The study of video games and the undercurrent of the course readings, has been to investigate how video games use virtual environments to engage players in tasks which have zero tangible output. McGonigal, Nardi and to a lesser extent Bogost all seemed to be investigating the benefits of playing video games, and each of them settled on the benefits of a virtual environment when it comes to motivation. We have seen that video games can create worlds, experiences and social structures which allow for an intricacy and imaginativeness in the tasks that they present to players, that can’t be found in regular games or real life. The tasks offered depend upon the video game, and thus an investigation into video games, particularly the most popular video games, can reveal to us the sorts of tasks that people enjoy taking up and the features which make these tasks so attractive. For instance within WoW, a part of the attraction seems to be the clearly defined social ascension that the game offers. In Madden games, it seems to be more a realization of a person’s personal fantasies. These two video games engage players in wildly different ways, yet the goal for both is the same; foster a virtual environment where particular tasks become enticing for players. For this reason, I think that by studying video games we can learn a good deal about human motivation. For video games, perhaps like nothing else besides natural appetites and physical addictions, motivate people to act, and as humanists we can learn what drives human beings, by examining the sort of desires are satisfied by playing video games, and how video games produce tasks which allow for this sort of desire satisfaction. It’s almost a new standard of critical aesthetic judgment; the ability of a virtual environment to motivate players to engage with it.
One more thing. For us non-gamers, the undeniable is video games aren’t going anywhere. In fact, it seems a certainty that video games will continue to become more and more ubiquitous. For this reason, critics and future writers should make video game criticism a high priority, for it is new relatively new critical territory and so will yield new insights about human nature that can’t be found in criticism of text or film.
From my research I think it is clear that type of narrative can exist with in video games. But what is not at all clear is if compelling narratives can be developed in video games. To this end, what I think is missing from the academic work on narrative within video games, is a treatment of characters within games. Two significant questions which I think have yet to be investigated properly are how does narrative add to a player’s relationship with the character in the video game and how are characters developed differently in this narrative form. (This idea was sparked by the article below which pointed out that a player’s relationship to characters in video games is more often one of epistemic disparity then in other narrative forms. That is, the characters’ often know more than the player’s.)
So much of the quality of narrative forms is based upon character development, and producing characters with enough depth that they can be relatable to an audience. Texts, cinema and theater have all produced unique and interesting ways to convey to the audience information about the characters internal states. Video games don’t seem to have their own unique way of developing character, partially because the character development that occurs in video games needs to happen in cut scenes, or scenes where the player has no control over the character (otherwise the character won’t be developed, the players influence over the character will be developed) and such scenes are basically just mini-movies. Moreover, I think it a fairly uncontroversial claim that video game characters are the thinnest of any medium. We all love Mario, but I don’t think anyone believes his complexity is in the same league, nay, sport, of Holden Caulfield or Hamlet.
The lack of character development in gameplay seems to be due to the fact that a player has control over the choices of the protagonist, and this has certain common sense logic to it. The character isn’t entirely separate from the player, so there is no need to make the character with real life complexity so that the player can connect with him, her or it on an emotional level. The player is already connected with the character on a practical level. The player already wants what the character wants, since the player’s purpose determines the character’s purpose. This isn’t exactly a challenge as to whether video games can produce narratives, rather it is a challenge to video games producing compelling narratives.
The article below talks about games with stories that evolve out of a players actions within the game, instead of being preset from the outset of play. An interesting example is “Journey” a game which gives a player no explicit goals or standards of success but instead uses its design to suggest goals to its players; such always presenting a mountain with beam of light behind it. The idea is that the player’s goal will be to reach this mountain because of the way it is presented in the game, and the story will proceed naturally from the player’s decision to reach the mountain, and so likewise be different for every player.
Stories like these in games have the ability to alter the reward system role that narrative elements often fill. In games like “Journey” instead of the narrative as serving as a part of the reward system, it grows out of the players decisions naturally. This allows for narratives which aren’t diluted with the reward system element, and allows for a more diverse emotional reaction to the narrative at play in the game. The only problem for this method of providing narrative in games is that it may not count as a narrative form. In an earlier post I referenced how Jesper Juul objected to notions of video games as narrative, partially because a player directly influences the game as it happens, instead of experiencing a retelling of the story of the game. This is especially true in games like “Journey”, where there is no preset narrative a player discovers as they go along. Narratives in games thus seem forked: if they are used as a part of the reward system, they appear to lack depth, but if they are too dependent on a players decisions, then the story doesn’t seem to count as a narrative at all.
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.
Cut scenes are the traditional vehicle for narrative in video games, and also the single part of the game where a player’s character can appear on screen yet where the player has no influence over the character’s actions. A player exhibits influence over the character through an action packed level, which does nothing to enhance the story, and upon completion is rewarded which a cut scene where the player has no influence over the events of the game and which pushes the narrative forward.
Cut scenes thus provide an easy way for game designers to keep players from having influence over kernel events, or at least limiting this influence, which thus makes the game a narrative form according to Aarseth’s definition. Cut scenes also work as a part of the reward system of the game. Success in the game rewards the player with a cut scene that moves the narrative forward, while the failure stalls the narrative where it is. But new ways to make the narrative progress without using cut scenes are being developed in gaming. Below is an article about “Infamous Second Son” a video game which forces players to make decisions which will push the plot where the designers want it to go, instead of using cut scenes. This feature of the game allows for players to feel as though the progression of the narrative is their own decision, and thus that the players are pushing the narrative forward with strategic decisions, rather than with victories. That is, the experience of the narrative for the player is no longer a reward for success, but is rather a natural part of making strategic decisions within the game, which allows the player to survive.
This is the most informative bit of research I’ve located so far. The speaker in this video, Espen Aarseth, is the author of “A Narrative Theory of Games” in which he proposes a framework for defining how software can be both a game and a narrative. This talk is a summary of his central ideas presented in that paper.
Among the myriad of distinctions Aarseth makes, I think the most useful is the difference between kernels and satellites with respect to narrative. Kernels are the events in the narrative which are necessary for the plots to move forward, like Cinderella meeting the prince, while satellites are the events within a narrative which have no effect on the plot, like say if Cinderella were to eat ice cream. We can think about this in terms of necessity; kernels are those events which are necessary for the narrative to proceed, while satellites are those unnecessary details which do nothing to forward the story.
Aarseth uses this distinction and a players influence over the narrative events of a game to define whether or not a piece of software constitutes a form of game, narrative or both. Generally speaking, if a person has no influence over the satellite events presented in the story then it is a piece of narrative and not a game. If the person has influence over satellite events but not kernels, then the software is both a game and a narrative form. And if the player has complete influence over both satellites and kernels then the software is strictly a game. This doesn’t include things like branching narrative models, where a player’s choice alters the narrative, but it is still a useful in principle way of determining whether or not an interactive platform can encompass both narrative and gaming elements.