Some of you may have read Ted Castranova's post a few months ago over on Terra Nova titled Movies Stink. As I tried to convey in my comment there, I'm sympathetic to Ted's plight. Having novel and film shaped artifacts foisted upon you at the expense of game shaped ones really sounds like it sucks. Of course, I'm also more or less unable to have much empathy with him in this matter.
On the one hand I have friends and colleagues trying to get me to play games with them all the time. On the other, I happen to love story shaped artifacts including (and maybe especially) novels. Most importantly though, I believe that narrative interpretations are actually necessary for any real understanding of games as playable artifacts. Of course, you already knew that because the title of this post starts with games and narrative, and it's the third in the series.
While I had a number of reactions to Castranova's post, my primary reaction was the one I didn't put in the comments. In the context of Terra Nova, it would've felt a little snarky to say "...but I could've sworn that the ludologists and narratologists had signed a peace treaty." I've referenced this ludology vs. narratology thing before, and I believe I noted that I would offer a little more detail on it before I finished with this particular series on games and narrative.
As far as I can tell, the contemporary framing of ludology vs. narratology comes down to the idea that media and cultural studies (or some segmentation or even abstraction thereof) made a real push to absorb game studies under its auspices, and in the process made a move of declaring that games were amenable to the same sorts of analytic tools used in other areas, and most especially narrative analysis. A segment of the academic game design crowd pushed back hard on this raising the banner of ludology. In the progress they declared that games are best analyzed in terms of things like rules and systems, and that any use of narrative analytic tools was at best incredibly limited, and at worst an actual disservice to the medium of video games. Jesper Juul actually did a really solid job of explicating this particular argument here, and if you buy his line of reasoning then you land on the side that says the experience of game play is so drastically different from other forms of aesthetic experience that we risk a range of real dangers by leaning on narratological approaches in the analysis of games. I should say here that there's actually a lot of Jesper's argument that I do agree with.
That said, at the end of the day I actually believe that the entire framing of the narratology/ludology argument misses a core aspect of video games in a rather spectacular manner. As I've noted previously, video games are definitively not a monolithic medium. As a result there are definitely many many games out there that really don't recommend themselves to narrative analysis as artifacts, and these are the games that designers and pundits are quick to point to when making cases for why story doesn't belong in games (e.g. Chess, Tetris, any sport, etc.). However, from my perspective for good or ill, RPGs and IF are also part of the video game landscape, and these are games where story plays an extremely important role (and they're really not alone). Formal storytelling is something that does happen in video games including many profitable ones, and it's as ridiculous to ignore it as it is to try to analyze Space Invaders as a, "...statement of male aggression of the female..."...oh I give up, you can try to figure out what Jim Sterling is saying there on your own time. At any rate, the point is that big narrative games are in fact quite amenable to analysis through narrative lenses, even while they also benefit from analysis as designed artifacts, activity systems, and through a whole range of other viable lenses.
What it all comes down to in the end is that humans are all about constructing patterns, whether there is an actual pattern there or not. Both storytelling and system/rule design present opportunities for us to engage in sense making with each other, and whether we're engaging with or analyzing various media that means opportunities to engage in pattern-recognition. I'm pretty much with Roger Schank on the idea that humans privilege stories as a form of sense making. In this sense, there are definitely opportunities to deploy forms of traditional narrative theory in analyzing games that are story shaped. Arguably of greater importance is analyzing player stories as an essential part of creating a holistic understanding of any specific game or type of games. Either way, with apologies to Ted, story matters a whole lot in relation to games, and any systems oriented understanding has to share time with narrative ones if we want to form more complete understandings.
Of course, this whole conversation gets even more complicated when we bring Roger Travis's concept of performative play practice/practomime into this, as Roger has created a larger umbrella under which to think about all of this stuff. Pushing further on that particular question will have to wait for another blog post.