digital arts & culture 1998

Jesper Juul:

A clash between game and narrative: Interactive fiction
(Why computer games do not tell good stories and why this is not a problem.)


From a literary perspective, the popularity of the computer game appears unmotivated. Computer games seem meaningless but are nevertheless played over and over. In opposition to the 'meaningless game' the idea of making games that tell a good story has been expressed in a variety of ways and places, from the ads for computer games to the works of Brenda Laurel and Janet Murray. This idea has often been described with the term interactive fiction which has been traced historically and subsequently rejected by Espen Aarseth in his book Cybertext. The unclearness of the term is probably largely due to the fact that it is a Utopian idea, which can then be studied as a such.

The main argument of this paper is that there are no good stories in computer games because the computer game does not tell stories - it is not a narrative medium. My method is that of using traditional narrative theory to examine various computer games, to see how the gameplay interacts with any narrative elements or stories connected to them. In this way I try to identify if and how games relate to stories, and I attempt to pin out the problems of combining them. This will hopefully help establishing the characteristics of the computer game. The paper is produced from a double background of literary theory and personal experience in developing computer games. I hope this opens towards seeing computer games less like a given structure and more like a practical and theoretical problem still to be shaped.

The computer game and the narrative

Interactive fiction seems like a sensible project: To combine the two large human activities of games and storytelling is an appealing idea. Add to this that the "stories" in computer games today are basically shallow catalogues of popular culture: fast cars, aliens, monsters from hell. But in actuality, game and narrative are two separate phenomena that in many situations are mutually exclusive. From this follows that traditional narrative theory is not sufficient to describe computer games. I will attempt using this situation to an advantage.

It seems reasonable to claim that stories are based on a feeling of events that have happened, that had to lead to each other, and that the end of any narrative gains weight from: if not destiny then causal logic and inevitability. Conversely, interactivity and computer games are defined by the player's possibility of influencing the game now. Narratives use a variety of tricks and devices, such as distancing between the narrator and the narrated and shifts in the speed of narration. Canonical works like Lawrence Sterne's Tristam Shandy or Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past exploit this radically. This is not possible in the game since the events of the game necessarily happen while the player is playing. In a even more basic way a narrative presupposes the act of narration and this does not seem to happen in the computer game. Computer games are interesting for completely different reasons.

The classical video game

Classical action-based computer games like Space Invaders or Donkey Kong share a lack of most devices found in the narrative. However, they have narrative frames: Earth attacked by aliens and a girl kidnapped by an evil gorilla. These frames tell the player what to do, what ending to strive for. Unlike a narrative, where a part of the tension is the anticipation of the ending, the ending of the game is already known to the player. It is then the player's task to actualise this good and well known ending. Even chess can be said to have a narrative frame: that of a war between two societies. But this is hardly the point of chess; the more you play, the less you think of the frame, and this most likely characterises games as such. The titles and the narrative framings of computer games basically serve as metaphors for the game and the actions of the player.

Telling a story

Games that attempt to tell a story do so in several ways. A popular game like Myst posits the player, not in the leading role but as a minor character that by exploring a world and solving traditional switch-based puzzles is revealed the story of the island world of Myst. Games that try more directly to combine narrative with gaming tend to fail miserably because of the incompatibilities of the two forms: The player must suffer constant shifts between the narrative mode with all its distances in time and determination, and the game with its sense of the immediacy and openness. Furthermore, the introduction of linear elements like video clips or passages of text lock the game in structures lacking all of the flexibility of even the most primitive computer graphics. But surprisingly, modern action-games like Doom or Unreal - the former famous for its lack of a storyline - have adopted some strategies from the narrative, especially the pause, for creating variations in speed.


The task a theorist faces with computer games is not simply one of finding the old in the new. Computer games should not be evaluated as-something-else, but as computer games. And they show us that some things in the world do not belong to the broad category of "the narrative". Computer games can be challenged and explored in a different way than literature. It is precisely due to the absence of narrative in Quake that the average gamer spends more time on it than the average reader spends on Moby Dick. This means that there is no point in insisting on computer games that tell a story, because that is inherently not what they do: Computer games are collections of elements that are continually combines and recombines to form new interesting patterns. And that is their strength.

Jesper Juul is an interactive designer. He has programmed and designed several computer games, including the children's quiz game Kampen om Kagen, the action game Puls in Space (, the graphical chat system Højhuset (, and parts of the "interactive fiction" CD-ROM Blackout. Jesper Juul produced the computer part of Lars von Trier's exhibition Verdensuret. He has worked with computer-based installation art, solo and in collaboration with others.

Jesper Juul studies Nordic literature at the University of Copenhagen and is currently working on his cand.mag. dissertation on interactive fiction.






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Last update: 21st of September 1998