The devil’s advocate: Feedback in Narrative

I was just reading Raph Koster’s last blog post, and it made me think, which is not a bad thing. But it started me thinking about a counter argument to the premise that narrative is not a game mechanic. I must say that I agree with the sentiment and I am a strong advocate of the idea that gameplay and narrative are separate things. I also agree that narrative is a form of feedback in video games. What I have sometimes pondered, however, is whether game mechanics can exist inside narrative.

Now, I am sure a ton of people have thought about this and written about it and indeed if you have any good references to such thoughts, feel free to let me know. I did a little google search for “can game mechanics exist in narrative” and found, strangely enough, this post of Raph’s as the first result. Hmmm….

So, can game mechanics exist inside narrative? Well it is clear that in a computer game there is a medium, a machine, that plays out some kind of simulation which the game player can influence and is provided feedback on. Essentially, that’s the top level structure of a video game system, (the system being both the game and the player, with the rules of the simulation being designed by whoever crafted the game). In this way, we get an interactive experience. You do something and the game reacts. So it would seem pretty clear that a narrative is not interactive, because, well, a book does not accept input (with the exception, of course, of “Choose Your Own Adventure” type books as Raph covers in his post).

However, what if one considered the book as being more than just data? What if the narrative not only informs the reader of what happens in the plot, but also contains code that changes the reader’s mental model of the world described in the book? ‘Eh?’ you say?

Well clearly we use our imaginations when reading, and this process involves working with a model of the world and rules that govern the entities within it… rather like a game, only in the imagination of the player. The skilful author not only presents a story, but also can be thought of as programming that mental simulation as the reader absorbs the written work. Is that not really the same thing as a video game, only running in a ‘virtual machine’ in the reader’s mind? When I look at it that way I do not see a distinction.

So, at an abstract level, one can argue that literature can create an internal interactive experience with the reader trying out various ideas within their mental model of the story, and getting internally generated feedback which allows them to draw conclusions about what will happen next… a ‘video game in the brain’ if you will pardon the metaphor.

However, what makes writing a book and making a video game similar is that the author can play with that internal ‘machinery’ in the mind of the reader by, for example, planting ambiguous clues or using out and out misdirection. It could be argued that the most dramatic moments occur when such manipulations take place. The author is not limited to telling the story, but can also program the brain of the reader, who then plays with the resulting program while absorbing the story.

There is an important difference between telling dry facts and telling an entertaining  story, and perhaps the difference lies with this internal model in the mind of the reader. How could it be otherwise? If what I am suggesting were not true, then I am quite sure there would be no need to tell long stories at all. The bare facts would be enough, here’s the merchant of Venice in 140 seconds…

What do you think?

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