A Brief Note On Games and Narratives

The operation of framing something as something else works by taking some notions of the source domain (narratives) and applying them to the target domain (games). This is not neutral; it emphasises some traits and suppresses others. Unlike this, the act of comparing furthers the understanding of differences and similarities, and may bare hidden assumptions.

The article begins by examining some standard arguments for games being narrative. There are at least three common arguments: 1) We use narratives for everything. 2) Most games feature narrative introductions and back-stories. 3) Games share some traits with narratives.

The article then explores three important reasons for describing games as being non-narrative: 1) Games are not part of the narrative media ecology formed by movies, novels, and theatre. 2) Time in games works differently than in narratives. 3) The relation between the reader/viewer and the story world is different than the relation between the player and the game world.

The article works with fairly traditional definitions of stories and narratives, so as a final point I will consider whether various experimental narratives of the 20th century can in some reconcile games and narratives.

This brings us to the problem of what we actually mean by saying that something can be translated from one medium to another. In a probably slightly limited view of narratives, narratives can be split into a level of discourse (the telling of the story) and the story (the story told). The story-part can then be split into two parts, existents (actors and settings) and events (actions and happenings). (Chatman p.19) A story can then be recognised by having the same existents (with the same names) and the same events; this is what we usually mean by talking of “the same story”.

This can be used the other way, as a test of whether the computer game is a narrative medium: If the computer game is a narrative medium, stories from other media must be retellable in computer games, and computer games must be retellable in other media. On a superficial level, this seems straightforward since many commercial movies are repackaged as games, Star Wars is an obvious example. The other way around, games transferred into movies are less common, but examples include Mario Brothers, Mortal Kombat, and Tomb Raider. Upon further examination, we will find the situation to be much more complex:

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