The Myth of the Unnarratable Game

Tonight, I was talking to a friend online, and he said he was having a debate with his housemate over whether or not all games had narratives.

My personal opinion? Yes, all games have narratives. It is important that we do no limit our perception of what constitutes a narrative. Generally speaking, a narrative/plot/story is a sequence of events tied together and recounted in such a way as to create meaning. According to Aristotle, a plot requires action, but not necessarily character. There are good plots, and there are bad or weak plots. There are plots that are simple and some that are complex, and they can be categorised according to their strutural and formal attributes.

There is also the whole aspect of self-narration and identity formation that I’m not even going to touch in this post. That’s huge and I love it, but that isn’t what this is about.

There were arguments put forward about MMOs (grind erases narrative), as well as sandbox and “sim” toys (note: I use the term “toy” because Will Wright does). I was surprised that “puzzle games” didn’t come up.

If you play any of these types of games, here’s an activity to do: think about the best game you played of it. What is going through your mind? Key events and moments, strung together in a sequence. There ma or may not have been character, but there was action. By Aristotle’s definition, your “unnarratable” game just achieved the status, “Plot!” Congratulations. You just narrated the unnarratable.

2 thoughts on “The Myth of the Unnarratable Game

  1. Hi Ellen,
    I just found your website and thought it is really interesting. I am myself a digital culture student, and I agree that games are narratives (although I find it difficult to categorize games as ‘art’, but as a media student art is not [only] my main concern). You argue, though, that games are narratives despite the fact there are no characters. I would consider the player or the avatar the characters. Aren’t they?

    • I recently got in an email discussion about what “art” was and what “games” were. Thanks for reminding me to post my definitions 🙂

      In a God Game or a Puzzle Game, the player isn’t necessarily taking a role with personality. Consider Tetris: what character are you playing? If you like the old definition of character as “a defining quality,” then it’s easy to say that the player’s character is “puzzle solver” or “brick layer”: whatever you deem their in-game function to be. But if you think of them in terms of “a person in a play or novel,” then it becomes more difficult to create a personality profile of the player’s role.

      So basically, I think it really depends on your definition of character. I’m just trying to stick with the latter version, so as to counter arguments that some games aren’t story-driven because there supposedly aren’t even characters 🙂

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