Post-narratology: A case for object-oriented narrative game studies

I recently wrote a chapter for the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies(1), sexily titled “Narratology”. Writing this piece gave me a chance to reflect on the work being done on narrative and narration in game studies, which happens to fall across two camps following the narrative/narration divide. Following film narratologist André Gaudreault’s two strands of narratology(2), there is a narratology of contents, dedicated to the study of stories, characters, themes or plot devices, rather independently of their telling (narratives as objects), and a narratology of expression, concerned with the expressive properties of different media and their intrinsic narrative potential (narration as a process). Here’s a nice but schematic table, because internets:

Studies of/by/done…

Narratology of contents

Narratology of expression


Narratives as objects (extrinsic narrativity)

Narration as a process (intrinsic narrativity)


Stories, characters, themes or plot devices

Expressive properties of media


Normative / evaluative studies

Definitional / theoretical studies


Narrative designers, practice-oriented researchers, and game critics

Game scholars interested in narratology or from a theoretical background

(Where? and When? are, of course, up for grabs. But I wouldn’t circumscribe them too narrowly just yet.)

The first often lends itself to normative inquiries, where contents can be evaluated according to their effect on the player, or in respect to ideal or typical forms. By and large, the study of contents (extrinsic narrativity) has been laid forth in game criticism and review, or in practical, hands-on game writing handbooks( nchor3), usually authored by game writers or researchers in design or practice-oriented research. The second deals with theoretical questions, such as the ever-popular “what is a narrative”, or “in what ways do games renew narrativity”, and game studies scholars with a more theoretical approach have almost entirely studied game narration from the expressive properties of video games, trying to identify an intrinsic narrativity to gameplay rather than examining select cases of storytelling or structures of interactive narrative. The rising popularity of transmedia narratology provides a nice illustration of this phenomenon.

In so doing, we (I include myself in this group) often attempt to derive some Grand Principle of Game Narrativity out of our case studies, thinking (or wishing) to achieve a unitary model applicable to all cases. But the diversity of games may mean that “what they have in common may in fact be rather less interesting or important than the ways in which they differ”( nchor4). As Rune Klevjer pointed out( nchor5), game studies suffer from a curious lack of genre studies, which could benefit us as a way of linking the too-broad with the too-specific. Narratology cannot be envisioned as a viable or productive framework for studying every single game. However, it is a relevant analytical frame for a wide variety of game genres and analytic purposes.

I currently see two promising ways in which narrative game research could productively bridge the contents/expression, object/process divide:

  • Studying particular narrative figures or tropes. Two of them, off the top of my head:
              - The narrative integration of the fail/retry cycles in games. Something Juul has touched on briefly with his Donkey Kong example(6), but without treating it as a case of reduction ad absurdum, and looking at games that actually address it.
              - A phenomenon I recently coined “pandiegetic conspiracies”(7), where it seems like the entirety of the fictional world (diegesis) conspires against the player to “keep them on track”: bridges are closed, tunnels to the mainland unfinished, the ferry is in repair, and there’s an air traffic shutdown, all at the same time, and they will coincidentally go away when you perform the right action.
  • Developing an approach of narrative aesthetics. These aesthetics are tailored to some specific corpus, whether a genre, historical period, or individual game developer; after all, the players and game developers of Call of Duty andFinal Fantasy seek to experience or elicit widely different responses through their game’s narrative. That distinction may also form a basis to trace some of the classic divides between Western/Japanese or PC/Console RPGs. Multiple games (or scenes within a game, etc.) may share a common narrative aesthetics, hence permitting a form of comparative evaluation that may account for aesthetic distance(8) and other related phenomena.

Game studies have for a long time required researchers to specialize in some theoretical approach, subject or topic. It’s now time for game scholars to embrace some form of specialization as to the objects they study as well. Because we all have a backlog of games we need to play for our specific subjects of study, and that backlog is increasingly getting as tall as the books we need to read.



 (1) M. Wolf & B. Perron (Eds.), forthcoming in December 2013.

(2) André Gaudreault (Timothy Barnard, tr.) (2009). From Plato to Lumière: Narration and monstration in literature and cinema, University of Toronto Press. (Original : Du littéraire au filmique: Système du récit, 1988)

(3) See for instance Chris Bateman (2006), Game writing: Narrative skills for videogames; Rafael Chandler (2007), Game writing handbook; or Wendy Despain (2009), Writing for video game genres : From FPS to RPG.

(4) David Buckingham, in Diane Carr, David Buckingham, Andrew Burn & Gareth Scott (2006), Computer games: Text, narrative and play, Polity Press, p.7.

(5) Klevjer, Rune (2006). “Genre blindness”, DiGRA Hardcore column no.11.

(6) Jesper Juul (2005),Half-real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds, MIT Press, p.123.

(7) The presentation is archived here (in French); the term appears around the 13:30 mark:

(8) This term is from Hans R. Jauss (Timothy Bahti, tr.) (1982), Toward an aesthetic of reception, University of Minnesota Press.

Image on front page by Glasgow School of Art and available on Flickr. 

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