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.