Story vs Game

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150 150 Adrian

“The pleasure people derive from games is not dependent on their ability to tell stories.”

If you are interested in how narrative can fit into games – to enhance the user experience, spin a unique non-linear tale, etc – then an article worth reading is Where Stories End and Games Begin by Greg Costikyan (

Here are my thoughts/reviews/opinions after reading:

In his article “Where Stories End and Games Begin,” Costikyan argues that we need to recognize a greater distinction between story and game. He sees games and stories on opposite ends of a continuum, and that “story is the antithesis of game.” The article is written for game designers, but would also be appreciated by those interested in non-linear narrative theory. The basic premise of the article is that Costikyan argues that trying to design a game that integrates a worthwhile story into its experience is a counter-productive process – although a game can have a story component, “what designers must do… is understand that they are not involved in the creation of stories…”

Costikyan sees a story as something being inherently linear, and a game as something inherently non-linear. For this reason, branching from a story’s spine (as in a non-linear narrative) is likely to produce a less satisfying story; and finely controlling a player’s choices and agency (as in a narrative-based game) is likely to produce a less satisfying game. For Costikyan, creating an enjoyable game-playing experience does not require a well-structured story design.

To support his argument, Costikyan provides an informal survey of different types of non-linear stories and game designs. He begins with non-linear fiction, then progresses through hypertext fiction, gamebooks, text and graphic adventures, PC and console RPGs, and finally paper RPGs (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons). Costikyan sees this list as a continuum from story-based experiences to game-based experiences.

Costikyan’s advice to games designers is simple: use story elements to strengthen a game if and when appropriate, but do not feel that story elements are essential.

I think that Costikyan provides an interesting argument, but one that is flawed. Being a game theorist, I think that he has specific – too specific – ideas of what a player brings away from a game. As he states, “what a player takes away from a game is not the story it tells… but modes of thought and ways of attacking problems, and a sense of satisfaction at mastery.” How can he profess, however, to speak for all game-players’ experiences by stating that story does not fundamentally contribute to the game’s appeal? I, for one, enjoyed the story attached to Riven (the sequel to Myst), and felt that my enjoyment of the game would have been enhanced had the story had more “meat” to it.

I believe that Costikyan suffers from being a contradictory categorist – he has an obsession with making everything black and white, while at the same time admitting that the truth is in the grey areas and that everything exists on a continuum. He enjoys making blanket statements like “a story is linear,” and “story is the antithesis of game,” and then a few sentences later discussing contradictions to his previous convictions.

I find Costikyan’s treatment or definition of story somewhat limited. In one sense, every medium can tell a story – from a painting to a novel to a multimedia cinematic experience. I believe what Costikyan means to be arguing is that PLOT, which is the logical sequencing of story events in cause-effect relationships, is not always conducive to good game-play. I would agree with this, under the belief that plot is not a requirement for storytelling.

What does this mean for game designers? What kind of experience should they strive to elicit from their designs? I think that the game experience is one that combines story with playability and entertainment. The concepts are not opposed, but perhaps it does require a slight re-thinking of what a story is. A story is not necessarily linear, nor is it necessarily degraded by being made non-linear. The trick is to discover how to effectively author a non-linear narrative in the context of the game. Game and story are partners in their desire to evoke emotional responses from their audience.

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Adrian, or AJ, is the founder and Director of Technology of Pop Digital. He has spoken at tech conferences around the world, and published numerous articles about Agile methodologies, UX design, Information Architecture, and Web Development.

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