Narrative and Gameplay in Role Playing Games

Posted by Prasad Krishna at Feb 25, 2010 09:30 AM |
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Not all games tell stories but narratives, gameplay, and their relational attributes are a relevant shift observed in the gaming scene, Arun Menon finds out.

This article, the second in a three-part series, examines the elements of role playing games (RPGs), the narrative versus gaming, and the questions of centrality of narratives in RPGs. It focuses and reviews the debates surrounding narratives and gameplay in RPGs.

The section looks at:

  • Narrative versus gameplay and games as the antithesis of narrative, interactivity and gameplay. The debates of the ludologists and the narratologists; and
  • Interactivity and narrative, the mechanics of the game not independent to the narrative.

Narrative versus Gameplay

The narrative vs. gameplay debate has been raging for a few years in media scholarship particularly relating to the (video) gaming industry. Where once the narrative was considered the antithesis of gameplay, there is a noticeable shift towards the former. Developers across genres are incorporating the narrative as an essential element of their products, so much so that a few of them brand themselves as the developer with a difference.

The extremely relevant shift, since the incorporation is not limited to RPGs alone, and a merger or hybridization of different genres. Academicians as well as gamers have called for a diversification of genres so that a gamer may be exposed to a broad possibility of experiences. The movement, although, seems to be in the opposite direction with hybridization of genres but without losing out on possibilities of creating multiple experiences. The Ludologists and the Narratologists differ on gaming, storytelling, and narrative structures and its working within these spaces.

Narrative: The Antithesis of Gameplay

Jesper Juul argues that computer games are not narratives and rather narratives in computer games isolates the ‘computer game-ness’. (I interpret Juul’s computer game-ness as gameplay, can also be read as the mechanics of the game). Juul’s comments are similar to many Ludologists who argue for a focus on the mechanics of gameplay rather than the study of games as media for storytelling as is done by the Narratologists. The focus on the mechanics of the game is derived from the argument that the experience of the game does not solely rest with the experience of the story. Often the narrative limits gameplay and character progression (which includes quest progression where applicable). Reading whole games as entire narratives may be problematic. Narratives may be present in minimal quantities localized within the game. Narrative structures are altogether another medium used to deliver the story. As Jenkins notes:

"Game designers don't simply tell stories. They design worlds and sculpt spaces. It is no accident, for example, that game design documents have historically been more interested in issues of level design than plotting or character motivation."

The delivery of the story through interactive game worlds create a certain process for the narrative to play out. Readings of the narrative alone without the mechanics of gameplay and its contribution would be incomplete. Henry Jenkins seems to term designers more in terms of narrative architects rather than just storytellers. Narratives within games do not conform to the classical modes of narratives, which are used when reading/interpreting games. Such a reading becomes problematic because of the heavy handed import of theory without proper application. A certain amount of incorporation of theory without sufficient examination of the process (or the architecture in Jenkins words) through which the story is told.

Interactivity and Narrative

Interactivity is the process where the game’s world responds to the player and the choices made by the player. The structure is so set up that in addition to the narrative, interactivity allows a certain response/consequence. The consequence or response of the game world does two things: a) increase the potential for an immersive environment where the gamer emotionally engages with the game and b) there are separate plot lines depending entirely on choices made by the player. For example in an epic fantasy RPG, I can ally with the good hero or the bad hero and have different choices and content that follows dependent on this and the following moral decisions. Interactivity is determined by contribution of the player (engagement with the game world, and the subsequent choices in character development/progression) and the narrative is often construed as the one set by the developer and therefore, has credible authorship (questions of authorship of the developer and the co-authorship of the player) and as such both (interactivity and narrative) are different from each other.

As noted by Henry Jenkins in his article Game Design as Narrative Architecture there is a need to acknowledge a few basic points when talking about narratives and storytelling in games. Often when talking about narratives the discussion tends to meander into irrelevant areas locating a narrative in every game where most probably none exists, narrative and storytelling are not intrinsic to the game and not all games tell stories. In one where A throws a ball to B (either can be the player or the NPC [NPC stands for non-player character(s), often found within the game, and does not necessarily have to be graphically coded in text based games. An example of this would be Eternal Duel]), the ball is not expected to bounce up and down, narrating its history and its present predicament, pleading the players character to venture out on a righteous quest [Inspired by Markku Eskelinen “… if I throw a ball at you, I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories”]. It is then important to see that these aspects are limited to specific instances and specific products which in this case would be RPGs. To quote Jenkins:

"You say narrative to the average gamer and what they are apt to imagine is something on the order of a choose-your-own adventure book, a form noted for its lifelessness and mechanical exposition rather than enthralling entertainment, thematic sophistication, or character complexity."

The conceptualization of what a narrative is and how it operates within games need to be rethought since classical influences still dictate theorizations of what narratives (in games) are. The application of film theory to videogames has no doubt led to game studies being influenced particularly in areas of immersive structures and storytelling through comparison to other media.

However, such is its literal interpretation that often ‘the lenses’ used to examine a phenomenon irrevocably colours the reading. The study of a narrative does not mean that storytelling is featured above other aspects of gameplay and the experience of the playthrough is not limited to the experience of the story alone. Immersiveness necessarily does not depend only on the story but also on the fact that a story plays a relevant part in the immersiveness experienced in a role playing game. The operation of narratives in a role playing game would be far more extensive than in any of the other genres.

The ‘role-play’ in RPG involves stories on the character and its present predicament with snapshots of the past which fall into place through progression. Such a model may be observed in Bioshock. The epic fantasy genres allow more freedom largely because the central narrative, if there is one at all, is a loose structure that allows progression any one way. Progression here may be linked to moral choices that the reader makes and the characterization that the reader creates. For instance in Dragon Age: Origins a point comes when the character meets an NPC ‘Sten’ [An NPC character, who murdered an entire family including the children] who agrees to join the group and battle Darkspawn. There are points in the dialogue when Sten argues that death is his redemption and the character depending on how the player has created and visualized the character has to make a choice to either kill Sten for his crime, allow him to join the party, or just leave him caged to be a bait for Darkspawn attacks. This opportunity of making moral choices also affects gameplay and content. Including or excluding Sten in the party means access to different content.

This is where the relational aspects of interactivity and narrative play a part. Two gamers making similar choices will have different experiences based largely on those choices. Dialogue choices, character choices, events in different orders and so forth make up for different playthrough experiences for different individuals even if convergent plotlines are encountered.

Most games do have narrative aspirations. Jenkins argues that game narratives seek to tap into the emotional residues of narrative experiences in other mediums. As such there is an effort to create immersive environments (Immersive environments denote the emotional engagement/investment of the reader/gamer in the game world). Often it is not sufficiently translated into experience. All narratives would be, in this framework, a set of attempts to link with other narratives even as a baser residual or experiential form. Residual narratives are the memories of alternate predecessor narratives engaged by the gamer in the same or other mediums. For example, The Tales of Middle Earth (T.O.M.E) would be more accessible for a gamer, who has read Tolkein and watched the movies. This can also be seen in RPG formats. On a careful examination, most plotlines have some similarity with Dungeons and Dragons, one of the first and successful RPGs. There is a possibility of multiple narratives operating in the same game, experienced through an interactive mode. This is noticed in some of the new releases such as Neocore [The developers of ‘King Arthur: The Role Playing Wargame] and Bioware.

Bioware is the developer of Mass Effect and Mass Effect2, both modern RPGs with revolutionary design. Revolutionary in terms of ability to carry over a narrative into the second release by importing a saved game and observing the consequences of actions taken in the previous game, as well as cater to new players by allowing creation of new characters and entirely new interactive, responsive narratives. The same company also designed Dragon Age: Origins, which is a more traditional RPG in terms of storyline and characterizations. The Traditional RPGs follow the set models that have similarities to J. R. R. Tolkeins fictionalized world and the RPG precursor dungeons and dragons. As mentioned earlier this translates into multiple/different experiences with consecutive engagement with the same game. Since, the possibility of multiple narratives operating within the same game, through interactivity, is noticed in new releases by developers such as Neocore and to an extent in Bioware.

To conclude, narratives in games have been conceptualized and read through different perspectives. An emphasis on the mechanics of the game is relevant with any approach to the narrative in the game. Since, the narrative is not independent of the architecture that delivers it, it is important to acknowledge that narratives in games require completely different approaches.

Filed under: says:
Feb 27, 2010 04:49 AM
What do you think about Ian Bogost's argument that the rhetoric of the game lies in the procedurality that it contains?

Would you say that looking at the methods, techniques, and logics that a game demands or even restricts the player to with respect to the overall setting of the game is perhaps a way of meeting halfway between ludologists and narratologists?
arun says:
May 07, 2010 01:36 PM

Thanks for the comment and apologies for the late reply. Did not notice the comment for a longish while, better late than never i hope.

Let me get right to it.

Ian Bogost's terms "procedurality" and "procedural rhetoric" is common and central to his work "persuasive games" as well as the article "the Rhetoric of the Game". To discuss the points you brought up, perhaps it would be ideal to examine the structure that Bogost talks about. For that reason i prefer his article "Comparitive Videogame Criticism" for he brings in bricolage, now without going too much into bricolage itself, the idea bogost brings out that really apeals to me. For in that article he describes how the designer is the bricoleur, and thus the structure created is dependent on the pieces of the experiential discourses that are brought into play. Here i use experiential narratives quite broadly, including any possible residual modes, cultural values and discourses that may be present in the constructed environment. This then contributes to the 'persuasive effect' of videogames above that of computational persuasion making it unique. How is this relevant? the narrative then becomes slightly more central and non dependent on the rule structures of the game. Juul Jesper's becomes relevant here for he locates these antithetical elements more accurately (to an effect even Jenkins in addressing the narrative architecture fails to locate the antithetical, conflicts between these discourses). Ergo the rhetorics dependence on the procedurality might be a problematic exercise for a lot more of the structure depends also on the experiential. Although it would be erroneous to argue that the structure (i use structure since that implies more than just procedurality) is dependent on the rhetoric alone, i believe there is a constant exchange between the same and that given certain conditions, these exchanges can then generate another narrative - that of the subject.

The experiential narrative that is brought into the construction by the bricoleur influences the structures of gameplay, or from a more removed, distanced perspective the structure and procedurality need not be dependent on the rhetoric. Here i must digress further since Bogost does not stick to a Jenkinsian middle ground (or so i believe) and tends towards a more nuanced ludulogical perspective, thus the problem we are currently faced with. What is the relationality of the narrative or the text to the structure?

The methods, logics, and structure (easier to use and more accessible terminology) of the game as one that creates a "middleground" space between the narratologists and ludologists is problematic. I do agree to some extent with Jenkins and the middleground that he argues for, but to identify the structure's rhetoric, dependent cultural modes and values, playthrough, and gameplay experiences (as independent text), would imply that this much talked about middleground becomes a problematic exercise without tending towards a particular field. I would read Bogost as one who would predominantly tend towards ludology - debatable, but still relevant. Bogost in his article mentions the DIGRA president Frans Mayra's "three theses" for Game Studies quoted below.

"Thesis One: There needs to be a dedicated academic discipline for the study of games.
Thesis Two: This new discipline needs to have an active dialogue with, and be building on of existing ones, as well as having its own core identity.
Thesis Three: Both the educational and research practices applied in game studies need to remain true to the core playful or ludic qualities of its subject matter."
                                                  - Franz Mayra (DIGRA President 2005)

Do you see the problem here? Thesis three appears sound but inherently dismisses any non-ludic narratives and as bogost terms it "Hard core game studies is revealed to be essentialist and doctrinaire" that presumes and privileges the ludic over the literary. In this scenario should we really aspire for the Jenkinsian middleground? or as you say - the techniques and setting becomes the meeting point between these two groups. says:
Nov 23, 2010 04:59 AM
I just wanted to note that there are some games, like Neverwinter Nights or (the classic) Fallout that are obviously games. However, those games where able to "drag" me into the story and i've been more busy with the story, the world, even the "message" than with gameplay. Looking back at them, they are also rather linear, however, they did not feel linear, at least not for me.
You have mentioned a <a href="">ccda dumps</a> lot of valid points I totally agree, however I've been wondering if the ideas (or "mechanics") of those games i've mentioned couldn't be improved in some way to get further down the ideal of "a truely interactive medium", instead of trying to find completely new ways. What I mean is that I believe the "classic games" approach is not a dead end.

On what you have revealed of Amnesia, I am now very excited because those ideas sound very convincing and seem to solve a bit of the problems i saw for myself with e.g. penumbra.

Another thing is that personally I really love "exploration". I love running around that virtual worlds, exploring every tiny piece. This is not real gameplay, it isnt even very interactive though it obviously feels so. It's like reading the description of a world in a book, but in the order you like. You can come up with the "meaning" by yourself, while for a film, the director has to find the best pictures to communicate the idea.
I think this is an important factor for good "games", which try to tell something.
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Prasad Krishna

Prasad Krishna previously worked in a newspaper and some reputed publications. He is MA in English, PGD in Journalism and LLB from the University of Delhi.