Design, Theory, and History in Games & Narratives

One of the benefits of reading older works on game design in newer contexts is that they provide a snapshot of the industry’s past. The concerns, strategies and aspirations of the past can act as a lens through which we can judge the state of things today.

In an industry that regularly divides time up in “console cycles,” the years during which a set of competing game platforms are on the market, it is worth noting that Jeff Howard’s Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives was published just as the now-ending cycle was hitting its stride. Released in January of 2008, Quests was published just months after Mass Effect, Halo 3, and BioShock hit store shelves, and only months before Grand Theft Auto 4 and Fallout 3 reached audiences. It is in this context that Howard’s first readers would hear his demands: make games that are meaningful, and think about games in terms of the meanings they make.


Howard seats that demand in a book about “the quest.” Here, he is deploying both the narrative concept–as outlined by Medieval scholars and literary theorists–and the ludic one. In fact, the author’s secondary objective is to bridge the gap between narratology and ludology, and he sees the quest as the perfect tool to do that work. The quest is at once narrative–a knight seeking to recover a holy artifact–and ludic–a player driving an avatar across a virtual world in search of a victory condition. Howard, like many scholars, toys with the idea that there never really was much of a gap between ludology and narratology, but maintains that there is an ongoing tension between narrative and play. Quests are a reconciliation machine, a middle term on which one can travel from narrative stakes to play stakes. In this process, Howard argues, a designer can imbue games with “meaning.”

Thus, Howard seeks to inform game studies scholars of the literary and theoretical history of quests and to equip game designers with a practical set of tools to begin the tough task of meaning-making. Howard divides Quests into six chapters: an introduction, four chapters that handle different elements of the quest (“Spaces,” “Characters,” “Objects,” and “Challenges”), and a final chapter on the pedagogy of using the quest as a teaching tool. Each of these chapters is further divided between “Theory” and “Practice” sections. Howard first introduces theoretical background and historical examples, and then offers broad technical information, design advice, and series of practice assignments. Working in the Aurora toolset–the packed in development kit for BioWare’s 2002 game Neverwinter Nights–these assignments task burgeoning designers to recreate elements from classic quest stories: Arthurian castles, Tolkienian artifacts, and, of course, medieval temptresses. Stapled on to the back of the main text is another fifty pages of material: a section on the Neverwinter Nights 2 toolset and two excerpts from medieval quest stories, included as useful reference for both designers and critics.

Careful to a Fault

But Howard is careful–sometimes to a fault–to avoid intimidating readers. For the humanities scholars, he spends a paragraph explaining that RPG objects have statistics. For the burgeoning game devs he stops to explain what an “allegory” is. Quests is a book for teaching, but Howard’s tendency towards generalism means that he is often unable to adequately answer critiques that he clearly anticipates. Nowhere is this more clear than in his dismissal of postmodern indeterminacy, a topic broader than both the scope and audience that Quests sets out for itself.

Howard draws on thinkers like Joseph Campbell, Northrop Frye, and W.H. Auden to define and explore the quest as a literary device before understanding it as a game element. In Quests’ best moments, the author recognizes that some of his readership may not be interested in engaging with these thinkers and their ideas because of their totalizing quality. So, instead of universalizing the quest as meaning-making par excellence, he encourages designers and critics to recognize the quest as a practical collection of accepted and internalized structures and tropes in western “quest” fiction, and then to engage with, interrogate, or even subvert these conventions through both narrative and game design.

This, Howard’s big picture project, is a forward-thinking goal that is built on a solid  understanding of “game” as a three-way relationship between meaning-making creator, meaningful work, and meaning-enacting player. Anticipating Robert Yang’s recent piece on ludonarrative dissonance, Howard’s argument isn’t about losing an audience by being too “gamey,” but about creating carefully crafted works filled with correspondences between the ludic, the narrative, and the aesthetic, which in turn can be leveraged to create thematic meaning.

If Howard consistently advocated for the quest as simply a practical design device, then Quests wouldn’t stumble like it does. Unfortunately, he often falls into the trap of totalization himself, pivoting from saying that quests are a way of meaning-making to saying that they are the way of meaning-making. In one instance, he notes that games like Grand Theft Auto 3 and Ninja Gaiden tend to call player tasks “missions” instead of “quests.” There is undeniably something there, but instead of digging deeper into cultural connotation, the author instead offers that in a quest “something more meaningful is at stake than stealing a car for the benefit of one’s gang or assassinating a rival clan leader” (23). No one tell David Simon or Francis Ford Coppola.

Meaningful Games

Additionally, Howard clutches tightly to the premise that we can measure out some games as “more” or “less” meaningful than others. He encourages students to make “more meaningful” games. But the subtext here is that they can, instead, choose to make meaningless games–that is, athematic and apolitical games of “pure” play that do not engage with the “real world.” Howard thus disparages a whole allotment of games, including those which use procedural generation and those which were not intentionally designed to be “meaningful,” but instead focus on “pointless” (but technically sweet) play mechanics instead of establishing thematic correspondences. Under this logic, these cannot be meaningful because they aren’t “quest” games.

Even World of Warcraft, dominant at the time of Quests’ publication, does not meet Howard’s standards for meaning-making. It fails to be a quest game because players–tasked with “meaningless” errands–can never end the ongoing, eternal conflict between evenly matched fantasy nations. He writes that such a “bleak scenario … is not particularly conducive to meaningful gameplay” (22). It might not be the sort of meaning that Howard has in mind, but with over 10 million players at its height, WoW certainly produced some sort of meaning for its players.

If Howard aims to raise games to the same level as other media, moments like this are where he falters the most. Even putting aside “high art,” calling a work of any other medium “meaningless” in an academic context would seem absurd. Even the most mainstream, Michael Bay explode-a-thons carry thematic meaning. Yet Howard casually drops words like “pointless” to describe popular games. These works might have been made without strict thematic meaning in mind–they may have even been made in an attempt to duck meaning altogether–but even kitsch carries meaning.

Thus, though never explicitly stated, Quests is a political work. By entreating students to make “meaningful” games, Howard inadvertently demeans the game as a medium. Instead of asking “How can we make more meaningful games?” he should be asking our up-and-coming students “What sort of meaning does your game make, whether or not you intended for it to?”

Theory and Design

Surprisingly, Howard answers that exact question throughout Quests to great effect. If anything, the book could’ve dealt with longer and even closer readings of the ways that the quest narrative has been leveraged in the past. Instead–likely due to the limits set by writing for such a broad audience–he has only a small space to develop some of his most novel ideas. Howard borrows the Campbellian “initiatory space” as a useful way to think about the design of the middle sections of games. It is a space where players are exploring the systems they play in, testing the limits of their abilities, and learning the tricks necessary to overcome endgame obstacles. Under this perspective, is there any wonder that players react so poorly when climactic gameplay segments seem underinformed by the logics of the “initiatory spaces” they passed through on the way? None of the thresholds crossed were represented in the underwhelming conclusion to BioShock, and many of the artifacts claimed and wielded by Adam Jensen were of no use in Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s much maligned boss fights. Howard similarly writes with great insight on material ranging from the strange important-but-meaningless status of “quest items” in games, to the grammatical attributes of quest journals, to the nature of the player-explorer, who always knows where to go “because he is always looking for the space that he has not yet explored” and who over time internalizes the architectural logics of a game’s environments.

While Howard excels at this sort of theoretical analysis, he often seems to struggle with giving particular design advice that would aid his goal of meaning-making. When he suggests ludic interpretations of quest items, his examples are clanky, mechanical things. In The Faerie Queene, the Redcrosse Knight dons an armor of faith that “both protects [him] from the fires of a dragon and imprisons him in pain as the dragon’s breath heats the armor” (115). Howard interprets this as “a metaphor about girding oneself with Christian values,” which are both an asset and a liability. Yet his in-game recreation is a suit of armor that gives a defense bonus against evil enemies and a weakness to dragon breath. “The player’s attitude,” he writes, “toward the protective powers of holiness then becomes a strategic decision whether to wear the armor.” It is certainly a strategic decision, but where does “holiness” enter the picture? Drawing heavily on the morality system developed in Richard Garriott’s Ultima 4 (and its many later copycats), Howard favors simple correspondence between game mechanics and meaning. But as many BioWare games demonstrate, the moment that a moral choice is mechanically incentivized, the player’s thematic enactment is compromised by the need to think strategically. No longer is the player just a fallen Jedi seeking redemption, but also a fallen Jedi who chooses to be nice so that she can use the force to stun droids more often. Nothing says “light side” like the careful management of moral choices as to produce desired ludic outcomes. Even players who make decisions due to thematic or aesthetic motivations now have to do so in spite of strategic interests. Strong design can leverage this tension, but, likely because of the restrictive nature of his audience, Howard’s own examples rarely do.

Further, the examples given in Quests never interrogate or subvert the quest narratives Howard uses. These are stories with complicated political positions, and which are tied up with histories of marginalization. They make good models because students will recognize them–but if the goal is to teach a new generation of game designers to break boundaries and explore the medium, we should be encouraging them to do more than turn back to King Arthur and Tolkien. If the author had provided truly alternative readings of these stories, he would be encouraging students to do the same, and to improve their craft in the process. This limit shows through even in Quests’ final chapter, where Howard outlines ludic re-imaginings of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 as done by his students. Howard is frustrated by their interest in the polysemic qualities of Pynchon’s work, and encourages them to adopt a single reading into their game, going so far as to list the four acceptable readings of the work. If Quests is to be used as a textbook, it should be done in a way that questions his models and squeezes interesting new readings from them.


Thankfully, nearly six years later, many critics and designers are performing this sort of interrogation of traditional structures. Games like BioShock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto 5 have generated a great deal of critical writing, much of which goes beyond narrative critique to examine the ways that the game mechanics and structures inform theme. Meanwhile, adventure games like Kentucky Route Zero and The Walking Dead have begun to explore ways in which players can enact theme with less distraction. Other designers have developed games that so dramatically challenge the established conventions that detractors scoffed and denied that they are games at all, but which were critically praised exactly for their meaning-making.

Though Quests often feels dated, it is often in a way that asks us to be generous to Howard. Had Quests been written today, it would be well informed by the new communities that have sprung up in the years since its publication. After all, Howard had not yet seen the rise of Twine or Unity. Howard had not seen game jams–so unsuited to making games with epic, rolling quests–act again and again as fertile ground for the creation of small games where gameplay meets theme.

Quests was not only published before the “Twine revolution,” it was also published before the advent of gamification, before Jesse Schell’s 2010 “gamification-of-toothpaste” prediction, before Jane McGonigal’s Colbert Show appearance. And how might a work like this today understand Zynga and the social games movement? Certainly, Farmville, even at its height might have seemed “meaningless,” but how did its players shape their goals? Taking from Quests its best question, we should face all of the works in this new “ludic century” and ask “What sort of meaning is being enacted?”