Art Theory: The Underlying Issue With Narratology/Ludology

The question of narratology versus ludology was a hot topic in game design for a while. “Narratology” and “ludology” are pretty big words, but they boil down to a simple concept: what exactly are games, and what are they supposed to mean? Advocators of narratology argue that video games are vehicles for carrying stories, giving the player a rich narrative experience. On the other hand, ludologists claim that video games should be considered as their own separate medium, with its own unique language.

Narratology: games as stories. Ludology: games as games. A narratologist would say that Halo is a game about space aliens, whereas a ludologist would say that Halo is a game about shooting and combat.

But this essay isn’t about picking a side. Actually, the age of picking a side is over. The narratology vs. ludology debate is dead. That’s why this essay isn’t about narratology vs. ludology: this essay is about the underlying issue with narratology vs. ludology, what we can learn from it, and how it can enhance the future of games. And in order for us to figure out what exactly that underlying issue is, we have to delve a bit into the history of this debate.

The History of This Debate

A long time ago, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” Simply put, it’s the idea that the way something is presented innately carries a message within itself, complimenting (or obstructing) the actual message. Imagine reading a newspaper article about the Columbine shootings, then watching a documentary about the Columbine shootings, then playing a video game about the Columbine shootings. The newspaper article might sound solemn and businesslike, the documentary might be emotional and personal, the video game might be dark and depressing. Even though they’re all about the same thing, the medium through which each is conveyed drastically changes the message.

When you think about narratology vs. ludology, you’re essentially thinking about “message vs. medium.” Do you want to focus on the message you’re telling, or do you want to focus on the way you’re telling it? But this isn’t a question limited to video games. Nearly every artistic medium has faced the issue of message vs. medium. In painting, the abstract expressionist movement tapped into the power of medium, as opposed to traditional realist art which tried to tell a narrative message. In film, some directors simply created film versions of classical plays, whereas other directors experimented with camera cuts and drastic angles. In literature, E. E. Cummings pushed the limits of what it meant to write poetry, unlike Ernest Hemingway whose brevity and conciseness brought readers as close to the narrative as possible. Analyzing the history of these various mediums can lend insight into the future of video games. For the sake of brevity, let’s zero in on one medium in particular: animation.

As novel and magical as animation may seem now, it was a hundred times more novel and magical during its conception.

In the earliest days of its conception, animation was a simple parlor trick used to entertain people. It was crude, unrealistic animation, but the simple fact that pictures were somehow moving amazed viewers who had never seen anything like it. Animation was such a novelty that churches used animations of moving devils to scare people into converting. And they did convert, because they thought the cheesy cartoonish devils were real just because they were moving.

Even after the novelty died off, animation stayed as mindless entertainment for quite a while. It was common for animations to be opening acts for a film, so many short animations were churned out quickly and thoughtlessly by studios. Eventually, a man named Walt Disney (1) put his foot down and said “No. I’m tired of making all these stupid shorts. We’re going to do a real feature-length animation that will rival the films that overshadowed us. And this feature-length animation will be Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”

Of course, everybody laughed at Disney. Make a feature-length animation? Just stick to making the same old drivel you’re used to doing, and leave the meaningful work to films! But thanks to the brilliance of Disney’s co-worker Ub Iwerks, Snow White was not only created, but went on to become a massive hit.

There’s a reason why Disney chose Snow White, and it’s the same reason as why every Disney animated movie copies or is written in the style of classic fables. It’s because Disney was interested in narrative. The animation was there not for the sake of strong animation, but for the sake of furthering the narrative.  Message over medium.

Then the Warner Bros. company stood up and said “What’s all this narrative crap about? Let’s make animations for the sake of animating, not so we can tell cheesy children’s stories!” Their flagship series Looney Tunes was all about hilarious nonsensical gags, and their exaggerated style of animation created a frantic, intense, and insane atmosphere for those gags to thrive in. No one and nothing could mimic the same style that Looney Tunes naturally had, and that’s because it took advantage of the unique properties of animation. Medium over message.

These two companies became the leaders of pop culture animation: the world of Looney Tunes versus the world of Mickey Mouse. Medium versus message. Animation versus narrative. It’s the same thing as the narratology vs. ludology debate, except with “animation” instead of “ludology.”

But I started from the very beginning of animation rather than just jumping to the Looney Tunes/Mickey Mouse debate. That’s because it’s important for us to identify why the debate started in the first place. It happened because Disney and Warner Bros. both wanted to prove animation’s worth as a form of art in and of itself. They were tired of animations being a gimmicky side-show, an opening act for films rather than their own feature. They both loved animation and wanted to see it become something more.

It’s just that their methods were a little different. Disney wanted to say “Animation can tell deep, enriching stories, thus establishing it as a form of art!” Warner Bros. wanted to say “Animation can do all these things that no other medium can, thus establishing it as a form of art!” But when you put the means aside, the ends are the same: establish animation as a form of art. This trend happens through nearly every form of art, including video games.

Back to Video Games

Video games struggle with the same problems that plagued the field of animation.

Why did the narratology vs. ludology debate exist? Well, taking what we learned from the history of animation, the debate stems from the desire to establish video games as a form of art. Different people chose different paths to that goal, like the interactive fiction movement (2). We can then see that the narratology vs. ludology debate is related to the games as art debate.

Why did the games as art debate exist? Same reason as why the animation as art debate existed. Game designers wanted their work to be seen as something powerful and meaningful, not just mindless entertainment with no purpose. Video games had (and still have) a lot of negative stigmas tied to them like addiction and violence, all of which prevented games from being truly respected.

Why did the narratology vs. ludology debate end? Because the games as art debate ended. Of course, the games as art debate didn’t exactly come to a complete stop, but games are certainly being treated with more respect than they were in the past. There’s no reason to argue over whether it’s narrative or mechanics that makes a game meaningful when games are already acknowledged to be meaningful.

Why did the games as art debate end? Because of Portal and Braid (3).

Typically, the whole “___ as art” debate ends due to the sheer quantity of work produced and the subsequent analysis of that work in the greater scheme of that medium’s history. Typically, it takes a long period of time for a medium to be respected as art. Typically, you’re not able to point to one or two pieces and say “these works completely changed the course of their medium’s history,” so you have to talk in terms of general art movements and time periods instead.

Apparently, video games are not a typical medium.

There’s almost no contest when it comes to judging the artistic quality of Portal and Braid. They’re both very deep, contemplative experiences that leave players with a strange, undescribable feeling which has never been doing before. When someone asks for an example of games as art, you name either Portal or Braid, or both.

But enough of looking at Portal and Braid from the games as art perspective. When we look at them from the narratology vs. ludology perspective, we see something interesting. Generally, we’re able to categorize games in terms of whether their focus is on narrative or gameplay. Halo is about gameplay: shoot aliens untill they die. Final Fantasy VII is about story: save the world from the evil Sephiroth. Pong is about gameplay: outplay your opponent to win. The Longest Journey is about story: discover the truth about the universe.

You’re just not able to categorize Portal or Braid that simply. Portal is about gameplay, shooting portals to solve puzzles, but it’s also about story, escaping the clutches of GLaDOS. Braid is about gameplay, using time manipulation to solve puzzles, but it’s also about story, unraveling the metaphor of what time manipulation means to the protagonist.

Rather, trying to classify Portal or Braid as focusing on narrative or focusing on gameplay is almost an insult. The narrative and the gameplay are intricately interwoven, tied together so tightly that the experience would simply not be the same without either one. They bolster each other and create a unique experience through their dual strengths. It’s funny that the narratology vs. ludology debate ended because of games which excelled due to their use of both aspects combined.

And yet, all of this discussion is missing a crucial element. It’s all well and good that Portal and Braid ended the games as art debate. But why are Portal and Braid considered to be artistically designed games? How did they manage to establish an example of games as art? What exactly about them made them so artistic? If you dig deep enough, this boils down to two questions: what is art, and how did Portal and Braid fulfill that definition?

What Is Art?

Is this art?

When you ask “what is art,” you’re getting into a whole world in and of itself. Is art a piece of work infused with a deep meaningful message by its creator? If so, then would that disqualify nature as art? Is art a piece of work that took great amounts of effort to create? If so, then should digital paintings be considered less artistic than physical ones? Is art something that’s beautiful to look at? If so, then why are we so fascinated by the decidedly unbeautiful story of Macbeth? Trying to find a good concrete definition of art is tougher than it seems. Of course, it’s still possible. But it’s going to require another flashback.

1917. What was happening in the world in 1917? Nowadays, we would say “World War 1.” But back in 1917, they weren’t calling it “World War 1.” They called it the Great World War, and the War To End All Wars, and other dramatic names. This was the very first time that the whole entire world was enveloped in conflict, and people had no idea what to expect.

The Great World War broke a lot of expectations. People expected war to be something honorable and noble, but instead infantrymen were getting mowed down by faceless machine gunners. People expected soldiers to be respectful and gallant, but instead they used noxious gases and chemical warfare. People expected battle to be passionate and romantic (4), but instead most fights were spent huddling in dank, dirty trenches.

It was a devastating affair, not only physically but psychologically. People used to respect concepts like honor and bravery and courage: it was practically what defined us as humans rather than beasts. But the Great World War took all those concepts and threw them out the window. How are we supposed to deal with the fact that the atrocities of this war are proving our humanity wrong? If we can’t respect what we thought made us human, then what is there left to respect?

There was a group of artists called the Dadaists who took this idea and ran with it (5). If the sacred principles of human behavior have been desecrated, then screw it, let’s desecrate everything that’s sacred! Nothing is sacred anymore. We don’t have to bother keeping up this facade, pretending to be human when we really aren’t anymore. Let’s channel all these thoughts and emotions and create art from it, and show the world what monstrous beings we have become.

So the Dadaists went around creating all sorts of crazy artworks. At meetings, they would cut apart words from a newspaper, mix them in a hat, pull them out in a randomized order, and call it poetry. They were silly people. But it’s the work of one of these Dadaists in particular which really touches into the “what is art” debate. This Dadaist was a dude named Marcel Duchamp.

One day, Marcel Duchamp was strolling down a street when he saw a poster for an upcoming museum exhibit. The poster said “We will display ANY artwork. Pay us the exhibition fee and your work will be shown here, no matter WHAT.” Being the natural troll that he was, Duchamp decided to enter. He went to the hardware store, bought a porcelain urinal, turned it upside-down, wrote “R. Mutt 1917” on it, and brought it to the museum. “Here is my masterpiece: it’s called ‘Fountain’. Please have ‘Fountain’ on display when your exhibit opens. Thank you.”

Of course, no one liked “Fountain.” They hated it so much that they picked up “Fountain” and threw it into a nearby river. Duchamp wasn’t fazed: he just bought another urinal and named it “Fountain” again. This happened a few times (6).

It’s understandable that people would be angry if they paid money for a museum exhibit and saw an upside-down urinal on display. An upside-down urinal is not art! It has no deep meaningful message, it took no effort to create, and it’s not beautiful! Why the hell would anyone think this belongs in an art exhibit? But as the people were carrying “Fountain” out to the river, they found that the questions they asked in their rage were actually pretty tough questions to answer. Is art really about deep meaningful messages, or the effort of creation, or beauty? If “Fountain” isn’t art, then what is art? How is art defined, and how does that definition exclude “Fountain”?

For nearly the first time in art history, people were truly forced to ask themselves “what is art?” They all knew that nice little paintings and sculptures were art. If Duchamp had made one of those, people would have been happy and they wouldn’t have thrown his work into the river. But he didn’t: remember that Dadaism was all about challenging the concepts we hold dear. “Fountain” challenged the concept of art, and it did so by being decidedly un-artistic.

People came to their own conclusions about art. Some of them stuck with art being a vehicle for a deep message, and interpreted the “R. Mutt 1917” signature as a critique of society’s obsession with ownership. Some of them stuck with art requiring a great deal of effort from the artist, and asked themselves if urinal manufacturers and other laborers should count as artists. Some of them stuck with art as beauty, and they were the ones who continued throwing “Fountains” into the river.

But the beauty of it all was the fact that different people were coming to different conclusions. “Fountain” inspired each person to come up with their own interpretation, challenging their own beliefs and developing their own perspective. The phrase “definition of art” is a little faulty because it implies one singular definition that applies to all artworks through all perspectives, a neat one-liner that you can read in a dictionary. When it comes to something as subjective and personal as art, it just doesn’t work out that cleanly.

Art isn’t so much of a concrete object to be defined as a mentality, a way of seeing the world. I may look at a cactus and think nothing of it, whereas a flower arranger might look at it and think of how best to place it to generate aesthetic appeal. I may cross a bridge and think nothing of it, whereas an engineer might try to derive how it’s built and how it could be improved. I may use my computer and think nothing of it, whereas a computer scientist might think about all the complicated procedures happening under the hood of that same computer.

That in itself is my definition of art. To me, art is what makes you think. If something causes you to think, it’s art. “Fountain” forced practically all of its viewers to think, and the subjective interpretations of that thought are something I personally find  beautiful. When multiple people are interpreting the exact same thing in different ways, it’s art. Something may be amazingly artistic for one person, and provide no mental stimulation at all for another. Everything in the world exists in a state of either being art or not art, and its state is different depending on who the observer is. The only difference is who you ask.

Video Games Under the Modernist View Of Art

Video games are one of the only mediums which directly force players to think. Thanks to interactivity, players must take an active role and exert their own influence over the game world. No other medium draws its viewers into an active role as much as video games do, and that inevitably forces players to think. Under my definition, video games could quite possibly be the truest form of art.

It’s significant that Portal and Braid were both puzzle games, because puzzles are quite possibly the purest form of thinking. Interestingly, puzzles are quite possibly the purest form of games as well. Solving a puzzle involves understanding how all the pieces work together, how each piece can be manipulated, and what kind of actions must be taken to achieve a certain goal. Games can be broken down similarly. In a RTS, should I build more troops, or should I expand my territory? In a FPS, should I throw a grenade over this wall, or should I camp outside its entrance? In Pong, should I move my paddle up, or should I move it down? In tag, should I run this way, or that way?

All of these aspects are dedicated to thinking about game mechanics, but both Portal and Braid forced players to consider the narrative aspects of their puzzles as well. Where am I? Why am I solving these puzzles? What goal am I trying to achieve? Who am I trying to save? The art debate links right back to the narratology vs. ludology debate here: you’re thinking about how to solve the mechanical gameplay elements of a puzzle, but you’re also thinking about the narrative elements of why you’re trying to solve that puzzle. When thinking about gameplay is combined with thinking about narrative, the result is an experience that truly forces players to think about every aspect of the game they’re playing, thus creating an artistic experience.

It’s almost poetic how intricate the connection between the “games as art” and “narratology vs. ludology” debates are. Understanding one requires an understanding of the other, and resolving one conflict results in the resolution of both. Portal and Braid brought the state of video games to a new level thanks to the way each game approached these concepts. Likewise, a careful consideration and application of these concepts can work to create an experience that promotes interpretation and subjective thought.

The lesson to take away is that there is no point to trying to take a side. To create an artful video game requires a blending of narratology and ludology. A player is most engaged when he is not only thinking about how to proceed in a game, but also why he is proceeding in that game. Medium and message must come together if games are to reach their maximum potential as not only forms of entertainment, but also forms of art.


(1) Or rather, a man named Ub Iwerks.

(2) Interactive fiction games are like text adventures, except with a massive emphasis on narrative. Since player interactivity is so low in IF games, it’s tough to say if they truly qualify as video games. But that’s worth an essay in itself. They’re cool though. Galatea by Emily Short was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had.

(3) Strictly speaking, Portal ended the debate because it came first. Then Braid came along and hammered the nail in the coffin. Then Portal 2 came along and performed the last rites. Then the floodgates kind of burst open and we got all sorts of Dear Esthers and LIMBOs and Journeys. Accounting for time paradoxes, of course.

(4) It’s probably necessary for me to make the distinction between “romantic” as lovey-dovey versus “romantic” as full of emotion. Here, I’m takling about the latter.

(5) Needless to say, the Dadaists were very strongly anti-war.

(6) And it’s still continuing to happen. There have been a few scandals of people urinating into museum exhibits of “Fountain,” claiming that they’re completing Duchamp’s masterpiece. And I guess they were sort of on the right track. But not enough to justify having a museum smell like piss.

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