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Literary Gaming

Here is a summary, courtesy of Rob Harle’s review of Astrid Ensslin’s Literary Gaming:

“…literary video games that combine substantial aspects of both the ludic and the literary. “They employ narrative, dramatic and poetic techniques in order to explore the affordances and limitations of ludic structures and processes” (frontispiece). Ludic, as used by Ensslin, “ranges from the kind of cognitive playfulness exhibited by ludic print literature to ludic mechanics, with the latter operating as an element of a ludic digital ‘book’ . . . or as the technological implementation of the rules of a literary game proper, that is, an artifact that has to be played, first and foremost” (p. 42). These games are different from conventional literary/word games, such as the long-standing and popular “analogue” game Scrabble—and also from a conventional book that has been reset as an eBook, basically a book under glass.

Astrid Ensslin – Literary Gaming

… digital media that are made and referred to as games, but whose playable material is linguistic or rather poetic in nature: poetic (or poetry) games are a type of computer game that has an explicit or implicit poetic agenda without sacrificing or diminishing the phenomenological gameness that lies at its core. “Poetic” here has to be seen as a rather broad concept that emphasizes creative and artistic engagement with linguistic and poetic units (e.g., letter, syllable, word, phrase, line, verse) as opposed to the creation of fictional worlds through verbal narrative— although, of course, this distinction has blurry boundaries. Poetry games replace core elements that we know from standard videogames (e.g., avatars, enemies, weapons, settings, props, backgrounds) with linguistic material. In so doing, they foreground the verbal art idea underlying their design. Equally important, they critique and challenge players’ hyper attention by confronting them with textual material that requires deep attention for in-depth understanding and intertextual referencing.

I asked James O’Sullivan if hypertext fiction was in a bit of a rut at the moment, to which he replied:

“Nothing could be further from the truth! Andrew Gallix posed the same question a decade ago, and look at all the wonderful hypertextual fiction we have had since… Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Pry, What Remains of Edith Finch, This War of Mine—these are just a few of the many great works of contemporary interactive fiction that spring immediately to mind. And they’re all essentially hypertexts, because hypertext is just about creating an aesthetic illusion of choice. There’s a lot of hypertextual fiction being made right now that just identifies as something else, usually as “video-games”, because it’s easier to sell video-games than hypertextual fiction. But if you want to really see the legacy of innovators like Moulthrop and Jackson, these are the titles you need to consider, not Bandersnatch.”

His upcoming book Towards a Digital Poetics: Electronic Literature & Literary Games (out in August, 2019) should be interesting

James O’Sullivan – Electronic Literature’s Contemporary Moment: Breeze and Campbell’s “All the Delicate Duplicates”

In the e-lit community — particularly in the ELO-centered North American and European contexts — electronic literature is still dominated by works that rely on web technologies; there aren’t a whole lot of practitioners creating literary games in a way that is conducive to mass-market appeal. This is problematic, because if the form is to overcome those limitations identified by Grigar, it needs to do so with a bit of aggression, forcing its way into the minds of those audiences that have neglected it to date. Most people are scared by the literary, and so the idea of a literary game conjures memories of dreary schooldays spent wrangling with works that the general public tends to view as intentionally obscure. Games are far less threatening and so present a suitably furtive way of slipping some decent literature into the public consciousness.

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Emily Short’s Blog

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Astrid Ensslin Interview

Some people (and particularly people in game culture) refer to these audiovisually rendered, immersive “three-dimensional texts” as “walking simulators.” ATDD is a great example of a more literary approach to the WS genre. So is One to One Trust’s WALLPAPER, and Gone Home to quite an extent as well, where you have to read textual objects for narrative clues in an otherwise largely unpopulated and thus de-verbalized game world, and where some of that reading is highly poetic. I wouldn’t call these texts “hypertexts” though. Rather, they’re a form of digital-born fiction that blends 3D game worlds with a strong focus on (literary) narrative and player exploration rather than action-driven gaming. Many WSs are very popular – a lot more so than Twine fictions, most of which are also freely accessible and therefore driven by far less commercial motivations than, say, WSs like What Remains of Edith Finch and Gone Home.


  • Dear Esther

The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther, released commercially in 2012, is arguably the most well-known and critically acclaimed instance of a new genre of game that is often described as “walking simulator.” Walking simulators are precisely what you’d expect: games where you walk somewhere, with few, if any, objectives to accomplish on the way. They are games from which the hallmarks of gamification are glaringly absent, and that is because they are solely focused on something else — story.

  • Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
  • Gone Home
  • The Stanley Parable
  • Life is Strange

The e-lit community is comprised of many accomplished authors and artists, but it is in Mez Breeze and Andy Campbell — two of contemporary electronic literature’s finest practitioners — that we find the collaboration that has most visibly embraced the potential of this moment. Their title All the Delicate Duplicates, released earlier this year, is the most compelling example of a literary game — in the colloquial sense of the word game — to have emerged from this community. It is precisely what emerging authors/artists in this space should be seeking to duplicate.

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When reviewing the game for Digital Fix, Jazz Moore comments on the experimental nature of the game by comparing it to Salvador Dali‘s painting ‘The Persistence of Memory’, and by stating: “Games such as these…test the waters by exploring new ways to present interactive experiences and weave narrative. Experimental games allow us to test the boundaries of what can be accomplished in this medium, in a way similar to interpretive dance or surrealist art”.

  • Jason Nelson’s Evidence of Everything Exploding is a wacky lo-fi arcade-maze game (Astrid Ensslin’s Literary Gaming has a long section on this, titled ‘ Pop-Surrealism and Poetry Gaming’). Also by the same creator. ‘Game, game, game and again game is a digital poem, retro-game, an anti-design statement and a personal exploration of the artist’s changing worldview lens.
  • The Intruder – The finest example is Natalie Bookchin’s The Intruder. A ‘tale told in ten games’, The Intruder is an interactive narrative based on a story by Jorge Luis Borges. The viewer must compete in some rudimentary games to hear, read and see the story. Thoroughly well-observed, and compelling, The Intruder takes about 15 minutes to navigate. The games are not difficult but act as an aid to the narrative and introduce levels of addiction to the telling of the story (The Guardian Web Watch)

ALSO: AWAKE, WALLPAPER, Firewatch, Fahrenheit, Alan Wake, Heavy Rain, Detroit: Become Human, Remember Me, Dreaming Methods.

George Landow – Hypertext 3.0

See also:


Yet there are trickier issues involved. As a few people say in the film, gaming presents a unique challenge in terms of linear narrative. Or rather, the general lack of it. All the variant paths and possibilities relating to moving through a game offer plenty of potential for creativity – but thinking about wrapping it all together is so brain-ache-making and frequently needs such mathematical precision that it’s small wonder game writers are less able to concentrate on things such as dialogue. There’s also the continuing problem of working that dialogue properly into the game narrative. At the moment, even the most innovative and otherwise thoroughly entertaining games such as the Grand Theft Auto series rely on cut scenes that interrupt the action. Invariably, the dialogue is an annoyance getting in the way of the action rather than the thing that drives it.

There’s also an even trickier challenge at the heart of most games: the writer has a fundamental lack of control. Things get complicated when the protagonist is the person sitting on the other side of the screen. As Bob Bates from Legend Entertainment neatly puts it on the film, you may want your lead to be a gentle soul, but if the person playing the game is more keen on killing kittens, there isn’t much you can do about it.


thisGarriott Says We’ve Not Mastered Storytelling

The episode sets out the idea that we’re currently in some sort of resurgence for storytelling within games, by citing a few recent examples. But pick any year in the last 30 and you can do exactly the same. It’s been a pressing issue with notable attempts ever since the first interactive fiction. While games have succeeded in incrementally improving their graphics, it’s hard to identify any significant progress with story in over at least a decade. As Legend Entertainment founder Bob Bates says in the episode,

“I’m not surprised that storytelling is back. I don’t know that it ever left. It’s just that we’re not very good at it. Still.”

The consensus seems to be that it’s a work in progress, something the medium is still trying to work out. And it’s a discussion I’d love to be had more often. Rhianna Pratchett points out that writing game stories is far harder than she’d ever realised when she was working as a critic. But I think her conclusion that she’d therefore been too harsh when criticising story is a seriously wrong one. Just because it’s very difficult to make something that isn’t poor doesn’t mean a critic shouldn’t identify it as poor. In fact, quite the opposite. The more people refuse to put up with the gibberish that narrates the majority of games, the more likely something will be done about it.

From Hypertext to Hyperdimension Neptunia: The Future of VR Visual Novels. The potentials of new technologies for branching-path narrative games.

Despite their potential, hypertexts and IF eventually faded into relative obscurity in the 21st century. This was due to inherent weaknesses in their narratives. Problems with IF included restrictions on actions encoded into the game, which frustrated players [11]. Hypertexts and gamebooks are also fraught with problems. As part of an experiment, in 2001 Landow[10] created a hypertext which involved linking words, images and text in a digital collage, to prove a connection between the two forms. The collage-like writing of hypertexts and gamebooks inevitably makes them weaker stories than linear alternatives. Their fragmentary style of writing, and the general inability of the characters involved to reflect upon their actions, made them fail to reach the same levels of narrative depth as literary fiction[12].

While IF remains in the forms of competitions[13] and hypertexts lurk in digital archives [14], [15] story games like these were eventually replaced by video games with better graphics and more developed narratives [16]. Despite having more focus on narrative and a generally non-linear gameplay experience, many contemporary video games do not use a branching path narrative structure. One of the most common methods of storytelling in many contemporary video games is “the string of pearls”, a method where gameplay is interlaced with “pearls” of cut scenes, giving the illusion of interactivity in a linear story [17, pp. 298–9]. Nevertheless, branching-path narratives continue to reappear in various formats like children’s books[18], television[19], content streaming [20], hypercomics[21] and some video games [22]–[24]. One type of video game that implements a branching path narrative as its central feature is the visual novel [25]. Emerging in 1983 with The Portopia Serial Murder Case [26], these games, despite their branching-path narrative structure, have not faced the same fate as hypertext and IF. However, the scenario writer of the Danganronpa visual novel series Kazutaka Kodaka fears that if they do not change – to include things like more gameplay – they will also be fated to be forgotten [27]. Thus, visual novels require more flexibility to their form if they are to survive as a video game genre.

Way way before all of these games and even hypertext fiction, something called the Text Adventure game was born

Naomi Alderman’s A Personal History of the Text Adventure: Voyaging through the cerebral world of interactive fiction, one of videogames’ most ancient and inventive forms

Text adventures are the poetry of videogames. They were there first, but they’ve been superseded by the flashier, the faster, the more showy forms. You’ll make no money at them – only a handful of people ever do. They require thinking; they won’t zone you out like Candy Crush. They don’t deliver the cheap, blood-splatter thrills of the first-person shooter or, in general, the sweaty anxiety of the timed challenge. Like a book, they take their time and they demand yours.

For those who might be confused at this juncture, a brief word of explanation about what a text adventure actually is. It is, essentially, a game made of words. There are only words on the screen, and the player communicates with the game by typing words. So you might have a description of what you’re looking at. ‘You’re in a wide, grassy meadow filled with buttercups.’ ‘You’re in a dank dungeon with water dripping down the walls, imprisoned by an iron gate.’ ‘You’re riding a dragon over a landscape of frozen castles.’ And then you can type words to say what you want to do next: ‘Pick buttercups.’ ‘Look at iron gate.’ ‘Defrost castles with dragonfire.’ Sometimes the game will understand what you’re asking it to do. Sometimes you’ll have to rephrase your request. If you keep going, a story will unfold based on the decisions you’ve made. It’s magical.


  • The game Zork which you can play online here .”A few years after the invention of ELIZA, researchers at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science brought forth a widely popular computer-based story, the adventure game Zork, which is based on the Dungeons and Dragons tabletop game.8 In Zork the computer plays the role of dungeon master by providing an invisible landscape that serves as the game board and by reporting to players on the effects of their actions. Within Zork’s fantasy world, players move through dungeon rooms by typing in navigational commands (north, south, east, west, up, down), look for objects that can be manipulated (by typing appropriate commands, such as “read book,” “take sword,” “drink potion”), solve riddles, and fight off evil trolls. (FROM HAMLET ON THE HOLODECK)

Dene Grigar – The Present [Future] of Electronic Literature

Anyone following game studies is aware of the debate about the relationship between games and literature. On one side of the argument scholars like Janet Murray talk about the notion of the “game-story . . . [in] story-rich new gaming formats,” a natural phenomenon since, she claims, “storytelling and gaming have already been overlapping experiences”[42]. This sentiment is echoed by Nick Montfort, who in Twisty Little Passages,” traces the beginnings of interactive fiction to the “ludic pleasure” of adventure games, which themselves evolved from the riddle, a game puzzle, a game form that is in its poetic form, literary in nature [16].

Espen J Aarseth Cybertext-Perspectives on Ergodic Literature

But more than twelve years before the Internet worm, a different, though some say equally productivity threatening, computer program was released over the ARPANET. In the mid-1970s, programer William Crowther got the idea that a game similar to Gary Gygax’s popular role-playing board game, Dungeons and Dragons, could be made and played on a computer (Crowther and Woods 1976; Gygax 1974). In Gygax’s strategy board game and its many descendants, a group of adventurers explore a two-dimensional fantasy world controlled, improvised, and sometimes created by a dungeon master (DM). The players choose among the options laid out by the DM and roll dice to settle the outcome of battles between opponents and OM-controlled monsters. The Dungeons and Dragons genre might be regarded as an oral cybertext, the oral predecessor to computerized, written, adventure games.

Here is Don Woods’ account of how he and Crowther developed the first Adventure game:

Crowther, who is also an avid caver (the caver’s term for a spelunker), decided to try writing a program to simulate cave exploration. He added some treasures and hostile dwarves to spice it up, but it was mainly just an exploration game. (I believe he intended to extend it into a computer referee for role-playing, but it never got that far.) He called it Adventures (plural). This was sometime in the early 70’s. The Adventures game migrated across the ArpaNet, and I ran into a copy at Stanford during my first year of graduate school (75-76). I thought it was a neat idea for a game, but there wasn’t a lot to it, and it was full of bugs. The credits said to direct questions to “Willie Crowther.” The net wasn’t as big in those days (no Usenet, and “only” a few hundred Arpanet sites), so I sent mail to crowther@xxx for every host xxx on the net. I got back lots of error messages, but eventually did hear from Crowther, who by then was working at Xerox PARC. He sent me the source in return for a promise that I would send him any changes. I called my version Adventure. Because of the limitations on the length and capitalisation of file names, the actual file was called ADVENT. In April ’76 I finished version 1, and made it available via a guest login. Then I left for a vacation. When I got back a week or two later, I found the system administrators were annoyed because of the heavy system load caused by people logging in from all over the net to play Adventure. That summer I touched up a few things, like adding scoring and the endgame, and a “wizard mode” that let me set up limits on the times when it would let people play. Then I began sending source copies to anyone who wanted one. And it proceeded to turn up all over the world. (Woods, personal correspondence with author, September 29, 1993)

This autobiographical origin story of Crowther and Woods’ Adventure is a paradigm of collaborative authorship on the Net: one person gets an idea, writes a program, releases it (with the source code); somewhere else another person picks it up, improves it, adds new ideas, and rereleases it. Most of the time they do not meet face to face. Mary Ann Buckles (1985, 79) argues convincingly that Adventure can be classified as “folk art,” in contrast to the popular commercial genre it later gave birth to. After Woods’ version was released in 1976, the game became immensely successful. In addition to inaugurating the genre, which for a while was the most popular type of computer game, it inspired a host of new media types and literary experiments, from the hypertext novels to “interactive” pornography on CD-ROM. With the explosive growth in the home computer market around 1975- 80, a market for computer games had suddenly appeared, and the adventure game structure, much simpler to program than graphic arcade games, was easy to exploit and package for this market. In 1978, Scott Adams and his new company Adventure International produced the first adventure game for a microcomputer, Adventureland, for the TRS-80.


Among the most influential of the early adventure game companies was Infocom, which consisted of a group of programers from MIT’s AI lab. Infocom’s first game, Zork (written in 1977), by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, was similar to Crowther and Woods’ original in setting (an underground empire) but was better at parsing and world simulation. Blank and Lebling created a series of accomplished, now classic, adventure games, starting with the Zork trilogy (published 1980-82) and ranging from the burlesque (Leather Goddesses of Phobos [1986], by Steve Meretzky) to the contemplative (A Mind Forever Voyaging [1985], also by Meretzky). For a while, the genre thrived, especially in Anglo-American cultures, with dedicated monthly magazines, notably the British Micro Adventurer, do-it-yourself books, and numerous games developed by amateurs and professionals. Adaptations of popular literature, such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, were published alongside generic crime, science fiction, and fantasy productions.1 Today, however, the textual adventure game is no longer popular. It achieved a short but considerable success (Zork is said to have sold a million copies), which ended quietly in the late 1980s, when the public lost interest and game companies stopped production. Perhaps the beginning of the end was Activision’s takeover of Infocom in 1986, which was followed by regular annual losses until its complete shutdown in 1989.

There are many ways for critics to focus the adventure game genre. From a postmodernist perspective, where the boredom with the current literary experiments carried over from modernism is hardly concealable/ the ludic possibilities of new media positions are sometimes idealized beyond recognition. Linda Hutcheon, in a discussion of postmodern art’s focus on its own production, posits “interactive fiction” as the “most extreme example I can think of in art. . .. Here process is all; there is no fixed product or text, just the reader’s activity as producer as well as receiver” (1988, 77). The claim that adventure games consist of nothing but “the reader’s activity” is clearly false; otherwise they could hardly be discussed at all. Hutcheon’s misrepresentation is understandable in light of the often self-contradictory Anthony Niesz and Norman N. Holland article she refers to, where it is claimed that, in interactive fiction, “in a literal sense, there is no text, nothing that could be put on a shelf and pointed to as the source of roughly similar experiences by readers” (1984, 120). Later in the article they reverse the claim: “Both interactive and traditional fiction rely upon the use of written texts, or upon the elements of narration, plot, and dialogue” (125). In most adventure game situations, the reader’s activity is very predictable. Certainly it is fair to say that it is being produced or directed by the text, within the limited freedom of the available commands. Two of the most common approaches to adventure games seem to be apologetics and trivialization. Both generally fail to grasp the intrinsic qualities of the genre, because they both privilege the aesthetic ideals of another genre, that of narrative literature, typically the novel. For the apologists, adventure games may one day-when their Cervantes or Dickens comes along-reach their true potential, produce works of literary value that rival the current narrative masterpieces, and claim their place in the canon. For the trivialists, this will never happen; adventure games are games-they can- not possibly be taken seriously as literature nor attain the level of sophistication of a good novel. Although the trivialists are rightadventure games will never become good novels-they are also making an irrelevant point, because adventure games are not novels at all. The adventure game is an artistic genre of its own, a unique aesthetic field of possibilities, which must be judged on its own terms. And while the apologists certainly are wrong, in that the games will never be considered good novels, they are right in insisting that the genre may improve and eventually turn out something rich and wonderful. This may or may not happen, so the only way to understand the genre is to study the various works that already exist and how they are played.

The Narratology vs Ludology Debate

There has been a long-running debate about how much games should try to incorporate storytelling, or whether this is to the detriment of the type of entertainment that games provide. And also many who argue that even if video games are effective storytelling mediums, they certainly can’t be judged by the benchmarks of literary storytelling.

Dene Grigar – The Present [Future] of Electronic Literature

Anyone following game studies is aware of the debate about the relationship between games and literature. On one side of the argument scholars like Janet Murray talk about the notion of the “game-story . . . [in] story-rich new gaming formats,” a natural phenomenon since, she claims, “storytelling and gaming have already been overlapping experiences”[42]. This sentiment is echoed by Nick Montfort, who in Twisty Little Passages,” traces the beginnings of interactive fiction to the “ludic pleasure” of adventure games, which themselves evolved from the riddle, a game puzzle, a game form that is in its poetic form, literary in nature [16]. Michael Mateas, in his work A Preliminary Poetics for Interactive Drama and Games, looks at “player agency” by theorizing about the connection of games to drama, using Aristotle’s “formal and material causation” laid out in Poetics, [43] certainly the bible for Renaissance dramatists and used by contemporary media art theorists and practitioners like Brenda Laurel to discuss “new forms of drama” [41]. On the other side of the argument, scholars like Markku Eskelinen in his essay Toward Computer Game Studies claim that it should be “self-evident that we can’t apply print narratology, hypertext theory, film or theatre and drama studies to computer games” [44]. Espen Aarseth, in his essay Genre Trouble, lays out the debate about games and literature, coming to the conclusion that: . . . aesthetics and hermeneutics of games and simulations and their relations to stories . . . pose a rich problem. . . . Games and stories have distinct teleologies and artistic potential, and it is analytically useful (for those of us genuinely interested in games as games, at least’ to maintain a conceptual terminology that distinguishes between them. [45] The lines are, thus, drawn: literary scholars and some artists see games as literary through the lens of narrative and drama, and ludologists see games as games from the perspective of their qualities distinct from literature. This author, standing on the border of literature and new media––literature from the standpoint of ancient Greek epic circa 8th century BCE and new media from that of 21st CE century computer-based art, sees such a debate as both important and stifling: important, because there is logic in the need to study objects, as Hayles suggests, within the confines of their specificity [5], untainted by outside influences; stifling, because both sides make little room for the hybrid, transdisciplinary objects that keep popping up without concern for what they are named, much less ways how they are theorized. In truth, the provisional state of technologies and art make knowing what to be specific about close to impossible. Pragmatism tempers such resolution–– and a deep study of pre-print culture that combines art forms helps to raise consciousnesses toward new approaches to the thorny question about the connection between games and literature.5 With this in mind, here are a few examples of multimedia art forms that transgress rigid structures of literature and games yet offer both narrative and ludic pleasure.

See Ian Bogost’s Atlantic articleVideo Games Are Better Without Stories’ for an argument against narrative in games

“Players and creators have been mistaken in merely hoping that they might someday share the stage with books, films, and television, let alone to unseat them. To use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose, but it’s also an unambitious one. Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories. Instead, games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects. Of ordinary life. Take a ball and a field: you get soccer. Take property-based wealth and the Depression: you get Monopoly. Take patterns of four contiguous squares and gravity: you get Tetris. Take ray tracing and reverse it to track projectiles: you get Doom. Games show players the unseen uses of ordinary materials.”

Janet Murray’s The Last Word on Ludology vs Narratology

Janet Murray – Hamlet on the Holodeck (New Edition)

Hamlet on the Holodeck was one of the first works of criticism to take video games seriously as cultural and aesthetic objects, and was therefore very positively received by game designers. But my focus on new narrative forms drew criticism from others in the academy who wanted to affirm the value of video games as games, independent of their narrative properties. To my surprise, the book became part of a foundational controversy of the new field of Game Studies, the notorious ludology/narratology debate. Part of this debate stemmed from academic turf wars between the European departments of Narratology and the new practitioners of Game Studies, who were asserting their autonomy by identifying games as a separate field. Although I have never been a “narratologist” in the European sense, the book became a convenient target, and the argument about Tetris in Chapter 5 was caricatured as an attempt to exert narrative hegemony over the new academic colony of games.

At the same time, the debates with the self-described “ludologists” did identify a real difference in approach, which I have clarified and reaffirmed many times: while some would prefer to see games as abstract systems independent of the lifeworld and of the cultural and narrative dimensions of representation (e.g. emotions, ideology, identification with characters), others, myself included, believe that digital games can be understood in the same rich cultural frameworks as other works of the artistic imagination. I continue not to be a narratologist and not to claim any “hegemony” for narrative over games, and to insist upon seeing games as expressive cultural objects like novels, films, and paintings.

  • See from page 63 onwards for how new computer games have incorporated narrative elements.



THIS – Beyond the String of Beads: More Systems for Game Narrative

It’s official: the field of game studies is obsessed with storytelling.

One can’t argue with Costikyan’s summary of the Game Developers Conference. This year’s GDC included literally dozens of panels, presentations, and roundtables in which everyone from career developers and academics to players and fans discussed the role of stories in games, including some very familiar arguments. Is there a place for storytelling in game development? Which is more important, narrative or game design? Can you have good stories and good gameplay at the same time? At one point, during a particularly fractious argument between two developers, the person sitting next to me whispered, “They do this every year, and I’m not learning anything new.”

As of yet, there seem to be no definite conclusions or even agreed-upon definitions of story and game, and no sense of why the debate continues to cover the same ground – other than that storytelling in games is a fun thing to talk about.


At the end of the day, I don’t personally care whether the game I’m playing is best described as a game that includes storytelling, a narrative that includes gameplay, an interactive fiction, or some new and as-yet undefined experience. I care that my experience, in narrative or gameplay terms, is compelling, meaningful, and worthwhile. That said, creating worthwhile stories in a medium defined by its interactive qualities – a medium that on the grand digital scale is necessarily collaborative and iterative as well – is a tall order at best, particularly considering the age of the medium. Games and stories have been around since the proverbial “dawn of time,” or at least of human remembrance, but by Costikyan’s measure we’ve only been struggling with the game-story problem since the early 1970s – less than forty years.

The current arguments over stories and games won’t be solved with words but with the games themselves; that what we’re debating is the potential of the medium, not its current state. As Costikyan says, the tension between what we consider “story” and what we consider “game” has inspired some interesting experiments, although it has yet to inspire something that “deserves to be called interactive fiction” (Costikyan 13). I also agree that the “beads on a string” approach to storytelling has been thoroughly, if not completely, explored, although that doesn’t meant that future games can’t make use of the structure in innovative ways.

But the most telling part of Costikyan’s essay is his sense that games and stories are two different, possibly opposing things, and that the relationship between them is one we haven’t yet fully explored. There are a variety of game structures that attempt to balance, integrate, or otherwise blend gameplay with narrative content, with varying degrees of success. From a player’s perspective, and looking in particular at digital gaming, I wonder that the game experience and the story experience can be described not as two separate, intertwined pieces, but as two aspects of the same experience: perhaps in some cases, the same thing viewed through two different critical lenses.

SEE – Costikyan, Greg. (2007) “Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String.” Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Souvik Mukherjee – Video Games and Storytelling

Will Wright, the designer of The Sims (Maxis, 2000) games, declared in a CNN interview that ‘games are not the right medium to tell stories’ (Millan, 2011) but conceded that they are about ‘story possibilities’. However, gamers from all over the world think differently. In his recent book on video games, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Dylan Holmes comments: ‘Games are bringing something new to the table. As the first widely adopted form of interactive media, video games have served as the testing ground for interactive storytelling techniques’ (Holmes, 2012, p. 10).


The establishment of game studies as an academic discipline is a very recent phenomenon and the initial academic responses to seeing video games as an emergent storytelling medium were markedly polarised into the theoretical camps of the so-called Ludologists and the Narratologists. The Ludologists, mainly academics such as Juul, Espen Aarseth and Markku Eskelinen, argued that although some video games may have ‘artistic ambitions’, they are ‘fundamentally games’ (Aarseth, 2006, p. 45). The so-named Narratologists, such as Janet Murray and Marie-Laure Ryan, argue that video games are a storytelling medium because they ‘promise to reshape the spectrum of narrative expression, not by replacing the novel or the movie but by continuing their timeless bardic work within another framework’ (Murray, 1997, p. 10). In 1997, Murray and Aarseth were writing separate pioneering studies on video games. Both recognised the capacity of video games to form multicursal structures and also their potential to be recognised as texts (although Aarseth later altered his position somewhat), but their respective approaches were very divergent.

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Game designers have also started losing patience with the Ludology– Narratology debate because of the polarisation of opinions. As designer Ernest Adams complains:

There’s a lack of a common vocabulary; a lack of a common approach. And there are turf wars. Literary theorists of narrative – ‘narratologists’ believe that narrative is rightly their turf, so it’s up to them to decide what interactive narrative will be. Theorists of gameplay – ‘ludologists’ – believe that interactive entertainment is their turf, and only they can properly decide what interactive narrative will be. (Adams, 2005)

Adams is right in pointing out that the sparring between rival academic camps does not help at all and that such extreme positions, whether they are Murray’s holistic claims for narratives in electronic media or the Ludologist argument against it, had game studies critics locked in a decade-long impasse regarding the nature of video games. Recently, however, Ludologists such as Juul, and those on the Narratologist (or rather ‘Narrativist’) camp, such as Marie-Laure Ryan and Celia Pearce, make much more moderate claims than those being made in the late nineties. In Avatars of Story, Ryan claims that storytelling in video games ‘must resist the temptation to try to rival the great classics of literature – a temptation that finds its expression in the title of Janet Murray’s wellknown book Hamlet on the Holodeck – and it must learn instead how to customize narrative patterns to the properties of the medium’ (Ryan, 2006, p. xviii).

  • The game The Stanley Parable is constantly making jokes about the tension between storytelling and game play through a narrator who wants you to stay on his path.

AdventureX 2016 – Emily Short: The Past, Present and Future of Interactive Fiction


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