Do we desire to save the princess or do we desire to hop on flag poles?

March 25, 2011

The question in the title has to do with how a story is told and how it gets done within a game, so keep it in mind as you read through. (Pretty please with fireball powerups on top.)

A videogame character rarely does much in its life without the instruction from the player to do so, and a game character doesn’t exist in pages further on past what the reader has reached, and a game character doesn’t wait at the end of a film, easily accessed by the chapter menu of your DVD player. The videogame character exists solely where the player has them in the game at that time. You could look at the code for a final encounter or a final level, but you may not find your character there. These worlds exist with the game character in mind but wait for the player to arrive rather than being written with the character already there. Experimenting with a level design editing tool reveals this difference, where the player mods or creates a level that is existing and tangible in that it is observable and repeatable (As in, you could describe your level to someone without having played it, while you would be helpless to describe Harry Potter’s school without reading the story that tells you of it.) without a character’s narrative presence. The character is anchored to the player, and in many cases, the player and character are anchored together, which makes the audience and the protagonist stuck in the present, as well as make the protagonist reliant on the player.

In story telling, the general rule of creating a character is that your main character must have a desire or goal, and beyond that this goal can be physical and obvious, as well as some sort of interior goal or alternate goal. It is this goal that drives the story and establishes the arc of a story and commonly creates the interest and draw for the reader. This idea is referred to as the narrative desire. It is this desire that moves the character along and the audience then follows the character into the shape of the story’s plot. Since the character of a game is tied to the player/audience, no amount of narrative desire can push the character along to his/her next goal or piece of plot, because the player must play them, that is the player must instruct them in some way and often guide them, and to be honest, control the character and push them towards the next destination. This means that in order or progress plot, the audience’s desire overtakes character desire in creating narrative within a game.

Here is where I would like to show how the rule systems of games comes into play in telling a game story and how they relate to a player’s desire to go through a narrative and bring the character to it’s narrative desire. A common videogame encounter is character meets obstacle, player controls character and moves them past the obstacle. In a game like Super Mario Bros, the narrative desire for the character of Mario is to rescue the princess, and the obstacle between Mario and his goal is the nemesis Bowser and his minions, as well as the environments between Mario and the castle that holds the princess. As Mario goes along, he discovers there are many false castles that hold false princesses, and that the real princess is in an ultimate final castle. Though Mario defeats his main obstacle of Bowser multiple times, the desire is not fulfilled and the story repeats itself, but not only within the game but outside of the game in the matter of a player replaying the game and going through this process over and over. The problem is that the player comes to know the false castles from the castle that will fulfill Mario’s desire, so why not ignore the false castles and go directly to the correct castle? There must be some desire for the player to go through these exercises again and push Mario through his narrative. The game also keeps the player from going to that final castle immediately through the rule of progress, that the earlier levels must be completed in order to reach the later levels. The game’s rules also provide alternative rewards to the player’s desire, that is completing a level gives points, a fireworks celebration at the end, and these points equal a score that is not for Mario or even apparent to Mario, and these fireworks I would argue are not for Mario as they serve no purpose in fulfilling the goal of rescuing the princess. The points and end-cinematic of a firework are for the player’s desire and the player’s reward. Going beyond this, the little beeps and whistles and layout of a level are not for Mario’s desire but the player’s desire to be challenged or to have fun, that is the player’s desire for a game. Mario doesn’t need music and the music in game is not actually heard by Mario, but is heard by the player instead.

What I am starting to wade into is another part of videogames that would require me digging up some books to go cite and reference via current jargon and to be honest, I don’t feel like doing that right now. I would just like to mention all those aspects of creating the game environment: the rules, the controls, the sound effects and music, and the visuals and how they are tailored to the player’s desire and not absolutely tailored by the narrator’s perspective unless you want to ascribe the role of narrator to the player and well, guess what? I do. I believe we do, the we here being the game community including the game makers. Since the character is confined to the desire of the player, the player becomes narrator to some extent.

Now let’s look at the problem I am getting at, that the character is subject to the player and the player becomes partial narrator by inhabiting the character in order to fulfill the character’s desire. So where do we draw lines and do we need to? I would say that good game narrative acknowledges this issue and allows space for it in the narrative and poor game narrative clashes with the issue and makes the issue even more apparent because of this choice. A game like Metroid Other M, a game I’ve talked about here, clashes and separates the two and it is interesting because of this, but unfortunately doesn’t go into this conflict knowingly. (I am saying Sakamoto isn’t doing this cleverly or maybe not even knowingly, but unwittingly and it detracts from narrative experience.)

That is as far as I’ll go now, and continue on later on this duality. I am running out of steam or maybe I am running out of tea, or much like the player, it has ceased being fun to me and so my poor narrative must stop, unwritten and unplayed though there is much more in my head and more to be explored, it is stuck in the present issue of my desire to write it.

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