Week 4.1 – The big game studies debate (due before class on Jan 30)

Ludology vs. Narratology: where do you stand on it? Are you a ludologist? Or are you a narratologist? Or can these frameworks be reconciled in some way? Can you think of examples of games that do both well?

12 Comments

  1. Arguably, all games are games but not all games are narratives, therefore I suppose I lean slightly more towards Ludology. Regardless of whether or not a game consists of few or many narrative elements, the fact that it is structured in such a manner to interact with the user as they play means that the narrative components are simply a tool existing within the greater scope of gameplay. Even games that seem almost explicitly narrative, such as anything from Telltale Games, there are still small portions, aspects, or scenes that involve the interaction in part of the user.

    Though I do not think a game requires narrative to be fun, such as Candy Crush or Disney’s TsumTsum, I do believe that some of the most enjoyable games I’ve ever played were those with a good story; I’m hard pressed to find a more successful example than Final Fantasy. A dance of game and story that works to immerse the player on a multitude of levels, including skill, knowledge, and emotion, Final Fantasy has been so successful that it is no wonder they have made nearly two dozen successful games and continue to conceptualize more.

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  2. Judging by the substantial story of the game I chose for my analysis presentation, it probably comes as no surprise that I fall squarely on the narratology side of this debate. The aggressive insistence of ludologists in the early 2000s, as described in the textbook and demonstrated in the additional readings, that simulation and narrative are completely at odds with each other is inscrutable to me.

    Frasca’s repeated insistence that simulation and narrative must be mutually exclusive holds little water outside of the exact scenarios he constructs. I agree that in his example of a strategy game based around a worker’s strike, calling the game a narrative would not be accurate since there are many paths to follow and different people’s playthroughs would bear little similarity to one another, and the same can be applied to most strategy games. This logic falls short looking at other genres, though. Persona 2: Innocent Sin is a 1999 turn-based RPG with random encounters in its dungeons – no one will encounter the same monsters in the same order, distribute their stats in the same way, etc. However, P2:IS is also a story about a group of childhood friends’ enduring bond and their attempt to save the world from destruction by the manipulation of godlike figures. No matter how many times your party is wiped out, you can keep trying until you reach the end of the game – one that is identical each time. Does the care put into the writing of the plot and the consistent themes it contains cease to matter because they appear in a game? Or does it cease to be a game due to cutscenes and narrative interspersed? As the textbook discusses beginning on page 224, a game must be interactive. Indeed, this is part of what makes something a game, but does that mean that parts that are not interactive cannot be considered part of the game? I would say no.

    Perhaps P2:IS or its genre is the exception to the rule, however. Look, then, at a much more popular and less text-heavy game – 1998’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the N64. This is a game with a (for its time and in comparison to P2:IS) large world to wander, secrets to discover, and enemies to fight as much or as little as one chooses. Despite these freedoms, the game tells the same story on each playthrough – Link leaves Kokiri Forest, collects the three spiritual stones, completes the five temples, and defeats Ganondorf. Flavour text and dialogue belonging to everyone from Princess Zelda to a royal guard dying in an alley remain the same through each playthrough. The narrative remains present and relatively unchanged. If one was to argue that games were not narratives because there are slightly different means of reaching the same end, something like a Choose Your Own Adventure book would not contain narratives either.

    So, are all games narratives? No, of course not. The 1991 NES and Game Boy game Yoshi does not offer a detailed backstory and plot development as to why Mario is helping Yoshi stack and hatch eggs. When I take a narratological standpoint, I do not aim to disparage good games that lack an in-depth narrative, or, indeed, a narrative of any time. Nor should video games be grouped entirely with static mediums like books and film, as their interactivity is often what helps to make games effective as narratives. But to dismiss detailed and meaningful narratives in games as mere trappings for gameplay is an injustice to those writers and developers who put so much time and thought into their inclusion.

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  3. As we discussed at the beginning of the course, Video Game Studies is fairly new discipline that we are still working towards defining. As such, a method for discussing games in an academic manner needs to be established, and rather than building this method from the ground up it is easier and less intimidating to start with a pre-existing framework. As Juul’s article suggests, “we use narratives to make sense of our lives,” so it seems as though comparing and describing games in the same way we describe books and film is a good starting point. However, by trapping games within the category of narratives we fail to investigate aspects of games that make them unique and are worth exploring in more depth.

    The first and most important thing that differentiates games from narratives is player interactivity. When reading a novel or watching a film we are passive and removed from the action. We can do nothing more than continue to read or watch to reach a pre-set ending, and although we may call out for actors or characters to do one thing or another, we are ultimately powerless. In contrast, Video Games allow us to be active participants, and although the ending may be pre-determined we are almost always afforded the ability to reach the ending by our preferred method. We are given the opportunity to control how a character reacts or behaves, which may cause players to become more emotionally invested or affected by the end result.

    Furthermore, not all games include an obvious narrative component and this does not hurt the game. The most obvious example that was also mentioned in Juul’s article is Tetris. This addicting little game does not include any obvious or implied storyline and it has no fixed ending. Instead it has a set of rules and a goal that can never actually be obtained. For this reason it would be impossible to discuss Tetris as a narrative and it would be equally impossible to create a book or film that followed these same principles and had the same success as this game.

    For these reasons and many others, I agree much more with the Ludologists. However, a lot of video games do rely heavily on narratives and story line, so it would be naïve to leave out narratology altogether. So although the two frameworks are at odds right now, I do think it would be beneficial to combine aspects of narratology and ludology into a new framework as both perspectives have valid and valuable points to consider.

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  4. I lean more towards Ludology as what I believe a game is. I play games to interact not to watch a story, which is a crucial element of gaming for me. Though I do appreciate small doses of narrative representations throughout games (like in Skyrim) but it is not why I play the game. Jull writes, “It is impossible to translate videogames into stories and vice versa” (223). I think this is an accurate representation of what makes a video game… a video game. For example one would not say they are playing a video game when watching television. Though a game could concentrate more on narrative structure (as some do) what makes it a game is the way people interact with it (or at least in my eyes).
    The text goes on to make a point how some of the theories of ludology and narratives have evolved. Ludologists are seen as “essentialists” and narrative is “no longer an enemy” (224). Furthermore, I found the explanation of narrative structures to be “gift wrapping to games” as a waste of time and energy (224) to be false. I think narrative structures help build a games point and understanding but is not the fundamental objective. The text used an example of Tomb Raider as having a rich narrative structure (225). Growing up I played Tomb Raider for PC and mostly enjoyed its narrative to build the story of what’s happening in the game. After exploring some of the categories of narratives in the text I find myself enjoying “Embedded narratives” the most. Embedded narratives are when a player must reconstruct the plot of the game that has already happened (227).
    Skyrim in many ways is an embedded narrative. In Skyrim the main character CAN go back in time to discover how to beat Alduin the world eater. Though Skyrim is mostly an interactive game the narrative helps builds the story about how and why for defeating Alduin. Though you are not forced to follow the story plot, it has many narrative structures throughout it if one chooses to play for the quests and objectives of defeating Alduin. Skyrim I deem is a great example of a game that has fragments of structural narrative and interactive play, making it appealing to a more diverse gamer. Another game would be Fallout. Though both of these games are made by the same company the profitable amount speaks to the amount of people interested in the game. The storyline of Fallout is appealing and draws in any post apocalypse theme lovers into an interesting story and fun game play. In conclusion I think a game needs to be mostly interactive but it is important to have elements of narratives to build a richer gaming world.

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  5. I thought this was sort of a silly debate as I first started reading it in the chapter, but as I got father into it, I can see where both sides are coming from. I’d say I side more towards the narratology side of study, although I’m not completely sided with it. The fact of the matter is that not all games are the same, and different developers have different styles, and artistic outlooks for their games. Some games, such as any sports game or simulations, can be put in the ludology field of thought, because they don’t tell a story per se, they’re made strictly for entertainment value and/ or to show off capabilities. Of course, some sports games have story modes that attempt to tell some sort of narrative, but they’re not necessarily the main focus of the game most of the time.

    Then there’s the narrative school of thought, the thought that games that either tell a story, make a statement, or provoke thought. Games in this field can either range from extreme, ultra-simplistic games such as “Zork”, released in 1980, a game where players simply type commands as to what to do next, unfolding the story the land has to tell, to more modern narrative games such as any Half-Life, or Fallout franchise game. These modern narrative games combine telling stories with stunning (for the time) or unique graphics which complement each other in a way that makes players emerge into the story.

    Quite a few games come to mind when I think of games that combine both narratology and ludology very well. Games such as the Battlefield franchise combine incredible state of the art graphics, gameplay mechanics, and a whole slew of gameplay enhancing features, while being able to tell a convincing story through its campaign mode.

    With all of this being said, and keeping in mind that I slightly put myself on the narrative side of the debate, I believe that all video games exist so serve some purpose, whether it be to show off a developer’s capabilities, tell a story, or to take up just 5 minutes of your time while you wait for the bus, video games can’t all be grouped into one school of thought. I say I’m more on the narrative side of things because just judging video games on the thought of gameplay is pointless when the incredible storytelling ability of video games exist, and is used by so many developers and game creators.

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  6. Gonzalo Frasca (2003) states that “The study of game structure (or gameplay) is opposed to the study of games as narratives or games as a visual medium.” I disagree with this standpoint; what I think is that the gameplay and narratives are not completely contrasted with each other. Rather, both the game mechanics and narratives fall on a spectrum in the game. For example, many games have a brief synopsis to give to players at the beginning of the games, showing that there is still a clear minimum narrative embedded in the games. Besides, in terms of time consumption, I prefer the games that are more focused on competing and leveling up and keep the storytelling to the minimal extent.

    In response to the questions regarding my game preference, I do also recognize the ludologist Jesper Juul proposed the idea that games should be focused on the gameplay rather than storytelling. In my own perspective, the mechanical interaction in games still plays a more important role than narratives. In other words, if the narrative is great but the gameplay is not as remarkable as the narrative, the game still cannot appeal those players. This is exactly the notion that Jesper Juul (2003) mentions: “what makes games [successful is the games’]…rules, goals, player activity, the projection of the player’s actions into the game world, the way the game defines the possible actions of the player.” For example, mobile games like Angry Bird, Temple Run and Fruit Ninja, are being played because the game mechanic is compelling rather than their basic narratives.

    Since 2007, the technology in video games has improved to create a deeper storytelling experience and it is also as fun to watch their cinematics as it is fun to play. The game developers make the game like an expandable book, collect the stories and place them into cutscenes. It is a way of experiencing the story as a character in the story. Therefore, many players want to get engaged in the film and the storytelling to match their experience in playing video games. Many modern game developers understand the importance of quality of narratives and game mechanics, as they use the game to enhance the narratives or vice versa. The examples are The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, Uncharted and Beyond: Two Souls, just to name a few. However, I think Super Mario does the best to blend the storytelling and game mechanics; its most basic imaginative storytelling helps game players to continue following the storyline to get themselves engaged into the game. In sum, I believe that an outstanding game is supposed to have its system, mechanics, and basic stories.

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    1. Nice comments LaLa. Good theory points and examples. Still a bit of editing is needed but the structure has improved since last time. 3.25/4

      Raluca Fratiloiu, PhD College Professor & Chair Department of Communications Reach us on Facebook Reach us on Instagram

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  7. If I had to choose between narratology or ludology, I would choose narratology. In any game I play, I like to have some sort of narrative or at least hints of a narrative so that I can imagine being in a new world, with different societies and perhaps different species. Perhaps this is the reason why generic sports games don’t interest me, as it’s hard (often impossible) for them to make up an original story or new world. The actual gameplay elements and structures interest me less, as even if they are highly original, I would not play the game if there wasn’t some sort of story first.

    That being said, I honestly believe that narratology and ludology are not mutually exclusive. As Gonzalo Frasca said, ludology is simply the “discipline that studies games and play activities” (Egenfeldt-Nielsen 223), and does not always refer to studying only the game’s structure or gameplay. If we assume ludology to be generically ‘video game studies’, then there is no reason that narratology cannot work within these games. If games are solely text-based or solely video-based, they may seem flat and uninteresting. Only by mixing compelling gameplay with successful visuals does a game truly become ‘great’ or ‘ground-breaking’.

    There are many games that have a successful blend of both narratology and ludology, but I will mention one in particular that I know well: Tales of Symphonia. It’s a fairly traditional RPG but the battles happen in real time, so it’s a fun twist to the gameplay. The game also features a compelling story with vivid characters and includes several cinematic cutscenes for very important story scenes. Overall, the elements work in harmony; the gameplay is fun and keeps you enticed, and the story leads you on and compels you to continue playing.

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  8. After diving into the definitions and differentiation between terms regarding the stories in video games and its implied conflicts, I must admit that it is hard to “pick a side,” as the line between ludology and narratology feels blurry to me.

    In the last couple of years, I had a fantastic experience playing the Deus Ex franchise, and the game features rich narrative paths driven by complex mechanics and superb gameplay experience. After reading the textbook, I cannot imagine how it is possible to analyze such a game considering narratology and ludology as opposite fields of research.

    The game offers rich in-game storytelling managing to combine beautifully narrative and interaction, driven by the players choice to decide between different courses of action. Not to mention how cutscenes also play a crucial role regarding the immersion of the player into the fictional universe of Deus Ex. The cutscenes invite the player to explore what is to come and creates the urge to act. A great example is when there is a cutscene showing unpleasant events; in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, shortly after the player learns how to control the character and fight a few enemies, there’s a cutscene where Adam Jensen, the main character, is ripped apart by enemies. It is almost safe to say that most of the player watching that cutscene got at least the feeling that they could have done something to prevent or avoid that. However, that cutscene stripped the player of its power and then gave it back, functioning as fuel towards the immersion.

    The Deus Ex franchise might be an excellent example of how games can be analyzed presenting ludology and narratology as nonexclusive fields of study.

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  9. Most of the commercially successful games manage to marry mechanics and gameplay to story in some elegant fashion; it’s not necessary to do so if one or the other is done well enough to carry the game on its own.

    I find more interest in games that focus on the mechanical aspects or gameplay. It’s easier for me to consistently get lost in large amounts of data and management minutia than it is to get lost in most of the stories developers tack onto games.

    Game development is a gestalt of disciplines and should be treated as such, much like how theater is `more than` a story, and `more than` a musical score – videogames are `more than` their gameplay and narrative.

    Good narrative to me, therefore, is not something that easily arises without focusing on it. Integrating narrative with mechanics. Weaving story into gameplay, without pulling attention away, without being invasive.

    Cutscenes were the earliest iteration of this, back before rendering scenes in real time was feasible. Now, games like Destiny 2 and Monster Hunter, Spiderman and Skyrim and Fallout – all seek to show their story in the environment, ongoing but maybe not the focus, while the player continues doing their own thing.

    Narrative also faces the difficulty of simply being a good story in the first place. Beta-reading, editing, internal consistency, plot, dialogue, scenes… knowing where to exposit, how to fire those Chekhov guns, when to lampshade and when to handwave – without considering the story on its own merits, before considering how to force it onto a game, much of the narrative impact available to the videogame medium simply never materializes in the first place.

    The best example of this is videogame movies. They’re unbearable. Without the balancing effect of consumers being in control of the narrative pace – in control of the when and where and how – it becomes something alien and apart and unrelatable.

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  10. Chapter 7 discusses Ludology and Narratology in great depth, and I found myself leaning heavily to Ludology, since most games, as ‘ludologists’ say, are considering games as only games, in that narrative is not the focus like it is in examining a novel. However, I changed to narratology more as I read into this toipic.

    Traditionally, for most games pre 1950’s, there was no narrative involved, say for the board game “Monopoly” in which one could argue there is one about consumerism. After 1990’s, more narratives came into play with video games, as brands developed, and companies tried to sell more copies. I think that nowadays, it is hard to surpass the urge to implement some kind of narrative into a computer or video game, due to the way expectations for computer games have evolved. Now it is expected that games have some kind of driving story, otherwise they are not as interesting to consumers. There has to be a more complex motive than the “I want to kill time” excuse.
    However, the select game can have narrative and gameplay merge, in an odd way. One title that come to mind is LSD: Dream Emulator, a PS1 title made for Japan only sale. In this game, one assumes the position of the game creator while they dream. The game world is like a dream diary, each “day” being a different level. There are “dynamic uppers” (good dreams), and “downers,” which are confusing, spooky, or eerie dreams. The player starts with the uppers, then progresses to the downers, from a top-down menu that appears after every dream level. The dreams are based off artist Hiroko Nishikawa’s dream journal, and are bizarre in nature. The gameplay merges with the narrative, in that it connects to the dream. The player walks around weird environments that have connections to memories. In a way, the environment itself and gameplay is the story, because it exemplifies Hiroko’s memories in physical manifestations found in the game world.

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  11. A video game, to me, is narrative based. Spare some simple examples like Asteroids or Pong (with which, we can create narratives in our imaginations). It is important for a game to tell a story and to be studied as such. Of course, we cannot strictly study a game as though it follows steadfast literary conventions, there must be some room for innovation, just as film encouraged and necessitated innovations from the literary world. Art and storytelling represents cultural evolution in the way we tell stories and in the stories themselves that are told. To say that video games are outside the realm of human storytelling would be false.

    The text gives us four narrative styles that reconcile narratology and ludology (227), I believe these hold the answers to which lenses we must peer at games through. Most importantly there are “emergent narratives” and I believe these can link the gap between what is narrative and what is strictly gameplay. Emergent elaborates on the “story-constructing” (227) that a player will actively take part in while watching and evoking events that unfold. At the same time, players, to differing degrees, naturally place themselves in the shoes of the protagonist arguably more than they would in a novel or film (RPG moreso than action or racing game). This encourages a development of narrative within the game itself and in the mind of the player who is a part of the story, consequently.

    Furthermore, because we live in a culture that is so accustomed to telling and listening to stories, games are naturally received and developed as mediums for narrative in the 21st century. Developing from European culture, we tend to value “high art” such as novels and poems for there narrative and artistic aesthetics; culturally, from the developmental level to the consumer level, I think that gamers are accustomed, like the rest of Western culture, to what a narrative structure looks like and how to recognize them. Games cannot be outside that realm because they tell stories within the same culture. It is a storytelling medium perfect for our capitalist, consumer culture where we are cultivated to absorb stories rather than tell them now (whereas in the past, narratives were told by friends and family as a pastime). Today, video games couple capitalist ideals: individualism, with consumer culture: mass entertainment, to give us a packaged story that we feel as though we have told ourselves while being entertained by a high end product.

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