Heavy Rain and Tetris: Ludology versus Narratology

By Jamal I. - Sat Apr 27, 9:00 am

Due to recent events in the industry that will not be brought up here, a debate has sprung up in the minds of many.  Mainly the question as to whether or not the merits of what qualifies a “good” game rests on either a story or on gameplay.  First, let’s examine what others in the industry have said thus far:

“Story in a video game is like story in a porno. Everyone expects it to be there, but it’s not really important.” – John Carmack

“This disagreement has been called the ludology vs. narratology debates. The narratological view is that games should be understood as novel forms of narrative and can thus be studied using theories of narrative” (Murray, 1997; Atkins, 2003).

“The ludological position is that games should be understood on their own terms. Ludologists have proposed that the study of games should concern the analysis of the abstract and formal systems they describe. In other words, the focus of game studies should be on the rules of a game, not on the representational elements which are only incidental” (Aarseth, 2001; Eskelinen, 2001; Eskelinen, 2004).

IN OTHER WORDS, the argument breaks down as such: games as story (NARRATOLOGY) vs. games as games (LUDOLOGY) -OR- in more headline-grabbing terms, Heavy Rain versus Tetris

IF LUDOLOGY SOUNDS REDUNDANT (games as games), IT’S BECAUSE THE CONCEPT IS SO INTUITIVE THAT YOUR BRAIN HAS TROUBLE ACCEPTING THAT THERE IS ACTUALLY A DEBATE.

 

The hell, bro?

I know what you’re wondering.  “Not conflicting ideologies?  Doesn’t this make the “X vs Y” proposition redundant?”  Well put on your helmets, because I’m about to blow your mind with some truth bombs.  Games have both stories AND non-narrative elements, and any ideology that recognizes one but fails to acknowledge the other is fundamentally insufficient to study the medium as a whole.  Consider the following idea: Games should be looked at on their own terms. They aren’t books, they aren’t movies, they aren’t music. Just like a song isn’t a book and a movie isn’t a song. It is it’s own form of media and should be judged on it’s own merit.  Obvious enough concepts, right?

There are obvious merits in Ludology which should be respected, and agreed to that said merits apply to all games.  But if the hard work that writers have put into SOME games (not nearly all of them) and the artistic value of the narrative of those games is going to completely disregarded,  then we’re no longer friends and you can’t come to my house to play Mario Kart anymore.

Why is it generally thought that it has to be “X vs. Y” rather than discussing the ways that X and Y can complement each other? Then again, trying to emulate another medium is a bit ass-backwards when you think about it, as you’re not playing to the strengths of your own medium but rather to those of another.

The common argument that arises is usually as follows in one form or another: “Name one good game that doesn’t have a story. You can’t.”

Consider Tetris: “story” is that you are a Russian brick layer?  Would make sense if the bricks didn’t disappear when you made lines.  Maybe it’s about the futility of the Soviet system. The brick layer (the player, ) builds it up, but every time they do something good, the system (the game mechanics) destroys it. Even if the narrative isn’t explicit, you’ll form one. Tetris has a narrative. All the game entails is that you drop blocks and sometimes they’ll disappear, but that is a narrative. Even the simplest games have the potential to form a narrative when a human interprets them.

 

GLORY FOR THE PROLETARIAT

In other words, there’s no such thing as something that lacks a narrative. We apply a narrative to everything we interact with. The best games blur the line between narrative and mechanics. There are many great games that are driven by stories, as well as great games that have no story to speak of.  People try to force false dilemmas in their arguments.

However, it is a wrong approach to write a story for a game before you have a fun system of gameplay.  If your game sucks as a game, it sucks as a game. There is no other merit possible except to those pretentious “games as art” cats. It’s not even a debate.  Not necessarily due to being in one camp or the other, but because trying to understand games with only one perspective is incredibly ignorant.   There is room for both. It’s the difference between a gross-out comedy and a feature film. Each are produced similarly and presented in identical an fashion, but people watch them for entirely different reasons. And then you have things in between, comedies that have some genuine heart, and more cerebral films that happen to make you laugh a bit.  Perspective must be changed depending on what is being viewed. The idea that games need to evaluated in a universal fashion is, quite frankly, asinine.

 

In its own way, even this has merit believe it or not…

“Gameplay” means more than controls, mechanics and physics. The dungeons in Zelda games are the pillar of gameplay, and they can be designed much later in the development process, and therefore can easily be built around a story (something that the Zelda series is slowly getting used to doing–give them time, they’ll figure it out).  If I were a game designer (which I most certainly am not, so please take this with a grain of salt), I would come up with the basic mechanics of the game and test them thoroughly to make sure they can be fun, then I would get to work on designing the game itself and writing the story in tandem.

For the most part, games need a narrative to tie all the elements of gameplay together. If you don’t have that, you have the basic arcade-style games that were all over the Atari and NES. These kinds of games aren’t bad, and they’re still made today, but tend to get relegated to handheld/mobile phone status, and not the “AAA blockbuster” titles that get plastered all over the internet and television spots.

 

Sup?

The problem arises when the narrative doesn’t fit with the gameplay, takes over the entire game leaving the gameplay behind, or isn’t strong enough to make sense, leaving a disjointed mess.  Games are both of these things.  And at the same time they’re their own thing.  But they also have to have some of the conventional narrative structure, at least in part.  Games can have stories, but they need to be incorporated in the gameplay and I’m not talking about some overdone morality system either.  Consider Way of the Samurai. Actions the player takes in the gameplay directly changes the story. Sure it was limited as hell, but it was the first step.

Counter question: “Why should I limit myself and exclusively choose one -ology? Good gameplay can be just as enjoyable as a good narrative, while I agree the latter is harder to pull off with video games as a medium.”

A focus on narrative doesn’t necessarily mean gameplay and story are rather divided like in your average JRPG or in the cutscene-heavy Metal Gear Solid. It also doesn’t mean we get “soft” games like Heavy Rain.  A great example on how to tell a story by the mere use of game elements like level design is the original Silent Hill. The player is basically walking through the nightmare of a girl brought to life. In it, we visit the places that influenced her and see how she experienced them. We see that she got bullied in school (her desk is riddled with graffiti by her classmates, who also appear as little dwarf-like monsters). We learn that the girl is so scared of her environment that even a hobby of hers, collecting butterflies, makes a corrupted appearance in her nightmare. Or didn’t we fight a moth-like creature as a boss?

 

Let’s neglect Silent Hill 2 right now, for sanity’s sake.

It’s not wrong if a game has a story. Anyone can enjoy a game with a stale to mediocre story as long as the gameplay is enjoyable to them — Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, and fighting games especially. There are a few RPGs some enjoy, though even if the story is enthralling, I personally can’t go through with it if it has cookie cutter gameplay. But the idea of a game’s gameplay being good is entirely subjective.

Ludology prompts a narrative from the gameplay. And that’s how it should be. Anything less is not using the medium properly.  A videogame which tells its story through cutscenes is like a movie which tells instead of shows (show don’t tell, ever heard of that? For games, it’s involve, don’t show). As an alternative comparison, a cutscene videogame is like a canvas with a description of a painting written on it. Or an audio track with someone speaking what the music would sound like.

If you’re using a medium of expression (I’m not calling it an art medium – it can be art or entertainment i.e. fun) you should use the faculties that are present in the form, otherwise it’s bad. So for music this is melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, dynamic and timbral techniques. For paintings it’s linework, color, visual composition, shading, texture and so on. For literature it’s grammar, word choice, formatting, perspective and so on. For movies it’s cinematography.  For videogames, it’s gameplay.

That’s where the story should be found by players. How that’s to be achieved, or a list of techniques that help you to achieve that, that’s entirely up to designers and creative directors to flesh out. If there is one archived “cheat sheet” available to them, please point them to it – I’m sure they’d love to read about it.  Procedural rhetoric is not an individual art movement – it’s the art of games.

Ludology is basically the viewpoint that games cant be judged by their inherent properties that pertain to ones already established by books and films, and that they should be judged based on the GAME portion? Was there ever a separation of either? Has there ever been one person who completely disregarded this? The idea is absolutely unnecessary. Of course games aren’t stories, but they HAVE stories. They have gameplay, and narrative at the same time. There really is no argument here, its not like this is some advanced concept that people cant understand. There is no argument when the subject of the argument inherently and obviously has qualities of BOTH sides of the argument at the same time. There is no debate, its not like the issue of whether or not games are games or games are stories can be considered “vague” or “open for interpretation.” Mass Effect is a narrative as well as a video game. The two coexist and have coexisted for decades.

Despite the drawn out exposition, I’m still not grasping the concept of why there’s an argument here in the first place or what the debate is even about.

3 Comments

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  1. 0

    It is not useful to compare the old and new video games. This is an absurd debate, I agree.

  2. 0

    Completely agree with this! Its all stupid theories in relation to modern games anyway!

  3. 0

    All I can add to this … is this: Pacman as Kafka :-)
    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2736#comic

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