The Beginner’s Guide: Narrative as Game Rule

I just finished playing the new game by the creator of the Stanley Parable, The Beginner’s Guide. It was an interesting experience. I liked it, but I am not blown away. I would have preferred more interaction with the narrator. Yet, the Beginner’s Guide is significant in what it stands for. It is a high-profile narrative game that puts the emphasis on narrative, but is a game in its visuals and interaction.

So what actually happens in the game? The player experiences a first-person narrator who purports to be a game designer (the creator of the Stanley Parable, Davey Wreden, as himself) presenting the work of another game designer (Coda), whose works the player experiences. The narrator reflects on his relationship with coda and what a work can tell us about his/her creator. This narrative unfolds in voiceovers while the player traverses the virtual space of the different sections of the game, all of which supposedly represent different games made by Coda.

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The Beginner’s Guide is not the first game to use location triggers to move the narrative forward. Dear Esther did just that and Gone Home continued in a somewhat similar fashion. And the omniscient narrator was already present in the Stanley Parable. However, the game makes use of narrative strategies, which, while they are well-known metanarrative devices in print-based literature, are rare in video games (however, Safe the Date is an interesting earlier case). Chiefly amongst them is the self-reflected unreliable narrator. It is also interesting how this narrative differs from the one in the Stanley Parable. In this game, the narrator had more of an overt function in the game play, as commentator, as guide, and as provocateur. In contrast, Beginner’s narrator is more of a self-obsessed ‘museum guide’ focused on his own narrative. And along with this shift, the player becomes more of an “active observer,” as the invisible narrator takes on the role of main character and his tale takes center stage.

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So here we are. Beautiful game spaces to explore and a strong self-critical narrated narrative about relationships (between two game designers, but also between a work and its creator). And a player who is seemingly relegated to an observer role, while still allowed to roam freely. There are clear similarities with literary devices, but neither experience nor materiality are the same. And this is where the uncertainties end and the genre troubles start. Indeed, game designer and scholar Frank Lantz sees the game as a challenge for critics (and Molleindustria also has some thoughts). A simplistic perspective might therefore understand The Beginner’s Guide as the late revenge of narrative against its rejection in early game studies positions ca. 2001. Yes, games can be narrative, too and not only in an ornamental sense, but by unabashedly taking the limelight. Yet, maybe things are not so simple. Upon closer inspection, The Beginner’s Guide might not be a game at all, according to more narrow definitions of the term. What is the desired outcome, if we adopt Nick Montfort’s definition of game (“a structure of rules within which an outcome is sought”)(Montfort, 2003) There is no winning condition in Beginner’s Guide, nor can one actually loose. If anything can be “won” it is knowledge of the backstory that ties together the otherwise disjointed levels. And if one defines games as being about rules, what are the rules in a game where the player can only progress, but not level up, and where there are practically no challenges?

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A way out of this predicament opens up once we consider progress as a rule. The way to break The Beginners Guide is to stop, to procrastinate, or even turn around, to go against its unidirectional progress. The existence of an opposite strategy confirms progress as a rule – if it can be broken, it must be a rule. So, we are dealing with a rule-based game after all. But what kind of rule is progress? Our existence is ruled by the progress of time, so progress by itself is unavoidable. Therefore we must be more specific about what kind of progress we have to consider here. Progress in The Beginner’s Guide is narrative progress. What does this mean? If progress is the rule of The Beginner’s Guide and progress is narrative progress, narrative is actually the rule of this game. The design of this significant work thus challenges the narrative/rule dichotomy that has been established in the early days of games studies. This is what makes this game significant. The Beginner’s Guide provides further evidence of the emancipation of narrative forms in interactive digital media from legacy models.

When literary-based narratology was rejected (and rightfully so) as an overall analytical framework for video games, the question of narrativity in games and other interactive experiences was left wide open. The narratology vs ludology debate avoided the discussion with practitioners and scholars interested in novel kinds of narrative that apply the specific affordances of digital media. Gonzala Frasca understood this already in 2003 when he lamented the fact that the “debate never took place.” (Frasca, 2003) Frasca here identifies a “narrativist” position between ludology and narratology. Further work on the narrativist position could have helped to identify specific conventions and structures of game narrative. Instead what has happened all too often is that literary narrative conceptions came back through the back door, no longer as a dominant structure but as a way to analyze the narrative elements of games. However, in order to identify literary devices, this practice effectively reduces game narrative to second order retellings and thereby turns them into altogether different phenomena – the game summary becomes the game narrative. If we agree that procedurality and participation are important in game narrative, that agency and transformation are important aspects, then we must reject the convenient, but reductionist views that accept “plot summaries” and even recorded walkthroughs as sufficient foundations for analysis. The difficulties in talking about the Beginner’s Guide expose these problems. It is high time to develop a video game narratology with specific methods and vocabulary.

Frasca, G. (2003). Ludologists love stories, too: notes from a debate that never took place. DIGRA Conf.

Montfort, N. (2003). Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction. Retrieved February 11, 2016, from




Narrative rules? Story logic and the structures of games

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Hans-Joachim Backe

Abstract. Ever since scholars in the humanities have studied computer games, the relationship between play and narrative has been a much contested issue. Much dissent stems from incompatible basic assumptions about play and narrative, which, this article argues, can be reconciled by a formalist approach to games and narrative on a structural level. First, event structures and story structures are shown to be central to various theories of narrative. Correlating these findings with Espen Aarseth’s reflections upon nonlinearity, an understanding of narrative revolving around event logic is developed. Building on the theory of games developed by Roger Caillois, the article then develops a model of games in which three layers of structures are governed by three types of rules. The most abstract of these layers arranges game elements in a meta-structure which is based on both ludic and narrative logic. In a final step, nonlinear game structures are explained within this model and categorized in a typology that orders them by the type of agency players can execute.

PhD thesis: Real-time hermeneutics. Meaning-making in ludonarrative digital games

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978-951-39-6164-0_vaitos24042015_Page_001Jonne Arjoranta defended his PhD thesis at the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) with Espen Aarseth as opponent/discussant. His work is titled ‘Real-time hermeneutics: meaning-making in ludonarrative digital games’ and is a study of how ludonarrative videogames, videogames that combine game elements with narrative elements, express and convey meaning. The thesis “uses philosophical tools to analyze meaning in games. The philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer is used to compare the meaning-making in games to the interpretation of works of art. The theory of the interpretive process is based on the idea of the hermeneutic circle. Wittgenstein’s concept of language-games is used in examining how games should be defined and how their relations to each other should be understood. These philosophical methods are combined with the study of procedurality, narrativity and players”.

Download the thesis at

Can Social Literature Compete with Social Media?

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In a recent WSJ column, book author Christopher John Farley wonders whether literature could be social in the same way social networking sites are. He writes “Video games used to be more like books – essentially solitary experiences which involved people separating themselves from groups”.

The reasoning follows: if video games managed to become ‘social’, so can books. I disagree on this point, and I think that linear narratives are wonderful things that should give value to their own merits – not chase the characteristics of interactive media. And, likewise, so should video games.

I suppose that we might be witnessing a new trend in the relation between games and narratives. Until now, many game-authors suffered from “narrative envy” (e.g. the tendency to forget the strengths of ludic media in favor of linear narration). I wonder if we’re witnessing a reversal: the rise of “game envy” in traditional book authors.

I do not support this trend. What I propose, instead, is a widespread digital alphabetization and education where authors – regardless of their preferred medium: ludic, linear, transmedia or otherwise – engage in a dialogue with related fields but at the same time remain very conscious of the affordances and limitations of their own.

Article: Time and Space in Digital Game Storytelling

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Time and Space in Digital Game Storytelling, by Huaxin Wei, Jim Bizzocchi, and Tom Calvert.

Abstract: The design and representation of time and space are important in any narrative form. Not surprisingly there is an extensive literature on specific considerations of space or time in game design. However, there is less attention to more systematic analyses that examine both of these key factors—including their dynamic interrelationship within game storytelling. This paper adapts critical frameworks of narrative space and narrative time drawn from other media and demonstrates their application in the understanding of game narratives. In order to do this we incorporate fundamental concepts from the field of game studies to build a game-specific framework for analyzing the design of narrative time and narrative space. The paper applies this framework against a case analysis in order to demonstrate its operation and utility. This process grounds the understanding of game narrative space and narrative time in broader traditions of narrative discourse and analysis.

Blog: How to discuss oppression and alienation using a video game

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Game writer Daniel Bernhoff talks about how can we use game narratives to raise awareness on real-world discrimination. In his blog post Project Temporality and real-life oppression he writes: “I’m very concerned about how fascist parties all over Europe gain popularity by portraying immigrants and their descendants as faceless, alien hordes, how refugees drown by the hundreds in the Mediterranean because no country lets them enter port, and how anti-gay laws in Russia and other countries all over the world are used by governments to redirect the discontent of the citizens towards minorities”.

Read Daniel’s whole post at: Continue reading

Research paper: Spectacular Mortality – intersections of punitive & educational player-death in video games

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Meghan Blythe Adams, PhD candidate at the University of Western Ontario, writes: “Death in the game is a rupture not merely of the narrative of the game or the experience of play, but the player’s fundamental identification as player-character. Player-death meant to function both punitively and educationally models this conscious separation through various degrees of spectacle and even partially relies on it in order to function”. In her paper Spectacular Mortality, she analyzes the intersections of death, the spectacle, punishment and education in games today.

Read the full paper at

Opinion: Why should game stories make sense?

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Game writer Chris Dahlen blogged: “Players recall stories from other media without any trouble. But when it came to games, they got lost somewhere after the beginning. They missed big events, and forgot key plot points. Gamers still need a sense of mission and an emotional attachment. Games can hook us with characters, as well as tone, atmosphere, a strong premise, and even a great loading screen. But of all the elements of storytelling that we can use, plot is one of the weakest”.

How can we solve this issue from the point of view of game narrative? Read the full article at