Is it all academic? Views on story and games from the ivory tower

As a frequent reader of this blog — I’m talkin’ to you! — you know that we firmly land on the side that story has its place in games as a motivator as well as a context for fun.  When story doesn’t work, it hasn’t been seamlessly integrated into the entire design… or possibly the story was just poorly written and conceived.  We’re magnanimous people, of course, so let’s see what others have to say. I would link to Gamasutra articles, but it’s the rest of the interwebs this time! Let’s look at a few more academic approaches on how to bring narrative to games.

Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String
Greg Costikyan offers a link to his contribution to the SECOND PERSON book on writing for games.  An admittedly half-academic article, it begins with the premise that a story is inherently linear.  I have to disagree; story is not plot, a series of events that happen one after the other.  If you were to watch the film MEMENTO in chronological order, it would still be the same story, although your experience of it might be different.  Check out his chapter and see if you disagree.

Space and Narrative in Video Games
A studied look at 3D architecture in games, which suggests level designers should take a few lessons in storytelling as well as in designing fun space.

Found any other missives from academics out there?  Or do you think the academic approach is a bit too, well, academic?

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Published in: on September 4, 2008 at 1:02 pm  Comments (7)  

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Read the article at the Writer’s Cabal here. […]

  2. Hi! It’s me from videogamewriter.

    The linearity question is a good one… and I believe that there are some non-linear games out there. But my examples would be stuff like Seaman for the Dreamcast or the old ASCII RPG Hack. Both of them are driven by player action, and both follow a narrative, but one where the dramatic peaks and valleys are player-driven – and also fairly prosaic, lacking the arcs, characters, and surprises we desire from, say, a novel or movie. (Altho that little dog in Hack was a character, IMHO.)

    About “Memento”: you could argue it’s linear too, just reversed in time. The chronological version is simply another line through the story setting.

  3. If you were to give someone the choice of watching Memento in the order as intended by the director, or in chronological order, you’d have something one step closer to a game, because there’s be some agency involved — that’s directly analogous to Hopscotch. And it would not be the same story — a far less effective one, doubtless.

  4. Problem with academic conversations is you end up wanting to define things… like what do you mean by linear? Then you end up like Bill Clinton asking what “is” means 😉 Greg, it seems you’re suggesting non-linear = interactive, which is not necessarily the same thing. I was assuming that linear = having a relatively easy to follow, straight-forward chronology, but that may be a false analogy. For me, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE is a non-linear novel… the order it’s in is not hugely relevant. A lot of mysteries are about piecing together a story of “what really happened” non-linearly. Your perspective may vary.


  5. You can also find quite a long debate on what’s linear or non-linear and the definitions thereof on this thread from the IGDA Writing forums.

    – Sande

  6. If people can talk about a painting having a story, and have it make sense, then claiming that linearity is a requirement for story is bunk. Logical consistency aside most of this debate comes down to definitional issues. It’s certainly not hard to get people to agree that games can contain interesting, story-like elements. If after that they still pick the nit that is story, you have the right to demand that they buy you a drink.

    Them’s the rules.

  7. I like the way you think, Graeme 😉


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