The Paradox in play

I am currently deeply interested in the concept of paradoxes. Especially purely philosophical ones. Even though scientific ones can be insanely fascinating too.

The paradox of tragedy has been a long standing fascination of mine. Maybe because it has been discussed for literally thousands of years, with many prominent philosophers contributing to the discussion throughout time.

I find Nietzsche’s take on the paradox most fascinating. Instead of trying to excuse why the audience take pleasure in the emotions that tragedy provokes, Nietzsche states that we down-right take pleasure in tragedy itself – and not just the emotions or moralities it provokes. To me, the most remarkable thing about this, is that he does it in such a positive, optimistic, and life celebrating way.

As Robrecht Vandemeulebroecke puts it:

“[The audience] experience the sacrifice of the tragic hero as a celebration of the overabundance of life, of its inexhaustibility and its supreme indifference to loss.

Put in a fairly simplistic way: The fact that the audience survive the play (unlike the hero) is life-affirming in itself. The audience can celebrate and value life so much more in the light of, or maybe in contrast to, the tragic events unfolded on stage –  even without thinking in ways of morality or meaning of the play. In other words: What does not kill you only makes you stronger. Nietzsche arguably coined this phrase (kinda) in The Birth of a Tragedy. 

Anyways, this fascination of mine has impacted my thesis writing. My original thesis topic was about utilizing improvisational (improv) theater structures in game design, yet, I find myself taking the thesis in a even more philosophical and abstract direction.
I find narrative games to be a paradox in itself. I am certainly not the first to say that “narrative” and “game” has some fundamental contradictions. But I haven’t stumbled upon anyone else framing it as a paradox as such. It is a bit tricky though, because there is no clear definition of neither game or story.

Anyways, here’s what I call The Paradox in Play: 

A narrative is traditionally a narrated presentation of a finite, linear, rigid, structured series of events. That is a definition (there has been written quite a few) of a narrative; it has already happen (fictional or not) and cannot be changed or challenged. That in itself is there nothing problematic about. However, in connection to games, it certainly becomes problematic if the outcome and every move is predetermined – that would not make much of a game or leave much, if any, room for play.

The following statements are reasonable to be considered true each on it’s own accord, yet the statements cannot possibly be true simultaneously. This leaves us with the following paradox:

  1. Stories are predetermined in its nature: characters are bound by the fate given to them by the author(s) or designers.
  2. Games are uncertain: One outcome may be most likely, but nothing is completely set in stone before it has happened. Even if an outcome is fixed, the exact way of reaching this outcome is not.
  3. Games are capable of conveying stories to its players: call it playable stories or narrative games – it is a story delivered to the player through playing a video game.

Definitions and narrative understanding

A story, or narrative if you will, is a sequence of events. Most definitions specify that these events has happened; it is in the past be the events fictitious or not. The word “story” also derives from “history” (historía), which undoubtedly deals with past events. Therefore a story is an account of incidents (fictitious or not) presented, connected, framed, or re-enacted by a narrator, author, director, actor or the like.

This is a fairly simple, common, and slightly vague definition. The crucial part about this definition is the fact that a story is rooted in the past, even though stories often is presented as events unfolding in present time.

This effectively means that the protagonist of any story is a slave to predeterminism. Characters in traditional narratives are in that way bound by fate, they cannot do anything that is not already decided for them by the author.

Games on the other hand are not that fixed, though the odds may be very much in favor for one outcome, in theory, everything remains possible until the game is over. A core source of excitement, thrill and engagement in many games is the uncertainty (Greg Costikyan, “Uncertainty in Games“). The player trusts the game not to be too fixed. In games, like in improv, there is an array of moves that are potential until one is executed. Unlike in a story, where every move is set in stone, because every move in a sense has already happened and cannot be undone.

Now, from these perspectives or definitions, story and game clearly does not seem alike. Since there exists no final definition of game nor story, using other more specific definitions will naturally yield other results.
In the light of the formal definitions I rely on, even theatre and especially improvisational theatre does not really fit with the concept of a story either. In theatre, actors cannot avoid to alter the performance form the source material, creating original variations of the story in real-time, though the major plot remains firmly rooted in a script accounting past events, presented in the present.
The trick here is that a theatrical performance only is a narrative
performance if there is an audience (Clara Fernández-Vara, A Framework to Study Videogames as Performance, p. 2). For the audience, if the play is improvised or not might not change anything. Comparing a play that is completely improvised and one is very tightly directed/scripted – the audience might not ever notice which play was based on a written story and which was purely improvised. That is, if it is the first time the audience watch the play (and they are not aware of the underlying structure). In either case, the audience will most likely believe that they perceived a story through the theatrical performance.

This is more complicated with narrative games, because the role of the performer and the audience is merged into one; the player. Without diving into discussing this topic in depth here, I will note that I rely on the assumption that through playing a narrative game, players perceive a story that they can go on to discuss the quality or meaning of. Narrative games does vary a lot in terms of structure: Some are more like traditional theatre, with an exact plot and script that the player will re-enact through game-play. Others are more like improv with more or less freedom for the player to set the discourse of the story. The variety of narrative games does make defining one more complex.

Possible solutions to the paradox:

  1. Expand the definition of a narrative: a narrative is not only a presentation of past events, but must also encompasses real-time events that unfold simultaneously with the perceiving thereof. This solution requires that we accept stories as something that can be developed/written in the same moment that it is being narrated and that the narrator perceives it as a narrative herself. In this sense, every game would be some kind of a story and predeterminism would not get in the way of the players (free) movement and intentions in the story. However, this would mean that everything becomes a story, more or less obliterating the concept all together.

  1. Categorize narrative games as neither story nor game, but a hybrid that creates a new form altogether. This solution would be quite pragmatic and several theorists have opted for this: Accept games as an independent media that works entirely different from its predecessors, making most existing theories and definitions inapplicable.
    In response to this, Murray has written: “
    Similarly, new narrative traditions do not arise out of the blue.” (Murray, 1997)
    If narrative games is such a fundamental new form of narrative, it is very strange that so many classical narrative structures and techniques are being used in this alien new media. We see many cinematic, theatrical, and classical narrative models used in modern games(David Mason, Video Games, Theater, and the Paradox of Fiction, p. 1112 – The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 47, issue 6).
    One very general example of this could be Campbell’s theory of the “Monomyth” or “archetypal hero” (
    The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949), this basic narrative structure has been applied to many games, such as the Zelda games and Journey. On the other hand, one could also argue that the usage of classical narrative theories and techniques in games is a misfit and only used in lack of better alternatives.
    If we look at the way the “average gamer” talks about her experience with a narrative game, it does sounds very similar to the way one would talk about a narrative consumed from any other more traditional medium. “
    This, and this, and this happened, then the bad guys did this, but then this happened and the princess got home safely at the end“.
    This approach to the paradox can be seen as a way to simply bypass the logical conflict instead of really dealing with it directly.
  1. Games cannot convey or mediate a “story” in any way. Games might be able to shape experiences with many similarities to that of perceiving a story, but games being a completely different beast altogether. Game along with play and story are fundamental different concepts that cannot be united.
    This take on the paradox does (again) fall back to how we define the terms. If we do not accept at least some video games as being narratives, it does spark other complications such as; can we then accept say theatre or hypertext as narratives, if not what then? – And why does so many gamers [still] float forums discussing story, spoilers, endings, and meanings in games such as Bioshock Infinite (2K Games 2013) or Mass Effect (BioWare 2007)?


There are undoubtedly more ways of approaching this paradox. My goal is not to solve it as such, but to acknowledge it and analyse it in order to gain understanding on how to design in the context of it.
Like the
Paradox of Fiction and the Paradox of Tragedy (also known as The Paradox of Painful Art), the conflicting relationship between story and game is not going to traceless dissolve in “a puff of logic” just like that. The Paradox of Tragedy has literally been discussed for millennia by some of the most prominent philosophers throughout time, arguably starting with Aristotle in his Poetics. Despite this ongoing discussion, numerous valuable works of [tragic] art has been produced, regardless of how one so chooses to conclude the genres inherent conflicting logic.

A by-product of the tension between story and game, more than a solution, is what is often referred to as “The illusion of choice”. It is a way for designers to give the player an experience of having one or more free choices, where there is none. I am referring to this design principle as a way of making the playable possibility space seam greater and deeper than it actually is. To stay in a theatrical metaphor, it is a way of disguising a written play, like Hamlet, as an improv performance: the plot is rigid, but the performer gets the impression of there being a pool of different possibilities for her to pursue. When done properly, the illusion of choice can provide the player with an experience of being relevant for the plot development, even though she might only be relevant for the re-enactment thereof.

Sid Mayer once famously described a [good] game, as “…a series of interesting choices. Any choice becomes infinitely more interesting, if you firmly believe it has a profound impact instead of being indifferent. In this context, crafting the illusion of choice becomes crucial for designing narrative games and game design in general.

 I’ll save my further ramblings for posts that has yet to come..!  

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