The narrative possibilities in Scrabble are pretty thin—which isn’t to say that there are none. You could, for example, play with an eye toward word association, building narrative links between the words played each turn. If you’re a real masochist, you could further complicate play with a rule that denies players their earned points until they manage to provide a compelling narrative rationale for each word they’ve played.
Those innovations are, strictly speaking, gratuitous; Scrabble can be played with no more narrative a rhythm than that “players take turns until one has run out of tiles with no more to be drawn.” That isn’t to say that narrative is altogether alien to games. Video games, in particular, have made it possible to pack games with stories of varying quality, and because it sometimes seems that all of the exciting innovations in the world of play are happening onscreen, we’re sometimes beguiled into thinking that they represent a kind of Platonic ideal toward which games have been inevitably marching. Writing at The Society Pages, Sarah Wanenchak suggests that
We understand games as fundamentally puzzles, albeit puzzles with potential narrative significance. Puzzles need solving. Solving them allows for progress through the game; we unlock more content by successfully completing certain tasks. When we’ve solved everything and progressed as far as we can, we’ve won the game.
That’s really more indicative of a particular genre of game, albeit one that has grown so much in popularity as video games have grown more sophisticated that we sometimes have trouble discerning the genre from gaming in general.
Previously I’ve argued (in very roundabout terms) that the debate over whether games can be art is, as often as not, a struggle over how we as a culture agree to understand games. The contention is that we should understand them as mostly analogous to a few already familiar art forms: foremost among them, literature and cinema. There’s always a trade-off, and the result may be that we’re forsaking uncharted cultural territory that would open up if we could only dedicate ourselves to exploring the possibility that games function according to their own logic. If that’s the case, then the naysayers who insist that games cannot be art may unintentionally be doing more to preserve the dignity of gaming than the partisans who think they can elevate its stature by calling it art.
Puzzles, as it happens, are one of the things that distinguishes games from many forms of narrative art. Not that those narrative arts don’t contain puzzles. It is, rather, a difference in kind. Both Agatha Christie and Professor Layton present crime and punishment as a kind of puzzle, but it’s doubtful that a novelization of a game like Antichamber will ever be able to achieve more than an awkward approximation. That’s something to celebrate, if you ask me; in the Venn diagram of games and art, it’s the critically ignored spaces that don’t overlap which interest me most.
Even acknowledging that games handle some puzzles better, it’s worth asking: are we really so certain that games function “fundamentally” as puzzles? That probably depends on how broadly you view the category. If tennis is a game, then it’s a curious kind of puzzle. That isn’t to say that you can’t understand it that way—as a kind of athletic Rube Goldberg puzzle, perhaps, inscribed in the physics of racquet, ball and court. But to what end? I don’t mean that rhetorically; rather, I am trying to provoke you to question certain popular assumptions, to probe the motives behind them. In the right hands, “tennis as puzzle” can be an interesting topic for exploration, but it should be treated provisionally until we’ve managed to fashion some compelling reason for treating it otherwise.
It might be more to the point that we understand computers as puzzles. Wanenchak is on the threshold of acknowledging as much when she briefly expands her purview to encompass “more generally, how we interact with most forms of technology—and how that menu of interactions is limited to what we can imagine.” When we emulate tennis on a computer, we reintroduce the puzzle element, but the puzzle is not tennis. Rather, the puzzle is the question of how you use the mechanical and electronic interface to influence a representation of tennis. To the extent that they sell as simulations of the sport they are only emulating, most sports-themed video games devote a huge amount of overhead to aesthetic effects that distract from the ultimately unavoidable fact that what you’re doing isn’t really all that much like playing the actual sport.
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Before we go too far astray, I should in fairness note that Wanenchak is talking about a particular kind of game, and talking about it in order to address a particular kind of problem. She was put on the trail of that problem by an unreleased game designed in conjunction with Dreams of a Life, a documentary about the discovery of the body of Joyce Carol Vincent, a young British woman whose death had gone unnoticed for three years. Knowing that background, we can reverse engineer Wanenchak’s analysis.
As I noted earlier this week, narrative is a ritual we use in order to thread our lives with continuity. That makes it a convenient tool when your goal is to understand how a person’s life could so completely slip loose of the interpersonal connections that bind us to society. When your canvas is a traditionally narrative medium like documentary film, certain narrative solutions recommend themselves, but how do you employ narrative when you want to broach the same subject matter in a game?
One way—a method with a relatively venerable precedent in the history of the text and graphic adventure genres—is with a sequence of puzzles. That’s important because there’s a pretty tight logical connection between the notion that we respond to games as though they were all puzzles and the conclusion toward which Wanenchak is working. “In other words:” she writes,
Games, by definition, have winstates. And we expect them to. The instant we’re engaging with a game, we’re instinctively trying to discern what the winstate is and how we can reach it.
She’s wrong on that point, though: not all games have winstates. Not even all video games have winstates. Most versions of Tetris include an open-ended mode that scales the difficulty the higher the player scores, until it’s simply no longer possible to keep up. That mode provides no real winstate, just a condition for losing that will ultimately be met, if only by attrition.
In video games, there’s always that puzzle-like process of figuring out the best way to interact with what happens onscreen, but even so, puzzle-solving may not be the best way to understand some games. In some games a relatively free process of creation stands in the place of puzzle-solving. Sim City, for example, is not a puzzle in the same way that a Rubik’s cube is a puzzle. You’re free to set your own goals, or to play without any explicit goal in mind. When we think of games as puzzles, that is to say, we’re thinking of them as having been defined by their teleology, and some games need not be all that teleological.
A puzzle without a winstate, however, would be something of a paradox. They may not need solving, but all puzzles presuppose the possibility of solution. If they didn’t, we’d have a hard time thinking of them as puzzles. Despite its conventional categorization as a “puzzle game,” the game at the heart of Tetris works by transcending its puzzle. The way the pieces fit together suggests a jigsaw puzzle, and assembling them into four full rows provides a reiterative solution, but even after the field is cleared the game goes on. Completing a “tetris” is a milestone, not a winstate. The game itself is built on a recursive puzzle, but has no solution, no real teleology.
Must every game have at least some endstate? Dwarf Fortress offers a myriad of ways to lose, but no explicit winstate; Solitaire has a single ideal winstate, but only infinite reshuffling in the place of a definitive loss. We understand both of those as games despite that difference, but would we understand an activity as a game if it did not include at least one rule to decide when play ends?
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It is not, then, that we habitually think of games as puzzles to be solved, but rather that puzzles are one of a handful of reliable strategies for inviting the sort of play that builds narrative. It is, however, a problematic strategy, and that’s where Wanenchak’s analysis really comes into focus. “So what we’re dealing with here,” she writes,
is actually one of the limits inherent in games: The point at which winstates stop being the goal and start becoming distractions. Because it’s still very hard for most of us to shed the fundamental assumption that they are the goal.
Building a narrative as a sequence of puzzles may seem like the only way to fashion a satisfying game out of subject matter like the death of Joyce Carol Vincent. The problem is our habit of treating puzzles functionally. We tend to see them not a emotionally-laden symbols or arbiters of meaning, but as collections of moving parts to be assembled and reassembled into a winstate. That, presumably is not how the designer, Margaret Robertson, wanted players to approach Vincent’s life and death: as a puzzle to be manipulated into victory.
That’s a serious problem for anyone hoping to build games into experiences more meaningful than just a fun way to pass the time. Wanenchak presents that as a matter of cultural approach: “We can’t do certain things with certain technologically mediated forms of storytelling because there are limits to what users can imagine within the context of those media.” It is, however, a difficulty born not of the nature of gaming per se, but rather of the teleology of puzzles.
The solution, then, is to experiment with building narratives on game structures other than the serialization of puzzles. As it happens, there’s already one niche community experimenting along those lines. One of the characteristics that distinguish modern interactive fiction from its text adventure roots is the drift toward “puzzle-less” narratives. Some of those older text adventures may have been no less ambitious in reaching for emotional and thematic complexity, but the modern attempt to break with puzzles as the main vehicle for narrative has freed players to address them as narrative complexities, rather than as obstacles to achieving a high score. Part of the trick is to signal to the player that puzzles are not the order of the day.
One way to do that is to tell the player early on that there is no winstate. I’m spoiling nothing by telling you that Romeo and Juliet die in the end; the play itself tell you as much in the first scene. In doing so, it deflates the suspense of wondering how the play will end, and lets you concentrate instead on what the action means in its own context. Likewise, knowing that there is no way to “solve” the narrative of a game lets the player approach it as a narrative, rather than an obstacle.
You could, for that matter, do away with losing, too. Would what’s left even be a game? Possibly; “playing house” has no conditions for winning or losing, and that’s one of the earliest games that young children learn—assuming that it is a game. It has no endstates at all, really, save the decision to play something else. That frees the children to focus on playing a role. It lets them try out a narrative of domesticity, exploring the meaning of heading a household. Maybe that makes for a pretty flimsy game, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of the narratives it builds.