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.

Review: Rethinking Agency and Immersion, Gonzalo Frasca

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Rethinking Agency and Immersion: Playing with Videogame Characters.” N-Space (2001). <;.

Frasca proposes a design for a game for social change based on the writings of Drama theorists Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal, using a variation of Will Wright’s popular “Sims” line. Frasca argues that gamers aren’t actually concerned about the personal lives of their player-characters, instead desiring a inobtrusive puppet for them to play through (1-2). He notes that Will Wright’s Sims games separate gamers from their characters; thus, the perfect method of character exhibition is found (4). Using the game’s potential for user generated content, Frasca proposes a game where players can create, edit, and upload their own Sims characters to create virtual situations they can observe and ideally learn about (4-5). He describes his design as being a “meta-simulation […] a simulation that allows simulations,” and counts this as directly inspired by Boal’s Forum Theatre, one part of the Theatre of the Oppressed (6).

The biggest flaw in Frasca’s design is one which he notes himself: that user generated content allows for the inclusion of a variety of sometimes good, often inappropriate content (7). Frasca does not, however, look at the shortcomings from a Dramatist perspective—that is, the failures of Brecht, the inspiration for Boal and thus Frasca. In his short essay, drama critic John Gassner mentions Brecht’s emphasis on epiphany without empathy, which gives the epiphany no grounding and thus causes the failure of his plays to educate the audience (Gassner 113).

Also Cited:

Gassner, John. “Catharsis and the Modern Theatre.” Aristotle’s Poetics’ and English Literature : A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Elder Olson. vols. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr, 1985. 108-13.


So I’ve been happily going about my Honours research and preparation, talking about catharsis, games, films, plays, etc etc etc, and suddenly, today, it hits me. I talk to my supervisor and then to one of my tutors, and they both say the same thing, “It sounds like you’re more interested in Tragedy than Catharsis.”

They’re right!  I feel like I’ve taken the longest route to get there, and I’m not throwing out any of my ideas.

But now, instead of thinking, “What causes Catharsis, specifically Aristolean Katharsis?”  I am thinking, “How can I make Tragedy playable?”

What is even more exciting for me is reading the transcript for the Friday 27th March morning panel at GDC 2009, focusing on The Role of Games in Personal and Social Change.

It seems like my research is going to be very timely, and hopefully very relevant.  No pressure or anything! 🙂

Two quotes that particularly caught my eye…