The academic homestead of Annika Waern

Storytelling in games

Game studies was more or less formed out of the ‘ludology – narratology’ debate, well documented in First Person. Basically, ludologists argued that games do not need to tell stories to be good, and they may not even be a good media for storytelling. The debate was a bit loop-sided as nobody really represented the opposite view (that games are about storytelling), but Hamlet on the holodeck is perhaps the book that comes the closest. In this book, Janet Murray presents a vision for a full 360 illusion narrative environment, giving players the power to shape stories in which they take active part. It is not a completely unrealistic vision: Murray was deeply influenced by table-top roleplaying, and although she was unaware of it, the Nordic larp community had already been experimenting with 360 illusion live role-playing for some years when the book came out. Later, research prototypes such as Façade have aimed to realise this vision in computer technology. (Façade exists in a holodeck version – AR/Façade.)

However, there is a huge difference between creating a 360 illusion and storytelling. In The art of videogames, Grant Tavinor argues that videogames are great vehicles for creating fiction (due to their simulation capabilities), but that storytelling requires a level of narrative control that is not entirely compatible with giving the player agency. And player agency is, after all, what games ultimately are about.

Since this debate, we have seen many, many storytelling games being produced; as larps, table-top games, and computer games. But these are seldom aspiring for a 360 illusion, and some of them don’t aspire to be games either. I find this development interesting, so I will blog about some such games over the coming weeks.

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