Opinion: The Narrativity of Video Games

Editor’s note: The following blog was written by a NordicGameBits.com Opinion-blogger. The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of NordicGameBits or the other writers and authors of the community. 

I find myself fiddling around trying to import the idea of narrativity from film theory into an analytical model for games. I’m not entirely sure why.

Plenty of models exist for analysing games as texts, objects and procedures, focusing on either narrative, systems or activities. A plethora of definitions of games exist, all of which can help to analyse games. There have been made several attempts to formulate a specific design language for games, one of which – the excellent recent book A Game Design Vocabulary by Anna Anthropy and Naomi Clark – informs much of the current preoccupation I have with narrativity.

Why try to add to this body of work, some of which I find wrong-headed, but most of which I admire?

Disregarding the fact that contributing in a critically constructive way to conversations is valuable to all involved, I am also keenly aware that I have yet to find a theory that explains video games in a satisfactorily practical way. That is to say, while there is no shortage of theories that can help you to better understand games and to better think about games, there are very few theories I have encountered that actually help in making the games.

The theories are either too cerebral, too specific or too loose. It is no accident that perhaps the theoretically and analytically least satisfactory theory that I regularly teach – A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster – is probably the most influential set of ideas in the industry. Meanwhile some of the most celebrated analytical theories that I also regularly teach – such as the models developed at MIT – find relatively little traction in the parts of the industry my practically inclined students tend to end up or carve out for themselves.

My students do not dismiss the value of thinking about games, they simply just don’t have the time, if the theory is not relatively easy to apply to a game design practice. I suspect that attitude is pervasive in the industry as well, since such is the situation for most practical professions around which an academic tradition has grown – finance, art, writing, and even teaching are examples.

So, I need a theory that allows for usability. It must be able to work on multiple levels, and it should do so naturally. Since film is structured on several levels – plot, characters, scenes, camera movements, effects, filters, framing, etc. – it is an obvious place to look for a theory.

Of course, at some point I’ll have to tackle the role of interactivity which is the main difference between films and games, but to be honest I find that a very poor place to start when speaking about games. Yes, they are interactive, but in starting out that way, we are ignoring that they are not interactive in any way that can really be compared to how we normally interact with things.

That is to say: while games are interactive, they are only interactive up to a point, and that point is limited by the elements put into the game by the game makers. You cannot, for instance, play GTA V and resolve to give up your life of crime, get a bachelor degree and start working at a local public school. The reason you cannot do this is that the option to do it is not in the game.

Games are less about interactivity and more about movement through a designed space.

So taking this approach, talking about games in a way appropriated from a static medium makes a sort of sense. The object that a game is is static, however wild our movement through it’s virtual world is.

Thus, I turn to narrativity.

Narrativity is not narrative. Narrative is the plot or story of a film, narrativity is the process by which this plot or story is told from the film-maker to the audience. Borrowing an illustration of this process from a fine little essay on story and narrative in role-playing games by John Kim, we might think of it like this:


Source: http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/theory/narrative/paradigms.html

This illustration will be my departure point moving forward. A story is conceived by an author, who attempts to express this by placing formal elements into a piece of media. This piece of media is then filtered through a discourse and an interpretative act and becomes a perceived story in the mind of the reader.

This gives us a lot of meat to look at.

We can never really get at the stories – although we can do the next best thing, namely asking the people involved to describe the stories in a different way than through the piece of media. This allows us to reflect on processes of creation and reception that can be useful in our own development work.

The formal elements are many and varied and can be identified and described readily. Through a thorough look at the discourse and reports from the audience and author on their interpretive and expressive acts, we can even say certain things about their intended effect and their actual effect. This is crucial for evaluating design decisions, as knowing the effect of the formal elements we employ and whether they live up to our intentions, is the basis for the act of design.

(Please note, by the way, that “story” is just a placeholder word in my perception. It can be anything you want to tell your player from a moral message at the heart of your themes to how to use the combo system)

And finally, the discourse itself is very interesting to look at, because that will give us an idea of a wider context for the media we are trying to produce. Knowing something about the environment our games will be put out into makes our business and design decisions much mores sound.

Bearing in mind that we’re talking about games, let’s amend the above paragraph thusly:

A message is conceived by a developer, who attempts to express this by placing formal elements into a game. This game is then filtered through a discourse and an interpretative act and becomes a perceived message in the mind of the player.

Right, these are the basics of a narrativity-focused analytical model for games. Next week, we’ll try them out on (bits of) a game and see if we can actually use it for something practical.


I’m an associate professor at the Dania Academy of Higher Education in Grenaa, Denmark. We offer two AP level educations focused on game development, one for programmers and one for designers. I teach a flurry of different analytical disciplines, and I will be blogging about various forms of analysis from gameplay and narrative analysis of games to marketing analysis and even occasionally object oriented analysis in relation to game development. My focus is on making analysis a practical skill. I hope to produce insights and lessons for use in further design, rather than analysing for pure fun and knowledge – though that certainly also has its place. Oh, and a warning: I have a weird background for games – philosophy and the study of religion – which may bleed through from time to time. I will try to blog at least once a week – always on Thursdays, occasionally also on Mondays.

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