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The Watched and the Played: The Narrative Form and the Game Form

by Rinku

This article by RinkuHero aims to distinguish between the part of an computerized game that is watched and the part that is played, their conflicts, and whether they can work together in tandem. Outline:

Distinction: Watching and Playing
Distinction: Narratives and Games
Conflict in the Simultaneous Use of Narration and Game
How to Use Both Forms at Once: Comparison to Other Form Combination
How to Use Both Forms at Once: Existing Integrations of Game and Narration
Application: Types of Themes That Work Well in Games
Summary
Notes

Distinction: Watching and Playing

Important to understand is the difference between a story that is generated at the present moment and a story that is a predestined, direct retelling. The former is one you play or act in, the latter is one you observe, cand cannot change. One is ad-lib, the other is carefully rehearsed. One is a creation of the present, the other is a memory transmitted from the past.

If this difference is ignored or poorly understood, you will be unable to completely distinguish between the game part of a videogame and the story part, and will likely make a game that is actually a book with some game aspect tossed in arbitrarily (and most recent RPGs fall in this category, including some 90-95% of Ohrrpgce games). Sometimes this goes to the extreme: The Last Job (a entry by Charbile into ZzFenix's second 48 hour game contest) is a story with a nonsense puzzle added in, a paltry trashcan-pushing task which takes the mind of a mouse to solve. What does pushing a garbage can have to do with the meaning of the game? Not one sane thing that I can find or invent or imagine. Other than that puzzle The Last Job is the purest narration. As a story, it is a success, but as a game, it's a true failure.

If a sequence of happenings in a game are pre-written, fairly sequential (i.e. always happening in the same order), and cannot be influenced or altered by the player's action, then the game has a rigid story, and is a 'game-within-a-story' or perhaps a 'story-game-parallel'. This is usually accomplished and accompanied by invariable dialogue scenes, or cut-scenes, which you -watch- instead of -act in-, and with some gameplay in between those scenes -- for an example, Wingedmene. The pre-written events (finding Rell, talking to Laubea, finding Nyara, talking to Laubea again, fighting Nyara...) usually happen in the same order each time you go through the game, each story event initiating after some game segment is completed. There are also optional pre-written events that don't have to happen and that can go in any order, but these are smaller events in comparison (for example, getting the Ribbon from Wingedmene's sister, or talking to Knil and company in the Red Tower). So for the most part, the main part of the story is watched.

This is the function of narration (and by that I mean 'through words'): the basic nature of storytelling goes back to ancient folk legends, and to the Greek tragedies and comedies. The basic idea is that one person knows the story and is telling it to someone else who doesn't know what the story is about. Maybe they tell it through theater (dramatization, acting out the story), maybe through poetry, maybe through direct recitation, or through a written text, but the idea is one person knows some interesting sequence of events and tells it, in words, to another who might find it interesting too. The story can be fictional or nonfictional (historic or a true anecdote) -- but the idea is always that one party describes an event that happened in the past or that was imagined or written down to another party. It's past-centric or memory-centric, even if it didn't actually happen. You can't change what events happened in the past, and likewise you can't change the events in a story (without destroying the story).

Compare this to a game, say, of Sid Meier's game Civilization. Each time you play Civilization, the story is different; you could play it a thousand times and never see the same story twice. Each play-through may have -similar- stories, in that each of them begins in about 4000 b.c. and involves competing civilizations, but the actual events that happen were (for the most part) not pre-written, and they don't go in any particular order, they happened according to the player's actions. Even the characters (the leaders of the different civilizations) vary each time you play the game, and so does the map, so does nearly everything else. The data varies tremendiously, but the rules of the game -- the gameplay system -- remains constant in each playthrough. Perhaps a particular play-through doesn't have a good story (maybe you are destroyed by barbarians in a pointless way), but the story isn't -told- to you, you -play- it. You get the sense that it's a story that's happening -right now-, it's not something you're only watching, since your actions help form it (of course, the other computer-controlled or human-controlled civilizations help form it, too).

Civilization does not resemble watching a Greek Play or listening to the wise tribe elder telling you of the forming of the universe and man, instead it's more like a game of Chess or Tag (note: here I capitalize the names of all games, even those for which we do not know the author or authors) or Hide-and-Go-Seek, with stable rules of the game and the actions of each player determining the story of the event. The story is a new experience generated as you play, not read from some prepared source. It's like a conversation, waiting for your input, and it would die out if you stop speaking.

To use another analogy: the central story of the game of Wingedmene and the stories of the Greek tragedies are like the Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol character Scrooge, revisiting the past with the first of the three ghosts -- he stands there and events move all around him, but he can't touch anyone or change past actions, and when he tries, he moves right through them. He wishes he could change the past, but it is no longer accessable. In contrast, Civilization and Tag are more like him returning to the present at the end of the story, where he can once again touch and do things, among other living people. He hurries to act in such a way as to bring reality into what he believes to be a more desirable state.

Conflict in the Simultaneous Use of Narration and Game

These are two different things, rules by which a story is created and a story already created. Using them at once, despite how often it's done, has a lot of problems.

The game design theorist Jesper Juul (2001) goes so far as to suggest that the line between stories you participate in and stories you watch or are told are completely different, and usually contradictory. "There is an inherent conflict between the now of the interaction and the past or "prior" of the narrative. You can't have narration and interactivity at the same time; there is no such thing as a continuously interactive story," he writes. In an earlier article (1998), he elaborates: "I should make clear that I do agree that many computer games contain narrative elements, and that in many cases the player may play to reach a narrative sequence. My point is that all such computer games are a conflict between the now of the interaction and the past of the narrative. You can't have narration and interactivity at the same time."

Chris Crawford, another person knowledgeable in the ways of interactivity, writes:

The starting point of the discussion is the conflict between plot and interaction. There are theoretical reasons for this conflict. They are best seen from the point of view of the plot faction. Many of these people are writers. Plot creation is, from their point of view, an enormously difficult task demanding great talent and creative energy. The thought of allowing an audience to mess up their carefully crafted plots leaves them cold. Knowing how difficult it is to get a plot to work well, they realize that any intrusion by the audience into the process will only yield garbage. If interactivity requires the audience to involve itself in the direction of the plot, then clearly interactivity and plot are incompatible.

Adding to this apparent incompatibility is the attitude of the other side. The protagonists of interaction tend to take a dim view of plot. The strongest example of this is the possibly apocryphal story about id software and the creation of Doom. There was, so the story goes, some dispute within the organization about the proper role of story in the game. One faction argued that there should be some story element to tie everything together. The other faction argued that Doom was to be an action game, pure and simple, and that "we don't need no steenking story". Eventually, the anti-story faction won out, the losers left the company, and nowadays story is referred to within id as "the S-word". So the story goes.

What this implies is that what we see in RPGs like the Final Fantasy series can actually be described as a trick, or a (perhaps well intentioned) lie: the player believes that the story is happening 'right now' and that they are interacting with it and have some say in how it progresses. Yet this is actually just an illusion, for it's a virtually deterministic sequence of events. It's true that there is some control by the player -- battles, buying and equiping weapons and armor, finding treasure, and making other minor choices like which character to bring with you to a dungeon -- but all of these just ultimately amount to how fast or slow the player sees the predetermined story. The result is an illusion of the "now" (the active present, in which one's actions have importance) using the paradigm of the "then" (watching a carefully crafted and rehearsed movie). Juul and Crawford are saying that mixing the now and the then, game and story, is usually or always a formula for doom. It's as if you were playing Chess and suddenly realized that you don't really have control afterall, that the flow of the game is predetermined by the maker of the game, and that white always wins, no matter the skills of the players.

This would be fairly disappointing, especially to we who like to write stories for our gameplay systems. Is there is a savior, some alternative and truer way of forumating it, which would justify putting a predefined event sequence into a system of rules, such as we now see in the huge majority of videogames?

How to Use Both Forms at Once: Comparison to Other Form Combinations

Okay, so they are different forms, the narrative form and the game form. But there are a bunch of 'games' that use both: most modern videogames, in fact. What explains this?

That's just a matter of the combination and integration of forms. Movies do this: they combine music, visual art (animated), and story. Most modern music does this, it combines words (lyrics) and music. Comic books do this, they combine visual art and story. Integration of forms (a form can be looked at as a medium of the transfer of meaning: narrative uses words, music uses melody and rhythm, art uses the visual field, games use a system of rules). So modern games can be looked at as a combination of the game form (rule system, of pure games like the card games mentioned above) and story, visual art, and music.

This is actually often reflected by people who play and review games. Many game reviewers give a game something like this: Visuals - 7/10, Music - 8/10, Gameplay - 4/10, Story - 9/10, Overall - 8/10. This isn't just a reviewing convience, it actually represents the metaphysical reality of what they are reviewing, breaking it down into its constituent elements. It's reasonable to say 'this movie had a great screenplay and good camerawork, but horrible acting'; this is the same type of thing.

One principle I propose related to this subject is that the greater the number of forms you combine, the more complex and difficult it is to do it successfully. Writing great literature is hard enough, but making a great movie is even more difficult (which is why a hundred great books exist for every great movie); writing great music is hard enough, but making great lyrical music is even moreso, to the extent that I have only seen one or two really great lyrical songs (things that combine both music and lyrics correctly). So something that uses story, a rule system, music, and visuals is probably the most difficult form of all of these to do well.

So in this there is a resolution to the conflict between using games and narrative at the same time. The unalterable, pre-written events of a videogame are only half the picture: that's just the story that one can't alter, the story that is watched. But there is also another side: the story that is played. To take Final Fantasy as the example again, these would be the areas of the game in which the player can have important influence: the exploration of the world, the battles against the monsters, the finding and buying of new items to expand the inventory, the learning of new abilities and spells, the dialogue choices, the breeding of chocobos, the card collecting, the specialization and development of a character's stats, and all of that. That isn't exactly what we think of when we think the word 'story', but aren't those things a newly created story, generated anew in each game? Couldn't you go through a game of Final Fantasy 7, and then tell a story to another person on how you developed materia, which characters you found and which you missed, and whether you defeated the secret Weapons, and how easily? That -is- a story, in the same sense that Sephiroth slaying Aeris is story, it's just not a story of characters or drama, but a story of the manipulation of monsters, gold, and swords.

You may not think that the minor part of the story that is generated with the interaction of the player could be as interesting as the part of the story that is watched, but if you listen to two people talking about a Final Fantasy game, it often involves talk about how they overcame the gameplay challenges of the game, and I believe that this played or created story is often talked about more than the watched story.

So when you go through a game like Final Fantasy, you engage in two things at once, in alteration or parallel: a story you watch and one you play. Some of it is inalterable, predestined, and narrated, some of it is generated through the interaction between you and the the rules of the game. This intuitively makes sense: when your character moves around by himself or herself, and says things without your input, you watch wait until it 'returns to the game', where you can influence the onscreen action again. It like the tribal elder telling you a story of the origins of the universe and you playing hide-and-go-seek while he's not looking. If they are unrelated, it's like watching one movie's visuals while listening to another movie's dialouge at the same time, and hoping they match up somehow.

How to Use Both Forms at Once: Existing Integrations of Game and Narration

Some games, for example Front Mission 3 or Final Fantasy Tactics or Kartia, seem like a story broken up into episodes, with puzzles between episodes that must be solved if you want to see the next part of the pre-written narrative. Part dead, part alive -- some have likened such things to Frankenstein's Monster; and in a sense this is absolutely correct: some games have a story utterly disconnected to the game, incongruous, smashed together without unifying reason, like the limbs of the Monster.

At first glance, there is nothing in off-computer experience that is a story and game in parallel or alteration. And if we restrict ourselves to only thinking in terms of art and games and sports, we won't find anything. But an analogy exists: teaching. Think of a classroom setting, where one alternately listens to lectures by a teacher and then get involved in the material being presented. One moment you're listening to a lecture on how to solve an algebra problem, the next moment you're solving similar problems. One moment you're watching the master swordfighter explain the theory behind an attack, the next you're sparring against a fellow student, using that attack. One moment you're learning about how to perform heart surgery, the next you're practicing it on a cadaver. The pattern is: instructions and background theory is given in a noninteractive manner, and then you put it into practice by testing the theory out against reality interactively. This isn't just one then the other either, it's back and forth, over and over, each time reaching toward a higher degree of accuracy.

And there are even more examples. In the writing of a paper or book, there are periods in which you absorb predefined knowledge, and periods where you act on it. When you assemble a model train, there is a time to read the instructions and a time to build the model. If you want to learn a foreign language, there is a time for watching movies in that language and a time for attempting to speak to people in it. Even in a conversation, it's not all give and take, aren't there times when one person listen to an extended explanation or anecdote by the other person, after which they return to a more interactive conversation? Taking these into account, is it so strange to have a program that is both noninteractive and interactive in turns? I'm not condoning the all too often feeling that the game designer is making the player jump through hoops -- but would prefer a game that acts like a experienced guide, or older sibling, guiding one through the theme or topic of that particular game, allowing the player to learn on his own, but stepping in and giving pre-prepared and rehearsed knowledge. The fictional equivalent of this phenomenon would be something in which game is well integrated with narration -- there would be a back and forth between playing a new story and watching a ready-made story. The ready-made narrative would serve as lucid examples and elaborations of the system of rules.

Now I'm going to take a particular example which I think illustrates this idea rather well. The game of Sim City, as a game, is a system of rules modelling the developments, actions, and dynamics of cities. It's a rather simplified model of cities, and most of its laws probably are nonapplicable to real cities (how many cities do you know of where every single roadway and every block of houses was planned and payed for by the mayor?), but it works well, and it's very believable that you're actually forming a city.

There are two main modes of play in Sim City: the free-play mode, where you start a new city from scratch and have total control, and the scenario mode, where you take control of a pre-defined city, and act to find a solution to a pre-defined problem of some sort (crime, monster attack, or whatever). Then there are pre-written messages -- help screens, text which explains what various things do, warnings about attacks, and the like. The free-play mode is totally game, it's all rules with nothing interfering. The scenarios are partially narrative and partially game: they are particular situations which are set up to test your knowledge of how cities work and how to run them. The help screens are pure narration -- just output from computer input to eyes.

Note that the scenario scenes in Sim City have a real life analog: work like 'exercises' or 'tests' given to a teacher to test the student. A military trainer might set up an obstacle course, the goal of which is to reach the end as fast as you can -- but the particular obstacles may vary, just as the particular situation or scenario of Sim City varies, and just as the 'levels' vary in level-based games such as Super Mario Bros. or Doom. Another simple example is examinations in classrooms. Levels in those games, scenarios in Sim City, examinations, and obstacle courses all have the same essential idea: the rules of the game are constant, but the particular context in which you apply those rules (the setup of the level, the city layout, the questions on the text, the obstacles in the course) is designed by some outside party.

Application: Types of Themes That Work Well in Games

There are many great things to learn from the past, but some learning can only be done while choosing and experiencing directly. If Scrooge had not looked to the past and saw it with new clarity, he would have continued to waste the present. That's the function of narration. And there are also things to learn while choosing and acting, and that's where games, or a predefined systematic sets of rules, come in. Some things (whether actual or imagined) are so rare that they only happen once, or are so important and interesting that a person becomes the wiser for having been shown it, even if they have to be passive in its reception. These are for lectures, histories, movies, novels, and the like. Some things are best explored through observing how reality works firsthand, by testing one's abilities against it, in a trial-and-error, refine-as-you-go process. These are for martial arts dojos, experiment labs, writing workshops, and games of all types. It's simply telling, showing, or doing. A lecture tells, a novel shows, a game does.

In a future article I plan to go into the mathematical nature of the game form, but for now let's take for granted that a game's rule system is inherently mathematical, and a narrative is inherently verbal. So two of the basic skills taught in school have correlates in the literature and the game forms. It's impossible to imagine literature without words, and it's impossible to imagine a game without numbers (or at least a boolean logic system).

Here are some of my discoveries relating to the types of themes that work best in the literature form and the types that work best in the game form. If a concept is easiest to express in words and hard to express mathematically or quantitatively, it is best to set it in a literary form, whereas if a concept can be expressed arithmathetically, it can work as a game. War is a good topic for literature (War and Peace) but also great for games (Chess, Warcraft), because it can be modelled systematically. The operations of complex systems are good for the game form as well (examples: cities (Sim City), civilizations (Civilization), business (Railroad Tycoon), ecology (Sim Earth), the social system (The Sims), trade (Uncharted Waters), etc.). Normal processes or modes of action are also good for the game form (examples: adventure and exploration (The Legend of Zelda), hunting (Tag and Hide-and-Go-Seek), farming (Harvest Moon), etc.). If you look at any good game (qua game, not qua story), it usually has as a theme something that can be modelled mathematically.

The trick in designing a good game is the difficulty in reducing the theme, ie, a broad abstraction (usually of a system or process), into a concrete gameplay system, which represents an essentialized specific version of how the theme works in real life.

Summary

Let me summarize the points of this essay so far. If you have a good memory you can skip this.

(1) The distinction between watching and playing: the first type is a story that is told from one party to another, a prewritten story from the past; the second type is a new 'story' that is generated in the present as you act, without reference to anything.

(2) A game is a system of rules for creating a type of story in the present, but all such created stories share a system of intransigent rules which give rise to the theme. Think hide-and-go-seek and tag, which are simplifications or essentializations of the process of hunting.

(3) Most present games, such as RPGs, are a mix of story retelling (narration) and story generation (game). The story retelling part is often called 'the story', but is actually a series of inalterable cutscenes and uncontrollable action which is watched instead of played. The story generation part is often called 'the gameplay', but is actually a set of rules by which a new story is generated through the interactions of the player. Therefore, computerized games are not usually only -games-, but a hybrid -- a mix of game and narrative.

(4) Games vary by the ratio of told story to played story. In some of these you spend virtually all of your time generating a new story (the open-area part of SimCity, or Civilization), and in others you spend virtually all of your time being told a story (The Last Job, Final Fantasy 8).

(5) This hybrid of interactivity and storytelling is not a Frankenstienian monster, but has analog in previous human activities, in particular anything involving learning a skill or being guided in a new topic. But even in those activities, it's always -either- story generation or story listening, you can't both watch a story and create a story at once.

(6) Specific themes may be better suited for one medium than for another. The game form is useful for the portrayl of processes, systems, and in general that which can be reduced to mathematics.

Notes

1. Crawford, Chris. "Interactivity, Plot, Free Will, Determinism, Quantum Mechanics, and Temporal Irreversibility". Interactive Entertainment Design Volume 8 (1994 - 1995).

2. Juul, Jesper. "Games Studies 0101: Games telling Stories?". The International Journal of Computer Game Research, volume 1, issue 1 (July 2001).

3. Juul, Jesper. "A Clash Between Game and Narrative: A thesis on computer games and interactive fiction". Master's Thesis, University of Copenhagen (1999). http://www.jesperjuul.dk/thesis/

4. Juul, Jesper. "A Clash Between Game and Narrative". Paper from the DAC conference, (November 1998). http://www.jesperjuul.dk/text/DAC%20Paper%201998.html

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