Narrativist Games

I recently got this question (slightly rephrased for brevity):

Off the top of your head, what are the key [narrativist] games one should know about? Do any particularly stand out? Any recent games I should rush to read? I am thinking primarily in terms of GNS, or — even more loosely — along the lines of games like My Life With Master, Dogs in the Vineyard, Stalin’s Story, and Little Fears. But I’m not dogmatic here.

This is a different question from the big storytelling games thread we had a couple years back — and in any case new stuff comes out all the time. So I thought I’d put some of my own thoughts here but also solicit feedback from the community, because I’m sure I’m missing a lot.

The wikipedia page on GNS theory defines narrativist play as follows:

Narrativist play relies heavily on outlining or developing motives for the characters, putting them into situations where those motives come into mutual conflict, and making their decisions in the face of such stress the main driving force behind events.

…and I’d say these features are fairly uncommon in IF and in video games in general, perhaps because it’s not easy to come up with mechanics that specify protagonist motivation. The Baron and Fate are obvious exceptions, with The Baron in particular stopping frequently to ask the player why he’s chosen to do something. Arguably Rameses also belongs in this category, because the player’s interaction is almost entirely about specifying what he wishes the protagonist had the guts to do, before Rameses’ neuroticism quashes the impulse.

A softer approach to this problem is to ask the player interpretive choices without extensively acting on the answers. Echo Bazaar occasionally asks the player to reflect back on a past event or action, or to express an attitude or intended action for the future. The “Free of Surface Ties” card, for instance, asks the player to choose an attitude towards the current game situation. The Countess storyline involves a similar choice. When the player’s decisions here don’t affect the gameplay but purely express motive, EBZ’s authors refer to this phenomenon as reflective choice. Very occasionally in the later stages of the game, however, motives do come into direct conflict: for instance, if the player builds up a lot of connection with two opposed social groups, he may encounter a card that demands him to pick sides. Still, a lot of this content is optional and it makes up a small percentage of the plotlines in the EBZ universe. So I wouldn’t say that the story is mostly driven forward by conflict between motives that the player has been able to select.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Bioware has also done some storylines in which the player makes some choices about affinity or loyalty and then is challenged on those as the story unfolds. I haven’t had time to take in anything as enormous as Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age II lately, but that sounds like the kind of territory they might be exploring.

So what do people think? Are there other games (IF or otherwise) that really qualify as “narrativist” in this sense? I’m sort of mulling over my own alternative taxonomy of interaction in computer-mediated storytelling, but I’d be curious to hear thoughts about the GNS approach.

27 thoughts on “Narrativist Games”

  1. I’d love to say Pathologic, but it’s less that the game forces you to evaluate yourself and more that the actions you’re frequently goaded into taking would cause most players to pause and reflect now and then about how they ended up where they did.

    If we’re going to count visual novels though, Saya’s Song and Cross Channel probably fit.

  2. I have a hard time thinking of narrativist game structure in a single-player game. Not that I’m an expert in GNS ideas. But my concept of “narrativist” involves various ways for a player to bounce the “what happens next” ball off of *other players*, so that the player’s notion of the character’s story (motivation, arc, outcome) is challenged. Thus, e.g., we have dice mechanics where one player influences whether the outcome is good or bad, but another player narrates the details or consequences. And so on.

    What does this mean in an IF game, where the “other player” is preprogrammed? I’m not sure. Narrativist RPGs often have algorithms (e.g. the formulas at the end of “My Life with Master”, but they are there to structure the interactions between players.

    *Are* there single-player RPGs in the indie/Forge world? I think I’d have to look at examples.

  3. I’m not sure pure Forge-definition Narrativism can really exist in a pre-written game, a lot of the examples you cite are of situations where the game presents you with something which has happened, and asks you to choose your reaction from a predefined list – this is pretty much the *opposite* of Forge Narrativism, indeed it strays perilously close to what Forgeites refer to as “the impossible thing to believe before breakfast” – the game tells you what happens and all that you get to do is to declare how you feel about it.

    By true GNS “Narrativism” as I understand it, means that not only do the players get to decide what actions their characters or avatars take in order to progress the story, but they also get to decide *what the story is about*. Narrativism is about the players being full co-creators of the story (which is why so many Narrativist RPGs have mechanisms that undermine traditional GM powers) and this is only really possible at all if the story is being created in real time by the players – which in a computer game (unless it’s /Sleep is Death/ or a DMed /Neverwinter Nights/ module) it can’t be.

  4. Based on comments here, and the wiki blurb, I think several of the games would fit. I haven’t replayed enough to be sure, but I think sometimes when they ask your decision + motivation, it changes the stats for your character, which would influence what content you can play later.

  5. Taking this opportunity to read some of the Big Model stuff, which always makes more sense after I come back to it with more play under my belt.

    There’s no way to apply the Story Now agenda to a pre-written computer game. At all. The definition of the term doesn’t allow it. For example, “the GM cannot be considered ‘the narrator’ or ‘the storyteller’ in any way, shape, or form.” And “‘Entertainment,’ in role-playing in general and in Narrativist play especially, does not flow from playwright to script to production team to audience. Instead, the shared-imagining act = the shared-performance act = the entertainment = the audience feedback.” (

    But maybe your original questioner was only asking you about role-playing games? They don’t seem to have given any examples of a pre-written game that would fit what they want.

    1. From context, I’m pretty sure this was a question about computer-mediated works. But yeah, I can easily imagine that it’s impossible for the computer to do the ideal form of narrativist play at all.

  6. Having been recently introduced to The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Von Munchausen, I agree with many of the comments here about the limits of a computer.

    But a computer can still mediate between players in such a game. Maybe that casts the computer as a mere messenger, but surely some roleplay-heavy MUDs take a similar route? Boatmurdered, maybe? (Boatmurdered was a one-player-at-a-time collaborative game of Dwarf Fortress, where each player plays king for a year, and writes about his reign diary-style. In this, the simulation is the source of events and gets no feedback from the narration, which is purely between players.)

  7. AI Directors are very capable of being that moral stresser. The trick is getting the players in that narrativist mindset in front of a computer, which as far as I know no one has tried to do. Expectation setting issues. Seems achievable though.

    Interesting idea though to treat the Director like another player and see if that crosses the computers-don’t-play-fair bar. Sounds tricky – much easier to respond to the player then give players options to respond to a computer’s choices.

  8. Since the definition of narrativist involves characters with confilcting goals, I’d say there are several if games can qualify, for example, “Varicella”.

  9. Narrativism in a computer game is a difficult idea; not so much because a computer program could not present you with interesting thematic situations; and not even primarily because it would be difficult to translate choices that address the theme into interaction with the program; but most of all because there is no audience you are performing for and who can validate your creation. This is not the place to attempt to analyse the role of your fellow players when playing an RPG, but it is huge. The rush of Story Now, the creative collaboration, the fact that the moral and aesthetic value of what you tell will be judged by people around you, and even more importantly, that you are revealing yourself to these people — that is what makes narrativist RPGs narrativist RPGs, and I don’t see this being recreated by a single player game. (Note that I said “single player game”, not “computer game”.)

    Nevertheless, when I wrote The Baron, my explicit goal was to write a narrativist game. Perhaps I was just confused, but I would like to think that I was trying to adapt RPG narrativism to IF, making whatever changes turned out to be necessary. The basic idea was that the player of a computer game could have a creative agenda at least similar to that of the player of a narrativist RPG: namely, wanting to express a moral or aesthetic judgement. Many reviewers have stressed the explicit moral choices provided by The Baron, but these are few and far between, and were (as far as I was concerned) only a special case of all the other ways the player could tweak the symbolism, meaning and progression of the story. Throwing the gargoyle’s heart on the ice, to see it disappear in the cold waters below; setting fire to Maartje’s diary; attempting to lock yourself up in the cell in the dungeon; sacrificing the stuffed bear in order to get past the wolves — none of these actions has a specific meaning, but a player could create a session of the game in which they did take on a meaning, and might express something I had never thought of. Because that was of course essential; if the player could only express some things I had thought up, (s)he could not really express anything.

    It is doubtful whether The Baron succeeded on this level, and today, I would interpret it differently. (Off-topic here, but I now think its structure is better seen as a special way to represent consciousness.) Perhaps games can work like that, but the difficulties are massive.

    Fate is of course a stab at something rather different. It does not ask for creativity and the creation of meaning; it explores a dilemma, and let’s the player either make a choice or simply explore the different endings. This kind of game is more common and much easier to make. It gets its power not from anything particularly ‘narrativist’, but from the complicity and immersion that arise from playing a role with some freedom — something well-known from pre-GNS roleplaying game scenarios and the more thoughtful CRPGs.

  10. I’ll admit to being puzzled by the suggestions in this thread that Narrativism is “impossible” in CRPG/single-player RPG settings, or even unusual.

    The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast explicitly calls out the role of the GM in Narrativism: “‘The GM is the author of the story and the players direct the actions of the protagonists.’ Widely repeated across many role-playing texts. Neither sub-clause in the sentence is possible in the presence of the other.”

    If, on the spectrum between Puzzles and Story, your game leans more toward Story, then your game is more Narrativist than Gamist.

    “Story Now” isn’t just the magical rush of an improvisational story toy like Baron Munchausen; it’s also just preferring a good story to a tactical combat game.

    Table-top RPGs create more opportunities for improvisational collaboration, but that’s obviously not necessary to telling a good story with a game — that’s Narrativism, nothing more.

    1. Umm, no, that’s very much *not* what Narrativism is (as GNS defines it). If it was, /Vampire the Masquerade/ would be the poster-child for Narrativist gaming, instead of the poster-child for dysfunctional game design. If Narrativism was just about a “good story” then “GM as storyteller” wouldn’t be incompatible with Narrativism which, by strict GNS, it is.

      The point of the Impossible Thing is that the player cannot meaningfully be the “protagonist” of a story if that “story” is created by another person – that doesn’t mean Narrativst games can’t have GMs, and it *certainly* doesn’t mean Narrativist games don’t require interaction with other players.

      The reason that forge-definition Narrativism is (arguably) incompatible with a single-player computer game is that in a single player game the game *designer* falls inevitably into the role of Storyteller because, well, the game designer writes the story, and the player only gets to choose how they react to it.

      To put it another way, a *novel* isn’t Forge-definition Narrativist because “Narrativism” is a term that explicitly applies only to role-playing games.

      Of course you could redefine the term to just mean “has a good story” but at that point you’re talking about something very different from Big Model Narrativism (you’re talking about something more like usenet-definition Dramatism which is actually a very different thing).

      A bit part of the problem here is that Forge-definition “Narrativism” is one of those things that people assume is just generally desirable, when in fact it’s quite a niche interest. It’s hard to create a Narrativist single player game, and it’s not immediately clear why one would want to.

      1. I don’t think you’re interpreting Ron Edwards correctly; if you read GNS and conclude that Narrativism is this weird niche thing and not a third of what we do when we play, then I think you’re not using enough of the principle of charity.

      2. I’m not sure it’s got anything to do with the principle of charity – Narrativism is clearly defined and it very much *isn’t* just “story stuff”. If it *was* defined as just anything involving storytelling it would include a bunch of games it *very explicitly excludes*.

        Hell, the Forge itself describes the majority of roleplaying as “simulationist by default” – (it also describes it as “dysfunctional” and insists that the majority of people who do it don’t enjoy it).

        I don’t think Narrativism is a “weird niche thing” but it’s consciously, specifically, and deliberately defined as being *different from* what most people think of (and, contrary to Ron Edwards’ groundless assertions, enjoy playing) as story-driven gaming. Forge Narrativism is a very specific form of interactive storytelling, and it’s not even necessarily the *best* form of interactive storytelling.

        The only reason to assume Narrativism constitutes “one third” of the reason people play RPGs is the fact that it’s listed as one third of the Big Model, but this is a statistical fallacy. Just because you can divide something into three categories, there is no reason to believe that those categories are evenly populated (it’s like assuming that your chance of winning the lottery is 50/50 because you can either win or lose). Even if it was the case that “story” was one third of the reason people played RPGs and IF (I suspect it’s a deal more for some people, a deal less for others) “story” is not the same as “Forge Narrativism”.

        To put it another way, Narrativism is “Story Now”. That very article, however, admits the possibility of “Story Before” (the players uncover a plot which has effectively been written in advance by the GM and appreciate it as they would a linear narrative) and “Story After” (the story is something which evolves organically from the behaviour of the players and exists only in retrospect) – if we accept that Story really is one third of why people play games, it follows that “Story Now” is at best one third of why people are interested in Story, making Forge Narrativism at the absolute outside account for one ninth of what people are interested in (compared to Forge Simulationism which accounts for at least five-ninths – more than fifty percent).

      3. “Narrativism is clearly defined”

        This article is not clearly written. The article itself quotes people misunderstanding his point, a point which he calls “problematic.”

        Perhaps Ron’s right, and you’ve misunderstood him. Or perhaps you understand him perfectly, and Ron’s wrong. I suggest that we use the principle of charity to decide.

      4. Perhaps Ron’s right, and you’ve misunderstood him. Or perhaps you understand him perfectly, and Ron’s wrong. I suggest that we use the principle of charity to decide.

        Umm, I’m not sure you can use the principle of charity to decide whether one of two contradictory interpretations of the same text is “right”. This isn’t about whether I’m right or Ron Edwards is right, it’s about which of us is right about Ron Edwards (it may happen that if I am right about Ron Edwards, that you by extension disagree with Ron Edwards, but that’s a different issue).

        You still seem to be insisting that “Narrativist” means “anything to do with story” which it *isn’t*. The essay you link to explains time and time again that “Narrativist” doesn’t mean “interested in story” it means “Interested in /Story Now/”.

        Hell the *first* misconception Edwards complains of about Narrativism is that any play which is interested in Story (which Edwards defines as “Exploration of Situation”) is necessarily Narrativist, which is exactly what you’re arguing and exactly what Edwards is contradicting.

    2. If, on the spectrum between Puzzles and Story, your game leans more toward Story, then your game is more Narrativist than Gamist. “Story Now” isn’t just the magical rush of an improvisational story toy like Baron Munchausen; it’s also just preferring a good story to a tactical combat game.

      I agree with Dan Hemmens that that is absolutely not what is meant by narrativism. Story Now is Story Now, which means it is, among other things, not Story-Prepared-Yesterday-By-The-GM. All that story-rich traditional roleplaying, where I get to marginally participate in a story pre-written by someone else, is not narrativism. And it couldn’t be narrativism, because GNS is about creative agendas, about the reasons players have for making decisions; and how could you make a decision geared towards addressing theme when the story has already been thought up?

      1. A somewhat necessary addendum to this is to point out that this doesn’t mean that “story-rich traditional roleplaying” is without value – just that it’s not Forge-definition Narrativism.

        For what it’s worth I’m personally not a huge fan of Forge-definition Narrativism (I basically think that “story after” is an extremely underrated property of an RPG and find “story now” a little self-conscious) and I think one of the big flaws in the Threefold Model is that it basically lumps 90% of traditional roleplaying (and a lot of traditional non-roleplaying game design) under the category of “Simulationism”. In particular it bugs me that the threefold implicitly insists that Narrativism is the “right” way to do story in an interactive medium which I don’t think is necessarily true.

        It’s this flaw, I think, which leads to people taking an unhelpfully broad view of “Narrativism” (Narrativist is anything which is about story) – because while Narrativist game design has some useful insights, it comes at the expense of bundling /Choice of the Vampire/, /Call of Cthulhu/ and /Dynasty Warriors/ into one huge box marked “Simulation”.

      2. With apologies for double-posting, but a good illustration of the unintuitiveness of GNS “narrativism” is that /The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen/ actually fits most closely into GNS definition of *gamism* rather than Narrativism.

        Nothing about tEAoBM allows the players to explore a theme, as the Big Model defines it. Rather it allows the players to demonstrate their mastery of a *real world skill* (which in this context happens to be storytelling) in a semi-competitive environment. This is actually far closer to the Gamist creative agenda (“Step on Up”) than the Narrativist creative agenda (“Story Now”).

    1. Excellent — thanks!

      What really leaps out at me from this is that the GNS categories as you’re describing them applying to IF line up pretty well with Challenge / Complicity / Exploration, which we do tend to talk about a lot.

  11. I missed this thread, but Balloon Diaspora is a recent game that does some of what you’ve described in terms of interpretive choices — it’s an adventure game that proceeds almost entirely through dialogue trees, and often your choice is between different interpretations of what’s happening. At one point someone describes an ancient manuscript to you, and then someone else asks you what you said, and you’re given the choice “It seems to be poetry” or “It seems to be prayers” — when of course it’s both.

    Not so much with the conflicting motives, though.

  12. What I like in all of this “debate,” if such it can be called, is there is absoutely no discussion about how any of this can be entertaining to a person experiencing it. Nice academic sounding discussion, though.

    1. “Why is this entertaining?” is kind of baked into the theory from the outset: GNS theory claims to identify three different major motives that role-players have for their play, and then asks how each of those motives can best be satisfied. The narrativist impulse is one of these.

      I suppose you can disagree that anyone is motivated to play or entertained by narrativist play, but there’s plenty of evidence that some people are.

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