Jeff Tidball contends that the Second Person collection
makes too much of the narrative vs. play debate, and pays attention
to the mechanics of narrative and play over their affective
The thing that struck me most about Second Person's section on tabletop games was the practically audible gnashing of teeth about whether it's even possible to juxtapose narrative and gameplay. "There's a direct, immediate conflict between the demands of a story and the demands of a game," we read (Greg Costikyan). "Story only happens in retrospect [of a game session]" (Paul Czege) "The process [storytelling] is the point, not the output [the story]" (Will Hindmarch).
I say, take heart! It's not only possible to juxtapose the two...it's easy!
That is, it's easy if you accept the dictionary premise that a narrative is an "account of connected events." In fact, if that's the bar for "story," the vast majority of (non-abstract) games already combine narrative and gameplay. Even Monopoly and Afrika Korps - both of which Greg Costikyan explicitly discards as games with no story whatsoever - do, when it comes to dictionary definition, provide an account of connected events James Wallis would concur, writing that: "Adding a few lines of description to a video game or a background and artwork to an abstract board game...allow[s] the player to crate an internal narrative as the game progresses." As nearly any game with even the thinnest veneer of theme is played, events in an imagined world occur; they're de facto connected by virtue of the fact that they're flying out of the same game.
But obviously, the real reason for the teeth-gnashing is that designers and scholars want to know whether it's possible to juxtapose good narrative with gameplay. That question is an order of magnitude more difficult to answer, and there's not a great deal of point in trying to answer it until somebody figures out - or at least has an organized discussion about - what makes a good story.
Obviously, the chief problem with asking and answering "What makes a good narrative?" is that an objective standard of quality is no more possible for story than for gameplay. But even in the absence of an objective standard, it makes sense for game designers to start scouting the territory where narrative lives, and to begin trying to distinguish the hallowed halls from the slums.
Since defining narrative quality must be subjective, much of what follows amounts to the opinion of one story-telling game designer on the issue of what makes good narrative, with an emphasis on "for the purposes of games."
First, let's set aside the pointlessly mechanical definition of a good story: An initial situation followed by rising action, which reaches a climax, and ends in a denouement. That's like defining coffee as a brown beverage; so are Coke, beer, and toilet water. (Not to mention that some people put enough cream in their coffee to turn it white.)
Here's a better start: A good story is one where the observer [1 Don't think "reader," nor "viewer." Thinking in the terms of other media won't help us as game designers. But don't automatically think "player," either, the chief peril being that a player is assumed to privilege game over story.] is emotionally invested in what happens. By emotional investment, I mean that the observer has concrete hopes and fears about what might happen next in the tale. "Concrete," for my money, means "situation-specific." It's not enough to engender hope that good things will happen and fear that bad things will happen.
Concrete emotional investment seems most likely to occur where there's considerable question about what course of events will transpire, or where the thing most likely to happen is also the thing most greatly feared. An example that's also an obvious game plot might be the hope that our hero will rescue his mentor from the invasion of extra-dimensional aliens in his laboratory, joined to the fear that the aliens will take him hostage and pry from his brain the secrets that will allow them to subjugate humanity. The poor (but all-too-common), non-concrete counter-example runs along the lines of a generic hope that the hero kicks ass, and a broad fear that he will die.
Past the simple need for emotional investment, I propose that the emotional investment must exist on multiple scales, simultaneously. There must be an investment in the short term (a scene or game turn), the medium term (a sequence, series of game turns, or act), and the long term (a whole story or entire game). There should be a series of hopes and fears that add up to something monumental (for the protagonist, at least), and overlapping hopes and fears for what happens on the scale of today, and how it fits into the bigger picture of hopes and fears for the character's lifetime (within the scope of the story at hand, anyway).
One of the best ways I know of to evaluate whether an emotional investment is both good and concrete is to phrase a story situation as a question and see if it holds. "Will our hero rescue his mentor?" That's something an observer can root for. (Will an observer root for it? That's a question of craft and skill. But it's definitely possible.) However, if the question is lamely vague - "will our heroes be successful?" - then the narrative's observer lacks a place to hang his hopes and fears, and it's too hard to get emotionally involved. Problems also arise if the question technique yields the same question over and over in a long-form story. ("Will our hero escape? How about now? How about now?")
A situation with hopes and fears is not enough to emotionally involve an observer, obviously, if the observer doesn't care about the protagonist(s). The easiest technique to make an observer care is to evoke empathy between observer and character. Shared feelings will arise where observer and character have similar emotional experiences. But the key is not to recruit players who've worked in laboratories or had mentors, but rather, to demonstrate how a game's characters are gripped by the same universal emotions that nearly all observers will have experienced by virtue of their humanity: friendship, betrayal, love, despair, hope...such a list is easy to continue ad infinitum.
With any luck, the marriage of narrative and gameplay is an opportunity for artists to inject a new level of involvement into games by piling (a) an observer's emotional involvement with a character, on top of (b) his investment in his success at the game. However, I think it's very likely that story-game designers will eventually discover that it's critical for the former (emotional investment in character and story) to be different and separate from the latter (investment in winning). If they are not discrete, one or the other - probably the story - becomes the redheaded stepchild. That is to say, we will be exactly where we are today, with story-games whose narratives consist of nothing more than accounts of connected events.
Perhaps the most interesting tension that could arise in a story-game would be a tension between a player's ego-based interest in winning and his emotional interest in what happens to the characters in the story. In non-game media, "bad" things must happen in stories so tension can be established. That is, the audience's hopes must not be met immediately; there must be hope and fear. This might be a critical component of how a great story-game might develop: In order to succeed at gameplay, perhaps a player must cause or allow horrible things to happen to his agent in the story. To win the level, you must allow a family member to die. To beat the boss, you must cast aside your aspiration to be honored. In fact, both branches of this equation would serve to make both halves better, because the player is making progress at the game even as he is intensifying his emotional investment in the story.
Wild speculation aside, as far as I'm aware or concerned, the myriad ways these two types of investment could interweave hasn't been explored in a way that even scratches the surface of what's possible. I'm looking forward to exploring the options for decades to come.
Work Cited (but not linked in text)
"Narrative," The New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edition. Oxford University Press, 2006.