A game which seemingly has no story is the game “Don’t Look Back” by Terry Cavanagh. At first I thought it was a poor alternate version of Super Mario Bros. You start at a grave and have to keep moving from there; there are no other instructions. Little did I know, this game is actually the story of a Greek legend about Orpheous and Eurydice. It turns out that you the player are the hero, and since your lover has died you plunge into hades searching for her spirit and fight to bring her back. This game however has depth to it beyond the patterns you have to follow in order to win; it has a story.  Koster says that what composes a story* is a deeper understanding of the character and portraying a character in a way one can have empathy for. “Don’t Look Back” does just this, as the character moves through the gameworld, the story slowly unravels to reveal what the character is doing and why. In regards to empathy, by the time your character ‘finds’ his lover, you either have already developed a sense of empathy from playing through the many difficult and frustrating levels with him or you now see what his mission is and want him to succeed. At the end of the story, as you and your lover escape hades and make it back to the grave, you see your character still standing over the grave. Poof! It was only a figment of your imagination, a dream you wish would come true. If you didn’t have empathy for our hero in the past, you should now! In conclusion, by Koster’s definition*, the game “Don’t Look Back” is indeed a story.

*Koster, Raph. “A Theory of Fun for Game Design.” p.88.

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  1. Jason Ko says:

    I think what’s important in deciding whether or not games are “stories” is seeing where the narrative is introduced. In the case of Don’t Look Back, I felt as if most of the narrative came from knowing that the game was referencing the legend of Orpheous and Eurydice. Although I could not remember the names of the characters, I knew this was a story I had heard before. Still, the mechanics of the game reminded me of the game Mega Man. That game is at it’s core a game about pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination. It may be over-reductive but, examining the fowards-then-backwards nature of the gameplay, it could be likened to a swimming race. The competitor must swim to the end of the pool and then back.

    There is nothing about the mechanics of the game which reinforce the idea that the avatar has an invested interest in proceeding into the underworld. For example, it is possible to go backwards to previous game screens as you journey into Hades. It is not like Super Mario, where the game world constantly advances forward, reinforcing the notion that you must at all costs save the princess.

    Instead of this sort of emergent narrative, the game relies fully on another form of art, the literary story, in order to tell it’s narrative. Thus, I would argue that the game has no story.

    Contrast this with Persona 3, where the mechanics of the game are structured such that your character becomes more powerful the more he interacts with others, establishing more powerful friendships. This is an emergent narrative which shows the power of social relationships. It expands into the metagame, where the player realizes that the way to become the most powerful is to manipulate others, telling them what they want to hear in order to gain favor with everyone. Thus, the game is able to say something powerful about the human condition without deferring to the dialogue.

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