I’ve been pondering this question a lot more recently. What makes something a game as opposed to an interactive story? Is narrative important, at all, in game design?
Given that I have a vested interest in narrative, I tend to think that story is important, or at least as important as other game mechanics. But it’s also true that there are exceptions to this. Tetris is probably the favorite example of ludologists everywhere:
Quickly! Get the blocks in rows. Then get more blocks in rows. Keep doing it!
How can a game like this have a narrative?
But then, how can it not?
It is entirely possible that the player will furnish further story themselves. And this is where my thinking around narrative is perhaps not all that conventional. Though it really ties in with a bit of post-modern pondering. We all bring our own multiple truths to, well, everything. A book, for instance, can be interpreted according to the reader’s world view. The writer’s intent can be disregarded. And, honestly, I think it’s rare that a human being doesn’t bring a world of story to everything they encounter. So, we could argue that it doesn’t matter whether Tetris has a story. The player brings one. This is about as broad as it gets of course.
Another way to see it, is that while Tetris doesn’t offer us a story, it does offer us a tension that certainly has a lot in common with the way narrative works…
Get the blocks to line up. Don’t reach the top of the screen!
That, in itself, is a narrative. It’s not complex. We’re not talking three-act structure. Just one act: beat your previous score. We’re not overcoming the monster here, but we are overcoming ourselves.
I think that most people think in story terms, which is to say we arrange our experiences into narratively cohesive units. We can’t seem to help ourselves. Ok – Tetris is a bit of a stretch, but I just don’t think the jury is out on whether this game offers narrative tension.
But enough about this particularly thorny point. When I started writing this post I was really thinking about two other games/stories:
and Life is Strange…
Device 6 is a story. You unlock the next chapter, by solving the puzzles in the first. Device 6 is a game. You solve puzzles to get to the next set of puzzles that happen to be hidden within chapters.
Life is Strange is a game. You make choices to move on to the next set of choices. Life is Strange is a story. You make choices to impact the narrative’s outcome.
Both of these games are certainly story-centric. Does that mean that they’re not really games, but interactive stories?
I don’t propose to have the answers, just a lot of questions. That’s the beauty of blogs… they occupy uncertainty.