Friday, January 25, 2008

A Ludic Approach to Narrative

Over the last decade a minor war has raged over two different schools of videogame criticism: narratology and ludology. In a nutshell the argument boils down to which set of tools is most appropriate for taking apart games and seeing what makes them tick.

The narrative approach is to treat games as texts so that the critical apparatus of (post-)structuralism can be brought to bear in an effort to understand how games construct (or fail to construct) meaning. This approach is good for understanding how game stories work and how games inform and reflect wider society, but it’s turned out to be inadequate for getting at the rule-based interaction and kinesthetic flow that lies at the heart of the gaming experience.

The ludic approach takes the heart of the gaming experience as its starting place. It focuses on the formal and informal systems that games use to construct play spaces and the ways in which these systems can be navigated by players. This critical approach does a better job of getting at the heart of how games function as games, but has the unfortunate side effect of decoupling games from the rest of art and culture. Games become a “special case” with their own idiosyncratic critical theory.

The ramifications of this divide are not merely academic. Contemporary videogames are not autonomic formal systems like Chess or Go; they contain characters and stories and all the trappings of traditional narratives. One of the daily challenges faced by a working designer is how to integrate the narrative and ludic elements of the game into a coherent whole. Or, to put it more bluntly: How do I keep the player from skipping my cutscenes?

In the back and forth between narratology and ludology there have been two main approaches: analyzing games-as-narratives, and analyzing games-as-games. Interestingly enough, no one seems to have tried bridging the gap in the opposite direction, by analyzing narratives-as-games.

At first glance, this approach seems ludicrous (no pun intended). Literary critical theory goes back thousands of years. It is an ocean wide and deep with countless currents and eddies. Game theory, by contrast is a mere trickle. We’re still grappling with the basics of how to talk intelligently about games as games. How can we even begin to extend such an immature theory to encompass the tremendous sweep of narrative?

The key, I think, is to approach traditional board games and traditional prose as lying at opposite ends of an artistic continuum that runs through videogames, role-playing games, larps, happenings, and traditional theater. At one end you have activities that are almost purely ludic, and the other end you have activities that are almost purely narrative. The forms in the middle mix the ludic and the narrative to differing degrees. But, I would argue, even in a narrative form like the novel, a ludic element remains.

One of the core assumptions that most critics bring to videogame analysis is that games are interactive and stories are not. Jesper Juul states this thesis quite plainly in his 1998 paper “A Clash between Game and Narrative”:

“Computer games and narratives are very different phenomena. Two phenomena that fight each other. Two phenomena that you basically cannot have at the same time.”

I think that this core assumption is wrong. And not trivially wrong in the sense that it’s possible to construct “interactive fictions” or “hypertexts” that create an illusion of freedom for the reader. But fundamentally wrong because it overlooks the element of free play that exists even in the act of reading traditional linear fiction.

As I move forward with future posts I believe I can demonstrate that it is possible to approach narratives as games, and that certain curious artifacts of narrative structure are the direct result of the inescapable ludic elements of the traditional storytelling process. The goal is an integrated aesthetic for videogames that allows story and rules and level design to all be analyzed as building blocks in the construction of an integrated player experience.

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