Tighten up the Narrative in Level 3: The grammar of videogames

In the great sandwich of videogames, game mechanics are the baguette and game stories are the stuffing. Whether a game is simply a thin spread of butter on an oven fresh bun or a triple-decker steak’n’cheese with pan fried vegetables and extra dressing, a game is composed of these two necessary but separate elements. Sometimes we need only the bare minimum and other times we need a little mustard; sometimes we need a full meal’s nourishment and other times the sandwich is stuffed so full that we spill its contents all over our formal wear and ruin our best friends’ wedding pictures. However, it is always important that both the bread and the stuffing are prominent and distinguishable.

This tortured but delicious metaphor doesn’t really solve anything though, does it? Limiting a critical conversation to mechanics is, in its most elaborate form, a walkthrough and most often amounts to an answer guide to what buttons result in what actions and what numbers influence what other numbers. On the other hand, when audiences—critical or general—are talking about story, more often than not they’re primarily interested in summarizing plot. What writers are talking about is “not mechanics” as if the rules of a game somehow get in the way of analysing it. But the effort to separate a game’s systems of rules from its story ignores both the extent that mechanics inform meaning and that these mechanics in turn depend on narrative. As admittedly convenient as the gameplay-narrative binary can be, it’s ultimately a false one because, upon close enough inspection, the ludo- and the narrative bleed into one another.

The context provided by a story can systematically alter behaviour (I can kill these creatures but I’ll take pains to avoid harming them because it doesn’t make sense for me/my avatar to attack them in the context of the story). Alternatively, mechanics compose a story (executions conserve precious resources and the sound and camera work makes my nethers tingle, the structure of this world encourages me to become a monster). The problem in ignoring how these two factors of composition are connected is that it limits criticism to a game’s surface elements.

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Andrew Vanden Bossche already dropped the mic on this subject in how it applies to literature: exclusively discussing plot and characters tells us nothing beyond a shallow summery. Grammar and craft, as Vanden Bossche writes, are what create meaning in a piece of literature:

This repeated word hammers in emphasis, this sentence with lots of commas sounds breathless, these short sentences create a terse and minimalist aesthetic throughout the novel, etc. This stuff is actually more important than characters and plot…Talking about character and plot without form rapidly becomes ungrounded and airy.

Plot and character are only important in understanding a text insofar as they are elements of craft. A close reading of a novel or poem should come with some understanding of genre conventions, grammar, literary techniques, author history and whatever else is relevant to the reading. This is as true for games as it is for literature.

A “story” is just the structure of a sentence spun out at greater length: a subject verbs an object. In a more elaborate story the subject might verb an adjective object, but in the end, that’s all there is to it. Understanding a story requires an understanding of the grammar and structure of it: this character’s name is a palindrome which resonates with his journey back to his beginnings, this semicolon anchors this sentence, which resonates with the novel’s search for balance. In games, most of the major tools and techniques that craft a story are based in a game’s rules and systems. This is not a practice unique to games, it’s generally expected that good storytelling of any kind shows with its grammar rather than tells ad nauseum. “Good writing” in a videogame is understanding how its structure creates its intended theme/argument/message/experience.

For instance, the beat of the background music in Super Mario Brothers is timed to Mario’s optimal running and jumping speed. The player grasps Sephiroth’s power in Final Fantasy VII because they experience his invulnerability juxtaposed with Cloud’s weakness in the Nibelheim flashback. Hate Plus’s complicated world is easier or more difficult to pass judgement on based on whose perspectives the player trusts, how many they’re willing to consider and what order they research them in. Design supplements narrative and gives it meaning. It’s one thing to read the sentence “war is hell” and it’s completely another to play Captain Walker’s metamorphosis in Spec-Ops: The Line.

Have I got a story to tell you.

Have I got a story to tell you.

Similarly, mechanics themselves tell a story. I wrote an essay that was way too long on a game that was way too obscure where I discuss how mechanics compose a narrative,

The problem is that you can’t say a thing and have it not mean anything. Language isn’t just limited to words: images, facial expressions, attire, music, sound effects and game mechanics are all language. The human mind is an infinitely sprawling web of ideas that are connected with varying levels of strength… Language is the magic that activates certain nodes of that web in another person so they create their own associations that sprawl out to other concepts based on their own experiences. Some ideas are more easily activated than others… and become solidified with every new iteration.

Essentially, mechanics are just another way of communicating ideas. Most of The Last of Us boils down to “Resource Management: the Game.” The item combining system, however, is what creates tension, it tells us not only that Joel is a resourceful character, but that he’s not a very powerful figure in his world. It also tells us that gauze and alcohol have more value in its speculated reality than does a human life. The difficulty or tension that comes with lacking a resource tells the story of a weak person in a hostile world driven to murder for band aids.

There’s plenty of writing already about how mechanics ought to pair with the narrative context, but mechanics themselves are a language and therefore communicate a story. When a system demands something of the people in it, it carries ulterior meanings. The bullet economy in Metro 2033 implicitly tells the player that access to lethal force directly creates wealth. Faith in Final Fantasy Tactics is a stat that makes characters more powerful and more vulnerable, suggesting that belief in God is as dangerous  to a person as much as it is a source of strength. Hell, the fact that “the sorts of verbs we find in games are limited to acts like shoot, jump, move, steer, build, destroy, etc. [sic]…typically amount to movement and collision detection” suggests that most of the medium is currently invested almost exclusively in the practice and escape of murder.

Systematically speaking, human consciousness organizes information in stories. When presented with a mechanic in a game, players necessarily understand it in terms of a story. The faster blocks fall in Tetris, the more difficult the game becomes. That’s the whole game right there. But there is a narrative in there and not just for the reader-response theorist. The player (subject) organizes (verb) blocks (object). That’s a story. Players behave according to a goal. The experience of the purely mechanical Tetris has weight because the language of its mechanics carry meaning on a narrative level. Players understand the anxiety of fast moving blocks because they understand anxiety in their everyday lives.

No understands us.

No understands us.

That’s the crux of criticism: the application of a fictional game’s lessons and messages to a player’s nonfictional life. The universe and people are systems of mechanics and the human brain understands the world through stories and language. People take their experiences—fictive and non-fictive—with them. To properly understand a game and its influence on a player it’s important not to alienate the narrative qualities from its mechanical ones. Dissecting videogame story depends on understanding the structure of its language and engaging with mechanics creates a narrative. A knowledge of both is necessary.

Granted, knowledge of an art’s craft often gives rise to elitism —which we could use a little less of—but it’s still important to recognize that “story” can’t be evaluated without considering the structures that go into its telling. Likewise, without appreciating how systems create narratives they can’t ever be understood beyond rote regurgitation. It’s fine to specialize in one form of criticism or another, but it’s important not to privilege one element of composition over others. It makes no sense to think of a sentence with words but no grammar, nor should we think of games as purely systems of rules or as a mode of storytelling.

About Mark Filipowich

Mark Filipowich is a mute orphan from an idyllic village in the hills. After it was burned to the ground by an evil empire, he began his quest for video game criticism. His journey has brought him to PopMatters, The Border House, Nightmare Mode, Joystick Division and Medium Difficulty. Quest updates can be found at big-tall-words.com and on Twitter @MarkFilipowich.
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  • Bizarrelaughter

    Heya! I think that your point about game mechanics communicating story is a really important one. I’ve written a response article that looks at a handful of free-to-play games and pokes them to see how their mechanics might do this: http://tinyurl.com/ocu7br9. “Story” is an awkward term to use but I’m undecided on whether or not using a different terminology (like Juul’s “fiction”) is gonna be helpful or not in the long term, my feeling is that story is something that is induced by three primary elements: the gameplay, the “explicit” narrative (i.e. cutscenes, text) and the player’s relationship to the avatar. Anyhow, would be interested to hear your thoughts.

  • Badru

    Hey, so you’re obviously really interested in critical frameworks that can help us move past the binary. Well, I’ve sort of been working on one in my efforts to dissect and discuss games, and I thought you might find it interesting. I’ve moved away from developing this framework lately, but your article has made me interested/excited about coming back to it and making it more workable. Let me know your thoughts.

    http://gamedesignsketchbook.tumblr.com/post/35617531125/getting-clear-on-narrative-talk

  • Daniel F

    Came here via Critical Distance’s Blog of the Round Table (http://www.critical-distance.com/2013/10/07/august-september-roundup-whats-the-story/) – you’ve really hit this topic on the head. Thanks for taking the time to work out these concepts and articulate them so clearly, this was a great article.