Joris Dormans (2004)
Never Ending Stories is my pet project. It is an attempt to write a long work (between 80,000 and 100,000 words, or 200-250 printed pages) about narrative games. The title is not very original, and might change in the future. It does, however, express some basic notions that surround the idea of interactive storytelling in games: our hunger for ever new stories. But in contrast it also expresses more indirectly that in fact the number of stories that are told is rather limited, etc. There is more to it, but since the title is not yet permanent I will not go in to details about it right now.
Yep, that's right. In game studies there have been quite some debates on games and narratives. And many scholars of games think the two concepts are incompatible. There appear to be two academic camps within the academic field. On the one side there are the narratologists who study games alongside with other storytelling media, such as literature, drama and interactive fiction. Prominent members of this camp are Janet Murray and Marie-Laude Ryan (or at least they are often made prominent narratologists by the opposition). On the other side there are the ludologists, those that wish to study games as games. They argue that narrative is only a small portion of what makes games interesting (in fact story is only a small insignificant part of many games). The ludologists are more interested in elements of gameplay. Prominent ludologists are Jesper Juul and Markku Eskelinen.
Then there are those that hold some sort of middle ground. Henry Jenkins is one of those, and like some others stresses that there are games that do hold some sort of narrative aspiration, even though the basic structure of these narratives differs from the basic structures of classic (linear) storytelling. In this new type of narrative the "pleasure in the process – in the experiences along the road – that can overwhelm any strong sense of goal or resolution, while exposition can be experienced as an unwelcome interruption to the pleasure of performance" (2002). To appreciate this type of story requires us to abandon the idea that close knit causality is synonymous with good story telling: "Spatial stories are not badly constructed stories; rather they are stories which respond to alternative aesthetic principles, privileging spatial exploration over plot development. Spatial stories are held together by broadly defined goals and conflicts and pushed forward by the character's movement across the map" (ibid). Games narrative fall inline with a tradition of storytelling to which, according Jenkins, authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Verne and Homer also more or less belong. What is more "[w]hen game designers draw story elements from existing film or literary genres, the are most apt to tap those genres – fantasy, adventure, science fiction, horror, war – which are most invested in world-making and spatial story-telling. Games, in turn, may more fully realize the spatiality of these stories" (ibid).
Narrative games thus stand in a tradition that is generally considered to be weak in narrative. Where this might be reason for some to abandon the concept of game narratives or dismiss them as uninteresting, it prompted me to reinvestigate what is generally understood to be the narrative form. For dismissing the plot of an average game, fantasy novel or action film is one thing, denying the pleasure and cultural significance of reading, seeing and playing them is another altogether. Just as Geoff King (2000) looks for the cultural significance of Hollywood blockbusters in the structural oppositions that underpin their narrative framework I will turn my attention to a similar aspects in narrative games, among others, in order to escape the narrow causal and temporal definition of story common in the study of literature.
Note that I keep using the term narrative game. This is to focus this work on a very particular cultural artefact and to distinguish it from a few related types of objects such as non-narrative games (such as Space Invaders, Tetris, and many action oriented first-person shooters) and interactive, non-game narratives (such as hypertext novels and interactive cinema).
Many game researches note a similarity between computer games and pen-and-paper role-playing games but most of them spend only few words on them. And when they do they do not tend to be very positive: "All too often, these games descended (at least in personal memory) into little more than a sequence of 'open the door, kill the monster, grab the gold, open the next door, kill the monster, grab the gold…'" (Atkins 2003: 40). Pen-and-paper role-playing is often equated with Dungeons & Dragons, which is akin to equating all computer games with the type of play encountered in Space Invaders. In fact, serious role-players find that pen-and-paper role-playing has more to do with storytelling than most computer games do. In their eyes the latter are often mere character-builders that might be interesting for 'power gamers' than those who express a wish to act out a character and have fun with a couple of friends. Apart from the odd article (for example Tosca 2003) role-playing games have attracted very serious interest. As a genre it is even more obscure than computer games. One of the aims of this work is to rectify this omission. After all when we talk about narrative games, why leave out pen-and-paper role-playing games?
Pen-and-paper role-playing games are slightly younger than computer games. The later can trace their history back to 1961 (Spacewar) or 1958 (Tennis for Two), although computer games really took off in the early seventies with games like Computer Space and Pong, and the launch of the Magnavox Gaming system (see DeMaria & Wilson 2004; Kent 2001; Poole 2000). Dungeons & Dragons, the first role-playing game was published in 1974, but quickly inspired other systems and in turn gave birth to the computer game genres of the text adventure and later the computer role-playing game. One very good reason to include role-playing games in the study of narrative games is that they have had the chance to explore narrative games for 30 years without any technological limits. The mind does not need to limit the size of a game world to a finite number of bytes. Also, the game master (or dungeon master) as a mediator of the game world is a lot more sophisticated than his or her equivalent in computer games, able to improvise and tailor the stories s/he tells to the likings of the players far better than has been achieved in any computer game. This work explicitly taps into the experience of storytelling in pen-and-paper role-playing games that has accumulated over the years.
Never Ending Stories investigates how narratives can emerge from the interaction with a gaming system (a game system on a computer or the particular machinations of a game master and the rules of a role-playing game). The game system and the player can be said to perform three functions: 1) a game simulates a fictional world, 2) the game presents this to the player and 3) the player acts accordingly (see figure 1). Games can vary in the way it performs or allows the player to perform these functions. The simulation of the game world may, for example, adhere to a certain standard of realism (as in most first-person shooters) or might model a total abstract universe (Tetris). Likewise a game's presentational form might focus on narration (text adventures), spectacle (action games), or drama (some role-playing games), among other things.
What is important in this model, is that insofar some games are narrative games, they are story-engines that produce narrative game-texts. Only the latter are stories. One of the problems of studying games and their stories is that the game text is extremely transient. It exists only during a gaming session and while computers can produce screenshots or record game sessions there is no equivalent for pen-and-paper role-playing games. What is left to study is the narrative disposition of the gaming system. Or how stories might emerge from them.
Emergence is a key concept in many modern theories of games and computers. Sherry Turkle (1995) discusses emergence as a key concept in the development of our thinking about computers and our own intelligence. Jesper Juul (2002) sees emerging gameplay directly opposed to the progressive nature of author-controlled stories. While Jenkins (2002) sees emergent narratives as an important factor in the success of The Sims and EverQuest. In this work I actively try to develop a framework how stories can emerge from narrative game systems. In my opinion emergent narratives are the way forward for the further development of narrative games. It is a concept that needs to be explored further if we wish to escape the branching tree plots that dominate ideas about interactive narratives. To me it is not a question whether 'readers will ever be ready for tree fiction' to paraphrase Gareth Rees (quoted in Ryan 2001: 262) but to find a better framework for narrative games that focus on the way narratives can emerge from more or less indeterminate game systems.
Never Ending Stories is a work in progress. I have planned 9 chapters and so far written rough drafts of four of them. I plan to extract some articles from the material I have gathered for this work during the process of writing Never Ending Stories. As a result this text is still in flux. I will try to keep it accessible, so you can refer to it if you wish. Anyways, the proposed contents for Never Ending Stories is:
Chapter 1 – What's the story?
Discussion of what is considered to be a story in literature; Discussion of the sometimes problematic relation between games and stories;
Chapter 2 - Narrative Computer Games
Exposition of computer games and narrative computer games in particular; A model of gaming (see also above)
Chapter 3 – Pen-and-Paper Role-Playing Games
Exposition of pen-and-paper role-playing games based on interviews and inspection of a lot of printed rule-books and modules; Discussion of role-playing games in the light of the model of gaming;
Chapter 4 – Rules of Engagement
Exposition of game rules; Discussion of games and gameplay; Some illustrations of good and bad game design;
Chapter 5 – Interactive Storytelling
Exposition of three common and one hypothetical types of interactive storytelling structures: story trees, story-worlds, rails and fractal stories.
Chapter 6 – Narrative Space
Discussion of spatial structuring of narratives; discussion of narrative space in relation to structural oppositions
Chapter 7 – Characters
Discussion of role playing and character development; discussion of interaction with the game world and in-game characters;
Chapter 8 – Story-Engines
Exposition of formal system for narrative games;
Chapter 9 – Among the Best
Discussion on how all this can be used to analyse existing narrative games; discussion of the potential of narrative games can be further unlocked;
Atkins, Barry (2003) More than a Game, The Computer Game as Fictional Form. Manchester, Manchester University Press
DeMaria, Rusel & Johny L. Wilson (2004) High Score! The illustrated history of electronic games, 2nd edition. New York, McGraw-Hill.
Jenkins, Henry (2002) "Game Design as Narrative Architecture" in Pat Harrington and Noah Frup-Waldrop (eds.) First Person. Cambridge. The MIT Press. Also available at http://web.mit.edu/21fms/www/faculty/henry3/games&narrative.html
Juul, Jesper (2002) "The Open and the Closed: Games of Emergence and Games of Progression". In Mäyrä, Frans (ed) CGDC Conference.
Kent, Steven L. (2001) The Ultimate History of Video Games, From Pokémon and beyond… the story behind the craze that touched our lives and changed the world. Roseville, Prima Publishing.
King, Geoff (2000) Spectacular Narratives, Hollywood in the Age of the Blockbuster. London, I.B. Tauris Publishers
Poole, Steven (2000) Trigger Happy, The Inner Life of Videogames. London, Fourth Estate Limited.
Ryan, Marie-Laure (2001) Narrative as Virtual Reality, Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore, The Hohns Hopkins University Press
Tosca, Susana (2003) "The Quest Problem in Computer Games". Available at http://www.it-c.dk/people/tosca/quest.htm
Turkle, Sherry (1995) Life On The Screen, Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York, Touchstone.