Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"All the play's a game...": Narrative as a game

Writers in the narrative formats--be it novels, screenplays, etc.--often borrow terms from games to describe dynamics in the narrative.  There is talk of "setting the stakes," "set-ups and pay-offs," "playing out his hand" or "her ace-in-the-hole."  Classic self-referential lines include, "Now it's my turn" and "Game over, man."  Certainly, writers borrow terms from wherever they find utility, frequently using such concepts as disparate as Newtonian physics and strings of thread, as well.  My intent here is not to argue that all narratives are based on games, or vice versa, but rather to explicate the two's relationship in hopes that it will surface lessons for both crafters of narratives and crafters of games.

The striking thing about this analogy is how easy it is to make.  A good narrative is aligned almost beat-for-beat with a good game.  In both you begin by setting the stakes and outlining  the rules.  Games do this explicitly, with a person suggesting that a particular game be played with particular stakes.  Narrative is less explicit, but accomplishes the same goal.  What writers call the "first act" in a three-act structure can easily be described in these terms: the audience learns about what characters have at stake and what rules they will be following for the rest of the narrative.  The first act ends at the moment all the necessary players decide to play the game.

The second act of a narrative is the playing out of the game.  As they are linear format, narratives can generally be described as turn-based, with one character responding to the action of another character, who in turn responds to that response.  Certain narratives--particularly in this the Post-Modern era--attempt to break out of these rules of causality through various techniques, but the bulk of narrative remains turn-based.

Just as in narrative, people rarely comment that a game is "good" if one side is dominating over the other for most of the game (the exception in both cases: the underdog victory).  Therefore, in most narratives you will find the players more or less equally matched, each with her own advantages.  Depending on the game, "equal matching" has different connotations.  In games that involve a heavy luck element (part of what Chris Bateman calls alea play), players who are equally matched are each getting a fair share of lucky breaks.  Games that downplay the alea element (what Bateman terms agon) require the players to have an equal amount of skill or experience to be considered well-matched.  Narratives exist along this spectrum, as well.

Here it's important to remember that most narrative is concerned with the fortunes of one character, known as the "hero" or "protagonist" of the story.  This is the character the audience wants to "win" in the end.  Protagonists have also been called the audience's "avatar."  Typically the first half of the second act is composed mainly of the progression element of the game.  The protagonist is playing out the rules without meeting much resistance.  This can either be seen as something equivalent to the opening moves in chess or placing the ball in the roulette wheel.  The second half of the second half is when the wheel starts spinning.  This is where the tension builds, where our protagonist meets the first real resistance from the other players, known as the "antagonists."  The relatively easy-flowing progression that characterized the first half of the second act is lost as the protagonist and antagonist more effectively sabotage each others' plans and jockey for more conditions more conducive to winning.

The beginning of the third act finds the characters knowing that the end is near.  Any amount of conservatism vanish in pursuit of the end goal: this is the land of the full-court press, where queens are sacrificed, and bad guys start kidnapping daughters.  Perhaps most accurately, this is the moment when the coin is suspended in the air after being flipped.  The entire narrative, the entire game, the entire universe is held within this moment, between winning and losing, between existence and non-existence.  A good narrative and a good game will create a very special emotion at this point, where every player simultaneously desires and fears a conclusion.

The game is over at the end of the first half of the third act.  The players accept the outcome of the game and spend the rest of the final act collecting the losses and handing out the winnings.  The word denouement finds its root in the idea of "untying," and while it has more of connection with the "thread" metaphor of narrative, we can also see a correlation in the rituals necessary to release the players from terms of the wager, in effect untying them from the game and each other.

Just like the camera lens theory or thread metaphor, viewing narrative as a game is just one way to explain the dynamics found in the art of storytelling.  I find it particularly powerful, but it's up to each writer to determine which framework best suits the construction of a story.  However, game-makers can also find lessons here.  Most games that involve stories only use the story aspect as part of an extrinsic reward system, equivalent to handing out candy or toys for achieving certain results during the game.  The construction of narrative-as-game allows the possibility for the two to be much more integrated.

Therefore, makers of games should look at narratives such as film or novels not as providers of rewards given in piecemeal throughout the game, but examples of games themselves.  While a narrative only gives an example of one playthrough, that is typically enough to get the gist of the rule system and a prediction of possible outcomes in future matches.  The art of narrative is thousands of years old, honed by the stress of time.  Makers of games would be robbing themselves of an incredible collection of knowledge by ignoring the lessons narrative has for games.


Josh "Smokin Hot" said...

This post inspired me to dig up an old issue of Game Informer magazine with an opinion piece on this subject written by Jordan Mechner (who is not only the creator of Prince of Persia but also a screenwriter and independent documentary filmmaker).

Mechner writes, "The real story of a game isn't the one that's told in the dialogue and cinematic cutscenes - 'in a galaxy torn by civil war, one lone starfighter...' - but the one the player tells afterwards: 'I was down to my last ship, 50 points short of getting an extra life... I'd cleared the screen all except for this one small rock going super fast - and then the flying saucer came...' A trap for game creators is to think that by increasing the complexity and cinematic scope of that first narrative... they're making a better and richer game. The second narrative is the one that needs to be complex and gipping, if the game is any good."

Based on these lines of thinking, game developers face the challenge of creating a game that promotes Mechner's "second narrative" (the thrilling stories that can emerge from the mechanics of playing the game) to the greatest extent possible. What makes this challenge so particularly difficult is the amount of gameplay variables that can be random, unpredictable, or based on the player's behavior. The second narrative becomes boring if the player is too good at the game, or if the game presents challenges that are unbalanced or unfair, or if software bugs hinder the gameplay, or if the player becomes lost in an area without knowing where to proceed, etc.

The greatest games excel at telling both the first and the second narratives-- providing a clearly defined, entertaining "written" narrative in the background while allowing a range of possibilities for the "gameplay" narrative to take its own form.

Ferguson said...

I think that sometimes we can make things more challenging than they really are. Gamecrafters have absolutely no requirement to make a game that will be considered "good" by everyone--no gamecrafter has ever done that, and no one ever will. Every game ever made is too challenging for some people and not challenging enough for other people. The Goldilocks group will be the target audience of the game.

So if the purpose of the "first narrative" is to address the perceived weaknesses of the second narrative, then I can safely say we don't need the first narrative at all, because it is just as doomed at capturing a universal audience as the second narrative.

The challenges you listed for the second narrative are things that should be addressed by the makers of the second narrative, not covered up by another narrative. The greatest games are ones that are constructed in a way that no matter what players choose to do, there will be something compelling about the experience.

Again, the idea of making a game that allows players to do "whatever the player wants to" is an unnecessary challenge. Games are under no obligation to provide mechanics that will result in completely unpredictable player behavior. Therefore, a good gamecrafter will be able to limit the player options to those that will lead to compelling gameplay--in fact, that should be considered a major component of judging how good a game is. Just as a good author limits the description of the fictional world to only those things that are material to the story, so should a good maker of games limit the options to those things that are material in furthering the game.

There may be some room to discuss the first narrative as a part of a kind of "shell," similar to the shell of an operating system as compared to the kernel--and perhaps that's just another way of saying what you're saying. But I do want to stress that a nice shell can only do so much to hide the fact that the kernel isn't good, as Windows users all find out eventually. (Windows 7 is pretty tight, though.)

Charles said...

"The art of narrative is thousands of years old, honed by the stress of time. Makers of games would be robbing themselves of an incredible collection of knowledge by ignoring the lessons narrative has for games."

I don't mean to be a wet blanket, but games are a far older form of culture than narrative. In fact, games are probably older than complex language.

For me I think there's also something valuable in pointing out how games can help us think about novels and films in new ways, rather than vice versa.

Ferguson said...

Not a wet blanket at all--in fact, I was hoping you'd point that out. I try not to get too bogged down in asides for the sake of brevity, but I was tempted to point out that games are definitely older than popular forms of narrative. There's no telling (currently, to my knowledge) if narrative form or games came first, but they're definitely both ancient.

The crucial difference, however, is that narrative was accepted as an artistic form centuries ago and games have yet to claim that distinction. Because of this, narrative has been studied to aid its function as an artistic form, while games are seldom thought of in that way. All that to say, games do have a lot to teach us about narrative and other forms of art, but gamecrafters also have a lot to learn from all of the time and theorizing about how other artistic forms work.

Thanks for keeping me honest, Charles!

Charles said...

Haha, glad to be of service I suppose!

Still, it seems to me that your use of the three act structure as you define it is mostly appropriate to a contemporary fashion of playing games, a single playthrough, rather than games in general. After all, most games are meant to be played more than once, and in that case the first act should be non-existent, since all the players already know the rules and stakes, and the third act then should be minuscule compared to the second.

I think that good games tend to have the dramatic arc you're describing, but it's within the possibility space of the game itself (in some games you actually talk about 'opening gambits' and 'end games'), not something that includes the rituals outside of play.

And, in my opinion, this dramatic arc is already well understood by most game designers.

Ferguson said...

To my knowledge, and feel free to correct me on this, but there is no formal theory such as "narrative structure" for games. While it seems "obvious" now, the narrative structure of storytelling was something that developed well after storytelling's advent--thousands of years after it, in fact. During the time in between the first story being told and the first iteration of "narrative theory" being proposed, the art of storytelling was being honed through practice, rather than theory.

Because of this practice, it was eventually possible to survey the successful stories and figure out what they all had in common--which happened to be a foundation in the narrative structure. Of course, not all successful stories follow the classic arc, but they are related to it somehow--either a reaction or supplement to it. Contemporary storytelling gains a lot from our knowledge of narrative theory, though the stories that allowed for the creation of the theory had to be created outside of this knowledge.

I think games are far from the point of being described with such an elegant theory, but developers of games should look to such theories for inspiration. And while I'm sure many developers are familiar with the term "three-act structure," they have about the same level of familiarity with it as most consumers of narrative--which is to say a fairly superficial understanding, and one that would not suffice in recreating a successful narrative. I get the gist of how cars work, but I'd never be able to build you one. Most of the time, the narratives I experience in games have the feeling of home-made go-carts made out of plywood and lawnmower engines with a BMW logo painted on the hood.

And I see no reason to limit my construction to single-player, so-called "narrative games." All of my examples come from multiplayer games that predate video games by hundreds of years. In fact, most of these single-player games I wouldn't even consider games, as I define games (http://interactive-illuminatus.blogspot.com/2010/03/definition-of-game.html). The very idea of narrative-based games appears to me to evidence a misunderstanding of both the power of narrative and the power of games as expression.

Games are indeed meant to be played more than once, and that's a huge difference between them and narrative works--narratives cannot assume that audiences know the rules of the game about to be played, so the first act is necessary to establish these rules. However, this first act varies in length according to a.) how established the rules are already (i.e., how established the genre is) and b.) how well the writer understands both narrative theory and the genre. A good writer will recognize the audience's familiarity with the rules and will be able to set up the game fairly quickly. Likewise, in a game, the "first act" can be as short as saying, "Let's play this game." You can't have an "opening gambit" before you figure out what game you're playing--and that decision is equivalent to the first act of a narrative.

Charles said...

Fair enough, but if the first act is going to consist of simply "Let's play a game" and the third act is going to consist of nothing but "I beat you!" or "I lost!", then how useful is the three act structure as a model? Doesn't it just necessitate another model that explains what goes on in the second act, which is the vast majority of the game?

Ferguson said...

I think it's useful because I see the establishing of the rules as much more involved than "let's play a game" and the ending of the game more involved than "I win!" By looking at narrative, we get to analyze different methods of establishing rules and releasing the players from the game. I would agree that most games have similar methodologies when it comes to these aspects, but narrative suggests this isn't necessarily the case--that we can be just as creative when deciding how to present the rules as creating the rules themselves.

It's often been said of narrative that the most important parts are the beginning and the ending, and certainly there's a lot of truth in that. Can we apply the same thinking to games? If people have a great experience while their learning the rules and a great experience at the end of the game (providing the great experience isn't, "Finally this game is over"), wouldn't it follow that you're well on your way to having a great game on your hands?

And certainly we would need another model not only to explain what happens in the second act, but also models that elucidate all the aspects that games do not share with narrative, of which there are many, of course. I don't mean this be some sort of end-all model. I intend this to be just one more model--just one more way of communicating about games.