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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Davidson

Narratology vs. Ludology

What makes for a good game?

Seriously. It’s a simple question. Take a minute and answer it in your head. What makes for a good game?

This simple question has game theorists quite dichotomized—starkly contrasted. There are two schools of thought when addressing the proposed issue. In one corner, coming in as a newcomer to the scene and a robust local favorite…the Narratologists! And in the other corner, an experienced contender with a fantastic track record….the Ludologists! Best of luck to both contenders….

In actuality, the skirmish between Narratology and Ludology has been progressing—punch after bloody punch, with no clear knockout in sight—for many decades. To explain the battle royal before us—and to not turn a mere blog post into a ten-page college essay—I will delineate the terms in rather broad, bite-sized snacks, rather than the full seven-course meal (with extra chocolate pudding on the side) that they are.

Narratology (in 200 words or less):

Narratologists believe everything is a narrative, that narrative is critical. They believe that if you focus on the game narrative, you will unlock the secrets of developing a game that players will feel immersed in and enjoy. Now, full disclosure, this term does not apply to only narrative-heavy games like storybook games, Choose Your Own Adventure games or legacy games. Narratologists see everything as text—even if it’s not actual text. They believe that anything, even imagery, components, and symbols, inspires the construct of narrative; interpreted as text; text narrative gives the game meaning. By naming a character (or making character selection from a pool of characters with talents and a backstory) or customizing play, or even picking a narrative path through gameplay interaction, these things form a story. If players do not have a narrative, a purpose behind playing a game, then they are merely pushing cubes or moving pawns around a board. What’s the point?

Ludology (in 200 words or less):

Ludologists are not concerned with turning their game into text narrative, but instead, focus their attention on the mechanisms of the game. How do the game mechanisms work? Are they smooth? Too complicated? Not intricate enough? “Sure,” a Ludologist might say, “you can put interpretations of narrative in your game, but if the gameplay is not FUN TO PLAY, then nobody will want to sit and play it!” Ludologists examine more than whether or not a game is broken or not (those sneaky problems show their ugly pimpled faces during extensive playtesting); what Ludologists focus on are how interworking systems (or mechanisms) work together. For example, to move on the game board, players must roll dice and move their pawn (known as roll-and-move). This primitive mechanic adds a huge element of randomness—as opposed to using cards to move your pawn, which is a direct, cognitive play determined by the player and not fate. However, randomness can promote unpredictability and excitement, not letting players know who will jump out and win. It gives those behind the winner the hope that they could, just maybe, possibly roll amazingly well and come from behind! If the game incorporated more mechanisms than roll-and-move (almost all of them do), then a Ludologist would look at how the mechanisms work together as a cohesive unit to enhance gameplay.

Again, these are only brief snapshots—simplified—into an entire super-massive ocean of game theory. So, what is more important? Story or gameplay? I think any person with a few notches of games under their game belt would answer that it is a combination of both. Players need to have a narrative (direct or indirect) to be connected to the game. Yet, if the mechanism feels clunky or there is too much randomness, they will not sit at the table long enough to develop the Narratological connection. You might say the ratio is 50/50. Sadly, this formula usually produces mediocre games as the narrative connection feels superficial, and the mechanisms are cheap and uninspiring.

Take a minute and answer it in your head. What makes for a good game?

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