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Narratology vs Ludology in Video Games

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When people talk about video games, they often talk about the same things: gameplay, graphics, length, difficulty and online capabilities, how well will it sell, and who will buy it. But how often do we talk about the game’s story? How often do we discuss the effectiveness and purpose of its narrative?

Not all games tell stories, though. Some early games such as Tetris may be abstract, expressive, and experimental, solely focused on gameplay with no narrative to build upon. Some narratologists have tried to find the story in such games, calling Tetris “A perfect enactment of the over tasked lives of Americans in the 1990s – of the constant bombardment of tasks that demand our attention and that we must somehow fit into our overcrowded schedules and clear off our desks in order to make room for the next onslaught.” (Murray, 1997). Although it can make sense, this could not have been what the game designers were thinking when creating Tetris. They most likely took an entirely ludological approach and simply designed the game with gameplay in mind. This was acceptable in the early days of computer games, since not much was expected from the then-unexplored world of computer games.

Nowadays, to satisfy the increasing demand of players, non-indie game developers cannot afford to look past narrative even when designing the simplest of games. The old way of developing games – creating the gameplay first and then adding some sort of an over the top storyline – is disappearing and a new, narrative-centered development style is taking over. Game designers don’t simply tell stories anymore; they design living worlds and sculpt expansive spaces to accommodate for character and story development. Narrative has become the main selling point in the majority of current AAA video games.

On the other hand, indie developers approach this differently. Innovation and creativity are much more valued among independent game developers in order to be noticed and pushed into the spotlight. This way of thinking has spawned many inventive and critically acclaimed games such as the puzzle platformer Braid which skips the third dimension and directly connects a 2D world with temporal movement. This sort of innovation creates great pressure on the mainstream game development companies to produce more sophisticated games in order to stay competitive.

I believe neither narratology or ludology can solidly stand on their own in the modern day of game development. A narrative-driven game might not provide enough challenge, yet an entirely ludology-based game would lack substance and would not be as attractive to players. Great care must be taken to balance these two contrasting yet complementary fields.


Murray, J. (1997) Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, Cambridge: MIT Press

Gonzalo Frasca. (1999). Ludology meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative. Available: http://www.ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm. Last accessed 20th Mar 2012.

Patrick Holleman. (2011). Narrative in Videogames. Available: http://thegamedesignforum.com/features/narrative_in_games.html. Last accessed 21th Mar 2012.

Gonzalo Frasca. (2003). Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology. The Video Game Theory Reader. 1 (1), p124-137.

Eric Zimmerman. (2004). Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games. Available: http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/ludican-do. Last accessed 28th May 2012.

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