Text: From Narrative to Game

From Narrative to Game:

Exploring Forms Intermixing Ludic and Narrative Elements

Henry Jenkins opens his article “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” in First Person with “The relationship between games and story remains a divisive question among game fans, designers, and scholars alike” (118).  People disagree about the ways in which video games and narrative interact.  Some academics say that games are able to seek out and emulate narrative forms.  Others say that stories and games are completely different forms and cannot be combined.  Over the years, there have been many experiments in making forms that share elements from both games and narrative.  Some have been successful, others very successful, and some have disappeared entirely.  Each form has tried fundamentally different approaches, and from each form there are different lessons to learn.

Here, a number of prominent forms are described.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but the forms selected are the basis for concepts that have had certain success.  From this, one can infer that these forms did something right and are worth study.  There is also value in studying the forms that did not become successful, but that is a study for another time.  This paper addresses the forms that are more like narrative (postmodern literature, hypertext) and the forms that are the more like games (interactive drama, interactive fiction).  First, though, what is a narrative?  A game?  In order to speak about forms that mix narratives and games, it is important to understand the elements of both.  This paper will attempt to define both narrative and game using the works of existing scholars and these definitions will be referenced throughout the subsequent sections regarding the various forms.

Defining Narrative

According to Marie-Laure Ryan, 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)” (Ryan 583).  She also calls narrative “a mental representation that can be evoked by many media and many types of signs” (ibid).  Eric Zimmerman uses a definition from J. Hillis Miller’s Critical Terms for Literary Study, stating that a narrative must have three parts: an initial state, a change and a reflection upon that change (events); it must be representational through a medium; the representation must contain patterning and repetition (Zimmerman 156).  Here, by patterns and repetition, Zimmerman suggests that narratives must have continuity.  The same characters occur, the same locations occur, the same objects occur in order to make the events about some continuous factor.

There are some common elements among these two definitions: narrative contains a series of events; a change occurs.  Zimmerman’s definition does not address content (character and setting), and Ryan’s definition does not address continuity.  The definitions differ on the subject of representation.  Ryan states that a “narrativity is independent from tellability” (Ryan 583), suggesting that a narrative does not necessarily need to be capable of relating through a medium, which contrasts the definition that Zimmerman is using.

Tackling this breach in the definitions is the only thing that is in the way of merely combining the two.  What Zimmerman (and Miller) is saying about narrative’s representation is that narrative must be presented in some form that allows it to be understood by a third party.  By casting narrative as a mental representation, Ryan is also suggesting that it is a construct that can be understood, but not necessarily representable in a particular medium.  The event of one’s own death may be unrepresentable in any particular medium, but is still mentally understood as an event.  At the core of both definitions is that the events must be understood.

Thus, a narrative is a series of events, contained within a setting and housing one or more characters, which must be understood, and which must occur over a period of time.  In addition, a narrative’s events must represent a change and reflection upon that change; this representation must have factors of continuity.

With this definition of narrative it will be easier to understand how certain forms act as a narrative.  The modularity of this definition is useful in examining the elements in certain forms and picking out the ones that are exhibited by those forms.  The counterpart to this, the definition of game, follows.

Defining Game

In “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness,” Jesper Juul digests many definitions of game and proposes the result as:

A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.

This block of definition needs, initially, some breaking down to be discussed and comparable to the definition of narrative.  Juul gives explanations for most of the concepts here, but does not define “rule-based formal system.”  Instead, Katie Sale and Eric Zimmerman offer some assistance in Rules of Play.  They define a system as “a set of parts that interrelate to form a complex whole” (55), and rules as fixed, binding and repeatable formal structures that limit player action, are explicit and unambiguous and are shared by all players (125).

Juul addresses a variable, quantifiable outcome as a result that changes depending on variations of play and that may be counted such as by points.  An outcome is assigned a different value depending on how good or bad the outcome is considered to be (Juul).  A good outcome will have a higher value, while a bad outcome will have a lower value.  Another way to look at this is that a positive outcome will have a positive value, while a negative outcome will have a negative value.  Juul calls this concept the “valorization of the outcome.”

That a “player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome” means that the game provides a challenge (ibid.).  Some problem or task is presented to the player that suggests that solving the problem or beating the task will lead to a more valuable outcome.

Attachment of the player to the outcome suggests that the player must feel that they affect the outcome in some way shape or form (ibid.).  This attachment is a form of tying the player to the game in some way, although a player’s actions do not necessarily influence the outcome (as mentioned above).  The combination of the player exerting effort to affect the outcome and the attachment of the player to the outcome is known as agency, the ability to change some event in a meaningful way (Poremba 4).

Finally, the optional nature of Juul’s definition of game means that a player can elect to ascribe consequences to the result of the game (ibid.).  That is, the system of the game may optionally affect another system.  It is important for this quality to be optional for the entirety of play.

This definition of game is useful in understanding how certain forms exhibit ludic elements.  By comparing the form to the definition, it becomes easy to understand what is left out and what remains.  Additionally, some forms may take one element only so far, and the definition will help guide one to understand when this is happening.

Comparing the definition of narrative to the definition of game shows that the two media are very different.  It takes quite a lot for any one implementation to attempt to be both definitions at once, though some forms try.  In the following sections, four forms of media that try to mix these definitions together are examined.  Each section presents research from scholars, and compares the research to an example of the form.  Then each form is compared to the definitions of game and narrative, in order to understand how each one uses elements from both.

Postmodern Literature

Trying to define postmodern literature is like trying to solve a maze with no exit.  A number of scholars have tried to define postmodernism, notably John Barth and Umberto Eco, who plied their explanations of postmodern literature against each other (McLaughlin 54-59).  Reading explanations of postmodernism feels as labyrinthine as the body of work the essays try to explain.  Postmodern literature is “writing fiction about fiction” (59).  In postmodern literature “the process of representation, not the object represented, would be the subject matter of postmodernism” (56).  In something of a postmodern turn, Barth quotes Eco, who is in turn trying to describe Barth’s essay “A Literature of Exhaustion,”

“the postmodern attitude [is] that of a man who loves a very sophisticated woman and knows he cannot say to her, “I love you madly,” because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.” At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence” (quoted in McLaughlin 58).

The presentation of a quotation from one scholar (McLaughlin) digesting a second scholar’s (Barth’s) quotation of a third scholar’s (Eco’s) explanation of the second scholar’s (Barth’s) essay is perhaps a good example of the labyrinthine nature of postmodern literature and the discussion of it.

The twisted and winding nature of postmodern literature has a certain game-like quality.  Novels of the postmodern persuasion are narratives.  If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino (1981) is a good example of a postmodern novel that plays with the reader.  The book opens with an existential, second-person tale about reading, specifically a novel entitled If on a winter’s night a traveler.  The novel intermixes chapters of second-person reflection with the opening chapters of ten novels.  The self-referential treatment of the novel along with the use of conflicting narrative styles offers a kind of play with the reader.  The use of the second-person pronoun in the numbered chapters ties the reader to the outcome of the novel.  By referring to “you” Calvino is suggesting that the reader is both a character and not a character in his work (Fink 94).  This is similar to Juul’s attachment of the player to the outcome of a game.  Although the reader of If on a winter’s night a traveler does not have any control over how the words are printed on the page (and thus having exerted little effort to influence the outcome of the novel), the reader is still constantly placed within the work by the reference to “you” and an emulation of starting to read ten different novels.

It is often the attempt of postmodernism to tie the reader to authorship of a work, as described by post-structuralist Roland Barthes in “Death of the Author.”  The attempt, shown via Calvino’s novel, attaches the reader to the text in a way that mimics the player’s attachment to the outcome of a game.  It is for this reason that postmodern literature, as unwieldy as it is to describe, is something of the basis for most of the other forms discussed below.  The next form, hypertext fiction, arose from a postmodern text itself, Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths.”

Hypertext Fiction

“The Garden of Forking Paths” describes a book in which the author attempted to write every possibility that could happen (Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort 34).  In the story, the narrator exclaims, “The book is an indeterminate leap of contradictory drafts.  I examined it once: in the third chapter the hero dies, in the fourth he is alive” (32).  Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort explain: “The concept Borges described in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ […] is that of a novel that can be read in multiple ways, a hypertext novel” (29).

The ability to be read in multiple ways is what the hypertext novel brings to postmodern literature.  Hypertext fiction is still postmodern literature.  It still encompasses the labyrinth to be navigated, much like the maze of a book in “The Garden of Forking Paths.”  As such, hypertext inherits postmodern literature’s quality of tying the reader to the text, but it takes it one step further.

Janet Murray describes the concept of hypertext fiction through an examination of Michael Joyce’s Afternoon (1987).  She writes, “Afternoon contains 539 carefully crafted lexias and begins with one (although it does not necessarily come first) entitled “I Want to Say”; this lexia consists of a single compelling sentence: “I want to say I may have seen my son die today.”  From here the reader is sent clicking through the cardlike lexia to find out more” (Murray 57).  By lexia, here, Murray means a selection of text created by the author (in this case Michael Joyce) to be displayed either when the novel opens or when the reader clicks on a “hot word” (57).

The key phrase here is “the reader clicks.”  This is not the same as simply turning a page in a book, but instead there is a choice to be made, as each lexia contains many words on which to click.  The reader must consider which word to click, with little indication of where the word will take him or her (57).  Murray describes the plot of Afternoon, “There is a lot to learn about the narrator, Peter, and about his ex-wife, lovers and friends, but most readers are not able to determine whether his son is alive or dead or what Peter may have seen at the site of a roadside accident” (57).  The reason for this is because no two readers will traverse the text in the same way.  “Joyce is intentionally “problematizing” our expectations of storytelling, challenging us to construct our own text from the fragments he has provided,” Murray concludes (58).

As such, the reader is no longer tied to the text, but is responsible for the outcome of it.  Essentially, the reader becomes a co-author, by navigating through the text, reordering it.  With complex hypertext fiction, it becomes difficult to recreate the experience of reading the text, as the path tends to change between uses.  The idea is that the new path will create a new understanding of the text.

Comparing hypertext fiction to the definition of narrative, there is a clear identification.  As hypertext fiction attempts to relate a story (with setting and a character) within a medium (usually a computer screen), it satisfies the requirement for having a series of events within some setting containing some form of character.  Although the order of events may change from one reading to the next, the hypertext will still occur over a period of time.  The reader may or may not have a need to reconstruct the order or events.  Whether or not the text is understood depends on the way in which it is written, keeping in mind that the text is written by an author and also by a co-author: the reader.  As the reader has a hand in the writing process, it is possible for a narrative to become unintelligible by his or her actions.  If the text is attempting to portray a story, which by definition it is, the text will contain a change in an initial state and a reflection upon that change.  Another change could be said, though, in that with each repeated reading, the reader discovers the events in an order different from the previous reading(s), and so the text itself undergoes a change and asks the reader to reflect upon this change.  Continuity is hypertext fiction’s weak point, as there is no guarantee that any factors in one unit will be present in the next.  Suffice it to say, in the overall text, there are continuous factors, but the co-authoring process of the reader may cause the text to seem, initially, broken.

Having an attachment to the text (from postmodern principles) and exerting effort to change the outcome of the text is, as described before, agency.  Agency is the building block of the next form, the interactive drama.  Traditionally, the users of postmodern literature and hypertext fiction are referred to as “readers.”  For interactive dramas and interactive fiction, the traditional users are referred to as “players.”  The “player” of interactive dramas is associated more closely with plays, rather than games.

Interactive Drama

An interactive drama takes the player and puts him or her into a story as if he or she were a character in a play.  “The Player does not sit above the story, watching it as a simulation, but is immersed in the story” (Mateas 20).  Interactive drama takes Aristotelian theories of drama and filters in agency for the player (Mateas 24).  This allows the player to interact with the other objects of the story, while contributing to the ongoing drama.

Mateas points out a flaw in guiding a player through a fixed story, in that the player only has agency during the first run through the drama (27).  After the first time, the player realizes that what she does is not important to the outcome of the story, and so the player loses agency.  Mateas suggests a solution.  “The story should have the dramatic probabilities smoothly narrowing to a necessary end.  Early choices may result in different necessary ends – later choices can have less impact on changing the whole story” (27).  He also suggests, “Change in the plot should not be traceable to distinct branch points; the player will not be offered an occasional small number of obvious choices that force the plot in a different direction” (27-28).

In short, the story should be branching, but not branch on lines that are obvious.  Instead of changing the story based on something obvious like whether the player chooses to go to class or not, but rather, change the story based on whether or not they hit the snooze on the alarm, or forget to brush their teeth, or leave without eating.  The actions have no bearing on the immediate story, but will change the direction of the plot some place down the road.

The interactive drama has multiple outcomes.  This is another one of the requirements set forth by the definition of game.  Façade (2005), designed by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, is used as an example by Mateas, in his article “A Preliminary Poetics for Interactive Drama and Games,” of interactive drama.  Andrew Stern supports this view stating, “Façade is not a game, it is not about realism.  It is a drama.  The goal is not to ‘win’ but to experience a compelling story” (Stern 168).  Façade, and interactive drama by extension, does not claim to be a game, and yet it comes very close to game’s definition.

Interactive drama has a variable outcome, attaches the player to the outcome and requires the player to exert effort in order to influence the outcome.  What is missing (perhaps) is the formal system of rules and the consequence negotiability quality required by Juul.  That is to say, an interactive drama does not necessarily give the player rules to follow, and the outcome can have no more consequences on other systems as any novel is able to claim.  Interactive dramas are almost games, but not quite.  This qualification has not prevented Façade from winning numerous gaming awards and accolades.

The following, final form, interactive fiction, is the least like a narrative.  Interactive fiction is considered by most to be a game, though it will become clear that interactive fiction takes a different approach to the concept of game.

Interactive Fiction

Interactive fiction (IF) works are “those computer programs that display text, accept textual responses, and then display additional text in reaction to what has been typed” (Montfort, Twisty Little Passages vii).  Montfort details this further, “Interactive fiction is a program that simulates a world, understands natural-language text input, from an interactor, and provides a textual reply based upon events in the world” (Montfort, “Interactive Fiction” 316).  Already, just from these two definitions, there are clear ties to both the definition for game and the definition for narrative.  The definitions given by Montfort suggest that there is a world (setting) and that there are events that occur, which are represented through the medium of the computer screen.  These are all in-line with the definition of narrative.  Additionally, IF receives input from an “interactor,” a player, and creates output based upon that player’s actions.  These align with the definition of game.

Janet Murray’s description of Planetfall (Infocom, 1983), describes a story about a deckhand for a spaceship that has recently crashed.  During the course of the game, the player finds and activates a robot named Floyd, who then fills up the silence of the journey.  In a pivotal moment, Floyd sacrifices himself to aid the player’s journey, and is forever lost for the remainder of the game (Murray 52-53).  Murray continues, “At this point the game changes from a challenging puzzle to an evocative theatrical experience.  The escape from the planet continues, but without Floyd’s company the player feels lonely and bereaved” (53).  She sums this up with, “It demonstrates that the potential for compelling computer stories does not depend on high-tech animation or expensively produced video footage but on the shaping of such dramatic moments” (53).

Montfort points out, though, that “IF is neither a ‘story’ or a ‘game'” (“Interactive Fiction” 316).  Additionally, he says, “[D]espite the common nomenclature of IF works as ‘games,’ the IF program as a ‘story’ file, and the work of IF as electronic ‘novel,’ none of these figures are of central importance to IF” (316).  He concludes, “It’s time to look beyond ‘story’ and ‘game’ for those other figures that are essential to different sorts of new media artifacts, and to recognize that views of ‘story’ and ‘game’ as simple overarching categories can be counterproductive.


This note is similar to Eric Zimmerman’s view: “Because, what I wish to ask is NOT the overused question: Is this thing (such as a game) a “narrative thing” or not? Instead, the question I’d like to pose is: In what ways might we consider this thing (such as a game) a ‘narrative thing’” (Zimmerman 157)?  Zimmerman goes on to suggest that combining elements from games and narratives shouldn’t replicate existing forms of either, but instead create new forms (157).

Rather than try to present any one form as specifically narrative or game (save for postmodern literature; it is a bit stuck in its rutt), this paper has attempted to show how each form exhibits elements of both narrative and game.  In doing so, the aim was to show how understanding the overarching categories can help one examine forms that intermix these categories in new ways.  There is little point in trying to discuss whether or not something is a “game” or a “narrative”, but instead it is far more important to consider what these forms do and how they do it.  In any event, it is key to realize that these forms will continue to be produced, and new forms will come out.  This is good, it helps grow and transform and complicate how people think about what this intermixing is capable of.  Murray puts this sentiment well.  She says, “In the end, it does not matter what we call such new artifacts as The Sims, Façade, or Kabul Kaboom’: dollhouses, stories, cyberdramas, participatory dramas, interactive cartoons, or even games.  The important thing is that we keep producing them” (10).



Works Cited

Aarseth, Espen. “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation.” First Person. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 45-49.

Fink, I. “The Power Behind the Pronoun: Narrative Games in Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.” Twentieth Century Literature. Vol.37:1 (Spring 1991): 93-105.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 118-130.

Juul, Jesper “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness.” Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings. Ed. Marinka Copier and Joost Raessens. Utrecht: Utrecht University, 2003. 30-45. Retrieved from <http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/gameplayerworld/&gt;.

Mateas, Michael. “A Preliminary Poetics for Interactive Drama and Games.” First Person. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 19-33.

McLaughlin, Robert. “Post-Postmodern Discontent: Contemporary Fiction and the Social World.”  Symploke 12:1-2 (2004): 53-68.

Montfort, Nick. Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.

Montfort, Nick. “Interactive Fiction as ‘Story,’ ‘Game,’ ‘Storygame,’ ‘Novel,’ ‘World,’ ‘Literature,’ ‘Puzzle,’ ‘Problem,’ ‘Riddle,’ and ‘Machine.’” First Person. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 310-317.

Murray, Janet. “From Game-Story to Cyberdrama.” First Person. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 2-10.

Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998.

Murray, Janet. “Online Response to ‘From Game-Story to Cyberdrama.’” Janet Murray. First Person. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 10.

Poremba, Cindy. Player as Author: Digital Games and Agency. MAS thesis Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, 2003. Web. 12 December 2010.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Beyond Myth and Metaphor: Narrative in Digital Media.” Poetics Today. 23.4 (2002). 581-609.

Stern, Andrew. ” Response to ‘Card Shark and Tespis: Exotic Tools for Hypertext Narrative.’” Mark Bernstein and Diane Greco. First Person. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 167-173.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Nick Montfort. The New Media Reader. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.

Zimmerman, Eric. “Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four Naughty Concepts in Need of Discipline.” First Person. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 154-164.

Forms Cited

Calvino, Italo. If on a winter’s night a traveler. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1981.

Joyce, Michael. afternoon, a story. Hypertext. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1987.

Mateas, Michael and Andrew Stern. Façade. Interactive Drama. Procedural Arts LLC.

Meretzky, Steve. Planetfall. Interactive Fiction. Infocom, 1983.

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