The Relation of Narratives and Video Games Essay
The Relation of Narratives and Video Games
Video games are a relatively new form of entertainment; the first video game is considered to be Tennis for Two (1958), around fifty years ago, while film has been around for over one-hundred years, the printing press for over five-hundred, and storytelling for thousands of years before that. Because of its newness, video games are a developing medium, their conventions and potential have not been explored as fully in comparison with film and literature. Computers as a technology allow us to overcome more complex tasks and obtain and utilize information more quickly than previous technologies.
Often there can be the tendency to describe the new medium as radically different from the old, solely based on its technology. However, it is not necessarily the case. Video games do have new capabilities that separate them from previous storytelling media and it is these new characteristics of video games that separate them from film and literature, creating an environment of storytelling where the traditional narrative structure does not directly apply. Using narrative media as examples a lot can be discovered about video games, however, one must remember what makes them games.
See more: how to start a narrative essay
Looking at video games as a continuation of games in general rather than an extension of film, they hold a history dating as far back as the ancient Egyptian game of Senet (discovered in the 2686 BC tomb of Hesy-re) (Juul, Half-Real 3-4). It is these game components that must be understood before looking at games from different perspectives. Jesper Juul drew from theorists before him to present what he denotes the classic game model. Juul defines that a game is: 1. a rule-based formal system; 2. with variable and quantifiable outcomes; 3. where different outcomes are assigned different values; 4.
where the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome; 5. the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome; 6. and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable (Half-Real 6-7). This model is only a barebones description of what games are and does not outline the variety of games, or what makes games enjoyable. This model is also transmedial, meaning that games are not tied to any medium, just as storytelling is not tied to any medium—there is no ideal game medium and there is no physical component common to all games, but there exists the “immaterial” component of rules that is common to all games.
Rules are the base component of games. They govern how the game is played and they should be designed in a way to make it clear what is and is not allowed in playing the game. Games therefore resemble a state machine, a term used in computer science to describe a machine that consists of an initial state, accepts a number of input events, that changes the state responding to the inputs using a state transition function (in the case of this example, the game rules) and then produces outputs using an output function.
Visualizing a game as such, the activity of playing a game produces a game tree that can be seen as branching off at each decision and input. Playing a game is interacting with this state machine and exploring this game tree (Juul, Half-Real 55-56). Rules, however, are seen everywhere in the world, and it is not solely the existence of rules that makes a game. The second item of the classic game model—that games must have variable and quantifiable outcomes—is a salient feature of the game.
If a game exists in such a way that no matter how the player interacts with it, it always produces the exact same result, it is not a game. The variable outcomes must also have different values, with some being more desirable to attain than others. In the video game Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo 1985) the outcome of losing all of the game lives is less desirable than defeating the last stage. A player must also exert effort to influence the outcome, generally in a manner that requires more effort to realize a more desirable outcome.
It is not merely enough that the player interacts with the game, they must also have a sense of agency. Agency is not simply interaction, but interaction where the player has influence (Murray 126). This separates games of pure chance and gambling as borderline cases. In a game where the player rolls a die and the result of rolling a six is considered victory, the player only exerts trivial effort to roll the die, and exhibits no agency. The player of a game must also feel emotionally attached to the outcome—if the player loses all of their lives in Super Mario Bros.
, the player has achieved a negative outcome, and agrees to feel “sad,” while if they defeat the last stage, they have achieved a positive outcome and agree to feel “happy. ” If the player is not emotionally attached to the outcome, they would not exert the effort to play. The sixth item of the classic game model separates games from the real world—game theorists Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman call this subset of the real world a magic circle (95). Games are a part of the world that they exist in, but the rules carve out a world separated from the real world.
It is here where the consequences of outcomes are optional and negotiable—games are a voluntary activity where players can decide the consequences of the game. Soccer, as an example, is a game where in some cases players decide the consequences are simply the glory of victory, but other players, decide that the consequences are career-changing (in the case of professional soccer players). On the other hand, the rules for a political election are game-like and could be played as a game, but an actual election has decided, non-negotiable consequences and therefore is not a game.
In the same manner, it could be argued that professional soccer is not a game, but soccer itself is still considered a game as it is known that soccer is played recreationally and its consequences are negotiable. The classic game model outlines games as a voluntary activity that evaluates a player’s performance—based on a player’s effort and skill in interacting with the game rules, a variable outcome with an attached value is reached, to which the player is emotionally attached. However, with the advent of the video game (as well as the pen-and-paper role-playing game), the classic game model is not all there is to games anymore.
It is still a valuable definition, but the addition of the computer to games modifies the standard game definition. When it comes to rules, the computer is able to handle far more complex processes than a human, allowing for games where the player is free from enforcing the rules of the game, instead having the computer run as a “referee” of sort. This referee capability can operate anywhere from playing tic-tac-toe to simulating entire fictional worlds. The ability of the computer to run as a referee also allows for rules and calculations to be kept secret from the player.
This ability to manage a large amount of information, as well as the ability to run it in secret allows for the computer to manage whole fictional worlds spawning a new type of game, the progression game. This now means there exists two types of games (elements of which can be combined): emergence games and progression games. Most games that have existed before video games are emergence games—games where a large variety of game variations and outcomes come from a small set of rules. Chess, soccer and Pong (Atari 1972) are examples of the emergence game.
Progression games require the player to actualize a predefined sequence of events in order to beat the game. The progression game came about with the adventure game and early examples include The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo 1986) and Final Fantasy (Square 1987). Now that video games can have this progression capability and the ability to easily run fictional environments, they have expanded to include storytelling components. The study of video games, therefore, delves into not just the study of rules and interaction, but also the study of narrative as well.
Narratives operate fundamentally differently than games and one cannot use the same methods of study for both. Therefore, when comparing games and narratives, just as one must understand games, the basics of narrative in comparison to games must be understood as well. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a narrative as “a spoken or written account of connected events; a story. ” There are three traditional components of the narrative: setting, character and events (plot)—a narrative consists of a world situated in time, populated by characters that participate in action.
The world is independent of the question of fictionality, as narratives can be of real as well as fictional events. They can also be split into two levels, the discourse (the telling of the story) and the story itself. Each of these levels has its own time, discourse time and story time, respectively. The story time is the time it took for the actual events to occur, and the discourse time is the time it takes for the retelling (Juul, “Games Telling Stories”).
A week may pass in a story with no event, and thus the narrative could write it off in one sentence, while an action scene that lasted merely a few seconds could take much longer to explain. This means that even though the narrative may be observing events at a time, there exists an understanding that the events are not actually occurring at the moment of reading (Juul, “Games Telling Stories”). Narratives are not limited to the novel or storytelling, and can recognizably be translated between different narrative media—The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R.
R Tolkien is recognizable as the movie of the same name. However, not everything can be transferred equally as well. For example, film is better at conveying action and movement, while the novel is better suited to producing inner thoughts. With games and narratives understood, examining the two side-by-side displays several differences. The most apparent of these is the difference in timing. The narrative has two levels, discourse and story, but when examining games in the same manner it is near impossible to distinguish between the two.
In playing Super Mario Bros., when the player presses the “A” button on their controller, the in-game character jumps, thus synchronizing story and discourse time. It is imperative of the narrative that this separation in time exists. Not only does jumping in Super Mario Bros. place discourse and story time together, it also influences the game world. The understanding, in experiencing a narrative, that the time of the discourse is separate from the time of the events means that in some manner the events have already occurred (even if the setting is in some supposed future)—the events are unable to be influenced.
The very agency that the player exercises in playing a game contradicts the idea of narrativity; it is impossible to influence an event that has already occurred (Juul, “Games Telling Stories”). Because of this contradiction, games themselves cannot be narratives, but this does not limit them from employing and producing them. The very activity of playing a game can produce a narrative, the player can tell a story of their experience in the game. Just as well, games can have stories told through them (especially progression games) as many games contain back-stories and quests that offer the player narratives alongside their play.
Video games have two parts: rules (discussed earlier) and fiction. For a number of years, the arcade game was all that existed and they contained both rules and fiction, but the two were loosely connected. This led some to conclude that a game’s fiction is easily removable and replaceable, thus making it unimportant in relation to the rules. Juul had previously taken the stance that rules are what make a game a game, fiction is unnecessary for a game, a game with an excellent fiction can still be a terrible game, therefore fiction is unimportant in games (Half-Real 13).
When looking at simple games such as Space Invaders (Taito 1978), one could remove the theme of an alien invasion and portray an advancing German front; the player’s spaceship could become a Russian tank. If the rules were kept the same, the player would experience no real difference between playing either, but the same sort of procedure would not perform the same if it were attempted on a progression game such as Myst (Broderbund 1993) because the game experience relies more heavily on the fiction. Juul stated that, “There are, of course, many relationships between theme and structure in a game.
Whether or not any of those relationships are essential, they are complex and vital enough to resist my attempt to lightly shuffle them around” (Half-Real 15). If the fiction of a game is tied to its experience, what role does it play in the game and its rules? In some cases the fiction may point to the rules, as well as the other way around; in other cases the fiction serves the rules in an incoherent manner, subservient to gameplay. When it comes to the fiction component of games, one main difference from narrative media is that they do not require anthropomorphic actors/characters in order to be entertaining (Juul, Half-Real 160-161).
While films and other stories are largely about humans or anthropomorphic characters that a viewer/reader identifies with on a cognitive level, games such as Tetris (Pazhitnov 1985), Pong and Missile Command (Atari 1980) exist without such. This lack of a visible actor does not make Tetris any less of a game, and makes the idea of a movie based on Tetris an unlikelihood, but it shows how games can accomplish something different, and almost completely separate, than traditional narrative media. Another main difference is the progression of time in games.
Previously the difference with discourse and story time was explored, but the chronological appearance of time also varies between games and narratives. Due to the fixed, predetermined nature of a narrative the telling can “jump” around to various points in the story time either in flash-forwards or flash-backs. To do the same in a game becomes problematic, for predetermination precludes agency. If the player is put back in time (in the “past”), they are put in a situation where they must actualize a series of events that allows the game in the “present” to exist, thus limiting the player.
The same goes for flash-forwards where the player is put in a position of “what is to happen,” limiting their play upon return to the “present. ” However, even though games are not narratives, games are no longer strictly abstract. They often contain fictional components as well, leading to new types of games. Besides just viewing games as emergent and progressive, there exists five categories of games: abstract, iconic, incoherent world, coherent world and staged. Abstract games are games that does not, nor do its pieces, represent something else.
The game of Go is a game that is merely rules and although there exist conventions for the size and appearance of the various game pieces, they do not mean anything. Tetris is a well known abstract video game. Iconic games are quite similar abstract games, but their individual pieces simply have iconic meaning. In a standard deck of cards there is a king, queen and jack of each of the four suits, but there is no clear explanation of their relation to the other kings, queens and jacks of the other suits.
Incoherent world games are games that have a fictional world, but it either contains contradictions or events in the gameplay that cannot be explained by the fictional world. In Super Mario Bros. , Mario has multiple lives, but there exists nothing in the fiction that explains it, it only serves the rules. Chess represents two parties at war, but to explain the movement of the units one must refer to the rules as it is not apparent in the fiction. Coherent world games are games that have a fictional world that contain nothing that prevents the player from imagining them in full.
Most adventure games such as the recent The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks 2012) are coherent world games. Staged games are a special type of abstract or representational game that are played inside of a larger, more elaborate world. Mario Party (Nintendo 1998) contains an overarching fictional world and game, but is largely made up of individual staged games. Another instance of the staged game is in Shenmue (Sega 1999) where the protagonist can play on in-game arcade machines.
Each of these categories of games has its own place in the world of video games and it is important to be aware of the varieties that exist. Of these varieties though, there is the coherent world—the progression game. In this type of game the player must perform a predefined set of actions in a coherent world setting. This kind of game sounds very similar to the narrative, but still has variable outcomes, player effort and other game components. One example of this kind of game is The Walking Dead (Telltale Games 2012).
The Walking Dead is set in Georgia during a fictional zombie apocalypse. The player plays as Lee Everett, a professor convicted of killing a man he found sleeping with his wife. Due to the zombie uprising he does not end up in prison, instead ends up caring for a little girl by the name of Clementine. The gameplay mainly revolves around conversations that the player has with other characters and occasionally the player is put in a position where they must make a critical decision.
At the end of each “chapter,” the game reports out on the player’s decisions as well as the percentage of other players that either disagreed or agreed with them. It is through this method that the player is able to reflect on the cause and effect of their decisions. This sort of environment demonstrates that games are a playground where the player may experiment with things they would or could not do in a real-life setting (Juul, Half-Real 193). It is this phenomenon of player-made decisions and the reflection of them that traditional narratives cannot accomplish.
In conclusion, games are made up of six components that make up the classic game model: they are rule-based systems with variable outcomes that have different assigned values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the game are optional and negotiable. With the advent of the computer, there are new capabilities available to games. There are now two main types of games, emergent and progression games, with a spectrum of combinations between them.
Emergent games are made up of a set of rules that combine to produce a large set of outcomes. Progression games require the player to perform a specific set of actions in order to complete the game. With this progression capability, it is important to compare video games and narratives. A narrative is a spoken or written account of connected events. Narratives have two levels, story and discourse, each of these with their own time. Games often do not have distinction between their story and discourse time (as the events are occurring in real time), and thus are not narratives.
Games, although not narratives themselves, allow for players to produce narratives through playing them; players may recount their experiences in a game. Games may not themselves be stories, but that does not mean that they do not employ them or that player’s cannot tell stories about their experiences in a game. Games offer a different experience than the narrative media before it; the player gets to experience something rather than view it and has an influence in the environment. The player of a game also gets to experiment with ideas in a sort of playground and reflect on their decisions and the effects they have.
That does not, however, imply that the medium is necessarily a superior or inferior one. Films, novels and other narrative media can provide experience that games cannot, just as games provide experiences that traditional narrative media cannot. Looking forward, one can only imagine what games can accomplish in the field of entertainment that was not possible before.
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