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Narrative is not a game mechanic

I urge you to go read this on the blog rather than here, because Google does not let me put all the diagrams in. :)

A teaser:

I love stories. My chief hobby is reading. I was formally trained as a writer, not as a game designer (there wasn’t really any formal training for game design I got started, but that’s another story). I think most game stories are not very good. And I quite enjoy games with narrative threads pulling me through them. When I find a game with a good story, I frequently prefer to the story to the actual game! So please keep that in mind as you read: I love story.

Narrative in a game is not a mechanic. It’s a form of a feedback.

This simple fact is frequently ignored, particularly in games aimed at the mass market.

Let’s start thinking about this by looking at what a game is. Games can and do exist without narrative. The core of a game is a problem to solve. As game grammar tells us, it’s actually typically a series of nested problems: I need to reach this location, which means I need to defeat enemies, which means I need to traverse space, which means I need to mash a button. Some of these, like “defeat enemies,” are complex problems in their own right. Some of them are trivial problems, such as “mash button.”

If you string these together, you’ll typically find that the problems will alternate between abstract problems and simpler interface problems. For example, most turn-based board games alternate between the complex strategy problem of “what move to make next” and the simple interface problem of “pick up piece and move it here.” Board games, of course, tend to be very forgiving regarding interface problems; if you drop the piece, nobody minds if you pick it up and put it where you meant.

....go read on the blog :)
Joe Spicher's profile photoEugene Kuczerepa's profile photoJason Lee Elliott's profile photoMarc Wilhelm's profile photo
The way you describe UFO 54-40 is very cool - it would have been a much better choose-your-own-adventure book the way you remember it, with no escape other than finding the path with no entry point.

Unfortunately, you've forgotten that you can escape with Mopo, bringing lasting peace to the Earth (ending on page 59).
I'd say that narrative isn't necessarily an explicit game mechanic, but it can be. I'm not a proper gamer - I love Cyan games, particularly Riven, in which discovering the narrative is an essential part of the game mechanic - if you don't understand the unfolding of the story, you aren't going to understand the games. I see an ongoing simplification of games which leads to a trial-and-error work-out-what-the-designer-was-thinking gameplay, rather than presenting the player with complex information and the tools to solve problems and fit it all together.

I want there to be a point to exploration, and I think that is one of the reasons that Cyan's games are so popular with women. My observations from having watched people play a game I set up in Second Life is that there are real differences between how the sexes tackle immersive games, however unfashionable that view may be. I'm not saying every woman or every man behaves this way... but men like to understand where they are and where they have to get to, to succeed. Women like to explore, and they are disappointed by areas which hold no secrets, where everything is scenery.

Narrative is in all games, whether expressed or not. Even a motor racing game where you simply race against others draws upon your knowledge of how a race begins, is progressed and ends. I think it is an essential mechanic for any immersive game... if it is missing then the game becomes a series or pointless challenges to use guesswork and trial and error to work out the next move, and I don't find that challenging or engaging.
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