Gameplay Is Narration Is Gameplay

Tying gameplay and narration together is quite a big topic in modern game development. I argue that parting them would actually be the harder task to accomplish, as I feel they are very close at heart. Though it is true that narration is often implemented in a way that differentiates it from gameplay in terms of interaction (controls change or are completely blocked during a major story event), this only refers to narrative content, or embedded narration. While it is generally accepted that its complement, the emergent narration, also exists, few consider it as an equal element of storytelling. Nonetheless, many players derive a large portion of their fun from emergent narration. What compels most long-term players of MMORPGs is the group experience of accomplishing something that they will forever remember as a unique story. This is not a story that the game writers wove into the game, but rather a story that developed from the sum of all game actions and reactions.

When considering not only dialog, cutscenes, and written text part of the narration, but each and every gameplay action – as they are part of the PCs experiences as well – playing itself becomes an act of storytelling. And while I do not argue that games should focus solely on this type of narration distinct to the medium, it should not be forgotten when considering the narrative depth of a game.

This tight connection between narration and gameplay leads to the fact that whenever gameplay emerges, so does narration. Consider a game with a high amount of emergent gameplay, like Civilization V. Though there is almost no embedded narration within the game, the complex interconnections of all game elements spawn story wherever they spawn gameplay. This way, fictitious history can be written, where China threw the A-bomb on the Iroquois in 1895 and Lincoln conquered Mongolia on horseback.

The same is true for the reverse view: Just as gameplay creates narration, narration creates gameplay as well. Storytelling is a huge part of informing the player about gameplay, even if using the more subtle art of environmental storytelling. Not only does narration provide the core gameplay hook for designers, it also forms a fictitious world’s rules that the player can use to think within. This way, he or she is enabled to grasp the game’s rules more easily (provided they are consistent to the game world, of course), enabling him or her to learn to conclude game actions from the narration presented (e.g. learning that groups of enemies in a water pond can be electrocuted together after observing it).

A third conclusion from the co-existence of gameplay and narration is that following a narrative itself can also be gameplay – be it games with narrative gameplay actions like Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead or even just proceeding in the narration itself as in the genre of Visual Novels. These games have no distinctive game mechanics other than those providing means to process through the story. This way, gameplay is actually there just through the existence of interactivity of the story.

And though there are games that keep their narrative dimension almost separate from their gameplay dimension (like most JRPGs and other games with turn-based combats do, as these combats do not represent proper actions in the game’s narration), these games still have emergent narratives, at times even more intense than other genres. Beating Omega Weapon in a Final Fantasy game and developing a strategy for doing so can be a highly emergent narration completely separate from the game’s usual story.

What I am arguing for is that the topics of Game Design and Narration should not be discussed about too far apart, as they inform and rely on one another. Both should be at the heart of a non-puzzle based game, providing the other the best assistance possible and as early as possible – even if they are developed apart from each other.

They will eventually meet.