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Better definitions for interactive stories
I've noticed over the years a certain category of narrative media that I really enjoy. It’s often lumped in under this nebulous umbrella category of "game narratives", but I find that this category is too unspecific to really describe the kind of works I’m thinking of. This makes it difficult to talk about, think about, and appreciate them, so this post is gonna be my attempt to carve out a better definition for them. First though, I’ll have to establish some terms:
Crafted vs. Emergent
Often when talking about game narrative people like to bring up "emergent narrative". These are stories that were not specifically foreseen by a game's designers, but arise organically through the interaction of the player and the game's rules. Examples include stuff like:
Getting a crazy strong build in a roguelike game but running into a boss that hard counters it and snatches away your victory at the last moment.
A chess master making a critical blunder against a longstanding rival.
Losing a unit you've grown attached to in a strategy game with permadeath.
Playing a violent action game as a pacifist and imagining in-game characters' reactions.
While designers can craft their game to encourage such moments, they're never the kind of thing where the exact situation has been planned out, the way it is in most books and movies. It's very much one of the unique strengths of the medium. And it's really cool! Plenty of my favorite games do very little narratively besides emergent stuff.
What I really want to distinguish in people's minds in this essay are crafted narratives whose interactive element is fundamental to them, stories that simply would not function without it. I mean "crafted" in this case as more or less the opposite of emergent, narrative elements that have been meticulously planned out, where the designer does know pretty much exactly what every player is going to be experiencing. Many of you can probably think of a few examples of what I'm talking about but to really drive the point home I've developed a simple chart that should make what I'm talking about clearer...
There's two axes to go over here:
Pure Game vs. Pure Narrative: Examples that are higher up on the chart will be what you would intuitively consider more "game-like" rather than "story-like"; they will have fewer narrative elements and what narrative elements they do have will lean more towards emergent narrative rather than crafted. Conversely, examples at the very bottom will have little-to-no interactivity whatsoever.
Non-interactive vs. Interactive story: If an example is further to the right of the chart, that means its interactivity is more fundamental to telling its story. This is really about asking the question "How much would the story suffer if you stripped out all the interactivity? Would it still make sense or be interesting?". Important to note: this does not refer to a story's linearity or non-linearity. For example: The Beginner's Guide would not make sense without its interactive elements, and as such would be placed on the far right of the chart, yet it still features an extremely linear narrative with a single ending and very few optional branches along the way. On the other hand, many Choose Your Own Adventure novels feature several different endings, but only limited interactivity which does not add much to the story, and would therefore be placed close to the left side of the chart.
Here's the chart divided into rough sections, examples to come:
Note that the chart, categories, and following examples here are not rigid or exhaustive. It's not "everything in this genre goes here and nothing else", it's "the typical work in this genre would probably be placed around here in my opinion". With that disclaimer out of the way, I'll explain my thinking for each category (though this is all really an exercise in pointing out the right side of the chart, so if you just want to see that you can skip to the bottom of this list):
Games With Basically No Story/Games With A Small Amount Of Linear Story That Is Not Strongly Tied To The Gameplay (Top left):
Mostly self explanatory, this is what is traditionally thought of as a pure "game", e.g. chess, minesweeper, most sports, etc. Further down in these areas would be games with a minimal story that mostly serves as a backdrop to the gameplay. Tohou is an interesting example here, since it has such a rich lore that has spawned countless fanworks set in its universe. Take most games in the series in isolation though and you'll get a fairly simple plot told through only brief (yet charming) character interactions. So... top left. All told though I'd argue it's these exact properties, in combination with the developers' permissive attitude towards copyright, that makes the franchise so easy to remix and reinterpret.
Strategy Games (Mid Right-Top Right):
This is another category of games with minimal narrative elements. The distinction here though is that the stories these games tell usually end up completely nonsensical when divorced from the game. On the left side you can still extract a simple yet meaningful narrative (two armies engage in tactical warfare until one claims victory, Mario adventures through many obstacles to defeat bowser and rescue the princess). A mostly complete, somewhat interesting story is told whether or not Magnus Carlsen is leading one of the armies or stomping on koopas. But on the right side, aside from maybe the premise, the stories are pretty nonsensical on their own. Medieval india fails miserably to conquer the world using war elephants? Virus MEGABUTTS wipes out humanity? These "stories" may be kinda funny, or at least a starting point for an actual narrative, but their full impact is only present when you're the one authoring them through the game, or at least watching someone else do so. I called this category strategy games, but I think a lot of management/simulation/sandbox games fit around here as well.
???/Ghost Train Rides (Center Left):
Ghost Train Ride is a term for linear cinematic adventure games coined by Yahtzee Croshaw. For the purposes of this chart we'll just say these are games with a fairly significant narrative element, but whose interactivity is relatively shallow and ineffectual when it comes to adding things to its story. It’s unsurprising that a few of these games have seen recent semi-successful attempts at film or TV adaptations. But these games' interactivity still arguably adds *something* to their stories, even if it's just a slightly enhanced sense of immersion. The ??? category is reserved for games whose interactivity, in theory, adds literally nothing to the story. Games like this might exist, but to be honest the idea sounds so difficult to pull off while being so unappealing that I didn't really want to spend time thinking of examples.
CRPGs/JRPGs (Upper Middle/Middle):
The middle of the chart is probably one of the looser zones, and the labels' vertical placement come mostly from the fact that JRPGs tend to have more predetermined storylines and characters, while western RPGs put more emphasis on open-endedness and building your own character. RPGs end up further right on the chart since pretty much at the genre's core is the idea that the game mechanics are all representative of some kind narrative element. They don't make it all the way to the right though, since a lot of the time their stories can somewhat survive being separated from a gameplay context (just look at cutscene compilations on youtube).
Not Videogames (Bottom Left):
This part of the chart is reserved for traditional media with little-to-no interactive elements, such as books, movies, etc. I thought it would be funny to put sesame street a bit further on the right since shows like that technically do sometimes expect the viewer to interact with its prompts.
Visual Novels (Bottom Middle):
Further to the right at the bottom we have visual novels. These are works of fiction that have basically no elements we'd consider game-like aside from dialogue choices and saving and loading, but who will often speak directly to the reader (or a reader stand-in) and incorporate their nature as a choice-driven branching storyline into the text itself. I'd say examples that do this to a greater extent would be further right in this zone, and examples that are simply a more traditional story that branches would be further left.
Right above visual novels we have point-and-click adventures, and I think many games even in this category get lumped in with VNs due to their text-heavy narrative focused approach. I think the key differentiator here, and why these games can stretch so far to the right of the chart while still hovering above the very bottom, is that the gameplay elements are very often centered around forcing the player to truly understand the very deliberately crafted plot, setting, and characters. Progress both as a player of the game and as a reader of the story is, at many points, one and the same. With all that said, some may find Ace Attorney's placement here a bit unusual, what with all its non-game direct adaptations. Personally though I've always found these adaptations to be hollow, limited imitations of the source material, which just serves to reinforce my impression that AA's story and those like it were really made from the ground up to be experienced through interaction.
(Good) Walking Simulators (Bottom Right):
i.e. games made by Davey Wreden. When thinking of this corner of the chart it's difficult to point out anything else. These are works that are almost wholly lacking in what one would consider traditional game-like elements and yet are so entirely constructed around their interactivity that removing it would be incoherent. I think it's natural that even the works themselves wrestle in-text with being categorized as a game or not, what that even means. That is in large part the failure of our existing categories that I want try and rectify with this essay, partly in the hopes that it'll help people talk about and create more works like these and those in the next category.
Last up, we have the (center right) area that I really want to talk about, not covered in the bullet list above, that this chart has hopefully helped you to distinguish:
The title "Indie Zone" is a little tongue-in-cheek but it does hold a kernel of truth. I think, because this category of work is so unclear in people's minds, works that try to capitalize on what make it special have a hard time selling themselves and their strengths. They therefore only end up being made by those willing to take a gamble or experiment. No wonder many are lauded as innovative; creative revolutions within the medium.
Anyway, I think it should be clear what I'm trying to point out at this point: these are works that incorporate many elements of a traditional game, yet most or all of those elements directly serve the telling of a specific story (or the conveyance of some deliberate narrative thing, from grand themes to small jokes). Well, an important general point here is that this isn't a one-way street, the narrative will also take influence from the "pure" game design and what it's best at conveying. This powerful synthesis of crafted narrative and interactivity has produced some of my favorite art, and yet I rarely see it discussed on its own (outside of people analyzing a specific game that does it well).
As a short aside, I think it's worth distinguishing the upper part of "The Indie Zone" a bit. I think games here are still trying to convey something deliberate, but go about it in a more open-ended or subtle way. I put The Witness here cause it's a great example of this, basically a plot-less open world of meticulously crafted environments all loudly yet oh-so-obtusely screaming the same specific message on the nature of epiphany.
Here’s the full chart with zones + every example:
I’ve got one last big point I'd like to make. You may have noticed that a lot of the works on the right side of the chart have many narrative elements people describe as "meta". I don't think this is a coincidence, and I could write a whole essay about this (and probably will at some point), but I'll summarize a little here.
Meta elements often get a bad rap due to often being used as a cheap way to inject comedy, shock value, or "depth" into a story that hasn't been built around them. I think in non-interactive mediums there's only so far you can take meta, and despite the examples you can pull of its artful use it remains merely a useful tool. But interactive mediums are different, and I'd argue that the fact of the reader/player interacting with the story makes it meta by default. Read about the creation of a lot of these narratives and you'll see the creators incorporating meta elements because it's just what makes sense. The player is not a passive observer, and thus in a fleshed out self-consistent story it takes more effort to separate them as a participant than it does to weave their influence and internal experience in as a natural part of the story. Sure, this can be done poorly, but I'd argue that this is more akin to the fact that not every game with jumping and platforms is as good as your favorite Mario game, despite technically sharing the same core gameplay.
To wrap things up I just want to reiterate, this was meant to serve as a crystallization of my thoughts around a lot of my favorite games. I feel I now have a better model of the kind of art I want to make and see more of, and hopefully you do too! As always when it comes to someone presenting a four squares chart that can supposedly plot every example of some complex multidimensional thing, it's important to mention that this isn't meant to exhaustively describe every aspect of a story, and works can differ significantly along plenty of other dimensions. Plus, this is just a toy model based primarily on my intuitions rather than hard data, it's definitely open to refinement! If you have disagreements on aspects of it or even just on the placement of a specific game I'd love to hear your opinions in the comments or on twitter/discord!
I know this is something of a controversial statement, and one could find plenty of examples to the contrary, but in my mind this has always been the central thing people have been pointing to when using the Western/Japanese RPG distinction.