Video games are an interactive, powerful way to tell stories. The ever-popular narrative game is usually text-based and akin to a visual novel, but there are countless ways to tell stories in the genre. From May 10-13, inaugural digital narrative game “convention” LudoNarraCon explored narrative themes, the benefits that come from these experiences and their endless possibilities.
LudoNarraCon is the brainchild of Chris Wright, managing director of indie game label Fellow Traveller, which organized and hosted the event on Steam. For those who don’t care for throngs of eager attendees at game conventions or don’t have the time or money to go, LudoNarraCon gave folks the meat and potatoes of an actual convention from the comfort of their couch. There were panel discussions led by well-known developers, game demos available for free, and even a sale on the platform during the weekend. For both gamers and developers, this experiment was fascinating in that it combines several elements of a convention and made them available for digital consumption.
Specifically, ludonarrative is “a compound of ludology and narrative, and refers to the intersection in a video game of ludic elements (gameplay) and narrative elements” and is often associated with the term “ludonarrative dissonance.” This is considered the opposite of game immersion. Also, the definition of a conference is “the summoning or convening of an assembly; an assembly of persons met for a common purpose.” While it may sound cute to call LudoNarraCon a conference, technically it’s not. “Festival” or “digital game fair” might be more appropriate terms.
The games that participated in the digital festival are the following:
- Boyfriend Dungeon
- The Church in the Darkness
- Cultist Simulator
- Do Not Feed the Monkeys
- Genesis Noir
- Heaven’s Vault
- In Other Waters
- Neo Cab
- Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You
- Orwell: Ignorance is Strength
- The Stillness of the Wind
- Sunless Skies
- Where the Water Tastes Like Wine
They all have engrossing storylines, but a few really stood out to me. Neo Cab is like Taxi Cab Confessions meets David Lynch’s Lost Highway. The beautiful purplish hues, forlorn music and oddball characters give this game a cinematic quality. Driver Lina is all ears, she’s heard it all. As the last human driver on the deserted backroads of Los Ojos, she has to be careful about what she says and who she picks up, particularly after her only friend disappears. It’s a quirky, moody experience with a deeply branching story and an absorbing soundtrack.
Heaven’s Vault is a captivating archaeological science-fiction adventure game with stunning graphics and a realistic main character. Instead of piling up body counts, this game requires you to actually do archaeological studies and everything she deciphers or uncovers is a part of the puzzle leading to a much larger mystery.
All of the talks are available on YouTube. Many of the topics zeroed in on different stories in narrative games, from death to romance to adventure. One setback of LudoNarraCon was that you couldn’t network while being isolated at home. When you’re at a convention, you meet like-minded people from around the world. Thus, why this may not fall under the term “convention.”
What LudoNarraCon did was focus on the art and skill of the narrative game, “lifting the hood on the developer process” without needing to leave home. What might be a great addition to this format is to have offerings that are at real venues and combine that with the digital format. For instance, host talks at a theater where people can actually attend them. Then, people can choose if they want to watch from the comfort of home or actually “convene” with others. While that’s no different than other conventions that are streamed, LudoNarraCon’s focus should remain on introducing ludonarrative games and selling them on digital platforms such as Steam. Discounts during the convention and easy access to demoing the games are key to sustaining this experimental celebration of games.