Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Separation of State and Religion

This post is, frustratingly, a week late. If you happen to put this blog on your regular read list, you'll find that this will be usually true. What can I say, I'm just learning all this stuff. If I've mis-represented you, I'm sorry. It was probably for comedic effect anyway. If I have simply got things wrong, please tell me. Otherwise, enjoy!

An interesting discussion brewed up in a couple of blogs that I read (Project Perko, Man Bytes Blog) about the nature of story (or narrative, if you prefer) and gameplay. In essence, Craig Perko is arguing for a separation of State and Religion. State being the gameplay and rule elements within the game; religion representing the story presented and the narrative experienced by the audience. The following posts are the related ones:

Stories vs. Gameplay – In which Craig Perko starts the ball rolling by saying that games are not story, and stories are not games. He goes on to use a zombie killing game to illustrate that the gameplay (shooting the zombies, and the associated zombie killing skills) are not the story. This post is then replied to by Patrick Dugan (of King Lud IC), who is really all about the interactive storytelling genre. Patrick holds that story and game can, in fact, be one and the same. Craig replies in a new post.

Not a Story! – In which Craig responds to Patrick's comments, and attempts to clarify his position that stories are not the same thing as gameplay. This brews several new comments, including one in which Craig defines three different types of narrative elements (static, dynamic free, and dynamic concrete). Confusion is also had as to whether Craig thinks story should be a part of a game (don't worry, he does).

A-Ha! – In which Craig finally feels that he has an example pure enough to make his point without mucking about in the dangerous territory of Narratology. We are asked to imagine muted Tetris, but without actual blocks, just shapes, as an example of purest gameplay. This leads to a response by Corvus Elrod on his blog (Man Bytes Blog).

Limits of Story – In which Corvus replies and rebuts the points made in Craig's three posts. In some elements he agrees and some he disagrees. Corvus feels that he and Craig are in fact on the same page, but arguing over language and direction.


Ok... I think that I played that bit into the ground. The point is, there has already quite a bit of discussion on this particular topic. Oddly enough, a great amount of it reads to be very heated. There are two very entrenched camps in the gaming world. Commonly these are referred to as Ludology and Narratology. Basically, those who see games as a set of rules that the user interacts with, and those who see games as expressing or forming story for the player to experience and interpret. These seemingly opposing ideals have vocal proponents and very ingrained ideas of what a game should be.

Craig starts of the whole discussion by stating,

Lots of people - perhaps the majority of would-be game designers - think that gameplay is (or should be) reduced down to 'telling a story' in the player's mind. This is seen as some kind of way to reconcile the 'ludic' and 'narrative' camps. Unfortunately, it's wrong.“

This is where I think that his problem starts. This is, frankly, an inflammatory statement. Both sides are very defensive about the type of games that they like/make/play. Saying that would-be game designers are wrong in trying to reconcile Ludology and Narratology is just asking for a bunch of people to post confused and angry statements in support of making all games happy by bringing together the warring factions. “Surely,” they argue, “it is all one in the same! Games have story, ergo game = story and story = game. Please, won't someone think of the games!”

Except I don't think that Craig is attacking anyone, especially story-lovers. Neither does he think that the ludic and narrative camps should remain in opposition. He is simply stating that reconciling them by equating story to gameplay is, well, wrong. And potentially harmful to both the narrative and ludic elements in the game.

So, ignoring the comment made in the first post about stories not having defined rules, lets look at this discussion as a whole. Firstly, there is a breakdown of language. We have no specific words to refer to the story elements and narrative types specifically associated with interactive (or as Corvus later mused on, participatory) media. “Story” simply carries too many definitions. Even “Narrative” brings with it contexts and weights lent to it by hundreds of years of linear and non-participatory types of fiction and non-fiction. We perceive the narrative bits of any game in a very experiential manner. We filter them through collective experience and produce, and perhaps to a degree expect, a linear and fixed story.

Immediately part of the point is lost to the language barrier. Then we realize that we can no longer see the forest for the trees. People play games and experience them. That is the nature of a well-built game. Even if the game involves nothing more than moving objects around, or shooting something (muted Tetris). Even if the play is pure elements, we still manage to create narration after the fact. We experience, interpret, and then remember as a type of narrative. We see the forest because we look back and there it is behind us; our memory of the fun we had (or failed to have, whatever).

This, again, veers from what Craig was trying to establish. Those stories? They are not gameplay. Gameplay is the mechanics, the most basic of nuts and bolts, that drives the game. The gameplay is how we interact with the game, the story is anything else that is told to us or that we tell ourselves. The gameplay is patterns and skills. The story is built out of, or around, these mechanics to create interest and desire. When Craig says, “Story is an idealized example in an idealized world. Gameplay is a concrete example in a concrete world,” I think he means that gameplay is what we do, while story is what we get.

Gameplay and story are connected, but very individual concepts. The actual playing of the game is done by a part of the brain that lives in the “Now”. It is the same part of the brain that can see a ball coming towards you and preform the advanced calculus needed to move your arm to catch it. It is pattern recognition, and problem solving. It is stimulus and response; our animal brain. The story exists within our conciousness, the part of the brain that remembers and can emote. Stories are sympathetic, we connect to characters and situations provided. Or we create our own. They are not the same thing, although they tend to meld, and get confused.

The wonderful, confusing part is that story (or narrative, or plot, or emotion, or whatever) can drive and control and influence gameplay. And, of course, gameplay can cause us to build story. They also share similar structures. Both exist upon innate, and oft times unexpressed, ground rules. Both are experienced best when we don't have to think about them. In storytelling we call this a “suspension of disbelief”; in games it is a fluidity of play, a sort of seamlessness. Both also feed each other, and when used in harmony can make for more compelling games.

The trick of it is that aspiring game designers (like myself) need to recognize the differences, so that we can design gameplay without mucking about in story, and vise versa. We need to learn to separate State and Religion just enough so we can focus on one at a time, and tweak it to best effect. Gameplay needs to be made fun, independent of the intended or experienced narrative. Gameplay needs to be varied, regardless of story told. And the story should drive the play so that the players don't even realize that they are learning, and solving, and playing a game.


  1. Yeah, you pretty much explained what I was trying to say.

    Someday, I'll learn to say things clearlier.

  2. That frames the situation quite nicely, D!

  3. I guess interactive storytelling is a bit of a weird theocracy at this point, but I'd like to bring it to a level of maturity where its more of a hippie love in, content spewing all over the place.