Story and System
As a professional game developer, I have spent my life at the intersection of database and narrative trying to weave these two “natural enemies” together. Role playing games (RPGs) were my genre of choice, and I often referred to the process of playing them as one of “walking through a database.” Literally and figuratively, that’s precisely what the player does in these worlds. The interjection of narrative is sometimes complicated, but follows this pattern: Combat -> win -> reward/narrative -> repeat. Role playing games have also been referred to as novels that require you to fight in order to turn the page. Sometimes it is simplified when developers set up a long series of actions with a cutscene reminiscent of film in order to control the direct narrative flow.
The battle between narrative and database stratified the game industry in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Camps were formed between the ludologists, those who saw game as system, and narratologists, those who saw game as narrative, a great flurry of articles ensued, and while the argument has largely left the game studies and game development stage, I suspect each developer could, if asked, tell you precisely where they sit on this fence and the issue of successfully integrating narrative into games (for further info). Some, like Reiner Knizia or Will Wright, may even abstain, preferring to let simulation or the play of numbers speak for them instead. I see the divide close up when a narrative-heavy student reaches a level of understanding about what’s happening under the hood in games and realizes what they see: engine first, story second. It is nothing short of a transformative experience that takes time to distill, and one that also shows which way I look to see a fence. Others see an engine sitting on a block doing nothing until narrative makes it come alive.
The core narrative of most games is the one that resides in the mind of the player or participant and thus arises emergently from the game itself. This is what Doug Church refers to in his seminal article, “Formal Abstract Design Tools“. There is both game story and player story, the explicit and implicit, and the cost of adding the former forces a dramatic drop in player agency and thus immersion. Naturally, one can become completely absorbed in a passive media (The Sopranos had me for years), but in an interactive medium, the loss of interaction comes with a risk. So, we dole it out in bite-sized pieces: Combat -> win -> reward/narrative -> repeat.
This then, is the absolute line between game writers and game designers and presents the clearest argument I have heard for their division as disciplines to date. While I have written a great deal both in games and out, I consider myself a game designer first. Lee Sheldon can design brilliant games, but is a game writer first. This division is harmonious, synergistic, necessary and important, because it points to two different sets of skills: one in manipulating database and another in manipulating narrative to produce experience. The confusion between the two roles and indeed the need for game writers at all has been apparent at recent game education conferences. Les Manovich describes this well in his article The Database: “the database of choices from which narrative is constructed (the paradigm) is implicit, while the actual narrative (the syntagm) is explicit.”
Narratives in game worlds serve another important purpose, and that is one of digestion. The gigantic Excel databases I build to control items, monsters, spells and the like would be unpalatable, unwieldy messes in the minds of most, but wrapped in a narrative of Dungeons and Dragons, the wall of math and pattern becomes possible adventure. Without a sense of purpose that a narrative provides, one would feel no need to walk through my databases, regardless. Narrative lets us swallow the data, and is itself the first set of rules we learn as a human beings. In saying, “No, you can’t do that. You will hurt your sister,” I am telling a story, but there are rules being conveyed as well. When I say, “turn-based strategy game”, I am chunking rules.
So, we search. The computer brought us a television connected to a database. It set in motion certain paradigm expectations that we still struggle to achieve, and while there have certainly been myriad achievements, they came about as a result of designers and writers working together and struggling against two forces that don’t naturally go well together.
There are two efforts I would be remiss not to mention. The first is Andrew Stern and Michael Mateaus’ “Façade“, a game which created procedural narrative. The second is Jonathan Harris’ “We Feel Fine” which extracts a narrative from the internet, and culls a community from those who never met.
[This article was written and inspired by my recent reading of Les Manovich’s The Database.]