Research Post 8: The problem with narrative progression as reward.

Research Post #8

The common criticism of video games in relation to story, is that the medium lacks narrative depth. In previous posts I’ve considered that this may be because gameplay is king with respect to video games, and the narrative component works only as a function for gameplay. But this hypothesis doesn’t seem to hold with respect to all video games. The “Grand Theft Auto” series in particular seems to shape its play around an exciting narrative plots. For instance, a part of the enjoyment a player experiences when eluding the police in a GTA game, is a knowledge of the crime that you are committing that this evasion necessary, be it a bank robbery, or an assassination.

But I think there might be another deeper problem for narrative depth within video games; a lack of emotional diversity. Narrative forms have the opportunity for ambiguous, complex endings, which viewers can be ambivalent towards. For instance, is the ending of “The God Father: Part 1” happy or sad? Neither. The film’s complexity is such that its finale cannot be categorized so simplistically. But the narratives at play in video games are intrinsically limited to finales which carry the connotation of victory, since the only way to reach the end of the narrative is to beat the game. A player wins or they loses; even if the story of the game has a clearly unhappy ending, it is still a victory for the player to have reached that end.

This calls back to the theme of narrative progression as a reward system in a video game; to win is to advance the narrative. I think it is precisely this sort of system which seems to make the narratives attached to video games shallow in nature, for with every other narrative medium, the narrative progression is not enjoyable because it is part of the reward system; narrative progression is rather the vehicle of enjoyment itself. You are not rewarded with narrative progression in books or movies, rather narrative progression is simply given to you, with the expectation that the quality of the narrative will cause the subjects to enjoy the progression. In other words, in video games getting through a story is almost a trophy; but in regular narrative mediums, getting progression through a story is done simply for the enjoyment of the story itself. The question is, do video games produce such stories, where even if the reward system was not in play, the player would still be interested in knowing how the narrative progressed? I am unsure.

Below is an article by Roger Ebert where he makes similar arguments against the video games ability to be an artform.


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