Though most of my academic work with videogames centers around rhetoric, discourse and technological development, that wasn’t what initially brought me to graduate school. My scholarly interest with games was first piqued by the way videogames develop narrative structure. As I mentioned in a previous post, this has been a somewhat contentious topic in the past, especially when the field was first being colonized by other academic disciplines. While I’m glad that videogame studies wasn’t completely consumed and made a sub-category of comparative literature, I’m certainly not of the mind that game narratives have no academic value. To the contrary, I think that game narratives are valuable not just in the process of better understanding games, but give us a unique perspective on how we perceive narratives in general.
Ask a hard-core ludologist about how narrative functions in a videogame and he will probably tell you that you’re looking at it from the wrong perspective. The fault that ludologists find in most narrative perspectives on games is that such perspectives are applied to games without accounting for one of the most defining qualities of games, their procedural nature. Games are interactive and participatory, and while they certainly have narratives, these are not traditionally authored tales as one would see in a novel or a film. These narratives are incomplete, mutable creations. One could argue that before a game is played, there is no narrative. Indeed, to quote an article by Gonzalo Frasca in The Video Game Theory Reader (which happens to be my textbook for my Videogame Studies course), “Traditional media are representational, not simulational.”1
This misunderstanding is a common one when dealing with videogames, and not just among academics. Media critics often dismiss videogames as shallow forms of entertainment, lacking in creativity or emotional depth, despite admitting that they have never played them. Such opinions are usually formed after merely watching gameplay footage, or at best, playing for a few minutes. Even the ESRB bases its game ratings primarily off of gameplay footage provided by the developers, rarely if ever actually playing games. While there is some level of understanding that can be obtained by this approach, I would compare it to reading the script of Schindler’s List and claiming that you understand the movie perfectly. It’s not hard to see why the ludologists get bent out of shape when someone approaches their beloved medium from a traditional literary standpoint – they don’t understand simulation.
But then again, how well do we videogame scholars understand traditional literature?
In a recent post on Play The Past, Roger Travis explored the importance of choice in both videogames and epic poetry. Choice is, of course, a very well-discussed topic in videogame studies, whether whether we’re talking about player input, interactivity or information feedback systems. It is also usually cited as one of the distinctions between games and stories. Travis points out, however, that this is not entirely true. The Homeric Epics were not penned by Homer himself, but were passed down by various bards who would tell different stories from the epics to their audience. The stories, however, were not read word-for-word, but tailored to the audience. It was an artistic performance that varied from telling to telling, from bard to bard. Therefore, what would eventually become known as the Iliad and the Odyssey were originally interactive experiences, with the bard responding to audience feedback and shaping the experience.
While the telling of epic poetry was much more open to interpretation than we usually give it credit for, this is not to say that it was without restraints on the narrative. The Iliad in particular placed a great deal of constraints on the bard, as it was based in historical events. Though he could make Achilles into a heroic, philosophical or even tragic figure, Achilles still had to die in the battle. Troy would always lose, no matter who told the story. The details and the context of these events, however, was up to the bard.
Similar constraints exist in many games. While there are those games like Minecraft that have no victory conditions (you can even just spend your days making books for your huge library), most commercial games have a way to win. This places certain constraints on the game’s underlying system. You can wander around all you want in a Zelda game, for instance, but there are certain areas that you can’t reach until you get back to the main storyline and explore a dungeon or talk to a certain character. This limiting of choice is perhaps best seen in Bioshock. In his encounter with the founder of Rapture, Andrew Ryan, the player’s control over his own actions is completely removed. He must then watch as his in-game alter ego strikes Ryan down. The experience for the player, much like the experience for the bard, is something much more profound than simply watching a passive medium play out the events. The meaning, as Travis puts it, is one “that only a ludic narrative practice could yield.”
The Iliad is about as traditional as Western literature gets, yet it shares much more with so called “new media” like videogames than is generally thought. As David Gascoigne put it in his analysis of the work of Georges Perec:
On the most general level, it could be said that all narrative writing can be described as “ludic”, in the sense that every such instance is inviting an interplay between text and reader which is governed, more or less strictly or explicitly, by procedures and conventions which may become apparent as the text proceeds, or may be signalled to the reader in text or paratext.2
Though I may be in the minority in my field, I don’t see simulation and narrative as being two mutually exclusive realms. I see them as more of a continuum, with our bard on one end, a piece of software on the other and with a D&D Dungeon Master somewhere in the middle.
1. Simulation versus Narrative: An Introduction to Ludology. Gonzalo Frasca. In The Video Game Theory Reader by Wolf and Perron.
2. The Games of Fiction. David Gascoigne.