Narrative as Gameplay

I’d like to set down some thoughts about narrative and gameplay, two concepts that to many people seem diametrically opposed. If you’ve read reviews of my games, you’ll probably have noticed that a common complaint (except when it comes to Phenomenon 32) is a lack of gameplay, even when the narrative parts are praised. My answer to that has always been simple: the narrative is the gameplay.

Note that I’m not saying all narrative is gameplay, or that only narrative is gameplay. I’m just going to talk about my perspective; about the authorial intent behind my work, if you will.

One of the more common complaints I see in players’ comments is “This is well-written, but there is so much text, I might as well read a book!” Apart from the obvious question – what’s so terrible about reading a book? – there’s something really interesting to consider here. Are these games really just books (or short stories) with interactive bits thrown in? Could you easily just turn them into a book?

Obviously I believe the answer to be a resounding no. But let me explain. What is it that makes these interactive stories different from their printed counterparts?

Nonlinearity. Games like The Infinite Ocean and The Book of Living Magic are inherently non-linear experiences. Certain tasks must be accomplished in a certain order, but much of the interaction can happen in any order; crucially, the text is designed so it can be read in a multiplicity of orders. And these orders profoundly affect the player’s emotional as well as intellectual experience.

Exploration. As a result of the above, understanding the story is an active process – the player explores the story instead of being presented with it. Understanding what is going on in The Infinite Ocean requires the player to locate the relevant texts, read them, think about them, and put together the clues. You could visualize the game (and several of my other games) as not one linear text to be read from beginning to end, but as interconnected textual spaces that need to be explored.

World-building. A lot of praise for The Book of Living Magic focuses on the fact that you can click on almost every single object in the gameworld and get an interesting description. This, however, is not seen as gameplay. I suppose such descriptions are seen as incidental; as a writer/designer, I could not disagree more. The ability to put in this kind of world-building detail is something that makes games absolutely unique, and it is central, not incidental, to games like The Book of Living Magic. In a novel, there is little space for the non-essential; if you tried to put all the descriptions from the game into a book, it would end up reading like a long list of bad and increasingly desperate puns (i.e. Xanth). No other medium can offer you the experience of walking around by your own choosing and finding silly little details – and getting a better understanding of the game’s world as you do.

Perspective. The fact that games always feature an active point of view (you’re always doing something from some kind of perspective) allows for certain styles of storytelling than other media cannot replicate. The player in The Infinite Ocean must ask: who am I playing? What is this perspective? Who is walking through these rooms, interacting with these computers? Many books deal with the question of who the author of a text is – but in The Infinite Ocean, the question is who the reader is. A book could not create the sense of immediacy and questioning of The Infinite Ocean – not in the same way, anyway.

Time. Computer games are the medium of the present tense. Events in games take place now – they are experienced as they happen, not retold in the past tense. Even in The Infinite Ocean, in which you mostly spend your time reading about events of the past, all of that is happening right now – you’re reading that journal on that computer, not someone’s account of how someone read the journal. This may seem trivial, but it is in fact a very different experience.

All of these elements combine to create a form of interactive storytelling that I would say constitutes gameplay as much as anything else in games does. In some games, you click on the enemy soldier and the enemy soldier dies, removing an obstacle to victory. In my games, you click on an object and it gives you a description, removing an obstacle to understanding.

And if you think silliness isn’t part of understanding, well, you clearly don’t know much about the Lands of Dream.

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