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.