There's a running joke on the GFW radio podcast about turning games into narratives. Shawn Elliott and Robert Ashley say: Thrusting a narrative onto any game at all is like trying to tell a story with a minigolf course. Video games are no more a narrative medium than minigolf; their basic contours are defined by the demands of play, not storytelling.
Why modern game designers are so bent on throwing a thin veil of story over the most innocuous and self-explanatory forms of play-- Tetris, Bejeweled, and what-have-you-- is an interesting question in itself. When I played Boom Blox, I never required an explanation of why I was hurling balls at block-towers, and still less one that involved saving a townfull of block-beavers. There is something willfully perverse about devoting man-hours towards concocting a narrative excuse for tossing virtual bowling-balls at towers. Throwing shit at towers is its own reward.
But on the other hand, I think that the whole argument does too little credit to our intrinsic human craving to turn every experience into a narrative. Case in point: When I was at Cedar Point this summer (America's Roller Coast!) I rode a roller coaster with a story. Last summer, I actually played a mini golf course with a narrative. If you watch a lot of sports coverage (and the Olympics is a good case of this) it dawns on you that every aspect of competition is covered by subjecting it to a narrative logic: a runner's struggle to overcome the obstacles of his troubled youth, the gymnast's last shot at redemption.
Narrative, like play, is one of the most basic tools we posses as human beings for coping with experience. And just as play can be fundamentally empowering, there is something distinctly empowering about using the tools of narrative to throw a net of meaning over our lives. It is by spinning out stories and engaging in play that we get our most distinctive sense of our selves as people, come to understand who we are, understand the natural and social world around us, and turn that world to our ends. Games always find themselves getting arbitrarily transformed into stories because the play and storytelling have a common function in human life.
I was reading Joseph O'Neill's excellent novel Netherland earlier this summer, and that book stuck with me when I was thinking about the function of narrative outside of literature. Netherland is about a lot of things-- immigrant experience, cricket, the aftermath of 9/11 in New York, friendship-- but it is most fundamentally about the protagonist's need for a narrative capable of tying his shattered life and family back together. During the novel he meets Eliza, a woman who professionally arranges photo albums for clients, culling piles and piles of photos and pasting them into leather albums. Her comment on the practice could serve as a statement of the book's mastering idea:
“Eliza put away the albums. “people want a story,' she said. “They like a story.”...
“A story,” I said suddenly. “Yes. that's what I need.”
I wasn't kidding.
Photo arrangement is a metaphor for the basic business of making sense of our lives. The American moral philosopher David Velleman proposed a conception of moral reasoning that develops this idea in fastidious detail. On Velleman's view, moral reasoning is fundamentally about making sense of our actions-- past, present, and future. When we are deliberating about some act, our fundamental impulse is to think of how that act would cohere with the story we have been telling ourselves all along about rest of our behavior. Sometimes this narrative is just about the principles that underlie our action-- altruism, autonomy-- and sometimes this is more literally a story, a tale we tell ourselves about our lives. Eliza does this very thing when she constructs an album from photos of the narrator's child:
“She'd done a good job. The story of my son, as she put it, was now gathered in a single leather-bound volume inscribed with his initials.
Eliza flexed a bicep triumphantly. “What did I tell you?”
“You've got the knack,” I agreed. I didn't tell her that while her work gave me joy-- who can resist images of one's laughing child?-- it also documented my son's never-ending, never truly acceptable self-cancellations. In the space of a few pages his winter self was crossed out by his summer self which in turn was crossed out by his next self. Told thus, the story of my son is one that begins continuously, until it stops. Is this really the only possible pagination of a life?”
If photo-arranging serves as an embedded metaphor for literature, then what we need is some new guiding metaphor for making narratives within the medium of games. Elliott and Ashley don't mean to demean narrative as an activity. What they are really getting at is the fact that we don't know how to make a narrative out of play, instead of grafting a superfluous narrative onto the doing of fun things. We need some new way to make a story out of our desire to master the world by learning its rules. When we begin to figure out how to do this, we will be on the way to creating an art form.