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.

Bildschirmfoto 2016-01-31 um 17.01.26

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.

Bildschirmfoto 2016-01-31 um 16.59.55

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?

Bildschirmfoto 2016-01-31 um 16.36.20

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




Design Strategies for Interactive Digital Narratives: TVX 2016 Workshop

Games & Narrative member Hartmut Koenitz will hold a workshop on IDN design at TVX2016.

Register for the full-day workshop at idn-design-tvx2016 at gamesandnarrative dot net


Creating interactive digital narrative (IDN) experiences means to overcome a tradition dominated by conventions for non-interactive, static and pre-fixed narrative. Instead of “interactivizing” legacy structures, a more productive avenue is in the focus on specific design strategies for IDN. These approaches do afford a change in the resulting manifestations – both form and context –, but also include a perspective on the changed role of the author. The full-day workshop will start with the introduction of several specific design principles and lead to a working prototype based on a provided skeleton narrative.

Full Announcement

Interactive digital narrative (IDN) poses a challenge for scholars and creative professionals alike. During the Narratology vs. Ludology debate in the early 2000s, game scholars not only rejected narratology as a framework to understand interactive works but also declared narrative as fundamentally incompatible with interactivity [8]. While Juul modified his extreme position shortly after, he and several other “ludologists” [1,2,7,9] continued to describe the relationship as problematic. Indeed, even proponents of IDN like Janet Murray [16,17] and Chris Crawford [5] view this new form of narrative expression as a challenge to potential creators. Murray understands digital media as unknown territory, as a medium that is being invented and necessities novel design approaches. She champions an iterative progression towards the future in that the most successful design strategies will shape the new medium and turn into conventions, similar to how early experiments in film have shaped that medium’s conventions. Crawford, on the other hand, describes interactive narrative as a challenge that eclipses game design in complexity and expressive potential. He sees the necessity for a breakthrough work, an artistic milestone that clearly communicates the expressive potential, a Citizen Kane of IDN, and favors an Apollo space program-like effort by a an elite group.

In addition to these more generalized approaches, artists like Toni Dove and Emily Short, but also scholars/practitioners like Marc Cavazza [4], Michael Mateas [14], Nick Montfort [15], Michael Young and Mark Riedl [23], Celia Pearce [18], Nicolas Szilas [21] and many others have worked on the creation and understanding of IDN works. At the same time, IDN has been identified as a specific opportunity for online video and iTV [22].

Authorship and Narrative Design

The foci of research so far has been either on more generalized models or on concrete artifacts. From the perspective of prospective authors neither meet their needs for concrete and easily applicable design guidelines, as the former are too abstract while the latter are too specific. Work on the issue of “third-party” authorship beyond the scholar/practitioner is still in an early phase [11,20] and much more research is necessary. A promising avenue in this regard is the ‘design as research’ approach developed in HCI [3,6,19]

Workshop Plan

In this workshop, the participants are introduced to design approaches observed and refined in several years of teaching interactive narrative [10,13]. Specifically, the attendees will become familiar with the following preliminary design heuristics and apply them in practice:

·       Cyberbardic principle

·       Initial interest principle

·       Continued motivation principle

·       Opportunity magnitude principle


On this basis, groups of attendees will develop an interactive narrative. To jumpstart this aspect, a skeleton narrative will be provided. Finally, the workshop will discuss the results and implications for future research and the participants’ own practice.



1.        Espen J Aarseth. 1997. Cybertext. JHU Press.

2.        Espen J Aarseth. 2012. A Narrative Theory of Games. 1–5.

3.        Philip Agre. 1997. Computation and Human Experience. Cambridge University Press.

4.        Marc Cavazza, Jean-Luc Lugrin, David Pizzi, and Fred Charles. 2007. Madame bovary on the holodeck: immersive interactive storytelling. ACM, New York, New York, USA.

5.        Chris Crawford. 2012. Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling. New Riders.

6.        A Dunne and F Raby. 2001. Design noir: The secret life of electronic objects.

7.        M Eskelinen. 2001. The gaming situation. Game Studies 1, 1.

8.        Jesper Juul. 1999. A clash between game and narrative. Danish literature.

9.        Jesper Juul. 2001. Games telling stories. Game Studies 1, 1.

10.      Hartmut Koenitz and Kun-Ju Chen. 2012. Genres, Structures and Strategies in Interactive Digital Narratives – Analyzing a Body of Works Created in ASAPS. In Interactive Storytelling: 5th International Conference, ICIDS 2012, San Sebastián, Spain, November 12-15, 2012. Proceedings, David Oyarzun, Federico Peinado, R Michael Young, Ane Elizalde and Gonzalo Méndez (eds.). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 84–95.

11.      Hartmut Koenitz and Sandy Louchart. 2015. Practicalities and Ideologies, (Re)-Considering the Interactive Digital Narrative Authoring Paradigm. In Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games, Boyang Li and Mark Nelson (eds.).

12.      Hartmut Koenitz. 2015. Towards a Specific Theory of Interactive Digital Narrative. In Interactive Digital Narrative, Hartmut Koenitz, Gabriele Ferri, Mads Haahr, Digdem Sezen and Tonguc Ibrahim Sezen (eds.). Routledge, New York, 91–105.

13.      Hartmut Koenitz. 2015. Design Approaches for Interactive Digital Narrative. In Interactive Storytelling. Springer International Publishing, Cham, 50–57.

14.      M Mateas and A Stern. 2005. Procedural Authorship: a Case-Study of the Interactive Drama Façade.

15.      Nick Montfort. 2005. Twisty Little Passages. MIT Press.

16.      Janet H Murray. 2012. Transcending Transmedia: Emerging Story Telling Structures for the Emerging Convergence Platforms. ACM, 1–6.

17.      Janet Murray. 1998. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. The MIT Press, Cambridge.

18.      Celia Pearce, Tom Boellstorff, and Bonnie A Nardi. 2011. Communities of Play. MIT Press.

19.      Phoebe Sengers, Kirsten Boehner, Shay David, and Joseph Kaye. 2005. Reflective Design. ACM, 49–58.

20.      Ulrike Spierling and Nicolas Szilas. 2009. Authoring Issues beyond Tools. In Interactive Storytelling: Second Joint International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, ICIDS 2009, Guimarães, Portugal, December 9-11, 2009, Proceedings, Ido Iurgel, Nelson Zagalo and Paolo Petta (eds.). Springer Berlin Heidelberg, Berlin, Heidelberg, 50–61.

21.      Nicolas Szilas. 2010. Requirements for Computational Models of Interactive Narrative. 1–7.

22.      Marian F Ursu, Maureen Thomas, Ian Kegel, et al. 2008. Interactive TV Narratives: Opportunities, Progress, and Challenges. ACM Trans. Multimedia Comput. Commun. Appl. 4, 4: 25:1–25:39.

23.      R Michael Young and Mark Riedl. 2003. Towards an architecture for intelligent control of narrative in interactive virtual worlds. ACM, New York, New York, USA.

The Ontology Project for Interactive Digital Narrative

We invite participants to the Games & Narrative workshop at ICIDS 2015 that serves as the start for the Ontology Project for Interactive Digital Narrative.

The half-day workshop is open to scholars, practitioners, students, artists and all the attendees of the ICIDS Conference on December 1, 2015.

Current research in Interactive Digital Narrative lacks methodologies enabling precise comparisons and categorizations across broad sets of artifacts. Analytical terminologies rooted in unilinear, non-interactive narrative criticism does not help, as evidenced by Aarseth’s (1997) contention that yet another re-interpretation of a term like “text” is inconsequential and Nitsche (2008) calls the current state of affairs in narratology “potentially confusing.” Consequently, as researchers in IDN routinely face the need to redefine the vocabulary they adopt, we observe the use of terms that are in part borrowed from game journalism, in part reinterpreting legacy concepts, and in part invented anew.

With this workshop we aim at discussing how constitutive elements of IDNs may be conceptualized and operationalized to allow a systematic description of a variety of artifacts according to shared specifications. Following up on a multi-year research initiative that has addressed a common vocabulary, narrative models and categorizations for the analysis and design of IDN artifacts, we believe that the field is now ready for a more stringent and formal approach based on ontologies. We are inspired also by similar efforts in the cognate field of game studies and game design (Zagal, Bruckman, 2008). As ontologies and specifications significantly multiply their usefulness with a broad acceptance in the community of researchers and designers, we aim a bootstrapping a shared process of categorization.

In this workshop, we will conduct practical evaluations of preliminary proposals for IDN ontologies, starting with the SNAPS categorisation ( Each participant is invited to briefly introduce 1-2 Interactive Digital Narrative exemplars, of which we will collectively outline an ontology-based description. Moreover, the workshop will progressively generate new categories and specifications to accommodate further exemplars, thus kickstarting the creation of a “living document” with best practices and proposed ontologies. We will finally discuss further steps and iterations towards a more comprehensive framework to be circulated in the coming year.

Register by email at

The Games & Narrative Group

Hartmut, Gabriele, Mads, Digdem & Tonguc

The Franz Kafka Videogame is Rightfully Absurd

this post was originally published

The Franz Kafka Videogame is a narrative adventure game based on the novels The Metamorphosis, The Trial, and The Castle. Its launch is scheduled in 2014 for iOS, PC, Mac, Android, and Linux.



Game: NothingElse – A Macabre Tale

this post was originally published

A new Android version of “NothingElse”, a short narrative/horror game by indie developer Ivan Zanotti, is out. From a review: “Your relaxing escapism takes a turn for the terrifyingly surreal when you find yourself pulled into another layer of reality that seems to resemble your own… only more warped and unsettling” (link)

The new version on the Play Store:

The original version for Windows:

Narrative rules? Story logic and the structures of games

this post was originally published

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.

Game: “Among The Sleep”, a horror game through the eyes of a 2-years old

this post was originally published

“Among The Sleep” is an upcoming horror game where you play a toddler looking for his mother: it looks like a very interesting twist on the notions of agency, horror, narrative and very unusual avatars.


The official website for this game is

Game: To Build a Better Mousetrap (Molleindustria)

this post was originally published

Molleindustria just published “To Build a Better Mousetrap”, a game premiered last December at FACT gallery in Liverpool along with the article/talk “Videogames and the spirit of capitalism”.
Author Paolo Pedercini writes «I tried to describe To Build a Better Mousetrap as “Richard Scarry meets Karl Marx” or “Information visualization without information” but it’s really a development of the idea of “playable theory”. (…) The result is somewhat cryptic, dry, and against the current trend of narrative indie games, but some players may recognize a cast of classic characters: the Surplus Value, the Reserve army of labor, the Fordist class compromise, the alienation resulting from division of labor, and one of today’s hottest capitalist contradictions: the decline of employment as result of labor saving technologies a.k.a. “the tendency of the rate of profit to fall”».

Play the game at