Story and Discourse, Revisited

[Previously published on my gamasutra blog]

Yes, the discussion is ages old, the case is considered as closed, any attempt to warm it up is seen as a waste of time. Yet, we can’t stop discussing narrative in games. We could have made use of narratology, but ludology said we don’t need it. It where times in which we were thrilled by the idea to establish a brandnew discipline, and we didn’t want narratology, anthropology or media studies to interfere with this our desire. They were all old, narrow, rigid, not suited to capture what video games offered. But honestly, do we really use ludology?

In this article I will make a case for revisiting two concepts from the arsenal of narratology. I believe that more narratology will make our ludology better.

Defining Story and Discourse

Let’s start with the definitions of story and discourse, two related concepts which have been coined by the foregoers of narratology, namely, the Russian Formalists:

Story (fabula): the “complete picture” of things, the chrono-logy of what happened; something that we can only construct mentally, in retrospect, after the discourse has finished. Story can be represented simply by using a series of symbols that give us the chrono-logical order of events, that is, the order they must have happened as concluded from the discourse: for example 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or A, B, C, D, E.

Discourse (syuzhet): the events in the particular order they appear in real time, as we are put through the narrative; deliberately presented in that way in order to achieve an emotional and aesthetic impact on the reader/player. Discourse can be best represented by showing how the story we construct in retrospect was different from its presentation: for example 2, 4, 3, 5, 1 or B, D, C, E, A.

To put it shorter: Discourse is the order of events as we are put through them; story is the chrono-logical order of those events reconstructed mentally, in retrospect, after we’ve been through the discourse. Going through a narrative is a constant process of reconstructing story in the light of the discourse that we are subject to. Until the discourse over and we can construct the ultimate story.

Applied to video games, the real-time gameplay (may it contain non-interactive sequences or not) is discourse; whereas the mental reconstruction of the chrono-logical order of events after the game (play) is finished, is story. As in most narratives, one reason why we enjoy discourse so much is to find out into what story it will all collapse, once we are through the narrative. We find out what our actions were really meant to be. We love to discover how even the most insignificant things during the discourse gained a meaning when looked at from the story-lense.
More on the Relationship of the Concepts

As an analytical tool, the term story was used by narratologists to understand how the writer/designer constructed the discourse in order to achieve an emotional and aesthetic impact on the reader. By applying these two lenses to a narrative,  we  had a stronger foundation to ask ourselves questions like: Where did the writer/designer manipulate time, how did he “shuffle” the events, how and when did he hide crucial information, how and when did he give that crucial information back in, with what impact, etc.

In the case of games, it can be a bit more difficult to grasp the relation, because in many of them the discourse (the order of events as the player experiences or witnesses them in real time) is not only dependent on how the designer/writer decided to put the player through things, but also on the decisions that the player makes as he goes through things, thereby altering them (indeed, in games, a huge part of the discourse consists of what the player does; inevitably so, because what he has been enabled to do, is part of what he’s being put through).  In other words, “interaction” means that the player is involved in the creation of the discourse (*not* directly the story, for it can be only constructed in retrospect).

To give an example: Throughout the game Diablo, we go through a number of levels, killing monsters, collecting loot, travelling back and forth between dungeons and town, trading mana and weapons, finally finding Diablo and killing him, and realizing that he cannot be killed since anyone who manages to kill him must assume his role. This is the discourse, the way we were put through things. The story we reconstruct in retrospect, the complete picture, only becomes accessible to us when we are through the whole discourse. In retrospect, we understand that our goal to kill Diablo was impossible. What we thought Diablo is, was actually someone who went through all those dungeons prior to us, just to face the destiny we are facing now. Now we have a mental model, a complete picture of the chrono-logy. This is story.
The Fun in Story, the Fun in Discourse, the Fun in Both

You see that in the example of Diablo, our relative freedom in altering the discourse through our decisions does not really change the story we reconstruct after the discourse is over. In another replay of the game, we may have not killed all monsters, we may have used different avatars, different strategies or tactics, we may have skipped quests, we may have walked aimlessly through level’s we’ve cleared before. Yet once we arrive at the end of the discourse (kill Diablo only to find out we’ll be assuming his role), the story crystalizes in the same way. This is because what the discourse cannot change is the logical connection between core events, the causality that underlies the plot. In other words, what connects events and helps us to reconstruct the chrono-logy is the “logy”, not the “chrono”. It’s the logical connection that remains unchanged, which allows various discourses to present the events in different time schedules (first presenting A and then B, or first presenting B then A doesn’t change the logical relation that A was the cause of B).

Once we’ve discovered the logical connection between events that will surface at the end of each gameplay session, something in the replayability value will get lost, since we have now an idea of the complete picture, and despite the variety that is offered to us in terms of discourse, we know that the discourse will ultimately collapse into the same logical order, that is, the same story. Yet, in many games we like to find out whether we can get better at arriving at the story, hence we like to repeat to go through the discourse over and over again. So in our next game we may use the amazon instead of the warrior, only to see that she too, assumes the role of Diablo at the end, but that we did better. Our attention shifts from story to discourse, but we are still guided by an idealized story that we find is worth to achieve. So, there is and can be value and joy in both, story and discourse, seperate or together.

*Truly* non-linear stories feel often more intriguing because they do not present space for various discourses only, but also the stories that these various discourses collapse into, can be quite different. Less complicated examples are games that have multiple endings, but then we also have more complicated instances of games with discourse-paths that can collapse into quite different stories. Hence, in these cases the replayability value is not only marked by discourse-variety, but also story-variety.

Whether the Concept of Story is Instrumental in Capturing Different Types of Fun

Interestingly, most people who discuss games are of the belief that “creating-story-on-the-fly” *is* non-linearity, since the player seems to be freed from the kind of linearity that could have only stemmed from plot or narrative constraints. But from a narratology perspective this view is flawed. First, it is wrong in principle, because it assumes that linearity is the nature of narratives, instead of viewing linearity as only one of the approaches to construct a narrative. However, there are many narratives that possess both discourse and story-variety. In other words, many narratives are non-linear and this clearly shows that linearity is not the nature of narratives. Second, from an analytical perspective; because what in the case of games seems to be non-linearity, turns out to be quite linear when viewed through the story-lense. After all, even if during gameplay I am completely free to roam; in retrospect, the story that I will reconstruct from this free-roaming discourse, is linear, that is, it is A,B,C,D,E. This means that linearity in itself isn’t necessarily a fun killer.

It turns out then that in many games, the story that we can mentally reconstruct in retrospect is *identical* with the discourse that we created during our free play. An important difference between these “technically” linear experiences stems from whether the *identical* is caused by the game’s designer or not. It seems like many people tend to call games “linear” when discourse and story are identical because of the designer’s choice; and we tend to call them non-linear when it is us who creates a discourse that ultimately is identical to its story. So, the term story is useful to detect that ultimately both cases are in an A,B,C,D,E fashion, but what the term cannot quite explain is the difference that it makes for the player. But to be fair here, ludology itself has not really an answer for this, except speaking of player-created linearity as the better thing to go for.

Ludology’s View of Story and Discourse

Coming back to the case of discourse and story being *identical* in many games: Many ludologists often interpret this wrongly by saying that games have no discourse, only story. In other words, they put the thing on its head (they should at least have said “there is no story”, since story presupposes discourse), and then cut off the feet (“there is no discourse in games”). Thereby they also ignore to address clearly visible instances of discourse, like manipulations of time that we experience in real-time. Increasing or decreasing the speed of a game (The Sims, Sim City, Railroad Tycoon 2), or slowing down the pace with slow-motion (Firing bullets in Max Payne, taking a curve in Need for Speed: Carbon) are all examples of such discourse time.

I can think of at least two reasons for why these problems in the works of ludologists occured: 1) they don’t seem to have understood the use of the term story in narratology. They use the term in the literal sense and not in the analytical sense that narratology assigns to it.  This also confuses them in their use of the term discourse to a degree in which they deny its presence in games; 2) they seem to want to make sure that the study of video games kind of belongs to ludology only. The argument here is that if video games have no discourse, narratology is of no use. All that it causes is confusion, hence we should not allow it to infiltrate our discipline.


I made my case. Now make your’s :)

2 Responses

  1. nice work

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