Recently it has come up that I’m not necessarily 100% on what I’m referring to with the term “narrative” re: games and game design. This post will be an attempt to work through what I mean by this word, so that in the future I can use it more carefully and usefully.

So firstly, here are some quick attempts to describe what I mean (or think I mean) when using the word narrative in reference to games:

(1) An individual play narrative is the personal story told within the player’s mind during and about that player’s experience of a single play-through of a game.

(2) The narratives of a game are the summed average of possible and/or actual individual play narratives experienced by a variety of players.

(3) The overall narrative of a game is the knowledgeable player’s overarching framework of expectations for their individual play narrative.

(1) — Individual Play Narratives

I have been fairly consistent in my thinking of (1) as the definition for an individual play narrative, although I have probably not explicitly used this term. It is analogous to the idea of ‘emergent narrative,’ except (perhaps this is different) that I mean for my concept of narrative to contain every single impression or thought experienced by the player that is relevant to their experience of the game. By this I mean to include strategic goals, emotional and physiological reactions to gameplay, the experience of ‘embedded’ or ‘imposed narratives’ like cinematics and in-game text, and even fleeting and hard to describe feelings about the game. The purpose of this term is to be able to discuss the overall aesthetic experience of a game without losing reference to its essentially temporal and linear nature. For instance, while some games may seem to be quite sprawling, or ‘open-world,’ or ‘sandbox,’ or ‘non-linear,’ in that the player has quite a few significant options of how they will experience the game, it is still the case that the player’s actual experience of that game is going to take place in a very linear and temporally bound fashion. There are a whole lot of things someone might do in Minecraft, but my first day playing it was still a linear experience, during which I realized some things before other things, did certain things in a specific order, and felt very specific ways in reaction. The story of that those events is the first portion of the individual play narrative of the first world I made in Minecraft. It is also worth noting that (perhaps unlike ‘emergent narrative’) this term is just as applicable to the most non-linear games as it is to linear media like novels and cinema (as long as you either consider those forms games—see Kendall Walton’s ‘Make-Believe Theory’—or else reword the definition and change ‘game’-talk to ‘artwork’-talk).

(2) — The Narratives

More useful, and definitely more used by me so far, has been talk of the holistically considered narratives of certain games. I have almost exclusively been using definition (2) for this term, thinking of THE narratives of a game as a sort of conglomerate of all potential or actual individual narratives. So when I talk about a game design decision ‘constraining narratives’ in a certain way, what I mean is that, as an overall trend among the experience of players, narratives of a certain kind are less common. And when I talk about ‘more controlled narratives,’ I am referring to a game which has a less extreme variety of individual play narratives. When I claimed that putting a timer on Alterac Valley resulted in more controlled narratives, what I meant was that, since there is no longer the potential for games to run very long, there is now a smaller, tighter set of potential individual narratives for the map. This constraining or controlling of narratives is obviously not necessarily either a good or a bad thing, since a well-constrained game will exclude the individual narratives unwanted by the designer, and a poorly-constrained game will exclude desirable individual narratives.

(3) — The Overall Narrative

Finally, another use for narrative-talk, in definition (3), has been brought to my attention, and I think that it may be a more viable usage than (2) in certain ways: I might be able to infer the broad scope of potential narratives necessary for an understanding of what the game’s narratives defined in (2) would be, but a reliably accurate reading there seems unlikely. It is more believable that while I might not know the full scope of potential individual narratives for a game, I do however qualify as a ‘knowledgeable’ enough player that my expectations for a game are important in a more general way. This is a sort of narrative similar to certain cultural narratives, like the American dream, which takes the form of an overarching framework of expectations. In this definition of a game’s overall narrative, the specifics of actual experiences are only relevant inasmuch as they contribute to the knowledgeable player’s perceptions and expectations for future games. There are some obvious problems with using this term to get a good understand of a given game, however. For starters, it seems that it would be very difficult (if not impossible) to consistently and meaningfully categorize players as either knowledgeable or not. And additionally, this term is always going to leave out consideration of (potentially very important) individual narratives which do not match up to expectations. In a game with a very broad spectrum of potential narratives, the overall narrative is either going to leave out many of those potentials, or else it is going to have to be so vague that it is not actually very useful for a solid understanding of the game.

November 12, 2012