This is the second article in The Academics Are Coming series.
In 1998, Jesper Juul presented a paper titled "A Clash between Game and Narrative" at the Digital Arts and Culture conference, based on his ongoing postgraduate research. He asserted that narrative was not just unimportant in games but actually burdensome. Games and narrative were "two phenomena that fight each other" and attempts to merge them would inevitably "zigzag" between the two.
Juul also demonstrated that narrative ended up as digital paint which is a similar to an argument put forward by Brian Moriarty in last year's GDC and also here on Electron Dance:
"I illustrated this [using] a silly platformer with background art by Michelangelo, dialog from Shakespeare, characters from Ingmar Bergman movies and music by Bach... but it was still just a platformer... [Such games] may have an arty veneer, and explore important topics and themes, but it's all bolted on to familiar game mechanisms that are not essentially synergistic."
Clearly both men take issue with propositions like One and One Story (referenced last week) but I found some of Juul's arguments oddly anachronistic. It was published when game story was becoming more and more important to players and 1998 was notable for being the year that Half-Life blew everyone away. Players were no longer shooting blocks and dodging pixel balls; they were sweating and surviving in Black Mesa, fighting their way out of a catastrophe, trying to piece together what had gone so wrong. Was Juul swimming against the tide?
Three years later he published a piece called "Games Telling Stories?" in which he softened his position. Ironically, this appeared in the same inaugural issue of Games Studies that contained Aarseth's and Eskelinen's shots at narratology. Although Juul still maintained that narrative and games were difficult to reconcile he conceded:
Games and narratives can on some points be said to have similar traits. This does mean that the strong position of claiming games and narratives to be completely unrelated (my own text, Juul 1999 is a good example) is untenable.
Whilst the rise of the cinematic-burdened AAA title might have been attributed to shady marketing attempts at overselling limp mechanics, something that echoed the concept of narrative was going on in games. Mechanics were almost becoming incidental to some players. If the setting was interesting or beautiful, they wanted to be there: they were happy to ride shotgun, even if they couldn't always wield a shotgun.
(Aside: As games have become serious business, game studies as an academic field has expanded. At the same time a segment of games studies was trying to divorce itself from notions of story and narrative, it was recruiting from players who had been gripped by games that had let them spend some time somewhere else.)
But as discussed last week, if you run your keyboard through twenty random platformers on Newgrounds or Kongregate, you can quickly tire of the platformer trope. Spikes, pits, jumping, obstacles. Enough already! This is a ludological problem and here I am Moriarty and Juul: I can see through the arty veneer. Andy Nealen (Osmos, Hemisphere Games) said at the "Indie Rant" at this year's PAX East that he wants developers to stop making puzzle platformers and go make something else.
But yet it's difficult to see fun in a world of rules. Raph Koster's attempt to decompose games into atomic units (a notable example is headshotting in Quake) seems to drain the life from games, as if what's missing is the composite experience. Adding A to B makes some other-worldly strange C (as a mathematician, I might posit that the function that composes a game from individual units is non-linear which makes decomposition a tricky business). Koster could easily argue that all FPSes offer, by and large, similar mechanics. But I would wine and dine Half-Life 2 any day, and toss Lost Planet in a river in a heartbeat.
In fact, this is precisely the kind of issue Dan Pinchbeck tackled in his 2009 thesis. It opens with a comparison of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Half-Life 2; both offer similar mechanics (Pinchbeck’s phrase is “ludic activity”) yet the former is perceived as a far more frightening and harsh game than Valve’s FPS vision. Trying to move on from the ludology versus narratology fight, Pinchbeck studied a decade of FPS games in attempt to isolate “the mechanism by which rule and fiction come together”.
My own struggle between the purity of rule and the impact of story came to a head in 2010. I was troubled by Alexander Ocias' Loved. It's a bog-standard platformer dressed up in the clothes of an unexplained dysfunctional relationship. It has a far more limited mechanical palette than that used by One and One Story yet I found myself recommending it to others. I wrote:
Loved, like other games before it, tells me that if a decent story or strange experience is absorbing, I can overlook a lack of gaming ambition. A narrative, emotional ambition can be enough. Why is that?
After twenty dull platformers that do nothing for the brain, it's the twenty-first that fucks you up. I could no longer ignore that storytelling alone could transform tired mechanics into something that could engage.
And then I heard about Brenda Brathwaite's experimental board game Train and it was game over for my own ludological obsession. It is a powerful demonstration of how story context breaches the wall of rules and changes a gaming experience.
Spoilers follow. The game challenges its competing players to get a train, with carriages stuffed full of little yellow figures, to the train terminus first. The players eventually discover the end of the line is none other than... Auschwitz. It sounds like a cheap trick. But then The Escapist reports it moved someone to tears and Tracy Wilson wrote how she and her fellow players, knowing the game's reveal in advance, couldn't bring themselves to play.
A big debate raged in the comments over on Raph Koster's blog between the "cheap stunt" and the "meaningful mechanics" schools of thought. But as I said about Infocom's Planetfall last year, it doesn't matter what you think about the game: knowing that some players were moved is the crucial point. It is the counterexample that disproves the rule that rules rule.
This extreme example demonstrates that meaning imposed on a game's mechanics can sometimes be the most important addition to a game. This goes hand in hand with Ian Bogost's "proceduralist" view of games, which proposes interpretations of games in terms of what their mechanics say. Without context, mechanics have no voice.
6. present day
Students in games studies are often taught the importance of rules as the fundamental unit of game design. This might explain why we see so many interesting and diverse puzzle games emerge from student projects such as Continuity and Narbacular Drop. But Hokra developer Ramiro Corbetta recently discussed how Proteus helped confirm his doubts about this focus on rules:
Maybe I’m giving Proteus too much credit. It didn’t completely change my view on digital games. I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time. I’ve been questioning my allegiance to a mechanics-centered game design perspective for as long as I’ve held on to this “philosophy.”
The academic world has largely moved on from the days of ludology trying to build a church of rules-worship; you're now more likely to be engaged in debates about the rigidity of Bogost's proceduralism excising players from game analysis (although Miguel Scart kicked this one off, Charles Pratt's excellent overview is a far more accessible read).
But outside academia, no one was paying any attention to what game studies academics were writing about. Which meant, at some point, the gaming public was going to discover this debate all by itself like I had - and the whole thing would start again. This time around it would be on tweets, on blogs and on YouTube... minus academic restraint.
And in its darkest hour, Twitter mobs would howl for someone to do us all a favour and die already.