What's in a game? For those of us who are game buffs - in much the same way the cool kids were movie buffs in the latter part of the 20th century - it's a fascinating question. What makes a great game such a compelling experience? Is it that you're in the "flow" described by unpronounceable psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, that state of play (or work, for that matter) in which you're absorbed so completely, you enter a Zen-like state of oneness with your task? Or is it that you're caught up in the story, in the moral choices forced on your character, the moments of vulnerability and triumph, of uncertainty and resolution, the tale that keeps you glued to your console long enough to beat the next boss, reach the next level and find out what the next chapter holds?
Though you might not weigh these issues each time you log into World of Warcraft or pop that Halo CD into your Xbox, a number of game designers, researchers and other academics have been quietly debating such ideas for last five or 10 years. They fall roughly into two camps: Ludologists, who feel that only perfectly balanced gameplay can create the kind of "flow" that makes a game truly great, and narratologists, who feel that story is king and even the most balanced game mechanics can't make up for an empty main character and mindless hordes of enemies.
Of course, those reductive descriptions don't begin to get at the subtleties of the debate. And for those of us who judge our games more by experience than by two-dollar words, reading a stack of academic papers doesn't necessarily help. So, to shed some more light on some of these ideas, I contacted four prominent game theorists and designers to ask them not whether they thought the key to the puzzle lay in either gameplay or story, but a much more important question: What games are you playing lately, and why? Of course, I couldn't resist following up with a query on theory. I leave it to you, dear reader, to determine which set of answers do more to settle these kinds of questions - or whether they need to be settled at all.
Gonzalo Frasca is the guy who started it all, at least formally - though, these days, he wishes he hadn't. A researcher at the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University in Copenhagen and co-founder and Senior Producer at Powerful Robot Games, it was Frasca's 1999 paper, "Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative," that more or less kicked off the debate. Frasca's newest take on things is refreshingly all-encompassing: "As the reluctant father of the term 'ludology,' all I can say is that there are really not two camps at all," he told me. "People can favor different approaches."
True to his roots in the gameplay camp, though, Frasca's choice of games in recent months has leaned toward the kind of story-less action found in Katamari Damacy. Why? "I love when the katamari rolls over people," Frasca says. "It's the closest it gets to when I tortured ants as a kid." Animal Crossing and The Rub Rabbits are also in Frasca's DS. Rabbits, also known as Where Do Babies Come From?, is basically a dating puzzle game. "When well done, minigames are the equivalent of poetry," Frasca says. "The essence of the mechanics and the aesthetics, in a small package."
As to ludology and narratology, Frasca sees dangers in leaning too heavily on either. "We can learn from storytelling, but the main danger is trying to mimic too much," he says. "I admire people like Chris Crawford, Greg Costikyan, Ian Bogost and Eric Zimmerman. Their camp [- people pushing the boundaries of innovative gameplay and storytelling -] is much cooler than arguing if games are stories or not."
Espen Aarseth is unabashed in calling himself a narratologist. Building on the theories of French literary theorist Gerard Genette and narrative theorist Seymour Chatman, Aarseth's work is really about how literature may be generated by gameplay mechanics in contexts from the I Ching to the FPS. For Aarseth, gameplay is part and parcel of what makes the story; in some senses, it is the story.