GAME DESIGN AS NARRATIVE ARCHITECTURE By Henry Jenkins
The relationship between games and story remains a divisive question among game fans, designers, and scholars alike. At a recent academic Games Studies conference, for example, a blood feud threatened to erupt between the self-proclaimed Ludologists, who wanted to see the focus shift onto the mechanics of game play, and the Narratologists, who were interested in studying games alongside other storytelling media.(1) Consider some recent statements made on this issue: "Interactivity is almost the opposite of narrative; narrative flows under the direction of the author, while interactivity depends on the player for motive power" --Ernest Adams (2) "There is a direct, immediate conflict between the demands of a story and the demands of a game. Divergence from a story's path is likely to make for a less satisfying story; restricting a player's freedom of action is likely to make for a less satisfying game." --Greg Costikyan (3) "Computer games are not narratives....Rather the narrative tends to be isolated from or even work against the computer-game-ness of the game." --Jesper Juul (4) "Outside academic theory people are usually excellent at making distinctions between narrative, drama and games. If I throw a ball at you I don't expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories." --Markku Eskelinen (5) I find myself responding to this perspective with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I understand what these writers are arguing against - various attempts to map traditional narrative structures ("hypertext," "Interactive Cinema," "nonlinear narrative") onto games at the expense of an attention to their specificity as an emerging mode of entertainment. You say narrative to the average gamer and what they are apt to imagine is something on the order of a choose-your-own adventure book, a form noted for its lifelessness and mechanical exposition rather than enthralling entertainment, thematic sophistication, or character complexity. And game industry executives are perhaps justly skeptical that they have much to learn from the resolutely unpopular (and often overtly antipopular) aesthetics promoted by hypertext theorists. The application of film theory to games can seem heavy-handed and literal minded, often failing to recognize the profound differences between the two media. Yet, at the same time, there is a tremendous amount that game designers and critics could learn through making meaningful comparisons with other storytelling media. One gets rid of narrative as a framework for thinking about games only at one's own risk. In this short piece, I hope to offer a middle ground position between the ludologists and the narratologists, one that respects the particularity of this emerging medium - examining games less as stories than as spaces ripe with narrative possibility. Let's start at some points where we might all agree: 1) Not all games tell stories. Games may be an abstract, expressive, and
experiential form, closer to music or modern dance than to cinema. Some ballets (The Nutcracker for example) tell stories, but storytelling isn't an intrinsic or defining feature of dance. Similarly, many of my own favorite games - Tetris, Blix, Snood - are simple graphic games that do not lend themselves very well to narrative exposition.(6) To understand such games, we need other terms and concepts beyond narrative, including interface design and expressive movement for starters. The last thing we want to do is to reign in the creative experimentation that needs to occur in the earlier years of a medium's development. 2) Many games do have narrative aspirations. Minimally, they want to tap the emotional residue of previous narrative experiences. Often, they depend on our familiarity with the roles and goals of genre entertainment to orientate us to the action, and in many cases, game designers want to create a series of narrative experiences for the player. Given...
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