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.