[Originally published August 4, 2016]
Thinking through theoretical definitions is really the pits, but heavens to Murgatroyd it’s important – not only for our understanding of Narrative, but also for our understanding of gaming’s cultural discourse and its origins. Fair warning – I’m about to throw you in the deep end (REAL deep) – no floaties. Just remember, I do this because I trust you.
Narrative can be reduced to the following terms: protagonist, obstacle, endpoint. Even in this reductive format, there’s a lot of wiggle room to be found. Protagonists can be good/bad, human/animal, or even something abstract, like a world. I’m going to skip obstacle for a second to talk about ‘endpoints’ and why I use the term ‘endpoint’ rather than ‘goal.’ ‘Goals’ aren’t necessary to achieve a conclusion (though they are helpful), and often warp and change over the course of a narrative. This is why the Joker is such a controversial narrative tool – he can do any thing at any time despite often contradictory motivations, and still maintain the integrity of his character. In many ways, he represents the superficial nature of ‘goals’ within Narrative, which is secretly why many writers love/hate him so much. Endpoints, on the other hand, are fixed cutoff points – a horizon line on an infinitely extending narrative universe. They can come before, during, or after the completion of a ‘goal’ – or any other variety of narrative tools of momentum – to various effect. This is also why they’re not necessarily ‘conclusions,’ as endpoints aren’t tied to the conclusion of an arc. During film, we wait for an endpoint, but in games, we chase it.
In between ‘protagonist’ and ‘endpoint’ lies ‘obstacle.’ We often mistakenly use this term interchangeably with ‘conflict,’ but ‘conflict’ comes from obstacles. Without obstacle, there is no conflict; they are not one and the same. Additionally, ‘conflict’ is experienced, whereas ‘obstacles’ are overcome – especially in video games. They might – and often do – exist adjacent to one another, rather than in simultaneity. ‘Conflict’ can occur without overcoming the narrative obstacle – in fact, this is part of the reason video game narratives exist in their current format. For example: during a level, we may ‘conflict’ with enemy forces without actually overcoming any narrative obstacles (NOb). At the end of a level, we may be treated to some sort of cutscene that shows our characters overcoming a NOb, but we – ourselves – don’t partake in the actual act of ‘overcoming.’ Games have long struggled with solving this problem, seeking refuge in ideas like QTEs. Most often, however, the mechanical realm of play is relegated to the realm of ‘progress.’ It’s a space where ‘conflict’ becomes more of a verb than a noun (i.e. we conflict with enemies rather than engage in the conflict preceded by the NOb). ‘Progress,’ I should note, is not necessarily ‘overcoming.’
Christ. Listen, I warned you. This is just where theoretical writing takes us. Hang in there.
When we ‘progress’ in a game, we simply move our hero closer to the stage of narrative overcoming (NOv). Within P there can be obstacles, but – if there are – they’re mechanical obstacles (MOb), not narrative obstacles. These obstacles – e.g. enemies, platforms, locked doors – often exist tangential to the narrative. You could eliminate them from the overall experience and nothing would change about the narrative as a whole. When MObs do arise, however, we experience a mechanical overcoming (MOv), but not a narrative overcoming (NOv).
I want to make clear – while ‘progress’ and ‘overcoming’ have their own unique obstacles, they’re – in no way – mutually exclusive. This is part of what’s so interesting about the ways many games try to challenge and subvert P and O’s places in the broader narrative formula. Dark Souls does this by functionally elongating the ‘endpoint’ so that the entire narrative takes place within that compact vanishing point – the world is static, everything that has happened has already happened, and our character traverses a world that has reached its conclusion. Survival sims simply remove the endpoint entirely, and use systemic gameplay to cultivate systemic stories rather than narrative ones. Since the mechanics are the only obstacle, this places players in a perpetual state of ‘overcoming.’
Though ‘progress’ and ‘overcoming’ are not inherently tied to one another, we often conflate the two. This is partly due to the way the game space enhances the shared fluidity of P and O. The broader conflation between ‘conflict’ and ‘obstacle’ is also to blame. Regardless, what we’re left with is this internalized misconception that O necessitates P. We associate O with P, because we’re treated to a narrative overcoming after we make progress. For decades now, P has been achieved through overcoming MOb, which has – in turn – conditioned us to associate progress with mechanical overcoming. But P has never needed an overcoming, whereas narratives always have. As previously stated, P is – at its barest form – the journey between NOvs. This means that the only function required to achieve P is forward movement. This can be something as literal and robust as Just Cause 3’s wingsuit/grapple/parachute mechanics, or as abstract and limited as clicking a forward arrow on a visual novel.
But human beings love their catharsis and they love their O’s so they found a way to transplant them into the realm of P, birthing the distinction of NOvs and POvs. That’s fine. But now we’re left with this cultural legacy where the two are conflated – where we believe that NOvs necessitate POvs, and vice versa. But that’s not how narrative works, nor is that how games work. It sounds simple when you say it out loud, but games can have one or both without sacrificing their status as ‘games.’ But people don’t see it that way, because they want to cram two distinct definitions – NOvs and POvs – into one blanket term: ‘O.’
Over the course of writing this piece, I’ve come to believe that this is what many arguments in video game culture boils down to. It’s occasionally used as a shield for the status quo:
‘Walking simulators aren’t games! They’re just stories without mechanics!’
‘Walking simulators aren’t games! They’re just NOvs without MOvs and you need both for O!’
Sometimes, it’s used to justify outrage over a game that hasn’t even come out yet:
‘You’re telling me that you can beat No Man’s Sky in 30 hours!? This game actually isn’t infinite, because it can be beaten!’
‘30 Hours!? The game isn’t infinite! MOv ends with NOv, because the two are inexorably tied under the banner of O!’
Other times, it’s used to complain about difficulty:
‘Call of Duty campaigns are bad because the AI can shoot people for you!’
‘Call of Duty campaigns are bad because I can opt out of MOvs, and I need both MOvs and NOvs to fully experience O!’
It’s all the same argument (note: this does not include all important issues, such as representation and sexism in games), over and over and over again, and it’s always baffled me. That’s what this whole thing you’ve just read is – it’s me just trying to work through why people get so fucking mad about these things. It’s not a solution, but I hope understanding the rage might one day lead to a counter, a solution, or – at the very least – some salve. I hope you’ve enjoyed my argument, but I would also hope you don’t reduce people – and games – to Os and Ps and XYZs. I love me some theory (clearly), but games are art and art is feeling and – just as NOv and MOv don’t fit within O – no letter could possibly hope to capture it all at once.
Okay. So… You got all that, right?
Thanks for reading.
Abbreviations Cheat Sheet:
– MOb = Mechanical Obstacle
– MOv = Mechanical Overcoming
– NOb = Narrative Obstacle
– NOv = Narrative Overcoming
– O = Overcoming
– P = Progress
 I would posit that this has implications about the landscape of Early Access, in which survival sims thrive in a way where narrative content does not. But that’s another essay.
When he’s not looking at what he’s just typed and screaming ‘WHAT HAVE I MADE, WHAT HAVE I MADE, SO MANY ABBREVIATIONS OH GOD’ chaboi – Tom Loughney – writes about video games. You can find those writingshere. Follow him on twitter @tloughnessmnstr