Further Chitchat on Narrative and Button Mashing: Part I

July 30, 2010

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.

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