The story-game spectrum

This is (partially) a response to Anna’s post, found here.

I certainly agree with the Extra Credits video that the discussion around the question of what is a game is often disingenuous. Dismissing something as “not a real game” is a surefire way to trivialize someone’s work and prevent the medium from growing in new directions. Within that word “real” is a judgment; telling someone that something isn’t a real game or that they aren’t a real gamer is a way of discrediting and excluding them from the “real” world of games.

I’m not sure, however, that any distinction between story and game is inherently judgmental, and I’d argue that those words have greater usefulness to us in evaluating how well a work achieves its aims than a phrase like “interactive experience.” I agree with Anna that we cannot throw out the term “game” entirely, and in particular, I think that we should shift our perspective to thinking of stories and games as existing on opposite ends of a spectrum, with many works existing in between.

To me, the main purpose of a story is to express an idea or series of ideas to the reader. In contrast, the main purpose of a game is to allow the reader to achieve some outcome. In other words, there must be user-controlled, quantifiable progress toward a goal.

On the story end, then, we have things like War and Peace and the novel version of The Martian, while on the game end, we have things like basketball and Yahtzee. Notably, both stories and games can be either analogue or digital, though the term “video games” has resulted in a strong cultural association between games and digital media. By my definition, an eBook version of War and Peace is still a story, nor is Pong more of a game than physical pingpong simply by virtue of being played on a computer.


Most Story-like


War and Peace, The Martian (novel)


The Martian: Bring Him Home (app), howling dogs

The Stanley Parable

Depression Quest

Super Paper Mario

Monopoly, Pokémon

Fruit Ninja, Spaceteam


Yahtzee, Pong


Most Game-like


Why is this distinction useful? Take something like Super PSTW RPG. I think that it’s a mistake not to categorize Super PSTW RPG as an interactive experience, because the story cannot advance without user input. The phrase “interactive experience,” however, tells us nothing about the goals of the work. In contrast, when Super PSTW RPG is categorized as a story rather than a game, we can evaluate it based on its merits in making criticisms of modern video game design rather than devalue it for its inability to provide agency to the user, missing the point entirely as axman13 did. At the same time, we can recognize that Super PSTW RPG has a game-like element: interactivity.

For works in the middle of the spectrum, it’s important to recognize both story- and game-like aspects. The stories that evolve out of the different narrative branches in The Stanley Parable are just as important to the experience as the contest between the player and narrator. Similarly, the stories of the different narrative branches of Depression Quest are just as important to Quinn’s aims as the ability of the user to make choices and to see progress in the gray bars near the bottom of the web page. While I recognize that earning the title of “game” is a form of acceptance (one which may be desperately needed in the case of underrepresented voices like Quinn’s), I think that a longer-term solution would be for both storytellers and game developers to recognize the value of both story- and game-like qualities. Such a shift in thinking would promote and celebrate the creation of more emotion-based or personal works rather than dismiss them.

When we recognize the value of both story- and game-like elements as well as the differences between them, we’re able to combine the two to create unique, innovative experiences. Creative minds of all types have a lot to learn from each other.


2 thoughts on “The story-game spectrum

  1. “Such a shift in thinking would promote and celebrate the creation of more emotion-based or personal works rather than dismiss them.”

    I agree. What I hope happens in these discussion isn’t only that we understand games in broader terms, but also that game developers come to realize the need for emotional resonance in games such that games can “make us care” in the way text and film can.


  2. Pingback: Machinima: Art or play? | HDCC 208: Digital Storytelling

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