The Battle Between Gameplay and Narrative

I’m surprised how many people in the game industry have brought up this argument, and how well it applies to interactive storytelling.  Check out the Frictional Games blog to read their take on this topic, and the book Extra Lives by Tom Bissell.  Basically, the idea is that gameplay and narrative actually fight against each other.  For this to make sense, allow me to first explain what I mean by gameplay and narrative.


Gameplay is the mechanics of a game when paired with a goal.  Without a goal, there is no gameplay.  Without mechanics, well, there is no game, really.  In a previous post I talked a little about gameplay, but my definition wasn’t very accurate.  I was defining gameplay as how the user interacts with the world, but gameplay isn’t about interacting with the world, it’s about interacting with the game.

For example, when you open up a word processor, how you use that word processor is usually through the interface.  This isn’t gameplay, because there is no predefined goal.  There are mechanics, however.  How you open up a new file is a mechanic of the word processor.


Narrative is a set of predefined goals and plot points created by the game designer.  They don’t change, they aren’t very interactive, they’re just there to help move the game’s story along.  Cut scenes are the biggest example of narrative in games.  They take away complete control of the player’s character, and show the player what happens next.  And there’s nothing the player can do about it.

I want this to be clear: narrative and story are two totally different things.  Story is about what the characters do in certain situations, narrative is what the game designer thinks the characters should do in a given scenario.  It really comes down to basics, story is a more basic version of narrative, without the specific plot points and characters.  Story is the general idea of what happens and when it happens and where it happens, but narrative is the specific list of what happens, where it happens, and when it happens.

The Battle

As you may be able to figure out, gameplay and narrative are kind of against each other.  Narrative is about making progress through the story, and gameplay is about challenging the player.  If the player succeeds, the next cut scene plays, and the narrative continues.  If they fail, the narrative screeches to a halt and the player has to reload the game.  Sometimes in a game I wish I could just skip some boss battle and go to the next cut scene, and that shouldn’t even be a consideration.   The game should move smoothly along through every scene, but it doesn’t.  Why not?  Because of this battle between gameplay and narrative.

A game which focuses on gameplay will not have very good narrative, and a game that focuses on narrative won’t have very good gameplay, because the two cancel each other out.

Why Not?

So, why can’t either of these be in an interactive story?  Well, if the story is supposed to be interactive, then there can’t be a set narrative.  That’s what games have already, and they’re not interactive stories.  What about gameplay?  In an interactive story, there isn’t really any goals, because the player can do whatever they want.  They don’t have to go on quests, or solve puzzles, or beat bosses; they just do their thing and the story just sort of happens.  Of course, it’s not that simple, but that’s the basic idea.

What are the alternatives?  The mechanics of an interactive story (how the user interacts with the storyworld) are different from gameplay because they don’t have any predefined goals.  In an interactive story you can pull a lever that does something (like open a door) but you don’t have to pull the lever to open the door to progress through the story.  It’s just a way to open the door, but not the only way to progress through the story.  In an interactive story, anything you do should progress the story.  How will we accomplish this?  I haven’t thought about that yet, but I’m working on it.  I see the topic of a future blog post.


Well, I don’t want to go too deep into this topic, because it has been discussed elsewhere and I don’t want to just repeat what others have already said.  If you want to read more about the battle between gameplay and narrative, check out the blog I linked to above, and consider perusing Extra Lives by Tom Bissell.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s