Mechanical Narratives and Flawed Arguments

There is a debate among game industry pundits about what games as a medium are about. If you roll with the groups that like to argue academics about video game design, you’ve probably heard of ludology. Ludology (from the Latin ludus, meaning “game”) is the study of video games (and other types, such as board games) in terms of functional mechanics. Ludologists argue that video games are fun because they provide an interface for play within a fixed set of rules. A ludologist might argue that Mario can jump a certain height and break bricks because jumping and breaking bricks are fun actions to perform. Ludology seeks to describe the entertainment provided by video games in terms of the way the player interacts with the game.

In the opposite corner we have the Narratologists. This group believes that video games are most powerful as a story-telling medium, and feel that games provide entertainment because they allow the player to step directly into a fantastical role. Narratology considers games a framework for interactive stories, and in sharp contrast to the ludologists, feel that the method of interaction is secondary to the role provided by the game.

Both of these awkwardly-named groups despise each other with a passion, and each have written reams and reams of arguments defending their position. They seem to flaunt each other with “more academic than thou” arguments, and many of them seem convinced that all ‘good’ video games conform to their perspective. For all their research and analysis, it seems to me that these groups are very easily defined: ludologists like action games and platformers, while narratoligists prefer adventure games and RPGs. Of course, if they stated their position that way they wouldn’t sound so intelligent and academic, so I think they tend to stick to the silly names.

I think that the distinction between interface mechanics and story telling elements is false. I do not believe that these concepts are mutually exclusive, nor do I believe that all video games conform to one method over the other. I’ve come to this conclusion with the help of this Quest; horror games have been my escort out of the mire of confusion that both sides in this argument suffer from.

I think that where the ludologists and the narratologists go astray is in assuming that one method of game design is intrinsically superior to the other. I argue that plenty of games fall evenly in both categories: ICO, for example, is built upon mechanics that are extremely enjoyable and yet the title also manages to present one of the most powerful narratives in a game ever. Another example is the Shenmue series, especially the under-appreciated Shenmue 2. This game has a complex and well-written story that is central to the experience, but it also features a remarkably mature fighting system and more mini-games and reflex challenges than you can shake a stick at. I also assert that there are games that are neither mechanics- nor narrative-based: Electroplankton and Nintendogs are excellent examples.

Rather than divide all games into “mostly about mechanics” or “mostly about story”, I think it is better to define the primary form of challenge that games can provide. I’ve written before about cognitive challenges (“Type 1”) versus mechanical challenges (“Type 2”), and it has also occurred to me more recently that there are several other, less common forms of challenge used in video games (World of Warcraft, for example, features raw player endurance as a form of challenge, as progression seems to be primarily a function of the total amount of time a player spends online).

What I like about the challenge-based definition is that it’s easy to describe games as a mix of challenges. Resident Evil, for example, is an almost even mix of cognitive and mechanical challenges. Earlier adventure games, such as The Secret of Monkey Island are almost entirely cognitive, while action games like Resident Evil 4 are heavily based on mechanical challenges. Electroplankton provides almost no challenge at all, proving that challenge is not a pre-requisite for fun.

The other thing I like about categorizing games in terms of challenge format is that challenges have absolutely nothing to do with narrative. Whether the player is asked to make decisions about what to do next (cognitive) or challenged by actually doing the next thing (mechanical), I don’t see any reason that the narrative presented by the game must be affected. Silent Hill 2, for example, has a pretty even split between mechanical and cognitive challenges (both forms are pretty easy throughout the game), but the game also hosts a strong and interesting narrative.

The idea that the player only wants to mash buttons or only wants to read pages of dialog is fallacious and fairly naive. The idea that different players will enjoy different types of challenges, on the other hand, seems to me to be much more straight forward. I even think that different players will experience different forms of challenge when playing the same game!

I started this Quest to improve my understanding of game design by examining horror games specifically. I feel like this research is starting to really pay off, as some of the things I’ve learned from horror games are starting to make sense in completely different genres. I might be totally off-base here, but it certainly feels like this project is producing the results that I am looking for. As I have more thoughts about this subject I’ll post them, though I must warn you that in all likelihood I am completely wrong.

3 thoughts on “Mechanical Narratives and Flawed Arguments

  1. I like your challenge breakdown. However, I would like to mention that even action games can have a rather high cognitive challenge level. For example, in Mutant Storm (a Smash TV style overhead shooter) I noticed that when I started formulating strategies for the levels – where I try to position my character, what enemies I try to destroy first, etc. – I started to do substantially better than when I just relied on twitch reflexes to get me through. Similarly, in Gradius V (which I was playing yesterday), there’s quite a bit of strategy involved if you want to get anywhere – which ship setup do you choose, how do you prioritize your upgrades at different parts of the game, how do you utilize your options, and so on.

    But yeah, I like your setup much better than that story-driven, mechanics-driven divide. As another example of how story is independent of game challenge, take a look at games like Chess & CCGs like Magic: The Gathering. Very high on the cognitive challenge meters, but hardly story based games. And ironically, I would classify most puzzle games (commonly thought of as “thinking man’s games”) as being more mechanical challenges than anything else. For example, Lumines is more about how quickly you can create certain patterns than anything else. (Not to rag on Lumines; awesome game).

    On a side note, why do you think ICO has “one of the most powerful narratives in a game ever?” I thought ICO did a fantastic job of creating a cohesive world and the puzzles were entertaining enough, but the narrative didn’t really seem to be anything more than “You’re trapped in a castle with a girl & you need to escape” which hardly seems like a powerful narrative to me.

  2. RDespair,

    Yeah, I think most games are a mix of challenge formats. I think most games lean heavily to one side or the other, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a game that only provides one form of challenge.

    As for the story in ICO, I think you are confusing the plot for the narrative. The plot is indeed a simple story about a boy and a girl attempting to flee a big castle. But the narrative is much more complex and is presented to the player through visuals, player animations, camera angles, and scene lighting, in addition to dialog. I think the narrative is strong because it’s emotionally substantive–the game really makes you feel for the principle characters in a way that most games do not.

    Anyway, my point was that there’s no need for a mechanically-advanced game to have a simple narrative; I think that’s a false divide.

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