Now we venture into the spatial storytelling part of Jenkins’ article. Spatial storytelling is partially world building, that space which is a fictional reality we the audience accept, a moment of our lost time during a read, when a mind slips into the silky sheets of mental-wired architecture, or that image you start to lose separation from on the screen. Gaming must go many steps further and give this world physics, objects and choices for the audience to push, pull, feel.

Let’s take a look at how Super Metroid uses its spatial elements towards building an atmosphere, evoking familiarities, telling a story and embedding narrative. The major setting of the game is a planet, and the majority of the setting takes place below the surface. This is a theme repeated from the original Metroid and its sequel. The weather on the surface features a constant storm which echoes thunder and exhibits cloud layers scrolling in the background. The color palette of the game is made up of orange, green and purple against a black backdrop. Many areas feature a visual theme, or their own color palette theme. Part of the underworld is a pollinated chamber of pink rectangles and killer plants. Another area is made up of multiple bubbles. Areas of lava feature a predominately red palette.

The images of the Metroid series have always evoked the Alien movie series, but the underworld procession of the game evokes hero stories and travels into hell. Gone from the Alien movies are the phallic Gieger aliens, and gone are the other members of the crew. Metroid is an isolationist’s world populated by its own flora, but a flora that never seems farced into the world. The creatures seem a natural part of the world and the truly alien element seems to be that which has landed or crashed here, meaning you, meaning lost frigates and pirate ships. The game creates a package of atmosphere, where sci-fi alien films are evoked but not copied and made instead in the designer‘s image, and you the player are the masked hero on your own, without help.

“Spatial stories are not badly constructed stories; rather, they are stories which respond to alternative aesthetic principles, privileging spatial exploration over plot development. Spatial stories are held together by broadly defined goals and conflicts and pushed forward by the character’s movement across the map. “

Each hostile enemy in Super Metroid presents a conflict. This conflict becomes part of the game’s rules, and these rules teach the player about the world. This creature X will react like Y, so you can do A or B or C, and so on. Not all creatures are hostile, a few creatures follow scripted patterns of escape which act as a tutorial that teaches the player how to escape themselves. While the player learns the planet is dangerous, the player also learns there is some helpful life forms to be found. While this seems minor, it plays a part in the overall story of the game.

Let’s take the use of helpful creatures as a micro-narrative. First, we learn from them, so we as a player gain from their efforts. In the end of the game, do we remember this help? There is an option in the game’s final segment, where the planet is set to self-destruct and you must escape. There is a flashing door hidden away near the final exit that if you open, all those helpful creatures come flowing out and you help them escape. A little bit of narrative that does not deal directly with the greater story, but is there to add to the world and give the player the option of finding story by exploring.

Let’s take the rules to the main story:

“It makes no sense to describe musical numbers or gag sequences or action scenes as disruptions of the film’s plots”.

This is a major flaw most game designers and game fans make. When they speak of the story they seem to think it is all played out in the cinematics or in only certain parts of action. The entirety of the game is the story and those that realize this more fully realize their stories. The action sequences between cinematic break-ins are just as much a part of the story as the cinematic. Maybe you got to see what was at the end of the level, but the story is you fought your way to the end of the level. Super Metroid features an expositional intro and then the game follows, but both these elements are the story. To break down Super Metroid’s story to the introduction and the final sequence would hardly be telling the full story, yet the recent Metroid: Other M plans to feature a Theater Mode which does exactly this. Somewhere along the way the lessons Metroid 3 taught were forgotten.

“Carson suggests that part of the art of game design comes in finding artful ways of embedding narrative information into the environment without destroying its immersiveness and without giving the player a sensation of being drug around by the neck”

With this above quote in mind, lets get into the full story of Super Metroid. The narrative here is that of mother, of bounty hunter/mercenary and of underworld travel. There is an element repeated in the story four times, and a particular character repeated three times. The opening introduction features the baby metroid saved from the previous game, here it is brought to a research station. The opening gameplay segment shows the player the baby metroid being abducted by nemesis alien Ridley. The next metroid that Samus/player encounter are hostile metroids, hostile creatures that establish the rule that metroids are dangerous. Through this segment of the game, the hostile metroid reappear as one of the more problematic enemies in the game, but once the player dives down past the defeated statues of bosses, and into the greater depths of the planet, spelunking further into the dark, we encounter enemies who are static and gray. Gray is a strange color amongst the purple, greens, red and orange featured so far. When the player touches these creatures they fall to dust. Samus has come upon a disturbed area, and soon she runs across a larger metroid, one which attacks her and then stops. It leaves Samus weakened but alive, as opposed to the space pirates that it had just sucked dry. From this battle, we learn that there is something different about this particular metroid. Later, after leaving this area, we return to the hostile types of metroid encountered through most of the game.

So now, Samus knows metroids are hostile but that there is an individual metroid with strange behavior. In the climax of the game, which is as well, the climax of the story, a fight with the Mother Brain is interrupted by a metroid that comes in and shelters Samus the same way it previously drained Samus. At this point the metroid takes the brunt of damage aimed towards Samus, effectively saving her, and then converts the energy back into Samus before dying. At this point, the player becomes aware of the protective behavior, that this metroid is the same baby metroid fully grown. Here the mother is saved by child.

How do we come to understand this? We know the baby metroid is abducted, we see Samus follow the abducter to the planet where she encounters the metroids, and we learn there is one powerful but somehow friendly metroid. We recognize this metroid as different via the rules of enemy/friend established earlier in the game. We learn because we have learned metroids suck energy but only attack you, but this metroid attacked space pirates. As we play, we discover the story in the spatial environment, in the colors(gray in comparison to green), in behaviors, in how deep into the game/story we have dug ourselves. Samus may only emerge, may only conquer Mother Brain and the underworld by the sacrifice of the metroid. These events not only happen to happen, they must happen for the game to reach its true end.

So we have:

“In each of these cases, choices about the design and organization of game spaces have narratological consequences.”

In play.


First, since we’ll be referencing it over and over, I advise anyone to read Henry Jenkins’ work on this subject: Game Design as Narrative Architecture

In this piece, I will be expanding on what I non-concisely touched upon in the previously written essay. Again, I shall draw upon Henry Jenkins, and this time, I will draw upon him like Jason drew upon Phineas by going through most of his “Game Design as Narrative Architecture“.

Well, not really, but starting off with a forced literary reference should get you in the psyche of this discussion. First, lets agree on some points with Henry Jenkins and discuss aspects of them that some current critics have overlooked. Jenkins opens up this essay by showing the divide between ludology and narratology. He then tries to bridge this gap and I believe, as it seems he believes, the ludologists can help the narratologists and the narratology can help the game designers who choose to pursue story telling in their pieces.

1) Not all games tell stories.

This is the first important point made by Jenkins and one that often gets overlooked in the arguments spread across this subject. Just because a game like Ico chooses to tell a boy meets girl story does not mean a game like Tetris must. Story telling is merely an option.

At this point, I am leaving out the story telling of the gamer recounting their game because it is separate from this analysis and would only feel like a dangling participle, that is it would modify what we consider a story to be rather then show how game design can tell a story. The issue of “art” will be omitted as well. As previously mentioned, this only gets into a debate on what art is rather than what merit games bring as a media.

Moving on:

A discussion of the narrative potentials of games need not imply a privileging of storytelling over all the other possible things games can do, even if we might suggest that if game designers are going to tell stories, they should tell them well. In order to do that, game designers, who are most often schooled in computer science or graphic design, need to be retooled in the basic vocabulary of narrative theory.

To be fair to game designers and those interested in stories within games, I feel I should go over some of the issues narrative theory presents. Jenkins mentioned the Russian formalists, but I feel Peter Brook’s musings on Narrative desire(as born from Freud) apply here as well.

First, I’ll go over again what Jenkins said of fabula and szujet, that there is the story as it is told to you and the story as it is understood. In an RPG, the story is told you to fairly straight forward, event by event, and often in order. There are occasional flashbacks, the hero’s flashback being a popular story element in RPGs. Now while you are playing through/watching this flashback, you understand these events are previous events in a chronological sense, so you the player mentally apply them as actions leading up to what you have previously played so far in the game. You do not see them as something happening now but as a recounting of what has happened.

What makes games special is that some have questioned the story recounted as a time element in games being comparable to that same element within a novel. As you read a book, you are conscience that there are events to come and you are hearing the recounting of these events. Still, as a reader, you are drawn into the moment of the book at the same time. While you are in the moment of the page you are reading, and the world that has been described up until now exists in your head, you know there are pages to come in the book and those pages are already filled with words. Even if you stop reading, the story still exists. You read then to see that outcome, you read to reach the end/death of the story. You also trust, since let us say, there are 200 pages left, that the hero of your story will not die in the next page.

Yet, in gaming, the hero can die at any time that the player has a mishap. The hero is often the avatar, and that avatar’s choices are often made by the player. If you do not “turn the page” correctly in the game, not only do you not get to the next page, but the story effectively ends in a Game Over screen. It is though you are reading a book afraid that the last page will suddenly sneak up on you in the fat of pages. In going through a game, death is not an end but a delay, a reset at worst. Miss the jump? You start over. While according to ideas like narrative desire, all delay is to prevent death while actively striving towards it.

Gaming has begun to show an understanding of this very issue. Looking back, The Lost Vikings would have the Norse gods taunt you at the beginning of any level you had repeatedly failed at completing. Your characters still died, but you were reminded of your ability to overcome death. Moving on to a game like Braid, we see that the hero never dies but instead pauses at the point of death, waiting for the player to rewind time back past his mistake. The advancement between these two games is that the story of Braid deals with regret and the rules of the game remind you of regretted mishaps by allowing you to overcome them only through watching them roll past you in backwards time. The point being that the death aspect of the gameplay was relevant to the story instead of only relevant to the rules. This connection of rules to story is important in gaming’s pursuit to tell story through the media, and for me, a part of game design as narrative architecture. Doing these things, tackling issues like death in a story and what that death does in relation to the story, are what is needed in bridging the divide between a purist’s game and a game with the intent to tell you a story.

Here we see the work and way of thinking going into Jenkins point 4 and 5:

The experience of playing games can never be simply reduced to the experience of a story. Many other factors which have little or nothing to do with storytelling per se contribute to the development of a great games and we need to significantly broaden our critical vocabulary for talking about games to deal more fully with those other topics.

If some games tell stories, they are unlikely to tell them in the same ways that other media tell stories.

Now we move on to the real meat of the issue, and I will be examining it by referencing Super Metroid, a game praised for being able to tell a story in a subtle and non-obtrusive way.

“6. Video games are not a meaningful form of expression.

On April 19, 2002, U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Sr. ruled that video games do not convey ideas and thus enjoy no constitutional protection. As evidence, Saint Louis County presented the judge with videotaped excerpts from four games, all within a narrow range of genres, and all the subject of previous controversy. Overturning a similar decision in Indianapolis, Federal Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner noted: “Violence has always been and remains a central interest of humankind and a recurrent, even obsessive theme of culture both high and low. It engages the interest of children from an early age, as anyone familiar with the classic fairy tales collected by Grimm, Andersen, and Perrault are aware.” Posner adds, “To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it.” Many early games were little more than shooting galleries where players were encouraged to blast everything that moved. Many current games are designed to be ethical testing grounds. They allow players to navigate an expansive and open-ended world, make their own choices and witness their consequences. The Sims designer Will Wright argues that games are perhaps the only medium that allows us to experience guilt over the actions of fictional characters. In a movie, one can always pull back and condemn the character or the artist when they cross certain social boundaries. But in playing a game, we choose what happens to the characters. In the right circumstances, we can be encouraged to examine our own values by seeing how we behave within virtual space.”

This is myth number six on Henry Jenkin’s list of debunked myths about videogames, featured on the PBS website. This article was born of The Video Game Revolution, a show which I know little about. I come across the piece because I have read Jenkin’s other works before and found him to be in on the same crazy interest in games that I indulge myself.

The paragraph quoted raises a few questions in debunking the myth that videogames have no value or meaning beyond that of a toy, and to be honest, this is the initiating conversation to the greater, bigger and angrier debate over videogames as art. It is just that the word “art” makes the discussion one about what is art rather than what value videogames bring to society.

Two points of defense raised are what interest me here:

1. Sheltering from violence is problematic.
2. Games allow people to feel guilt over what happens more so than other mediums.

I could go on about how sheltering from the trauma of violence can also shelter someone from the guilt of violence, but I wonder if games are sheltering the player from guilt due to the traditions of genre. How much guilt do we as players feel over killing zombie #15438 or hundreds of look-alike goombas? It is rare for games to put you in situations where your destruction has a face that matters. Is this due to a populace of enemies who serve as nothing more than targets? Why hasn’t this subject been brought up in a game? Well, because maturity in gaming too often means violence instead of serious. But that is a distraction. Here is the deal: the rules must inflict the guilt.

The guilt cannot just come from better, more realized characters, but the call to hesitate the trigger button of gaming must come from in-game consequences. I have always felt that it was more fun to be evil in a happy, bright game than it is to be good in a dark, M rated game. You could hijack an ambulance and rush to accidents in GTA: Vice City, but somehow that part of the game always felt like a humble, weaker side game. It did not matter in the greater sense of the game. Moving to a recent game from Rockstar, their Red Dead Redemption gives you opportunities in the open world to help people in need, and offers you different ways of accomplishing the tasks. You can ignore the citizen who lost his horse, you can hunt down and shoot the thief or hogtie him up, and you can keep the stolen horse for yourself or return it to the citizen. Each of these options and random events feel far more in line with the overall game than previous attempts at “good” in GTA games. What of the guilt though? If I kill a simple horse thief, I am rewarded with their loot. If I tie him up, I get more reputation. The question is do the longterm rewards out weigh the immediate satisfaction of looting a corpse?

Perhaps it is the wild west setting that removes greater consequence for killing a horse thief, but it may also be one of the difficulties of game programming. There has been attempts to offer multiple paths in games released as of late, but most of these paths either: only impact how characters talk/react to you or lead the outcome of the game towards one of two or three endings. The difficulty of programming cause and reaction, the secondary consequences of events and the dynamic flow of life is… well a pain in the ass. It would take years and years to come up with all the splitting paths needed to account for actions the player takes, so instead all consequences are herded into a short list of outcomes and exchanges.

Overall, while I agree with Wright’s assertion, I do not think it has happened yet. The in-game consequence are not there yet, and I get this idea that game designers fear putting more of it in because harsher consequences for actions might turn off the player. If Batman breaks the rules a bit, he cannot end up in jail for it, and there is certainly a sense of superheroism in big name games. Wright’s games are different in this manner, but you can still scour the web for youtubes of people joyfully putting their poor Sims through hellish situations just for a laugh. If the Sim dies, then start over. No consequence outweighs the reset button in gaming and very little consequences outweigh the power you wield in a game. I think at some point guilt must happen at the interface level in games, where the games’ rules find a way to include guilt in what a player can do within the game. In a certain way, this problem is the same problem as story telling in games: no consequence is permanent is, as well, no death is permanent.