Balancing Narrative And Gameplay


Games can be considered to be split up into two types of elements: ludic and narrative. Ludic refers to the gameplay elements and how the player interacts with the game. Narrative refers to the story, objectives, characters etc. Tetris for example is almost purely ludic. In contrast Heavy Rain is heavily narrative.

Most blockbusters tend to be sophisticated in both fields and try and marry the two. In this post I want to talk about points where this marriage can go wrong. I am going to discuss this in five sections:

  • Ludonarrative Dissonance
  • How Players Play
  • How Developers Create
  • What The Player Knows
  • The Character and the Player

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Reconciling a Hero’s Journey With A Player’s Autonomy

It’s probably worth sorting out some definitions up front. I’m going to talk about “game” and “story” and they are both big words. I am dealing with them in a narrow sense. When I talk about “story” I am talking about an umabiguous hero’s journey style story. When I talk about a “game” I am talking about a set of mechanics that can be fun without motivation or setting – a set of mechanics that you can enjoy in a greybox with a handful of shapes that represent you.

Recently I have been thinking about story in games and have found depressingly little discussion about what makes a good one. The occasional interesting article such as this seems to be the extent of thought on the subject.

Stories in games for me have been uniformly awful. Even ones held up as best of genre tend to be overwrought and at times hilarious. It seems that the industry is still struggling with how to deal with narrative in a gaming context; how to make a fun set of mechanics and support it through narrative. But if you look at it; essentially all the problems boil down to:

How do you reconcile a hero’s journey with a player’s autonomy?
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