A Narrative Theory of Games
Espen Aarseth Center for Computer Games Research
IT University of Copenhagen 2300 Copenhagen, Denmark
+45 7218 5045 Aarseth@itu.dk
ABSTRACT This paper presents a narrative theory of games, building on standard narratology, as a solution to the conundrum that has haunted computer game studies from the start: How to approach software that combines games and stories?
Categories and Subject Descriptors K.8.0. [Personal Computing]: Games General Terms Theory, Design
Keywords Storygames, narratology, ludonarrative model
1. INTRODUCTION Computer games generate many questions and challenges for narrative theory. The very first humanist article on computer games, Interactive Fiction by Anthony Niesz and Norman Hol-land (1984: 125) talks about games as an enigma  to literary theory. Are games a type of narrative? If not, do they contain narratives? Is narratology useful for the study of games? Should the definition of narrative be modified or expanded to incorporate games? Can the study of games yield insights useful for narratol-ogy? Perhaps we instead need a parallel paradigm, a ludology (Frasca 1999) to understand games the way narratology is used to understand narrative? Regardless of the answers to these questions, the fact remains that computer games have emerged as a dominant cultur-al form in the sense that it influences other forms such as cinema, TV, literature, theatre, painting and music. Therefore, the study of these other forms ignores the rapidly evolving field of games at their own peril. But how should such theoretical explorations be carried out? When changing focus from one empirical field to another, it becomes crucial to examine the examination process and the tools used as well as the object of the examination. Do theoretical concepts such as story, fiction, character, narra-tion or rhetoric remain meaningful when transposed to a new field, or do they turn into empty, misleading catachreses, blinding us to the empirical differences and effectively puncturing our chances of producing theoretical innovation? Critical self-reflection is a hallmark of scholarship, and a necessary virtue when we examine a phenomenon with critical tools developed for another type of phenomenon altogether. In other words, when we
study games through the lens of narrative theory, the lens itself must be critically examined as well.
When we apply the perspectives and models from one form onto another, our ability to assess the incongruities as well as the similarities between the two forms becomes critical. Man is a pattern-finding animal. It is extremely easy to find parallels, pre-cursors, and points of overlap, and thus seduce oneself to con-clude that A is a form of B. The responsible theorist, therefore, should take the opposite position as their null-hypothesis: A is not a form of B unless proven otherwise.
Consequently, in the context of games and narratives, one must be careful not to assume the task of proving that games are narrative forms, but to look for evidence and counter-evidence with equal zeal. To further complicate matters, games, as Witt-genstein pointed out in Philosophical Investigations (1953: 66), is not a category that it is possible to define formally. So how can we know that the phenomena we call computer games are even games in the first place? Successful definitions of narratives has a very long history and appear to be easier to come by, so at least there is some fairly firm theoretical ground to stand on: Narrative theory.
As the study of computer games gelled into an emerging institutional practice around 2001, the question of whether games are a form of stories has become a prominent issue among the practitioners, a touchstone used to signal ones familiarity with the new scholarly field. The last ten years have seen a number of comments on the so-called ludology vs. narratology debate, but, ironically, very few have actually engaged the question of the relation between games and stories through a properly narratolog-ical analysis, using the basic concepts and models of modern narrative theory. Instead, this debate has been carried out on a meta-level, through comments on, and characterizations of, the debate itself rather than by direct engagement with it. This meta-debate can be seen as a symptom of the birth pangs of a new academic field. Too often the positions taken have been un-nuanced, untenable, and therefore unproductive: Games are always stories (Murray 2004, p. 2). [T]he computer game is simply not a narrative medium (Juul 1999, p 1).1 Tragically, in the field of game studies the term narra-tology has changed meaning and does not refer to the academic discipline of narrative theory, but to a more or less mythical posi-tion taken by an imagined group of people who are seen to believe that games are stories. It is high time, and hopefully not too late, to reinstate the original meaning and function of narratology, and ground the debate in narratological terminology and theory. Not to prove that all games are narrative (they are not) but to show that
1 A position from which Juul later wisely retreated (cf Juul 2001).
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there is much to gain from a rigorous application of narratology to game studies.
What has so far been lacking is a detailed, robust under-standing of the various ways computer software have been used to combine elements from narratives and games into a number of quite different ludo-narratological constructs. What also needs to be realized is that story-game amalgams primarily is entertain-ment software, works that contain many forms of media content and because of their computer-based, Turing-complete existence can emulate any kind of semiotic genre, including, of course, traditional stories. Calling works like Max Payne or FallOut 3 games or stories is a metonymical shorthand usage of the terms that confuses and obscures the composite makeup of these crea-tions.
2. Ludology vs. Narrativism The debate of whether games are stories has suffered from a lack of rigorous, theoretically grounded reflection and also from a basic confusion between normative and descriptive approaches. In reality this is not one, but two debates conflated: one is the design-oriented discussion of the potential and failings of game-based narratives, and another is the discussion of whether games can be said to be stories. The former is normative and partly speculative, partly critical, and the latter is descriptive and theoretical. These two debates have a partial overlap of participants, usually and unfortunately identified by the terms ludologists and narratol-ogists2 but one debate concerns the viability of a semi-utopian hybrid game-story genre, and the other is concerned with the seemingly conflicting definitions of games and (in particular) narratives. The ludologist position was not, as has been claimed, to see the focus shift onto the mechanics of game play (Jenkins 2001) but to emphasize the crucial importance of combining the mechanical and the semiotic aspects and to caution against and criticize the uncritical and unqualified application of terms such as narrative and story to games. In other words, the ludologists critique was a reaction to sloppy scholarship (in which key terms are not defined), one-sided focus and poor theorizing, and not a ban against the application of narrative theory to games as such (an act they all had committed themselves): I wish to challenge the recurrent practice of applying the theories of literary criticism to a new empirical field, seemingly without any critical reassessment of the terms and concepts involved. (Aarseth 1997: 14)
That this challenge has been mistaken for a ban on the use of narrative theory in game studies is nothing less than amazing, and perhaps goes to show that humanist academics are often less astute readers, scholars and interpreters than their training gives them occasion to presume. It could also be suspected that anyone
2 A terminology Henry Jenkins (2001; 2004) introduces to label
the two sides in the debate. This was unfortunate, because it ob-scured the fact that all the so-called ludologists were trained in narratology and used narratology in their studies of games. In his influential article, Jenkins made it sound like the ludolo-gists (Aarseth 1997, Frasca 1998, Juul 1999, Eskelinen 2001) were opposed to the application of narratology to games One gets rid of narrative as a framework for thinking about games only at one's own risk and not merely critical to the weak sto-ry-game hybrids at the time, and weak narratological applica-tions. Jenkins article, published on his web site in 2001, ap-pears to be the first time the word narratologist was used as a label for one side in what he termed a potential blood feud.
who echoes Jenkins misleading nomenclature of ludologists vs narratologists simply has not read the literature itself.
Any attempt to clarify the relations between games and narratives will probably end up addressing both issues, but here the second, theoretical issue will be given priority. The question of whether games can succeed as a narrativ