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Sometimes the content we present at The Escapist Magazine sparks debate between the unlikeliest of people. Last week, James Portnow and the Extra Credits talked about the role of the player in modern videogames and how designers approached the relationship between the narrative of the game and the player’s role in it. The video basically argued that players are integral to the experience of playing the game and that designers should never think of them as merely passive audience members like those for film, paintings or novels.

Many game designers look to Extra Credits to investigate the boundaries of the videogame medium, and one of those developers, Thomas Grip from Frictional Games, lead designer of Amnesia: The Dark Descent presumably watched last week’s episode from his office in Helsingborg, Sweden. Grip wrote a response to “The Role of the Player” on his blog, pointing out how he disagreed with the video’s premise that players are artists.

In a meeting of minds only possible through the connectivity of the internet, James Portnow responded to Grip’s response and what follows is a transcript of their correspondence that is both fascinating and revelatory about the subject of the player’s role in videogames, and how designers should approach the idea.

James Portnow: I’ll pose to you the same question I asked of our Escapist Magazine audience because I think it gets to the heart of the problem:

Does football have a narrative? Indubitably so. But who creates this narrative? Because it’s certainly not the people who originally wrote the rules to football…

Thomas Grip: Thanks for starting this conversation in the first place! 🙂 I think it is quite interesting!

On the football analogy: First of all, football is a game, a sport. It is not the same as a videogame. A videogame is a virtual world with strict unbreakable laws, whereas football is just a bunch of non-compulsory rules that forms the basis of play among a group of people. Yes, there are football games, but I would say these are very different. A football videogame is not just the basic rules of football, but there is a whole virtual world added on top of that.

So who is the narrator in a football videogame? I would say this is an even clearer example than SimCity or similar. The creator(s) of the game is the one of created the space in which the narrative happens. Sure the exact plot and so on is unknown, but the player is not making it up as they play the game. They are simply letting the game “guide” them and along the way a narrative is created. A football game is created to give the audience a certain kind of experience, and it is in creating the virtual world that the artistic process lie, not when immersing yourself in this world (as a player does when playing a football game).

JP: Fantastic! I love the discussion.

I have to disagree about live football being fundamentally different than a football videogame, but that aside (as we could fill several pages with that discussion) my response would be:

Ask different Madden players what the narrative of their game was. Then ask the guys at Tiburon what the narrative of Madden is. Only one of those groups won’t be able to give you an answer … and all the other answers will be radically different. If that’s not a creative act, and one that’s fundamentally different from how we interact with a novel or a painting, I don’t know what is.

(this is true to varying degrees for all games, even the most linear, pre-scripted, narrative heavy, JRPGs)

P.S. We can use FIFA rather than Madden if you’d rather for football ; )

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TG: I am wondering if we use the same definition for narrative, and perhaps that muddles the discussion a bit. Normally (at least in film theory) the very simplistic definition of narrative is the combination of plot, characters and story.

Plot here is string of events that make up the narrative, characters the agents in the narrative and story is the overarching environment / backstory for it all. (I have previously used narrative for plot, so have been trying to clean up my terms after that).

Given a game of football (American style or other) you got the basis of the story and characters already laid out by the designers. So what is created dynamically is the plot. However, I would not say that the players creates this themselves, it is rather something that comes to be as matches are played. The dynamics that create these different outcomes are determined by the videogame. And the outcomes cannot be anything, they must lie within the space of possibilities that the videogame set up.

So the designers do not create specifics plot, but they do create a system for certain kinds of plots. This combined with the pre-made story and characters form a narrative that is very much created by designers of the game.

Now players can of course add extra depth to their experience, like dressing the back-story with more details, giving personalities of the various players and so on. But I cannot see how this is different from when reading a book or watching a movie. You can make up all kinds of extra story to vague characters, imagine all actions during cuts, etc. Sure it is a creative act (and videogames can be creative for its audience in a way that no other media can) but it is not the same kind of activity that was used to create the work.

Given the definition I gave above, I do not see that videogame narrative is that much different from other media. The two core differences are that the plot is not set and that the feedback process between medium and audience is far more intricate.

PS. About the “pure game” vs “videogame” discussion you might wanna read this.

JP: I find it strange to argue that the creator might not know the plot, the characters or the setting to their own creation. This to me is much akin to saying that the canvass maker and the paint mixer are really those responsible for a painting.

For, in our hypothetical football game, the Madden player will tell you what characters took part in what plot and in what setting the plot unfolded. This isn’t something that the designers or the developers can do.

(As an aside about the utility/thinking behind the whole piece: I would wager a fair amount that when someone finally gets around to slapping electrodes on the skulls of people playing games and compares them with people reading and telling stories, we’ll find that the brain activity that occurs when playing games is much more akin to that of telling a story than that of reading one. This to me implies that we need to understand how telling a story affects us psychologically if we want to create better player experiences.)

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TG: Regarding characters: Well, the designers do make a roster of characters and the same applies for an RPG. Even if the all characters were randomly generated, I would still say the designers are the ones creating the characters.

The way I see it, the only way the players can be the artist in this sense is if they have a character creation menu for all major characters of the game, or if they write the algorithms that control the random generation.

Regarding player as story teller: If I get you correctly, and speaking in P&P RPG terms, then your goal would be for the player to become the dungeon master? Instead, I think that the role of dungeon master should be the computer, that is what I consider the goal of the interactive storytelling.

Examining the brain state would be really interesting, btw. I wonder if these kinds of processes are not too complex for current tech though. But nonetheless, would be interesting to see what areas fire up. Might give some good hints.

More on making art: Another thing that I have against the player as artist thing, that I probably have not taken up, is that the state an artist is in when creating art is not something that I see as goal for how I want players to experience the game.

Creating a piece of art is often struggle, and, more often than not, it is quite boring and monotonous. It means doing something that you are not quite sure is possible, whether it is due to your skills or just technical or physical limitations. It is quite common that your imagined goal is not possible to attain.

The experience of viewing art is not like this, and nor do I want it to be. I want it to be a fluent experience, not necessarily fun and exciting all the time, but it should not be grueling monotone work. I also want to set up the experience in such a way that I know it is possible, and know that most will, be able to receive its fullness.

Striving for the player to be an artist seems to me like it goes against how I want games to be played.

Sure, one can say that the player should be an artist but that it should still be a fluent, well-defined experienced. That I see as trying to have the cake and eating it.

Been thinking … and me saying that a player needs to create the characters in order to be an artist is not correct. You can have a pre-made set characters, environment, etc and still be an artistic storyteller.

The whole difference lies in how the story comes about. For the player there is a flow, gets event thrown at him/her and he/she acts as if inside the virtual world. The goal of the player is to become immersed. An artistic storyteller does often not have a fluent experience when creating, he makes up events and “acts” depending on what is best for the narrative.

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JP: I still have the same issues: Creating a roster of characters is like creating a roster of paints. The thing creating the constraints is not actually the generative force behind the art.

We don’t deny authors the title of artists simply because they work within defined rules of grammar and vocabulary, nor do we argue against western musicians being artists simply because they work in a scale with 12 semitones.

In terms of pen and paper RP, no, I think the player should be the player, but if you think the Dungeon Master is the only one telling the story there I’d have to bitterly disagree.

As far as the artistic experience goes, I think that you extrapolate too far in saying that because it can be boring, it must be boring. Stacking blocks is boring. Tetris is not boring. Running a farm isn’t always fun, but Harvest Moon is fun. Getting shot at I’d imagine is generally a bummer (though arguably more exciting than the other two) but Call of Duty is fun. Games are about taking experiences that aren’t necessarily always engaging in real life and distilling the amazing bits.

TG: I also want to say that I do think that players are part in creating a story. So I agree there, but I disagree that the process is just like an artistic storyteller. I argue instead that it is quite unlike that and more like the activity of experiencing other media, just that it is much more powerful, because of interactivity.

And regarding Tetris & farm analogies: Yeah, you are correct, Tetris is not at all like stacking boxes. And the reason for this is that it does not strive to be like a box-stacking experience. Same with farming. You do not create a videogame about farming with the goal of making it as much as real farming as possible. And in the same way, you do not make the player emulate the work of a “normal” storyteller, but you strive for other goals instead.

However, I think the analogy is flawed. Because creating a game about a story is not the same as creating a game about a storyteller. If you were to create a game where the player had the role of, say screenwriter, then I have to agree that you can view the player as a kind of artist, and try to distill that experience.

However, that is not what most videogames try to do. The goal is to put the player in a virtual world and make them have the most immersive and powerful experience in that world based on certain characteristics setup by the designer(s). I do not think it is helpful to think of the player as a storyteller in this kind of situation. Instead the player is very much an audience and given input from player, the videogame’s job is to create the most compelling narrative possible, within the preset framework of the intended experience. Sure, the player decides a lot of things during the journey through the game, but he does so given his/her role inside the virtual world, not in the role of a co-storyteller.

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TG cont’d: And again, I think this is important because it puts all the responsibility on the author (the game designer) to provide depth and meaning. Sure, the player also has responsibility, more than in most other media, to try and immerse him-/herself as much as possible in the experience. But doing so, they can only get as much out of the experience as put in by author.

JP: Well put! I’m willing to agree with the idea that the player is part of the narrative crafting but that they may not be replicating the exact experience of the storyteller. In fact, I think you’re right on, I think they’re doing something unique for our medium, but I think the closest analog is the storyteller and that we, as game designers, are remiss if we concentrate only on our part of the narrative crafting without regards to this player act.

Re: Tetris. Concession, the analogy is flawed, you’re totally right. I wasn’t really trying to draw the direct analogy, I was just saying that games are about distilling the most engaging parts of an experience and I feel as though they do that with narrative crafting as well.

As to the last part: Here, I still have to disagree, but such is the great thing about theory …

I don’t think we can think any longer about presenting our narrative to an audience, but rather about exploring a narrative with a player. No matter how constricted, we are laying out a space of possibility rather than a conventional narrative, and no matter how linear we make our games there are details that the player must fill in.

If we try to do otherwise, we simply draw closer and closer to emulating film. And the world does not need a lesser form of film (because we will always be worse at providing a film-like experience than cinema).

To me we must even rethink the word “audience” because it implies that one is merely audient rather than participatory – that one observes rather than interacts – and this is not the player at all.

This was a great discussion. It was really interesting to me because in most cases when talking design with designers, we talk it through, hash it out and then come away with a revised and hopefully improved set of ideas, but since this was really a discussion about how to conceptualize the player I’m not sure there is as clear a line. I respect everything you said, and it certainly made me tighten my thinking/drill down on some of the ideas, but at its core I think they’re just two fundamentally different (but perhaps equally valid) ways to understand the player from the designer’s perspective.

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