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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  2. Stelios

    Nice ideas.
    Just keep in mind that its a matter of personal preference/personal opinion on whether someone likes or not the extended storytelling as a form of gameplay.

    Allow the other opinion to be there, although you might disagree with it.

  3. Oh, personal taste is a completely different issue. There are many valid artistic choices that I personally don’t care about. That doesn’t make them bad, just not my thing. I’m not a big fan of racing games, for example, but so what? That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with their gameplay.

  4. Jonas,

    I’m the Lead for a game project which explores gameplay concepts similar to yours – perhaps we can compare notes someday.
    My website runs a blog – is it okay if I publish your text in it? We’re doing a series on project management and game design. I already published some of your games… the blog will be divulged to the public when our 2nd game demo goes live, but I still would like to publish your text now – it would fit nicely into the series.



  5. aesir

    This is intriguing. I very much enjoyed playing through your games, but there were a few times where their simplicity was laid bare. It is, I believe, this specific simplicity that inhibits the concept of structural gameplay within your works. Of course, you could very well argue that this simplicity makes your games stand out, and I would agree completely, but I think this is the element with which most gamers find fault. Typically, a more traditional game includes more than simply clicking on an enemy to remove him.

  6. I don’t really intend for my games to stand out; I just intend for them to be as good as they can be in the way that is appropriate to them. That’s why some of my games – like Alphaland or Phenomenon 32 – are quite different in their gameplay and storytelling.

    I should also add that I’m generally very pleased with the reaction to my games, when people get the chance to play them; this article isn’t about complaining, but about explaining. Though I won’t deny that I wish more players were appreciative of the many ways games can function – not just my games, but games in general – and not so quick to dismiss what doesn’t follow familiar patterns.

  7. I like this idea – I wish more games would explore narrative gameplay, since I love reading books and immersing myself in worlds and figuring stuff out, and I’m not so interested in shooting aliens or matching gems.

    I’m thinking this is where we find the elusive “Diplomatic” gameplay that Chris Bateman mentions in his book 21st Century Game Design. It’s easy to find Tactical, Strategic, and Logistical gameplay, but Diplomatic gameplay is very rare. Narrative gameplay is a good place for it though, especially in single-player games.

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  9. Jonas, I really like what you’ve put forward here. The only thing that gives me pause is – what are you trying to say?

    That this is a legitimate course for game developers to follow? Or that players aren’t playing properly?

    That’s unfortunately a loaded pair of questions. The second one is obviously the wrong one. God this like some sort of moral multiple choice question in an RPG. Do you (a) feed puppy to vampire or (b) feed puppy.

  10. I was definitely trying to say the former, with a small dash of the latter – but only as regards some players (or perhaps certain attitudes we carry without thinking about i). I’m afraid I’ve once again ended up sounding defensive! The truth is that I just wanted to use some players’ reactions to BoLM to write down ideas I’ve had for a long time. There are clearly many players who think all of this is obvious, and who enjoyed my games without the need for a theoretical explanation.

  11. I wouldn’t want to write a very long comment here, but if I may, I would like to contribute Espen Aarseth’s lecture on “The Narrative Theory of Games”.

    It shares some similar (even though more analytical) points with yours, but I am sure you would disagree with mangy others.

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