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.