The Play’s the Thing

What’s in a game? For those of us who are game buffs – in much the same way the cool kids were movie buffs in the latter part of the 20th century – it’s a fascinating question. What makes a great game such a compelling experience? Is it that you’re in the “flow” described by unpronounceable psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, that state of play (or work, for that matter) in which you’re absorbed so completely, you enter a Zen-like state of oneness with your task? Or is it that you’re caught up in the story, in the moral choices forced on your character, the moments of vulnerability and triumph, of uncertainty and resolution, the tale that keeps you glued to your console long enough to beat the next boss, reach the next level and find out what the next chapter holds?

Though you might not weigh these issues each time you log into World of Warcraft or pop that Halo CD into your Xbox, a number of game designers, researchers and other academics have been quietly debating such ideas for last five or 10 years. They fall roughly into two camps: Ludologists, who feel that only perfectly balanced gameplay can create the kind of “flow” that makes a game truly great, and narratologists, who feel that story is king and even the most balanced game mechanics can’t make up for an empty main character and mindless hordes of enemies.

Of course, those reductive descriptions don’t begin to get at the subtleties of the debate. And for those of us who judge our games more by experience than by two-dollar words, reading a stack of academic papers doesn’t necessarily help. So, to shed some more light on some of these ideas, I contacted four prominent game theorists and designers to ask them not whether they thought the key to the puzzle lay in either gameplay or story, but a much more important question: What games are you playing lately, and why? Of course, I couldn’t resist following up with a query on theory. I leave it to you, dear reader, to determine which set of answers do more to settle these kinds of questions – or whether they need to be settled at all.

Gonzalo Frasca is the guy who started it all, at least formally – though, these days, he wishes he hadn’t. A researcher at the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University in Copenhagen and co-founder and Senior Producer at Powerful Robot Games, it was Frasca’s 1999 paper, “Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative,” that more or less kicked off the debate. Frasca’s newest take on things is refreshingly all-encompassing: “As the reluctant father of the term ‘ludology,’ all I can say is that there are really not two camps at all,” he told me. “People can favor different approaches.”

True to his roots in the gameplay camp, though, Frasca’s choice of games in recent months has leaned toward the kind of story-less action found in Katamari Damacy. Why? “I love when the katamari rolls over people,” Frasca says. “It’s the closest it gets to when I tortured ants as a kid.” Animal Crossing and The Rub Rabbits are also in Frasca’s DS. Rabbits, also known as Where Do Babies Come From?, is basically a dating puzzle game. “When well done, minigames are the equivalent of poetry,” Frasca says. “The essence of the mechanics and the aesthetics, in a small package.”

As to ludology and narratology, Frasca sees dangers in leaning too heavily on either. “We can learn from storytelling, but the main danger is trying to mimic too much,” he says. “I admire people like Chris Crawford, Greg Costikyan, Ian Bogost and Eric Zimmerman. Their camp [- people pushing the boundaries of innovative gameplay and storytelling -] is much cooler than arguing if games are stories or not.”

Espen Aarseth is unabashed in calling himself a narratologist. Building on the theories of French literary theorist Gerard Genette and narrative theorist Seymour Chatman, Aarseth’s work is really about how literature may be generated by gameplay mechanics in contexts from the I Ching to the FPS. For Aarseth, gameplay is part and parcel of what makes the story; in some senses, it is the story.

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Though Aarseth’s thinking may sound like it’s miles above the surface of the world we gamers occupy, he’s recently played his way through both F.E.A.R. and Age of Empires III (which, he goes out of the way to note, can be beat even on its hardest level, if you just keep some water between you and the AI). He’s been revisiting Half-Life: Opposing Force in recent months, and has dipped his toe in The Movies and Sid Meier’s Civilization IV. With his class at the IT University of Copenhagen, he plays Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. Does this game give special insights into narrative as it relates to gameplay? Not necessarily. “It is a good introduction to team-based FPS, and is more forgiving than Counter-Strike,” Aarseth says.

Jesper Juul is a game designer and author of the book Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Though he’s asserted in the past that “computer games do not tell good stories,” nowadays he’s more likely to tell you the battle between story and mechanics doesn’t really matter – or never really existed in the first place. Fahrenheit, which he’s been playing recently, certainly tries, though Juul notes, “I want to like it, but I’m not quite sure.” Also in rotation are Donkey Konga (“Still the greatest little social game in good company”), and Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising, which has surprised him. “I believe that a turn-based strategy game shouldn’t work today, but [Black Hole Rising] really does,” he says.

“I [have] real trouble identifying with this discussion anymore,” Juul says of the ludology/narratology debate. “At the end of the day, it consists of two parts: Real issues such as, ‘When and how does the fiction of a game matter for players?’ and a plain battle of words that tells us nothing about games, but is mostly about how to define narrative. The games I play always come before the theory. I don’t want to become a game snob.”

Mark Barrett is a writer and designer who’s worked on the story design and other aspects of games, like the Settlers series, The Nations, and adventure title Dark Side of the Moon. Like the other people I talked to for this article, Barrett seemingly plays against type: The game that’s keeping his GameCube hot these days is snowboarding title SSX On Tour. I mean, how much story can a game like that offer?

And like everyone else, Barrett takes issue with the straw man I set up at the beginning of this piece. “My take on the ludology/narratology debate has always been that it’s a clever and completely false dichotomy,” he says. “If what you’re into is talking about interactive entertainment, then it’s endlessly fertile ground.

“If what you’re into is making interactive entertainment, it’s literarily meaningless.”

Barrett compares the argument to an aircraft manufacturer debating whether to make cargo-only jets or passenger-only jets, but not variants. “You can imagine how the cargo-loading union or the travel industry would vote if forced to choose, but the choice would obviously be a false one. And that’s exactly what’s happened in interactive with the ludology/narratology debate. People with vested interests have succeeded in putting forward a masturbatory, ego-driven, politically-motivated debate that is never going to help anyone make a better interactive product.”

So, the next time someone asks you whether storyline or gameplay is more important to creating a great game, tell them they’re barking up the wrong debate. One doesn’t exist without the other. If it did, you’d either be watching a TV show or just flipping a coin. But with games, all the answers lie right at your fingertips. All you have to do is play.

Mark Wallace can be found on the web at His book with Peter Ludlow, Only A Game: Online Worlds and the Virtual Journalist Who Knew Too Much, will be published by O’Reilly in 2006.

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