Blog Archive

Monday, August 22, 2005

DIGRA05: Build It to Understand It

Session at DIGRA05 (

Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern
Build It to Understand It: Ludology Meets Narratology in Game Design Space

Mateas and Stern revive and ask new questions in the established ludology vs. narratology debate. To them, the “debate has been sterile, primarily abandoned with no satisfactory progress”. Mateas and Stern points out that a common ludological position has been that narrative is fundamentally incompatible with agency, but this is a conclusion based on unsuccessful efforts of game developers to date.

I couldn’t agree more. This was what I was after in 2002 when I wrote my masters on a similar subject. There I used the term story construction instead of “narrative”. Just having had programmed a commercial story driven computer game (The Diamond Mystery in Rosemond Valley) I was sure that there must be a ‘better’ way of doing it. As far as I know there is no one that has pushed it as far as Mateas & Stern with the Facade since then. When I first heard (2003) that they were really building a system that would both have a strong agency and use an Aristotelian tension arc I was amazed (and, I have to admit, sceptical.) And now it exists. Download it from It is popular too: today, 2005-08-22, it has been downloaded 43,687 times since 2005-07-08 from one of the three mirror sites where it is available ( This does make it necessary to revisit the ludology vs. narratology debate.

Mateas and Stern state:
“Industry attempts to create interactive stories have made use of existing game architectures. Their failure to create high-agency interactive stories results from the poor affordances existing architectures offer for stories. […] Without a design and architecture mutually constraining each other, attempts to design for “character” or “plot progression” are doomed to failure precisely because existing game architectures don’t provide authorial support for these concepts. As a result, narrative is commonly reduced to a linear overlay on top of the actual game mechanics.”

Mateas and Stern use Rittel and Weber’s concept of “wicked problems”, and describe game design as such: for a wicked problem any attempt to solve the problem changes the understanding of the problem. “All existing games form tiny islands of partially understood regions of design space; all around these islands lies a vast ocean of unexplored potential design space waiting to be brought into existence through the invention of new features and approaches, and mapped out through the hard empirical work of exploring a variety of designs.” Mateas and Stern argue that it is necessary to try out these wicked problems that are part of game design in practice. To build the games: “Theoretical and empirical analyses certainly provide the designer with useful approaches, techniques and vocabulary for thinking about the design problem. But such analyses can never be strongly normative. The only way to explore new regions of design space is to make things.”

Again, I couldn’t agree more. In the three-year game education we have here at Gotland University the aim is that the students build a lot of smaller games. (Instead of large monoliths). Here one can read about hat Mateas and his colleagues are up to in the Experimental Game Lab at Georgia Tech:
By exploring the wicked problem of combining what they call local and global agency Mateas and Stern have showed that the common ludologist assumption that agency is impossible to combine with agency has been “overreaching and premature”.

Now – what I would be really interested in knowing is how the wicked problem of narratology/ludology has changed the understanding of the problem. Would for example an Aristotelian tension arc be possible to achieve, alongside with agency a qualitative playing experiences be possible to achieve in a multiplayer game? I hope there will be studies of Fa├žade that I can read in the future. And I hope that Mateas and Stern, having done what many thought was impossible will inspire others.

The full paper is available from the DIGRA site:

Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern