What are Narrative Kinks? Here’s why every gamer should care…

Mariel Hurd on what Narrative Kinks are and why she thinks more gamers should be familiar with the concept

What are Narrative Kinks? Well, for a start they’re not normally capitalised but I like them that way. You could almost say it’s a grammatical kink.

Narrative Kinks are story or world elements which push your buttons. While this includes genre to some degree, it’s a lot more precise and tightly focused – you don’t have a Narrative Kink for fantasy, you have a Narrative Kink for ‘rag-tag band forced together by destiny’ or ‘the clash between magic and emerging technology’. They range from being major plot elements to simple character types. For example: I really like non-combative male thief characters, to the point where I’m more likely to buy something if I know there’s one in it. A friend of mine loves settings where magic is treated as a science.

(Those being some of the less embarrassingly petty options, as anything from ‘the badass fighter needs rescuing’ to ‘meaningful conversations next to streams at night’ can count as Narrative Kinks.)

You, the conscious and rational person, have slightly less than no say in this deal. Narrative Kinks don’t ask permission before plunking themselves down and making demands; there is no voluntary selection from a list of ‘completely irrational shit that will make my brain light up like Christmas’, they just move in and set up shop. My best guess is your primordial lizard brain opened the door and told them to wipe their feet.

When a sufficiently powerful Narrative Kink is in play, writing quality becomes a side matter. While it won’t outright remove your standards, the satisfaction of having an itch scratched will often make you willing to overlook flaws that would see any other game back in its case. A thousand monkeys with typewriters may indeed produce the entire works of Shakespeare, but your id will settle for three marmosets with a dried-up biro. This doesn’t mean Narrative Kinks are bad. Everybody who likes fiction has a few of these buggers kicking around in their skull and while it’s tempting to imagine you’re too logical to fall for it, it’s also bollocks. The trick is to learn the difference between something you should recommend based on the quality of the writing, and something that doubles as an all-singing, all-dancing id striptease.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl

Post apocalyptic game S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl

They make you love games you normally wouldn’t:

A well-placed Narrative Kink can be the difference between feast and famine, between love and like. It is the unexpected gherkin on an otherwise mediocre ham sandwich.

A gamer who’s usual type is lean clever dandies post-apocalyptic survival games with a bleak edge would, in a reasonable world, get her basket of goodies from S.T.A.L.K.E.R, but love (or lust) is rarely so simple and Fallout: New Vegas just rolled into town with a mighty fine revenge-driven plotline dogging its heels. On the surface, S.T.A.L.K.E.R is a better match. The setting is closer to her preferences, the tone is grimmer, the style of sci-fi is far more modern…but it doesn’t have that one story element which flips her switches. Fallout: New Vegas falls short everywhere except where it really counts.

Spikey Van Dykey

She and S.T.A.L.K.E.R have a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell arrangement.

Narrative Kinks are irrational by their very nature; it’s one of the reasons they’re such an unreliable measure of quality.

They ruin games you should enjoy:

Let’s take Hypothetical Gamer Bob. Now, one day Bob up and mentions how he simply adores vampires, urban fantasy and political intrigue, so I recommend him Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines. What I didn’t know is that he prefers his vampires to be unromanticised vicious scavengers, his urban fantasy with a side-order of police procedural, and for the backstabbing to stay firmly within the noble court.

Yeah, that hypothetical recommendation went down like the Hypothetical Titanic.

The problem wasn’t caused by me being a shitty friend who ignored Bob’s preferences1, it’s because Bob didn’t know he had them. No-one ever encouraged him to think about it, so his exact desires slumbered in his subconscious like Cthulhu beneath the waves.

A badly-done Narrative Kink is worse than none at all:

Having a Narrative Kink teased without a proper scratching is worse than just leaving it dormant. John Rogers, one of the writers on TNT’s Leverage, recently said:

Oh, there are mysteries!  Puzzles!  I’ll pay attention over here, too!”  But if you don’t then satisfy the puzzle-solving part of the relationship — God help you.  Audiences are hella-smart.  Even if they’re not conscious puzzle-solvers, the lizard brain knows it isn’t getting what it wants.  That frustration feeds back into the character side, and before you know it fans are frustrated with both parts of the equation, because they’re feeling that …

… ahh … you know the best thing I ever heard, the thing I wish someone had told me when I was 20?

“Every criticism is the tragic result of an unmet need.”

He was saying something very interesting about writing television, but the rough sentiment applies here. Only the lizard brain isn’t rational enough to understand that it wasn’t promised anything, and if you don’t separate ‘this writing is bad’ from ‘my lizard brain feels RAAAAGE’ you will end up attributing that dissatisfaction to the game.

And hell, that might be perfectly fair. Christ knows this year has had its fair share of shite games, but when you’re clapping on the hatecuffs shouldn’t it be for the real crimes?

Why you should give a shit about them:

Well for starters it helps out all the poor bastards who buy your birthday presents. When you have a better idea of your own Narrative Kinks you can make useful requests, rather than blinking bovinely and going ‘uh…I like sci-fi?’.

It’s also far harder to have pointless flamewars when people know (and acknowledge) the difference between ‘well written’ and ‘gives me a case of the happy chemicals’. We’ll do it anyway because the actual point of contention is just an excuse to bicker, but it’ll inspire us to invent more interesting excuses.

They’re interesting. Writing is interesting. Analysing is interesting. Deconstructing the stories we consume is worthwhile, fascinating and valuable, and learning what we like about them is just one more tool in the kit.

And you can never spend too much time gazing into your own naval.

1 That would be the Stripper Incident.

Mariel Hurd is a console-shunning queer feminist with too much time on her hands. She likes to fill it with wargaming, RPGs and forming unpopular opinions.

Do you think Narrative Kinks are a useful concept? Are any of them over-used in games? What are some of your own Narrative Kinks?