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Ludic Narrative née Storygame

20 Jul

I’m not done with this little stroll through history — in fact, I’m just getting started — but I want at this point to take a few posts to introduce some theoretical ideas that will be informing the history to come. I’ll try to make it as painless as possible… really, I will.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, the broad category of “adventure games” as covered by folks like Scorpia in Computer Gaming World was generally taken to be composed of four distinct subtypes. There was of course first the form I’ve been focusing on in this blog so far, the text adventure (or, if you like, interactive fiction), which I trust needs no further definition. There was the computer role-playing game (CRPG), a less rigid, more emergent form which focused on strategy and tactics in sending the player forth to do battle with multitudes of monsters or, occasionally, mutant humans or space aliens. There was the point-and-click graphical adventure, which like the text adventure tended to be built around set-piece puzzles rather than simulational emergence, but which replaced descriptive text with pictures and the parser with a joystick or mouse. (This form should not be confused with text adventures which happened to feature pictures.) And finally there was the action adventure, which combined reflex-oriented jumping or fighting gameplay with puzzle-solving, exploration, and an overarching storyline or quest.

So, four quite disparate approaches, no? Given that disparity, I started asking myself a number of years ago just what prompted people to see such kinship among these forms, kinship they didn’t also see in, say, a strategy game like Archon or a pure action game like Frogger. Or, put another way: what was it about these forms that made them uniquely appealing to a columnist like Scorpia, or for that matter to a young nerd like me? Clearly it wasn’t a question of their fictional context; while dwarfs and dragons may have been disproportionately represented in the group of four, there were also plenty of non-fantasy examples — not to mention plenty of strategy and action games with fantasy themes that clearly did not fit in the group of four. The answer I came up with, which I’m sure will surprise no one, was that the distinguishing feature of these forms was that they all foregrounded story in a way that didn’t really happen in other forms of 1980s computer gaming. From there, I decided to try to codify the unique qualities of these games in a way that would be a bit more definite, not to mention applicable to other technologies and eras. In the end I came up with two approaches, actually, one a fairly rigid checklist and the other based more on abstracts.

But before I defined them, I first had to decide what I wanted to call the category of works in question. At first I simply went with storygames, but lately I’ve been leaning more toward ludic narratives. I favor the latter not because it sounds more academic and pretentious, although that it certainly does, but rather because I think the narrative component of these works is of equal or even greater important than the systems of rules — the “game” part — that underlie them. But I’ll get into that a bit more in my next post. For now, let’s just roll out the definitions, beginning with the rigid checklist approach.

So, then, to qualify as a ludic narrative a work must possess the following four attributes:

1. The work must be directly and obviously interactive. When I say “directly and obviously” here, I mean that if there is any real question the work probably fails this test. Joyce’s Ulysses and Nabakov’s Pale Fire, for instance, may have a certain sense of interactivity about them in that they demand a certain sort of engaged, motivated reading, but they still carry, at least outwardly, the form of conventional, linear novels, and thus fail this test.

2. A computational simulation — a “storyworld” — must enable the narrative. It should be noted that a computational simulation does not automatically mean a computerized simulation, as a human rather than a computer can administer the rules of the ludic narrative. This simulation can run at virtually any level of abstraction, but it must be there. Hypertext literature thus does not qualify as a form of ludic narrative, as no simulation exists “behind” the links one clicks in “playing” a hypertext.

3. The player must play the role of an individual in the storyworld, experiencing events through the eyes of and in the persona of that character. Some ludic narratives may allow the player to switch roles or even play several simultaneously, but she is always immersed in the storyworld rather than viewing it from an on-high, abstract perspective. Thus a game like Civilization, which is played at the macro level, does not qualify as a ludic narrative.

4. There must be a coherent story arc, and it must be possible to well and truly complete that story. A massively multiplayer online role-playing game like World of Warcraft thus does not qualify as a ludic narrative, as it has no endpoint, and is ultimately experienced as a series of anecdotes rather than a coherent story.

Having just disqualified several games in the definitions above, let’s quickly return yet again to our old friend Adventure for an example of a game that does qualify as a ludic narrative. It satisfies criteria #1 in that it is directly interactive, responding to player inputs through a textual parser. It satisfies criteria #2 in that a simplified simulation of the real world houses the action, allowing the player to pick things up, carry them around, and leave them in other places; to open and close doors; and even to interact (simplistically) with other characters who autonomously move about the storyworld with agendas of their own. It satisfies criteria #3 in that the player interacts and views the storyworld strictly through the persona of a character in that world, the nameless “adventurer.” And it satisfies criteria #4 in that Adventure has an extant, if simplistic almost to the point of transparency, story arc and goal. Its plot even has a climax in the form of the closing of the cave and the visit to the control room. That said, it’s also true that if Adventure comes close to failing to qualify as a ludic narrative anywhere, it is here. The Oregon Trail, for example, is actually a stronger example of the form in that its story arc is much more pronounced and was much more of a priority for its designer.

Actually, speaking of “stronger” or “weaker” examples of ludic narratives brings me to the other way of looking at the subject. When I first came up with the set of criteria above, I put it in my little backpack of theoretical constructs and continued on my way, smugly sure I had “solved” this little problem of ludic taxonomy. As time has passed, though, I’ve become more and more aware that rigid categorization is not always the best approach, that it may often be better to consider ludic narrative in a gradient (“more or less”) fashion rather than as an “either/or” proposition. In doing so I’m drawing a lot from the cognitive scientist George Lakoff. Consider, to use one of Lakoff’s examples, the concept of “bird,” not as it’s understood scientifically but as it’s thought of in everyday life. Lakoff writes that, while people recognize both robins and emus to be birds, the robin is in some sense also recognized as more “birdy”: it can fly while the emu cannot, it sings while the emu does not, etc. In Lakoff’s formulation, there is some central idea of absolute birdyness (it may be helpful to think of Plato’s ideas about the Good). The robin is closer to this central idea than the emu, but both are close enough that if queried most people would recognize them both to be birds. I believe we can when it suits our purposes consider (potential) ludic narratives in the same way, in which case The Oregon Trail is “more” of a ludic narrative than Adventure, even as we recognize both to basically fit the category. Simply put, the narrative component of The Oregon Trail, the importance of its narrative dimension to both author and player, feels much more significant. There may also be edge cases which fail one of the tests, but which still have the “feel” of ludic narrative. As long as we’re reasonable about these things, it seems pointless to exclude them from discussion because of some arbitrary checklist. So, we can have our scientific definition of a ludic narrative and our instinctual definition, and mix and match and apply them as seems most useful, letting each inform both our understanding of the other and our understanding of the form.

Of course, the modern world of videogames is very different from that of the 1980s. Out of our group of four, text adventures are, at least as of this writing and with a bare handful of exceptions, no longer commercially marketed, while traditional graphic adventures have retreated from near the center of the gaming universe in the early 1990s to a decidedly niche form today. More interestingly, absolutely heaps of videogames, very possibly the majority, now fit into the category of ludic narratives, at least by our “scientific” definition. (Whether Flo’s Fix-It Scramble XXVI: Build a Cake, with the simplistic story it uses to structure its levels, really feels like an exercise in ludic narrative is another matter.) If some of the traditionally story-oriented forms of game have retreated from the mainstream, their absence is more than made up for by the piles of first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, and casual tycoon games that now also want to be narrative experiences to one degree or another. One thing that I hope will emerge over time from this blog is a picture of how that happened.

In my next post I plan to work out a couple more theoretical ideas that will complement what I’ve just written and hopefully make the thrust of all this much clearer.

 
 

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7 Responses to Ludic Narrative née Storygame

  1. David Rugge

    February 8, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    I’m curious as to why a game like “Civilization” fails the criteria “The character must play as an individual in the storyworld”. Civilization personifies each nation with a recognizable leader, such as Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth, etc. In a sense, the nation is simultaneously a group of nameless, faceless workers and armies AND its leader. On the other hand, I would think a game like SimCity definitely fails this criteria, as it makes little effort to personify the nameless, faceless mayor/city planner.

    I suppose it is a bit of a slippery slope though, so perhaps it is useful to make the macro/individual distinction to avoid widening the net too much.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      February 9, 2012 at 8:52 am

      Well, Civilization doesn’t invest too much effort into this particular fiction. Just to take the obvious: the civilization being guided by this leader spans many, many lifetimes. I don’t think any player really thinks of themselves as playing the role of a single, realistic individual in the storyworld. The leaders are more a case of branding than anything else. Most are people that, at least in the popular imagination, personify their civilizations as a whole.

      But, yes, your other point I agree with exactly. We want to be careful not to stretch the definition to the point of meaninglessness. For this reason I personally look at what is reasonable as much as what meets some ultimately arbitrary rules of inclusion/exclusion.

       
  2. J.P. McDevitt

    December 5, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    “[W]hat was it about these forms that made them uniquely appealing…The answer I came up with, which I’m sure will surprise no one, was that the distinguishing feature of these forms was that they all foregrounded story in a way that didn’t really happen in other forms of 1980s computer gaming.”

    It depends how you’re defining “story”. If we’re talking specifically about “I get to be Larry Laffer on an epic quest to lose his virginity”, I’d disagree that the “story” in that sense is an important distinguishing feature. If we’re talking “I get to explore a fictional Las Vegas with the best graphics currently available”, I’d tend to agree.

     
  3. killias2

    February 22, 2013 at 8:31 pm

    I recently bumped back into your blog (it was mentioned in the comments over at CRPG Addict) after having read a few articles a while back, and, I have to say, I’m happy that I’ve found it again. I’m going back through all your DA posts, and I’m finding it all very interesting. You’re a good writer and a good gaming historian, and I feel like I’m learning a lot about topics of which I was largely ignorant.

    However, re-reading this post, I have some concerns about your discussion of ludic narratives. Essentially, I’m not sure you have a clear definition, and the attributes you list are not terribly helpful. 1. makes sense, but I really don’t follow your logic for 2., while both 3. and 4. seem arbitrary. Maybe 2. just needs clarified for me or something, as I really don’t even understand what you’re trying to argue. Is this really just another point about interactivity?

    Regardless, both 3. and 4. seem arbitrary. As a result of your categorization, most CRPGs are grouped with Adventure games and most modern action/FPS games, while games like Crusader Kings II, Dwarf Fortress, and Mount and Blade wander the wastelands. I just don’t see the point at all. Just because your (literal or mechanical) PoV is “macro level,” Crusader Kings II is less of a narrative game than Gears of War*?

    I mean, I can see the argument you could make, but I don’t see the point of this approach to categorization. Why group games like Wizardry, Leisure Suit Larry, and Super Mario Galaxy* with one another, and not discuss Dwarf Fortress, Mount and Blade, and Crusader Kings II? As I said above, it just seems entirely arbitrary. Additionally, what distinguishes these games from Oregon Trail? Is it entirely that Oregon Trail can end? Why is that central to the concepts you want to discuss? Wouldn’t tabletop RPGs be arguably questionable in that space as well (in terms of having a definitive ending)?

    You said your original approach would’ve just been to discuss the “storygame.” Honestly, I feel like that’s closer to what this blog is about. It’s about the history of narratives in gaming.

    *Obviously, you didn’t categorize these games in this fashion, but, following the logic of your attributes, their categorization would seem to follow. If not, perhaps I’ve missed something about your approach.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      February 23, 2013 at 11:28 am

      Quality #2 just means that the narrative needs to have a system of rules (if you like, a game system) underpinning it and at least to some extent dictating the player’s experience. This peels away interactive narratives that are all on the surface, like the old Choose Your Own Adventures books. I’m not sure I know how to make this any clearer — although, if it’s still not clear, it’s certainly every bit as likely to be my fault as yours. It might help to remember that we’re not just talking about things that people generally call “games” here; there are other kinds of narratives that are interactive. In fact, it’s very possible that the computational underpinning that I require for ludic narrative is exactly the quality that leads people subconsciously to start calling something a “game.”

      As far as Qualities #3 and #4: it might help to remember where this exercise came from. It was an attempt to classify these things that people were generally lumping under the heading of “adventure” in the 1980s, under the assumption that a person who liked one of the four categories I describe at the beginning of the article would likely also like the others. Obviously, this was not universally true; there were people who loved CRPGS while loathing text adventures, etc. But generally these genres were taken as a group. They were given their own columns or even entire magazines like the UK’s Micro-Adventurer and the US’s Questbusters, etc., and well-known figures like Scorpia, Shay Addams, and Roe Adams all specialized in this same set of genres. So, I was asking myself what qualities were unique to these genres, by which I hoped to also find out a) what made such very disparate modes of play so equally appealing to such a large number of people; and b) the corollary, what these genres were doing that others were not. If these requirements are arbitrary (and I won’t really argue with you that they are), their arbitrariness is, I believe, rooted in the real world.

      That said, I’d rather not spend a whole lot of time arguing about edge cases that do or do not fit under the rubric. We don’t after all live in a black-and-white world. If someone wants to play gotcha!, to find obviously story-oriented games that slip between the cracks of the system I’ve outlined (not that this is really what I think you were doing), I’m sure they can succeed. These qualities are guides, not absolute truths, and the category of ludic narrative itself is slippery at the edges, as I tried to clarify at the end of the article. I will say that I agree that a tabletop RPG system is not a ludic narrative; a specific adventure module, however, is. Likewise, I believe that games like Dwarf Fortress or Mount and Blade do offer a fundamentally different experience than, say, a Bioware RPG with a closed, crafted (if impressively variable) narrative arc. I would even say that these two experiences often appeal to quite different gamers.

      Please note that none of this is meant to reflect a value judgment on which games are somehow worthy — nor even which ones I consider worthy of discussion on the blog; as you’ve probably noted, I’ve been moving farther afield lately, beyond games that can be classified as ludic narratives or (largely the same difference) games that were lumped under the “adventure” rubric in their day. Ultimately, this is an exercise in taxonomy. As such, it may or may not be valid, and even if valid it may or may not be important or useful. All of this is up to you to decide. Obviously I do find it useful to understand the relationships that bind these genres I spend most of my time researching on the blog. At least it’s useful to me in the context of the 1980s. Perhaps it breaks down horribly in four or five years, if and when the blog moves beyond that decade. :) When I say I merely “hope” that a big picture of the category of ludic narrative emerges as we move toward modernity on the blog, I mean that literally. I’m learning about this stuff as I go, having never conducted such a concerted historical study of the field of games before.

      For what it’s worth, in the long run I think that the concept of experiential games, which I believe I get into in the post that follows this one, is most important to understand how our very definition of “game” has changed over the last fifty years, from just a system of rules to be manipulated and exploited to a possible gateway to a whole new landscape of fiction. Ludic narrative is concerned more with the ways that those fictional landscapes are constructed and experienced.

      Thanks for writing! It’s always nice to be challenged to think again about these things.

       
      • killias2

        February 23, 2013 at 4:48 pm

        Thanks for the quick response! Of 2, when I said, “Is this really just another point about interactivity?” I guess I meant something in the range of your discussion on a game system. I guess I was just confused by what all could constitute a game system, but I think that’s probably a technical discussion on where the line would be rather than anything substantive.

        3 and 4, yeah, I can see how it relates the history you’ve discussed. I still feel that the major shared component here was the importance of a narrative at all to these early games, as most games in most genres simply didn’t consider narrative to be relevant. Nonetheless, I can definitely accept the fact that these are the game characteristics you wanted to focus on, and that’s perfectly reasonable, obviously. I’d still like to see you analyze other kinds of narratives in reference to your category here, but, as you said, you certainly haven’t held yourself to just these games anyway, haha.

        I did really enjoy the experiential games post after this. Honestly, I was reading a post you made sometime after this, and I realized I still wasn’t entirely sure by what the term “ludic narrative” specifically referred to. I came back here and found myself a little perplexed by the definition given, so I decided to post. Overall, as I said initially, this is a fantastic blog, and I’m really enjoying reading it. It’s such a joy to find interesting new material to read, so thanks for all the work!

         

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