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One ongoing and intense debate that has been raging among game scholars and game developers is the question of whether or not games can even be regarded as a form of storytelling. Two warring groups have squared off on this issue. On one side, we have the narratology camp. They say, yes, of course, games are a form of storytelling and they can be studied as narratives (the term “narratology” simply means the theory and study of narrative). Janet Murray, the author of the classic book on interactive narrative, Hamlet on the Holodeck, and a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is a leading advocate of the narratology position.

A screenshot from Deus Ex, Invisible War. The game tells a complex story involving global conflict and intrigue, and falls into the action genre. Image courtesy of Eidos Interactive.

On the other side of the battlefield, we have the ludology camp. Espen J. Aarseth, a professor at the University of Bergen, is the most vocal proponent of the ludologist camp. The term ludology comes from the Latin word ludus, for game. The ludologists argue that even though games have elements of narrative like characters and plot, this is incidental to the things that make them a distinct creative form, such as gameplay. Thus, they assert, games should be studied as unique constructs. This debate has an emotional undercurrent to it, because the ludologists suggest that the academics who espouse narratology are elitist and fail to recognize games as worthy of study on their own merits. Clearly, if sides must be chosen, this book is most closely in allegiance with the narratologists.


While the narratology versus ludology debate may rage on through infinity, no one can flatly deny that games, on the whole, do contain story content. This content includes, among other elements, developed characters, plot, character-based goals, challenges that characters must overcome, and dramatic conflict. The amount of story contained in games varies hugely. Some games contain no story at all while others offer richly nuanced narratives. And in some cases, the story content is formed by the choices the players themselves make, rather than being built into the game. This is particularly true of sandbox games.

It must be acknowledged, however, that the kinds of narratives found in games differ from narratives found in other media. Designer Greg Roach, introduced in Chapter 4, puts it this way: “Novels tell; movies show; games do.” In other words, games are all about the things you do, about action. Games are performance experiences. But this focus on action has a downside, as well. Game designer Darlene Waddington notes that “games tend to be all about the ‘hows’ and not about the ‘whys.’” She feels, for instance, that they are good at getting the player into a combat situation, but are less good at probing the psychological or human reasons for getting into combat in the first place.

Waddington’s point about the focus being on action while giving scant attention to motivation is a criticism often leveled at games. While games now offer more fully developed characters and storylines, they generally lack the depth of older forms of entertainment. With few exceptions, they do not look deeply into the human psyche or deal with a full spectrum of emotions. How often, for example, do we encounter or play a character who is motivated by shame, love, compassion, guilt, grief, or the dozens of other emotions we humans feel? Yet such emotions are the underpinnings of dramas we can fi nd in movies or the stories we read in novels.

Most game developers will argue that the story is only there to serve a functional purpose rather than being the prime attraction, which is good gameplay. Yet, without a story, the gameplay lacks a context to be meaningful. Story provides the game with objectives and challenges, meaningful victories and defeats, and an overall story world to play in. Thus, even a minimal amount of story content serves a functional role in a game.

Game writer Christy Marx made an interesting observation about storytelling and games many years ago, in an article she wrote for Written By magazine (December 2003). She noted that games began as a programmer’s medium, and since they were text based, they didn’t require a writer or artist. The one essential element these early games did require was code. Marx theorizes that this early game culture, with the dominant role of the programmer and the non-existent role of the storyteller, continues to permeate the game development world. Nevertheless, the game industry is increasingly aware of the importance of good storytelling in games, and top Hollywood screenwriters are often hired to work on games. But even today, many of these screenwriters are only asked to write dialogue, thus bypassing their abilities to make significant contributions to the projects they work on.

Veteran Hollywood writer Randall Jahnson, who successfully made the transition between screen writing and game writing, told the Hollywood Reporter (November 23, 2005) that the process of writing for the two media was like apples and oranges. He compared writing for games to writing haiku, because the plot points and dialogue had to be far more compressed than in a screenplay, where you don’t have a player itching to jump into the gameplay. On the other hand, he found that games gave him the opportunity to explore subplots and tangents of the story that there would be no time to develop in a screenplay.


An extremely savvy game professional recently compared the job of writing a game to that of writing an opera. Why? Because in both cases, the stories are painted with a broad brush and the plots often lean toward the melodramatic. But, even more importantly, the storytelling in opera needs to leave room for the music and performance, and the storytelling in games needs to leave room for the gameplay. This observation, quoted in the UK version of Wired magazine (March 4, 2013), was made by Margaret Robinson, managing director of Hide and Seek, a UK game design company. She said: “the libretto shouldn’t have to tell you everything you need to know about the character or the setting or the underlying scene … There’s a little bit of that in games, to leave space for the action and the player.”


Excerpt from Digital Storytelling, 3e by Carolyn Handler Miller © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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