On Narrativeless Games

So, in thinking about narratives in games, I started by considering very simple and very early games. It occurred to me that something like Pong or Tetris are essentially narrativeless. This didn’t seem particularly noteworthy, until I started trying to find more narrativeless games, and realized they were actually exceedingly rare.

It seems to me that games like Pong don’t have narratives because they are pretty much straight-up representation of real-world games. Other examples are things like Solitaire. These very simple games based on very simple games don’t have narratives, and seem like a very distinct branch of gaming. Playing Solitaire on a computer and playing it with cards are virtually the same experience; the only real advantage of computer Solitaire is convenience.

But certainly not all simple games are narrativeless. Something that would get grouped together with Solitaire is Minesweeper, the other mainstay of free computer games. However, I would argue that Minesweeper does represent a narrative, albeit an extremely small-scale one. The little smiley face is sad if you blow up a mine, and happy if you clear the field safely. Certainly not a particularly compelling narrative, but I would argue that the game is a narrative because it is a further level of abstraction from the real-world. Although I could go play Solitaire with some cards and have the same experience as the game, actual minesweeping bears little resemblance to the game.

Now, there’s also Tetris. There is no real narrative there, no real justification for the falling blocks, and why they have to be arranged, and why they disappear when you fill a line. And certainly, a narrative isn’t required. But yet, when I thought about it, I realized that even in the puzzle genre, many of which very closely follow the Tetris model, very few of them are actually narrativeless. Many games, like Puyo Puyo or Super Puzzle Fighter are structured as a duel, with the player character and a computer player playing competing games. What the puzzle game has to do with the battle between the two characters is never explained, but it is still a very common narrative frame for puzzle games. Then there’s something like Puzzle Bobble (aka Bust-a-Move) where the little dragons hurl marbles at the ceiling, in some inexplicable attempt to prevent the ceiling from crushing them. As Tetris shows, there is not reason that a narrative is necessary for an engaging puzzle game to succeed, and yet it does seem to be the dominate model.

For whatever reason, narratives seem natural to games, as though you have to go out of your way to not have one. I think the central issue is that outside of very simple games like Tetris or Solitaire, it is almost impossible to make a game without a narrative. Can you imagine a game where a character jumps around, hopping on enemies and progressing through levels? Even that is a narrative. It seems like once a conflict enters the equation, once the player is pitted against computer controlled entities, a narrative forms.

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