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Ask Gamasutra: The video games and narrative debate
Ask Gamasutra: The video games and narrative debate Exclusive
February 24, 2012 | By Staff




Ask Gamasutra is a new monthly column that takes hot issues in the video game industry, and poses them as a question to the editorial staff.

In contributing to this article, none of the editors read each other's responses. This is not about collaboration, but about the unique perspective that each individual Gamasutra editor offers.

For this inaugural edition, we turned to recent comments from Twisted Metal designer David Jaffe, as stated in a recent Gamasutra interview:

"If you're really a fucking artist, and you've got something to say, then you fucking pick the right medium to say it in," Jaffe said.

"But if you're sitting there going, 'I want to say this, I want to say this,' and games have never indicated, and your game has never indicated, that the medium is capable of saying that that well, then why are you making a fucking game?

"So that's all I'm saying. I'm not saying that if we come up with a way to express new emotions through gameplay, we don't want to do it. I'm just saying that so far I haven't seen it. And why waste our time making something? That's kind of ego-driven to me. It's not driven from a respect of the medium."

So this month's question, complete with Jaffe-styled F-bombs: Are video games the right fucking medium, or wrong fucking medium, to tell an "author-led" story?

Kris Graft
Editor-in-Chief

Twitter: @krisgraft

Neanderthal man emerges one morning from his cave. Something furry scurries across the top of his hairy feet. "HNNGGUUUUU," he cries, pointing to the creature, as it bounces into the forest. He just named what we today call a "squirrel," or as he calls it going forward, a "HNNGGUUUUU."

That cave man couldn't have comprehended the complexity of language, and how humans would eventually be able to manipulate it to not only inform others of furry mammals, but to evoke emotions, spread ideas, convey philosophies and tell stories.

David Jaffe talks about the "language of interactivity," but I wonder if games are so far past the "HNNGGUUUUU" stage at this point. Language by definition is a common communication system shared by a group of people. Does game design and gameplay even have that yet?

In order to communicate effectively, the fundamentals of the language need to be established. Designers are in many ways freestyling, but the foundation is falling into place. Look at Between, Uncharted or Shadow of the Colossus. All were successful in telling their stories, each one has a very clear, unique authorial voice. Narrative is possible.

Maybe to some right now, video games seem like they are the wrong medium to tell stories, as opposed to books or film. But I guarantee it won't stay that way. There are people out there who will take us from "HNNGGUUUUU" to Hamlet.

So I'm not going to ride the fence, I say games are the right fucking medium to tell stories. Many attempts will fail, but that's part of the process.

Christian Nutt
Features Director

Twitter: @ferricide

Neither. They're just a medium to do whatever you want with, as far as I'm concerned.

The fact that there are proclamations about what a medium should or should not be used for really just points to the fact that we are mired in its awkward adolescence -- even more so than the fact that adult men are making games about psychotic clowns driving ice cream trucks with guns stuck on them.

It's not that I don't understand the point Jaffe is trying to make. The contingent decisions he talked about in my interview with him, such as managing your character and inventory in an RPG -- when projected into a play space, their richness is incredibly compelling and itches the brain deeply and pleasurably in a way that does not feel like storytelling.

But much of the antipathy towards narrative in games is just as much based on the quality of that narrative, its awkward pacing and weak integration. Those bother me more than the idea of telling compelling stories in the medium -- as an admitted, unabashed fan of narrative.

Frank Cifaldi
News Director

Twitter: @frankcifaldi

If your definition of "video game" is as broad as mine, then not only are video games the right medium to tell an author-led story, they're the BEST medium. This is a form of narrative that demands the participation of its audience and can adapt itself and its story based on their choices. To say that something as magical as that isn't the right place for a creator to spin a tale is about as short-sighted as saying that video games are inherently a waste of time.

Don't confuse form with product: just because there are but a handful of games I'd consider works of literature doesn't mean that there won't be any more, we've only just begun to explore the possibilities.

Brandon Sheffield
Sr. Editor; EIC, Game Developer

Twitter: @necrosofty

This depends entirely on the depth and intentions of the game. It also depends on what you mean by an author-led story! A game is probably the wrong vehicle for a didactic narrative, unless it's an indie game with a singular purpose that you're meant to play through once and have a singular experience with. But if you define author-led as an auteurist vision that leads you from one emotion to another, games absolutely are the right medium.

To use a cliched example, Ico takes the player on a journey of fearful discovery and wistful nostalgia that is absolutely author-led. It would be foolish to say that the creator's vision is transparent there. I know what the argument is here. While a story like Batman: Arkham City might take control away from the player and tell a specific story, the real story players remember is when they swooped in on some guy and then disappeared into the night. In open world games, you forge the story yourself, within degrees.

But that doesn't mean we should never have an author-led story. The things you can do in a game and the way you can do them are necessarily authored already, and if you combine those in the right way, you have an experience you can't get elsewhere. Consider the horror genre. Could you make an open world horror game? How do you manufacture scares and creepy scenarios without an author leading the experience? The horror of having to do something you don't want to do is palpable in a game, more than when watching a character slowly open a door in a movie. Silent Hill 2 could not be a movie and give you the same experience. Nor could it have been as engaging an experience if it were open, and player-led.

I don't want every game director yelling their story at me. But for the right story, in the right context, I think games are a fantastic place to interact with an author's vision.

Chris Morris
Editor-at-Large

Twitter: @MorrisatLarge

While I think I see David's point here, I can't say that I agree with it. Story is a critical component to virtually any modern entertainment experience. Games that are based purely on endorphic moments are good, but not great. Games that focus purely on story are usually mediocre (and sometimes good), but never great. But the ones that can combine the two? That's where you find magic.

The idea of games without story make me fear that this industry will rush down the path Hollywood has chosen: A strung together series of big events that are the entertainment experience of potato chips. They're fun while you're in the moment, but you're never satisfied afterward.

Any entertainment medium worth its salt evolves. Gaming had its period when story was ignored. Now it's time to advance the industry to the next step. And while there will be some failures along the way, if developers don't try to make it happen, games will stagnate quickly.

Mike Rose
UK Editor

Twitter: @RaveofRavendale

Story can be done perfectly well in video games, and that has been proven time and time again - it's just that stories in games aren't the same as stories in books, or films, or theatre. The way in which creators incorporate story into any form of entertainment has to make sense with the medium, and in the instance of video games, the gameplay is the element which needs to be worked around, given that how the game feels to play is the most important part of a its entire structure - if your game plays like crap, it doesn't matter how good your story is!

So what if the best way to do storyline in games is to have it broken up by big chunks of shooting, exploring, fighting, etc - who cares? That's just how story works in video games, and in my opinion, it's perfectly fine as it is. I've played games such as Mafia and Heavy Rain in which the story has completely engrossed me. I have no qualms against developers trying to find new ways to tell stories in games - in fact, I highly encourage it - but there really is nothing wrong with the current system.

Eric Caoili
News Editor

Twitter: @tinycartridge

There are varying degrees of effectiveness games can have in telling an author-led story, depending on genre and intent. I believe it's a matter of matching what you hope to convey with the appropriate presentation. It can be difficult to express certain emotions with, say, a turn-based strategy title, but you can deliver a complex tale about the politics of war just as well as any other medium in that setting.

Video games are diverse enough to convey so many different types of stories and ideas -- I think the reason why it seems so few of them exemplify games as a storytelling medium is because truly great stories are rare, and they're seldom matched with the right experience, or a well-executed one. Or if they are, they might not necessarily be commercially viable, and thus aren't what's brought to our attention.

In these early days of the medium, perhaps identifying the most effective to communicate what you want to say is a challenge compared to other more established formats, but the potential for artists to get their messages and emotions across is still there.

Tom Curtis
News Editor

Twitter: @thomascurtis

Honestly, I think Jaffe has a point. Games are great at telling certain kinds of stories, but others are best left to more traditional media. If, for example, a developer only wants to tell a static, pre-determined story, they should stick to something like literature or film; after all, that's what those media are best at.

Games, on the other hand, excel at telling stories that involve audience participation. Without getting into spoiler territory, the final scene with The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3 comes to mind -- it only has such emotional weight because it puts the burden of Snake's actions directly in the hands of the player.

Other games, like Bioshock, tell non-linear stories that players have to discover for themselves. In that particular title, players can only learn about the fallen city of Rapture by finding the visual and audio clues hidden in the environment. In a way, the whole experience becomes almost archaeological, as players need to piece together the game's fragmented back-story on their own.

If you're going to tell stories with games, it just makes sense to tailor those stories to the medium. Games are interactive by nature, so shouldn't their stories take advantage of that?

Leigh Alexander
Editor-at-Large

Twitter: @leighalexander

I think that "right" or "wrong" is much too reductive for this discussion; I think the people who say "games aren't a storytelling medium" are simply people who don't want to tell stories with games. Which is perfectly fine, but it also means they have a pretty limited definition of "story"; your players are going to have a personal narrative about what they do in your game and how it affects them whether you want them to or not. All games have a story, it's just a question of how authored they can be, how prominent a role that narrative should play in the experience.

Some games suffer from being tightly-authored, and others suffer from a lack of singular vision. I think we're still figuring out what kinds of games benefit from strong authorial direction, what kinds of mechanics best benefit storytelling and what kinds are meaningfully experiential in and of themselves.

At the same time, I very much believe in the idea that those working in games should apply their creativity to those things games can do that other media can't. I agree with the idea that if you can do it with a film, don't try to shoehorn those ideas into a game, and tack interactivity onto a vision that doesn't need it. Which is why I find it pretty ironic that the designers most frequently deriding the idea of storytelling games or of authorial intent are basically knocking off fatigued alien-blasting car racing machinegun tropes that action flicks have done for years and done better. We aren't done figuring out what games can do and what they're for, and I hope creators -- with all the "ego" that might entail -- continue trying to express their personal visions through games, in ways unique to games.

Do you have a question that you'd like the Gamasutra editors to tackle? Email EIC Kris Graft at kgraft at gamasutra dot com


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Comments


k s
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I'm of the opinion Video games can tell great stories but that these stories must not overshadow great gameplay. I've played games with really enjoyable stories and terrible gameplay and I never finish them, and I've played games with terrible story and great gameplay and I tend to finish them. Just my two cents.

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Luis Guimaraes
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The case of video-games being used to tell stories, so far, is one of near-infinite recursive Sturgeon's Law.

We have successfully discovered 1.000.000.000 ways to not make a good narrative game.

Challenge is always accepted.

Ron Dippold
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Can't we just agree that while story is completely superfluous in many games (and even gets in the way when shoehorned awkwardly into games like Rage) that there are stories like One Chance ( http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/555181 ) that you could not tell as effectively in any other medium? I think Bioshock did a pretty good job of genuinely enhancing the game with the narrative, but I don't need one for Bejeweled. Taking a hardcore stand one way or the other on whether video games should have narrative seems like taking a stand on pizza vs fish.

Tadhg Kelly
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Videogames are not a storytelling medium. They're a depictive medium, a gallery medium, an interactive medium, a sometimes emergent and sometimes experient medium, an exploratory medium, a visual medium, a multimedia creation with laws of their own, a representational medium, a deceptive medium and very often a subversive medium.

But story telling, a tale, a plot, an A-to-Z with narrative significance and character development, intricate plotting and complex themes. No, not at all. And when they try to be so at the expense of play they invariably fall apart. You get the vacuuming screen scanning behaviour of adventure games. You get the mini-gamification of an entire environment just to have something to do in Heavy Rain. You get dissonance, tension and a significantly underwhelming experience, especially if it's not the first time that you've played one (the first time, folks tend to be much more forgiving).

The various arguments above boil down to either "one day they will be" (an argument to say that videogames are unlike any other art form in so far as their simpler versions are different to their more complex versions), "of course they are" (which lacks evidence, with the same 6 or 7 games like Shadow of the Colossus and Planescape constantly cited, both of which are conveniently forgotten for the amount of sheer wandering around you do) or the "depends on what you mean" (which falls into a series of semantic traps where narrative comes to mean anything).

So what's the question really about? Legitimacy. The question is not really whether we can have special experiences in games (we can of course). It is not about whether they can be beautiful, entrancing or even emotional (again, of course). It's actually about whether they stack up, and that is a question that cannot be answered while always framing the debate on other media's terms. You might call it The Ebert Conundrum, or Why Games Are Not Better Than Movies At Being Movies. So long as folks are stuck in that sort of duality, there can be no progress.

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Tadhg Kelly
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Hi Dan,

Many adventure games are indeed played, but in many cases the play experience is merely tolerated and the game is not fully played through. A good example of this is Grim Fandango, where the world is rich and hilarious, but the play experience is pretty weak.

Of course if you ask 20 committed fans of anything then of course you will get 20 examples of their personal favorite, that first blush that made them fall in love with the medium etc. Just as if you ask 20 committed sci-fi geek fans, there will be at least one who is convinced that Mutant-X is high art.

It's not a representative perspective. What is representative is numbers like completion rates on games, engagement rates and so on. They show whether, when all is said and done, a game is actually being played or not, played again or not. Whether the story was actually interesting to follow through to the end for most, or whether only the obsessives made it that far.

If you ask outside the walls of gamerdom "what is the greatest videogame story", what do you think you'd hear? Obsessive fans will all have 100 immediate answers, but regular folk? I suspect you'd be met with blank stares and vague responses. It's not just a case of a lack of cultural respect (See: legitimacy above) as was the case for comics or movies back in the day. Nor is it a case of lack of exposure: Most homes own a console or computer and most people have played at least a few games nowadays.

It's because there isn't one.

Not for lack of trying. There are at least 65000 people willing to stump up $2.2m for Double Fine to give it a go, and when story games like Heavy Rain and LA Noire whip up a frenzy of reviews they sell many copies. A lot of folks clearly want to believe that this fusion can work, and yet when you talk to them after the hype and the reviewer enthusiasm has abated, the real reports come out.

The niggles, the boredom, the forgetting what was supposed to happen in the story and who key characters were. The irritating nature of play itself. The sensation that it was all a bit underwhelming, or that the fun parts of the experience were often those that were off the dedicated track. The quiet admission that they never actually finished the game. Particularly from players who have played a few games before, for whom the initial novelty of being able to make dolls move and do stuff with joypads is gone.

Videogames have been around in one form or another for 40 years. As an art form they have shown ample form in creating interesting worlds, everything from the early days of Elite through to the modern galaxy of Mass Effect. They do the experience of transporting you into that world really easily because it's a natural fit, whether to shoot zombies or grow apples for the fair.

My point, consistently, is that they deliver a great sense of story, but suck at actually telling a story. That Left 4 Dead's in-situ experience is 100 times more naturally "game" than the forced narratives of Heavy Rain, more believable and meaningful (thaumatic is the term I use to describe this) as a result. That Portal's backing-track style of illustration and minimal context is more resonant than the long and rambling cut scenes of Mass Effect.

In short, that our actual art is more about place and pressure, less about prose. More about action and activity, less about wandering and waiting for the game to get on with it. It's just what we do well. And yet we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince ourselves that we should be doing something else well instead.

Glenn McMath
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Tadhg,
While I understand where you're coming from, I find your arguments (and all of those like it), to be somewhat infuriating for one simple reason. You are stating matters of opinion as absolutes. Your argument is full of merit, and you make a strong case for the focus of videogames to shift away from authored narratives, but because you make your arguments in absolute terms they can easily be dismantled. Opinions, even popularly held ones, are not the same as facts.

Grim Fandango is my favorite videogame of all time. I enjoyed it immensely both from a story and gameplay perspective. I do not think it would have been better presented as a movie or a book. The game sales and completion statistics you mention only prove that I am in a minority of people when it comes to my tastes in videogames. But the fact remains that this minority exists, therefore videogames featuring authored narratives are not a waste of time.

Should authored narratives be an integral part of all, or most games? Absolutely not. Do most of the people who play videogames really care about the stories being explicitly told to them through the game? Almost definitely not. But to dismiss an entire potential direction of the medium based solely on what we've been able to achieve so far is foolish and short sighted. There's promise here if you look for it. I'm perfectly fine with the idea that our biggest blockbuster titles shouldn't focus on narrative. I'm ok with the concept of author defined narrative in games being relegated to a specific niche within the industry until it becomes more palatable to the populous at large. But at the end of the day, the people creating videogames will make whatever the hell they want to. And if they want to make a game that tells a story, as naive as you may think it is to do so, who are you to stop them?

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Axel Cholewa
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@Tadhg: Well said.

Tadhg Kelly
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Hi Glenn,

My objective is not to fault, demean or otherwise cheapen the experiences of people who have played and enjoyed these games. It is rather to be frank about the shortcomings and strengths of many games toward helping designers and developers make better games.

Grim Fandango, for example is wildly imaginative and very funny. It is also repetitive, many of the puzzles make very little sense and the control scheme is quite dissonant because it is all too clear after playing for a while that you are actually piloting a cylinder that barely interacts with its environment. So while the plot is interesting, the question of "must I do all this crap?" creeps in. Anyone who doesn't see that it is both strong and weak in many areas is simply not being honest with themselves.

"The game sales and completion statistics you mention only prove that I am in a minority of people when it comes to my tastes in videogames. But the fact remains that this minority exists, therefore videogames featuring authored narratives are not a waste of time."

Indeed, and again there is Double Fine's example. There are many niches of games that are similarly minority endeavours, and all have contributed to the development of the medium as a whole. And yet there is also a reason why they are not majority endeavours, not really that exciting and not selling.

It's more than a marketing or advertising question. It's because the games are often not much fun to play, and the audiences that like them are more willing to tolerate that than normal. Now that's not an argument to say "you should only make mainstream games" (whatever the mainstream is supposed to be) it is instead an observation of technique.

Even in the most fan-passionate niches, there are some techniques that are just generally bad, but they hang around as tropes of the form. That applies to everything from everything from UI through to narrative techniques. Branched dialogue, for example, has rarely ever been anything other than a permutation exercise in games, and yet year in year out it features in RPGs etc because that's how it's always been.

Just as filmmakers have developed sets of techniques over the years that eventually led them to stop making movies that were recorded theatre and stop having characters say their feelings directly in bad exposition, my goal is for game makers to realise that some technqiues just work better than others and then use those techniques to create what they want to create.

To realise that there are some constraints that make for failed game experiences which are in essence making their audiences tolerate bad design in exchange for some fun, and that could be better. And also to realise that some of those constraints enable great techniques that should be used more often.

Everything else is, in my opinion, apologism for bad game design.

Tadhg Kelly
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Hi Dan,

"Its a pretty dubious argument to say that the mass audience's experience with video games is reflective of the highest purpose of the medium."

That is only true if the highest purpose of the medium is to tell stories. I would argue that it is not, that that is the highest purpose of game designers who want to be filmmakers. The highest purpose of the medium, on the other hand, is to make the feeling of playing games believable and magical. Anything that gets in the way of that is, therefore, a detraction.

And furthermore I also think that the mass experience is incredibly important to consider unless you're intent on being one of those artists that only makes art for his friends who understand his intent. There are plenty of self-indulgent artists who do do that, and the rest of the world has no idea what they are about or why they should care.

At its most basic level the mass audience gets what a novel is, what music is and what a movie is. The better, more powerful and artistic versions of those forms derive from the simpler, more basic forms. One builds on the other. The mass audience also gets what a game is. It's a fun thing you play with to win in some fashion. And so it follows that the better, more powerful and artistic versions of the form derives from the simpler and more basic. Which is in fact the case.

Your argument seems to want to invert that, to suggest that either the peons just don't get it, or they need to be made to get it. To which I say back to you that this is a mistaken belief born of wanting storygames to really be a thing. I would also say to you that many such as yourself have voiced that furstration since at least 1990, but with little to show in terms of real results. Empirically speaking, it's the other way.

Why is that so hard to accept? Again, legitimacy. I get that, I really do believe me. But the solution is not to keep going back to the same failed rationalisations and equivocations that have propped up the idea of storygames for so long because it just doesn't work. The solution is to accept that videogames are an art form, and like all art forms there are some ground rules about what it is.

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Joe McGinn
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Seems at odds with what's already been accomplished. e.g., Half Life series - great immersive, emotive story in interactive-form.The only problem with story in video games is shoddy execution. 95% of games are still in the "let's film a stage play" immaturity of early film. Our version of filming a stage play is to shoehorn two movies onto the ends of a game level and call it story.

Valve, on the other hand, is pioneering - still primitive, but they are doing it - with *interactive* story. As a result they have some of the most emotive game experiences.

Simple test. If you are making a story element for you game that is not interactive, you're doing it wrong.

Bob Johnson
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@Tadhg

Said it better than I can say.

Sean Coll
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In non-interactive media (movies, books, etc), the director/author/whatever ideally has the audience's emotions strung up like a puppet. If the characters are interesting and the setting is engaging then the creator can marionette the audience through a range of feelings and ideas, and lead them to a meaningful destination. The trouble comes in when you give the audience the strings- you have to hope that they move themselves through the conflict and on the road toward whatever emotional state the creator desires.

I think this has absolutely been done before in games, I remember exactly how FF7 made me feel when Aeris died (outraged) and when I got revenge on Sephiroth (righteous retribution). Xenogears made me obsessed about the protagonist Fei, his complex psyche, the conspiracy of the church, and his love interest that spanned throughout time. RPGs can accomplish a powerful and memorable narrative because there is hard separation of story and gameplay- if you're not grinding random encounters then you're probably watching a cutscene. Bioshock blended narrative and gameplay nicely with interactive cutscenes & voice overs while you're killin' splicers, and delivered a fun game with an engaging critique on objectivism.

I agree with Jaffe, if you have something to say you have to pick the right medium to say it in- Bioshock's message would not nearly have been as profound if the game were a real-time strategy. The question lies in how much freedom to give the player while directing them to the emotional conclusion. While an underwater steampunk city-builder sounds like an awesome game, it would be difficult to make the player arrive at the conclusion that altruism and ethics are necessary for a functioning society. Or that stealing the life force of little girls will make you superman, which I believe was Ken Lavine's secondary message.

Luis Guimaraes
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"How long can you survive in Rapture before realizing you're a freak just like everybody else in there?"

Naomi Clark
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You can also use dance as a storytelling medium. In fact you could probably put cutscenes into a dance performance, where the dancers stop and just tell the audience a story, perhaps a gripping fireside fable, for five minutes at a stretch, and then dance some more. This doesn't mean it would be a BAD dance piece, the dancing could be great. Heck, the story could also be great, it could be the most compelling and heart-wrenching story ever told! In fact, it's probably quite easy to imagine how the wonderful dance performance and the gripping story could be interwoven in a way that they play off each other and some of the narrative is delivered non-verbally through dance.

However, everyone would notice that these are two different things glued together, and if they felt favorably about the idea, maybe they'd describe it as a new thing, some kind of dance-story. Very different from the kinds of dance pieces that tried to emphasize the "dance-ness" of what's going on, or the unique qualities of the medium of dance -- motion of one or more bodies through space, arrangement of the limbs and torso and head, rhythm and speed, etc. Not all these things are unique to dance, but some of them are particularly central to dance.

In games, we're used to works that are hybrids of interactive storytelling (which is in itself quite distinct from non-interactive storytelling) and gaming. Some people are so used to this combination that they think that it's the norm, or that it's somehow the greatest thing that games can aspire to. (This could stem from some kind of Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk fantasy, I dunno.) Those aspirations, and the fact that game-story hybrids are very widespread, doesn't mean that the situation is that much different than the dance example above. There are other games that try to focus more fully on the game-like qualities of games, the things that games do which other cultural forms do not. I'm not saying that's "better" -- but it's certainly different.

I don't even think we fully understand what the "game-like qualities of games" are, or what makes them so rich and compelling -- this makes that cultural project, understanding games through making more of them, potentially very fruitful. Figuring out how to hybridize story and games is a completely different project, one that I also wish well -- but personally, I kind of wonder how well that project can go when there's not a widespread understanding yet of what makes interactive narrative really work well OR digital games work well. Trying to mash everything up may simply be premature... which is no reason not to be ambitious, but could also be reason not to have sky-high expectations.

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Naomi Clark
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Exactly! This is why I mentioned Gesamtkunstwerk -- the 19th century fantasy that opera could be the medium to end all mediums, and incorporate everything else (music, storytelling, acting, painting, dance) into itself.

Opera is a hybrid cultural form that incorporates storytelling, just as games are. There is a reason why different kinds of stage works are presented "with singing" as in musical theatre or opera, or without singing, as in a play. The mash-up of multiple forms -- music with storytelling, or gameplay with storytelling -- presents extremely different challenges. There's a reason why librettos haven't tended to advance the art of storytelling -- and I suspect it's related to why games have difficulty as well.

There's nothing wrong with an ambition of combining stories and games as a way of telling a story, just like there's nothing wrong with an ambition of combining stories and music to make an opera or a program symphony in the style of Berlioz or Strauss. I like Berlioz and Strauss! However, that ambition is very different than "tell the greatest story ever told" or "make an amazing game." In a sense, it's an ambition that by necessity is about blending and combining. So far, attempts in the digital medium to blend and combine stories with gameplay have been fairly clumsy, although I think they're getting less clumsy. Personally, I think we have so far to go with "how do we make a good game" that the ground will be constantly shifting underfoot for trying to figure out how to make a good game and tell a good story simultaneously -- but that shouldn't daunt the bold from trying.

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Axel Cholewa
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Naomi, although I agree that we don't "fully understand what the "game-like qualities of games" are", the dance example differs from games in a crucial point: if your going to a dance show you want to watch. Be it dance or "cutscenes", you want to watch dancers or actors do something. For the audience, watching the cutscene wouldn't be that different from watching the dancing than watching a cutscene in a video game is different from playing it. If the dancers would involve the audience in the play I'd see more similarities.

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Joshua Darlington
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"You can also use dance as a storytelling medium... However, everyone would notice that these are two different things glued together"

I'm excited by this idea. Mixing dance games with narrative. Off the top of my head I can think of a few narrative dance traditions that could inform the genre like Broadway or Hollywood Musicals, Ballet, Folkloric Religious dance like Kathak etc.

Axel Cholewa
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@Dan: I understand that the example is an analogy. But when talking about narration in games you have to consider the "audience" of both analogy (dance event) and subject (games). I simply consider this analogy inapt for this purpose, as much as the solar system is an inapt analogy for energy levels in atoms (sorry, I'm a physicist with no better example on my mind at the moment).

Naomi Clark
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Dan -- I agree that using the superlative poses its own problems, and I'll take the blame for unnecessary hyperbole. Even if you substitute "tell an amazing, compelling story" or "be the best storyteller you, particularly you, can be" I think the point still holds.

Again, I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to tell a story AND make a game for people to play. Attempts to hybridize are great! I agree with Joshua that dance-game-story mashups could be great too, although obviously "dance games" don't mash up "dance performance" with "game to play" for an audience in the same way that story does.

What I'm wary of is naturalizing the marriage of story and game -- so that it seems like these two things should just inherently accompany one another, or even that they're a "naturally great" combination like peanut butter and chocolate. I don't think they're NECESSARILY oil and water, either, unlike some people, but I think cramming them together is a particular tactic for approaching both story and gameplay that has some very odd challenges, because it's a slightly awkward mashup. It has an awkward quality -- and I don't think many designers or writers who have REALLY tried to make it work beyond a 90/10 split would disagree -- and it's also kind of overvalued in our current cultural discussion, given that it's so awkward.

I'm also wary of the magnetic pull of the Gesamtkunstwerk, which I think is the creative equivalent of the fabled "Taco Town Taco" -- a taco is not made better or more desirable or even more edible by becoming a pizza crepe taco pancake chili bag. In fact, food in general is not improved by this concept. ( http://boingboing.net/2009/03/09/taco-town-tacos-for.html )

Axel -- completely agree that the analogy is flawed, in part by the lack of interactive elements in the dance-story analogy. Such is the peril of analogies. It did the job I wanted though, even if the interactive parallel isn't there.

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Simon Ludgate
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Asking whether or not games are a storytelling medium is as ridiculous as asking whether or not pencils and paper are a storytelling medium.

Asking whether or not games are THE BEST storytelling medium (for a specific story) is a more meaningful question. The medium of pencil and paper is not THE BEST medium for all stories. A story of sounds might be better told through the medium of an audio recording than a graphical recording. However, the pencil and paper is an excellent medium for sharing stories of words and images.

Just as the pencil and paper is poorly suited for storytelling among pre-literate societies, gaming may be a poor medium for the kinds of stories we try to tell with them. Just as the medium of film is poorly suited for telling particularly long stories, games are poorly suited for telling non-interactive stories.

The real question, then, is "what is an interactive story?" I don't think I've really seen one yet. I don't even think they're technologically feasible. We have the medium for telling the story, but we don't yet have the alphabet for this medium. Telling film-style stories in games is about as effective as showing book-style pages on film: yes, it technically works, but it's certainly not taking advantage of the medium's strengths

But, just because the alphabet of game story eludes us today, I don't think it will elude us forever. Someone, someday, will figure it out, and when they do all these discussions of whether not games are a medium for storytelling will seem as facetious as the debates over whether or not the motion picture was a storytelling medium in the 19th century or whether or not writing was a storytelling medium in ancient Greece.

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Keith Burgun
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I really get a kick out of how every single person gave a wishy-washy answer. Did you guys realize that you all gave the same exact status quo answer? "Sometimes, maybe, it depends?" Why did we need nine different people to ALL say it?

This time period will be looked back on in game history as a kind of "dark ages" in terms of game design because of this crippling problem. Nobody wants to come out and make a bold statement.

Firstly we need a better definition of what a GAME is. If you're calling "any kind of interactive system" a game, then it's no wonder everyone's afraid to say anything.

I define a GAME as a "contest of ambiguous decision-making". Or a "System of rules in which agents compete by making decisions".

Games hurt stories, and stories hurt games. That isn't to say that you can't end up with a decent game despite the damage, but it is to say that combining games and stories is inherently a BAD IDEA. There are a ton of reasons for why this is the case, I explain the hell out of it here: http://www.dinofarmgames.com/?p=219

and I go over it a bit more here: http://www.dinofarmgames.com/?p=842

If you don't agree, that's awesome. But please develop more of a point of view than "anything can be good ever! There are no guidelines or criteria by which games can be judged because everything is 100% totally subjective and people's opinions come out of thin air!"

Luis Guimaraes
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That take on the Universe as an exemple is very interesting for the subject. Yet if Minecraft is a toy, the universe can't be a game, if it's analysis is being played by the same rules. Life would be a game, instead, as long as one knows it's goal.

I agree on "game shame", even quoted it around a couple times and sent links to your articles already, mostly to people I know that go far in the other direction: the case of dismissing awesome games because of plot being bad or lacking.

Still disagree with all the "it's not possible" thoughts. For some, it might be the case of games being "mere games" without story, but not everybody goes the same route.

There's a brazilian dessert called "Romeu e Julieta", which, in it's simplest form, consists in a very simple recipe of mixing guava marmalade with cheese, sugar and salt, fruit and milk. Similarly, there's a 300-years old English rhyme that says: "An apple-pie without some cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze."

"Games and story do not add up (or multiply, as many seem to believe) to the sum (or factor) of their parts."

They should. If don't, something wrong was done in the process of putting them together.

Walking on two feet is inherently a bad idea, too.

Problem is when the bad implementations are the norm and the actual good ones are optional and controversial targets of attack from politicians and media that compete with videogames for audience attention: "No Russian" (Don't speak Russian).

Daniel Martinez
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Xenosaga had a great story but terrible overall gameplay, and it wasn't enough to keep me coming back. The same goes for the Metal Gear Solid series. Personally, the controls throughout MGS were too cumbersome for me to be bothered learning them. I would have gladly watched a friend play through the entire game because the story was fun to watch as it developed, but the gameplay made it far too frustrating. Don't take this as a sign that I like easy games, not at all, but I despise games that are too difficult to learn. I picked up and finished Zone of Enders (another Kojima title) easily enough, and that had a decent story.

Darren Tomlyn
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Here we go again....

(based on the contents of my blog: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DarrenTomlyn/20110311/6174/Content
s_NEW.php ).

Games are not a medium for story-telling (narratives) at all. Any medium a game uses can also, generally, be used for story telling, and often does purely as a condition of its use as a medium for a game. (Such as a board game and pictures).

The word game represents an application of behaviour that is merely COMPATIBLE with story-telling, (in some specific ways, such as a setting), and not that in itself. A games function is to enable a different application of different behaviour than that described as 'story-telling', just like nearly everything else we create, from microwaves to chairs to cars etc..

So if ALL we want to do is tell a story, then yes, games are not the right application of behaviour to use to do so and neither are puzzles or competitions. If you want to provide some interactivity in the story itself - then a puzzle would therefore be what you're looking to create, which, unfortunately, is not currently recognised.

But games are not about story telling at all - they're about people competing by writing their own stories - and as such, any story that is told in it's place, is no longer a game at all - even if it's interleaved with one. (Cut-scenes, interactive dialogue etc.). As far as setting is concerned, however - pretty much anything goes, which is why if you can tell the story you want in such a manner, whilst enabling a story to be written, then, yes, games might be what you're looking for.

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Naomi Clark
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We don't have a connection to or frame of reference to the designer of chess or Go. Would you say these games don't have meaning?

Maybe what you're referring to as "meaning" is actually "authorial intent" or "meaning placed in a work by an author." Many games don't even really have a single author, so this might not even be a concept that has universal application to games.

I agree with Darren: games are not a medium at all. Games are enacted through various media, like "digital media" or "cut-up pieces of paper" or "human utterances." Games are a cultural form, stories are also a cultural form. Saying "can stories use games as a medium for storytelling" is kind of like saying "can banana use pear for a fruit salad." You can PUT both of those things together, it won't necessarily make a good fruit salad. (or mediated experience)

Geoffrey Kuhns
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Naomi, Darren said, "Games are not a medium for story-telling (narratives) at all," not "games are not a medium at all." Of course a game is a medium.

Nice fruit salad analogy though.

Darren Tomlyn
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@geoffrey

Actually, the whole point about the word and term 'medium' is that it represents things/concepts that are used to enable or promote other behaviour.

Game does not, because it IS such behaviour, just like art, competition etc.. The words game, art, puzzle and competition all represent applications of behaviour - (different applications of often different behaviour that may only be compatible when applied by different people). This is why calling 'video games' a medium is literally barking up the wrong tree.

A board, computer or ball or dice are media for games. A board can be seen as a medium for pictures, likewise a computer for many forms of art, too - but that is separate, and different to being a medium for games, even if a game may use such forms of art.

Types of games can be, (and often are), labelled by the medium used, (such as those above), and any forms of art such media may use to enable a game are merely a condition of such use, nothing more. This is why labelling a type of game 'video game' instead of 'computer game' is causing so many problems with recognising how all the different elements - the medium, any forms of art it uses, and the games it enables - are related, but not the same thing.

*Note: It is possible to view/perceive a game as a work of art, when viewing it as a third party - but such an application of art, still has nothing to do with it being a game, even if that is how and why it exists.

Geoffrey Kuhns
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Darren, would you agree that one behavior can promote another? After all, actions speak louder than words.

If a behavior can promote a behavior, and
if a medium can promote a behavior, then
a medium can be a behavior.

If a medium can be a behavior, and
if games can be a behavior, then
games can be a medium.

Luis Guimaraes
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Reminding that "medium" means "vehicle" in this context. And that most media are combinations of other media. Painting, as Handcrafted Non-volumetric Imagery, is a combination of Shape and Color. Literature can combine Narrative, Description and Dialogue (Affirmations, Suggestions and Motivations, enhanced by Description of Body Language, Facial Reactions and Voice Tones).

Can video games be used to convey, teach or deliver anything?

Darren Tomlyn
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@Geoffrey

The type of behaviour we're talking about here is story-telling - narrative - which is not what the word game represents (an application of).

Art represents an application of such behaviour, as does puzzle, (though in different ways).

Games, just like anything else we create can be seen or perceived as a work of art - subjectively - but that is the point.

A game can be seen to tell a story - but it has nothing whatsoever to do with it being a game.

Can games be used as a medium for further developments? Yes - such as education, training etc. - (which they have probably ALWAYS been used for) - but for completely different reasons than art etc..

The problem we have is that we're confusing game and art, and therefore not understanding how words such as medium etc. are truly related to such matters in a consistent manner.

So, I suggest you read my blog: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DarrenTomlyn/20110311/6174/Content
s_NEW.php

Ahmad Daniels
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*deletes long post*

The game and the story have to say the same things and have to integrated so that they don't feel like two separate pieces of media. If you're trying to tell a story of an altruistic does it's probably not a good idea to have him jokingly mowing down 1000s of enemies(looking at you uncharted). If the story is at the expense of the forcing an old moment to moment game-play trend then its probably going to be fail. Not every game needs to be fun not every game needs to be challenging... if its the story you want to tell and its interesting and engaging then it will be fine, but people have to stop stating games are meant to be one way first then everything else, because in many cases they completely challenge one another and make for a poor meaningless integration.

Daniel Martinez
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I am glad to see I'm not the only one who thinks people are forcibly trying to fit things into some kind of cookie-cutter definition.

Mike Lopez
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I was thinking Jaffe was just making excuses for why his current game had little to no story element, which may not have seemed so natural in an arena-based vehicle-combat game that is more about the vehicles than characters. Still, to blanketly state games are not the right medium to tell stories is self-centered and short-sighted.

In my opinion Bioshock had the best story ever. The opt-in model made me feel like I was so much more a part of it and that both surprised and delighted me.

Ben Myres
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I think David Jaffe might actually have a point. But not in the way you might think.

As Kris Graft says "the fundamentals of the language need to be established." Perhaps the major reason this debate keeps reappearing is that games aren't really telling stories: by definition a story is a passive experience. It is told by the teller to the consumer of the story without interaction. In contrast, a game is an encompassing and active experience - the consumer interacts and therefore changes what and how a game is consumed. The fundamental difference between these definitions typifies the problem.

So Jaffe actually turns out to be correct in saying that games are the wrong medium - for 'traditional' stories anyway. What we really need to do is come up for a term that defines the active storytelling that occurs in games. Only once this happens will this debate die.

Roger Tober
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Eventually we're going to run the gamut of gameplay and it's going to feel stale. For me, it already has in many genres. Even the indy games, with their different takes on gameplay, are getting a little stale. So what if I can turn the whole scene instead of moving the character? So what if I get a new spell or a new sword? I think, right now, gameplay is limiting story. We're kids on roller coasters and we don't want to be bothered talking to the ticket man. After while, no matter how many roller coaster designs come along, it's going to get stale and we're going to want to think about love and betrayal, how much freedom society should permit, how do we let so much injustice live in the world. In a game, we can almost literally walk in another character's shoes. It's for empowerment now rather than empathy. Although it will definitely be different than books or movies, it will be done in games.

Elizabeth Boylan
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As an artist, positioning the game narrative discussion as a 'debate' will lead to polar views. It's not 'whether' games can also be stories, so much as how to make a game a story that pushes creativity and imagination. It's just a question of how you want to interweave narrative into a game.

Geoffrey Kuhns
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You don't need "to make a game a story." You don't need "to interweave narrative into a game." Telling a story and playing a game are each a different means to an end--a medium.

Why tell a story? To convey a particular meaning? Other media serve as training wheels for games right now, but don't forget their independence. Games can convey meaning without another medium in the way.

I agree with your sentiment on debate, however. Consider it a civil discussion.

Geoffrey Kuhns
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In case the original question has been forgotten this far down, allow me to paraphrase: Are video games the right medium in which to tell a story the author leads?

No.

Keep in mind the question specifically mentions video games, and it asks whether this medium is the "right" medium--best, most efficient, optimal, appropriate medium--for that approach.

The problem word is "author." In games, players author their experiences at their discretion, not the developers'. As many have shown and more have said, game experiences may be developer-led, but only to a predetermined extent. At least once, they must bequeath the reins to the player(s), at which point the experience becomes player-led.

So no, if one author needs to maintain control during the entire breadth of the experience, video games are not the "best" medium for it.

*deletes philosphical New Media discussion*

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Geoffrey Kuhns
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Ha, you're right. Great example, too.

Notice, however, that one author does not maintain control during the entire breadth of the experience: the developers script events and the player controls the pacing, for example.

But sure, horror stories in particular benefit from a player's involvement when primarily developer-led.

John Bachynski
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How can Jaffe, designer of God of War, say that games are not good for authored stories? What would God of War be without the narrative? The experience would be meaningless and shallow. I think that dragging out this debate, which I thought was over, is easy publicity for his upcoming game.

Keith Burgun
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>The experience would be meaningless and shallow.

As opposed to... ?

Bob Johnson
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@John

God of War would be a great game without any narrative.

Luis Guimaraes
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The good part of discussing it is getting inspiration.

Geoffrey Kuhns
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http://www.craigbellamy.net/2006/10/26/new-media-and-cultural-for
m-narrative-versus-database/

The published academic work above explores the relationship between "narrative" and "database," the latter of which new media has begotten. Games currently exemplify something of a hybrid form, but gameplay certainly falls under database.

Ramon Carroll
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The consensus of the Gamasutra staff pretty much represents the sentiments of most of the game industry and its consumer base as a whole. The general success and acceptance of stories in games demonstrates that this little discussion is really nothing more than mental masturbation at this point.

Story-driven games are here, and they aren’t going anywhere. If you have such a problem with them, then only make and play the games that don’t have stories in them. Problem solved.

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Ramon Carroll
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@ Joshua

Mental masturbation doesn't benefit anyone or anything else, other than the person who is engaging in it, hence the term "masturbation".

Secondly, its the tendency to demand overly rigid definitions of games and narratives that causes such "unknown qualities" to never be discovered.

I'm not the one who is so determined to place arbitrary limits on the exploration of this medium...

Ramon Carroll
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@ Dario

"Ramon, not playing games with stories is technically not possible, since stories carry through in signifiers like clothing, language usage, slang, color palette, and even gender representation. Its an impossible suggestion to make from your side."

What is the "story" of Tetris? Or the "narrative" of Pong?

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Ramon Carroll
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@ Joshua

Excellent response on the whole mental masturbation thing. I’ll let you have that.

I’m not sure how anything I said could possibly “shut out truly great story design in games”. I’m just as much a critic of badly designed stories as anyone else here. My concern is with the type of thinking that places arbitrary limits on the exploration of this medium, when it’s clear that such exploration has yielded many successful and memorable endeavors already. Being critical and altogether dismissing something are two completely different things.

I’m all for rational and productive discussions about our medium, which is why I regularly engage with intelligent people like you to discover ways in which we can push it forward. I just tend to have problems with discussions that are ultimately regressive, rather than progressive. There are enough people who would shell out their cash for story-driven games to know that they are obviously a viable design in today’s market. I’m one of those people who would willingly pull out my wallet for another Red Dead Redemption, FF7, Bioshock, or Uncharted. In other words, there's room for both story-driven games along with all of the rest.

Also, I’m a little lost as to where you are going with your second and third paragraphs. Are you implying that the reason for the lack of good storytelling in games has something to do with the market being pre-occupied with children and “Disney” games? Really? Twilight, Clone Wars, and GI Joe? You do realize that there is a whole slew of mature games that dominate the market don’t you? Do you realize how old the typical “gamer” usually is? Children are not the main bulk of the market, and surely not the consumer-base that is keeping this industry afloat. If you don’t want to play GI Joe, then just go and play one of the more mature games that currently exist, such as Mass Effect 3, for example.

Forgive me if I'm misunderstanding your last point, and feel free to clarify if need be.

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Ramon Carroll
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@ Joshua

I still don’t see how the problems you have with the Mass Effect 3 demo have anything to do with “catering to children” or “Disney design”. Your concern is strictly with what you see as gameplay design flaws. All of these flaws are possible to fix without throwing out the story. They are legitimate concerns, but I’m having trouble understanding their connection to the point of this thread. The question is whether or not games are the wrong medium to try to tell author-led stories in.

If you want to discuss badly designed author-led games, and how we can improve modern game development, then I’m all for it. I just can’t see how throwing out the baby with the bathwater solves the problem, though.

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Ramon Carroll
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@ Joshua

While I agree with your intentions, I feel that regression is the last thing that we need to be doing here. Design is more than just a science where there is only one true answer, and one false answer. It is also an art, which means that various design philosophies can potentially branch off in different directions. This is the beauty of mediums: in each medium there’s always more than one path to take, some bad, but many good ones as well. My concern with the original sentiments that gave birth to this thread is that there is a small group of people who are so determined to impose arbitrarily rigid definitions on this medium that it will ultimately end up squelching our progress, and limiting our choices to a single path, rather than improving our overall design methodologies, regardless of the paths we choose to take.

Again, it’s no insignificant fact that author-driven games in their current conception are already widely accepted by the industry and most of its consumers. That alone should be enough for you. Most people actually like author-led stories. If that wasn’t the case, then they wouldn’t be so popular.

Do we need to continually improve on the different ways in which we can tell stories in games? Of course, but that may mean branching off in a different direction, not cancelling out the others. If someone is so sure that their method of game design is so superior, then they should show their completed superior game, instead of criticizing games like Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted, Mass Effect, and Call of Duty. We can criticize some of the story-telling elements in these games as much as we want, but the fact of the matter is the community is happy with the direction of these games. Improvement is the order of the day, not revision.

I’m not trying to hold back the progression of modern game design. I’m just trying to get people to realize that there is more than one “right” path to good game design. If you’ve got another idea of a path that hasn’t been explored, then by all means, feel free to take that path. If it is executed well, it will prove itself on its own.

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Ramon Carroll
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I have no qualms with anything you're saying. The difference between you and me is that I believe there's enough room in this medium for both Mass Effect and Journey. That's the beauty of mediums.

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Ramon Carroll
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Cool, then. Game on, Brother. :)

Nat Loh
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can i post links? here is Jaffe's talk from DICE 2012 that this article references. I don't think this short blurb fairly presents his point. http://youtu.be/Fj_HstA1ob8

I think Jaffe's point boils down to "gameplay first." If you are a "story first" person, then games are not (or may not be) the BEST medium, which I think is a better debate. To me, games are much more about crafting an experience. Interactivity gives you a broader palette in which to explore the type of experience you wish to give your audience. I don't agree that one shouldn't pursue it at all if they are story-first, theme-first, philosophy/human-condition-first, etc. but the iterative nature of game design and development can sometimes contend with 'modern' story telling techniques and approaches which tend to still follow the linear and cinematic tradition. If you are exploring an emotion, don't rely on the story to evoke it; look into your gameplay and explore the possibility space within your designs.

Jaffe's warning at the end of his talk is to empower publishers to be wary of developers who might romance them with fancy visions without vetting them; without engaging the developers in how they will actualize the vision and design of what they are pitching as well as making sure the two see eye to eye.

An interesting contrasting point to this discussion is Tim Schafer and Rob Gilbert's talk about adventure games and how story is used and realized in them. http://youtu.be/re_LWmRJK-g

jin choung
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the thing about the "pro story" folk is that they can't explain games like tetris or tic tac toe or chess.

jaffe is right. PURE GAMES are incidentally narrative at best.

for every medium, you have to consider what are the essential ingredients or attributes of the medium.

for games, the essential attributes are RESOURCE MANAGEMENT.

every game is about managing resources - whether it is time and space as in pac man or space war, along with the nature of your and the enemy's forces as in chess or starcraft, or the kind of ammo and weapons available as in MW3 and BF3.

you need only look at the popularity of the multiplayer aspects of the biggest hits of the year to see how little narrative matters.

------------------------------------

and sure, you absolutely CAN graft on narrative as well but doing so invariably co-opts aspects from other, NON GAME media (cut scenes, in game books, etc).

but the ESSENCE of the game is the game play and mechanics of resource management...

-------------------------------------

is it IMPORTANT that games be "pure"? no. not necessarily. but if we would ever strive to recognize the best and the brightest of OUR MEDIUM, we should strive to recognize the greatest achievements OF our medium... and not recognize stuff that does a great job in being like other mediums like movies.

there should be a BIG, notable difference between what makes BEST GAME compared to what makes BEST MOVIE.

just like there should be a big difference between BEST MOVIE and BEST PLAY.

Glenn McMath
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"the thing about the "pro story" folk is that they can't explain games like tetris or tic tac toe or chess."

Ok, I'll bite. :)

As far as I can tell, nobody is saying that every game needs a narrative. Doing so would be foolish. Us "pro story" folks don't need to explain the success of games that lack a narrative because our stance (usually) isn't so absolute as "anti-story" folks (and if it is, it shouldn't be).

The funny thing is I agree with you. Pure games aren't about explicit narratives. But videogames are rarely pure games these days. How much resource management or strategy is in Rock Band? What are the win conditions of the Sims or Minecraft? Like it or not, creators within this medium have been making more than just games for a long time now, and I think the fact that all of these things are being lumped together under the label "videogames" is a problem.

I do think there is merit to narrowly defining what a Video Game is, but at the same time you have to acknowledge that it shares the interactive space with a number of other things (like interactive stories, and virtual worlds that are designed to foster play and experimentation). All of these other things should be defined narrowly, that way we can learn what they are at their core, and understand where outlying works sit in the grey area between these different types of interactive experiences.

Most of the "videogames" people create these days are (hopefully) interesting hybrids. I personally like my hybrids to have a compelling story.

Roger Tober
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Somewhere someone decided that games that have a few cut scenes or are partially linear are "movies", which they aren't. I don't know how people get away with those exaggerations, but somehow they do. Yes, sometimes authors take control from gamers for too long and lose them. That doesn't mean cut scenes should be banned, no more than when some games use gameplay that is too repetitive should mean we should ban gameplay. Those are just game design flaws. I think a short cutscene can be useful if it's at the end of a level, and adds background or gives future direction, but it has to be short and it's only one means of adding story to a game. You can also get background and direction from character "interaction", which is obviously limited, or find notes or explanations, listen to the voice of a narrator, or simply put things together that you have seen. All games don't have to be tinker toys where we make some sort of construction. Those are construction games.

jin choung
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"But videogames are rarely pure games these days."

actually, especially in multiplayer space like with MW3 and BF3 and starcraft, these end up being pretty pure games with no narrative (again, i'm talking about the multiplayer component which is by far the most popular).

"How much resource management or strategy is in Rock Band? What are the win conditions of the Sims or Minecraft?"

rock band is about time and space... figuring out where your fingers have to be in order to hit those notes. not much different than traditional hand/eye coordination action games and not much at all different from timed event stuff ala dragon's lair.

ah, notice i didn't impose a win condition. that was an attribute you attributed to me. sims is resource management as life allegory and minecraft is resource management ala sandbox.the funny thing is that the examples that you picked are pretty great examples of "pure game".

essentially though, we don't disagree.

none of us are pushing for pure games as the end all be all. but when we talk about the essence of gaming, we should recognize that narrative is not the defining quality that makes games games.

as i said previously, the best movie will in fact be different from the best play. and the best game is and should be recognized for its differences as well.

jaffe is conducting art criticism.

Glenn McMath
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I think we actually probably agree on a fair bit. I agree 100% that the best game should be all about gameplay, and be very different from the best movie or the best play. But I would argue both that many of the things we call video games today aren't in fact games (by any reasonable definition), and that there are valid interactive experiences to be created which are not (nor are they intended to be) games. I think we would be well served by some exploration outside of our preexisting notion of what we can and cannot do with this technology. That said, I'm not calling for an abandonment of the awesome medium that is the Video Game, and if Mr. Jaffe wants to strive for more meaningful and deeper play through the exploration of game mechanics, more power to him.

It would just be nice if the people who are striving for something different weren't treated with such disdainful criticism... (not from you specifically, jin... but from many others)

I completely agree that gameplay is the essence of what makes games games, but it's pretty clear to me that we shouldn't just be making games. While games are a very strong application of digital interactive technology, I think there are other applications out there, and while they may share many characteristics of videogames, their essence might be something else entirely.

Harvey Pullings
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I do believe that video games are very capable of telling a narrative. It all depends on the developers ability to convey the story while remembering however, it is a video game. For example, MGS 4 is one of the strongest narratives I have had the honor of enjoying, while still playing an excellent game. Most people believe that the overall idea of the video game is to simply entertain, pick up and play and simply have a virtual reality experience. However, as these platforms gain more power and ability, the creating a thoughtful thoughtful narrative is only going to be another element of gameplay. The genesis days only allowed you to do so much with storytelling, and the characters (and overall fun factor) were the selling point of the game. But when you can create worlds with these machines, it was only a matter of time before narration in gaming rivals some hollywood projects

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Keith Nemitz
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54 comments, arguing about games and narrative, have gone and made me opinionated...

"Games are a medium of will." - quoting myself. Actually, they're a medium of constrained will. Players' choices are limited. Limits define the game.

However 'effective' or 'good' or 'bad' games with stories are/haveBeen, story games exist. So yes, games can tell stories. ipso facto

For me, the issue of storytelling in games is uninteresting. Storytelling is about conveying a message. Some stories forget this, or their message is trite or redundant. Those are bad stories, ...except when told well. :-)

The question that interests me more is, how effective are games at conveying a message? My answer is an enthusiastic, "VERY effective!"

As a game designer, I can create incredibly open worlds that contain many messages, ones that (personal preference) coalesce into a thematic message. That's what storytelling in games means to me.

Here's a great example, the original Sim City. If you don't cheat, and you can refrain from letting Godzilla smash your city to bits, one of the most effective strategies is to create lots of mass transit. Maybe that fell naturally from the statistics of real cities, or maybe Will tweaked the numbers in favor of a good transit system. Either way, I applaud the message.

Passage has the message, "You will live a life and then die." Powerful, but it had been said. It hadn't been said as well in a game before. So kudos to Jason.

Dwarf Fortress: "Civilizations collapse." Frick'n, awesome message!

Clearly games don't have to have a message. Bejeweled, Team Fortress, Tetris, Mass Effect [ :-P], are great fun, well worth spending time playing.

Everybody, let's stop being distracted about storytelling and work on games with great messages and/or great gameplay. "If you're gonna tell a story, tell a good one." - not quoting myself.

Geoffrey Kuhns
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Agreed.

Above I argue against the author-led approach to narrative, but only because games are the only medium that can offer "incredibly open worlds that contain many messages, ones that (personal preference) coalesce into a thematic message" (not that those worlds need be incredibly open).

Leveraging that strength through gameplay, instead of techniques other media exemplify, would be a more fruitful exploration of games' potential.

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Joshua Darlington
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This debate is useful if it inspires digital entertainment designers to exploit a deeper understanding of story and game language and add value to their product.

I grew up on pen and paper RPGs, and spent many years mixing story and games. It seems completely natural to me. If you don't know how to rock story games, you might want to return to classic RPGs. They mix top down narrative, bottom up narrative, socially mediated narrative, computational narrative, and other story techniques all within gameplay.

Adam Bishop
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Interesting little game that I played just now called The Love Letter:

http://axcho.com/theloveletter/

It only takes about 5 minutes to play, so anyone interested in this topic shouldn't have any difficulty finding time to play it.

I would argue that:

a) it is clearly a game
b) it tells an interesting and emotionally engaging story
c) it tells that story in a particular manner that could only be accomplished through interactivity

Beyond that, I'll leave the game for you to try.

Luis Guimaraes
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Great!

Michael Joseph
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It took YOU five minutes to play, it took me 15! :)

Aftre playing I find myself empathizing a bit more with celebrities who are constantly mobbed by paparazzi...

Jason Koskey
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Games without narrative are apps.

jin choung
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another way to look at it-

we can graft on a STORY to american football. we can strip the teams of their names and identify one side as the ALLIES and the other side as the AXIS... we can graft a story like that and make all the different aspects of football serve as analogs for the different aspects of war. the qb is patton and rommel. hell, we can make half time an elaborate cut scene.

but such things don't make the underlying game better. the quality and essence of the game exists apart from such things.

we are at our best when we exploit our medium to its greatest potential and not when we're trying to be "hollywood jr.".

jaffe's is a common call that exists in all media... an exhortation to do what we do to its utmost and not just imitate other mediums.

again, the best movie is distinct and different from the best play which is distinct from the best architecture.

each should play with the gifts each has and not try to ramrod in gifts that are not germane to us.

and if we are to take games seriously as art, this kind of art criticism and analysis is absolutely fitting.

Luis Guimaraes
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What if we approach one of the opposing team star defenders in the corridors with a case filled with money, to bribe him into letting us score more easily, or a couple days before the match to make him not play at all? Or bribe a judge, or shut down the stadium lights if we're about to lose? What if we would draw too much attention if we did this too often through the season and get the team's future in trouble?

Sounds like a game to me. Actually a game in which your play also writes a story. And it's in fact not complex at all, it's simply gameplay not based on physical interaction. The golden rule is that games must be played, not that they must be physical.

It's not even that much different than finding a bonus stage in Super Mario World in which you get a couple extra lives and a feather. Or playing with the mind and moral of an opponent in an online FPS match to make him lose focus of the overall match. It's a move that gives you an advantage in the game.

Daniel Martinez
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Can we all just agree that Twilight is terrible as a story, game, movie, or any other form of media? Why a picture was chosen where a Wiimote is pointing at the book, is beyond me.

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Jonathan Jou
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I have to suggest that there is no argument more polarising than one that involves not one, but two tragically ineffable words! Neither "story" nor "game" are well-defined in this day and age, and while most of us will agree that many great games were bettered by their stories, others can point to countless examples where the two elements seem to be entirely unrelated to each other to the example's benefit or ultimate downfall.

I think it's a little misguided to ask the question "do authors belong in games," because it brings up several issues at once:

1. What is the role of a writer in video games, and what is the best way to incorporate writing into games?
2. Can strong writing redeem poor gameplay, and weak writing debase strong gameplay?
3. Is a game that is good writing in formulaic or simplified gameplay still a game?
4. What's a story, and what's a game?

That last one is especially hard to answer, but none of them are easily resolved. Storytellers are inclined to see the medium as a new way to impart experiences, whereas the makers of board games, card games, and other less content-heavy games will easily draw the line where the game ends and player imagination begins.

But this is not a debate, really. It's an open question. When does a story stop being a visual "choose your own adventure" and start being a game, and when does a game stop being a set of rules and become a guided narrative experience? We talk about these subjects as if there's some generic, easily understood player who represents everyone and has well understood reactions to everything. As far as I'm concerned, there's probably a right or wrong here, but I see two separate axes in a two-dimensional plot rather than a single spectrum...

Steve Mallory
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Wow, spent way too many blog entries dancing around this particular discussion.

Here's the big revelation:

Game Design == Narrative Design

BUT

Narrative != Story

There should be a crowbar separation there. Narrative is the structure, the gameplay, as it relates to an intended theme. Story is the MEANING inferred by the structure imposed by the Narrative.

Darren Tomlyn
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Not quite:

story n. An account of events, either real or imaginary, (created and stored inside (a person's) memory). (Think memory bank/account).

Narrate v. to tell a story/tell the story of
Narrative n. A story that has been, or is being, told. adj. The property of story being told.

Art = creative story-telling.

Game = structured, competitive story-writing.

Puzzle = 1. Interaction with a creative story being told, (though power of choice, discovery or inquiry). 2. Interaction with a story being told, in order to solve a problem.

Competition = 1. The state of competing (trying to gain an outcome/story at the expense of, or in spite of, someone or something else). 2. That which is being competed against (the competition). 3. Competing to be told a story (a competition).

Art can be used to enable a game, a puzzle or a competition to exist - but it doesn't define any of them - and game, specifically, represents an application of different behaviour that is only compatible in limited, specific ways - (setting/playing pieces etc.).

Steve Mallory
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Darren,
Not to get bogged down into the usual amounts of pedantic bickering your posts are know for...

Narrative, here (in the context of Narrative Design), is more properly used in the adjective sense and not the noun, and more specifically, in terms of Fine Arts:

Narrative, adj: Representing stories or events pictorially or sculpturally

But even that is limited because it doesn't cover the strength of games as a media: interactivity.

So, in this case, Narrative Design is defined as:
Designing gameplay concepts or mechanics to create events the player encounters interactively.

By that note, Story doesn't enter into it until the Narrative, that is the mechanics, are defined - puzzle, competition, or otherwise.

Darren Tomlyn
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Do not mistake narrative for setting/mechanics in games - the two, for games - on behalf of the PLAYER(S) - are separate.

The ultimate problem we have, is the primary focus of games purely on behalf of, and from the perspective of, their creator(s) - which is NOT what the word game represents.

All a creator of a game is doing, is creating a work of art - a work of creative story-telling - to enable another, different, behaviour. Since any and everything we create can be seen as a work of art - something that tells a story that we've created - everything we create can be seen to tell a story - possess a narrative (both adj. and n.).

But games, like nearly everything else we create, are DEFINED by a completely different function - separate from that of telling a story (being a work of art), even as it does just that - just like consumer electronics, furniture etc. - in this case, to enable a story to be WRITTEN.

Interaction has no place in describing the behaviour the word game represents an application of.

Why?

Because it's not specific or even general enough - (depending on your point of view). Merely using words such as interaction or choice etc. is one of the main reasons games and puzzles (and competitions) are not being recognised in relation to each other - because such words are applicable to all three, and do nothing to describe them in relation to each other...

GAMES are not a medium (for story-telling)! Just like art in general, or competitions and puzzles are not media, either. Such activities may USE many different media in order to exist - but that's not the same thing!

Obviously, the main medium we're interested in on this site (at this time) is a computer (of whatever kind), that can be used for and to enable many different activities and behaviour. Computers, by the nature of the medium itself, use forms of art - (usually video/pictures/animation etc.) - to enable a game. But other media use forms of art, too - such as board games or playing cards etc., so this, in itself, isn't anything special. The only thing that DOES make computers special for games, in regards to such a thing, is that they can enable the use of many different forms of art at once, to enable a game to take place.

But the games they enable, are still nothing new - still obeying the basic rules of what games are - and the forms of art it uses are nothing new or special either.

The only thing computers bring to the table that isn't specific to it being a medium per se - (i.e. control/method of interaction) - is that it can be programmed to behave on the creator's behalf, without any necessary input or direction from the player.

You need to fully recognise and understand the difference and relationship between the work of art, and the game it enables, for the two are NOT the same thing, but can all be described in relation to and by this thing we call story...

Bob Johnson
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I don't even think games are a medium.

Here are some of the story games I have played.

Rts games. Play a battle or mission and then watch cutscenes.

Fps games. 3 types. Kill bad guys or puzzle solve or platform then watch cutscenes is one type. Uncharted. Re4. Halo. Crysis 2.

The other type is similar but the in game characters talk directly to you while you can at least move your character around still. Half Life 2

3rd type. The museum design. Build a big world full of pieces of information and let the player wonder around collecting pieces of the story or not. Metroid Prime. Bioshock. Doom3.

Platform games. Same dealio as fps games. Although in general much more devoid of any story elements compared to fps games.

Sports games. ....Racing games. ...

RPGs games. You collect loot and upgrade your character. The story is told through quests, NPR chat and cutscenes.

The story I assume people are talking about in these games is not the player controlled story, but the authorially controlled story. As you can see in all of these games, that story is told through moving pictures, radio or prose. None of this has to do with games.

The player controlled story is entirely different and is what makes games games. I am playing Crysis 2 and I am creating the story of how I defeated the bad guys. No other player playing Crysis 2 is creating a "story" in exactly the same way. The story that I am creating isn't very interesting from an authorial point of view. There is no story in the classic sense. but the experience is engaging to me since I get to make all the decisions of who to attack first and what to attack them with. And my story is unique.

If that part of the game isn't fun or becomes repetitive then you have lost your audience. Sticking a narrative on top of it will never be enough for most people to continue most of the time.

Rob LaPlante
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I think people are making things way more complicated than it really needs to be.

What is the characteristic that makes games different from all other media? Interactivity. Making a great game is about making a great interactive experience.

The 'story' you get from that experience isn't the same type of 'narrative' found in movies and literature; it's apples and oranges. Literature is about giving the narrative to describe the conflict (what's going on), while simulation is about giving the conflict to describe the narrative. In interactive entertainment the narrative is what you do, the interactions.

The idea of making a pre-written stories or movie-events central to game design is ridiculous to me, it has nothing to do with interactivity. Tethering the player to a prewritten narrative only shows a lack of understanding of what the potential of game narrative really is. Every action you take in a game is defining your game narrative, even an individual game of tetris has a game narrative, and if you want to make a great game with a great 'narrative' interactivity is the lens that people need to start seeing things through.

Now what about things like dialogue trees? Selecting dialogue from a pre-written tree of choices is interactive, but does it really take advantage of the interactive medium or is it mostly a way to retrofit traditional narrative into games?

Darren Tomlyn
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Unfortunately, interaction/interactivity etc. isn't precise enough, and is, in itself, causing a lot of problems.

(I'm working on a blog post atm. about the language we currently use to describe games, and why it's problematic - but that's in the context of the contents of my blog so far - so I suggest you read that first: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DarrenTomlyn/20110311/6174/Content
s_NEW.php ).

Games CAN involve interaction, yes, usually related to whatever (optional!) medium is being used - (such as a board, computer etc.) - but so can puzzles, competitions, work and play, art and many other forms of behaviour.

Interaction and interactivity, in itself, means very little - (just like choice/decisions etc.). It can and will ONLY ever mean anything for games, puzzles etc. when it's placed within the full and proper context of what behaviour these words happen to represent applications of in the first place.

I'm interacting with my computer to type this - but it's not a game, even if the same behaviour can be used within such an activity...

Unfortunately, this, at this time, is not happening, for a few reasons - (read my blog) - which is why we're having problems understanding everything in relation to each other - such as art and games, which is ultimately what this discussion is about.


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