Game Mechanics as Emergent Narrative

Curator's Note


While most game scholars no longer debate ludology versus narratology, this debate was flawed from the outset in its conceptualization of narrative as linear in nature, in particular as seen through “authorial” works such as books, films, or television shows. Games, however, focus more of the work of storytelling on the part of the player and can be more akin to fluid forms of narrative such as oral storytelling traditions. I argue that any interaction between player, game mechanics, and a participatory fan community, can and does generate emergent narrative through this operation of interactive meaning-making and storytelling. I have selected a few samples of how the emergence of narrative from game mechanics might work. Telltale’s revitalization of the point-and-click adventure often relies on established franchises from other media, promising the player the opportunity to interact with beloved stories and characters. The company’s promise of player choice is limited by the need to push players towards one of a handful of possible pre-scripted endings forces linearity. Some games—abstract games—eschew scripted narratives for greater emphasis on player interaction with mechanics, but this interaction inevitably produces emergent narrative through experiential meaning-making. Tetris is the go-to videogame example, but many sports and tabletop games also fall into the category, including most Olympic sports and classic games like chess and go. Other areas, such as theatre, science, and business, have attempted to use the interactive and engagement power of games to boost their own performances and ultimately emergent narratives. Improv theatre, one of the most emergently popular forms of theatre, often relies on “games” and audience participation, while the applied game Foldit enabled gamers to crack protein combination mysteries that eluded researchers for decades. In business, the use of “gamification” to incentivize production has caused Ian Bogost and others to raise the concern of “exploitation-ware.” In the end, all these examples are united by their attempt to harness the interaction between player and game mechanic into some form of meaningful expression. In other words, they are engaged in the production of emergent narrative which holds great potential not only for the games and players themselves, but their surrounding participatory fan communities.


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