Game Fan Flamebait

At Norwescon I got asked whether I thought video games were a narrative art form. I knew the answer — "no, I do not believe that video games are a narrative art form." But I presented my case off the cuff and wanted to spend some time examining it.

I asserted that an essential quality that makes something a game — interactivity — is fundamentally at odds with the act of storytelling. I think that was slightly wrong. What I really mean is, the act of playing a game is fundamentally not a narrative act.

I think this in part because narrative — a novel, for example — requires no play. And play — darts, for example — requires no narrative. However, a game with no play would be a failed game. And a novel with no narrative would be a failed novel. So to me it simply doesn’t make sense to regard them as the same thing, since they can be separated so completely.

However, just because they can be completely separated, does not mean that they inevitably are. Many games, especially video games, have a lot of narrative applied. We can regard these as hybrid art forms, narrative games (Myst, for example), or a gamed narratives (Choose Your Own Adventure Books, for example). I suspect highly narrative games — and not Tetris or Guitar Hero — are what game fans have in mind when they claim that video games should be considered right alongside movies as a narrative art form. However, they are incorrect.

I believe they are incorrect because I would put even slightly gamed narratives on the "game" part of the spectrum, as more game than narrative. That’s a personal judgment call — not everyone may agree. Okay. But they are incorrect for a second reason.

Games simply fail to be very good when considered as narrative.

Game narratives can be complex and intriguing in their own way, but these narratives have a completely different criteria for success than narratives that stand alone as narrative. Emotional engagement in a game is supplied primarily by the act of playing it. Emotional engagement in a story is supplied primarily by — you know, the story. This is fundamental. It’s why movies based on video games are almost inevitably dreadful. The story that seems to be there when you’re engaged in playing the game doesn’t actually exist. It’s a clever illusion. Like the story that seemed to be there during your dream last night, it falls apart on the retelling.

Disagree if you like, but keep in mind that I consider any argument that begins "how can you say that when you haven’t actually played game X?" to prove my point. Without the act of play, a game narrative does not exist. And in my mind, that makes it not a narrative at all.


  1. Gosh. This is precisely what my master’s thesis should have been on, if I hadn’t been so intent on writing an impossibly general expansion of my bachelor’s thesis.

    I believe that video games (and role-playing games, and football games, and games in general) are very much a form of narrative — but one with a radically different narratology than stories & conversation (which Pratt showed to share the same structure). Yes, video games do not translate well to movies, nor role-playing games to conversation, but there is a story which engages when one plays a game. The difficulty is that all of its narratological markers play different functions.

    Take “surprise.” In a conventional narrative, surprise works best at the end of an arc, as a way to subvert & reinterpret what came before. It puts the reader off balance. But in a ludic narrative, this flops completely: it gives the player plenty of time to rethink their strategy, so that by the time they begin the next session, they’re not off balance anymore. Instead, surprise works best early in an arc, as a way of destabilizing the player’s expectations of what to do next.

    Transliterating a ludic narrative into a story will always fail (if it was a successful ludic narrative!) because all the speech act markers are in the wrong place, fulfilling different roles. And transliterating a story narrative into a game will fail just as badly. But that doesn’t privilege one form of narrative over the other.

    I have a suspicion that if I ever were to sit down and write the full thesis, an analogy of [game:story::architecture:music::spacelike dimension:timelike dimension] would figure prominently. And that I would get all the way through a speculative chapter about the way spacelike & timelike dimensions swap characteristics at the event horizon of a black hole before chopping it out of the final draft.

    1. Novels don’t translate very well to movies either… I seem to recall reading some curmudgeon or other complaining about how movies sucked because they were so passive compared to books, which require active participation on the part of the reader to move the narrative forward.

      GrouchyChris’ Asteroids, The Movie. We spawn, we shoot some asteroids, and we die.

      I’d say that games are a narrative artform about as much as writing is a narrative artform, which is to say that neither one is about narrative, really. You can have writings that are successful (funny, informative, clever, depressing, poetic) without telling a story, just as you can have games that are successful without telling a story. Much like games, writings often use narrative to make them go down easier. The Tortoise and Zeno and Achilles from Godel, Escher Bach, Galileo’s Simplicio and Sagredo, and the bland narratives that you sometimes see in technical manuals all spring to mind. Narrative in writing runs the gamut from non-existent to essential (as in a novel.)

      Perhaps the problem is that there aren’t really words that mean “games where the main emphasis is on telling a story” like there are for books (“novel”, “story”). I mean, imagine that “x” was the word for “games that focus on telling a story”. It would be absurd to claim that “x” isn’t a narrative artform, because, much like novels, narrative is by definition included. If you made an “x” and failed to tell your story, well, it wouldn’t be an “x” any more.

      Some games are pretty good at helping the player create their own narratives (strategy games, anything by Will Wright) which isn’t something I see very often in writing. Mad libs, maybe, or some of the works of Borges…

      Pathologic. A bleak russian game.(Part 2, Part 3 Links are to article about it, because your probably don’t want to actually play it)

      1. The biggest reason why novels translate to movies so poorly is that they’re too big. A typical movie contains at most 30,000 words’ worth of plot (which makes it worth, what, thirty pictures). Even a short novel contains at least 40,000 words, and most contemporary novels are well over 100K. So you end up chopping characters & subplots & mood that you can only partially recreate with the simultaneity of a film scene, and the more slavishly you follow the novel, the worse an adaptation you’ve produced.

        (Novelizations of movies tend to suffer from the opposite flaw: filler. Lots and lots of filler. Scads, oodles, piles and tonnes of filler: accumulations of filler atop agglomerations of filler, interspersed with purple, extraneous, unnecessary, verborrhoeic, sesquipedalian, redundant, overdetermined and abecedarian copses of filler.)

        But the narrative form of a novel is fundamentally the same as that of a movie, and in both forms you can abstract the plot down to a similar sentence of paragraph. What interests me about narrative games is that they present an altogether different narratology, in which no simple transliteration is possible.

        I am too tired to make sense of the extraordinarily brilliant & wise insights which are circulating through my head right now, and so I shall cease before I begin to sound too much like a troll.

      2. Author

        Some games are pretty good at helping the player create their own narratives

        I believe that was my point. I don’t think a player-created narrative can usefully be considered as a narrative. My experience with player-created narratives (Mad Libs, exquisite corpse, role-playing games) is that, if you take away the participation aspect, they are not successful narratives.

        People don’t typically get much of a kick out of reading someone else’s Mad Libs, or an exquisite corpse they weren’t there for, or from hearing about somebody else’s gaming experience.

        1. People also don’t get a kick from hearing someone describe a novel or movie they’ve read…

          In any case, games that are like mad-libs are not the same as games that are like novels, and not all games are mad-lib like… (The mad-lib thing was a digression in my original reply, and I apologize for not making that more clear… I suspect you and I are largely in agreement that games are not inherently a narrative art…)

          1. Author

            People also don’t get a kick from hearing someone describe a novel or movie they’ve read…

            True — the analogy I was making is that actually reading a novel is akin to listening to a description of a game. (Because my point requires removing the play aspect.)

            One of my thought test cases for this was the party game exquisite corpse. I realized that, while this is a game I enjoy, the results never seem all that entertaining outside the context in which they were created. It’s a fun game, but it’s not a way of creating an effective standalone narrative.

            I read the essay you cite while I was thinking about this — actually, I read a lot of existing thought on the subject of game vs. narrative (or ludology vs. narratology if you want to get academic). I think debating whether games are art is pretty pointless, since I think it is clear that they are.

            The question in my mind is what kind of art. I don’t think anybody would deny that great cooking is an art form, but very few people would claim that it is fundamentally a narrative art form.

            I think that Ebert attempts to make rather too strong a claim by establishing an inherent artistic hierarchy and putting books and movies above games — I distrust these kinds of hierarchies because that’s how you get people claiming that novels are inherently better than comic books, or movies are inherently better than television. In pure artistic terms, a really great game is better than the terrible movie made from it.

            But I think Ebert, like me, strongly prefers the narrative arts to the other arts, and this colors his statements on the topic.

  2. I suck at playing most video games, but I have enjoyed watching friends play through some–while they’re trying to get through the story as quickly as possible in order to get to the next fight, or next puzzle, or whatever, I get to sit back and watch the story unfold without having to worry about whether my reflexes are good enough to advance it. But perhaps, then, it’s not a game for me. It’s the same media, but for the player it’s a game, and for the observer it’s a movie.

    I think whether playing a game is a narrative act is a very different question than whether games themselves are a narrative art form. Is the act of reading a novel a narrative act? And does that question have any bearing on whether novels themselves can be a narrative art form?

    And what about Drood, a Broadway musical with a choose-your-own-adventure component? Is it narrative up until the point that the audience votes on how the final act is going to play out?

    (Ugh. My apologies for the disjointed rambling; my temperature is running between 100 and 103 right now. I’ll see if I have anything more coherent to say when I’m fully recovered.)

    1. Author

      I have sometimes enjoyed watching people play video games, but I don’t think the experience is comparable to that of watching a movie, because it applies even to highly non-narrative games like Tetris. So it seems more like what I am getting out of it is an echo of the same satisfaction the player is getting out of the act of play.

      Is the act of reading a novel a narrative act?

      Mmm, I did get a little tangled in the syntax when thinking of how to explain the difference between experiencing narrative and playing a game. I couldn’t say “read” because I was talking about movies and narrative TV as well. And, as SurlyBen pointed out, if you’re reading a street sign, that’s not really experiencing a narrative.

      I would say Drood is narrative, because its primary success or failure is still based on the narrative up to the CYOA component.

      I hope your brain survives the high-temperature onslaught.

  3. Author

    Re: I hate you and everything you stand for!

    So an art form that is not most successful as a narrative is not a narrative at all? I must say this seems odd.

    Actually, I think that when the success or failure of the work is not primarily based on the success or failure of the narrative, it is not helpful to regard the work as narrative.

    One of my test cases for thinking about this was visual art: art comes in both narrative and non-narrative varieties. If you plan to hang it on your wall, its success is measured by whether you want to look at it, and how well it tells a story is not a consideration. But, if the art is part of a comic, it has to tell a story to be successful.

  4. games may not be a narrative

    But they do a better job of engrossing you into the character and universe and letting you make the decisions. Even mediocre games are far better than “choose your own decision” books.

    As a side note the next grand theft auto is coming out soon and rumor has it that the camera behavior mimics classic motion picture camera work.

    I’m not a huge fan of linear games and I really prefer to play grand theft auto type games as a sandbox where you get to do crazy shit.

    1. Author

      Re: games may not be a narrative

      Yes, I hate Choose Your Own Adventure books — I find them boring as stories, and even more boring as games.

      Are you saying that in general you prefer games to movies or books, because of the immersive aspect, or just that you prefer games to gamed narratives like the CYOA books?

  5. So you mean computer games, as opposed to tabletop RPG games, right? Because the tabletop RPG games I ran were all about narrative. That was all there was to a lot of them. At least, I think so.

    Actually, MMORPGs might be a sort of postmodernist version of narrative, where no single narrative can dominate or exclude others. Some people are questing for good causes, some just kicking in doors, bashing monsters. and getting rich. Which isn’t Tolstoy, but then, neither are plenty of other narratives.

    Makes me wonder how you’d classify some of the immersive VR stuff in a novel like Rainbows End, or that newish Stross novel.

    1. Author


      I consider tabletop RPGs to be gamed narratives rather than narrative games, depending on the style of the person running it. I still consider them primarily games, because key criteria for success involves playability and interaction — although the ability to invent new scenario paths on the fly does make storytelling RPGs one of the more satisfying gamed narratives. (As opposed to, say, Choose Your Own Adventure books.)

      The art of constructing a game narrative is very different from the art of writing a story based on the same general scenario. A game narrative has to have holes of a certain type, where player choice comes into play, player dialog is invented, and the element of random chance is introduced through dice roles. Then, the actual play of the game fills in those holes.

      So if you’re going to evaluate an RPG as a narrative, which part is the story? The narrative you invent before play — which has huge, crucial gaps remember — or the narrative as it plays out during the game? But the narrative as it plays out during the game will almost certainly have elements, such as long conversations that don’t go anywhere, pointless diversions, and covering the same ground over and over, which would be edited out of any halfway decent story.

      So is your game narrative bad because it contains these elements? Not if it’s fun for the players to play. If the players have fun, your game is a success. Your game is brilliant.

      And that is really my point here, not that it is impossible to regard games as narrative, but that, when considered as narrative, even terrific games don’t tend to be very good, so why do it?. It’s essentially an argument aimed at those who want games — video games in particular — considered seriously as an art form, and then make their case for that by trying to muscle in on narrative territory, particularly movies.

      I’m in favor of the former, but not the latter.

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