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Posted 25th November 2009 at 01:31 PM by KPWNINJA
Updated 22nd January 2014 at 09:04 PM by KPWNINJA


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Narratology Deathmatch.

Video game
- A game that involves interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device.

Video games (or computer games) over time have become an interesting breed of storytelling due to the sheer amount of interactivity bestowed upon the 'gamer'. They are structured just like any other form of storytelling and contain the conventional introduction and conclusion, or 'cliffhanger', found in most other media. Some games follow a traditional structure, taking the player from beginning to end within the storyline. Most recent games however are now becoming more and more nonlinear allowing the player to go where he/she requires, when he/she requires. One recent example of nonlinear gameplay would be in the popular and controversial Grand Theft Auto series. These games however, like most, still follow a storyline through complex structures. Yet video games have become part of a fierce debate on narratology within recent times. If games are interactive then surely they can't follow traditional narrative. This is the debate. Either computer games are a new variation of the narrative form or a completely different entity all together.

Let's take a look at narrative representations. First there has to be some sort of setting, whether it be just a single room or an entire galaxy would depend on the sort of events that occur throughout the narrative. Secondly a narrative of ANY sort would need characters. Individuals each with their own personalities who populate the setting and give it life. And finally the characters participation to the events and actions that structure the narrative. According to Markku Eskelinen "we can't find narrative situations within games." (Eskelinen, 1997). These representations of narratology however are present within videogames but are the conventions of traditional narrative? They have been applied surely but could they be reworked?

Consider how the conventions of traditional 'quest' narrative may be reworked in their recent application to video games.

- A quest is a journey towards a goal used in literature as a plot.

Do video games have a narrative to begin with? J.C. Herz seems to think so, but more as a simplistic storyline stripped-down, making more room for the action, and reduced to just the essentials.

"No flashbacks. No zippered storylines. Just explosions and fight scenes episodically arrayed like firecrackers on the Forth of July." (Herz) 1

Espen Aarseth however claims that computer games are not a form of narratology and should be treated as simply computer games. He does however believe that narratology does feature in computer games to some degree but there is a difference between the two factors. 2 This way of thinking and analyzing is known as ludology. Ludology is a concept that was introduced into computer game studies by Gonzola Frasca in 1999. The term however originally arose in relation to the context of board games and play activities.

"To claim that there is no difference between games and narratives is to ignore essential qualities of both categories. And yet, as this study tries to show, the difference is not clear-cut, and there is significant overlap between the two." (Aarseth, 1997)

Narrative within videogames is a tough load to swallow for some. Sports games, such as the Fifa series of football/soccer simulation, can't contain much in the form of plot compared to that of a role playing game (RPG). Narrative can still be applied to this type of simulation game however. Usually most sport games will allow you to take on the role of a certain sportsman, or even the coach, allowing you to perform under their indepth characteristics. "Sports narratives are some of the most intriguing and intricate forms of narrative on the market, although they are seldom perceived to be such." (Lambert; Rider, 2001). Traditional printed narratology can not be applied directly onto a game like Mass Effect. 3 It's structure is far to complex but narrative has been applied outside of printed media into movies and television. How is a story-driven game any different apart from a players interactivity? It's because of this interactivity, this overwhelming sense of control, that videogames are put into question, in the context of narratology, time and time again.

'A reader, however strongly engaged in the unfolding of a narrative, is powerless. Like a spectator at a soccer game, he may speculate, conjecture, extrapolate, even shout abuse, but he is not a player.' (Aarseth, 1997)

This interactivity allows us to relate more to a character than a novel or movie would allow us to do because, as players, we control what is about to happen. When you read a novel it's more like you are looking at the events in retrospect, like they have already been solved, but when you play a videogame however the series of events are unfolding and occuring in the present, much like the experience of questing. In Ragnhild Tronstad's recent work she has said the "reason quests can easily be confused with 'stories' is that we are normally analyzing the quest in retrospective, after we have already solved it." (Tronstad, 2001). This has led Espen Aarseth to announce that 'narrative games' should be described as 'quest games'. 4

Quest games? Games structured with strong story-driven segments that involve the completion of events to progress. In a quest there almost certainly has to be a hero, or anti-hero, to undertake the task of retrieving an object 5 (or objects) and/or killing any set number of characters who get in their way. This is the main focus of a quest in any media including videogames. If the hero does not complete his quest he/she will have to face some sort of consequence. Side-quests can appear throughout the main quest journey and, as in literature, reveal much of the world setting adding depth to the storyline and characters. In gaming this would involve completing a task unrelated to the storyline's main focus.

Narrative games? Games that attempt to use the conventions of traditional narrative: "to suspend disbelief on the part of the audience (in this case, gamers) long enough to tell a story." (Lambert; Rider, 2001). If narrative is a description of sequences told in retrospect then I would have to agree with Aarseth that these games would be better described as quest games. I would still argue that narratology is present throughout videogames. In semiotics, a narrative is a story that may be spoken, written or imagined. "A narrative is a sign with a signifier (discourse) and a signified (story, mental image, semantic representation)." (Ryan, 2001). Aren't these conventions of traditional narrative present within videogames? "The narrativity of a text is located on the level of the signified. Narrativity should therefore be defined in semantic terms. The definition should be medium-free." (Ryan, 2001). Narratology should then apply to any media.

'Everything in narrative / Everything can be presented as narratives.'
(Juul, 2001)

It's true that a game is nothing without a player 6 but couldn't this apply to film and fiction? A movie surely is nothing without a spectator, or a novel is nothing without a reader. If it tells a story then it's narrative regardless if no one is there for the story to be told to.
'Since we use narratives to make sense of our lives, to process information, and since we can tell stories about a game we have played, no genre or form can be "outside' narrative." (Juul, 2001). So lets explore further by taking another more in-depth look at narrative representations, the most important being character.

'The inner life of video games --how they work-- is bound up with the inner life of the player. And the player's response to a well-designed video game is in part the same sort of response he or she has to a film, or to a painting: it is an aesthetic one.' (Poole, 2001)

Don't pick up that controller! Consider this instead. Characters are nothing without a player to guide them. Lara Croft, of Tomb Raider fame, would be a sitting duck to all her predators. Despite her curvaceous appearance Lara is devoid of any personality or characteristics and her world has become very dull. Characters are defined by their characteristics. Now pick the controller up and press the 'X' button whilst simultaneously pushing the left analogue stick slightly up. Under your control she has jumped forward proving that Lara is not defined by her appearance but by her abilities that will allow us, as gamers, to progress through her story.

'Video game character design is, of course, potentially a very deep and difficult art: it is the art of designing people, or at least beings, into whose shoes we can enjoy stepping.' (Poole, 2001)

The above quote and my ramblings are no less true in this interview with Hideo Kojima, director, designer and producer of the influential Metal Gear series. The interview concerns Metal Gear Solid, the third game in Kojima's tactical espionage series, and it's protagonist Solid Snake: "We tried not to give him too much character because we want players to be able to take on his role. Snake isn't like a movie star. He's not someone you watch, he's someone you can step into the shoes of. Playing Snake gives gamers the chance to be a hero." (Kojima, 1998). 7 This is just one representation of narrative that has been applied, and even reworked, to videogames with effective results.

Almost anything goes.

The application of traditional 'quest' narrative conventions to videogames still remains an open debate, with much to be said and heard. I would like to repeat that although traditional printed narratology can not be applied directly onto a game, traditional narratology itself can. There are many differences between computer games and narrative that may indicate that they are both separate entity's but you can't say the the two are completely unrelated. Both can and have worked together in some way. "The basic problem with 'the narrative' is the fact that a narrative can never be viewed independently." (Juul, 2001). We can only see narrative through a medium and most narrative can be transferred between media. This is how narrative has been reworked into games. Most of the time things may also get lost in the translation but at least if you know of one media example then it's counterpart would be recognizable. The Simpsons Hit & Run was always going to include the same sort of humor and setting to it's TV counterpart. I can not conclude that videogames are narrative, but videogames do use narratology, and 'quest' narratology, regularly through their characteristics, settings and events.

'It is relatively stress-free to write about computer games...almost anything goes.' (Eskelinen, 1997)


1 This quote was referenced by Will Brooker in: The many lives of the Jetman: A case study in video game analysis.

2 Not a direct quote but indicated throughout his work and the work of others. See Towards Computer Game Studies.

3 Eskelinen, Markku. (2007) Towards Computer Game Studies.

4 Aarseth, Espen. (2004) Quest games as post-narrative discourse.

5 Auden, Wystan. (2004) 'The Quest Hero' - Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism.

6 Newman, James. (2002) The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame: Some thoughts on player-character.

7 This interview was referenced by James Newman in: The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame: Some thoughts on player-character.


Aarseth, Espen. (2004) Quest games as post-narrative discourse.
Auden, Wystan. (2004) The Quest Hero: Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism.
Poole, Steven. (2001) Trigger Happy: Videogames and the entertainment revolution.


Brooker, Will. The many lives of the Jetman:
A case study in video game analysis.

Eskelinen, Markku. (2007) Towards Computer Game Studies.
Towards Computer Game Studies - Markku Eskelinen

Frasca, Gonzalo. (1999) Ludology meets Narratology:
Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative.

Juul, Jesper. (2001) Games Telling stories?
A brief note on games and narratives.
Games Studies 0101: Games telling Stories? by Jesper Juul

Lambert, Clayn; Rider, Shawn. (2001) Playing the Story:
A Look at Narrative Game Genres.
Playing the Story: A Look at Narrative Game Genres

Newman, James. (2002) The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame:
Some thoughts on player-character. relationships in videogames
Games Studies 0102: The myth of the ergodic videogame. By James Newman

Ryan, Marie-Laure. (2001) Beyond Myth and Metaphor:
The Case of Narrative in Digital Media.
Game Studies 0101: Ryan: Beyond Myth and Metaphor: The Case of Narrative in Digital Media

Tronstad, Ryan. Semiotic and Non-Semiotic MUD Performance.
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  1. Old Comment
    Excellent Blog Kenny and a very thought provoking topic.

    Great read bro. 5 stars
    Comment with Quote permalink
    Posted 30th November 2009 at 07:00 PM by vipco vipco is offline
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