Narrative Probability and Gamer Intelligence

Some time ago, Frank Lantz at Game Design Advance wrote a short article about gamer intelligence. He proposes the concept as something “that can be seen in opposition to storytelling as a way of understanding the world”.  The following quote summarizes his central argument.

“Many games encourage a particular style of thinking – a way of looking at situations as possibility spaces and applying systemic, algorithmic, and probabilistic cognitive techniques.”

The article gave the impression that it was written against the tendency to see everything as narrative (which is quite understandable). It was pointing out that games got us thinking and operating in a way that was different from storytelling.

After giving the argument some consideration, I had to ask myself whether the concept of narrative that game researchers nowadays build upon is not subject to a reduction that is similar to the one they want to create a critical awareness for. The problem I see here is that the dominant idea about narratives is one that sees no possibility space in them. Narratives are thought of like they are set in stone, because ultimately you can’t change what was written. But how come, then, that we enjoy them so much? Isn’t it true that during their consumption, narratives are anything else than being set in stone?

I think the way in which contempary game studies picture narratives neglects the lively unpredictability that we experience while we traverse them.  The argumentation here choses a notion of narrative that captures  it  at a moment where it had been already consumed. But is that moment of the narrative the one that tells us most about its probability space and our relation to it as readers? Shouldn’t we be looking rather into those moments in which the narrative is yet undecided and gets us sweating with the many probabilities that lie ahead? How, otherwise, would narratives maintain curiosity for example? Seen this way, it’s not difficult to tell that storytelling techniques are exactly about creating possibility space and getting us to think about it.

The problem that game studies seems to face here is an unwillingness to see narratology as having some interesting answers to game-related issues. For example probability is not a new issue in narratology. Claude Bremond explored probability space to understand story logic and the forces of necessity and character motivation (It’s interesting to see that the “event schemes” that he developed during his research on probability in narratives resemble circuits in Boolean logic). Based on these studies, Roland Barthes described the decision-nodes in narratives as the “areas of risk”, because there was always the probability that the character could have chosen to do something different from what was envisioned by the narrative designer. More than that, at one of these nodes, she could have simply chosen to reject to follow up the plot any further, which would have put an immediate end to the story.

Following this notion of “areas of risk”, the game medium could be described as presenting us narratives in which the risk of deviation has become a *real* one. Despite all the work that the author puts into setting up the ‘energy fields’ of the story (the logic of forces that lets the characters chose what is “good” for the story), the player (who, in terms of narratology, is present in the game world as an actant) indeed could decide to follow a path that will not lead to any “story progress”. In other words, the way the “reader” engages with the “text” has new implications in regard to possibility space. But the problem basically remains the same: How can we “force” the reader/player to stay on the track we want her to stay without making her look like she’s stripped from her “free will”. Or, how can we make sure that all of the stories that emerge from her decisions remain withing the meaningful/logical.

Probability space as a game design issue is then first and foremost a concern to get the story right.  Just check out the Builder Tutorials at Bioware’s NWN pages for example. They’re all about teaching you how to build a space for narrative probability. In other words, probability space is of importance in games because of its story potential and not because it is something that liberates us from the ‘tyranny of the narrative’. Gamer intelligence goes hand in hand with narrative intelligence.

As an aside I want to point at the way in which the word interaction (which implies a reciprocal relation between at least two sides) has become a word that only advocates (perceives) one side of the relation: the player. The vision behind this is that games are ‘configurative arts’ and that players create “their” stories with the tools provided to them. This depicts the tool/sandbox as something that is quite idle: A system you interact with; one that  just passes you over the results of your ‘interactions’. But what about the ways a game configures the player through controls or interface design? What about the ways a game configures a player as a fictional character in a fictional world? What about the systems ‘interactions’ on us? The problem I see here is that we seem to only really recognize the configurative actions on the player’s side and ignore how a narrative/game puts in equal (if not more) efforts to configure its addressee as a (in narrative terms) ‘functional’ entity that can join the reciprocity cycle.

Our notion of interaction is too player-centric.

My latest feature…

My latest feature, an article on the design process of my game Poseidon’s Wrath is out. Please check the article out here.