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A narrative theory of games

Article · May 2012

DOI: 10.1145/2282338.2282365


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Espen Aarseth
IT University of Copenhagen


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A Narrative Theory of Games
Espen Aarseth
Center for Computer Games Research
IT University of Copenhagen
2300 Copenhagen, Denmark
+45 7218 5045

ABSTRACT study games through the lens of narrative theory, the lens itself
This paper presents a narrative theory of games, building on must be critically examined as well.
standard narratology, as a solution to the conundrum that has When we apply the perspectives and models from one
haunted computer game studies from the start: How to approach form onto another, our ability to assess the incongruities as well as
software that combines games and stories? the similarities between the two forms becomes critical. Man is a
pattern-finding animal. It is extremely easy to find parallels, pre-
Categories and Subject Descriptors cursors, and points of overlap, and thus seduce oneself to con-
K.8.0. [Personal Computing]: Games clude that A is a form of B. The responsible theorist, therefore,
should take the opposite position as their null-hypothesis: A is not
General Terms a form of B unless proven otherwise.
Theory, Design
Consequently, in the context of games and narratives,
Keywords one must be careful not to assume the task of proving that games
Storygames, narratology, ludonarrative model are narrative forms, but to look for evidence and counter-evidence
with equal zeal. To further complicate matters, “games”, as Witt-
1. INTRODUCTION genstein pointed out in Philosophical Investigations (1953: §66),
Computer games generate many questions and challenges for is not a category that it is possible to define formally. So how can
narrative theory. The very first humanist article on computer we know that the phenomena we call computer games are even
games, “Interactive Fiction” by Anthony Niesz and Norman Hol- games in the first place? Successful definitions of narratives has a
land (1984: 125) talks about games as an “enigma […] to literary very long history and appear to be easier to come by, so at least
theory.” Are games a type of narrative? If not, do they contain there is some fairly firm theoretical ground to stand on: Narrative
narratives? Is narratology useful for the study of games? Should theory.
the definition of narrative be modified or expanded to incorporate As the study of computer games gelled into an emerging
games? Can the study of games yield insights useful for narratol- institutional practice around 2001, the question of whether games
ogy? Perhaps we instead need a parallel paradigm, a “ludology” are a form of stories has become a prominent issue among the
(Frasca 1999) to understand games the way narratology is used to practitioners, a touchstone used to signal one’s familiarity with the
understand narrative? new scholarly field. The last ten years have seen a number of
Regardless of the answers to these questions, the fact comments on the so-called “ludology vs. narratology” debate, but,
remains that computer games have emerged as a dominant cultur- ironically, very few have actually engaged the question of the
al form in the sense that it influences other forms such as cinema, relation between games and stories through a properly narratolog-
TV, literature, theatre, painting and music. Therefore, the study of ical analysis, using the basic concepts and models of modern
these other forms ignores the rapidly evolving field of games at narrative theory. Instead, this “debate” has been carried out on a
their own peril. But how should such theoretical explorations be meta-level, through comments on, and characterizations of, the
carried out? When changing focus from one empirical field to debate itself rather than by direct engagement with it. This meta-
another, it becomes crucial to examine the examination process debate can be seen as a symptom of the birth pangs of a new
and the tools used as well as the object of the examination. Do academic field. Too often the positions taken have been un-
theoretical concepts such as “story”, “fiction”, “character,” “narra- nuanced, untenable, and therefore unproductive: “Games are
tion” or “rhetoric” remain meaningful when transposed to a new always stories” (Murray 2004, p. 2). “[T]he computer game is
field, or do they turn into empty, misleading catachreses, blinding simply not a narrative medium” (Juul 1999, p 1).1
us to the empirical differences and effectively puncturing our Tragically, in the field of game studies the term “narra-
chances of producing theoretical innovation? Critical self- tology” has changed meaning and does not refer to the academic
reflection is a hallmark of scholarship, and a necessary virtue discipline of narrative theory, but to a more or less mythical posi-
when we examine a phenomenon with critical tools developed for tion taken by an imagined group of people who are seen to believe
another type of phenomenon altogether. In other words, when we that games are stories. It is high time, and hopefully not too late,
Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for to reinstate the original meaning and function of narratology, and
personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are ground the debate in narratological terminology and theory. Not to
not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that prove that all games are narrative (they are not) but to show that
copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy
otherwise, or republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists,
requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.
FDG '12, May 29-June 1, 2012 Raleigh, NC, USA. 1
A position from which Juul later wisely retreated (cf Juul 2001).
Copyright (c) 2012 ACM 978-1-4503-1333-9/12/05... $10.00.
there is much to gain from a rigorous application of narratology to who echoes Jenkins’ misleading nomenclature of “ludologists” vs
game studies. “narratologists” simply has not read the literature itself.
What has so far been lacking is a detailed, robust under- Any attempt to clarify the relations between games and narratives
standing of the various ways computer software have been used to will probably end up addressing both issues, but here the second,
combine elements from narratives and games into a number of theoretical issue will be given priority. The question of whether
quite different ludo-narratological constructs. What also needs to games can succeed as a narrative medium does hinge on the ques-
be realized is that story-game amalgams primarily is entertain- tion of whether games can be considered narrative at all, but
ment software, works that contain many forms of media content answering it is not a job for theory, but rather for (future) criticism
and because of their computer-based, Turing-complete existence and, above all, creative innovation.
can emulate any kind of semiotic genre, including, of course, As I have noted earlier (Aarseth 1997: 5), the difference between
traditional stories. Calling works like Max Payne or FallOut 3 games and narratives is not clear-cut. However, games and stories
games or stories is a metonymical shorthand usage of the terms seem to share a number of elements, namely a world, its agents,
that confuses and obscures the composite makeup of these crea- objects and events. It is crucial to note that these elements are also
tions. the cognitive building blocks of human reality, as well as of medi-
ated representations of the same. It is thus fruitful to give priority
2. Ludology vs. Narrativism to neither games nor stories, but rather to base the model in the
The debate of whether games are stories has suffered from a lack
primary reality that spawned both, and that they both are part of,
of rigorous, theoretically grounded reflection and also from a
in somewhat different ways.
basic confusion between normative and descriptive approaches. In
reality this is not one, but two debates conflated: one is the design- As pointed out above, it must be noted that “games” are not simp-
oriented discussion of the potential and failings of game-based ly games, but complex software programs that can emulate any
narratives, and another is the discussion of whether games can be medium, including film, text/novel, graphic novel, and, for that
said to be stories. The former is normative and partly speculative, matter, simulate board games and sports. We often commit the
partly critical, and the latter is descriptive and theoretical. These mistake of using the metonymic term “games” for software that in
two debates have a partial overlap of participants, usually and reality are integrated crossmedia packages, such as Max Payne
unfortunately identified by the terms “ludologists” and “narratol- (2001) which contains graphic novel pages and movie-like
ogists”2 but one debate concerns the viability of a semi-utopian cutscenes (short animated movie clips that interrupt the game-
hybrid game-story genre, and the other is concerned with the play), as well as ludic components. Is Max Payne a story or a
seemingly conflicting definitions of games and (in particular) game? Is it a hybrid? An amalgam? Whatever the answer, it seems
narratives. The “ludologist” position was not, as has been claimed, clear that it is not purely a game, but a piece of software that does
“to see the focus shift onto the mechanics of game play” (Jenkins contain, among other things, a game.
2001) but to emphasize the crucial importance of combining the
mechanical and the semiotic aspects and to caution against and 3. The common denominators: What do
criticize the uncritical and unqualified application of terms such as games and stories have in common?
“narrative” and “story” to games. In other words, the ludologists’ There is not one, but many different techniques which have been
critique was a reaction to sloppy scholarship (in which key terms applied more or less successfully to make “games” “tell stories,”
are not defined), one-sided focus and poor theorizing, and not a and a ludo-narratological model of this design space must account
ban against the application of narrative theory to games as such for the ways in which “narrative games” differ from one another.
(an act they all had committed themselves): There can be no single mode of narrativity in entertainment soft-
I wish to challenge the recurrent practice of applying the theories of ware, given the diversity of design solutions. To mention a few
literary criticism to a new empirical field, seemingly without any critical examples, MYST, Knights of The Old Republic (KOTOR) and
reassessment of the terms and concepts involved. (Aarseth 1997: 14) Half-Life occupy very different positions in this design space, and
That this challenge has been mistaken for a ban on the use of a ludo-narratological model must reflect this diversity.
narrative theory in game studies is nothing less than amazing, and My present approach is to see the ludo-narrative design-
perhaps goes to show that humanist academics are often less space as four independent, ontic dimensions: WORLD, OBJECTS,
astute readers, scholars and interpreters than their training gives AGENTS, and EVENTS. Every game (and every story) contains
them occasion to presume. It could also be suspected that anyone these four elements, but they configure them differently. Game
worlds can typically be linear, multicursal, or open, and this has
great effect on the game’s perceived narrative structure. Objects
(including avatars and player vehicles) can be dynamic, user-
A terminology Henry Jenkins (2001; 2004) introduces to label created, or static, and again we see a span between the ludic
the two sides in the debate. This was unfortunate, because it ob- (dynamic, simulated) and the narrative (static). Agents can be
scured the fact that all the so-called “ludologists” were trained presented as rich, deep and round characters (the narrative pole),
in narratology and used narratology in their studies of games. In or shallow, hollow bots (the ludic pole). The sequence of events
his influential article, Jenkins made it sound like the “ludolo- can be open, selectable, or plotted, and the narratological notion
gists” (Aarseth 1997, Frasca 1998, Juul 1999, Eskelinen 2001) of nuclei (kernels; events that define that particular story) and
were opposed to the application of narratology to games – “One satellites (supplementary events that fill out the discourse) can be
gets rid of narrative as a framework for thinking about games used to describe four different game types:
only at one's own risk” – and not merely critical to the weak sto- 1. The linear game (Half-Life): fixed kernels, flexible satellites.
ry-game hybrids at the time, and weak narratological applica-
tions. Jenkins’ article, published on his web site in 2001, ap- 2. The hypertext-like game (Myst, Dragon’s Lair): Choice be-
pears to be the first time the word “narratologist” was used as a tween kernels, fixed satellites.
label for one side in what he termed a potential “blood feud”.
3. The “creamy middle” quest game (KOTOR, Oblivion): Choice In relation to games, but also to naturally occurring phenomena in
between kernels, flexible satellites. the real world, there are four elements in this model which can be
4. The non-narrative game (Chess, The Sims): No Kernels, flexi- said to exist across the categories: Events, things, places and
ble discourse: just a game. characters. These are ordered by games, and narratives order
them. This is the common ground, prescribed by narratology,
which can be used to describe the relations between the two cate-
gories. In addition, the notion of what makes a story that particu-
Five relevant ludo-narrative examples will be analyzed to illus- lar story is a crucial component that can also contribute to solving
trate the variable model: Oblivion, Façade, Fahrenheit (aka Indi- our question. I am thinking of the concepts of kernels and satel-
go Prophesy), Half-Life 2 and Knights of the Old Republic. These lites (or constitutive and supplementary events, cf. Chatman 1978:
analyses show that story-games display very different features 53-6). A kernel is what makes us recognize the story; take away
along the four dimensions outlined above; in other words, there the kernel and the story is no longer the same. If the wolf does not
are many ways in which a game can be combined with a story, eat Red and her granny, the story cannot be recognized as Little
and so it does not make sense to look for one singular type of Red Riding Hood, so the eating is a kernel. D’Artagnan must
ludic story. Together with the metonymical problem, this diversity befriend the three musketeers, or the story is not the one we find
explains much of the confusion in the earlier debate and the pre- in Dumas’ novel. Satellites are what can be replaced or removed
vious lack of success in reaching a good, theoretical understand- while still keeping the story recognizable, but which defines the
ing of the narrative aspects of games. This model and analysis will discourse; replace the satellites and the discourse is changed. Red
demonstrate that narratology, properly applied, and combined may stop in the wood to pick a flower, or she may not; this choice
with a broad sampling of different game types, can provide a does not cause us to reject or accept a particular rendering of the
fruitful and enlightening perspective on games and game design. fairy tale. Oidipus may eat dinner with his mom/wife, or he may
not; either way we would not question the identity of the play.
These two concepts, kernels and satellites, allow us to say some-
4. What is a Narrative? thing about the ways games can contain one or several potential
In the debate (insofar as it has taken place) it is sometimes argued stories.
that the standard notion of narrative is outdated and in need of
expansion because it is poorly suited to describe games. Narratol-
ogist Marie-Laure Ryan suggests that “narratology must expand 5. World
beyond its original territory” (2006: 98). Commentators such as Gameworlds are physical or pseudo-physical (virtual) structures
Jenkins (2001) have suggested that narratives in games can be that are clearly delimited and which can be described by geometry
spatial, embedded and emergent. This conflation of any kind of or topology. They are different from so-called fictional worlds in
diegetic or experienced situation with storytelling is what I have that they, unlike fictional worlds, have a measurable, concrete
previously labeled narrativism (Aarseth 2004, see also Aarseth extension that can be explored directly by an independent agent.
1997:94 and Juul 2001). If an(y) interesting experience in a game Fictional worlds depend on the imagination, whereas game worlds
is an “emergent narrative,” where does it end? And why limit this have objective existence, even if they only exist via computing
category to game-based situations? At some point it becomes hard machinery.
to distinguish narratives from any other type of worldly experi-
ence, at which time (or long before) we might as well give up the However, the world presented in a game is not neces-
discussion. Alternatively, we can consult existing narratology and sarily a game world only. A game can contain two types of space,
see if the standard definitions of what a narrative is might not still the ludic and the extra-ludic; the arena of gameplay, and the
be useful when we are examining games. Here is a model based surrounding non-playable space. In certain games most of the
on classical 20th century narratology, which describes narrative space is extra-ludic, and the ludic space consists of narrow trajec-
and its constitutive elements:3 tories or corridors surrounded by static scenery. In other games,
such as chess, the ludic space takes up the entire world. In others
A hierachical model (a pragmatic synthesis
of many theories)
yet again, the players expand the ludic space by constructing more
of it as part of the gameplay.

Story- ! !telling
Story (what)!

Discourse (how)!
In a previous paper (Aarseth 2005) I tried to to explain story-like
games in terms of their quest structure, and used the shape of the
ludic landscape as key to understanding how different game de-
Events! Existents! sign strategies convey story material as part of the player’s dis-
covery of the landscape through a quest journey. I listed three
Narration! Sign chain! main types of landscape structure, a) the linear corridor (Half-
Fabula! Plot! Things, places,! Life) the multicursal or hub-shaped labyrinth (KOTOR, Far Cry
(Shuzet)! characters! 2), and the open world (Oblivion, WoW). If we add to this the
one-room game (Façade) and separate hub from multicourse, we
How the story is told!
The chrono- end up with five clearly different topological structures which
have,order (voice, focalization
perhaps controversially, chosen to etc)!
place sjuzet on the have clear implications for the ease with which a particular story
story- rather than on the discourse-side of narrative. The reason
of events! can be conveyed. To complicate matters a bit, we see that the five
The material stream of
is that I subscribe to the idea that storieswords,
are dependent on the
sounds or images! structures can be combined to form more complex patterns, such
arrangement of events
The arranged, including
unfolding order of selection
events! of order. Oidipus Rex as a game with a linear beginning, opening up to an open quest
or A Study in Scarlet would not be the same stories if some oth- world in the middle, and then closing in at the end to another
er orders of selection were followed. However, the theoretical linear corridor. Typical examples of this are Oblivion and Fallout
argument that follows is not dependent on this narratological 3. Also, games can consist of an open landscape littered with
smaller labyrinths (dungeons) such as the caves and instances we can be influenced but not the satellites, would typically be a non-
find in World of Warcraft. linear story (a hypertext fiction) and not a game. Events can also
be constricted temporarily, to let the story-elements be conveyed
through traditional narration in an otherwise high-agency game. A
6. Objects typical example is Half-Life 2 where Gordon Freeman is some-
Objects in games can be categorized in terms of their malleability: times immobilized and/or transported on rails through the land-
a) static, non-interactable objects b) Static, usable objects c) De- scape, or positioned in a closed room for the duration of some
structible (buildings in a RTS) d) Changeable (e.g. weapons in NPC dialogue.
Resident Evil 4) e) Creatable (E.g. armor in World of Warcraft) f)
Inventible (creatures in Spore, computers in Minecraft). Of
course, one and the same game can contain all of these categories,
and most contain more than one type. They are important because 9. The Variable Model
they determine the degree of player agency in the game: a game After having described the variables possible in each of the four
which allows great player freedom in creating or modifying ob- dimensions, it is now time to put them together in a single model:
jects will at the same time not be able to afford strong narrative

7. Characters Ontic level: World Objects Agents Events

After universe, characters are the most important element in Inaccessible !Noninteractable !Deep, rich,! !fully plotted!
crossmedia productions. The characters found in games are some- Narrative pole! ! ! ! !round characters!
Single room !Static, usable!
times imported from other media, and can be classified in terms of !
their depth/shallowness, and their malleability/potential for player Linear corridor !Modifiable! ! ! !Dynamic sate-!
control. The game characters can be categorized into three differ- !
!lites/ playable!
ent kinds: a) “Bots” (short for robots), with no individual identity Multicursal ! Destructible ! ! !!
labyrinth ! ! ! !flat characters!
(e.g. the metrocops in Half-Life 2); b) Shallow characters (names ! ! ! ! ! !Dynamic kernels!
and individual appearance, but little personality) and c) Deep Hubshaped!
quest landsape!
!Creatable !!

characters (Trip and Grace from Façade, Lucas Kane from Fahr- !
enheit). A clear parallel to the latter two categories can be found Ludic pole!
Open ! !Inventable! !Bots, no ! !No kernels !
landscape ! ! ! !individual identity !(pure game)!
in E. M. Forster’s classic Aspects of the Novel (1927), where he
makes the distinction between flat characters (who basically stay
the same no matter what happens to them, and round ones (who
change and develop as the story progresses). As with objects, the The four-dimensional model with game examples:
same game can contain a mix of these categories, and again the
level of malleability determines the authorial affordance of the
game. In addition, it can be claimed that the richness of character Ontic level: World Objects Agents Events
is an important authorial tool that characterizes the positive poten- Pure story!
tial of authorship in games, where malleability and user control (War and Peace)! Inaccessible
! !
!Deep, rich,!
!round characters!
!fully plotted!

limit authorial affordances. Single room !Static, usable!

Fahrenheit! !
Linear corridor !Modifiable! ! ! !Dynamic sate-!
! ! ! ! ! !lites/ playable!

8. Events Half Life 2! Multicursal

! ! !
! Destructible
labyrinth ! ! ! !flat characters!
Events can be categorized by the status and presence of kernels ! ! ! ! ! !Dynamic kernels!
and satellites: a) fully plotted (pure story); b) dynamic satellites KOTOR! Hubshaped! ! Creatable !!
quest landsape!
(playable story); c) dynamic kernels (multipath/quest games); and Oblivion!
d) no kernels (pure game). A work in which the choice of kernels Open ! !Inventable! !Bots, no ! !No kernels !
Pure game! landscape ! ! ! !individual identity !(pure game)!

Satellite in- ! Not possible Possible As seen here, the example profiles seem to suggest that the most
Kernel! fluence
Influence! important dimension for storytelling in games is that of
A linear story A linear game agents/characters. This indicates that the most effective way of
No influence creating ludo-narrative content is to invest in character-creation,
(War & Peace) (half-Life 2)
by making the characters rich, deep and interesting.
Choose A nonlinear story “creamy middle”
Alternatives quest game It should also be noted that the first two dimensions,
(Oblivion, KOTOR) World and Objects, are describing not so much narrative elements
Full influence N/A just a game as player agency. Likewise, the two latter dimensions, Agents and
(Chess, Minecraft) Events, are describing not so much gameplay as author agency.
Hence, we can make the observation that the only the latter two
y! e! e! e! are narrative dimensions per se, while the first two are describing
y! am am
s tor S tor G am ”G
ar nea
r ear
es tG
ontological aspects of the game world, rather than inherent “narra-
ne nli Lin
Li No Qu “P tive” qualities of worlds and objects. There is nothing necessarily
Story! Game!
narrative about topological variation in world structure, nor about 11. REFERENCES
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