Ludic narrative: mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics of books

Ludic Narrative

When it comes to game design frameworks, the simplest is often the best. The MDA framework describes a game as a hierarchy of three layers: mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics. Mechanics are the smallest elements; the individual actions that make up play. Dynamics are patterns of play that emerge from the combination of mechanics. Finally, aesthetics are the less tangible elements, like emotions and understandings, that emerge as the player creates and experiences those dynamics.

It’s a framework that is wonderfully powerful in its simplicity and flexibility. This does mean that different people will use it in different ways, but far from being a flaw in the framework, this is one of its greatest strengths. MDA gives us a tool to expose and discuss multiple models of a game, and through the comparison and contrast of these models, ask “what is this game about?”

The framework also lets us compare non-game experiences with games, and think about the play that exists within traditional media. Too often, this means setting up books (or movies) as a strawman, and then knocking them down again, declaring them to be worse than games. The argument generally goes something like this:

The core mechanic of the book is turning a page. Although the player could theoretically turn the pages in any order they choose, that might be considered cheating. The correct way to read a (linear narrative) book is to turn the pages one at a time until you reach the end of the book. The aesthetics are the only interesting part of a book – they are narrative works, and have no play, to speak of. When considered as a game, books fall flat at both the mechanical and dynamic levels.

I’d like to suggest an alternate application of the MDA framework to books. Importantly, one that challenges the ludonarrative divide (For those unfamiliar with this term, it is the idea that the narrative elements of story, and the “ludic” elements of gameplay, are separate but interacting parts of a game).

The Ludic Narrative

Let’s begin by distancing ourselves from the physical artefact a little; a book is an object that contains a written story, in much the same way that a console contains a game. The physical hardware of the book is important (people get very attached to the physical qualities of books, as they do with consoles) but few would argue that porting the story to an e-reader makes it an entirely different story. Immediately, this is a challenge to the idea that the core mechanic is turning a page; digitising a book radically changes this mechanic, but doesn’t appear to significantly alter the story.

I suggest that the core mechanic of the written story is reading. Not reading a word (a good translation of a written story contains entirely different words, but much the same story) but reading a semantic “sign” – deciphering a basic meaning from a small piece of text.

The dynamics of story-reading, then, are far from dull or linear. The reader progressively takes meanings from the text, and assembles them into a story. In good stories, as in good games, the dynamics feed back into the selection of mechanics. The reader will create meanings from a piece of text that are based on their existing understanding of the story. Sometimes, they will go back and move previously placed pieces of their mental story when new meanings are attained.

The author, for their part, assembled smaller meanings into structures of larger meaning – some common (e.g. the dramatic arc), some unique to that story. The reader’s story is shaped by the affordances provided by the author, but it is the reader’s story – it’s not uncommon to feel betrayal when that story is portrayed differently by a movie adaptation – “That’s not how I imagined it!”

These dynamics create a rich tapestry of aesthetics. It’s not possible or useful to go into details, as we’re discussing an entire medium, not a single story, but we know from experience that stories can elicit an astounding range of emotional and cerebral journeys.

Seen through this application of the MDA framework, the ludic and the narrative are not at odds, but entirely interdependent, even in purely narrative works. The fact that the words on the page are not altered does not mean that the story is not interactive. Both the writing and the reading of a story are richly ludic activities.