Twitter is your friend

I note that one of the most popular searches driving traffic to this blog is “narratology vs ludology.” I must admit, I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve written only one post addressing that debate, and over all, I guess I’m taking quite a narratological point of view. This post however may begin to address the balance, as this is where I begin to get all “ludological.”

When I wrote my funding proposal, I predicted that I’d struggle to find much literature around narrative in games. I haven’t found much so far. I suppose I should not be surprised, all the people who know about games are rightly making games rather than writing about how to make games.

However, a couple of days back, just as I was packing up for the evening, and shutting down Tweetdeck,I glimpsed an interesting looking item:

I followed the link and had a quick look at the article, which was intriguing, but I had plans for the evening. So I retweeted it in lieu of making a note and shut down my computer.

When I came back to it the next day, I read the article. The author Tynan Sylvester had worked on Bioshock, which was interesting because I’d recently read a paper on the use of music in that game, and also had my niece’s boyfriend recommend it as a “must play”. The article is about simulation and emergent story, and Sylvester related how the stories in Bioshock had been intended to come out of a complex simulated ecology, however:

While BioShock retained some valuable vestiges of its simulation-heavy beginnings, the game as released was really a heavily-scripted authored story. There was no systemic ecology at all. It worked fantastically as a game – but it wasn’t a deep simulation.

Attempts to create realistic models in games are misguided, he says, because:

What we really want is not a system that is complex, but a system that is story-rich. [...] Interestingly, real life and most fictional worlds are not story-rich! Most days for most people on Earth or in Middle Earth are quite mundane. It’s only very rarely that someone has to drop the Ring into Mount Doom. Follow a random hobbit in Hobbiton, and you’ll be bored soon.

He goes on to point out that whatever the model in the computer program, “The whole value of a game is in the mental model of itself it projects into the player’s mind” [his emphasis]. He calls this the Player Model Principle. He goes on to talk about apophenia, the human mind’s tendency to project human patterns and behaviors onto non-sentient objects (and in this case, computer animations). Using an example from the Sims, he shows how a story of love, jealousy and murder can be imagined out of a couple of variables in computer code interacting. He discusses how to encourage apophenia in the player, and concludes that modelling can create successful and compelling narratives as long as the designer remembers to “Choose the minimum representation that supports the kinds of stories you want to generate.” Which is to say, keep the complexity of the model as simple as you can get away with, adding complexity for the sake of realism only creates noise.

Which is all very interesting, even if its relevance to those in my field, cultural heritage interpretation, is mostly a useful reminder  not to over complicate things. Sylvester writes well, and explains complex ideas in very understandable ways. So I was particularly interested to see that he’s recently published a book called Designing Games, a Guide to Engineering Experiences. Could this be, I wondered, the elusive literature on designing narrative in games that I’d been looking for?


I downloaded a preview, and the first page set out Sylvester’s thesis, in the bold title of the first part (and then the first chapter) of the book “Engines of Experience.”

These are the droids you’re looking for.

I devoured that preview and wasn’t disappointed. I bought the full e-book (direct from the publishers). This is exactly the sort of book I envisaged finding when I wrote that funding proposal last year – not a guide to 3D modelling or programming games, but rather a games designer explaining (as he says) “the trade-offs in every design decision.”

And what gets me, is that I didn’t find it in a literature search, slogging away on Google, library catalogues or trawling though endnotes. It came to me on Twitter. I don’t know Thomas Grip, who posted that original tweet. I can’t even recall why I started following him. But thank you, Thomas, for posting that link.

And what if I had turned off five minutes earlier? Or ignored that tweet in my hurry to shut down? Would I have found this brilliant, helpful book at all? I hope so, but this has been a massive shortcut. I can see why my supervisors were so keen when I started my studies that I should up my Social game. Twitter is truly your friend.

But so is Google, and so for all those to find their way to this blog searching for ludology vs. narratology, let me quote Sylvester’s take on that debate.

This fiction-mechanics conflict is why some see a great debate between mechanics and fiction. The ludologists (from the Latin ludus, for “play”) argue that games draw their most important properties from mechanical systems and interactions. The narratologists argue that the mechanics are just a framework on which to hang the fictional elements players actually care about. This debate is the game designer’s nature versus nurture, our plot versus character, our individualism versus collectivism. But like all such debates, the conflict exists only on the surface. The pinnacle of game design is combining perfect mechanics and compelling fiction into one seamless system of meaning. Fiction and mechanics need not fight (though they easily can), and neither one need be given primacy (though one often is). Used together, they can enhance and extend each other in ways that each can not do alone.

Sylvester, T. Designing Games, O’Reilly Media, 2013-01-03. ePub.

I’ve got a suspicion you’ll be seeing a few more posts from me about this book.