What I Really Mean When I Say ‘Narrative as a Mechanic’

Lately I have been touting around a shortcut phrase for what I am looking at in my other projects. The phrase is “Using Narrative as a Mechanic”.  This phrase is wrong.  I’m going to spend some time here discussing what I really mean by this phrase.  First, though the problem of the phrase.

What exactly is wrong with the phrase “using narrative as a mechanic”? Let’s break this phrase down a bit. First, let’s consider what a mechanic is. A month ago, Raph Koster wrote a blog about the difference between mechanics and rules. While rules are not related to what I am talking about here, his post describes mechanics rather well.  From what I garner, he says that mechanics are the processing of input which provide feedback to the player. Example: Player presses a button (input), Input is evaluated to be jumping (mechanic), Mechanic causes character to lift off the ground (feedback). To shortcut this, a mechanic is what the player can do as a result of input in the game.  The input->mechanic->feedback process is, overall, a player’s action.  The phrase “using narrative as a mechanic” suggests that something (in this case, narrative) can be used as part of an action. Specifically, it is the part of the action that processes input into feedback.

Now let’s consider narrative.  Narrative is a much more nebulous term to get around.  The definition of narrative I tend to use is Marie Laure-Ryan’s:

[A] narrative consists of a world (setting), populated by individuals (characters), who participate in actions and happenings (events, plot), through which they undergo change (temporal dimension)….[Narrative is] a mental representation that can be evoked by many media and many types of signs.

This definition suggests that narrative is the collection of setting, characters, events and change. It also makes a case that it must be relatable in some way (by being an evoked, mental representation).  True, there are games without settings, and many games without characters (if you don’t see the player as a character in these games; certainly the player is some sort of actor, though).  Most games are a series of events and in those games a change occurs.

The problem with “using narrative as a mechanic” is because narrative does not describe something that can be used. It cannot be a part of a player’s action that produces feedback.  Grammatically, narrative is a noun, when a mechanic is looking for a verb.  In this situation, feedback is the noun, and so narrative fits the slot for feedback well. Case-in-point, Raph Koster also recently said the same thing, in a much more elegant way.

So let’s put aside the phrase “using narrative as a mechanic” for now. Let’s instead try the phrase “crafting ludic narrative”.  Ludic narrative is something closer to what I really have meant when I was saying “narrative as a mechanic”.  Narrative is as it has been said before, but what about the adjective ludic? Ludic is an adjective coming from the Latin word ludus which means play.  Ludus is something of a staple in game studies. We talk about play and what is the nature of play. Play is considered, by many, to be a fundamental part of being human (but of course not the only part, as other animals also play).  If something is ludic, then it is said to be playful, or relating to the mode of play. This is a very simplistic way of putting it.  If something is ludic, then it is primarily that way, rather than being related to some other mode. It embodies play in some way (hence being playful- full of play).

How can narrative be ludic?  If narrative is feedback, that is, presented to the player, in what form can it be said to embody play? Isn’t that what the player is for? This is, in essence, exactly what I mean. Narrative can be ludic if it relates to the players actions. The player embodies play in every aspect of a game (after all, the player is the play-er). The game, via mechanics and feedback (and rules, though I’m not talking about rules right now), informs the player’s actions.  By constraining these actions, or providing the proper feedback, they can create a narrative. This is a narrative of player actions, a narrative of play.  Crafting a narrative through the player’s actions is what I am talking about with “crafting ludic narrative” and, by extension, what I really meant whenever I said “using narrative as a mechanic”.

But how does one craft a ludic narrative. How does one recognize it? What knowledge can we garner from this?  That is the nature of one of my projects this semester. I have ideas and will gladly share them with you (but at a later time when I have them more in order).

Back to “using narrative as a mechanic”. I said we would shelve it for a bit, but I’ve brought it back out for now. I find it to be an interesting phrase. It doesn’t make sense in the current state of games, but I wonder if it could someday. The idea is that the player pushes a button and the game recognizes that input as narrative.  Narrative is performed and then provides feedback. I can think of one game that may be attempting just that.  Storybricks is an online game in development that allows the player to craft event systems, and sharing them with other players (for those players to play). these event systems seem very similar to narrative. It sound something like a very delayed mechanic. Player produces input, (eventually) narrative is created. I imagine some kind of feedback will be produced from that narrative. It is still too early to tell, but the game has been on my radar for a while now for just this reason.

4 thoughts on “What I Really Mean When I Say ‘Narrative as a Mechanic’

  1. You’re eluding to “Player-Driven Content,” or PDC as I like to call it.

    Star Wars Galaxies also attempted this for a time. They had the event creator stuff… Storyteller, and Chronicler items/skills/events. While this system was under-valued and often picked on by some of the “hardcore” players, it thrilled the RP community which was still alive in SWG despite the mass exodus following NGE. I never really used it myself, but I did play through content created by others, and it was fun to see how many types of paths people created with the limited tools available to them.

    It’s sad how much SWG offered, and was lost in the smoke of poor management by SOE. I do not know of another MMO that offered this kind of player-driven content… Ever. Now, it’s all about the content that is provided to us by the gods of whatever company makes our current MMO.

    Really, the implementation of this concept has been limited in all game types; you make a choice early in the game which will affect who shows up later, or how people react to your pressence. Fable made the largest use of this (as far as I know) so far. But, even that pales in comparison to what you are really discussing, and I hope you get a lot of attention because I want to see PDC get to center stage… Like it ALMOST was in SWG.

  2. incobalt says:

    Actually, City of Heroes had an in-game system whereby the player could create their own missions. As I understand it, it too was greatly overlooked and what most people did with it was to create exp farms, rather than any kind of narrative. I didn’t play City of Heroes much and never messed with the mission creator, so I don’t know how effective it might have been. As for SWG, I never played it, so I can’t compare or join in the commiseration.

    I’ve most often heard of user generated content, is that what you mean, or does PDC have a different meaning here? UGC, as I see it, can lead to narrative, but is not, usually, itself narrative. I will note that UGC is not, inherently, what I mean by ludic narrative. I don’t think that UGC often can be considered narrative, unless perhaps it is forced (like in some god-games).

  3. I missed out on Star Wars Galaxies, so I can’t speak to it directly, but it seems like there are a few related but distinct things with narrative and tools being done in games:

    1. Player actions generate the *meaning* – Sov war in EVE Online is a good example of this. “Meaning” for most players doesn’t come from lore or PvE, but from the narrative of emergent play amongst competing factions.

    2. Tools within a game with other ludic goals enable/empower roleplay: this is player narrative *around* the game mechanics – and usually *despite* them.

    3. The game enables meta-storytelling: the richest narrative isn’t *within* the game, but of our stories of playing it. Raiding in WoW would be a good example.

    4. The game is traveling through/choosing within developer-created narrative. Echo Bazaar would be a good example here – basically a large choose-your-own-adventure.

    5. Collaborative storytelling as play: text-based RP does this, as, I imagine, some larping and a lot of tabletop.

    I think you’re talking about a sixth thing, at the designer-mechanics level, but I’m not sure what that looks like….

    • incobalt says:

      John, have you ever played Flower? It was a PS3 dowbnloadable that got a lot of press for being an artgame (but not as much as Braid did). You control the game using the SIXAXIS motion controls of the PS3 controller. As far as i can tell, you represent the wind and stir up flower petals. The controller mimics in-game movement. It’s very fluid in a way. It is a game with no text, only events responding to your actions. And yet there is a clear narrative that arises. A good intro to it is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUC2tpY5gb4 (although level 5 is the most dramatic, as I recall).

      #2 Sounds like the closest to what I’m talking about. In essence, I am talking about a mixture of #2, #4 and systemic design. Give the player actions, respond to the actions, narrative ensues. Sometimes force the player to take certain actions, even if the player doesn’t want to (the player isn’t the only one telling the story or playing the game).

      As for #5, have you looked at jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death? http://sleepisdeath.net/ It’s a roundabout way of getting there in an interesting system.

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