Narrativist IF: Does it exist? Can it exist?

The following is an embarrassingly length response to one of Emily Short’s blog posts.  You may want to skip to the end.

A brief introduction to GNS

Consider someone playing an RPG.  Why are they playing?  What makes it fun for them?  What is their primary concern?

Actually, let me back up for a minute.  Why do we care?  What is this theory trying to accomplish?

The underlying phenomenon that GNS was built to address is laid out in the first two sentences of the GNS essay:  “My straightforward observation of the activity of role-playing is that many participants do not enjoy it very much. Most role-players I encounter are tired, bitter, and frustrated.”

The theory arises out of that observation, suggesting that people are unhappy because they don’t know what they want, or they aren’t getting what they want, or that the various people in the game want different things that are functionally mutually-exclusive.

Anyway, to get back to the immediate question of why people are playing and what makes it fun for them:  these considerations overall are referred to as a person’s Creative Agenda.  There are three distinct Creative Agendas that are widely-recognized:

* Gamism, or “Step On Up”.  This is about the players, the real people, meeting the challenge of the game and (hopefully) overcoming it through their own skills.

* Simulationism, or “Right to Dream”.  This is all about exploring the game and all its various pieces.

* Narrativism, or “Story Now”.  This is about Addressing the Premise and producing Theme; more about those terms later.

One may note at this point that the Creative Agendas refer to a person’s priorities at a particular moment of play.  So it’s not really correct to refer to someone as a Gamist or as a Narrativist.  However, it’s very useful to occasionally discuss people’s typical preferences over time, such that someone who tends to like and enjoy adopting the Creative Agenda of Simulationism can generally be referred to as a Simulationist and everyone knows what we mean.

It’s also not really correct to refer to a game as Narrativist or whatnot.  But again, some games tend to provide better support for certain Creative Agendas than others.  So if we say, for example, “Primetime Adventures is a Narrativist game” then people usually understand that we mean that it provides support for players with the Creative Agenda of Narrativism, and we usually mean to imply that it does not provide much support for pursuing the other Creative Agendas.

GNS and non-RPGs

With all those caveats behind us, we can start considering how the Creative Agendas might apply to computer games in general and interactive fiction specifically.

Simulationism is fairly straightforward.  Videogames such as, well, The Sims, as well as the various versions of Civilization, the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series, and many others provide strong support for the sort of player activities which characterize the Simulationist Creative Agenda.

On the interactive fiction side, games like Savoir Faire, Delightful Wallpaper, and Rover’s Day Out can be very enjoyable to Simulationist players.  The fun comes from observing the simulation, exploring it, learning its rules, and applying those rules to bend it to your will.

Gamism is also fairly straightforward.  Any game which might reasonably support a competition probably has good Gamist support.  So we have classics like Tetris and Pac-Man, all manner of first-person-shooters, and so forth.

Gamist interactive fiction is more unusual.  Games with lots of puzzles, particularly very hard ones, can be enjoyed by Gamists.  I would put Varicella and The Duel That Spanned the Ages into this category, among others.

I may be in danger of implying a false mutual-exclusivity here.  Such is the danger with my increasingly-loose usage and abuse of the terminology.  It’s possible to play Civilization with a Gamist bent, and one can play Varicella while pursing a Simulationist agenda.

Back to Narrativsm

Finally, we arrive at the burning question of the hour, which is:  are there any Narrativist interactive fiction games out there?

My description of Narrativism was pretty weak, so let me start (again) there:

Narrativism is the agenda of Addressing the Premise and producing Theme.

A Premise in this sense is a problematic aspect of the human condition.  Some examples include:

* Is the life of a friend worth the safety of a community?
* Can love overcome all obstacles?
* Does faith lead to salvation, or destruction?

One of the big deals with Narrativism is that the Premise must be answered through play; it cannot be pre-determined.

Consider a game like Photopia.  It’s a good game, I would say; it was worth experiencing.  Is it Simulationist?  I don’t think it’d be very enjoyable if I used it in pursuit of a Simulationist agenda; there’s not really enough game in there.  Similarly, it’s hard to consider it a Gamist piece, either.

Can a player pursue the Narrativist Creative Agenda through it?  It depends to what degree you think the author is demonstrating his own predetermined Premise to you, and how much freedom you, as a player, have to decide the Premise on your own.  I don’t think I’m being too controversial when I say that the Premise of Photopia has been written and expressed by the author, though.

If you skipped everything else, here’s the conclusion

In the general case, interactive fiction tends to be much like regular static fiction when it comes to Narrativism.  In a standard novel, the Premise is not a question — it’s a statement, by the author.  Yes, the life of a friend is worth the safety of a community.  The novel serves to prove that, in its own specific case, the Premise stands.

So, on its face, it would appear that we’re out of luck when it comes to Narrativist interactive fiction.  It does not seem to be technically possible to pursue that particular Creative Agenda.

However, as I’ve mentioned before, we’ve been playing pretty loose with our terminology, and perhaps it’s all caught up with us.  It’s not possible for any game to be literally Narrativist, nor is it possible for any person.

Narrativism merely describes a category of answers to the questions of: why am I playing this game?  Why do I find it fun?  It seems fair to me to say that a Narrativist game is nothing more or less than a game that’s likely to be enjoyed by people who tend to pursue the Narrativist Creative Agenda.

If we accept that, then I think there is Narrativist interactive fiction after all.  It includes works that are primarily concerned with Premise, with addressing and advancing the Premise, and with drawing the player into complicity.

Interactive fiction is particularly well-suited to advancing the author’s Premise, because it affords the reader the unique opportunity to become complicit in the story.  You may wish dearly to believe that, for example, theft is never justified.  But, with skill, a good work of interactive fiction can cajole you into going along with a theft.  Or it can go very badly — it’s very hard to like an otherwise stellar work if you find yourself deeply offended by its Premise.  Such are the risks involved.

Examples of such games include Floatpoint, Slouching Towards Bedlam, and Vespers.

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6 Responses to “Narrativist IF: Does it exist? Can it exist?”

  1. Dan Hemmens Says:

    I’m not sure it makes sense to argue that a work of IF which appeals to a person who likes to pursue a Narrativist Creative Agenda in tabletop RPGs is de facto a work of Narrativist IF.

    I mean to trade in stereotypes for a moment, a person who enjoys pursuing a Gamist Creative Agenda in RPGs might also enjoy playing first-person-shooters, watching Action Movies and reading Matthew Reilly, but you couldn’t meaningfully describe /Conflict/ as a “gamist novel.”

    The question you seem to be asking here is “is it possible to meaningfully pursue a Narrativist creative agenda in a work of interactive fiction” and I still don’t really think it is. You can meaningfully pursue a gamist agenda because you can test your ingenuity against that of the designer, and you can meaningfully pursue a simulationist agenda because you can immerse yourself in the secondary reality, but a Narrativist agenda requires you to make an *original* contribution to the group’s development of the theme, unconstrained by the other players and this is impossible in a prewritten game.

    Pursing a Narrativist creative agenda in a pre-written medium is basically as meaningless as pursuing a Gamist agenda in a non-interactive medium.

    • Jason Dyer Says:

      but a Narrativist agenda requires you to make an *original* contribution to the group’s development of the theme, unconstrained by the other players and this is impossible in a prewritten game.

      Normally I would completely agree with this, but there have been cases of emergent gameplay before where something happened that was _not_ prewritten or anticipated by the authors (the 3 examples I know of are The Hobbit, Suspended, and Verb!) and while all of those have been either simulationist or gamist, I could imagine a system flexible enough that it’d be possible for emergent gameplay to be aimed at a narrativist agenda.

      • Dan Hemmens Says:

        You’re right, I overstated.

        Although as Victor Gijsbers points out over on Emily Short’s blog, even that kind of emergent gameplay misses out on another essential feature of Narrativism, which is the opportunity for feedback. I mean I can try to pursue a Narrativist CA in a non-interactive medium by forming my own moral judgment of what’s going on, but if I’ve got nobody to bounce it off it feels hollow (it’s what a friend of mine used to call “Games in the Pope’s Head”).

        I should stress that Forge Narrativism isn’t really my bag, but my understanding is that a big part of what people think is awesome about it not only that you get to react to complex moral questions, but that you actually get to meaningfully engage with them, through the game, with other people, and that’s not really possible in a game this side of the Turing Test.

  2. rogercarbol Says:

    I would suggest that mystery novels in which the reader is tacitly-invited to solve the mystery before the in-fiction detective could be meaningfully described as Gamist books.

    • Dan Hemmens Says:

      At the risk of sounding glib, I suspect it depends on what you mean by “meaningfully described”.

      As an example of how a Gamist Creative Agenda works, it’s a good illustration, but crucially I don’t think it actually helps you understand detective novels to think of them in those terms – I mean it’s not like you see that many literature blogs asking where all the Gamist books are. Similarly I don’t actually think that anybody *actually* picks their reading material on the basis of their preferred RPG CA. I don’t think people who like skirmish wargame elements in their RPGs are intrinsically more likely to be interested in that kind of detective fiction or vice versa.

      Basically one of my big problems with GNS theory is that after a while, everything starts to look like one of three sorts of nail. I mean you probably *could* categorize books or games or whatever in terms of the Threefold, but I think it’s genuinely misleading. I mean yes, that sort of detective novel looks more like gamism than any other sort of novel, but it’s not really meaningfully the same as a gamist RPG (and certainly not the same as – say – a first person shooter).

  3. georgek Says:

    Just because IF to this point has been single-player (or more accurately, without an audience during the process of play, notwithstanding groups like Club Floyd), and mostly ‘pre-written’, doesn’t in any sense preclude either ‘massively single-player’ or multiplayer IF, or IF that creates a narrative system with which the player may engage. I suppose I’m moving the goal posts here, but I feel like people are being a little short-sighted.

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