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Shoot, Strafe, Soliloquy: A Crisis in Videogame Narratives


The following dissertation is an attempt to analyse a crisis of narrative form I have identified in modern videogames. In short, I believe modern games have become obsessed with, even focused upon, fundamental problems of narrative technique. Through this development, incongruities between traditional narrative and systems of gameplay have begun to emerge.

The insufficiency of current games criticism is highlighted by a vast, diverse, and ever-growing canon of electronic entertainment. In general, this is a topic academic criticism has yet to address satisfactorily. Much of my analysis thus reaches beyond the boundaries of games criticism and into the uncharted waters presented by a new generation of games. As such, I believe this dissertation provides a vital, if necessarily limited, insight into a medium that quickly outgrows its theoretical frameworks.

For the reader's benefit I have included a simplified history of narrative technique in videogames, followed by a summary of the most recent critical reasoning on the topic in the minor academic field of 'game studies'. Although there is very limited material on the subject, it seems pertinent to include such material in order to highlight how divided the academic community has become on the topic of videogames.

For the remainder of the dissertation I proceed to question the solidarity of claims made by ludologists - academics who believe videogames are not narrative vessels - and theorists from other, more literary fields who argue that games are an evolutionary narrative form. This examination is undertaken by analysing three seminal videogames (Half-Life 2, Deus Ex and BioShock) and using them as coordinates in a larger argument about modes of narrative engagement.

Constraints of length have prevented me from examining a greater number of games, so each of my three primary sources has been chosen because it is a leader in its genre, it has heavily influenced the canon, and it exemplifies unique diegetic techniques. In spite of this I have included minor references to other games throughout the text in order to provide a wider context and substantiate my argument. Chapters are sub-divided by quotations from each game in question; these have been carefully selected to highlight the particular themes and questions of each subsection, as well as serving to remind the reader that game designers are as, if not more, conscious of the issues raised by their work as many academics.

It is difficult if not impossible to draw hard-line conclusions on the future directions of videogame narrative; however, the final coordinate of my argument is presented through an analysis of the recent gaming masterpiece BioShock. I believe this game to be a self-reflective expression of the latent narrative incongruities within the videogame canon and the way I would surmise BioShock's philosophical conclusions also serves as an apt description of my own concluding thoughts on gaming diegesis.

The Rise of the Videogame

Since their inception, proponents of videogames have struggled to prove the cultural merit of electronic entertainment. However, in its short forty year existence, the gaming canon has entirely metamorphosed beyond recognition. In 2011, the games industry is drawing creative talent from all sections of the arts, and has now earned enough cultural capital to earn its own BAFTA award ceremony in the UK. Many games publishers have financially prospered beyond the expectations of the most optimistic analysts: in many western countries (including the UK), games annually gross more than the film or publication industries (Chatfield 1). Considering its rapid rate of expansion, the videogame is likely to become the new titan of the entertainment sector: a recent evaluation by the Entertainment Software Association showed that in 2005, games sales in the US made more than seven billion dollars, in 2009 that figure rose to ten and a half billion dollars, an astonishing increase of fifty percent (Siwek 3). This burgeoning revolution is one of the major factors that separates electronic entertainment from film and literature; its progress shows no signs of abating. As a cultural form, games are a seminal element of the Arts in the twenty-first century.

The economic expansion of electronic gaming has correlated with the increase in size and age of its audience. The average video-gamer is now estimated to be thirty-four years old and a staggering sixty-seven percent of American households regularly play videogames (Essential Facts 4). This medium is no longer the domain of adolescents, and the technical structures within games (such as visual fidelity, gameplay dynamics and narrative complexity) have grown in sophistication to match this older demographic. This process has propelled the notion of 'gameness' in startlingly different directions.

I shall specifically focus on the narrative development of digital entertainment over the last two decades. Narrative is the most important connective feature between gaming and its cultural antecedents such as literature, film and theatre. It provides a point of entry into an understanding of how gaming is related (or more appropriately, not related) to these previous forms. The implementation of narrative techniques in computer games has had, as this dissertation shall argue, a more transformative influence upon the compositional whole of what is now considered 'gameness' than any other individual attribute of the medium. Narrative evolution has caused a fundamental change in the structural paradigms of games and 'gaming'. That is to say, these diegetic factors have not just changed how we play, but why we play.

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