“Game Design as Narrative Architecture” – Henry Jenkins

In “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” Henry Jenkins seeks to find middle-ground within the (perhaps now outdated) ludologist and narratologists debates. While Jenkins understands the concern ludologists have for separating games from other fields of study (such as film and literature), Jenkins cautions that “one gets rid of narrative as a framework for thinking about games only at one’s own risk” (118). To establish middle-ground, Jenkins first outlines points of agreement between the two campus: 1) Not all games tells stories and as such, we need other terms and concepts to analyze and understand them 2) Many games do tell stories, and as such it’s reasonable to want to understand how these games relate to other narrative mediums 3) Narrative analyses need not be the only analyses and need not dictate the direction and future of the medium 4) the experience of a game can never be simplified or equated to the experience of a story – there is always more at work 5) though games can tell stories, it is generally understood that they tell them differently than other mediums (119-121).

Moving from these mutually agreed upon points, Jenkins details the ways game use space and environment to invoke story. Jenkins here suggests that the core narrative of many games is focused around “the struggle to explore, map, and master contested spaces,” and that many game spaces facilitate narrative experiences (121). Without including a narrative in the tradition sense, these games, “create the preconditions for an immersive narrative experience in at least one of four ways: spatial stories can evoke pre-existing narrative associations; they can provide a staging ground where narrative events are enacted; they may embed narrative information within their mise-en-scene; or they provide resources for emergent narratives” (123). Jenkins admits, however, that although environment can be used to evoke story, most of the time when we discuss story in games, we are referring to those that enable players to perform (or to witness) narrative events (124). In such instances, the argument should be less about ludology vs. narratology and more about establishing balance: “trying to determine how much freedom players can enjoy at a local level without totally derailing the larger narrative trajectory” (126). The complication with establishing this balance, Jenkins notes, is that game designers are, typically, inexperienced storytellers and are thus fall back on “mechanical exposition” (126). Jenkins admits, that designers will become more experienced storytellers over time and as the game mediums itself develops.

Moving forward toward better storytelling, and thus a better balance between mechanics and storytelling, Jenkins outlines the differences and important components of embedded narratives and emergent narratives. Within embedded narrative, he argues, that game designers can control the narrative process by distributing the information redundantly across the game space, so that players will encounter essential information regardless of how they play. In this way, the game space becomes a kind of “information space” (126). Alternately, emergent narratives are those in which the players maintains a kind of authorship over the environment and can set their own goals and craft their own narrative experiences. While Jenkins uses The Sims as an example of an emergent narrative, the more contemporary example would certainly be Minecraft. In either case, however, Jenkins argues that environment (how it is crafted and how players can engage with it) is essential to creating both embedded and emergent narrative experiences. Essentially, for Jenkins, what makes games a unique medium are the environments they create and with which the player can interact and either discover or create their own stories from (129). Finally, given the importance of constructing environments with potential, Jenkins suggests game designers be considered “narrative architects” rather than “storytellers” (129).

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