Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Edge of Story

Imagine a game of Left 4 Dead in which a player sacrifices his life so his friend may survive a zombie attack. How do we classify this moment?  Is it a story, a piece of mechanics-driven gameplay, or something authored into the game? We can make cases for any of them. It’s a story because it can be recounted like a story. It’s a game mechanical interaction because it wasn’t authored into the game exactly as it occurred. Yet, it was authored into the possibility space of the game mechanics, which were specifically designed to generate dramatic moments like this on a regular basis. It is both a story and not. Depending on how you look at it, it has no author, one author (the designer), or many authors (the designer, players, and the game systems).

We’ve broken our classification system because we’re using it outside its domain. Terms like story and author were created to work in the context of traditional, fixed, recounted stories. There’s no reason to assume they work in games. And, in their unmodified, original forms, they don’t.

The concept of narrative is not absolute. It is merely a label for a cluster of emotional triggers which games happen to share with certain traditional media.

Character development, recounted or related sequences of events, and pre-defined events are examples of design elements which fall under the umbrella of narrative. But this umbrella is not defined by any well-thought-out logical distinction. It is an evolved cultural convention – nothing more.

There is no sharp line between fiction, story, narrative, and mechanics. The emotional mechanisms games use to affect players often don’t fall cleanly into these categories.

Response to Danc’s Loops and Arcs

I wrote a really long response to Danc’s post Loops and Arcs. It was so long his blog rejected it. So I’m posting it here. Please read his excellent article first if you want this to make any sense.

My Response Follows

Cool, Danc. A few thoughts I had while reading.

First thought:

Interesting approach to the topic of systemic/predefined. I conceptualize this differently – not as a dichotomoy of kinds of experience, but as a spectrum between predefined experiences and experiences which are generated wholly on the fly.

Going from left to right: Film, Call of Duty 4 single player, StarCraft II single player, World of WarCraft, Call of Duty 4 multiplayer, chess, The Sims, MineCraft, real life.

Since some aspect of nearly every game is authored – see the names of the pieces in chess. And since the possibility space of any system (besides real life) is constrained by an author’s decisions about how to build the system, I don’t think it’s right to try to categorize pieces of games cleanly into these two kinds. It seems destructively reductive.

The experience a player gets is always a combination of what the systemic elements of the game generate on the fly (as constrained by their design) and the pre-defined elements authored in (whether they be a character model or an intro movie).

Obviously the experience transforms itself on repeated plays to the degree that it is generated on the fly.

Second thought:

I don’t think that “loops”, as you’re calling them, are nearly as disliked in the mainstream game market as you’re saying. Call of Duty for example, is marketed with videos from single player, but people play it for MP. Ditto Halo. MineCraft, The Sims series, World of WarCraft, StarCraft II, and lots of other really popular titles are very heavily driven by extremely strong systems. Hell, we can throw Draw Something on the pile.

It’s true that systemic design is often underemphasized by the paymasters of the game industry. Publishers and businessmen typically cue into single-threaded story records instead of thread-making story generators. It’s what they know, and it looks good in a pitch meeting. But I think the market itself responds quite well to a well-designed system. Always has. If they want arcs they’ll watch movies (and most of them do).

Third thought:

I don’t think that your description of religious activity as a “loop” is really fruitful. I think what you’re calling a loop is an authored, self-contained system that, when interacted with, spits out experiences. At least that’s how I read it. Religion is an organic cluster of activities, which are not self-contained or authored in a clear way and are designed more to propagate themselves than to spit out experiences. If you’re going to include religion in the definition you might as well also throw in every other interactive part of human life. That is, everything. See my first thought on the spectrum from loop to arc.

Fourth thought:

My favorite thought in the article was this: “Of the two, loops are rarely discussed in any logical fashion. People note the arcs and comment on them at length while being quite blind to the loops driving the outcomes.”

Now that’s interesting. To me this has to do with the human mind’s obsession with single-threaded stories and lack of natural ability to think in terms of possibility spaces and statistics. This prediliction expresses itself in, say, politics with an undue emphasis on individual situations (“I met a kid who couldn’t afford college…”) instead of the broader statistical reality (“X% of kids can’t afford college…”). And there’s not a chance in hell of hearing about the systemic reality behind those individual or statistical outcomes (“The college affordability rate is driven by…”). Basically we love images of things happening one by one. It’s why 9/11 scared people but car crashes don’t, even though a half million Americans have died in their cars since 9/11.

So everyone talks about games in terms of the threads they generated in their particular playthroughs, instead of the broader statistical reality of what threads the game will tend to generate over all playthroughs with all players. Good stuff.


Overall, a thought-provoking article. Feel free to rip me a new one if I misinterpreted you anywhere.