Narrative is not a game mechanic

 Posted by (Visited 95200 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: ,
Jan 202012

I love stories. My chief hobby is reading. I was formally trained as a writer, not as a game designer (there wasn’t really any formal training for game design I got started, but that’s another story). I think most game stories are not very good. And I quite enjoy games with narrative threads pulling me through them. When I find a game with a good story, I frequently prefer to the story to the actual game! So please keep that in mind as you read: I love story.

Narrative in a game is not a mechanic. It’s a form of a feedback.

This simple fact is frequently ignored, particularly in games aimed at the mass market.

Let’s start thinking about this by looking at what a game is. Games can and do exist without narrative. The core of a game is a problem to solve. As game grammar tells us, it’s actually typically a series of nested problems: I need to reach this location, which means I need to defeat enemies, which means I need to traverse space, which means I need to mash a button. Some of these, like “defeat enemies,” are complex problems in their own right. Some of them are trivial problems, such as “mash button.”


If you string these together, you’ll typically find that the problems will alternate between abstract problems and simpler interface problems. For example, most turn-based board games alternate between the complex strategy problem of “what move to make next” and the simple interface problem of “pick up piece and move it here.” Board games, of course, tend to be very forgiving regarding interface problems; if you drop the piece, nobody minds if you pick it up and put it where you meant.


If you take something like a racing videogame, you now have a fairly hard interface problem; the sensitivity of the steering wheel or the analog stick is now an actual physical motor challenge — often a bigger challenge than the cognitive problem of where to point your car. Just turn on the “ideal path” feature that most racing games provide and you’ll see that the challenge in the game as a whole tends to come from the dynamics of the controls and the black box of the performance characteristics of the car you have chosen.


In a game grammar model, you always have a black box model, and you select something to input into the system. The system is going to give you feedback as to what effect resulted from your action. The game is in figuring out what the rules are for the black box. Not in a rigorous way, mind you — you tend to arrive instead at a mental model that gives you a heuristic as to how to approach the black box. Your learning is generally more intuitive — or even motor memory. It tends to function less at the logical level and more at the gestalt level (cf fluid versus crystallized intelligence).

The brain therefore tends to eventually dismiss whole classes of interface problems as trivial. “Click mouse” is one of these. “Mash button.” Any black box which gets a heuristic of “guaranteed result” is going to make for a non-game very quickly.

Ah, but the feedback for even a trivial action is very important. It matters that we hear the sound when we click the mouse. And should the designer choose, they can make the feedback be hugely disproportionate to the problem solved. Feedback serves the purpose of cueing the user whether or not they are being successful in figuring out the black box. So we provide feedback each time an input is made, and the feedback is intended to help guide the user as to whether they are doing the right thing.

It is easy to see that if you remove any one of these things, you end up without a functioning game.

  • Cut the input, and you have a screensaver.
  • Cut the problem inside the black box, and you have a slideshow.
  • Cut the feedback, and you have something ridiculously confusing that no one will tolerate.

That said, the brain happens to loooove feedback. It triggers reward mechanisms in the brain. It is remarkably easy to trick the brain into thinking that it has accomplished something when it really has not. This can result in the player getting hooked on the feedback for a black box system that is actually remarkably simple — or even designed to not teach the player anything at all, as in gambling. In design, we often terms designs “juicy” when they provide plenty of rich feedback, but we sometimes call them “exploitative” when they simply abuse feedback to keep someone going.

Games are a compound medium. They are made up of multiple other media, typically in the feedback. In other words, we rely on media such as film, writing, visual arts, music, and so on in order to provide the feedback. Games that do not rely on these other media much tend to get called “abstract” — a completely stripped bare game is actually a mathematical diagram or formula, not something easily seen or comprehended, so all games have to make use of other media at least a little.

But these other media are of course very powerful in their own right, and each have their strengths. You can use music to convey emotion using elementary musical techniques. For music it’s easy. Game systems can convey emotion as well, but for game systems it’s hard, and near as we can tell, game systems also have a very limited emotional palette. So we not only use these other media to supplement the overall experience, but these other media can convey information that exists in complete parallel to the game system.

The commonest use of a completely parallel medium that does not actually interact with the game system is narrative.

If we take the simplest form of “narrative game,” the choose-your-own-adventure type of books, what we see is that the overall problem presented to the player, “get to a good ending,”  is fundamentally a decision tree, or directed graph in mathematical parlance. (Check out this link for a great giant diagram of one). So the initial problem is actually a decently substantial one — how do you get to a good ending, given that you have  no picture whatsoever of the graph as a whole or even of what lies “behind the choice of doors”? Every page flip is a Lady or the Tiger sort of scenario.

What ends up influencing your choices is the feedback. Your first feedback comes from choosing to play at all: the first pages. This is exactly the same as giving you the starting layout of the pieces on a chessboard. From then on, each time you make a choice, narrative is used as the feedback mechanism to tell you whether a given choice makes sense or not in terms of leading you to your ultimate goal.

A bad example of these books would give you positive feedback all the way until it dumped you into a lava pit or other horrible doom. A good example would ensure that there was a rising action and feedback arc for each of the possible paths, leading to both a learning experience and a good story.

Side note: my favorite of these was actually one where you were trapped in a spaceship with nasty aliens, Inside UFO 54-40. There was no path to the exit. You had to actually traverse the entire graph to realize this, and then when you got suspicious, identify the page that had no inbound link to it — which then boldly celebrated your cleverness. The player’s lesson learned is therefore quite profound: sometimes situations are set up not to be winnable, don’t blindly obey the rules, and you should engage in lateral thinking when your survival is at stake.

Now I will pick on one of my absolute favorite games of the last year, Batman: Arkham City. There is a moment quite close to the beginning that has you climbing up a tower (spatial navigation puzzle with interface problems as well) only to reach the top of a cathedral where you are interrupted by a narrative moment: a video of the Joker playing on a television set, explaining that he has planted a bomb and you are about to die.

AFter this long bit of rich narrative, you are presented with a very very small game. You have to rotate your camera to point at a window, and press the A button. If you do not do it within the time allotted, you die. If you succeed, you are treated to a gorgeous cinematic moment of leaping through shards of shattering glass and spreading your cape to a rigid wing, as you float away from a savagely exploding edifice in the midst of the brooding panorama view of Gotham.

The diagram for this looks like a big pile of feedback followed by a tiny tiny problem, followed by another big pile of feedback.

This is a very common pattern in videogames these days. It even has a name: the quick time event. The black box is miniscule and simplistic. If we were to reduce the feedback, this “game system” would strike us as stupid. And it was stupidly simple in God of War, it was stupidly simple in Uncharted, etc. (Please note, I am naming some of my favorite games, made by colleagues and friends! Fortunately they, and Arkham City, offer plenty of rich systemic gameplay in between the movie bits. 🙂 ) It is almost, but not quite, as stupidly simple as the page flip in a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

In fact, there was a quasi-parody series of games that basically took these sorts of super-simple game systems, and packaged them up with ridiculous feedback wrappers. It was called WarioWare. It derived all of its black box challenge from two factors: speed, and determining what the hell the confusing feedback meant. (The fun in the game was figuring out what stupidly simple action you were supposed to take).

There’s nothing wrong, to my mind, with using narrative as feedback. But we have to keep in mind that all that narrative and visual content is the expensive part of making the game. It is also consumable, whereas a systemically driven game system can provide many many problems to solve and heuristics to develop (and therefore fun to be had), with relatively few rules. Because of this, narrative content is destined to be expensive, short, and over.

If you have built a game where your graph looks like this

And at the end of it you leave the player with “replay” that is nothing but thisYou’re not going to get people to keep playing unless you keep releasing more content. This will matter quite a lot for any service-based game, be it MMO, F2P, social game, whatever.

I also feel fairly comfortable in labelling a game with that sort of structure as “a bad game design” even if it may be a great game experience. The bar that designers should strike for should include a rich set of systemic problems precisely because that is what the medium of games brings to the table. It’s what lies at the center of the art form.

If the systems of your game are outweighed by the feedback, you should grow suspicious. And if they are outweighed by feedback that takes the form of movies, you’re making interactive movies first and games second.


  126 Responses to “Narrative is not a game mechanic”

  1. I’m trying to think of games that I’ve played or know about that attempt something similar to the provocation for lateral thinking in the CYOA book you mention.

    I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Of course, it doesn’t surprise me that games that attempt it are rare. I doubt that such examples would be as memorable if lateral problem solving was commonplace.

    Portal, perhaps? Maybe BioShock, but I think the extent to which it occurs in the game is more of a forced or fake provocation. The fictional game in Ender’s Game, definitely.

    Do you know of any good examples? (Man, I’m going to be thinking about this all day now, haha.)

  2. It almost seems to me that you are labeling a mechanic as simply input. A game has a mechanic of pressing the A button. Then whatever happens after that, beyond the input, is feedback. The character jumps is feedback. It is fine to talk about input/response, but I don’t think it is good to appropriate mechanic for it. When people I know talk about mechanics, I’ve found, they talk about the step beyond input. They talk about what the input does. So a game has a mechanic of jumping. I understand entirely that you and a number of people feel this is not a mechanic (that it is feedback, as you’ve said). The problem I have is that it’s not how people generally use the word mechanic when it comes to games. Why appropriate the word when another word already is used in this way (namely input). I feel it muddies the waters of our already muddy field (after all, half of us don’t seem to agree on how to use most of our own common words).
    I’m not trying to be aggressive, but I’m trying to understand. Why would you use mechanic here and not input? I am currently working on a project that attempts to “explore how a narrative may be used as a mechanic” (quotes intended to show language used not meaning in this context). Imagine my horror when I saw the title of this post. But I read through the post and I said, well yes, that’s fine, but this isn’t what I mean when I say “narrative as a mechanic”. And perhaps my language is wrong, at least a bit. Do I mean that the player performs narrative? One thing I intend to stress is to pay attention to what the game forces one to do; performance is implied.
    Me and my rambly comments. It appears that commenting helps me think, so I hope you’ll forgive me. I still wonder why you use mechanic and not input here, but I’m rethinking my own choice of words as well.

  3. […] Narrative is Not a Game Mechanic […]

  4. It almost seems to me that you are labeling a mechanic as simply input.

    I wrote recently about what I saw as a mechanic here:

    But in short, I see a mechanic as the black box portion of the diagram. But since problems nest, mechanics nest also. “Kill monster” is a mechanic, but it’s also a component of the “get to the other side”…

    Then whatever happens after that, beyond the input, is feedback.

    That description skips the most important part, which is the model that sits in the middle. My contention is that said model is the heart of game design, its most important part. See for more.


    Three parts. You seem to be reading my description as having two, and conflating input with mechanic. I do not make that claim. In fact, I have spoken in the past about separating the mechanic and the input.

  5. @incobalt, Oooh, another person researching “narrative as mechanic”!

    I was writing a response to your post trying to explain it, but then I found myself agreeing with you. It’s made me think of the difference between “depth” (as described , and as much as I like that article I can’t stand his terms) and mechanics as he portrays them.

  6. Cidolfas, I don’t much like the way that article uses “depth” and “breadth” either. In the original game grammar presentation, I defined these very simply:

    Depth: the depth to which goals nest.
    Breadth: the number of goals that can exist in parallel at once.

  7. Hi, really fascinating article. I don’t know how to give complements on articles without sounding like spam but I look forward to reading through some of your backlog.

    The one thought that occurs to me as a consumer of videogames (and someone who dreams to one day do sound design/soundtrack for one) is that games without some form of narrative or story can’t hold my attention. Sure Jetpack Joyride is fun in the context of a grocery line (It is better than staring like a cow at the covers of tabloids). But in the context of my home and my spare time I need a point, and a narrative is oftentimes the easiest way to give me one.

  8. @MusiM: Actually it sounds to me that you need plot, which is not exactly narrative.

    Narrative as in how you tell the story of the event.

    Plot as in the events that make up the story.

    In the concept of games, I view plot as the events the player plays through, and narrative as how those events are shown to the player. Narrative is adding camera angles to conversations in Mass Effect 2, while plot are the events the player goes through (the overall event that all the puzzles are nestled into).

  9. @Raph Yeah, I was being silly about it. I reread the Mechanics vs. Rules post before you commented back to me and I realized I was over-simplifying what you were saying, or attributing parts of your example to different terms. The Arkham City example to me reads push-button, get feedback, because I didn’t identify the mechanic. The more I think about it, the mechanic is jumping or escaping, which I keep associating directly with the button press, but it is really the system determining that the button press is meaningful.

    That brings me to a different question. Are you saying that narrative cannot be performed? Hypothetically: say a game presents a situation where there is a person blocking an optional path. You decide to kill the person so that you can get through. The game processes the input, performs the killing mechanic and provides feedback: the person dies (and gives you no other feedback). Does this hypothetical contain narrative? What if the game forces you to do this (and you don’t want to kill this person)? What if it was an accident (you didn’t mean to kill him, but you did)? Does narrative ever enter the mechanic space here, or is the mechanic only ever killing the person? Can narrative not be in the mechanic space because the system cannot “process” narrative, but instead the player must process it?

  10. @incobalt: I think you’re missing a piece in your thinking. Let’s see if this helps.

    Take your “Press A to jump” example.
    Pressing A is the input. You game doesn’t have to do anything with that input; how many times does pressing X do nothing? But in this example, you want pressing A to cause the character to jump. Processing the input (pressing A) and creating the result (character jumps) is the black box of the mechanic. Displaying the character moving up in a jump animation is the feedback.

    It can be hard to see that processing step with such a simple example, so let’s make it a little more complex. Say that pressing A will still make your character jump, but how long you hold the button will determine how high it jumps. Your input hasn’t really changed; you’re still pressing A. But now the mechanic is different: how long are you holding the button? Okay, move character X high based on Y button duration. The feedback is still relatively the same; you character still moves up. But now it doesn’t always jump 3 character heights when you press A. Now you have a mechanic that takes a little bit of figuring out. (Note that this is really the same mechanic as the first example for a player that always hits A the same amount of time.)

    Input can never be a mechanic by itself because any given input is meaningless without the context provided by the mechanic. Take the B button in Super Mario Bros.: it sometimes makes you run, it sometimes throws fireballs. These are obviously two different mechanics, but they have the same input. Or the later Zelda games, where pressing A can do at least half a dozen different things depending on movement and position.

    Feedback isn’t part of the mechanic because it is the presentation of the result to the player. As such, you can change the feedback without affecting the mechanic. Combat looks a lot different in Risk than in Age of Empires, but it’s still the same basic mechanic (initiate combat, roll dice). The feedback from rolling a Yahtzee and winning a jackpot on a slot machine are completely different, but the mechanic remains the same (random chance of X happening).

    Hope that helps 🙂

  11. I think if you need plot OR story in games, you are missing out on a really large amount of the best games ever made. 🙂 I would urge you to explore systemically richer games that are not narratively driven. The mainstream games industry makes very few of these, but classic gaming is rife with them, the entire boardgame market is based on them, and there are lots of current indie examples that are wonderful.

  12. […] Raph's Website » Narrative is not a game mechanic I love stories. My chief hobby is reading. I was formally trained as a writer, not as a game designer (there wasn’t really any formal training for game design I got started, but that’s another story). I think most game stories are not very good. And I quite enjoy games with narrative threads pulling me through them. […]

  13. @Pangoria Fallstar – That makes sense.

    @Raph – I have played an awful lot of classic games because I grew up with them but I can’t go back to them. I like points. A board game like Haunted House on the Hill has plot as a mechanic that I enjoy. Or a game like The Binding of Issac has the point of surviving your mother in a demented dungeon.

    I half way wonder if the difference in tastes might be one as simple as someone who works in the medium versus someone who does not. There are many bands I love that I imagine most non-musicians (or non-experimental musicians) do not consider music.

  14. I think there’s definitely a matter of taste going on. I think most core gamers gravitate towards appreciating the game systems, or considering them central, but there’s also a core group that grew up with increasing narrative and consider it to be primary. Also, I thin a lot of non-gamers first arrive into AAA gaming thinking that because it is so prevalent there, it’s primary.

  15. @Raph
    For myself, the first games I got into were old PC classics like Bard’s Tale and So You Want to Be a Hero (Do I get points for the original name?). That eventually evolved into Gold Box games (primarily the Krynn series), JRPG’s, and Bioware games. The plot in those games, even as sparse as it was at times, were always the reward moment for calculating my way through a dungeon.

    Out of curiosity (and because I might try it assuming its $10 or less) what would be a mechanically complex game without plot or narrative that you would recommend?

  16. @Silvanis Yes, that’s exactly what I was missing 🙂

    @Raph I think we’re in semantic disagreement here. You seem to be talking about games that provide a narrative through exposition and cinematic, but there are other ways to provide narrative. But, I think we have an impasse, because we play games for very different reasons. I play games to experience something. If I play an abstract puzzle game (say Tetris, for example), I get bored of it very quickly, because I’m not doing anything meaningful (to me). When I play a game with a narrative (and caveat here), I feel like what I do in the game actually matters.

    Caveat: I feel that games rely too heavily on exposition and cinematics to relate narratives. I feel that games are missing the mark by not harnessing the player as an actor in the narrative and not providing meaningful (non-dialogue-based) decisions. I would not mind having a game that systematically generates a narrative. I love roguelikes. Random is exciting to me. Growing up, I dreamed of how to have a game create narrative arcs and storylines, so that a game could have a different narrative each time. So systematic? Yes. But a game without any kind of narrative? You can go ahead and play it, I’ll pass. (Actually, if I’m pointed at such games, then I’ll play them. I’m always willing to change!)

  17. […] was just reading Raph Koster’s last blog post, and it made me think, which is not a bad thing. But it started me thinking about a counter […]

  18. […] just leave it here for you to read, shall […]

  19. Incobalt, you may want to look at my talks about narrative models in games. Two links:

    I do think that Tetris is likely doing more meaningful things TO you than a QTE-based narrative experience is, for which I would reference the book and the premise of “fun is learning.” in that sense, the fact that what you do matters in a narrative game is an illusion; and the idea that Tetris does not have you doing anything meaningful is also an illusion. 🙂

  20. I love stories. My chief hobby is reading. I was formally trained as a writer, not as a game designer (there wasn’t really any formal training for game design I got started, but that’s another story). I think most game stories are not very good. And I quite enjoy games with narrative threads pulling me through them. When I find a game with a good story, I frequently prefer to the story to the actual game! So please keep that in mind as you read: I love story.

    This really tugged me heart strings. A fellow storytelling aficionado.

    I avoid games that seemingly have no story.

    Any game where the bullet point has the word “campaign” in it makes me critical, mostly because the use of campaign in modern games do not equal the use of the word in the context of old or board roleplaying games.

    Bad voice acting especially (since it’s so jarring), and bad writing (both in narrative or in some cases horrible grammar) instantly ruins the whole experience.

    One of the most interesting games currently is Mass Effect,
    especially if you consider the entire trilogy as each save game carries choices over from the previous game’s savegame.
    so choices in MEI will affect mostly minor but a few larger points in the story of MEII, while in MEIII the choices in MEII and MEI (if savegame was carried from I to II) will affect things even more.
    And since MEIII ends the trilogy BioWare an be more dramatic in how previous choices in the previous two affect things or even the ending of MEIII.

    Another game I can think of is BioWare’s The Old Republic, since it’s an MMO they’ll have a lot more variables and metrics to help shape future content.

    Obsidian’s Alpha Protocol though sadly getting a lot of flak over the quality of certain things, has a very intriguing narrative, where depending on how you interact with characters will determine how they treat you later in the came, or whether you meet certain characters at all.

    I wish there was a site out there that reviewed games on story and narrative (and voice acting and writing) as the main focus.
    I did ponder doing this myself, but time + the cost of running a proper reviewing site of the needed quality is beyond me.

    Too many times do I see a game review where they barely mention the story, sure the quality of story is very subjective, but certain things can be judged objectively.

    Like voice acting quality, writing quality, story/narrative quality. Things like plot originality should not need to be rated in anyway but simply commented about in the review, there is a limit to how original a story it is possible to write these days, especially for story fans.

    I did review Mass Effect some ways back, and one of the scoring criteria was Story (scroll some ways down past the DRM ranting *cough*)

    I also use a reverse scoring system. (it’s actually 100% based but displayed as floating point *10, my programmer humor having some fun)
    Where 100% (1.0 floating point) or 10.0 as displayed is the starting point and any flaws is subtracted.
    So just as an example if
    the sound failed to work at all then audio would get 0 and drag down the total score. If a game had no audio (like a classic text adventure then audio would not be scored at all)

    But anyway I’m rambling. The point is I actually tried to score the story telling objectively/technically, which I have not really seen any other reviewers do. (that I’ve noticed at least, correct me please if such sites do exist)

  21. Raph,

    Just writing to say that I am in love with you and I hope you keep fighting the good fight. The day I stop hearing about Cinematic Narratives and Emotional Engagement being central tenets of games design is the day I start doing games journalism again. Systemic interaction is the very apotheosis of what videogame is, and yet the vast majority of videogames released these days seem to ignore or outright dismiss this inarguable fact.


  22. My feeling is that this is correct at the level of abstraction you have given primacy to. Many issues that relate to computer mediated acts arise through either conflation of level of abstraction or disagreements about which one(s) one should attribute value to (where value is tend to be both semiotic and normative). Floridi was the first in ethics of computing to tackle this one head on.

    To illustrate with the Batman: Arkham City example you use (which is touched upon in one of the comments above). The jumping act could variously be defined as:
    1. Raph makes Batman jump
    2. Batman jumps off the tower
    3. Jump
    4. Button X is pressed
    5. Physically pressure above level X is exerted
    6. A pulse of volt V amp A is sent from the controller
    7. Electrons….

    You identify Game Mechanic as a system that is defined by and in this example consists in acts that set at level (4) of the abstraction below. Your analysis follows from this, and seems pretty consistent, and it follows that level (1) and (2) are not part of the mechanic – indeed so, but that’s because they are at a different level of abstraction so by definition cannot.

    An analysis at a different level a definition of game mechanic may include or exclude other elements dependent upon which level was chosen. These I suggest are all analytic propositions.

    I also take this to apply to other assertions about game and narrative as whether a game does or does not contain one deepens merely on where one draws the boundary between what I’ll term ‘the game’ (at one end a passive, possibly purely abstract system) and ‘the play’ (the lived experience) i.e. when one says ‘narrative game’ or ‘non-narrative game’ what scope of that continuum are you picking out – again I think one gets analytic propositions from this analysis.

    Now it seems to me that the level that you have chosen is the most appropriate for the type of design you are talking about, and I think the big lesson and it’s a very useful on is ‘be consistent in your level of abstraction analysis’.

  23. I think its interesting that many people who demand stories in video games are the same people who would never deign to read a book. This may be my personal experience but it has almost always turned out to be correct for people I know.
    When I read a book I often imagine what I would do if I was there. I do tend to fall into the omnipotence trap so often I’ll imagine a set of restrictions before hand to help me avoid that. I will approach the question from a lot of angles, choosing a different character to interact with or assists, each in a couple of ways. In some cases I may do this more after I finish a story, but I always do it a little as I am reading.
    When I play a really story heavy game I often feel like this:
    1. The graphics are inferior to my imagination
    2. Video game stories are almost always inferior to book stories or even movie ones
    3. I do not have as much freedom to interact with the story because of limitations of the game.
    4. Games cost significantly more money than books
    5. Characters are almost universally inferior.
    6. Art decisions that I don’t like are common: minimal clothes on everyone, cartoony graphics and so forth.
    7. There are certain things that can’t happen in video games outside of walls of text and cinematics.

    In the end my question is always, if I wanted this kind of experience it would be cheaper to get a book and the narrative quality and the graphics(in my head) would be superior. Even the freedom to interact with the world would be superior with a book.

  24. “It’s what lies at the center of the art form.”

    That seems to be a very limiting view of things. “Games” can be so many things, and they are so many things. One of my favorite game-ish experiences last year was “To the Moon”. It’s barely a game. And you know what? I didn’t really care. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and sometimes I just want a good story where every once in a while I have to push some buttons. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as I enjoy the story.

    So while you make some interesting observations, I ultimately think that there is no need to limit ourselves as game developers to any single set of “good design rules.” I enjoy story-focused games just as much as I enjoy abstract games, and I hope people continue to make all kinds of games.

  25. Steven,

    If a game mechanic does not lie at the center of the form, then what does? Every medium has a defining characteristic that makes it what it is. It it is not “gameness” for games, then what?

    I am perfectly happy to say that there are alternate media that are to some degree outgrowths of games, which we can lump under “interactive entertainment” or some such. But I think that the word game, which encompasses board games, roleplaying games, sports, competitions of many sorts, and yes, virtually all computer-based games, has a pretty clearly visible center to it.

  26. I think that if you cram a game with massive amounts of narrative and writing, with lots of choices and consequences, then the narrative can sort of transcend itself and become a game mechanic in and of itself.
    Of course, very few games have done this, since reading is teh hard.
    (I am of course thinking about, you guessed it, Planescape Torment.)

  27. You might find that stupid, but I believe games to be a specific form of narrative because if no one tells us about the existence of a game’s universe, we wouldn’t know about it at all. Without narration (which implies the existence of an overt or covert narrator), it wouldn’t exist, because there needs to be at least someone or something that tells us about what kind of place this is and how things happen here. There wouldn’t be any player without the call of that voice, because if there isn’t a call in any form that aims at an addressee to ask her to adopt the proposed contrivance then noone would know about it anyway. So, I simply say that a game always requires some sort of medium (in the sense of a newsbringer, at least) in order to put itself forward, be that in order to make its invitation to play, or to deliver the latest news about the events in the game world. That newsbringer may be in the form of a rulebook that explains how things happen “here”, or the positions of the tokens on the board, or a dungeon master who tells you what that arrow of yours just hit, or a screen and speakers that narrates to you how you deal with that monster in this very moment.

    So, I’d say that narrative isn’t a form of feedback, but that feedback is just another name for certain instances of narration.

  28. To me a game mechanic is what you invent when you want the addressee to participate in and thereby manipulate in specific ways fictional events that articulate as narratives.

  29. Why do we buy books and reread them, or DVDs and rewatch movies? Sometimes it’s to relive a story, or to allow a richer experience with the “complete” picture; watch Memento or Fight Club or the French film Time Crimes (and many others) and things it would be rare to see in one sitting. Repeated viewing doesn’t seem to be a problem there. Maybe that’s because it’s a different medium, or repeated viewing is relatively simple, or the depth requires/rewards multiple viewing. Turning the page or hitting Play is all that’s needed.

    Where story elements in games – 1) reward for completion of a level, 2) setting out the level rules, 3) motivating the player to complete – just take players away from what they want to do, it’s a distraction – 1) yeh yeh SKIP, 2) SKIP er… what do I do now? 3) see (1) – and there are few analogues in film/ literature other than Pornography.

    If turning the page is both a challenge and its own reward then replayability may still not be desirable. If discovery is the only challenge – Hotel Dusk and the ChooseYourOwn adventures – unless multiple paths are intriguing – 999 is an excellent example that actually plays on player knowledge as a key mechanic – then your thesis is self-fulfilling. However, I think your position is only true for now. I think telling story through gaming may evolve from its current limited position.

  30. […] from Raph Koster with Narrative Is Not A Game Mechanic: “Games are a compound medium. They are made up of multiple other media, typically in the […]

  31. Linked here from RPS and greatly enjoyed the article. I’ll just repost here what I posted there:

    “If only that Raph Koster piece had come out in November! It does an excellent job of backing up Walker’s “un-game” criticism of MW3, which was so frequently misunderstood. He was NOT complaining about linearity… but it was difficult to say exactly what he was complaining about. Now we can put it more concretely: he was saying that MW3 (and it’s ilk) matches the graphs included at the bottom of Koster’s article. It was a game almost entirely composed of massive feedback segments interconnected by challenges so paltry as to almost not even exist.

    I do disagree with Koster, however, that narrative is inherently “consumable,” and irrelevant after the first playthrough. That’s only true insofar as most game narratives are pretty crappy. But great narrative can be the least consumable part of a game – the part that keeps bringing me back, just as I’ll repeatedly return to a movie I’ve loved before (which is nothing but narrative). For that matter, gameplay is just as fragile. For a straight-up puzzle, once you know the solution, the challenge is gone, and it won’t really be part of the graph next time. And I suppose even with a physical interface problem, like racing, the more skillful you become with each play, the more that yellow circle shrinks. I replay Myst every few years, for instance, and I surely don’t do it for the puzzle design.”

  32. […] Not too long ago, I was talking about how reticles are everywhere. In that same post I mentioned briefly my thoughts on storylines in videogames. While that alone could provide with enough content to write a couple of essays, I’ve just seen that there’s really no need for that, as Raph Koster has already written a perfectly accurate piece on the subject. […]

  33. One little-discussed aspect of gaming that I find fascinating is how often narrative is incredibly repellent to players.

    If you listen to people talk about being addicted to games or struggling through games or even PRACTICING or TRAINING for games it seems clear that players can be remarkably dedicated to a game they love.

    We have so little patience for narrative, especially poor narrative. Unskippable cutscenes or walls of text are so ridiculed to have become jokes…

    Finally, I’d never suggest that simply being popular is enough to make something worthwhile, but it is noteworthy how there has yet to even be a single narrative heavy game enter into the pantheon of truly universal, timeless games. As Raph said above, some of the “greatest” or at least most-played games are almost completely without narrative or context.

  34. Great points, some I’ve been saying for a long time. However, I believe your essentialism has some unintended casualties.

    “I also feel fairly comfortable in labelling a game with that sort of structure as “a bad game design” even if it may be a great game experience. The bar that designers should strike for should include a rich set of systemic problems precisely because that is what the medium of games brings to the table. It’s what lies at the center of the art form.”

    As far as why our audience actually engages with our games, isn’t it the /experience/, over and above the game’s design, or any other single facet of it (story included)? We’re making (and selling) game experiences for people, not game designs.

    Profound passion for it notwithstanding, I’m just not comfortable asserting what I do as the most important part of the process or even as the most essential ingredient of the value proposition – or, in another light, the artistic essence of the piece – /even if/ I do believe it’s what makes it a game, and worth doing in this medium compared to some other.

    Another notion we seem to have breezed past is that story can be delivered in many ways besides the traditional expository cutscene, and in many such forms – environmental storytelling, atmospherics, the narrative ramifications of mechanical contrivances – it becomes much more difficult to separate game mechanics, game feedback and the stuff happening completely outside the game systems.

    Take nearly everything that’s been produced with the Knytt Stories tools. They’re extremely “story light” in the traditional sense, and their mechanics are a good vanilla Metroidvania subset. Yet if the mechanics were really all that there was to them, the bushels of delightful community content would probably not exist. Their game mechanics are exactly as deep and engrossing as they need to be to help players explore the lo-fi, atmospheric nonlinear worlds. They are arguably the trusty old spoon with which players eat each new original flavor of homemade ice cream.

    Don’t get me wrong – I have fought for many years against the streak of “narrative chauvinism”, aka “Me And My Pal Bill Shakespeare”, that runs through game development, which seeks to reduce games to merely the latest narrative medium, judged entirely on that basis.

    But at heart, suggesting that a game with humble ambitions in the design space is flawed or unworthy compared to one whose design is its foremost quality – it seems like just another, diametrically opposed strain of that same harmful reductionism.

    I also strongly disagree that “game systems also have a very limited emotional palette”. If you venture outside of AAA games and MMOs, you’ll find a great breadth of expression, and much more undeveloped potential besides. It’s just at the fringes, ignored by those who don’t know how to make it profitable.

  35. Believe me, I have been arguing for the artistic potential of game systems for a very long time, and am quite familiar with the issues that exist at the boundaries of its emotional expressivity! I didn’t say that systems have BAD expressive capability, but that it was limited.

    In terms of the comment on bad design, I also did not mean to imply that being less ambitious with the systemic goals was a failing. The example I called out as bad was specifically having an extremely modest to outright simplistic systemic model, such as “press button within timer”, with massively disproportionate feedback in the form of narrative.

  36. @Aaron: I can think of a couple of examples of this sort of lateral thinking in video games:
    1) X-Men for the Sega Genesis. The game takes place in the X-Men’s Danger Room (a holographic training room), where a virus has disabled the safeties, making the programs deadly. At a certain point, the player is told they need to “reset the computer running the simulation”. This is accomplished by pressing the reset button on the game console.

    2.) Metal Gear Solid for the Sony PlayStation. The game requires you to look at a screenshot on the back of the game’s CD case to find the radio frequency you need to contact a character. A character tells you explicitly that it’s “on the back of the CD case”, but also gives you an in-game optical disc during the same conversation, so many players think he’s talking about that one.

  37. Narrative is part of the skin of a game. It can become such a rigid skin that it affects the underlying mechanics (ie. you fashion the mechanics so the narrative makes sense) or it can be thin and flimsy (ie. to provide fictional cover for some awkward mechanic). Most times, it’s in between. That’s narrative’s relationship to gameplay.

    However, it also has a relationship with why people play the game, which may not be for the gameplay but from something that emerges from the gameplay. Narrative in support of immersion would be an example of this. Narrative as an artistic/political comment on the real world would be another.

    Personally, I believe that story is not a game mechanic but is what game mechanics are there to serve, however I don’t mean “story” in the sense of an explicit narrative. When you play a game, you are faced with a series of events at multiple levels (as per Ren’s comment). Some of these are meaningful to you and some are not (but may be meaningful to other people). They may be meaningful to you for different reasons – visceral thrill, nuanced dialogue, post problem-solving elation – there are many reasons. However, you will identify some as important to you. From these, you will construct your own, personal narrative of your play experience. If someone asks you how a game went, you’ll tell them your story of your playing of that game. This is the only story that’s important, and it’s different for every player.

    In this sense, games are machines for generating interesting events, the retelling of which by a player constitutes that player’s narrative.

    The argument for constructing an explicit, pre-ordained narrative (which is the way the term is being used in this thread) is that most people aren’t as good at constructing stories as are expert story-tellers, therefore you should get an expert story-teller to direct the player’s narrative. The events that the player picks up to construct their own story are placed there deliberately so as to make the story “better” than what the player would have picked up in a story-free, sandbox world. The counter-argument is that stories aren’t one-size-fits-all, so better for some is worse for others.

    Either way, narrative isn’t a game mechanic, but game mechanics aren’t all there is to games. Both are reasons to play a game. Both are there so that each player can tell you a different answer when you ask them, after a game session, “how did that go?”.


  38. […] is not a game mechanic: Share this:FacebookTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Categories: True to […]

  39. I agree that, for the sake of terminology, “game” should probably encompass many of the characteristics you list here. And I think you would also agree that the space of things we can make using modern interactive technology that is compelling and worth making is actually more than “games”. And hey, if the less gamey stuff seems to sell more, so be it.

  40. Kind of reminds me of the Deus Ex Level 3 flowchart. A game heralded for its openness and choice even though it is still fairly linear (though less then most).

    I approached this as a thought experiment. I think maybe a main problem is that you have to rely on producing a considerably large amount of content (not just “feedback”) that a vast amount of people, even if they like the game, won’t even experience. Maybe the majority of consumers will even feel ripped off because they perceive the game to be so small (regardless of replayability), and bad press often spreads like poison. And because everything is monetized, it is possible that it is more profitable in the long run to take the potential effort and instead make DLC instead, maybe even forcing linearity or shortness as long as there’s some quality range where it doesn’t effect profitability (and, honestly, for most blockbuster games that range is mind-blowingly low).

  41. Raph, what happens if you attach a string to the next problem inside the feedback? If you have small problem and small black box followed by a large feedback that also presents you with a “next” problem, does this make the perception of the next problem, the next black box, seem larger than it really is (considering it might be in the same size range as the original pair in actuality)?

  42. […] Raph Koster: Narrative in a game is not a mechanic […]

  43. While I think your analysis is pretty spot on (yes, narrative serves as feedback, rather than mechanism), your conclusions aren’t (because that’s not the only thing that narrative does– or perhaps instead because feedback plays a role greater than informing future input.) Narrative is feedback, but it is also aesthetic, and aesthetics matter a great deal.

    Imagine a roguelike Bejewelled. It’s exactly the same game, except instead of shinies, you try to match three alphanumeric characters. Is it the same game? Kind of. Input and mechanics are identical. Feedback, while aesthetically different, works exactly the same (in its role as feedback to input, at least.)

    Or consider WoW versus Progress Quest (if you remember PQ). Which is the better game? Since all of WoW’s content gets used up, would they have been better off making their game according to the Progress Quest formula? They could have saved a bundle on development costs.

    You acknowledge that there are good games with bad stories, bad games with good stories, and games without stories. Stories, of course, don’t just lie on two extremes of bad and good– they’re better and worse, sometimes, just different. This division of story from game can be useful, but after one’s done taking it apart, one must put it back together again. A moderately interesting game with no story may or may not be worth my time. A moderately interesting story with no game may or may not be worth my time. A moderately interesting game with a moderately interesting story is vastly superior to either.

  44. A counter-point from a consumer. Note: I wrote it before reading this. Note 2: it’s very long. Note 3: Narrative is not a mechanic, but it is the most important illusion to maintain.

  45. I click or ESC past every cinematic I can. The previously closed gate now being open is all the feedback I need for my “reward centers”. To me, everything else is noise. I’m more interested in the story I’m creating than the story you wanted to narrate to me. Do you code for players like me?

  46. Great article… This really describes to me how a game can be enjoyable (a great game experience) without being a good game (bad game design).

    I think there are more people out there than you want to admit that do not enjoy learning or solving problems very much. These people are the types who rarely play games more than once. They like to play games to shut their mind off (like TV) instead of to stimulate it. They are going to enjoy a lot of feedback. And they are the newer gamers, because quality cinematics and storytelling is new to video games. They weren’t interested by video games as much before.

  47. Raph, what happens if you attach a string to the next problem inside the feedback? If you have small problem and small black box followed by a large feedback that also presents you with a “next” problem, does this make the perception of the next problem, the next black box, seem larger than it really is (considering it might be in the same size range as the original pair in actuality)?

    It could, certainly.

  48. […] of on the same idea is Raph Koster’s recent post – Narrative is not a Game Mechanic.  The argument that fancy screens and movies where you sit and watch do nothing different than […]

  49. I’m still hoping for the emergence of a more dynamic narrative game. Rather than a simple pass/fail gate to a chunk of prescripted linear narrative, I would like a game that analyzes a player’s choices and preferences in the course of play and dynamically generates plot points and a dramatic arc tailored to that individual player (or group).

    It would be very much like Aaron’s example of the fantasy simultation from “Ender’s Game”… or a “Pick a Path” book that writes itself on the fly. If you’re always stopping to assist NPCs (or PCs) in trouble, the game takes note, bumps your reputation as a helpful person, and eventually people start coming to you with problems that focus on and challenge your skill set. If you kill nomads on sight, even though nomads are neutral, the nomads take note and organize strikes against you and the things you’ve demonstrated some interest in. If you fail a task, rather than being assigned the exact same task again, you’re presented with an alternate approach or a chance to redeem yourself with a different task.

    I don’t disagree that game mechanics should be engaging in their own right, but there’s a lot of yet-to-be exploited potential in keeping the narrative fresh and relevant… or if you prefer, a more nuanced and detailed feedback mechanism. And I think it can be accomplished procedurally (at least in large part), without keeping a massive stable of writers and artists working 24/7.

  50. Yukon, that sounds great. I wonder how closely that could tie into some of Bartle’s ideas on AI (which I don’t remember entirely right now).

    I agree on the procedural thinking. I think there’s a wide range of things that can be done that haven’t been addressed yet. Your example of NPCs coming to a player for help, based on his reputation, that’s really nothing more than adding the reputation system and giving movement and direction to a Pez dispenser. Yet it would seem hugely different. By making a more complex reputation system the game could become quite entertaining and shift focus of play away from merely leveling up, and to earning reputations with various “factions”. An evolving feedback system.

    Game over narrative with narrative? Feedback over reward with reward?

  51. Sam, you may want to look into what Chris Crawford tried to accomplish with the Erasmatron, as well as the work of Mateas and Stern if you haven’t seen it, and of course Facade. Oh, and for a multiplayer take, try Sleep is Death by Jason Rohrer.

  52. Wow, just reading some stuff from Crawford’s site.

    This is blowing me away.

  53. Front page link there seems to be broken, so here.

  54. I’m not a gamer. I don’t have much interest in or affection for games. I very rarely (as in less than once every two or three years) play boardgames, card games or offline computer games. Given the choice I’d generally rather stare into space than play a game.

    For the last 12 years I’ve consistently “played” MMOs for around 20 to 40+ hours per week. It’s my main leisure activity. Although I use the terms “play” and “game” in reference to what I do when I log into an MMO, I do this only because that’s the convention. I don’t regard what I do as “playing a game” at all.

    I’ve always thought of the core activity of MMOs as far more akin to woodcarving, sewing, knitting or gardening than it is to playing a game. The purpose is to craft characters and the tools used to craft them are what is described as “gameplay”. In the same way that the act of woodcarving is soothing and relaxing, so is the gameplay of MMOs, but while you may appreciate and value and even enjoy using your tools, it’s what you create that drives you to carve.

    The story that you create for your characters is part of the creation process and becomes part of that character. External narrative provided by the “game” is only relevant insofar as it can be used as a tool. Often it’s a very poor tool and damages the character you’re trying to create, or obstructs the creative process. Generally I don’t welcome it.

    Much the same applies to problems to solve. I’m not interested in solving problems. I just need to solve them because those are the tools available for crafting my characters. I’m pretty sure there are better tools I could be given to carve my characters that would make it clearer that what’s happening in an MMO has little to do with playing a game.

    It brings us back to Virtual Worlds, I fear.

  55. […] structure of the modern cutscene – fast story dump, return control to player ASAP before Raph Koster gets all steamed up – has led to them being condemned as cheap story writing. But by being so self-conscious and […]

  56. […] noun, and so narrative fits the slot for feedback well. Case-in-point, Raph Koster also recently said the same thing, in a much more elegant […]

  57. […] do agree with Raph Koster’s recent statement that narrative is not a game mechanic. But that is not why you should read that post. The reason why you should read that post is that […]

  58. I’m not sure the Choose Your Own Adventure example is helping your case. Randomize all the pages and actions. The same order of actions would still produce the goal. But how would someone, in practice, solve it? They would have to pick actions at random, hopefully eventually landing on the goal. They were navigating the graph using the narrative content. The author’s good at characterization, so you know John’s going to betray you, so you know to get rid of him before he gets rid of you. There’s no game, no information, without the narrative content. It’s not fair to point out that the game could be reskinned. Even though you can change something from scifi to fantasy, you still have to preserve the essential narrative content, otherwise you’re throwing away everything.

  59. Bruce, your example is basically illustrating the importance of feedback. And it is indeed critical. But you could replace all that narrative with, say, colored dots and have the solution be based on achieving a rainbow color ramp; or on numbers and have it be based on spelling out pi. The feedback can be radically, radically different without changing the structure of the maze.

  60. Raph, thanks for the references. I’ll have to study them more closely when I’ve got a chance.

    A quick glance is both heartening and frustrating. Heartening because there are people out there who are really focused on more dynamic, interactive narrative forms. Frustrating because the people taking the risks are short on resources, and progress of the type that would goose the major studios is elusive.

    “Sleep is Death” sounds interesting — while tangental to what I was trying to articulate, it could be a springboard for a return of the GM/player dynamic of tabletop RPGs. I can envision something like this as an adjunct to existing player-created adventure tools. We had similar capabilities in the Troubadour system in Ultima Online, before legal issues squelched the volunteer programs.

  61. […] I read this crazy thought provoking article the other day and then participated in and read all the comments.  Its a bit of a lesson in […]

  62. […] I read this crazy thought provoking article the other day and then participated in and read all the comments.  Its a bit of a lesson in […]

  63. […] their stories (fitting given their prevalence in the Resident Evil 6 trailer, eh), you'll enjoy Raph Koster's deconstruction of the role of narrative in game design. […]

  64. Part of the problem with quicktime events is that the gameplay and the story don’t mesh well together. You can’t sit back and enjoy watching the movie/story, but you can’t fully engage with gameplay either. You’re stuck inbetween, forced to remain gameplay-alert just to take a boring action in order to move things along… pressing x to not die.

    This is slightly a problem with Mass Effect 2 as well, because you have to notice the flashing red/blue indicator and react to it while you’re trying to enjoy the dialog. The edginess this inspires goes well with the character and situation being portrayed, but it can still be annoying. (Luckily, of course, all the paragon/renegade stuff is fairly optional, so you won’t DIE from missing a prompt.)

  65. […] game grammar, game studies, jason rohrer, ludology, narratology, storytellingWhen I said that narrative was not a game mechanic, but rather a form of feedback, I was getting at the core point that chunks of story are generally […]

  66. […] to music. You’ll want to check this out. Next, Nik brings in some game design thoughts on why narrative isn’t a game mechanic. Lastly, Patrick closes the show with a piece about Nintendo’s downloadable dilemma and […]

  67. […] Raph Koster eloquently explains all games as a series of actions to figure out mechanics, with succe…. Narrative often gets put in the wrong bucket (game mechanic), when it really is just feedback. That feedback is still important, though: Games are a compound medium. They are made up of multiple other media, typically in the feedback. In other words, we rely on media such as film, writing, visual arts, music, and so on in order to provide the feedback. Games that do not rely on these other media much tend to get called “abstract” — a completely stripped bare game is actually a mathematical diagram or formula, not something easily seen or comprehended, so all games have to make use of other media at least a little. […]

  68. […] his blog, Raph Koster wrote an essay titled Narrative is not a game mechanic. His main point, somewhat over-simplified: a game’s narrative is not part of the […]

  69. […] YOU want by sending an email to [email protected] Gaming Bitch of the Week- MMO Death Narrative to games What the Fuck is that? – Dementium: The WardAn Xbox with ANTI USED GAMES TECH- DIGG […]

  70. Misunderstanding, dear Raph…..Story is not Plot. Story is a result of four plots through storyweaving: Objective, subjective, main character throughline, impact Character throughline. Which means that “story” is the result of the user´s action, because in a game the main character and often the protagonist IS the palyer HIMSELF, right? His intention forms his action and results in the story. So it is not possible to separate the story from the mechanics. the predicted action=Story IS the platform on which game mechanics are developed to guarantee a new gameplay. Which prevents a “Me2” gamedesign.Thats why franchises do not live on their mechanics, but on the name of the franchise, and well known stories and characters.You just have to get close to the prescripted story with your mechanics, and Boum!… who of us is Batman at his best?

  71. The protagonist is the player, amen. But is “player” identical to the real human we refer to when we use the word? You actually frame the problem nicely when you ask “who of us is Batman at his best?”, but you still seem to use the word “player” to refer to real humans rather than ludic entities that are born out of the contrivance between real humans and certain rule sets/systems.

    I see it this way: games do not need us as exactly the persons that we are, they have other plans about us. They will always ask us to give up some of our aspects, or they will add aspects to us that we do not normally possess. This is what rules are good for, they reconfigure as so that we act as one of the systems that generate the fictional universe of the game: Suddenly I must pretend not to have any hands, or I am told that the way I position myself in the game space can create a situation called “offside”. That creates the universe of football. Games will also utilize some of our aspects “as they are” (our stamina, our temper, our dexterity), which doesn’t necessarily mean those aspects mean what they mean in the real world, because the meaning they carry in the game world is generated by the basically imaginary situation that the interaction of the rules/systems enforce.

    Anyone can agree to perform as this bundle of mechanics and rules. But with varying results, just like in the way Raph says systems can carry different types of content.

    Roger Callois says that “rules create fiction”. If “player” is a fictional entity that is being created by rules (which means that “player” as fiction is at the same time a system) and put into motion through its relation to other systems, then I think that narrative and systems cannot be separated. The making of systems seems to be guided by some sort of narrative purpose.

  72. Roger Callois says that “rules create fiction”

    I actually think he had it exactly backwards. 🙂

  73. Nah, that’s how he says it, “rules […] create fictions”. 😉 But if you mean my last sentence, I had to think about that too, after I hit the “submit comment” button.

  74. Anyway, yes, at the core, a game is a problem to solve, but it is an invented, fictional problem. So I think that a game comes into existence when you have invented and posed such fictional problem. I’d call that fictional problem a story.

  75. I know that is how he says it. I am saying Caillois was wrong. 🙂

  76. I wouldn’t say n invented fictional problem is a story. We are being very unjust to the word story at that point. if I invent a problem like 9 = 27/x does that make it a story?

    I even question whether the problems are really “fictional” in the usual sense.

  77. A problem isn’t so much fictional as it is emergent. Problems happen when situation is imperfect or unideal. If you have a stretch of platform that you can freely go from one side to another, it does not cause a problem. If you take a section out of the platform, then, the situation becomes unideal, and thus a problem arises (how to get to the other side). You can make a fictional problem, that is a problem in the fiction by presenting an unideal situation in the fiction. A fiction in which nothing happens and everything is well and good is ideal (for this sense of ideal). Introduce a crying mother and you have a fictional problem. Problems are a result of imperfect systems. They aren’t fictional unless you make them so, they simply exist because the system forces them to exist.

    I would say, though, that the math problem that Raph brought up is actually a different definition of a problem. You could fit it into this model, I suppose, but what would be the point of that?

  78. No no, I mean we talk here about a problem in a fictional world. Something that has been plotted as to be experienced as a problem in such a fictional world. When you say I invent a problem in math and that doesn’t make it story, then you step into another set of definitions. We do not speak of “problem” in such a generic sense. I believe that with the kind of problem we speak of here, we actually deal with conflict, in the sense that it is used in drama theory.

  79. @altugi I don’t see a difference between plotting a problem and crafting an imperfect system, though. In a story, you can tell the reader that something is a problem. You can have the narrator react emotionally to some event and convey that there is a chink in the chain of the narrative. Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler… is a good example of a narrator that needs to tell the reader that there is a problem, otherwise the reader doesn’t know that anything is wrong. But let’s take a look at the first three chapters of the novel. The narrator sets up a situation, addressing the act of reading and getting into the idea that we will be reading a book together. Then we read a chapter from that book. Then the narrator is unnerved because it is not the book he expected to read. Calvino makes an allusion to the ideal situation (sitting down and reading a good novel) but presents us with an unideal reality (the book is wrong in some way). This is the same as crafting an unideal system from which a problem arises.
    As such, I do not see a difference between the kind of problem that you are talking about and the kind of problem I am talking about (but as I said, I do see a difference between a math problem and a narrative problem).
    (n.b. I was going to pull this around to video games specifically, but it started just sounding like I was getting off topic and onto my own close-at-heart topics, so I cut it at the literature example. I’m not trying to compare games to literature here, just giving an example of “problem” in a different context.)

  80. Oh yes, sorry Thomas, I was agreeing with most what you say, I meant to say to Raph that his math problem does not really fit in. That’s why I said we deal with something that drama theory calls conflict. It’s important to maintain those lines, or we can then as well say that every math problem is a game.

  81. @altugi Oh, ok. I was confused because I went to your WordPress and it sounds like you and I have similar ideas. (Also, I am no Thomas, not that it matters, I just got confused for a moment thinking you were responding to someone else.)

  82. […] Draw Challenge Game Feel by Steve Swink Why Touch Screens Aren’t The Future of Input Design Raph Koster’s thoughts on Story  Episode 37 [118:40m]: Play Now | Play in Popup | […]

  83. […] Y en esto Catwoman es un ejemplo fantástico.Al mismo tiempo que jugaba a Arkham City me topé con Narrative is not a game mechanich, una entrada publicada por el diseñador y teórico Raph Koster en su blog personal donde […]

  84. […] Brice, called Narrative is a Game Mechanic. It was also written in response to Raph Koster’s Narrative is not a game mechanic, and it makes the case that Ludology and narratology aren’t mutually exclusive studies. In fact, […]

  85. […] by much of the latest discussion around narrative and games, I’ve been thinking about interactivity and its place in […]

  86. […] les jeux en ligne massivement multi-joueurs et son livre A Theory of Fun for Game Design) intitulé Narrative is not a game mechanic. Plusieurs commentateurs à la vue courte lui ont reproché trop rapidement de vouloir condamner […]

  87. […] reducing games to just the narrative stops them from being games at all in a pair of pieces called Narrative is not a game mechanic and Narrative isn’t usually content either. Oh wait, shit, he totally already did that you […]

  88. […] är en forskande spelutvecklare som förra månaden skrev ett blogginlägg med rubriken ”Narrative is not a game mechanic”. I det argumenterar han att problemlösningen är vad som gör spelmediet unikt. Allting som byggs […]

  89. […] Making player guess what you thought that should be done next. If player knows what should happen next, but your game user interface prevents (in RPG, not talking about car driving game) him from reaching the goal, that kills immersion. There’s a great article about this at Raph Koster’s site. […]

  90. […] read through this post recently called: “narrative is not a game mechanic” here: It’s a fascinating discussion on what this guy seems to think is systemic in a game’s […]

  91. […] are equally functions and effects of the particular game. (Note: If someone *cough* argues that narrative is not a mechanic, either they are misguided, have an agenda, or their conception of either gameplay or narrative is […]

  92. […] were saying that Farmville was not a game, and I argued that it was. This year, I wrote about narrative not being a mechanic and had to extend my comments on it because of the controversy, and Tadhg Kelly bluntly said […]

  93. […] to be different if you want a game to work around something as static as narrative. Because really, narrative is not a game mechanic (I’m totally going to make this […]

  94. […] storytelling and not of story, of world building and not of narrative. Ralph Koster has argued that “Narrative is not a game mechanic” — that is that narrative in video games is not a central operation of the game itself but a […]

  95. […] Koster lobbed his own grenade into the fray at the start of the year, with a piece that framed narrative as player feedback. It was interesting but levelled that feedback was narrative's only purpose. He warned developers […]

  96. […] to hold the player’s attention, no matter how little-warranted this feedback may be. Raph Koster explains: “It is remarkably easy to trick the brain into thinking that it has accomplished something when […]

  97. […] disagree with the idea that narrative is a mechanic. And I dislike the notion that narrative is not a mechanic too. For me, it’s not about the how, but the when. Narrative is, in my current way of […]

  98. […] strikes me about articles like Raph Koster’s “Narrative is not a game mechanic” is that for all intents and purposes, they might as well come from a parallel universe. People try […]

  99. […] 2. narratives as one of the dimensions of game play experience – where narrative is a form of feedback. […]

  100. […] 2. narratives as one of the dimensions of game play experience – where narrative is a form of feedback. […]

  101. […] Narrative is not a Game Mechanic Video Game Writing and the Sense of Story Writing This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  102. […] Narrative is not a Game Mechanic Video Game Writing and the Sense of Story Writing Leave a comment | […]

  103. […] find it curious that Raph Koster writes that narrative is not a game mechanic , when in his book A Theory of Fun, he dismisses the idea that games must have a definite goal in […]

  104. […] Koster points out in one of his posts that “Narrative Is Not A Game Mechanic”. This is a very important point. Narrative is for contextualising the action and for providing […]

  105. […] Koster points out in one of his posts that “Narrative Is Not A Game Mechanic”. This is a very important point. Narrative is for contextualising the action and for providing […]

  106. […] Koster has a post up that seems to explain why I like DDO so much compared to other games. Provided you squint at it a […]

  107. […] just stumbled upon Raph Koster’s “Narrative is not a game mechanic” and found that it contains some stuff that I do not really agree with. Now, thinking somebody on […]

  108. […] made in Powerpoint, I think he was focusing on criteria 1, 5 and 6. In an unrelated post he said, Narrative is not a game mechanic he says “The core of a game is a problem to solve.” A problem to solve is synonymous […]

  109. […] Reflection on an article by Raph Koster: “Narrative is not a game mechanic” […]

  110. […] Koster wrote how narrative's only purpose in a game was player feedback. Tom Jubert, the writer on Penumbra (Frictional Games, 2007) and The Swapper (Facepalm Games, 2013), […]

  111. […] the player's abilities. A secret box game would say narrative is the whole point, rather than offer narrative as feedback such as in cutscene-focused titles such as The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, […]

  112. […] is not a game mechanic,” which further insists on binary thinking in terms of narrative (“Narrative is not a game mechanic”, Raph Koster’s Website, 12 January 2010). Koster’s treatment of narrative as feedback and […]

  113. […] Narrative is not a game mechanic games […]

  114. […] I’m pondering a bit more about the relationship between games and narratives. I’m prompted to write about my pondering due to the Koster post here. […]

  115. […] les jeux en ligne massivement multi-joueurs et son livre A Theory of Fun for Game Design) intitulé Narrative is not a game mechanic. Plusieurs commentateurs à la vue courte lui ont reproché trop rapidement de vouloir condamner […]

  116. […] Chapter One Theories of space have been out of fashion for some decades. Chapter Two Conclusion. Narrative is not a game mechanic. I love stories. My chief hobby is reading. I was formally trained as a writer, not as a game […]

  117. […] Show Notes: The ReAnimator Map showing where we have all lived since we started the show Satellite Soda Daily Draw Challenge Game Feel by Steve Swink Why Touch Screens Aren’t The Future of Input Design Raph Koster’s thoughts on Story […]

  118. […] I’m pondering a bit more about the relationship between games and narratives. I’m prompted to write about my pondering due to the Koster post here. […]

  119. […] just stumbled upon Raph Koster’s “Narrative is not a game mechanic” and found that it contains some stuff that I do not really agree with. Now, thinking somebody on […]

  120. […] own interests or intersections in media, or wanting to correct problematic canons, etc. And while certain game designers and scholars dismiss the importance of narrative, it seems to be the case, time and time again, that players […]

  121. […] other hand are rarely viewed in such a narratological light, and often when they are, it is purely negative. Games have existed for thousands of years and film has only been around for a couple centuries, […]

  122. […] Och som vanligt levererar Raph Koster massa klokheter i ämnet […]

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