Monday 23 January 2012

Narrative not a game mechanic?

I just stumbled upon Raph Koster's "Narrative is not a game mechanic" and found that it contains some stuff that I do not really agree with. Now, thinking somebody on the internet is wrong happens all the time, but I think this article brings up some stuff that warrants a reply. While it has up a few good points, it also contains views on a few concept that I think can be quite damaging when trying to expand upon the medium of videogames.

The word game is a very broad and fuzzy one. I can refer to boardgames, gambling, politics, drug dealing, sports and whatnot. For more part of the the article, Raph seems to be talking about videogames (given the black box analogy and that he specifically says "racing videogame"), but then later on slot machines and choose-your-own-stories are used as examples. Now one can see this as just using simply making a point, but I think the unclarity leads to an important issue: Videogames are very different from other games like chess, football, etc even though they are often lumped together.

The main reason why videogames are different is because they strictly impose rules upon the player. It is not really possible to play a videogame wrong, whereas playing football or chess (the physical versions) the wrong way are very easy. A videogame is more than a few game-rules, it is every single rule that you can possibly experience. Even basic laws of nature like friction and gravity play an essential role in a videogame. Videogames are not about following a specific rule-set, they are about being present inside a virtual world. The only way to really play a videogame incorrectly is to change the very fabric of its virtual reality, or to find some kind of exploitable flaw. (This is not strictly true, as one could say playing Mario and only running back and forth the first few pixels is not the correct way to play it, but I think I make my point).

In case you want more discussion on this, Chris Deleon goes into the issue a bit deeper here. My main point here is just that when discussing videogames, it is very common that all other kinds of games get thrown into the mix, and that is exactly what happens here. This does not mean that we should try and learn from other kind of games, but when we want to talk about the strength and weaknesses of our medium, we need to be clear what it is we are really talking about.

(I know I do say "game" when I really mean "videogame" from time to time. I hope I have become more clear on what I mean in later posts though. Also note that I sometimes simply use "game", after having just said "videogame" to make the text less repetitive. With that said, I hope I do not get too hammered because of improper usage :) )

A series of problems
This is something that have annoyed me for some time. It is the idea that videogames must pose some kind of challenge to the player. It leads to all kind issues, most importantly the idea that one needs to have trial-and-error in videogames. In my mind it is this kind of thinking what has been holding back videogames for quite some time.

In Raph's article, this thinking is best exemplified by:
"Cut the problem inside the black box, and you have a slideshow."
Once you get into this kind of mindset, I feel that there is so much you are missing out on. For instance, Amnesia would not have been possible to create if we had not let go of the belief that every meaningful interaction must have some kind of problem and challenge at heart. It is also a statement that makes videogames like Dear Esther impossible to create. It even dismisses a lot of what makes Silent Hill so great as bad videogame design. Needless to say, I think this is a very silly statement to make.

My view on the core of videogames is not that should to provide us with problems, but to immerse us in engaging virtual worlds. Sometimes problems are useful for doing this and sometimes not. But they are never what lies at the core of the experience.

Feedback is for fun
The way the article talks about feedback (graphics, sound effects, etc) is in a very simplistic manner: They are simply there to enhance the underlying mechanics. I believe that feedback, in any sensory form, can be a lot more than that. I think that visuals, etc can lie at the front and the mechanics can be a way of exploring them, hence you tweak the gameplay according to your visuals instead of the other way around.

Instead of seeing feedback as rewards for problem-solving, I think we should see them as a way to increase the feeling of presence in our virtual worlds. It is the ability to "kick back" that makes the virtual worlds of videogames so compelling and so different from other media like novels and film. If we see feedback as a tool of immersion, we can also stop seeing all interaction as problems. I think this brings forward a more inclusive view of what a videogame can be and is also much better at forming a platform for evolving the medium than the old narrow view.

I think there is a quite a confusion with words in the article. Narrative, in film theory, is how the story is told (how characters and plot are put together). When Raph talks about narrative in the sense of choose-your-own-adventure games, he is really referring to the plot. It is not narrative, but plot (ie some very specific events), that act has the reward for the player whenever they provide input.

It is much better to say that narrative is the subjective entirety of the session. This also goes along with Chris Bateman's view that all games tell a story and more interestingly that all art are games of some form. One could also take the view (which I do not) that narrative is, like in film, the way in which the story (plot and characters) are told, in which case narrative would be an umbrella term for game mechanics. In any case I do not think Raph's usage of the word is correct and a better title for his post would be "Plot is not a game mechanic". By saying it this way, I think the main point gets no stranger than "animations/sound/etc are not gameplay mechanics".

This might seem like a useless discussion in semantics, but I honestly think it is quite important. Right now, story, plot and narrative are mixed up to mean pretty much whatever, making discussions like "should our game focus on story" pointless. Language is our main tool for thinking, and if we cannot have a proper terminology, we will not be able to think properly.

The article's example from Batman: Arkham City is to me a very clear example of this kind of bad thinking. By saying that the "video of the Joker playing on a television set" is a narrative element, but then dismissing the entire climb that came before it as such, one is really missing out on the strengths of the videogame medium. For me I the Joker video is pure plot, a bit of needed exposition and not what is interesting. What is interesting is the climb up the cathedral. Here the player takes on the role of becoming Batman and, while performing interactive actions, forming a very compelling narrative.

As I have written before, in order to improve story-telling in games we need to consider stories beyond their plots.

End notes
Most of this post has been about meaning of words and of how to approach some concepts, but I hope that I still showed that it is a very important issue. Videogame is a medium that have grown from simplistic simulations, arcade machines and boardgames. This legacy has put its mark on a lot of nowadays thoughts on design, many of which are holding the medium back. The only way to move forward is to reassess this line of thinking and remove ingrained preconceptions of what a videogame is and needs to be. Not until we break the bonds of the past can we freely explore the future.


  1. My biggest bad beef with the "problem-solving" solution is that it robs most of the value of what you are doing. Like you killed that guy, not because you really wanted to but because you know that you are supposed to and will come to the next level. You do interaction just to advance and in my opinion that mindset ruins immersion and a lot of other things. And as you said, there is so much more to feel than just problem busting with game media.

    1. Good comment. This is exactly what messes up most moral choices in games. It is not about being moral, but about optimizing a system, thus it removes the emotional effects could have had.

  2. > The main reason why videogames are different is because they strictly impose rules upon the player. It is not really possible to play a videogame wrong, whereas playing football or chess (the physical versions) the wrong way are very easy.

    I think you're wrong here. This is definitely not the case whenever it becomes a multiplayer game, and I'd argue it's sometimes not the case for single-player games. Here's a paper describing rule formation at Super Smash Bros tournaments - . Or for a clearer, example, JS Joust is built out of this kind of stuff.

    For single player games it's not as clear, because there's not really a play community to measure your approach against. But I'd consider extreme save-scumming not playing the game properly. Hell, at the beginning of Amnesia, don't you tell people to wear headphones and turn the lights down low?

    I mean, the player can do what they like. It's their game, they are a play community of one, it's their choice. But in the same way, people can choose to play non digital games by house rules, and in the same light, they're doing it "wrong". But it's not really wrong at all.

    Which isn't to say there's something different about being able to bake rules into the world. But is it really so different form not being able to put two pieces onto a tile, because the pieces are just too large? You just have more leeway to play with physics. Even then, there are mods and hacks. The point is, the boundary really is diffuse.

    1. Arg : wrong link. Here's the Smash Bros article:

    2. Of course videogames can get houserules and whatnot, but this is not really change how they are designed. Just because you can add whatever extra layer on top of a videogame, does not mean that there does not exist a fundamental core that is a _the_ videogame.

      For example, if you choose to use a game of tetris to resolve situations in boardgame, saying that whoever fills the screen first wins. By doing so you have not created a new videogame; you have merged two different types of game-forms into a single gaming experience. One might call this game a "videogame", but I do not think it is fruitful to do so, because the term will eventually become meaningless.

      This is the what happens with JS Joust (or better BUTTON, which is by the same people), it takes a videogame and then extend that by blending other form of games into a combined experience. But I do not think it is fair to call the entirety a videogame, because it uses already existing form of game along with it. For example, just because I can choose to play a video during certain sequences in a book, does not mean that moving pictures should be a part of the medium of books.

      I do agree that the definition is not all set though, as I implied in the Mario example. Furthermore I also believe that video games need to put more responsibility on the player to roleplay properly, in order to get better storytelling in games. However, this does not invalidate the rules of the videogame itself, but it is more an audience aspect, just like you need to have a certain mindset to enjoy some type of paintings, movies, etc.

  3. Couldn't agree more. The majority of videogames "are" narrative: getting from a to b; doing x, y and z in a specific order. The major difference to other mediums is that in videogames you are "in" the narrative. In much the same way that you are "in" the narrative of your own life, the story is not completely written until it reaches the end.

    I often find that it is the less intense phases of games (i.e. Uncharted) that interest me the most. Even though I know I'm partially on rails or being guided by game design. Sometimes I just want to get through the shooty parts so I feel I'm actually moving forward without having some arbitrary gunfight in the way all the time.

    1. At some point you need to know what narrative is as distinct from all of life experience. Otherwise narrative is nothing.

      Storytelling is defined by structure and editing and other artificial post-hoc tools that turn experience into narrative. Some gamers want to believe that the act of playing is the same as the act of making a story because it feels more culturally legitimate.

      However it isn't really.

    2. It's worth distinguishing between doing something you tell a story about, and telling a story. A game can tell a story (can do all that structure and editing stuff), or it can let you create a story - either a diegetic one, a non-diegetic one, or, most commonly, one in-between. If the latter, the actual story-telling happens later. The two approaches can often be found in the same game - they can reinforce each other well. I'd say a gunfight that you don't feel could ever turn out the way you'd tell a story about (or doesn't itself tell a story) is likely to be quite tedious.

  4. Interesting points, TG.

    Videogames are not used as experiential vehicles or as mediums of "art" to the proper degree. Videogames have great potential a medium of expression. Superior to movies, they allow interaction and some non-linearity. Unlike sculpture, glasswork, and other fine arts with superior texture and depth, videogames are superior in means of projecting/attempting to invoke an experience (e.g. means such as audio effects, music, visual, development in time).

    Despite the power of videogame media, most videogames project to a meager range of human experience. Most creators seem imprisoned by convention, and they plow the same furrows in the same fields.

    Rather than begin with plot ideas, timelines, or game mechanics, perhaps we might begin with the desired ends of our provocation--what is it we want the 'player' to experience? What worthwhile experience are we, as creators, privy to? How can we best enable that experience in another, through the videogame? This end, this intended experience, will be nothing new under the sun. It would be among the same experiences already found in literature, movies, and music—in life. How that emotion is evoked can be new, just as symphonic music and motion pictures heralded new modes of artistic experience in their early days.

    So many unexplored possibilities. Videogame as novel: why must printed page be the highest embodiment? Imagine the last novel that you read, and imagine you are reading it on the screen. At a moment of great drama, imagine that the printed words dissolve into gameplay.

    Videogame as cipher: with so much debate about which are preferred among various social structures (e.g. political and economic(!) structures), why not embed these as layers within games? Not political and economic structures as the game itself, but as an instructive element.

    Videogame as poem/painting/work of music: could anyone imagine buying a videogame because they want to appreciate a poem, painting, or work of music? We routinely encounter these elements in games, but what if the premise was reversed? What if the game was firstly a consummate expression of artistic beauty (and Grunts are beautiful in my world D: )?

    These are the days when intelligent creators will recognize the potential of the medium and effectively use those aspects that have been less-effectively used.

    videogames, as art, have a ways to go

    1. "Most creators seem imprisoned by convention, and they plow the same furrows in the same fields."

      It's not convention. It's a creative constant. The reason that many games offer, as you say, a relatively meagre range of human experience is that they must be fun.

      A game which is not fun is a game not played. A game not played is like a painting never visited. It might validate the artist, but it's not going to change the world.

  5. Where in Coster's framework would something like Zeno Clash fit?
    Zeno Clash is amazing despite it's very simple and somewhat clunky mechanics.
    Hell, I would have happily wandered around Zeno Clash's world if it had not a single puzzle, problem or combat element to "play".

  6. Wonderful reply, and so much to respond to!

    To start with, the word "game" is not as fuzzy as you are making it, in my opinion. You cite boardgames, gambling, politics, drug dealing, and sports. Two of these, boardgames and sports, are clearly part of the same evolutionary family as videogames are. It can easily be demonstrated that videogames evolved out of them.

    The others are clearly not games, but instead are frequently referred to as being *approached* as games (hence the long-standing terms "The Great Game" or "the game of nations" used in politics). May many things can be approached as games by imposing a gamelike framework upon them -- hence the phrase "make a game out of..."

    The definitions of "game" that are out there all involve goals and challenges and rules. There are more and less rigorous definitions out there, but they all tend to have these things in common. I'd point at Salen & Zimmerman's "Rules of Play" as one of the most elaborated and self-consistent definitions out there.

    Any working designer in the field knows that the rules systems that are defined in videogames can be mimicked in a non-computing environment. If we could we move the counters fast enough, we could do an exact replica of a first-person shooter on a board. Videogames run in discrete timesteps -- kind of like how you have a timer to make a move in some forms of chess, or an hourglass in Boggle, or many other boardgames. There is no practical difference between that and the frame rate of a game except speed. In fact, our own experiences in sports are "timesliced" in a similar manner by human reaction times.

    You argue that videogames are different from other forms of games because they strictly impose rules. But this is not true. Rather, videogames *as they tend to be built* strictly impose rules at the level of simulation "physics." But not only did many early videogames not impose rules and limit every possible behavior in the way you describe, but this treatment of rules also ignores the various definitions of "rule" that have been offered up by academics (again, Salen & Zimmerman have a good take on it). To regard the rules inside the simulation as somehow sacrosanct is to ignore the fact that videogame rulesets (formal and informal) can and do stretch outside of the software. A classic example is that Metal Gear Solid episode in which a vital clue you needed (e.g., an in-game resource) was only available *printed on the actual game's CD case*. But softer sorts of rules, from "hotseat" play to social rules around not using aimbots are all rules, and theorists generally accept these as sorts of rules.

    "Even basic laws of nature like friction and gravity play an essential role in a videogame." Come on, you know better. Our *simulation* of these natural laws plays a role, in *some* videogames, *some* of the time. And in fact, rare is the videogame that actually uses physics accurately.

    So, no, I disagree thoroughly with the notion that videogames are "very different from other games." I had not seen the Chris DeLeon article, but I disagree with him too. Many boardgames do in fact have rules that are mechanical and as ridigly enforced as those in a videogame (see: any boardgame making use of physics, such as Connect4; and all sports).

    The idea that games are ABOUT being present inside another world... Believe me, I have great sympathy for this point of view, because I dearly love that *style* of game. But I just wrote about the fact that it is a *style* here: with a follow-up here: To take all of videogames and say that this is "what they are about" feels far far more reductionist than anything I am saying.

    (too long for one reply, continuing below!)

    1. You then take issue with the notion that games must preset challenges. I find this ironic given that your games in particular present such interesting, deep, and subtle challenges. I think you are misreading "challenge" as "mechanical puzzle" when in fact it means "problematizing a model." The model could very well be of human psychology, of moral choices, or of difficult-to-tease-out emotions. The "black box" could very well be yourself and your preconceptions. That is precisely what makes it art. To me Dear Esther falls in precisely this arena.

      On feedback: you say that I claim feedback is there merely to enhance mechanics. This is not the case. The article does not delve into the many uses of feedback, from contextualizing to informing to assessing performance. I've written a fair amount this in the past, as in the "Tetris example" of reskinning Tetris as a gas chamber, and a substantial chapter in my book.

      To reduce feedback to "a way to increase the feeling of presence" is to fly in the face of demonstrable and well-studied human psychology around reward schedules, cognition, learning styles, and so on. Increasing a feeling of presence is definitely one of the things that the "dressing" can do, but it is not the principal point.

      In terms of narrative, I was not using the filmic term. For one, games clearly have two very clear types of narrative: the authorially imposed one, which you term plot or story; and the player's narrative, which weaves in and around whatever the author provides, but can and often does depart radically. Bateman is in fact speaking about the second of these, and he is hardly alone in that -- I think my first presentation on the matter was ten years ago. Nor is the notion that this dichotomy exists to varying degrees in all art a particularly new one -- we find the basic premise to be universal in just about all forms of art theory, literary criticism, and so on. Games just take it to a new degree.

      But the player constructed narrative is ALSO not a mechanic. You may make mechanics *about* it, as in Rohrer's "Sleep is Death" or even in the simple game of madlibs. But as Rohrer's game so ably demonstrates, you can remove every scrap of narrative from the model and still have the model intact, ready to be repurposed with fresh narrative bits inserted by players in a fresh play session. The feedback -- the narrative -- is a mutually constructed enterprise... from an experience point of view, a game that is about constructing a certain type of feedback is entirely plausible and an exciting area to explore, certainly. We term that entire subgenre "user generated content."

      As a result of the above chain of logic, you feel I am somehow ignoring the climb up to the tower in Arkham City. But I'm not, and I fully agree that the mutually constructed narrative there is just fine.

      Finally, just from an aesthetic point of view... I don't think it is the denigration of narrative that is holding back the medium, but rather the denigration of game design, specifically game systems. The fact is that while that climb to the tower offers a nice experience and nice emergent narrative, it brings *nothing* new to the table in terms of mechanics. If we were to break down every game to hit the top ten in the last ten years, we would find that there have been many significant steps taken forward in terms of richer narrative experience of both sorts... and very very few steps forward in terms of rules systems.

      Narrative has thousands of years of tradition, study, and theory behind it. We understand it pretty well. Games, as a field of study, are in their infancy. Our "poetics" is only a couple of decades old.

    2. Thanks for the lengthy reply and for some clarifications!

      - Regarding "game" definition:
      Well as far as I know, there are definitions where rules, challenge, etc are only a subset. For example Roger Caillois. Not sure how fruitful it is discuss what others define it as, but I opened that can of worms :)

      - Boardgame == videogame.
      While a boardgame in principle can simulate any videogame (or any computation for that matter), it is practically impossible to do so. For example, designing Doom the boardgame and Doom the the videogame require different approaches. Boardgames also come with a fuzzy human element, that is impossible to replicate in the videogame. And because of this, I think it is right to separate them, even if they do have shared heritage (one of my points is that we look too much at where videogames came from and let that define what they are).
      I do agree there is overlap here though, and that it is not a clear line, but real enough to make it worth making.

      - Series of challenges
      The way you explain it now, it seems to me that the words "challenge" and "problem" are very unhelpful. If you have mechanics in the game that are not meant to be figured out, but used as a basis of roleplaying, I do not find it very your it well represented with this terminology. Instead if you go with the idea of problems and challenges at the core of a game experience, I think most people (and I have seen this many times) will reject ideas that do not conform to the more straightforward interpretation of these words.

      The same is actually true for players too! It is so ingrained that videogames are challenges, that many have a hard time dealing with the ones that are not about that (the response to games like that The Path and Dear Esther shows this).

      - Feedback as presence
      Perhaps I should have said "immersion" instead because that implies a more abstract form of engagement. And I do not see that as rejecting that feedback is also about rewarding correct actions, but instead see it as a more encompassing way of putting it. At the most basic level, any feedback must be coherent with the activity, and that can then reinforce a behavior or not. Otherwise it seems to me that feedback can be arbitrary, like handing the player a candy whenever you fire a bullet at an enemy instead of killing the enemy or whatnot.

      I guess pure learning games might be an exception here, but I still think the wording allows for more types of mechanics and feedback. Saying that feedback must be to cue "whether or not they are being successful in figuring out the black box" I think also helps promotes the idea that games are all about challenge, problems and competition.

      - Narrative
      So you do agree not "plot" have been a better word to use in your article? Then it would have been clear you did not refer to any player constructed narrative.

      I do agree with player narrative not being a mechanic though (perhaps I was unclear on that). But I do not just see it as fluff for mechanics either, but as something that always emerge from the mechanics, whether you are playing Tetris or Heavy Rain. And I also (at least mostly) agree that systems is what needs to be advanced. But I think the way forward is to find systems that can expand upon the types of narratives that games allow us to have. Nowadays videogame narratives (the player created) are pretty much all about combat and abstract play, and I believe the challenge is to get into other sort of narratives that we see in novels and films, but not by just by simply adding them as straight forward plot, but generated with player agency intact and all that.

    3. oops, also saw that I misspelled your named. Sorry bout that! fixed now!

    4. As regards Caillois, I do in fact part ways with him a little bit, but only in a minor way. In discussing games that are perceived as having no rules (he cites playing with dolls, or cops and robbers), he ends up saying that "the fiction... replaces and performs the same function as do rules. Rules themselves create fictions."

      The way I look at that, particularly in light of Salen and Zimmerman's breakdown of types of rules and Carse's notion of "infinite games", is to say that instead games like those have MORE rules, not less; and they are self-modifying constructs. In other words, rules creating fictions rather than fictions creating rules.

      There has been experimentation with self-modifying rulesets in a number of fields (progamming especially), and in the case of games a simple example would be Fluxx and a complex one would be Nomic.

      These still leave a significant cognitive puzzle to be solved. In fact, arriving at a mental model for the system is arguably exactly why children play house, with dolls, and cops and robbers. Do keep in mind that the basis of "Theory of Fun" and hence my game grammar is cognitive science... the basic premise is that these systems are effectively intended to be mentally modeled so that the player can apply that pattern to other arenas of life.

      I'll move to another post for the next chunk o' reply :)

    5. Argh, browser ate my next (nicely large!) chunk. :) So briefly, I'd say

      - Any system designer who has moved between digital and non-digital knows that it is much like moving between playing music on a piano vs an electric guitar. Not the same, with vastly different affordances. But not different in *kind* because both interact with the same core medium.

      - I actually think the reactions you describe for Dear Esther are an example of presenting a challenge to the audience that many simply were unable to wrap their heads around. Dear Esther is not solely an experience, it is a system of experience-building.

      - On whether feedback needs to serve solely as a means of reward: no, of course not. I refer you to as well.

      - On whether narrative is the wong word... I've always used it as an umbrella term for both user-created AND author-imposed. To be more precise, I would have to say that author-imposed narative is not a mechanic, and user-created narrative is *almost never* a mechanic, but occasionally is. I would also point at these two presentations:

      From 2001:

      From 2002 (reqs IE, sorry):

    6. Minor thing that i didn't say but want to now!

      Saying that videogames do not include the fuzzy human element seems to me wrong right off the bat. What about eveything related to multiplayer? What about the vast quantities of social constructs that exist, and are even considered "rules", around helping, multiple folks on a couch, Internet forums, etc? (see and and much more)

    7. Oh, we almost agree then :)

      - Mechanics:
      Seems to me that you actually also support the notion that gameplay mechanics does not have to be about competition and about beating a system, and that good game design can be any mechanics that give rise to an engaging experience ? (Or perhaps I am reading you wrong). If so, I would say there is a grand problem with terminology, because from reading the article I responded, it really does not come out that way. Perhaps it is more clear in other things you have written (have not had time to go through all links you posted), but if not, then I say that is highly problematic.

      I know that there are tons of designers, who (like Perrin discussed in a comment below) think that if there is no "fun" (in the most straightforward meaning) and no competetion/system-beating, then it is simply not a video game.

      I think most starting-up game designer reading your text (again, you might have written this a lot different elsewhere), will come to the conclusion that you too support this notion. Given the way that 99.9% of all videogames behave in this way, they will probably get stuck on this path for most of their career, thinking doing games otherwise is not just possible.

      If you are interested a more in-depth text on my views are here:
      (The terminology used is here closer to yours, and I used narrative to basically mean plot, as you did in the article)

      - Narrative:
      Here also, seems like we agree! I also think much of the story elements in videogames are fluff, with designers basically just ripping the guts out other media and trying to fit it into to a medium where it does not really belong. I too think the future lies more in systems, than say hiring better writers (better writing would not harm videogames, but it would not transform it either...).
      Written some about it here:
      For instnace: "I think that just about any essence can be expressed by a virtual world guiding the player using various mechanics."
      And that seems to me just what you are saying too :)

      But again, the article you wrote did not gave me this impression. It seemed to say to me that any sort of sense of story does not belong, but what matters is the abstract mechanics and the reinforcement loop going on. And again, perhaps it is better written elsewhere.

      - Fuzzy element
      I did not write that very well. What I mean is that there is no fuzzy model in terms of rule execution. When you play boardgames there is always one or more humans that determine how the "system" will step forward. This can have many fuzzy elements and the rules that need to be followed does not need to be strict and can contain "move the character as you please". Videogames do not work like that, but obey strict rules.

      Why important? Because it shows you where the limitations lie. A really great example of this is the game B.U.T.T.O.N. What they did was to understand that when making a party game, having a strict simulation taking care of everything does not always work. So what they did was that they moved some of the rule management to the players. Now you might say that the this experience has a whole is a videogame, but I think that would be overreaching. Instead it is more helpful to think of it as a video game with some parts of the rule-system put into a boardgame/socialgame environment. By doing so, we can understand what makes BUTTON special and why it works the way it does. We want to make categories that can help us think more clearly about things. Any other reasons for having a terminology seem meaningless to me.

      And finally, lots of link posted, which I will put on my reading list! Have not had time to read, but will try and so later on.

    8. Very brief replies, not much time.

      One, please do read my blog post for today if you have time. I wrote it with one eye on this conversation.

      I do not have "competition" in my definition of game, but I do have "opponent." But the "opponent" may be purely algorithmic, or the laws of physics, or mastering your own body's physical autonomic responses.

      I am definitely realizing that everything I write comes out of piles of other writing that I cannot expect everyone to have read. :) I define fun as the feedback the brain gives for learning. I even think that this feedback can be less than enjoyable at times.

      The "any essence can be expressed by a virtual wold guiding the player using mechanics" is at this point, I think, the core artistic statement behind the art game movement. And I know for a fact that both Rod Humble & The Marriage & Jason Rohrer's work were inspired by my saying something very similar in A Theory of Fun (the book). So we're on the same page there. :)

      I get what you are saying about the "referee" in a videogame being rigid (barring bugs or barring it being intentionally coded to NOT be rigid.) But I suggest to you that players are also sort of rigid in their own way. Humans are actually fairly predictable on many levels. So I see this as a matter of degree, not kind.

      Further, I think your example of B.U.T.T.O.N. is exactly why I don't make huge distinctions between digital and non-digital games, or keeping the rules in the code. You end up saying it's a blend, I say it's just a game, with some rules in the digital realm and some not. I actually think ALL digital games have some rules outside of digital.

    9. Reading Thomas's and Raph's conversation, I realised that something interesting happens if we think in verbs: to play. Children playing chess are engaged in gameplay. A child with a doll is engaged in a different kind of play: role play. Children playing cops and robbers are combining gameplay and role play. Perhaps the most rewarding "games" are those that concentrate on the verb (play) instead of the noun (game). Some food for thought!

  7. Hey when do we get more tech blogs? been waiting ages :(

    1. There has not been all that much tech stuff done by me, so I have not had anything fun to write about. We have a new tech programmer now, though and I think he will have some time to go into some new features soon.

  8. Great article. Over the past year I've really been struggling with what almost feels like a movement to demonise games that focus on narrative. It's the reason I make games, to use them an expressive medium. However I've read countless articles and seen talks that essentially accuse me of doing it wrong for not focusing primarily on game mechanics.

    I gave a brief talk on this topic at conference and a guy started a long email chain with me to essentially convince me to stop doing what I love because he felt it was intellectually bankrupt to try and use video games for storytelling. After what I thought was a civil conversation he ended by telling me he didn't wish me well my work because he disagreed with what I was trying to do. I was amazed at this and still am.

    I don't understand the hostility simply because it's the story focused games like Silent Hill 2 that inspire me to make games and recent stuff like Dear Esther that show how well it can be done. So all intellectual arguments aside if there's people who want to play these type of games and people who want to make them it seems a shame that others wish this all to stop.

    1. Yeah, I have also found an hostility to these ideas, especially when posting on more gamedeveloper focused places (players actually seem more open!).

      You might enjoy this:

      This was written when I really started thinking of narrative in games, and was starting point for a bit diferrent direction for our company too. (Note that in it I mean narrative as plot, something I changed later on)

  9. What about games where the sole purpose is to generate narrative (and plot)? Such as Jason Morningstar's excellent Fiasco ( )
    I would think it would seem odd to anyone who has played such a game to regard the narrative/plot as a game mechanic.

    1. I don't have any issues with games designed to generate user-created narrative. I don't even have major issues with having plain old heavily directed plot delivered via cutscenes.

      Really, the core if my article wasn't about narrative (or plot, or story, or whatever term we arrive at). It was about having overly simplistic systems and "faking your way through" by covering it over with extravagant uses of other media. That is what I was saying one should be suspicious of.

      Ironically, games premised on creating user-generated narrative tend to have very ROBUST systemic cores. In other words, they have LARGE black boxes, not small ones.

      I haven't seen Fiasco, and in fact it has been a long time since I tried the Dear Esther mod and my recall of it is fuzzy, honestly. So I can't really comment on those. But just to pick some random canonical examples, think of the sheer amount of careful systems design that went into Facade, Sleep is Death, Storytron's engine, or even Galatea in the IF world.

      That's a far cry from a quick-time-event.

  10. In reply to the author of this post, and not Raph, I like where you're going that not everything is about solving problems in a game. In some games you do something, and though you might get a gameplay reward of some sort, it doesn't necessarily solve the narrative problem. THE WITCHER did that a lot. As long as player is not feeling shafted or strung along, player can do something just to learn more about the world or the mechanics, and narrative can be used as a reward, and has been.

  11. Kind of off topic, but what are your views about DRM in video games Thomas?

    I'm writing a paper for school and if your view on DRM fits with my argument would you be willing to conduct a short interview (just a couple questions) so that I can use it as a source in the paper?

    1. Quickly summed: It is not worth the hassle. Time implemented DRM is better spent elsewhere.

      for interview, contact here:
      and we will try to answer (we have pretty full schedule these days though)

  12. Someone's never played Bastion then.

  13. Bastion's narrative is extremely important to the game experience, and completely parallel to the actual game. You could cut it without missing much, and I say that as someone who really enjoys it.

    It is dressing, feedback. It *adds* enjoyment, but it in itself is not what makes Bastion fun.

  14. So glad that people like you exist, Thomas, who recognize the unique opportunities of this medium. Let's not get bogged down by game history and cognitive science. Let's not drag this medium down to its most primal form.But let's move forward and explore!

  15. Wonderful article, really the response that poorly envisioned piece needed and a very clear elucidation of what narrative means in terms of games. You guys are so on the ball it's amazing.

    One mistake I think you made was the idea that there is no "wrong" way to play a game. This sounds like it is giving room to the so-called Intentional Fallacy, which is, itself, a fallacy. For instance, playing a game with a controller that isn't plugged in, playing Monkey Island like it is Sonic the Hedgehog, trying to fight the enemies to shoot in Dear Esther, these are all "wrong" ways to play a game, equivalent to "wrong" ways of experiencing any piece of art. While in all cases the viewer does complete the artwork to some extent, this analysis leaves out the intention of the author. In crude terms, if you don't know the controls, you will miss the art.

    The discussion of feedback is interesting. I think feedback is actually what constitutes a game's narrative. It is only because of feedback, because of this weird ontological space that opens up between the computer and the human player (filled by the Player Character) that we have a subject of computer games at all. The pictures and sounds (content) that make up this feedback should not be confused with the form itself. That is what is important. For example, pressing x to hear an audio log is not an example of plot being accessed through the medium of audio via an interruption of gameplay, but the act of the Player Character listening to an audio log, the act of learning its content. Try to think of things in terms of events, or better yet, holistically, and it becomes easier. The simple content (graphics, sound, cut-scenes, dialogue) and gameplay dichotomy is woefully crude and completely false. The content and its accessing IS the gameplay. Um, got it?

    Sorry if that was all a bit theoretical.

  16. any info about the new game ? Ya know.. hints or smtn ? :D

  17. Actually (and with no offence meant) I think Raph is much more in the right than you are Thomas. There is something about videogames, as with all games, that demands pressure, problems and solutions and a rule-oriented approach. How play actually works (in my own writings I often call this "the play brain") is highly mechanistic and tends to evaluate purely on that level. Actions become meaningful only if they cause change within the game world, narrative significance of actions does not matter much.

    One example from your own game Amnesia is the very same actions that you guys decided not to attach to more traditional tasks. Stuff like swinging the mouse to open the door etc. In my opinion those parts are by far the weakest part of the game because they feel entirely token. I get what they are trying to do (embody me in the game world so that the terror feels more real) but what they actually do is introduce annoying busywork.

    A quality that I love about games is their ability to deliver the sense of a story rather than tell a story. They just don't do the telling part all that well, but there is a strong drive from more narrativist game developers (which I'm going to label you as) to will the world to see that differently. If the drum is banged loud enough then in a sense we may see the holy grail of 'beyond fun' etc.

    The problem is that the numbers don't stack up. Most players do not finish games. They don't find the story being told to be engaging on a fundamental level because the play brain gets bored of busywork. This is a harsh lesson that the behaviourists with their social games and the MMOs are teaching game developers, and what is often apparent (especially from narrativists, but also simulationists) is that often they don't want to know those numbers, or don't want to look at them so closely.

    After all, if your game is bought by a lot of people then that's a good emotional validation. On the other hand if it transpires that less than a third of those players actually finish the game, well that blows a massive hole in much of the thinking behind what games are and why they work.

    1. I have enjoyed, even loved, lots of games I haven't completed. I don't see why that ought to be the metric.

      This is probably a terrible thing to admit, but fuck it -- I'm one of the people for whom Deus Ex is probably their favorite game. And I've never completed it. I got up until the ending, and I couldn't choose. I didn't know what I wanted to pick, and it mattered to me. And then I never actually finished it.

      I did play through the first level dozens of times, playing with the systems and exploring it thoroughly, though. That was great fun.

    2. - Swinging door mechanic
      I do not have any hard data to back it up, but over the 6 years or so we have had this in, the response have been nothing but positive. Never heard anybody call it "busywork" before at all. Many people have even come back saying that other first person games feel more dull after having played with our mechanic, and wished they too contained that kind of fine-control of the the environment.

      From our experience we have seen that the mechanic instead helps create situations of role-play where the player can for instance open a door slowly, carefully peeking into an unexplored room.

      Same goes for enemy AI and sanity mechanics. Enemy AI is designed to try and not find the player and change itself to make sure the player can more easily live through an encounter. Sanity is even more so, as it has very few implications on the game world (just some visual feedback and some minor events).

      If interested I go over this in more detail here:

      - "Most players do not finish games."
      Actually, the way I see it is that games which rely heavily on story and does not unnecessarily block the player enjoying that aspect has a higher completion ratio. For example, the half-life 2 episodes which are very streamlined and story heavy have something like 50% completion ratio. Going further a game like Heavy Rain as high as 70% completion ratio (this is what David Cage said during a presentation in Montreal at least), which for something lasting 10 hours and having its share of annoying issues along the way (the opening is not the best of drama, etc), is quite substantial.

      For other games, that are more about gameplay the completion ratio is way lower (I have heard figues around 20 -30%).

      In any case I do not see any evidence in these figures that players do not like to play videogames as stories.

      However, that players do not play for the "story", is something I still can agree with to a certain extent. For example, in Amnesia, the linear plot that runs along since the gameplay experience does not seem very relevant to many that play the game, but instead what matters is the situations that happen mechanically in the game (chased by monsters and whatnot). The background plot does help to put these players into the right mood, but is not as important as it might be in other media.

    3. Hey George,

      Me too. It shouldn't. Unless one is claiming that videogames are compelling as a storytelling medium (because not finishing means the story wasn't really why the game was fun).

      In that instance (especially if one is dragging a better-than-movies argument along with it) then it's pretty valid to ask:

      "Well why do most people who see a movie stay to the end, buy a DVD box set watch the whole thing, buy Game of Thrones and read all 5000 pages of it. Yet less than 50% of players finished Mass Effect. Less than 30% of players finished GTA4."

      The inevitable conclusions are either: the games were too hard (these days they usually aren't) or the players were having fun for different reasons.

    4. Hey Thomas,

      - Swinging door mechanic

      Sorry to be that guy then, but that wasn't really my experience. It's fun the first few times (busywork often is until one realises it's busywork), but it got old pretty quickly.

      As to whether it constitutes 'roleplay', could you be more specific on what you mean there? It sounds to me that what you're describing (opening the door slowly) is just a tactic?

      - Sanity and enemy AI

      Actually that became sort of obvious after a while too. I remember walking into a corridor and hearing some invisible beast splashing around (which scared the pants off me at first when it leapt up). Yet when I stood on a box (or was it a table) suddenly it just sort of left me alone. Once I'd grokked that (to borrow Raph's term) then it wasn't scary any more.

      Survival horror games tap into something that many games don't, which is a lizard-brain response (or amygdala if we want to get technical) to dark rooms and scary noises. Like the serial killers exhibit in Madame Tussaud's or the Splash Mountain ride in Disneyland. Dark corridors and ooga-booga noises are timeless thrills (which is why slasher horror movies are always popular) but are they more than that?

      There's a difference, say, between Madame Tussaud's and the Exorcist. Both make your skin crawl (yay) but one is based on storysense while the other is an actual narrative. So my point is that a scary game is like the former, but also that once the system is easily grokked, aspects of that fear go away. It becomes a dark and loud toyset instead. Still fun, but not actually acting as a hero in your own tale.

      One of the more enduringly scary games that I've ever played is Left 4 Dead. The storysense is well crafted, like a survival horror game, but it forgets getting too wrapped in narrative except as a reason to set tasks (go here, trip this switch, etc).

      The reason it's perpetually scary is that the AI (particular the tanks and the rushes of zombies) matches up the aesthetic. Tanks are hard to kill. Hunters are hard to kill. Co-op play demands a lot of rescuing and so on. It's robust, it's a game in the old-school task/achieve mode. It's only partially grokkable.

      That is the sense that I think Raph is talking about narrative, and why for instance that QTEs suck. They're cinematic perhaps but they're so easily grokked that they just get in the way after the third or fourth time you see them. The play brain wants to master, and QTEs are either ridiculously easy to master or ridiculously arbitrary. Neither is fun.

      - If interested I go over this in more detail here:


      - "Most players do not finish games."

      - In any case I do not see any evidence in these figures that players do not like to play videogames as stories.

      So, to be clear here, I'm not saying they actively dislike it. I'm saying that it's peripheral and a mood-setter (the sense of a story) for the most part. Which I think we agree on.

      Thanks for the reply!

    5. - Mechanics:
      Of course we do not have a 100% positive responses and we have ad a few players that liked our older games a lot more since the death mechanic was a lot harsher. These people also figured out enemy patterns early on and complained that this took a lot of the scariness out of the game. I guess you belong to this group (although most of these also liked the physics).

      However, this is as far as I can tell a minority of players. The vast majority could look past this and felt that the game was really scary. This includes something like 90% of all who reviewed the game. There where pretty much no complaints about the lack of competitive mechanics.

      The roleplaying part comes from players actively taking the less optimal solution, in order to increase role-playing. One example is one part of the game where people choose to hide in a closet (using the physics to peek out), when the better solution would be to run. Also, most people choose to be afraid of enemies, even though the optimal solution is simply to run into everyone you encounter (this usually makes them disappear instantly).
      What happens is that players chose the more enganging and, roleplay-wise, fitting response instead of trying to win over the underlying mechanics.

      As for the "slow door opening = tactic"; I guess this can be said to be true some times. But in many cases people do it when not needed, for example when opening a closet they are not sure what is in. It seems to be that it is more of a "pulling the patch slowly" type of behavior, then a conscious form of tactic.

      - Story sense:
      I guess that I can agree to your term here, and I think there is a lot of confusion regarding story because of terminology. For example "story" for me is a very broad term of simply having some kind of coherent theme to show/tell/play. I think many think "story" as "plot", meaning a very carefully laid out events. I know there is no consensus to this (not even really in established forms of media like film) and that can make talking about it hard at times.

      In any case when it comes to narrative in games, I all for reducing the plot in games and instead focusing on characters, environments, themes and background in a way that maintains player agency. And like Raph (and you as well I guess) I believe this is done through systems.

      However, it is the construction of these systems that we disagree. Here I think the way forward is to think past competitive elements and not just look at game mechanics as abstract formal systems.

  18. I always thought in order to truly make a good game is to have your true own idea. Don't make a game if the idea is not strong enough or you the creator are not as interested in it as you wish. I thought if you have a original idea and a good storyline and atmosphere you are truly on the right track though thoses of course are much easier said than done.

    I can honestly say that Amnesia: The Dark Descent was one of the best games I have ever played, I heard you may be working on a sequel I know you can't tell me but it. But if so I am very exicted to see were you are leading the story next, good luck!


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