A couple of weeks ago, I was asked about Narrativist games, and despite a lengthy (and interesting) discussion in comments, there wasn’t a lot of consensus about a corpus of narrativist IF/videogames; indeed, some commenters thought that it was more or less impossible to do narrativism properly except through a human GM.
In general, I think there are two problems with using GNS theory outside of the human-run RPG context. First, the narrativist approach in particular requires a lot of freeform input from the player, which it is difficult to express in computer mechanics; and second, most of this theory does tend to assume that there’s a more or less one-to-one relationship between characters in the story and players, whereas many computer games and interactive narratives disrupt that assumption.
It may be more successful to think in terms of the relationship between player and story. Even where the player character is the protagonist and the player is assumed to share the protagonist’s goals, there are plenty of distinctions to be made (and not just the “characterized” vs AFGNCAAP distinction, either). But that’s just the beginning. Some of the more common possibilities that don’t identify player and protagonist together:
The player controls a character who is really just a foil to the real main character, whoever that might be. The player-character’s interactions with the real protagonist serve to reveal and/or develop her character, but our own character remains something of a cipher.
- Both Portal and Portal 2. GLaDOS is far more developed, and undergoes more change, than Chell.
- Digital: A Love Story.
The player is most like the hand of fate, or the protagonist’s own failings. He guides the protagonist through various challenges, but in a way that leads the protagonist to an unhappy outcome. The player may be explicitly aware that he’s moving towards an unhappy ending, or the protagonist may be framed as a villain/antihero.
- A certain SpringComp game
- Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom (only in one specific sequence)
The player is most like an actor, improvising a performance to a script of the author’s creation. Play turns on things like gesture and style, focusing the player on motive and personality while not allowing him to control action.
- Heavy Rain, successfully in some segments
- Dinner Date, though perhaps unsuccessfully
- Lost Pig. The performative aspect is not the core gameplay, since that’s still chiefly puzzle-oriented, but a lot of the humor arises from finding ways to act in-character for this particular protagonist.
- Some segments of Fable III, not least the ones where the player is actually on stage in some way: for instance, the scene involving re-performing the lost plays of a famous playwright, or the mission riffing on D&D, both of which can be performed in different ways with comic results.
- The Act of Misdirection, the first scene: the player can perform the magic trick here well or badly, and is likely to do better on a replay than the first time around.
The player is most like a reader, though maybe of poetry rather than of prose. There are no real challenges at all, but the ergodic process of gaining access to different parts of the work encourages the player to be conscious of structural points she might not otherwise notice. Interaction often focuses the player on thematic links between apparently unrelated elements.
The player is most like a student, being quizzed with challenges depending on how well she understands the terms of a story that she doesn’t fully control (or perhaps doesn’t control at all).
- Matches and Matrimony
- Voices of Spoon River (intentionally written as an educational game, and most of the events of the story have already taken place long before the protagonist interacts with them)
- Certain examples of the hidden object game genre.
The player is most like a coauthor, directly manipulating aspects of the story at a high level. Not a lot of these exist, but I might include
- I Wish I Were the Moon (to a lesser degree, and unsurprisingly by the same author)
- The Girl and the Wolf, where you choose how much sex and/or violence you’d like to see included in a version of Little Red Riding Hood
Hmm. What other possibilities are there in this space? Translator, director, prose editor, reteller?
[Edited to add: Ruben and Lullaby might come close to being directorial, though it’s low on specific event content, so possibly this is at the expense of plot. But still.]