Games and narratives seem to have a contentious relationship within gaming discourse; what is a game and should we read them as a narrative? What is a narrative and when does it belong in a game? Thankfully, I don’t care about these questions, as they are disguised methods of drawing lines in the sand. The how’s are much more interesting: How are narratives important to games? How does narrative fit into game design? How do games communicate narratives? How narrative originates from the game design is a rather abstract concept; in fact, most games that zero-in on ludonarrative game mechanics are thrown into the “art game” category, though all games could successfully strive for ludonarrative resonance.
Any familiarity with design will be helpful in understanding a vague statement such as “narrative grows from the design and echoes the game mechanics,” which would be in a defense of narrative in games. The elements of game design work in the same way elements of other mediums do; good design arises when elements echo their alignment to the surface aesthetic received by the viewer. Take the opening stanza to “The Raven:”
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
” ‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this, and nothing more.” (Edgar Allen Poe)
Poe didn’t just throw together words to tell the reader what was happening, but chose words that reflected the aesthetic of what was going on. For example, he used multiple gerunds to simulate the action within the story; all those rappings and tappings (as well as a napping and nothing) form a rhythm that would have the reader easily imagine the acoustics of someone knocking on a door, or window as we come to find. As well, in good Poe fashion, words that conjure feelings of the macabre and supernatural appear to set a tone without directly saying, “this is a supernatural event!” Without diving into elements like meter, the placement of every word, especially in relation to one another, makes up the design and is incredibly important to the aesthetic of the poem. This all may seem esoteric concerning games; however, artists of their particular field and the enthusiasts who consume it often are sensitive to these elements and interactions, extracting more meaning and enjoyment from a well-designed piece. This could easily apply to game designers and gamers, who are already aware of game design just by the amount of games they play.
How does this relate to games and narratives? Imagine narrative as the aforementioned repetition, diction, or meter for game design; it can strengthen and give meaning to what the player directly experiences. It gets trickier to understand with games because they add in the dimension of interactivity, and players experience the game design strongest through interaction. Let’s start with how we receive narrative in games currently; in Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, a perspective on how narrative appears in a game divides it into embedded narrative and emergent narrative. Embedded narrative is how we commonly think of narrative in games, immutable and shown to the player without their control. This often appears as cut-scenes, dialogue, encyclopedic entries, to give context to the player. This is comparable to exposition in fiction, as it is relied on to give meaning to the actions and conflicts the player will encounter. We can often use literary critical analysis to dissect embedded narrative because there is little unique to it other than being appropriated by a video game (though, this does factor into the interpretation). There is a heavy emphasis on the embedded as anything narrative tends to occur near the end of production. Emergent might be familiar as it is a common buzzword the game media and developers use to put focus on unintended, player-driven content. Narrative rarely acts in this manner because it needs narrative design to happen early in development, or happen at all. Emergent narrative acts similarly to a reader going over the ‘rappings’ and ‘tappings’ of Poe’s poem, as the connection between the rhythm and diction is implicit and is figured out by the reader rather than informed directly from the surface narrative.
Using the perspective of embedded vs. emergent narratives, I will attempt to show ludonarrative resonance, when the emergent qualities echo and strengthen the embedded narrative (or the overall design). My current stance assumes most games do not exploit emergent narrative to strengthen its design, and that a stronger focus on emergent narrative will result in a sturdier outcome. The intent isn’t to diminish the function of embedded narratives, but show that all we are doing is relying on the embedded when the emergent can add a considerable amount of depth. In fact, Jason Rohrer’s Passage flips this around and has the player drawing from the emergent narrative to extract meaning from their experience. Games like this are often tagged as ‘art games’ as the minimalist style allows mechanics to shine without much artifice piled on top. As such, Passage will give you a feel of an ‘art game,’ however I think it is an attempt to have the player engaged on a cerebral level that doesn’t involved being ‘addictive’ or ‘entertaining’ as these terms are conventionally used. That being said, spoilers for the game are up ahead, and seeing that the game will only take minutes of your time (you can play through two or three times in about ten or so), play it and see if you caught what I’m observing in relation to emergent narrative.
Passage needs emergent narrative to make any sense; the embedded narrative is scant at best. You have control of a man who can travel across the screen (mostly right) and around objects. Eventually, he meets a woman to fall in love with, and she travels in front of him the rest of the way. There are some treasure-chests further on and the characters visibly age as the past and future of the path ripple on the sides of the screen. After a certain amount of time (possibly measured by steps), his partner dies and then he does, with the title “Passage” fading in on the screen. Just from this description, a player would miss large chunks of the game relating to the passage of one’s life that rests in the emergent gameplay. The player comes to understand what the game is commenting on when they realize they are unable to navigate the map easily because of their partner, missing treasures that they would easily be able to get themselves if they went solo. This feeling is strengthened on subsequent playthroughs when the player realizes they only have a certain amount of time until both characters die, and that the clear, unobstructed path at the top of the screen yields no treasures or entertainment, just a march to their deaths. There can be multiple interpretations of this game, however very little of the meaning comes from the embedded narrative. Passage is also a good example about how the narrative can be a part of the overall art direction, as players receive narrative elements by the changing landscape and the shift of a preview of the path to the reflection.
This isn’t to say Passage is the pinnacle of gaming or did everything right. Rather, it is doing something more games could; this is particularly pertinent to RPGs as they explore opportunities to engage the player with the narrative. As this game displays, complete player freedom and authorship isn’t necessary for an emergent narrative to work, or are limitless dialogue options or character customization. Linking this to a previous article, “An Apology for RPGs,” figuring out how to create meaningful gameplay when engaging the player with the emergent narrative would reconnect digital RPGs with involving the player with the narrative. Emergent narrative can appear in battles, exploring, dialogue, and many more instances than I can imagine up here. In addition, taking away the reigns from the embedded narrative and relegating it to context will thin out a lot of the unnecessary exposition and other weak storytelling attempts at instilling any sort of feeling in the player. Using the emergent narrative takes advantage of the digital medium by having the player parse through the feelings that arises through their experience with the game, rather than a few lines of text or voice acting telling them the moral of the story.