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A Narrative Fallacy: It's All About Aristotle

People think of narrative as a series of events involving setup, complication, resolution and denouement. That's fine, but leaves out "having something to say" and, for games, one thing more. This post is about two overlooked elements of game narrative.

Lots of people - even game developers who specialize in narrative games - fall into some common traps when they think about games and stories, and about the roles of players and developers in the telling of those stories.

First is that any series of events with setup, complication, resolution and denouement constitutes a narrative, in any medium, linear or interactive. By the letter of the law, I suppose that's correct.

But before you plot out your magnum opus, I'd contend that the agreed upon and well-understood story elements listed above, must be in support of something... something deeper... some sort of meta-narrative. In other words, there has to be a subtext, preferably one conceived in advance and expressed in the work (rather than simply being stumbled upon without thought or intention).

Without subtext, if I may be a tad judgmental (and you know I'm going to be...), you're just making crap and you can stop wasting my time and yours.

Put another way, before you start crafting your story, make sure you have something to say.

You'd think this would be self-evident, but I'm not sure it is, given the quality of most game stories. Frankly, for me, the statement I want to make is of paramount importance. Actually, that isn't quite true - if I wanted to make a statement, I'd write a novel or make a movie. What's of true importance to me is the issue I want players to grapple with.

To clarify, here's the key when I think about game narrative as opposed to traditional narrative forms:

Linear media answer questions; games ask them and allow players to provide the answers.

Want to try an interesting exercise? Think back to the narrative games you've played and see if you can identify the questions they ask you to answer... see if the game empowered you to answer them yourself, as opposed to just divining the answer the developer predetermined for you. Feel free to share your list in comments - I'd love to see what you think. In the meantime, let me give you some examples from two games I worked on.

For me, Deus Ex is "about" four interrelated questions:

  1. What happens when you take a guy who believes the world is black and white and throw him into a world that - like our own - is all shades of gray?
  2. What would the world - the real world in which we all live - be like if every conspiracy theory people believed to be true were, in fact, true?
  3. What's the nature of humanity - at what point in a world of human augmentation do we stop being human and start being... something else?
  4. What's the most desirable "end state" for the world? Are we better off in a technological dark age in which people have genuine free will? Are we better off in a world where an all-seeing AI can gift us with total connectivity and, one hopes, the empathy that arises from universal connection, at the cost of giving up our freedom? Or are we simply better off as we are today (IF conspiracies are real), ruled by a shadowy elite, not knowing it, and going about our daily lives none the wiser?

Two things to note:

First, answering these questions doesn't involve defeating anything or solving anything puzzly or being told anything by an author. Yes, you play a character named J.C. Denton and, yes, there's an overarching plot that allows these questions to bubble up so players can interact with them. Yes, that's true, but those questions can only be answered by you, the player, and not by a PC puppet. At the end of the day, the character you play is of secondary and, in many ways, irrelevant in narrative terms - nothing but a vessel into which you pour all of your preferences and prejudices, your hopes and dreams.

Second, I don't really care whether anyone actually knew the game was "about" those four questions. No author wants(or should want) his/her/their themes expressed obviously and unsubtly. Frankly, I doubt most of the Deus Ex team even know what I thought the game was "about." All that mattered - to me - was that the game allowed players to answer those questions through their choices during play. If they came to realize it and talk about it and debate one another, awesome! But even if they didn't, I knew, or at least hoped, the questions and answers would be internalized subconsciously.

Another example.

Disney Epic Mickey asked a few questions, too. Frankly, it pains me that a lot of players didn't see how similar in intent and philosophy Epic Mickey was to the other games I've worked on, but that's another story... Anyway, Epic Mickey asked a completely different set of questions than Deus Ex:

  1. How important are family and friends to you?
  2. Is it better to be less powerful, but have friends who will help you do what you need to do; or is it better to be more individually powerful, but alone in the world?
  3. Is it better to do the easy thing to solve a local problem, when the fate of the entire world is in your hands; or is it better to do the hard thing in solving local problems, because the small things we do add up to far bigger things?
  4. Allen Varney, one of my longtime collaborators, who was critical to the early conceptualization of Epic Mickey reminded me about a fourth question: What happens when you remain rooted in the past, versus being willing to forgive past grievances and move on? (Not sure how I forgot something so central to the game!)

Again, players may not realize it, but they're answering these questions with every step they take and through every interaction with the gameworld, the characters and the developer-generated situations they find themselves in.

Yes, even a cartoon mouse can be the vehicle for asking big questions...

Before I close, two things to bear in mind:

First, every developer who actually thinks about this kind of stuff will probably have a different answer if you ask when they start thinking about the "about" part of game narrative. All I can say is, for me, the definition of questions begins right at the beginning of concepting, right after the team and I have figured out what role we want players to play. In other words, right after we know who the character is and what that implies about what he/she/they will do in the game - games being about verbs and all... (If you want to get a little deeper into this process, go back to my personal blog, back on August 30, 2007 - https//

Second, note that the word "interactivity" is nowhere to be found in this formulation of the defining characteristics of game narrative - the question and answer nature of the medium. "Interactivity" is an overused, ill-defined and really kind of useless word - almost as useless as "fun" But that's a topic for another time...

Next time, I'll talk about another narrative trap game developers fall into - that games are about choice.


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