Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fun Through Fantasy and Narrative

An interesting topic came up in a recent game design class. We were talking about various types of fun after trying to define fun itself (which, by the way, is a lot harder than it seems at first - if you try to do it, make sure your definition includes the fringe things that should be considered fun, and excludes all things that aren't). We looked at eight kinds of fun laid out by Marc LeBlanc:
  • Sensation: aesthetics, sense-pleasure
  • Fantasy: make-believe, fiction
  • Narrative: story, game as an unfolding story
  • Challenge: obstacles, difficulty, etc
  • Fellowship: social framework
  • Discovery: exploration, uncharted territory, learning
  • Expression: creativity, soap box, customization
  • Submission: escapism, mindless pastime
We talked about challenge the most when trying to define fun and before seeing this list. Even with this list, I feel that you can bring challenge into most descriptions of fun somehow, even if abstractly. This agrees at least somewhat with The Theory of Fun, which you may recall I read recently. But I found the discussion surrounding fantasy and narrative to be something I had never thought about before.

Fantasy. I would suggest that the vast majority of digital games have this. There are completely abstract games like Tetris that are obviously fun, but I would say these types of games are the exception. Most games have some kind of fantasy, even if it's just a dressing of an otherwise abstract game (or colour, as Costikyan put it). Have to remove red blocks because they're miserable without knocking over green happy blogs? Fantasy through personification of otherwise inanimate objects. Have to play a spy who is trying to collect intelligence on terrorism? Fantasy through role playing. Playing the Sims? Still fantasy - you are putting yourself in someone else's shoes or seeing what happens when you change your own life, even if slightly.

Narrative. Again, I think a lot of games have narrative, though strictly speaking, probably not as many as have fantasy. After all, you can have aspects of make believe or fiction without actually telling a story, as in the case of the red block remover linked to above. It's a little unclear whether this aspect of fun is including games with implied back-stories as well, or if it's trying to capture the pleasure of having a well thought out story that is told as part of the game.

If a game can have fantasy but no narrative, can you have narrative with no fantasy? The answer for me was almost no, that you couldn't, if we take fantasy as fiction. Of course narrative does not have to be fictional in general, but in a game, when is it not? One suggestion in class was that you can tell a story about playing a game that is not fictional, but this didn't count in my mind. Any story element embedded in any game I could think of was fictional.

... until I was finally able to prove myself wrong. The one counter-example I could think of was Truth or Dare.

Can you think of any other examples of having narrative in a game that is not fictional in some way?

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