Tom Brady and the Intrinsic Narrative

A few Sunday evenings ago, I watched Super Bowl LI, the climactic game of the 2016-17 season of the National Football League. With the loss and exit by the Dallas Cowboys earlier in the playoffs, I had no emotional stake in the outcome of the game, but at least some of the TV commercials might be great.

As it turned out, 100-million-plus people, in 50 million US homes, watched the unprecedented overtime victory by the New England Patriots over the Atlanta Falcons. It was a dramatic two-games-in-one contest — Atlanta dominated the scoring 28-3 until barely two minutes remained in the third quarter; and then New England made an orthogonal pivot, to tie 28-all with 57 seconds remaining in the fourth, winning 34-28 in slightly less than four minutes of sudden-death overtime.

The come-from-behind drama notwithstanding, the biggest surprise for me was that later in the week the game would evoke the fundamental difference between a SenseMaker study and a traditional marketing survey. Presumably this was an audience-of-one reaction, not shared by other viewers.

Back at the stadium, the on-field leadership of New England quarterback Tom Brady earned him the Most Valuable Player award and unanimous accolades from his teammates.  If you had to pick a single hero, it was he.

Our hero Tom Brady thinks, “How about a backyard chess set from Tiffany & Co. with the Lombardi Trophy as a bishop?”

A few days later, the background mental nagging from that word “hero” got me to re-locate something I had read about four years ago. The author is Malcolm Ryan, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computing at Macquarie University, who works in artificial intelligence and game design. Here is some of what he had to say in a post on ‘Narrative-driven Design’ in his blog Words on Play [hyperlink added]:

I’ve taken an approach to design that I haven’t really seen discussed before. I’m calling it “narrative-driven” design. The idea is that you choose a particular set of narratives that you want to see emerge from your game and then you design systems to enable and encourage (but not enforce) those narratives.

I’m talking here about what I have previously called “intrinsic” narratives — the stories that emerge from the gameplay — rather than “extrinsic” narratives — the stories imposed by the author. A good game should have a good intrinsic narrative, even if it has little or no extrinsic narrative. Consider sports, for example. A good game of cricket or football or whatever has an exciting narrative: Our team did this, but then their team did that. They had the edge for a while but then our [star] player did something amazing! It was neck and neck to the end but finally we won! There is no externally-written fantasy going on here. The story is based on the drama of the game itself.

Just to be clear, his “gameplay” refers to a designed game meant to be played on-screen or with cards or by some other method; my mapping is “a good game of… football” = Super Bowl LI, and the “star player” = Tom Brady.

I originally found Dr. Ryan’s blog post because I was writing about the difference between results a client would see in a SenseMaker story-collection project vs. a traditional 1-to-10 bubbled survey. In a nutshell, a project delivers a message from the client’s audience that is a first-person, here-is-what-we-think declaration and contextualization. A survey, at best, can only deliver someone else’s compilation of a third-person, this-might-be-what-they-meant inference and representation; at worst, it can be a meaningless collection of questions and answers that have been “gamed.” (Is it a sign that we use that word?)

I remember the aha moment as I was writing: Oh, a project can deliver an intrinsic or inherent story, governed by the thoughts of the respondents (assuming well-designed prompting questions and signifiers), but a survey is much more likely to be governed by extrinsic or tangential factors, which means that “gaming” by the respondents could equally well be “guiding” by the survey designer. This intrinsic vs. extrinsic categorization of narrative couldn’t be a wholly original insight, I thought, so time for a Google search on “intrinsic narrative” AND “extrinsic narrative”.

Dr. Ryan’s post on ‘Narrative-driven Design’ was (and still is) the top hit. The surprise is that there are only 78 hits total (as of March 6th). Actually that is an overstatement, since by the time you get a few pages down, Google offers up a common warning: “In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 31 already displayed.”

If you add “games” to that Google search, the number of hits reduces to 51, with 19 displayed. Skimming those 19 leaves me with the suspicion that this has been a decade-long, if somewhat “unstructured,” topic of conversation in the game-developer community. But one that seemingly peaked in 2011 and 2012. (I’ll return to the topic of more structured conversation, meaning “academic” discourse, in a future post.)

I looked at a few of the other results, including one from the blog of Failbetter Games, makers of Sunless Sea. They self-describe as “an independent games studio” and “Purveyors of only the finest examples of interactive narrative.” I particularity liked the example of chess offered by “Tony” in his comment at the end of the post ‘Late to the party: games and stories’:

Extrinsic and Intrinsic are useful words. Thank you. I find ‘narrative’ and ‘theme’ are… useful words too. For example, chess has no extrinsic narrative (designer driven), a strong intrinsic narrative (player driven), and a solid theme (war of kings).

Succinct and memorable, especially for those of us who don’t inhabit any gamer universe, either as developer or player. And illustrative of my point — like chess, the best SenseMaker project has no extrinsic narrative, because the storytelling is not driven by the instrument designer, but it does have a strong intrinsic narrative, driven by the storyteller(s).

Although in some contexts, even chess can be scripted….