What I talk about when I talk about “story”

First of all, if you’re interested in narrative design at all, you should follow Thomas Grip on Twitter. There are few people who write so many tweets that I agree with. That said, I don’t agree with every single thing he says.

Today, for example, he said:

 

To which I replied:

 

And so here is the longer (but still very quick) explanation of what I mean by that.

Terminology is a big problem in discussing storytelling in games. I could write a blog post about why that is, but it is not this blog post.

Because I’ve been teaching storytelling in games and am about to give a talk about storytelling in games at GDC, I’ve been forced to sharpen my arguments a little bit. (Which is great! Learning by teaching.)

And so right now my personal definitions for story-in-games-related terms go like this:

 

“Story” is pre-authored and about something happening to someone.

“Story” is obviously the most overloaded term because everybody thinks they know what it means. But between laymen, writers, game designers, and other game developers _and interactivity_, things get messy. (I believe that we are far from understanding how stories in games work.)

This definition just clears up a whole bunch of stuff. Whatever it is that happens as you play a game? As in, the thing Thomas was referring to? I just don’t call that “story”. More on that later.

“But Jurie, won’t you need an awful neologism later on?” – Maybe. But this works for me now.

The “something happening to someone” is a crude attempt to distinguish it from world-building and backstory.

The whole confusion about “the story that you tell someone else about the game you played, afterwards” (as opposed to “the story as it happens” that I just mentioned): that just goes out the window. Because I think that kind of “story” is useless in the context of this discussion. It just confuses things. (Richard Dansky calls this “warstory”, which, if you’re going to call it something, is a great word.)

 

“Narrative” is a noun I won’t use.

Awkwaaaaard. It’s in the title of my GDC talk. As an adjective – phew! But I find it useless to distinguish between narrative (as a noun) and story. I’ve seen too many conflicting definitions.

I don’t use it much as an adjective either, except for the nebulous “narrative design”, which is what a “narrative designer” does.

“Narrative context” is a term I’ve used, as a vague synonym for “setting”. I dunno.

Basically, I consider “narrative” identical to “story”, and why not make things simpler and just use one word?

 

“Syuzhet” and “fabula” are words I won’t use.

Uh…. here. Because while useful in principle, I just don’t need them in this kind of discussion.

 

“Fictional” means “things I am asking you to pretend are true”.

I hope it’s obvious this refers to willing suspension of disbelief.

I originally referred to this as “imaginary”, because I developed this theory in France in the 90s, and “imaginair” just sounds great in French. Less so in English. So, “fictional”.

So this is the big difference between my standpoint and Thomas’s. I think every game up to and including Tetris has a fictional side to it, but not a story. See this other quick blog post for my reasoning behind that.

(Note that in that blog post I talk about metaphors. I think this is kind of what Thomas means when he says a dragon comes with a ton of story. Metaphor is not an ideal word for that, but the amount of information you can convey by putting a dragon in your game is huge, and that’s what I mean by that. And that’s why I learned that lesson in casual games, where you have communicate very quickly, very succinctly, and to a very large audience.)

I used to call this, uh, aspect “story” instead of “fiction”, but I found it necessary to distinguish between story and fictional. Because otherwise people get hung up going “where are the three acts in Tetris?” And it becomes hard to talk about story in a sandbox game with dragons versus in a highly scripted IF game, say.

And also it allows me to say, at the same time, that “story” and “game” are orthogonal, while “fictional” and “mechanical” are two sides of the same coin. And while preparing my GDC talk, I found that that was what I had to say, and in a clear and non-confusing manner.

 

So those are the words and definitions I use now. Maybe that will change. Ask me after GDC :)