Micro-Essay #1: Ludology vs Narratology

Cynthia Ahmar (26708587)
ENGL 255
Carolyn Jong
February 17th 2017

 

Games have long been viewed as a form of entertainment, and for some, viewing them otherwise is inconceivable. To others, however, games are a form of art, tell stories, and deserve a deeper analysis than merely focusing on their rules. As such, ludology is defined as the study of a game’s actions and events; narratology, on the other hand, deals with a game’s story elements such as its themes and symbols. While the two sides tend to be at war with one another, Murray (2005) argues that they in fact share much in common and that both ideologies have value when it comes to the study of games.

Part of the argument for narratology is viewing games as something more than mere entertainment for children. In fact, a lot of games are enjoyed by adults and have very mature themes. To take the game Every Day the Same Dream (Molleindustria, 2009) as an example, it is a very basic game that contains a few hints on its mechanics on a surface level. However, several dark themes lurk underneath the surface upon a closer inspection: if the player has his character deviate from the intended route of going to work and sitting at his cubicle, the character can commit suicide or even get fired. This game tells a story about the drudgery of office work that falls under the umbrella of capitalism, an economic system where a few individuals privately own and control the industry for the sake of their profits. The office worker embodies such a system by going to his cubicle (one of many exactly like it) every day and performing the same work with little opportunity for advancement. Such a game can hardly be observed purely from a ludologist perspective.

One other game that I can cite as a perfect example of the need to consider games’ mechanical and narrative aspects is Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (Square Enix, 2013). This game boasts a main storyline that dictates the general direction of every new update to it, and in fact several of its dungeons require progression through this main storyline in order to be accessible. This storyline involves many dramatic elements: the recurring villainous characters known as “Ascians”, the threat posed by the many beast tribes, the player’s own character who is treated as the hero of this tale, and the often violent deaths of several characters. The most important aspects of the story are illustrated through the use of cutscenes, which are set videos that pause gameplay in order to develop the game’s main story. At the same time, however, this game has raid content that is considered to be for the more “hardcore” players: they are very mechanics intensive and failure to understand and work through these mechanics results in an inability to clear such content. Yet at the same time, even this raid content boasts, at its base, story elements that serve to define both its graphical backgrounds and the way the fights unfold. We can also reverse this argument: though the regular dungeons are meant to be easy to clear for everyone, every boss fight involves some manner of mechanics that can kill a party on their first dungeon run. Granted, these mechanics are not as punishing as those of a raid and are more easily navigated by all players. Still, this serves to illustrate Murray’s (2005) point that neither ludology nor narratology can one-sidedly decide that their ideology is the only way to study games.

Aarseth (2012) offers up the argument that the ludologist position was meant to “emphasize the crucial importance of combining the mechanical and the semiotic aspects and to caution against and criticize the uncritical and unqualified application of terms such as ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ to games” (p. 2) rather than outright condemn the study of narratology in games. In short, the two sides co-exist. There is no point to having a good story if its mechanical elements are not interesting, but on the other hand, a game without a story can quickly become droll.


References

Aarseth, E. (2012, May). A narrative theory of games. In Proceedings of the international conference on the foundations of digital Games (pp. 129-133). ACM.

Molleindustria. (2009). Every Day the Same Dream [Flash game]. Retrieved from http://www.molleindustria.org/everydaythesamedream/everydaythesamedream.html

Murray, J. H. (2005, June). The last word on ludology v narratology in game studies. In International DiGRA Conference.

Square Enix (2013). Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn [Video game: MMORPG]. Tokyo, Japan.

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Micro-Essay #1: Ludology vs Narratology

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