Text: Interweaving Narrative Structures with Ludic Environments

Interweaving Narrative Structures with Ludic Environments

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.  There are narrative forms with ludic elements and ludic forms with narrative elements.  Many differing theories exist, but are rarely discussed altogether.  Here, I intend to do so.  First, to speak about theories involving narrative and games, definitions of both must be created with which to work against.

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 could be suggesting 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, it can be said that a narrative is a series of events, contained within a setting and housing one or more characters, which must be represented in an understandable way, 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.

For completion’s sake, I will break this definition down into its parts:

  • A series of events is a representation of actions and happenings that reflect on a change from an initial state.
  • A setting is a place and point in time around which a series of events occur; it is the world in which the represented events exist.
  • A character is an object that acts, and by acting causes part or all of the series of events.
  • An understandable representation is a manifestation, mental or physical, that can relate a series of events to a person subjected to the manifestation, to which the person is able to realize what happened and may speculate on what change may have occurred.
  • A change is a representation of an ending state being different from the initial state, usually in regards to or as a result of the continuous factor(s).
  • A reflection is some conclusion or speculation about the change, either in the ramifications of the change, or in what way the change came about.
  • A factor of continuity is some object or idea that remains constant throughout the series of events, despite other factors having been changed.

With a working definition of narrative, it is time to move on to a definition of game.

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 issue with this portion of the definition will be discussed later.

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, 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 their actions have affected the outcome in some way shape or form (ibid.).  In other words, the player cannot feel as if the outcome was reached despite her actions, but instead that she caused the outcome to take place.

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.

Juul’s definition requires that games have a variable and quantifiable outcome.  His definition suggests that games are only measurable by quantity.  This idea seems to exclude many systems that are considered games.  Most games of the role-playing genre, in which players take on a role of one or more entities to solve some problem, do not have quantifiable ends.  When the game ends, it is not some amount of points that are how a player values the ending, but by what was resolved.  While role-playing games do have point systems, usually in the form of money or measures of the entities’ power, games of the adventure genre eliminate points almost altogether.  When talking about the predecessor or adventure games, interactive fiction (which commonly does quantify outcomes), Nick Montfort suggests that a game’s “score” can represent a sense of closure (312).  It could be suggested that, instead of needing a quantifiable outcome, a game needs only have outcomes that convey a sense of value, either quantitatively or qualitatively.  I support this with the notion that, in all the definitions of game that Juul examined, only one definition out of seven, Eric Zimmerman’s, suggest the need for a quantifiable outcome (Juul).

This would leave the definition at:

A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable 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.

The revised definition only eliminates “and quantifiable” from the first line of Juul’s.  With working definitions of both game and narrative, we are now able to examine the established theories of how game and narrative interact.

Theories of Game and Narrative

Here, I will discuss the various theories of how games and narrative work (or do not work) together.  This will include the base theories such as narratology and ludology and work from there to the various intermediate theories.


According to Gonzalo Frasca, in “Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and Differences Between (Video)Games and Narrative”, narratology was a term to which video games became subjected as a crossover from critical literary theory.  In the 1999 essay, Frasca calls for a move toward the newer, game-specific idea of ludology, discussed later.  Some theorists, most notably Janet Murray, but also, to an extent, Henry Jenkins, follow some of the narratology traditions.  Their theories will be discussed later.

It is unsurprising that narratology is the study of the narrative.  Specifically, “Narratology examines the ways that narrative structures our perception of both cultural artifacts and the world around us” (Felluga).  In relation to game studies, narratology means to look at games as if they were narratives.  In other words, instead of using the definition of game to examine a game, one uses instead the definition of narrative.  In this way, literary criticism is applied to the discussion of games.

As a result of Frasca’s essay on the need for a new field, and other proponents for the change (Espen Aarseth, Jesper Juul, Markku Eskelinen to name a few), narratology has generally been left behind for the new field of ludology.


In “Ludology Meets Narratology,” Frasca describes ludology simply as a “discipline that studies game and play activities,” adding that, “like narratology, ludology should also be independent from the medium that supports the activity” (Frasca).  This open definition has developed rapidly, taking on new definition.

Most specifically, ludology has worked to distinguish how games and narratives are different.  In “Towards Computer Game Studies,” Markku Eskelinen describes the difference as narrative being static, while game is configurative.  Espen Aarseth, in “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation,” pits games and narrative against each other by saying, “Games are not ‘textual’ or at least not primarily textual: where is the text in chess?”

Looking at these concepts, it could be said that ludology is a field of studying games as systems apart from narratives, as games are not textual and not static, as their own field rather than a subset of the field of narratology.  In “Genre Trouble,” Aarseth raises the question, “But what exactly is the relationship between games and stories?”  Quite a few theories attempt to answer this question.  The many theories will be explained, beginning with the theories that do not claim to be games, but use ludic elements: hypertext fiction and the interactive drama.

Hypertext fiction

Hypertext is a form of text that contains some ludic elements.  It presents a system of units, such as words, paragraphs or pages, that link to one or more units, allowing the reader to create their own path through the text (Becker).  Hypertext fiction uses this technique to tell a story, while affording agency to the reader.  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.  Hypertext that uses other media, such as sounds and images, is also known, but under the name of hypermedia.

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 the actions of the reader.  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.

Hypertext fiction has ludic elements that resonate from this co-authorship.  Looking at the definition of game, in comparison to hypertext fiction, one can see where there could be similarities, but that hypertext fiction just does not clear the constraints of the definition.

First, although the co-authorship nature of hypertext fiction seems to lend itself to a variable outcome, one must consider that, although the order of the events change, the actual events remain the same, and the end (if one exists at all) remains the same.  Just as with a novel, the events are linear, even if the text is not.  The first section of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is a jumbled mess of events, but the final outcome is still the same despite the order in which a person reads the section.  This is not to say that no hypertext fiction has variation of outcome built into the system.  Rather, this is to say that the principle of co-authorship does not inherently create a variable outcome.

Without a variable outcome, the definition falls apart.  Although the reader of hypertext fiction does act in such a way that changes the order of the text, the outcome remains the same and so the reader cannot be said to have influenced the outcome in any way.  The only portion of the definition that may be applied to hypertext fiction is that the system is rule-based.  Although hypertext fiction doesn’t usually slap the reader in the face with a rulebook, such texts do contain rules set up by the author.  The author has decided which units of the text link to which other units of the text.

Other than this, it holds up that hypertext fiction is not a game.  This is not surprising, as it is not considered by theorists to be a game.  With the careful advent of a variable outcome, however, hypertext fiction veers dangerously close to the definition of game.

Next, the interactive drama will be examined as another form of narrative that does not seek to be considered a game.

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.  To have agency, the player must realize that they are, in actuality, contributing to the reaction.  This concept is similar to Juul’s requirement for attachment of the player to the outcome, as indicated by the working definition of game.

Mateas points out a flaw in guiding a player through a fixed story, in that the player only has agency 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 she 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” (ibid.).  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.

In other words, the drama has multiple outcomes.  This is another one of the requirements set forth by the definition of game.  Façade, 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 the definition of a game.

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.

Next on the agenda are the styles that attempt to fit the definitions of both game and narrative.  This includes the storygame and the game-story.


The storygame is a concept by Mary Ann Buckles.  According to Nick Montfort, “her term suggests that, rather than one element being embedded in the other,” talking about the concepts of story and game here, “both are essential to the experience and are intertwined rather than nested” (312).  In other words, the storygame is a theory of combining narrative and game to create something that would not work if either the story or narrative are removed.  Montfort’s example is Dungeon’s and Dragons (ibid.).


Transitioning from Buckle’s theory, which was used to describe interactive fiction, just one kind of game, we come to Janet Murray’s “game-story.”  Murray states that “game-story means the story-rich new gaming formats that are proliferating in digital formats” (2).  Murray gives game-story examples: “the hero-driven video game, the atmospheric first-person shooter, the genre-focused role-playing game, the character-focused simulation” (ibid.).  The term is, in essence, a catch-all term that includes anything that has both a sense of game and a sense of story.  It is similar to Buckle’s storygame, with the notable exception that she does not mention whether or not the story or game elements may be removed and still have a working product.


In looking at all these theories, one thing becomes clear.  Theorists disagree as to the way in which narrative and game may interact.  Every theorist has their own idea.  Most of the time, this differs in some way from other theorists’ idea.  This could be said of any field, but for the field of game studies, being so young in comparison, people are still trying to clamp down and make definitions.  The theorists are attempting to understand what it is they are studying and yet, what they are studying is changing all the time.  New projects come out that challenge definitions being formed at the same time and the players must go back to the digital drawing board and discuss, argue and tear out their hair, all for the sake of understanding just what it is that they are trying to talk about.

Janet Murray makes a case to stop looking at these projects as “game” or “narrative,” but as something new, created from the ashes of its much older parents (10).  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. Caimbridge: MIT Press, 2004. 45-49.

Becker, Howard. “A New Art Form: Hypertext Fiction.” Sep. 15 2000. Universidat de Valencia. Dec. 10, 2008. < http://www.uv.es/~fores/programa/becker_hypertextfiction.html&gt;.

Eskelinen, Markku. “Towards Computer Game Studies.” First Person. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Caimbridge: MIT Press, 2004. 36-44.

Felluga, Dino. “General Introduction to Narratology.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Nov. 28, 2003. Purdue University Dec. 10, 2008. <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/narratology/modules/introduction.html&gt;.

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and Differences Between (Video)Games and Narrative.” Parnasso #3 1999.  Dec. 10, 2008. <http://www.ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm&gt;.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Caimbridge: 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. Caimbridge: MIT Press, 2004. 19-33.

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. Caimbridge: MIT Press, 2004. 310-317.

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

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

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. Caimbridge: MIT Press, 2004. 167-173.

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

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