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Why Study Game Narrative?

A letter to students at ARCOS in Santiago, Chile.

Book Pad Dear ARCOS students,

It came as some small surprise to me when, in a recent letter, your instructor Pablo Gorigoitia mentioned that Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames was one of your course texts. This book, written with the IGDA Game Writing Special Interest Group and edited by myself, has been my most successful title by far, but I never really anticipated that it might be read as far away as Chile, some seven thousand miles away! To put this figure into perspective, we live nearly as far away from each other as the diameter of the planet we co-inhabit.

I’d like to take this opportunity to share my thoughts as to why game narrative is important, and this requires that I first make clear the extent of game narrative as a field. For although it is not often recognized, no game that is made escapes from having narrative elements. The reason for this is that the play of all games generates exceptional narrative experiences, in part because humans are natural storytellers and construct our way in the world by means of narratives, and in part because play is one of our freest emotional expressions and thus inherently memorable. It is no coincidence that sporting events are used as stories-within-stories so often in blockbuster movies: the strong emotions generated by sports – both in its participants and its observers – make an outstanding (if occasionally lazy) scaffold for storytelling.

We must, however, be clear to distinguish an explicit narrative – one that is placed into a game by a writer – and implicit narrative that emerges from the game as a system. I am interested in both these forms, and have made games that pursue both approaches (although the latter – systemic stories from games – is far harder, and usually more expensive to develop). Similarly, we ought to distinguish between diegetic stories that occur within the fictional world of the game, and non-diegetic stories that feature the player themselves as a character. “I won at Chess!” or “I got a Tetris!” are non-diegetic stories that are simply about the game being played, and are not really our principal interest when we study game narrative. That said, if you do not understand why players tell non-diegetic stories, you are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding how to construct those stories that occur within the fictional worlds of games.

At the moment, I teach a module on Game Narrative for the University of Bolton that I will soon also be teaching for Laguna College of Art and Design in California. One of my students at Bolton, James Drake, asked me over the Summer before he took that particular course what he could do to prepare for the Game Narrative module: I told him to read a book or a play. He was rather confused, and could not believe that I wasn’t directing him to play a game instead. But if you want to understand game narrative, you have to understand narrative, and that is a task best approached in media where it is far easier to construct. If you want to be a great game writer, you should begin by reading Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare – or indeed Eduardo Barrios and Isabel Allende. You’ll have to: we have very few great works of game narrative to refer to, so we must discover the standard of exceptional work in narrative from elsewhere.

What makes game narrative so especially difficult is the player. A novelist or playwright can mostly count upon their characters to co-operate (although there are times when a story gets out of control…!), but the moment we let a player into our story we have lost our sole authority over the narrative. As Street Fighter II puts the matter: “A Challenger Appears!” We now risk fighting the player for the flow of the story, or ruining their narrative experience by giving them no illusion of agency in how the events transpire. This is why it is far easier to mount a narrative on the backbone of something like Grand Theft Auto, where the player is presumed to be an anti-social ne’er-do-well (or rather, that they will act as such in the fictional world!). We can count on players to act badly. Counting on players to co-operate with our story is far more difficult, although not quite impossible. For a start, we can ask them to do so.

I am of the opinion that if we want to make better videogames, we must study game narrative. This is because the experience of these kinds of games (indeed, all games at some level) involves entering into a fictional world, and if we do not understand the mechanics of such imaginary games we are severely limiting what we can achieve. But to understand game narrative, we must also understand narrative – and this requires us to pay attention to those media that have been experimenting with fictional worlds for millennia rather than just a few decades. This is why Game Writing commits a whole chapter to the basics of narrative theory, a field that goes all the way back to Aristotle, more than two thousand years ago.

I encourage you all to wrestle with the fascinating questions of how to leverage the interesting qualities of videogames in the context of the established methods of narrative, precisely because we have not yet produced any unequivocal masterpieces of game narrative. Such future games as might attain to this title could come from anywhere in the world – they are as likely to come from Chile as from Europe and the United States, where commercial pressures make storytelling in games take rather humdrum and conventional paths, more influenced by Hollywood action movies than anything else. Who knows, someone in your very class could be the Pablo Naruda of videogame narrative, a digital poet, taking our youngest medium to new heights.

With infinite hope for the future,


PS: you are lucky to have Pablo as an instructor, so treat him kindly! And tell him he owes me a beer.


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