of video and computer gaming, and whatever specific video and computer games, interest them, and of course I’m grateful that this included Deadline in your case. I just think that declaring that certain literary aspects will never play an important part in games, based on examination of mainstream commercial games, would be like my declaring that first person shooters are inherently repetitive and uninteresting based on my playing IF Quake.
There are simply so many interesting games being produced these days, commercial or not, that textual adventure games inevitably seem like a thing of the past, like vinyl records
A good example – you should bring up the obsolescence of vinyl records with the DJ the next time you’re at a club.
Vinyl does seem to be doing quite well in a particular niche of Western culture. I certainly don’t think that interactive fiction is just directly an important part of mainstream culture, but then, neither is poetry, short film, or comics. Even looking only at the mainstream, just as Hollywood studios frequently raid comics to make mainstream movies, and advertisers raid short films for ideas for commercials, IF could be a reservoir of inspiration for mainstream game makers – as I think the non-commercial Zork was for two decades, through graphical games like Zork Grand Inquisitor. (Poetry is less often appropriated in this way, but it does its work in other ways – as a cultural long-term memory, for instance, as easily-interpreted Cold-War-themed IF already seems to be doing on a smaller time scale.)
All I am trying to say, and has been for the last decade and a half, is that there exists an unfounded, super-inflated belief in the possibilities of “serious” storytelling using games (text or graphics). This ideology has a long history of failed expectations, with designers throwing technology at what is not really a technological but a conceptual problem.
I agree on both counts. And, I’m sorry to hear about the story-induced downfall of your Black & White experience.
I don’t think “storytelling” is a very useful way to understand IF specifically or computer games more general, or a useful creative direction. I note that I used the word “storytelling” only twice in Twisty Little Passages, once in a direction quotation from Adam Cadre about the influence of Christopher Priest, who writes for comics, and once in the subtitle of Sarah Sloane’s book in the bibliography. So you have no pro-storytelling argument from me here.
My specific position is that IF can, and does, do some of the things a literary riddle does, on a complex and compelling scale. But more generally, I try to look for new ways that the literary and the ludic are working together, and look for interesting new directions for computer games that are based on that. Slapping a story into an otherwise good game because someone thinks it needs some story is not at all what I’d encourage or celebrate. Nor am I telling anyone to go off looking to add a character with psychological depth to their game, just because psychological depth is cool. But since I’ve looked at one of the few niches of computer game where literary and gaming aspects have very powerfully combined, I’m wary of declaring that every passage forward from this juncture is a dead end.
May 5th, 2004 at 7:24 pm
Espen wrote: There are simply so many interesting games being produced these days, commercial or not, that textual adventure games inevitably seem like a thing of the past, like vinyl records, gopher servers, and veteran cars. (Yes, I know that people still use them.)
There are technological equivalents for vinyl records, gopher servers, and veteran cars which are in many respects more efficient at fulfilling the purposes for which the originals were designed. I gather that this is more or less the argument you’re making about IF, too — that the functionally important aspects of the games were transferred successfully to 2D and 3D graphical adventures, leaving the text as a scratchy and inferior medium through which to experience those gaming aspects.
With respect, I think this is false. What can be done in a graphical game is quite different from what can be done in an IF game, not only because the output is different, but also because there are different restrictions on input. The player of an IF game can be allowed to do a range of things with the world model, sometimes even relatively abstract or unexpected things, that could not be adequately expressed with a mouse or joystick. (Nick, stop smirking. I still think this is orthogonal to the riddle issue.)
I also think that part of what makes IF interesting is its (relative) agedness as a medium compared with most of the other computer game types out there. (Yes, I know that the pure arcade game has been around for a long time.) IF has been around long enough to have developed — well, not much academic theory, but a sizeable body of design discussion based on a corpus of several thousand games, some of which were written specifically as experiments in game design because there was no commercial compulsion to do otherwise. This discussion deals with issues of story presentation, player involvement in story, player’s *perception* of his involvement in the story, characterization of the player character and of other characters, and so on, as well as things like world modeling, pacing, puzzle fairness, and other things that might be considered more game-related. I’m not claiming we have any sort of monopoly on discussing these things, but it does seem to me that some recent IF shows a sophistication and maturity lacking in the old commercial incarnations, which is also unlike anything I have encountered in my (admittedly limited) experience of graphical adventure games.
In particular, I think some recent IF shows an impressive fusion of story and game aspects; in “Slouching Towards Bedlam”, say, many of the player’s actions are simultaneously important to the world model and to the development of the plot; the player has a real effect on the outcome; there is no particular sense of modality or reliance on cut-scenes for these effects. Narrative subjectivity is part of “Slouching”‘s repertoire of techniques, but only part, and it is used in a way peculiarly meaningful in IF.
Story*telling*, as such, is a bit suspect as a description of what goes on here: Nick’s right about that. But when I was done playing there was a story there. It was partly of the authors’ devising and partly of my own, and nonetheless had some complexity and was not the kind of lax, generic narrative that comes out of dozens of hours of playing with Sims.
(Can you “win”? Hm. Maybe, maybe not. You can choose which outcome you think is most desirable and then achieve that: this is winning in a way, inasmuch as it requires understanding the story and the world, planning actions based on that understanding, and carrying them out with the deliberate intention of achieving a specific endpoint.)
So I would say that there is much happening in IF for which Deadline is not a sufficient index. Or even Varicella, for that matter, though it’s obviously a much more recent example, and it does show off some interesting things.
Anyway, I hope I don’t sound chiding: obviously, people pursue what interests them and what they think sheds the most light on their field. It’s not possible to keep up with everything being done everywhere. As for me, I am sufficiently, er, corrupted by creative ambitions that I am most interested in theory that has something useful to say about what I’m doing and how I might do it better.
John wrote: So what I’m saying is not quite that there’s “no hope for a computer game with any aspects of Anna Karenina”, it’s that the player of the Anna Karenina game -whether that game is on a computer, or board, or a series of cards- will not be able to ‘care’ about the game’s Anna and other characters in the same way that even a reader of a non-game Anna Karenina IF will care about them.
This is hard to address. I suppose that IF with multiple end-states which the player may choose to regard as winning or not would not count as a game, on those terms. Hmm. Possibly I don’t actually write games, because that sort of ending is precisely the kind I find most interesting. My most open-ended piece has forty or so possible outcomes, and a good deal of my mail about it says things like, “I played this over and over until I got to ending X, and I liked that ending, so I stopped.” In most cases, this meant that they had established the relationship with the protagonist that they personally had decided was most satisfactory — and different people had different opinions about which one that was. So possibly this is not a game, but some players at least seem to have treated it as if it were.
I don’t have a large investment in it being one thing or another; I’m mostly interested in trying to figure out the boundaries of these definitions.
May 6th, 2004 at 8:08 am
One thing I’ve never understood about either narratology or ludology is how either of the above is supposed to further any sort of understanding of playware.
It has always seemed to me to be a redundant argument, because it is as plain as my face that games, and especially electronic games, can and do have both ludological and narratological elements built in. Since the time of Space War, videogames have always combined strategy, motion, a track of events that become narratives in peoples’ minds, an imaginative quality, and blended them. Even the most holy Tetris had funny Russians dancing around the place, and even the most story heavy Grim Fandango has arcane puzzles to solve and a character that moves around.
So what is point of continually running around in this circle. There is no great debate, merely a hell of a lot of posturing and argument over what is blindingly obvious to a child.
The much more important debate, the debate that is not engaged with, is all to do with maturity, exploration, and getting out of the starting gates of entertainment and into art. I’m trying on my blog to start it.
May 6th, 2004 at 9:07 am
Tadhg, your post on striving for deeper interactive art is very much aligned with the interests of the contributors and readers of this blog. Many of our discussions we’ve had over the past year touch on that topic; here are a few discussions that focus on it: Taking Bernstein’s Bait, Modes of AI-based Art, Artist Programmers, Meaning Machines, The Whoa Effect, Harold Cohen on artist programmers. I’ll be sure to be tuned to your blog(s) to hear more of your ideas about it all.
While the lud/nar discussion here may at times seem unproductive, hopefully these frameworks and theories will eventually stabilize, and the results should be useful for practitioners trying to deeply understand the nature of the medium, as well as inspire fruitful directions to innovate in.
May 6th, 2004 at 9:38 am
Just a note that a section of First Person that’s related to this discussion is now online at ebr. In the responses already online, Espen Aarseth challenges Janet Murray’s position that “games are always stories” and Janet responds with some helpful clarification of her position.
May 6th, 2004 at 10:13 am
“While the lud/nar discussion here may at times seem unproductive, hopefully these frameworks and theories will eventually stabilize, and the results should be useful for practitioners trying to deeply understand the nature of the medium, as well as inspire fruitful directions to innovate in.”
Hmm, well I’ve been reading variations on the same few essays for several years now without much meaningful progress, so I’m sceptical to say the least.
May 6th, 2004 at 10:55 am
The ludology vs. narratology discussion really doesn’t exist to directly help us understand a particular game better. The point of it is to think about how we study and understand games, and to figure out if our disciplinary approaches and methodologies are the best ones or not. It’s a discussion that informs the writing of books like Twisty Little Passages, Rules of Play, Narrative across Media,and First Person as well as discussion at conferences like DAC. I don’t really think it needs to stabilize, either, as it’s fitting that we are constantly re-evaluating the usefulness of our approaches. As long as we’re also doing some analysis of computer games and theorizing about them and such, of course.
I find it rather hard to believe that everything that Espen, Noah, Gonzalo, Marie-Laure, Markku Eskelinen, Jesper Juul, Henry Jenkins, Janey Murray, Barry Atkins, and others in this field have written about computer games and narrative is “blindingly obvious.” A simple point would be that they don’t all agree, so unless you think a bunch of contradictory things can all be obvious…
the debate that is not engaged with, is all to do with maturity, exploration, and getting out of the starting gates of entertainment and into art.
Not engaged with? In Janet’s Hamlet on the Holodeck, just to pick the lowest-hanging fruit? There’s been a great deal of writing on this topic. I’m hardly an eminence gris, and I wrote about the topic nine years ago. I’d also think there are plenty of games, even commercial ones (Mindwheel and Rez, to take two very different examples) that clearly have importance beyond entertainment.
I appreciate that people can (on the surface) seem to be re-hashing the same points again and again, and I even appreciate that sometimes they are, but I’d encourage you to read the discussion, at least on topics that interest you, more carefully.
May 6th, 2004 at 11:21 am
Since this is becoming a repository for lud/nar thoughts, I wanted to point out Greg Costikyan’s recent post that is in this zone:
Also, at the significant risk of being sophmoric, I’m going to repost some of my edited thoughts from his comments field. Take them for what they’re worth — probably not much. I think they’re just rephrasings of thoughts taken from snippets of Aarseth, Monfort, Juul, Frasca, Murray, and Ryan. I’ve really enjoyed reading all of your work on this topic, though I haven’t finished reading it all.
The thing that got me started was when Greg Costikyan said chess has no story. I understand one way to defend a more “narratological” approach is to say that chess does have a narrative story — it is just a story that is only revealed through play. So, e.g., after a great chess game, I can easily read the moves, see the array of the pieces, understand the moments of dramatic tension — the mistakes, the reversals, the surprises (all that great narrrative stuff). So chess, as rules, is not a story. But chess, as played, is a story.
And to steal here from Marie-Laure Ryan (and Eric Hayot and Ted Wesp, and others), those elements that make the strategic ‘story’ of chess exciting in retrospect are equally important to makes us turn the pages in a good narrative — as we worry about whether James Bond will escape, whether Elizabeth will marry Mr. Darcy, etc. So narrative is kind of like watching a game being played.
In accord with that idea — more people *watch* basketball, football, hockey than *play* those games that lack stories. But does saying they’re games, not stories, do any real work? What’s the difference between watching a sporting event and watching a film (e.g. Hoosiers or Remember the Titans) that turns a sporting event into a narrative?
The problem is that great play that constitutes great narrative is rare. Much of play is the kind of narrative analogous to my children’s art projects that we hang on refrigerators — enjoyable — yes, art — yes, valued — yes, but much more valuable to the authorial “player” than to an audience.
In short, my understanding is that the “ludologists” are pointing out that the experience of play feels much more like the experience of authorship than the experience of readership. Relatedly, the experience of designing good games feels much more like enabling enjoyable authorship than it feels like writing good literature.
So, e.g., Shigeru Miyamoto’s work is amazing — but there’s no way a passive viewer could understand exactly why that is so. You’ve got to do the work in his games, feel the possibilty of play he enables, to understand why they’re the good stuff.
The special appeal of game narratives, I think, is that they are (in some sense) narratives performed live by the people who are traditionally the readers. So that means a lot more people become authorish, but the “texts” we’re talking about become, essentially, a constellation of narratives that are unlocked by the reader through the process of play.
(Again apologies for stepping into this debate — I imagine if I carefuly read all the game studies lit, I’d find that the above is just an amalgam of existing positions, and I’m re-stating things.)
May 6th, 2004 at 11:42 am
Emily wrote: “I don’t have a large investment in it being one thing or another; I’m mostly interested in trying to figure out the boundaries of these definitions.”
Couldn’t agree more!
Emily also wrote: “I suppose that IF with multiple end-states which the player may choose to regard as winning or not would not count as a game, on those terms.”.
I’d say so; my definition of creating a game would include establishing, before play begins, what constitutes winning or losing (and it would indeed be more accurate to say that a game is something that can be lost; or that Space Invaders is a good example of how an unwinnable game can still be fun).
Take Deus Ex: Invisible War as an example. (Warning: possible spoilers for this game coming!) You can end the game either by getting the Alex Denton character killed, and seeing the ‘Terminal Life Signs’ screen, or by reaching one of the four ‘proper’ endings with FMV cutscenes. Now, you may decide that a play session where Alex is killed is actually more appropriate than, say, the ending where Alex obeys the fanatical religious organisation, and reaches the ending which unleashes a massive sectarian jihad upon the world. Yet in the case of Deus Ex: Invisible War, it’s pretty clear that the latter ending constitutes (one way of) winning the game, but any ending other than the four FMV options constitutes losing the game.
So it’s a necessary part of a game that players don’t get to decide what counts as winning after play begins, but that the IF reader can decide, during her interaction with the text, what the best way of completing the text will be for her. I’d then argue that the emotional responses of the game player are fundamentally limited in a way that the emotional responses of the IF reader are not, because of this, and that the design of the story of a game, unlike the design of the plot of an IF, must account for this limitation. In fact ‘Invisible War’ is a good example of how the tensions between IF and games can conflict (I’d better point out here that I really enjoyed the game, and am probably going to write my thesis on it, but it’s such a pioneering work that it bumps up against the limits of what a game actually is).
In the case of an MMORPG, I’d say that an MMORPG is something like a casino: it’s a gaming environment while not actually being a game itself. You can enter it to play lots of games, or you can go simply to enjoy the atmosphere and interact with strangers wearing exotic outfits while not actually playing any games per se. The one major difference is that making real money is a major part of going to a casino, but not an MMORPG (although in the case of Everquest, maybe this is changing…)
Tadhg: While I don’t agree that “what we call videogames [don’t] really belong in the same headspace as boardgames, or sports” (as you say on your blog), everyone here I’m sure is 100% with you in thinking that “games can be art”. It depends really whether you think that establishing a rigorous theoretical framework is helpful to getting the wider public to accept that games can be art, and this is what I’m interested in doing.
May 7th, 2004 at 7:11 pm
John wrote: …my definition of creating a game would include establishing, before play begins, what constitutes winning or losing (and it would indeed be more accurate to say that a game is something that can be lost; or that Space Invaders is a good example of how an unwinnable game can still be fun).
This sounds sensible, but I can’t quite sign on: there are a number of IF works where you can easily get stuck — and never finish — but where there is nothing that actually kills you off or results in a *loss* as such. So you can’t lose, but you can fail to win.
The structural differences between these works and other works that do incorporate loss conditions are sometimes very slight, so I feel odd saying that that is the thing that divides the game from the non-game IF.
Take Deus Ex: Invisible War as an example. (Warning: possible spoilers for this game coming!) You can end the game either by getting the Alex Denton character killed, and seeing the ‘Terminal Life Signs’ screen, or by reaching one of the four ‘proper’ endings with FMV cutscenes. Now, you may decide that a play session where Alex is killed is actually more appropriate than, say, the ending where Alex obeys the fanatical religious organisation, and reaches the ending which unleashes a massive sectarian jihad upon the world. Yet in the case of Deus Ex: Invisible War, it’s pretty clear that the latter ending constitutes (one way of) winning the game, but any ending other than the four FMV options constitutes losing the game.
Yes, but (I assume) it is also possible for the player to decide that jihad is not the “win” he desires, and replay with the intention of getting a different outcome.
So at this point the difference between the win and loss conditions seems to be less about whether the player likes that outcome or whether that goal has been established at the outset of the game, and more about whether the finish provides a conclusion to the narrative. Losing means dropping the narrative thread in the middle and not having things rounded off very satisfactorily; winning means having the story *end*, even if the end is not an end the player desires.
(I may be completely off-base here, since I haven’t played the game and am basing this entirely on your description of it and on similarly-structured works of IF. But perhaps this suggests more of a continuum from game to non-game, rather than a strict division.)
May 7th, 2004 at 11:41 pm
First, I must confess to being an outsider on this conversation. I study new media rhetoric, but not games specifically. I was drawn to your nar/lud debate as my work is often termed “ludic.” However, in my case, this refers to my drawing on post-Marxist theory. Anyway, this is largely beside the point, expect to the extent that it informs my questions about your collective, if contentious, endeavors.
1. Does “narrative” exist within the material structure of novel, movie, or game? Or is it instead a product of reader/user interaction? If it is the latter, is the relative similarity between the reported narrative experiences of different users a product of the novel/movie/games’ structure? Ideological manipulation of experience? Generally-shared cognitive processes among users? Some combination of these? This being the case, are not narratives always already the product of games?
2. My limited understanding of ludology is that it focuses on rules and mechanics. I wonder how this approach relates, on one hand, to Friedrich Kittler’s argument that “There is no software,” and, on the other, Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of the machinic. In very different ways, both of these suggest the machinic pushing beyond the limits of the structural. That is, ludic theory, as I think of it, would be post-structural analysis.
As an aside, I was struck by the term “paidea” and how it might or might not relate to the Classical Greek notion of “paideia” (which I have sometimes seen spelled as paidea), as the value of democratic education. I suppose it is merely a coincidence.
In any case, it’s an interesting conversation.
May 8th, 2004 at 5:38 pm
Alex: I think you’re looking at highly metaphorical uses of terms and trying to find a connection to a conversation that is about those literal objects – a connection that isn’t there. Cybertext does a good job of distinguishing text/machines (actual machines, that are operated to produce texts) from non-machine texts that critics might discuss as being “machine-like.” Interactive fiction litrally asks for the reader to write some of it, it isn’t a metaphorically “writerly” text in Barthes’ sense. Warren Motte has a good book about how to see novels as games, called Playtexts, but there’s no reason to expect that his discussion will do a lot to help people understand actual games – it’s not supposed to, and certainly, it shouldn’t do that better than a good discussion of actual games.
Emily & John: Emily’s point about “games” that can’t be lost but can be won (Loom and Myst supply ready examples) is a great one. Perhaps – in the case of things that don’t have a final score – something should qualify a game if it can either be lost or can be won? “Futility games” such as Kabul Kaboom play with even this more liberal definition, however. Well, I’ll have to read the game-defining chapter of Rules of Play again with this in mind…
May 10th, 2004 at 10:51 am
It seems to me that what divides the game from the non-game IF isn’t a structural feature of the text (or program or whatever), it’s rather the attitude the player or reader takes to the text. Take skiing as a parallel. You can enjoy a particular skiing route as a pleasurable, aesthetic exercise without any victory or loss conditions, or you can ski it as a racing game, in that you are either trying to finish it in the shortest possible time, or beat somebody who’s skiing with you.
But skiing the route as a race fundamentally changes the way you think of the route: you immediately start thinking about the optimal route through, when to start turning, etc (I better mention here I don’t ski!). Whereas if you’re just skiing for fun, you’re more interested in the prettiness of the view, and can make little detours, etc. without affecting your progress towards your goal – because you haven’t got a goal.
Which brings me back to the point I was trying to make in my original post on this thread. In a game (digital or otherwise), the ludic attitude adopted by the player (the I-am-trying-to-get-to-a-goal-ness of the game) is always going to fundamentally affect her actions in the game. She’s always going to treat other game characters -whether those characters are computer-generated, or played by real people- as players, or game elements, rather than people, always thinking of how her interactions with them are going to help her win (or postpone losing).
I’d conclude than that the attitude of a player is fundamentally different from the attitude of a viewer, or a reader, or a listener, or indeed an IF user and therefore game stories require a fundamentally different approach from all other sorts of stories.
One consequence of this: I would say that a game is only a game for somebody if that person is actually aware that she is playing it. (Contrast the Michael Douglas/David Fincher film…) So, perhaps one way of judging whether a particular IF is a game is to ask whether the person using it thinks it is a game… Of course that would only determine wether that person’s individual play (or not!) session was a game, but I think it would be a valuable research exercise.
May 10th, 2004 at 11:04 am
As an addendum, this is taken from IGN’s preview of Half-Life 2, which I’ve just read: “The responsive, immersive nature of the world is something that really draws the player in, and makes them briefly forget they’re playing a game at all.”
Which would seem to indicate that immersion in a realistic world somehow conflicts with playing a game…
May 10th, 2004 at 4:41 pm
John, your consideration of the attitude of the “player or reader” is quite appropraite to understanding games and gameplay, and something Espen dealt with quite well in “Playing Research” from DAC 2003, pointing out that even researchers who assiduously play games themselves may not have the whole story on games, since other people play in other ways.
I’d conclude than that the attitude of a player is fundamentally different from the attitude of a viewer, or a reader, or a listener, or indeed an IF user
I’m not sure what you base the final part of your conclusion upon. In part, I’d agree, in that the IF user is in many cases doing literary reading as well as play. But I’d disagree in that I see play (and riddle-solving) as an essential part of what the interactor does in IF – in particularly great works that engage all the dimensions of experience that IF can engage.
Espen’s discussion of different sorts of computer game players seems like it could pretty deeply inform, if not directly map to, the way people experience IF, although the essential literary qualities of the experience would have to be dealt with, too.
People play IF for all sorts of reasons, not always competitive, just as they might ski and play video games for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps I’m misreading you, but, you think that IF is somehow a special case, and not “real” game-play, because people aren’t always driving toward a game-winning goal? It also seems like plenty of people have played arcade games without intending to get the high score, and that pure challenge (as opposed to, say, the pleasure of spectacle and simulated freedom of movement) could hardly explain everything about why people play Tomb Raider, Super Mario 64, and Rez.
May 11th, 2004 at 10:39 am
I should have made clear that, when I said “I’d conclude than that the attitude of a player is fundamentally different from the attitude of a viewer, or a reader, or a listener, or indeed an IF user”, I meant specifically ‘a player of a game’, rather than someone engaged in a looser, general form of play; in other words, I’d agree with Caillois that game play is a structured, goal-based subset of more general play, depending upon what Salen and Zimmerman term ‘the magic circle’. As you say, “the IF user is in many cases doing literary reading as well as play”, but I think the sort of play the IF user is at, is that looser, more general unstructured, goalless play (that’s goal-less in the sense of having no objectives, not in the sense of a dull Premiership match). Because the IF user doesn’t have to worry about breaking the magic circle, she can oscillate between the literary reading side of IF, and the puzzle-play side of IF. It’s not that I see IF as a special, goal-less subset of gameplay, rather that game-play is a special, goal-based, subset of IF which takes place in something like a magic circle, where everything that happens is related by the game players to the achievement of a goal, or postponement of a loss. So whereas non-game IF is free to tell as complex or as rich stories as the author likes, game IF must always subsume its fictional element to the highly structured, overriding task of evaluating the game’s goal.
That’s not to say that people, when playing games, sometimes stop worrying about the set goal of the game, and start to just mess around, as it were (for example, blowing Warthogs as high into the air as possible in Halo). But in doing that, these players are stepping out of the magic circle: they’re not playing the game, they’re playing with the game.
Anyhow, I don’t want to monopolise this thread. Thanks to everyone who’s replied; it’s certainly helped me clarify my own opinions!
May 11th, 2004 at 5:23 pm
I’m joining in a little late, but I just moments ago posted the last of this term’s grades and I’d been withholding the pleasure in order to motivate myself to finish marking…
I hate to be a relativist here, but in response to John, it really depends upon what IF games you’re talking about. Some are puzzlefests, some aren’t. The categories for the annual XYZZY Awards give you some idea of how IF players and designers categorize contemporary IF.
John, is there a particular work of IF that you’d like to discuss?
May 11th, 2004 at 7:43 pm
John wrote: So whereas non-game IF is free to tell as complex or as rich stories as the author likes, game IF must always subsume its fictional element to the highly structured, overriding task of evaluating the game’s goal.
That’s not to say that people, when playing games, sometimes stop worrying about the set goal of the game, and start to just mess around, as it were (for example, blowing Warthogs as high into the air as possible in Halo).
It seems to me as though you’re being fairly fuzzy on whether the game-ness is a quality of the work or an aspect of a given player’s approach to that work. Most of the objective things you’ve mentioned have more to do with the latter, but you talk about IF games vs. IF non-games as though there’s a distinction in the things themselves. Whereas it seems to me that if the game-ness is in the behavior of the player, some players can take even a work intended to be relatively puzzleless and assign goals to it, or explore a work intended to be puzzleful and play it with attention mostly to its literary qualities and/or simulation features — and I can come up with multiple examples of people describing doing both of those things, from email about my own IF and from newsgroup discussions of other people’s. At that point the most we can say about the classification of a given piece is that it encourages one kind of interaction more than another, and even that is a fairly subjective call.
So it seems as though whatever can be expressed in the medium of IF can be included in any work an author chooses; some IF may be more slanted towards play-as-game, but this doesn’t mean that depth of characterization would be wasted even there, since the player might experience it at whatever moments he chose to step outside the magic circle.
(Reviews of puzzle-heavy IF do sometimes talk about the benefit of having “stuff to play with” while the player is stuck, which suggests that the magic circle fades whenever the player does not know of any positive actions to move towards the goal of the game and must hunt around for more clues. This may be an infrequent occurrence in some kinds of game — I’ve never been at a loss for, say, how to interact with Tetris, suddenly finding myself on level 8 with no idea how to move blocks to the left any more — but it does happen in IF, *especially* puzzlefests. So that the peripheral toylike elements of the setting, however unimportant to the actual progress-towards-solution, have a huge effect on the player’s experience of the game and may also serve obliquely to provide further hints and insight into the workings of the IF model world.)
May 11th, 2004 at 7:47 pm
[Addendum: I know that some of what I’m ranting about, here, you’ve articulated yourself — but though you admit the subjectivity of the game/non-game distinction, you have seemed to keep qualifying some IF as “game IF” in an absolute sense, and this seemed like it was leading in wrong directions.]
April 27th, 2004 at 8:28 pm
Eric Hayot of the University of Arizona and Edward Wesp of the University of Wisconsin have just published “Reading Game/Text: Everquest, Alienation, and Digital Communities” in Postmodern Culture. The article is an interesting critical ramble (in a go…
April 30th, 2004 at 2:35 pm
Over at grandtextauto.org, a bit of a pissing contest among video game scholars. Always fun to be sitting in the front row for one of those – like the killer whales exhibit at Sea World, but with an unashamed, er,
May 3rd, 2004 at 11:41 am
electronic book review has established a thread for Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan’s First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Check out the thread introduction or see an overview of the weave. Also, some thought provoking conversat…
May 4th, 2004 at 2:56 pm
Note to self: “Nomic is . . . a game in which changing the rules is a move. The Initial Set of rules does little more than regulate the rule-changing process.” Wally H. comments: “. . . Nomic would be
May 14th, 2004 at 10:32 am
A recent exchange on the grandtextauto.org blog provided some interesting insight into the debate between two approaches to the study of computer games: narratology and ludology. Put briefly, narratologists focus on the narrative structures of a game, …
March 14th, 2006 at 4:03 pm
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