Do games tell stories? It depends on who you ask.
One side of the academic curve claims that, games are simply a slightly different medium meant for telling stories, exactly like movies and books, while the other side claims that games are completely separate from storytelling. This discussion is what is known as the narratology versus ludology debate.
But, is it really possible to take such an aggressive standpoint when the presence of story in games varies so incredibly much?
One argument for why games tell narratives is discussed by Jan Simons (2007), as he states that all games has got a premise and very often an introduction and a backstory. Since we can all tell stories about the games we have played in the past, games cannot be without narrative.
But how about a game like Tetris?
Tetris is a puzzle game which consists of fitting odd pieces together as they float down from above. But where does these pieces come from? And what is the point of assembling them?
This abstract game is completely without premise. We play Tetris for the joy of the puzzle and setting a new highscore, not to hear a story. As a result, this is a game without narrative.
However, not all games are like Tetris.
Let’s look at the 2016 title Firewatch.
Firewatch is a game relying so heavily on it’s narrative, that the actual gameplay boils down to taking a nice walk in the woods while navigating a very straightforward map. What makes this game interesting is it’s characters’ development and it’s story progression. But with that said, the game only presents one single storyline which is completely unchangeable by the player.
As a result, ludologists might argue that Firewatch isn’t actually a game, as much as it is an interactive graphic novel or a movie.
In fact, according to some game scholars (Juul 2001), plot makes for a story, and rules makes for a game. These two should never mix, as the story waters down the game experience, such as how unplayable cutscenes robs the player of agency, and breaks the illusion of being in control.
Simons counter-arguments this by stating that “the plot versus rules distinction is simply a non- starter, as has already been amply demonstrated in practice by games, like The Sims, which are designed to let stories emerge and to have players empathise with characters.” (Simons, 2007). Moreover, Firewatch is still being largely recognised, and highly rated by the game community, with reviews done by major game magazines such as The Escapist and Polygon.
The variety of games is simply too great to claim that narrative is something completely separate from games. Unquestionably, games exist with no trace of story, however these are the exception to the rule.
Since ludology and narratology are both siblings with origins in humanities, it is reasonable that the newer niche wishes to break apart from more established disciplines. However, with such strong examples from both ends of the narrative spectrum, it must be concluded that stories do hold a place in the world of ludology, just as it does with any kind of art or media.
Campell, Colin (2016) “Firewatch Review” Polygon (February). Available at: http:// http://www.polygon.com/2016/2/8/10900796/firewatch-review-pc-ps4-playstation-4-campo-santo
Clearwater, David (2011) “What Defines Video Game Genre? Thinking about Genre Study after the Great Devide”, Loading… The journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association Volume 5 Issue 8. Available at: http://journals.sfu.ca/loading/index.php/loading/article/view/67/105
Hidalgo, Taylor (2016) “Firewatch Review – Burning A Hole through My Heart” The Escapist (February) Available at: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/video-games/ editorials/reviews/15411-Firewatch-Review-Campo-Santo-Games#&gid=gallery_5662&pid=1
Juul, Jesper (2001) “Games Telling Stories? -A brief note on Games and Narratives” Game Studies Volume 1 Issue 1. (July) Available at: http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/juul-gts/
Simons, Jan (2007) “Narrative, Games, and Theory” Game Studies Volume 7, Issue 1 (August) Available at: http://gamestudies.org/0701/articles/simons
Polygon (2016) “Firewatch image 4/10” Polygon (February) Available at: http:// http://www.polygon.com/2016/2/8/10900796/firewatch-review-pc-ps4-playstation-4-campo-santo
Retro Gamer Team (2013) “Tetris DX” Retro Gamer (December) Available at: http:// http://www.retrogamer.net/top_10/game-boy-color-games/
Campo Santo (2016) Firewatch Campo Santo and Panic.
Maxis (2000) The Sims Electronic Arts.
Pajitnov, A. (1984) Tetris Spectrum HoloByte.