The Trolley Problem
The Dawkins Occlusion

Effficient and Good are not Synonyms

Corvus has exploded in ironic sarcasm in response to my intentionally provocative Round Table post, The Inefficiency of Games as a Narrative Medium. Here's a juicy extract:

Most days you think Square Enix has the right idea and that games just ought to be really long movies cut up into 20 minutes scenes with little tiny arenas in between where the players get to micromanage a bunch of seemingly irrelevant numbers and useless items and maybe punch some bad guys while they’re at it.

I replied to him in his comments, but felt I should include the comment here as part of the Round Table proper, as it seems fitting.

[Dear Corvus,]

I appreciate this is tongue in cheek, but even so I must take task with how you tried to run this…

“Inefficient” doesn’t mean ‘flawed’. All media are flawed in some way, especially when compared to one another (as you do here).

Efficiency is about economy of means. Novels are a supremely efficient narrative media. Nothing else comes close except perhaps oral storytelling. From there, there is something of a continuum of efficiency which goes, roughly and depending upon the specifics, TV/indie film, comics/graphics novels, theatre, blockbuster movies - and then there’s a quantum leap to videogames.

Now sure, there’s a continuum within games as well - a 2D game can be a lot more efficient than a 3D game, for instance, and a text adventure more efficient still! But as the audience for games expects more and more swish for their cash, the inefficiency of videogames as a mainstream narrative media gets worse and worse.

You must know I’m not advocating a continuation of the practice of splicing an animated movie into a game and calling that the best that game narrative can achieve - but that happens to be one of the more efficient forms of game narrative, which is why it persists, and to deny this is to deny one of the basic problems the games industry is facing.

Efficient narrative does not mean good narrative. But let’s not kid ourselves about the problems we’re facing in game narrative. Making videogames is expensive, and it’s expensive because it’s time consuming and laborious to implement. Making games that compete in the mass market is cripplingly expensive, it is absurdly time consuming. And sad as it may be, inventive narrative is not a commercial saving grace in the current market. You cite Psychonauts. It perfectly underlines the relevant point: everyone seems to loves its story content, but it’s still a commercial failure.

I’m not saying “abandon any hope of interesting game narratives!” Perish the thought! I am saying that trying to make creative game narratives is a struggle against the inefficiency of the medium, that this is difficult if not impossible to achieve in the mass market while remaining in synch with the standards of expectation curve, and that it is a sisyphean task to attempt to remain on top of this problem as mass market budgets continue to skyrocket.

Neither am I saying “the narratives coming through the mass market are as good as they could be”. They are not. Not even remotely. But many of them are about as efficient as they can be, and that happens to be monstrously inefficient.

Let the independent games create their creative, expressive, wonderful narratives when they can! I will praise them! But let’s not kid ourselves about the amount of work that goes into getting a narrative into a game, especially in the mass market.

The motivation behind this post was to provoke some debate. I felt we needed some. :) I hope in this regard it will prove a success.

With sincere best wishes,


Two years on, and Corvus and I are still arguing vehemently about games and stories! There's something strangely satisfying about that.


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oh burn, Corvus! :)
Thoughtful and entertaining stuff all around, folks. Games have always wrestled with issues of storytelling (well, maybe not: Tetris wasn't exactly crying out for a story mode, as Chris pointed out in the previous post), and we'll keep wrestling with the vast variety of ways which story can be incorporated... Final Fantasy/Squenix titles always tend to be rather divisive on a number of interesting levels. There's the east/west RPG traditions, storytelling conventions, combat, visual design... possibly worth a roundtable in the future :)

Oooo. That makes it sounds like I'm talking about you in that excerpted paragraph. Which, of course, I'm not! The tone I was using was such that 'you' meant 'I' and 'I' isn't even meant to be 'me' but the fictional narrator of the post. Sheesh, English is so inefficient!

All sarcasm aside, I truly feel that every communication process has some 'inefficiency' some push-back to the communication process as it were. So what have people done about it? They've adapted their approach to fit the medium.

I think that it's very difficult to let go of the notion that games must be a storytelling medium which replicates the narrative forms we're familiar with. My point is, I don't think they need to, ought to, or are very good at it. I completely agree with everything you said in your previous post... as it applies to our (as an industry) current approach. I just don't think it has to be true...

You further confuse the issue by mentioning high budgets and audience expectations and other well-researched industry "realities." If you consider that is a single person studio with over 1.3 million unique users monthly playing free Shockwave MMOs, many of the "audience expectation" and "cost of production" arguments fly right out the window. What impact does that have on your perception of efficiency?

Oh, and it was a thrill to read a post which got me in an argumentative mood!

Corvus: I purposefully focussed on the upper market because I knew to do so would be contentious and therefore foster debate. I'm well aware that, for instance, "interactive fiction" (=text adventures) are more efficient than blockbuster videogames, but I put those issues aside to focus on more public ground.

But there was another reason for doing so which is more serious. This issue of audience expectations is crucial to the future state of the industry. If the only inventive narratives we can hope for are necessarily constrained to the indie market, then it will continue to be a struggle for our medium to be taken seriously - because just as 'board game' to the general public means 'Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit', not 'Carcasonne and Settlers of Catan', so 'videogame' means 'GTA and Tetris' not 'Facade and Ico'.

I believe we *could* have mass market games with inventive, interesting narrative content - but the market is currently stacked against such games, and with the increasing focus on visual flair (driven in part by Sony and Microsoft's obsessive focus on graphical oomph) we are digging a hole for ourselves.

Can the network effect of the internet subvert this trend? I'm not certain. It can create interesting niches (such as the MMO you mention) but is this enough? I'm not convinced that it is. Perhaps this is a lack of faith on my part.

Wouldn't it be a tragedy if the tremendous investments being made in games were not used to explore the narrative potential of our medium? It is this concern which motivates my focus on the upper market problems, because the flipside of this is the currently poor odds of survival among the indie studios, where getting noticed is the greatest challenge of all.

It's been a joy to thrash this out with you - we haven't had a good argument of this nature in quite a while, and it takes me back to the early days of both our blogs, two years hence, when such things were practically daily occurences! :)

A pleasure to revist this with you!


It's been a blast and we should set each other up like this more often! Maybe at least once a year on one or the other of our blogiverseries?

It seems that we are good foils for each other because I like to argue "pure" design with no consideration paid to market realities and you, well, don't. Regardless, it wouldn't be possible to sustain the dynamic if I didn't have the utmost respect for your position and intellect.

Our local chapter has a bit of a Round Table on violence in video games which turned into a Round Table on personal responsibility which set lose some ideas in my head about the forces which tug at us as indie designer/writers/developers. I think, perhaps, a near future post will come of it as it applies quite directly to to our differences in these discussions.

HAD, had a bit of a Round Table...

Corvus: Yes, I too like to argue 'pure' game design. Often I find myself confused by an Only a Game post, until I remember that Chris is usually wondering about how to actually *sell* something. :^)

Chris: I find your construction ["interactive fiction" (=text adventures)] very interesting. (Are those scare quotes you've got there? Oh my! Do I detect some distaste for this new-fangled terminology?)

I think it is in fact possible to distinguish two separate things there. Perhaps 'interactive fiction vs. text adventure' is equivalent to 'violin vs. fiddle'. Violins and fiddles are essentially the same instrument, but they're *played* mighty differently.

Tim: yup, those fiddle players really can really belt it out. :)

My interest in selling games is tied to my belief that people who make videogames deserve job stability just like everyone else in the world! Even the barely existent art house games scene deserves to have some commercial stability. There are enough people who wax lyrical about games for the sake of games... someone has to be looking out for where the money comes from to support this activity, and if it must be me then so be it. ;)

You are correct to say I am less than impressed by this particular attempt at recategorising. Anchorhead looks like a really interesting text adventure to me - and I like text adventures. Attempting to reclassify this well established and noble genre as "interactive fiction" is at the very least slightly pretentious and at the worst disrespectful to the people who worked on the great games at the root of this tradition. If you can give me a coherent reason why I should not call Anchorhead a text adventure, please do.

You should understand, I'm one of these people who sits through all the credits of a movie as a mark of respect to the people who made the film, i.e. a wierdo with a perverse sense of duty. :) If you want to call these games interactive fiction, I won't interfere, but if you want me to willingly use the term it will take some convincing.

Best wishes!

Ah, I see what you mean. Maybe I should have been more deliberately clear about what I meant, rather than falling in love with my metaphor and trying to make it do the explaining. :^)

I understand that 'interactive fiction' appears pretentious when it appears that we already have a perfectly adequate phrase in 'text adventure'. But if authors themselves willingly use this terminology, then we need to think about why they might be doing that.

Please understand that I'm not talking about some horrible revisionism - banishing the term 'text adventure' and recategorising every game with a text parser since the seventies. I haven't played Anchorhead, but from what I've read about it, I would have no problem calling it a text adventure. Similarly, Emily Short's marvelous Savoir-Faire is most definitely cut in the adventure style. O'Brian's 'Earth & Sky' is a gem of a comic-book style superhero adventure.

However, when I'm confronted by Short's Galatea, or Cadre's Photopia, or Plotkin's Shade, I find that 'interactive fiction' is a more appropriate categorisation. (These authors also use this terminology themselves.) These are games concerned with small-scale character, motivation and emotion more than they are with epic construction, movement through physical space and manipulation of objects (arguably the fare of an adventure, simulated or otherwise). So I think there *is* a useful distinction there - perhaps an intrapersonal/interpersonal focus rather than an extrapersonal one? Since the term appears to have been in use by the authors themselves for at least ten years, I don't have a problem with adopting it myself.

So back to my metaphor... I wasn't actually trying to say that violin music is superior to fiddle music (or vice versa). The allusion was supposed to relate to the fact that it can be helpful (to understanding) to use one term or the other depending on the type of music being played. I see the meanings of 'violin' and 'fiddle' as being overlapping sets rather than having a one-to-one correlation.

So I'm certainly not trying to outlaw the term 'text adventure'. I do use it myself. I only object to the 'text adventure' = 'interactive fiction' construction.

(I have *no* idea why I'm trying so hard to convince here. I haven't written any IF myself, and I haven't posted in the IF newsgroups. But I encourage you to play some of the mentioned titles, and tell me if you feel that the community hasn't developed a useful distinction with their terminology.)

Oh, and cheers, Chris. It's lovely that you always check your comments and respond so thoughtfully and politely. Even to someone who has a bee in their bonnet for no reason. :^)

Tim: thanks for taking the time to argue your case here! I'm aware that there's interesting stuff going on, and I will endeavour to check out the titles you mention when I get a spare moment.

Often, I argue against neologisms even when I am convinced the new term has already taken root and cannot be weeded from the language. Such is assuredly the case with 'interactive fiction'. :)

And I'm glad you don't have a problem with fiddle players, too. ;)

One of the great pleasures of my blog is to have frank and courteous discussions with people on a wide variety of topics. I wish I saw more signs of conversation in the world at large, but alas people mostly just make their decision and then argue blindly to support it.

Perhaps the greatest virtue we can possess is a willingness to listen, and an openness to changing our minds.

Best wishes!

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