Judging from Nicholas Lovell’s recent Twitter conversation about stories in games, many developers are split on whether or not games should focus on storytelling.
My own feeling on this matter is that games are not always about stories, but they do all have narratives, as do all other systems and designed objects. Narratives are accounts, recordings and portrayals of ideas about the world. They are often motivated, reflecting the interests of the people who have the most power within the relevant network of people and objects.
For example, let’s say you were comparing two different texts on the reproductive system. One of them explains that the sperm are competing for dominance inside the body of their female host, and that the strongest one will swim the fastest, survive the hostile conditions of the womb, and finally succeed in penetrating the recalcitrant walls of the egg. Another explains that the female reproductive system actually releases chemicals that siren the strongest sperm towards the egg. Both texts describe the same system, and the difference between them is their narrative. Perhaps we might discover that these texts were written at different times by different writers – the first written by an all-male team of science educators a few decades ago, the second written more recently, with writers perhaps acquainted with feminist sociologists of science. I don’t know, as I’m just referencing an off-hand example given by someone else. But that’s the sort of issue you get into when thinking about narrative.
A system itself can have a narrative. PC file systems have a narrative that valorises order, created through the metaphor of an office filing system. It’s hard to imagine PCs having any other system, so at first it seems unlikely that this is a deliberately designed structure that carries its own narrative. However, two things demonstrate that this system is heavily weighed down by the narrative of order and organisation. One is the omission of such a system from user interface of the leisure-targeted iPad. Another is the startling reality that hard disk drives need to be ‘defragmented’ as part of routine maintenance – although the file system displays all the data as if it were neatly organised into folders and sub-folders, the data is in fact scattered across the disk haphazardly. The chaotic reality of computing is concealed by the narrative of operating system design. This is an important narrative to portray if you want your expensive technology to appear trustworthy and professional.
Neither operating systems nor texts explaining the reproductive system are storytelling media. Stories are, as far as I’m concerned, a different matter entirely to narrative. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end; it features a plot, setting and characters; it’s something that is told to you by a person through some medium of communication. Stories are just one way of portraying a narrative. Not all games have stories, but all games do have narratives.
My own opinion is that narrative is far more subtle and flexible than story. Let’s say you want to make a game that portrays a Marxist narrative. You could do it through storyline, perhaps retelling the Chinese ballet ‘The red detachment of women’ in a series of cut scenes within a strategy RPG. It might be fun – my own relationship with video games began with Final Fantasy, and I always looked forward to the next FMV sequence. Would it be a remarkable example of the narrative potential of video games? No. Another thing you could do is take a look at how capitalist narrative is embedded in video game systems (such as fictional economics) and find ways to subvert and undo it in your own game. It would be subtle, but it might be more convincing – it would certainly be more creative.
I could just end the post here, having left you with an proposed distinction about narrative and story. But here’s the problem; if game developers consider narrative and story to be the same thing, how far is my distinction even relevant? As a critique, this kind of pedantic splitting of hairs is sometimes instructive, but as a description of what games are, it misses the point. Games should not be defined outside of the network in which they were created. If game developers conflate story and narrative, then for all intents and purposes, story and narrative might be the same thing in game design.
The tricky point here is that questions like ‘are games about story’ might not simply be descriptive. The context here is that Nicholas was asking for opinions as background to his talk to TV executives making decisions about what projects to put their support behind. ‘Are games about story’ is not a descriptive question here – it’s a normative one. In which case, criticism does have a role. From a critical point of view, my answer would be that narrative is always relevant, and really great work in game design never shoe-horns in a story without exploring other ways of embedding narrative.