Narrativism, Gamism, and Simulationism in Computer Games
It's been a few years since I've spent any time there, but I used to read indie-rpgs.com's "the forge" forum, which is dedicated to the art and science of tabletop roleplaying game design. One of the downsides of that forum at the time (and likely still today) was a tendency towards jargon. However, even though RPGs are rife with weird acronyms an inexplicable terminology, I'm convinced that Ron Edwards (or whoever was actually responsible) did the industry a service by coining the terms Narrativist, Gamist, and Simulationist to describe the three main styles of play encouraged (to greater and lesser degrees) by existing games. In my opinion, the mere existence of these concepts has helped distinguish the independent games being developed through conversations at the forge. Although, as I said, it's been a while. Judging by Mike Holmes (probably not the Mike Holmes you're thinking of) comment on one of the 2012 Last Change Game Chef finalists that "the design community hasn’t gone completely over to larps, plays, and rituals, and can still do something more familiar", I'd imagine things have been getting more and more esoteric over the years. To get an idea of how long it's been, I entered the 2004 contest, back when it was still refered to as Iron Game Chef. Things were already pretty far from Dungeons & Dragons at that point.
Digressions aside, unless you too were a regular on that forum, you're likely not sure what I'm talking about. A quick summary is probably in order:
- Narrativist: focused on telling a story. Many of the successful indie RPGs out there have decidedly Narrativist goal. Reading through people's summaries of their games often leaves the impression "I would watch this movie". Playing a Narrativist game is basically a structured way of writing a story in conjunction with the other players.
- Gamist: focused on strategy and competition. In RPG terms, this is the only form of play where "winning" is an option, or even has any sort of logical meaning. The great-grandmother of all RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons, is decidedly Gamist. These games are played to win, and usually have some sort of competitive mechanich (such as players vs. GM) built in.
- Simulationist: focused on re-creating a real or fictional world. The term fidelity risen to the top to describe the end goal, right around the time I stopped frequenting the forge forums (when I moved to Ottawa in 2006). The general idea is not to be realistic, but rather faithful to the environment being simulated. For example, a game meant to invoke gritty detective stories would not include a realistic treatment of gunshot wounds, but would rather let the protaganist shrug it off as "just a scratch", in order to be faithful to the source material. Early RPG design often ran into difficulty by adding in "realistic" rules that made the game less faithful to it's source material, and therefore usually less fun as well.
Broadly speaking, it's impossible to have any game be purely of one type or another. All three elements are present in some proportion and work together to give each game it's own unique character. That being said, some elements are easier than others. In table-top games, it's almost always either the Gamist or Narrativist elements that come to the fore. Simulationist modelling of the game world is by necessity implemented at a fairly rough scale, and can't really form a core element for game play. With computer games, however, Simulationist-first games are a very real possibility. One of the most popular games in recent years, Minecraft, is decidely Simulationist. You simply build things out of blocks of various materials and fight off the zombies, creepers and spiders that show up to make your life difficult. In a table-top game, there would be no way of showing the player the results of their efforts at crafting, which would take a lot of the fun out of things.
To me, computer games are the natural home of Simulationist gaming. An environment where enjoyment can be had simply by being in a different world and seeing what happens. But, it seems the gaming industry doesn't agree with me. The games being produced seem to exist in bipartite universe where games can be entirely described by their story lines and game play elements. The Simulationist parts of the game are typically limited to "more realistic" graphics and physics.
There doesn't seem to be enough thought given to making the Simulationist aspects of the games fun. Possibly because video game designers never read the forge and aren't aware that these parts of the game should be fun. Instead a lot of focus is spent on the Narrativist aspects of the game, through various cut scenes that reveal the game's underlying story line. There has been a lot of success in this aspect, but to me the main problem here is that it's very hard for the player to help write the story. They can only uncover one of the stories written by the game's authors. And far too often there is only one story to uncover. So you're basically slowly watching a TV show, where the Gamist parts of the game take the place of commercials. Computer games just don't have the flexibility required to tell unique and compelling stories on every play through. I think visual novels are likely the closest we'll get to truely Narrativist computer games for quite a while. The player still can't create new storylines, but at least there is more than one underlying narrative to uncover.
So, yeah, mostly mild whinging on my part. Hopefully someone in the gaming industry will eventually stumble over the forge and start designing all three parts of their games to be enjoyable. Just knowing that there are three parts should help a lot.