Daily Archives: July 20, 2011

Ludic Narrative née Storygame

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.