OK, I apparently have a lot to say on narratives in gaming. I didn’t really intend to write quite so many posts on this, but I keep remembering a point I wanted to make. This is the last one. Probably. Unless I find the time to write my post on end-game content. But I’ll probably get to that later.
First, I’d just like to consider this definition of narrative that I’ve begun to apply to games. As far as I can tell, the definition I’m using is one of conflict. If there’s a conflict, there’s a narrative. I’d like to step back for a minute, in order to refine that definition. And to that, I’ll be stepping away from digital games, to consider more conventional games, namely board games.
Are board games narrative? Sometimes. Some are very narrative. In Clue, someone killed Mr. Body, and everyone’s trying to solve that crime. That’s both a very obvious narrative and very obvious conflict. But does something like Othello? There’s definitely a conflict between black and white, but I don’t think that’s enough to qualify it as a narrative. What about chess? I think you could construct a narrative for a game of chess. Now, I don’t mean that a game of chess represents the stand-off between two players. In that sense of a narrative, then you could construct a narrative for Othello. What I’m talking about is limited strictly to the game board. In chess, there are sixteen pieces, organized in a hierarchy, with pawns at the bottom and the king at the top. Crude though it may be, I think it’s easy to argue that this can be seen as simplified representation of a society. And there are two opposing sides. Fighting. It may sound obvious to say it, but chess is a representation of war. And war is, invariably, a narrative.
I think the key here is abstraction. The further abstracted a game becomes, the less narrative it becomes. Chess is very abstracted from actual war, but the pieces are still identifiable as representations of roles in a war. You could tell a story with a chess board. And I suppose you could impose a narrative on Othello, but it’s a stretch. Eventually you just get to something like tic-tac-toe, which, outside of the narrative of the competition between the players, there really isn’t anything there to tell a story with.