Beyond the String of Beads: More Systems for Game Narrative

It’s official: the field of game studies is obsessed with storytelling. One can’t argue with Costikyan’s summary of the Game Developers Conference. This year’s GDC included literally dozens of panels, presentations, and roundtables in which everyone from career developers and academics to players and fans discussed the role of stories in games, including some very familiar arguments. Is there a place for storytelling in game development? Which is more important, narrative or game design? Can you have good stories and good gameplay at the same time? At one point, during a particularly fractious argument between two developers, the person sitting next to me whispered, “They do this every year, and I’m not learning anything new.” As of yet, there seem to be no definite conclusions or even agreed-upon definitions of story and game, and no sense of why the debate continues to cover the same ground – other than that storytelling in games is a fun thing to talk about. And it is fun. As gamers, we are fascinated by our own medium, both in its structure and in our collective experiences within game systems. But the debate needs to move forward, away from simple but unanswerable value judgments, and into areas that will help us better understand the limits and potential of digital games. At the end of the day, I don’t personally care whether the game I’m playing is best described as a game that includes storytelling, a narrative that includes gameplay, an interactive fiction, or some new and as-yet undefined experience. I care that my experience, in narrative or gameplay terms, is compelling, meaningful, and worthwhile. That said, creating worthwhile stories in a medium defined by its interactive qualities – a medium that on the grand digital scale is necessarily collaborative and iterative as well – is a tall order at best, particularly considering the age of the medium. Games and stories have been around since the proverbial “dawn of time,” or at least of human remembrance, but by Costikyan’s measure we’ve only been struggling with the game-story problem since the early 1970s – less than forty years. The current arguments over stories and games won’t be solved with words but with the games themselves; that what we’re debating is the potential of the medium, not its current state. As Costikyan says, the tension between what we consider “story” and what we consider “game” has inspired some interesting experiments, although it has yet to inspire something that “deserves to be called interactive fiction” (Costikyan 13). I also agree that the “beads on a string” approach to storytelling has been thoroughly, if not completely, explored, although that doesn’t meant that future games can’t make use of the structure in innovative ways. But the most telling part of Costikyan’s essay is his sense that games and stories are two different, possibly opposing things, and that the relationship between them is one we haven’t yet fully explored. There are a variety of game structures that attempt to balance, integrate, or otherwise blend gameplay with narrative content, with varying degrees of success. From a player’s perspective, and looking in particular at digital gaming, I wonder that the game experience and the story experience can be described not as two separate, intertwined pieces, but as two aspects of the same experience: perhaps in some cases, the same thing viewed through two different critical lenses. With most of the games in the Final Fantasy series, for example, I can easily separate my gameplay experience from the narrative content, but I have a much harder time splitting my understanding into strict “game” and “story” … Continue reading Beyond the String of Beads: More Systems for Game Narrative