A Debate that Cannot Take Place

In a fight for power over how games should be studied came the division of ludology versus narratology.

On one hand, ludologists believe that games should be studied as members of its own class, with evaluative criteria such as game rules and play mechanics. This way of study limits games to its form, and opposes to connections to narratives and other media in society. As Murray states, ludologists believe that ” the focus of such study should be on the rules of the game, not on the representational or mimetic elements which are only incidental.” Early computer games, such as Tetris, serve as great study cases for ludologists. Tetris is a game with clear rules (the tiles can drop down, move sideways and be rotated by 90 degrees units) and a clear goal (fill out a horizontal line with the tiles and the line disappears, giving points to the player; if too many lines pile up and reach the top of the play field, the player loses). The player interacts with abstract shapes, and seeks to obtain a good score. As there is no narrative, no characters, no references to any culture or media, and no deeper meaning, the value of the game resides in its own rules and interactivity.

On the other hand, we find narratologists, who focus on how games tell stories. As criteria of evaluation, they look at the storyline, characters, meaning and representation. Everyday the Same Dream, by Molleindustria, is a good game to be analyzed under this light. Formally speaking, its controls (left and right to walk, space bar to interact) are simplistic and not attractive on their own. However, one can find value in its looped narrative, its characters with minimalist design, and its story ending. The narrative features the character performing a daily routine of waking up, getting dressed, taking the elevator, walking to his car, driving to work in traffic, working, and waking up again in a new day looped in the same way. The player plays as a bland-looking character and gives him identity by varying his routine. The in-game goal of Everyday the Same Dream also serves its narrative: in the elevator, an old lady says pragmatically “__ more steps and you will be a new person.” The completion of those steps leads to character development and a story ending: the character does his routine once again without the presence of any other characters, and sees himself jump off the rooftop of the building.

It is important to note that narratologists cannot study games without also taking in account its ludology. In Everyday the Same Dream, it is by the player’s interaction that the narrative unveils further. It is by the player’s ability to explore the game world (by walking left instead of right, for example) and to push the possibilities in gameplay (by not getting dressed before heading to work, for example) that one can reach the ending. This interactivity in gameplay also adds a new dimension to our perception of the game’s narrative and its messages about routine labor and the finality of suicide. In fact, the player experiences the time loops alongside with the character and contributes directly to the ending of the storyline by choosing to make the character jump from the rooftop in an earlier loop. Therefore, the gameplay and narrative work together to allow immersion, and gave place to identification, message and feeling. It would be more accurate, then, to define narratology as the study of not only the formal aspects of games, but also its content and narrative qualities. This debate of ludology versus narratology therefore cannot take place, as it is impossible to debate for narratology without taking in consideration the game form.

With ludology as a basis (games need a set of rules, and have to require input of the player), narrative can be added on to allow the players to immerse themselves into the game, to think actively, to feel and to have fun throughout the game. I believe that it is best to not only study games’ form and content, but also how the two interact with each other. Game studies should not only study games’ unique form and varied content, but also how the two interact with and influence each other: how gameplay can reveal narrative in a unique way, and how narrative can further the diversity of game form and increase the pleasure of playing. As Murray puts it: “game studies, like any organized pursuit of knowledge, is not a zero-sum team contest, but a multi-dimensional, open-ended puzzle that we all are engaged in cooperatively solving.”

 

Murray, Janet H. . “The Last Word on Ludology v Narratology (2005).” Humanistic Design for an Emerging Medium. N.p., 03 Aug. 2014. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.

 

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A Debate that Cannot Take Place

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