Narratives, Toys, Puzzles, Games

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This article was originally published at UniversityXP and is re-published in Ludogogy by permission of the author.

Narratives, toys, puzzles, and games all share some similar characteristics. But what makes them different and how do games tie them all together?


What are narratives? Narratives in their broadest and most interpretative sense: are anything that is told and recounted. Think about a scary ghost story, a tale told by your grandparents, or your favorite movie or novel. Narratives are about things being told and recounted.

This means that narratives are meant to represent their environment. In a way, they are part of the environment as the presenter or storyteller is present in order to share the anecdote.  Historically that meant that the storyteller shared the narrative during live theater or performance art. But with modern film and television we can now record the narrative days, months, weeks, or years ahead of when we plan to share it.

Meaning is part of the framework that gives narratives and stories longevity. Meaning is established as part of the whole narrative and as part of the experience.  The narrative is often reflective of human actions, experiences or events. That is what makes them relevant for their audiences. Because of that, narratives are meaningful for the audience because they can relate to those same experiences.

That’s why it’s important to impose connections in narratives. Narratives cannot connect on their own. They are a piece of media, something that is shared. But the connections to their audience is what makes them unique. The audience may not have any interesting choices to make with narratives, but they can at least claim a connection to the story.


Compared to narratives, toys possess a completely different meaning. Unlike narratives where the only meaningful choice are to listen or not to listen; toys offer the user complete agency. They can use it, manipulate, or play it. A toy  as any play thing is often used by a child was created for that purpose.

 Toys are objects that humanity has created and used throughout time. They are artifacts of how we’ve come to engage and change our world though the actions of young minds. Some of the most memorable toys are also some of the oldest, such as the ball, kite, or yo-yo. Because of that toys have over time become part of our shared vocabulary. They span different cultures and geographic boundaries.

Narratives lack the same amount of complexity that toys provide to their users. Toys allows two main directions for use: imitation or instruction. With toys, children can imitate what they see adults do with toy ovens, phones, or lawnmowers. Otherwise, toys can be used for instructive means as simple as letter blocks or as advanced as speak and spell digital devices.


Puzzles further iterate on what are present in narratives and toys. Narratives produce a whole experience for the user, but no interaction. Narratives have a finite beginning, middle, and end; toys do not. Someone can continue playing with a toy for an indefinite amount of time.

Puzzles on the other hand have a definite beginning and end. Compared to their narrative and toy counterparts, puzzles are not meant to immediately convey clarity to the user. Rather, the root of the word puzzle in Middle English poselen means to “bewilder and confuse.”

However, as one becomes more adapt at completing puzzles they can determine that a good puzzle is one that can present its structure (but not solution) all by itself.  And therein lies the end to puzzles. Narratives have a beginning and end like puzzles.  But narratives have no interaction. Toys provide that level of interaction but have no structure. Puzzles have with a beginning, an end, and have a structure with a solution.

A great puzzle is one that begs to be solved. But the solved state of a puzzle also means the death of it. Solving a puzzle means that the mystery is over. It’s the end of the enigma. And for most puzzles that is its entire lifespan.  Puzzles only have two states: solved or unsolved. Every other state is just a delay of the inevitable.


Games on the other hand are able to combine the characteristics of narratives, toys, and puzzles. They incorporate a narrative into their structure, they include agency in play, and they have a finite conclusion at the end.

Games are activities that were played for pleasure and without specific purpose. They have since evolved into other areas like simulations, serious games, and gamification.

The structure of games includes several components. Those components include rules, goals, agency, and interaction. Most importantly, games also include the lusory agreement, or the “magic circle” where players know that what happens in the game is only accepted within the game.

Games have also been adept at integrating more story into their play. Similar to narratives, stories have found their place in the structure of narrative gaming. It is here where the traditional stories and structures of anecdotes and narratives wind themselves into what games have to offer. They allow players to explore a story with greater agency than before.

Though this changing context for narrative based games is nothing new. With the advent of options like “Choose your own adventure,” we’ve witnessed readers and players alike being able to take control of the path and style of their character through the fictional world of the narrative.

Rather than thinking of the narrative base in game play as separate entity, think of them in relation to how narratives, toys, puzzles, and games are structured. The narrative itself is just one way of understanding the structure of the experience. Toys and puzzles further augment what it is to have agency and control in these mediums.


The common thread that winds itself between narratives, toys, puzzles, and games is structure. They all include and define structure and how their players or audience views and interacts with the medium. Just like how a challenging puzzle is never obvious at first glance, narratives, toys, and games also provide a bit of serendipity when first presented to their users.

That bit of serendipity and surprise is important. That is something integral to games in order to keep players playing and engaged with them.  You can see this in any number of different mobile games on the spectrum of complexity. Those can include unlocking new game items, locations, or furthering the story.

Furthering the story is where we intertwine those elements in games.  There are often narrative and engagement arcs where a sequence is followed in order to engage the player. This can be seen in games with the core loop element and how that loop is followed by the player as they progress throughout the game. Likewise, narratives have a similar arc through setup, conflict, development, and resolution.

However, unlike narratives, games provide players with the agency to change the outcome. That means that games augment the traditional narrative and concept of the arc. They affect the game as well as the environment.


There are environmental challenges when it comes to games as well. One might even point to the lusory agreement that players make when they play a game, where that environment doesn’t exist even outside of the game.

Toys are part of that environment as they are often the play things of children.  Toys are part of their cultural experience. That experience that can be shaped, molded and influenced by their play as well as through influence from their caretakers, parents, etc…  The concept that toys share most in common with the games environment is that they must be voluntarily played with. Toys, like games, cannot be forced onto players.

And that agreement works out well for games, toys, and player alike. When playing and when gaming, the individual can escape from the real world even for just a moment.

But this escapism doesn’t have to always mean detachment. Puzzles are highly involved activities, where good ones are designed to teach the player. But they often lack a viewpoint or narrative that is often included in games. We don’t see puzzles the same way that we see narrative storytelling or narrative games where we experience the narrators’ values, beliefs, and other underlying motivations.

Narrative games can do this through specific structures and mechanics like characters, emotions, and plots. While these are structures that are immediately imminent in narratives, that is not always the case for games. Narrative games on the other hand need to accomplish all of that and more in a way that is playful, engaging, and intrinsically fun.


This intrinsic fun is the greatest driving factor in developing meaning for activities in toys, puzzles, and games. Puzzles are activities that evoke a feeling of mystery and drive for the player’s desire to learn and explore more about them.

This meaningful emotional connection can also be seen in narratives where characters represent both the audience and the players in a make-believe world. A place where the audience can see themselves from the character’s perspective.

Branching scenarios and decisions

Giving the player the agency to make decisions and reap the benefits from them is part of what makes games so engaging. These decisions are incentivized by giving the player the ability to find out what will happen next. 

This is especially true when following a narrative philosophy as the audience is trying to figure out what will happen next.  In narratives that can be the case for a while, before the audience finds out what happens next. But that will only be a surprise for a limited amount of time as anyone who has experienced the narrative already knows what comes next.

Puzzles are the same way the first time they are completed.  To the player they are unique. But for the designer and past players, they have already been solved.  Out of narratives, puzzles, and toys; only games provide a true unequal and unknown outcome to players.

It’s the game’s interactive elements that can take on aspects from narratives and toys that makes them so engaging. The game scenarios and the decision and agency afforded to players is what makes it so that the participant is left continually guessing.

It is the feeling of control that makes it so that narrative based games allow the player to discover pre-determined paths as well as the outcomes of themselves in the process.


With narratives, toys, puzzles, and games, there are a nearly limitless variety of different interactions that players and audiences can pursue in their consumption of them. They can even be combined to provide players with experiences that were previously not available. We see them in narrative based games, escape the rooms, construction based toys, and other mediums yet to be explored.

Narratives continue to play a strong role in shaping how humans consume different mediums. Their divulgence of patterns, themes, ideas, and concepts permeates toys, puzzles, and games alike. This means that incorporating a narrative basis into design can still provide great outcomes for audiences and players.

Yet the chance involved in games remains ones of its most defining characteristics. While narratives still possess the pre-defined and determined path, games still leave the outcome up to the players. That gives them the greatest agency, the greatest choice, and the greatest prospect to learn from what they’ve experienced.

To learn more about narratives, toys, puzzles, and games in gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

If you have enjoyed this article – consider getting yourself lifetime access to his Games-Based Learning Digital Library containing all of the content from the past two Games-Based Learning Virtual Conferences; past webinars and courses he’s created; as well as his complete back catalogue of articles; podcast episodes; and videos. And more content is being added all the time.

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References and further reading:

Denning, S. (n.d.). What is a story? What is narrative meaning? Retrieved June 11, 2019, from

McMahon, F. (2019, May 30). Toy. Retrieved June 11, 2019, from

Danesi, M. (2018, March 17). What Is a Puzzle? Retrieved June 11, 2019, from

Kramer, W. (2000, December). What is a Game? Retrieved June 11, 2019, from

Stargame, A. (2018, September 13). What game narrative is and what it means in casual games. Retrieved June 13, 2019, from

Hermans, T. (2018, August 29). How to make a good puzzle – An explorable explanation. Retrieved June 13, 2019, from

McNulty, B., McNulty, B., & Timler, D. (2018, August 02). What is Narrative? 5 Narrative Types and Examples. Retrieved June 13, 2019, from

Bizzocchi, J. (2007). Games and narrative: An analytical framework. Loading-The Journal of the Canadian Games Studies Association, 1(1), 5-10.

How gameplay can be narrative: A lesson from Riven. (2017, January 05). Retrieved June 14, 2019, from

Ellison, C. (2017, April 21). After 20 years Full Throttle remains a narrative video game masterpiece. Retrieved June 14, 2019, from

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Educator / Designer / Researcher at Dave Eng Design
Dr. Dave Eng is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who focuses on games, theory, and technology.

Dave studies applied games and teaches others how to use games for education and learning. Dave serves as a faculty member at New York University’s School of Professional Studies (

Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points ( and consults at University XP ( on games-based learning. He also leads the Games-Based Learning Alliance: a community of individuals who use games for teaching, training, learning, and development.

Dave is a founder of Banditos Gaming ( a registered 501(c)(3) social and educational non-profit organization that promotes play, community development, and learning through games. His interests include learning theory, technology, and games.

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