Ludologists need to Shut the Fuck Up about Narrative

Another day another ludologist trying to convince people that “Hey, actually, if you think about it, stories in games are actually bad???”. The exact article isn’t important because I feel like this exact same article has been posted by a dozen different people at a dozen different times. It’s all the same arguments every time and frankly, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. Ludologists should do what they do best — discuss rules and how rules interact and what creates interesting interactions — because all of us who make games have our ludologist hat. If people can say interesting thing about rules that helps and informs are work, that’s GREAT. Generally they don’t because most people who label themselves ludologists seem to mostly argue very pedantic things or try and sort things into boxes, but it’d be a complete lie to suggest that somehow people concerned about the rules of play never said anything wise or enlightening about the rules of play and the less time spent in these horrible pointless sinkholes the better.

More frustrating is that most of the arguments made AGAIN and AGAIN and AGAIN are just plain bad. Some aren’t bad, though. Find one of these articles and someone will explain to you why games are less good at telling narrative than other mediums. They’ll tell you that your choices come at the direct cost of being able to tell a crisp, perfect narrative. They’re not wrong — or at least, as wrong. So logically, why are we making stories in games? I’ve even seen someone say that designing games by thinking like this is science driven game design. “If logically we can say that games make less good narratives than other mediums, CLEARLY they’re bad.”

Well, this all comes to a single important fact that I feel like overshadows all other. Acknowledging this fact might actually be the post “Scientific” thing you can do on this topic. I really do think it’s this simple.

People like Narratives in games. They really really like them.

Like that’s it, end of story, folks! You have your hypothesis  and you can test it. There are plenty of ludocentric games out there.  We can look at how people respond to these things… and at the very least I’m pretty sure it’s clear that there is no great revelations going on. No one realizing “Oh man ahah this story stuff was so dumb I shoulda just watched Game of Thrones sorry Dragon Age”. You see two different kinds of games being played in two different ways.  You see stuff like streams that make it really weird. Like the first gut impulse might be “Ah hah! Consuming game stories as a linear fashion! People just want games to be movies!” but what’s worse than a games narrative? A game narrative presented as a linear narrative unchanged or edited. People get invested in these technically-suboptimal stories and then we go out of there way to watch someone else enjoy them so they can vicariously enjoy them again. People deeply connect and care about these stories. So this shouldn’t be “Why are you making narrative games when those are less good than ludo games?” the question should be “Wait, this doesn’t make any sense. We should be figuring out the unique things that games do that make these technically flawed narratives resonate so hard (This should be obvious to anyone who’s done story driven RP and got deeply invested in a plot that elsewhere would be a half star movie, but lets pretend this is a great unanswered quest).

A common eyerolling sentiment is that people were somehow tricked. AMBIGUOUS EGOCENTRIC GAME DEVS WITH CINEMA ENVY are forcing their shit on people. Or maybe it’s just CULTURE and we all just gotta realize this is bad so we can move on to planting farms on a hex map. Or maybe the PLAYERS ARE DECEIVING THEMSELVES which… is the stupidest argument (thankfully most people don’t go that far but I’ve seen it).

The thing is, humans make stories. They make stories with everything they can. They make stories with spoken words, written words, sung words, how about JUST notes? How about a single or multiple paintings? How about telling a story through a Rube Goldberg machine? We sit down and tell stories with our own choices and dice or just standing around pretending to be vampires with a GM that’s nothing but a glorified referee. Stories in videogames are something to be expected and is “Business as usual” for humanity.

Perhaps the stupidest of these ideas that come a lot is “Well why not a movie or a show?” as if that is such an easy choice. Let me choose this other thing I have little experience in that is notoriously hard to break into and can be far more expensive and DO THAT. OR about writing? or a comic? Or things that take a super intense level of skill in one particular ability you might not have and which has a work load that is hard to distribute? Sometimes you have the luxury of choosing your medium, but for most artists, there is one medium and that’s it. And for many of us, we just want stories in game format. I connect with stories in games differently than I can connect with the stories of movies. Undertale was a more important media experience to me than The Shawshank Redemption or really any other movie I can think of… and I’m not going to say that Undertale is near the level of execution and perfection as the best movies ever made… but that interactive element and the weight it could inflict on me gave it such a leg up over the competition that a game maker game programmed by a musician resonated so deeply with me. So if you ask gamers to list their favorite stories, there are going to be games in there that, when compared to their adjacent peers, make NO SENSE if you’re looking at story telling as just the quality of the narrative.

You can’t ignore this and claim that games without story are better. Because first, that doesn’t even make sense (You might as well argue that football is better than DnD and waste all our times in a more novel way) but also flies in the face of the fact that this format is deeply successful with a lot of people.

10 thoughts on “Ludologists need to Shut the Fuck Up about Narrative

  1. movies fail as a story medium cos you can choose to close your eyes and miss the visuals of a particular scene or you can mute it, even replace audio tracks entirely. and don’t get me started on blinking
    the only acceptable and optimal storytelling medium is to have the viewer bound, eyes stitched open, mouth closed, nose sealed shut, no unforseen tastes or smells interfering with the experience.

  2. Thanks for this article. I love seeing content by you, always so well thought out and respectable opinions even if they are reactive articles.

    A lot of times in games I’m more concerned with the gameplay than the story, but that doesn’t mean that story doesn’t belong in the game. I am notorious for skipping cutscenes cause I don’t want my gameplay interrupted and dropping RPGs at the final boss fight cause the game’s not fun anymore. Still some games (Undertale) tell a story and tell it well.

    Possibly the most ignored part of the whole conversation is emotion. Emotion is such a huge part of narratives, and the player is so involved with the events of the game that it’s easy for them have meaningful emotional interaction with it. “Who cares about what the ‘story’ is, did it make you feel?: is the bottom line for me.

  3. Oh god yes to that last part. Videogames can make catharsis feel so much stronger than any other medium. It’s like the difference between being happy someone else is happy and being just plain happy. Narrative for narrative sake might not be videogames strongsuit, but narrative can be a tool to unlock a lot of other emotions that do seem to mostly be the domain of games and real life.

  4. IMO, you should remove “about narrative” to maximize the accuracy of your title.

  5. Ahahaha that’s way harder on ludologists than I’d expect you to be. While I do think a lot of them buy into a lot of useless pedantic BS, I gotta resist blanketing the entire study of rules like that (even if most of the studiers are pretty bad at it)

  6. Are any ludologists not really bad at it? It’s the same problem academia has whenever they try to study any part of pop culture that’s too young for them to have been fully enmeshed into — since they have an outsider view, they take one legitimate insight and interpret it insanely.

    The “story” thing is a great example. Their initial insight is right — videogame writing tends to be poor, and the whole “game over” thing really does screw up any narrative ambitions (there’s a reason why the videogames which tend to be acclaimed for their storytelling — the System Shock/Bioshock games, Planescape: Torment, SoulsBourne, various walking simulators — all have unusual ways of handling “you died”). Where they go wrong is with every conclusion they draw from this.

    Because they’ve never told their friends stories about things that have happened to them when playing various action games, they don’t realize that every single non-abstract videogame ever has a narrative no matter what you do, even if that narrative is as simple as “a spaceship shot a lot of stuff and then made a giant starfish-looking machine explode”.

    Because they’ve never played many videogames other than Space Invaders and the 30 minute art game du jour, they don’t realize that while the traditional videogame structure is poor for narrative, it’s FANTASTIC for worldbuilding. Everyone loves to tinker in a simulationist sandbox and see what happens, right? So, let’s populate our little simulation with towns and people, and then give a little context on who these people are and what they do in the world…. and whoopsie, we’ve created a (back)story!

    Because they’ve never played any VNs or western RPGs, they don’t realize that many kinds of mechanical play are only possible with narrative. Choosing my dialogue options when talking to The Master in Fallout is a mechanical challenge by almost any definition, but without a narrative context, it’s nonsense — it would literally just be blindly picking between options A, B, or C on a finite-state machine hoping to move to the “I win” state.

    People like to talk about “outsider voices adding new perspectives” and what-not, but usually, all an outsider voice can add is a ton of ignorance. Once they’re no longer ignorant, in almost every case, they’re no longer an outsider. Maybe that once-outsider will have something interesting to say once he’s an insider, but until then, he’s just going to write dumb things based on his lack of knowledge of the topic.

    Also, ludologists REALLY need to stop writing their stupid “level 1 analyses”. I’m a bit more tired of it than most I imagine, being a part of the Doom modding community (E1M1 tends to be one of their favorite targets for this nonsense), but I never want to see another of these ever again in my life. “See, this enemy placement introduces the player to the concept of fighting things” — THE FIRST TIME A PLAYER SEES ANYTHING IT’S INTRODUCING THE PLAYER TO THAT CONCEPT BY-FUCKING-DEFINITION. YOUR STATEMENT IS TAUTOLOGICAL. YOU ARE LITERALLY SAYING NOTHING, BUT MAKING IT SOUND PROFOUND BY DRESSING IT UP IN FANCY WORDS. SHUT THE FUCK UP ALREADY.

  7. Also, I saw that on Twitter you mentioned something about Prey’s reviews — is there some story there beyond “it’s reviewing terribly”? The fact that it’s reviewing so badly breaks my heart (Arkane is my favorite active Western developer [possibly my favorite active developer overall, although it’s a tough call between them and From], and I loved Prey — it’s the System Shock 3 I’ve wanted for 15 years), but that’s probably to be expected about a game that launched with massive save-game corruption issues in a sub-genre that was deemed “too hardcore to be profitable” almost 20 years ago.

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