Narrative takes several forms in games. At times the narrative is designed to be very packaged and explicit, providing detailed stories with iconic characters and conflicts. Other times, narrative emerges as an extension of player creativity and autonomy, or even as the result of social frameworks that pervade the game experience. But there is also a more discreet execution of narrative that does not rely on explicit story or emergence, rather it focuses on the ludic narrative – the broad, experiential story of how the game is mechanically and dynamically experienced, and the atmosphere that those elements produce.
Finding the Ludic Narrative
While ludic narrative may seem like a nebulous concept, it is most clearly defined by a combination of environmental storytelling and mechanical player growth. Ask yourself: If you removed all dialogue text, cutscenes, and exposition from the game, what would you have left? You would be left only with the progression of the environment and gameplay mechanics and that makes up the game’s ludic narrative. By definition, the ludic narrative is that which relates to the pure mechanical & play elements of the game (ludus), and tells a meaningful story without the imposition of more explicit, traditional narrative devices.
Ludic narrative also comes hand-in-hand with Tadhg Kelly’s concept of storysense, the concept of hinting at a story rather than showing or telling a story, accomplished through experiencing a game’s world in motion without explicit exposition. Combined with game mechanics (how the storysense is consumed), storysense creatives a narrative that is experienced purely through interactive gameplay. This is the ludic narrative.
Ludic Narrative in Saints Row: The Third
Ludic narrative tends to come hand-in-hand with more explicit narratives; In Saints Row: The Third the plot revolves around overthrowing Steelport’s various gang leaders as well as bothersome military leader Cyrus Temple. But the game’s ludic narrative is something much simpler, and slightly different: the concept of “paint the town purple” – the process of seeing the entire city of Steelport falling under control of the Saints. This dynamic manifests itself in the game’s environments, as the player bears witness to increasingly common skyscrapers adorned with purple-tinted windows and the iconic Saints fleur de lis, but also in gameplay wherein increasingly more bystanders are members of the Saints empire and will join in combat. This growing sense of dominance and control plays a strong role in building the theme and tone of the game, and also reinforces the central conflict of overthrowing all who oppose the Saints, but this ludic narrative plays a secondary/support role to the more explicit immediate story elements of target elimination and firefights.
Ludic Narrative in Outbreak
Live-action zombie ARG Outbreak is also ripe with ludic narrative (in addition to strong emergent gameplay). Whereas installments of the game typically focus on a packaged narrative of “escape the city” or “cure the virus”, the ludic narrative is slightly different. The game’s core is a non-stop 100-hour game of zombie-tag that takes place in a layer atop its players’ everyday lives. Emergent narratives form immediately, with players building emergent alliances, assembling emergent weapon (Nerf-type blaster) loadouts, and devising emergent mission strategies. But there is also a layer of ludic narrative that forms alongside this emergence; players experience a feeling of bleak struggle with slow, yet predictable progress towards an end. This experience is delivered through the ludic experience of dwindling human squad sizes, increasing zombie horde sizes, and the mechanically established time limit. Unlike Saints Row: The Third, this execution of ludic narrative is derived much more closely from the emergent narrative than the explicit narrative, showing that the game’s mechanical core and affordance of emergent gameplay will absolutely impact the ludic narrative.
Crafting a Ludic Narrative
Piecing together a ludic narrative is incredibly difficult, as ludic narrative is an emergent dynamic of gameplay and story. Thus the only way to construct a ludic narrative is through the manipulation of the game’s mechanics and the storysense built for the game’s explicit narrative. Questions to ask yourself as you build ludic narrative:
- What long-term, gradual agencies does the player have in the game? Can the player impact the world in a visually trackable way?
- What elements of the game environment can you use to construct a living story?
- Can your players still have a subtle sense of progression without any of your explicit narrative?
- How will your ludic narrative enhance the experience of emergent narrative? Of the explicit narrative?
These questions have unique answers for every game, and thus must be thoughtfully approached. If your game is a persistent MMO, look for ways to grow the visualization of the geography based on what players are mechanically doing. If you are constructing a single-player FPS, ensure that players are losing (and/or gaining) teammates as they progress. The key to solving these problems in any genre or context is to ensure that the player recognizes that their performance and actions are relevant to a progressing environmental state.