Skip to main content

Shoot, Strafe, Soliloquy: A Crisis in Videogame Narratives

A Crisis of Form

Recent years have witnessed an increasing variety of games that interrogate traditional purposes of 'play'. However, such a generalised term does not prove helpful unless it is understood that computer games denote a highly specialised form of play. As David Buckingham rightly points out 'All games must be played, but not all play takes the form of a game' (6) What, then are the definable features of game-specific play? Renowned game-critic Jesper Juul provides the following definition:

'1) Games are rule-based. 2) Games have variable quantifiable outcomes. 3) The different potential outcomes of the game are assigned different values, some being positive, some being negative. 4) The player invests effort in order to influence the outcome. 5) The players are attached to the outcomes of the game in the sense that a player will be the winner and "happy" if a positive outcome happens, and loser and "unhappy" if a negative outcome happens' (Juul 35).

This is one of many working definitions game-critics regularly cite, but most features listed are generally agreed upon in scholarly circles. It is noticeable that these attributes are equally applicable to board games, card games, or sports; these are the direct antecedents of the videogame. It is this definition that circumscribes 'gameness' and the very same that contemporary videogames have increasingly failed to adhere to.

This distortion of traditional 'gameplay' dynamics is often the result of games pursuing diegetic aspirations. Heavy Rain (2010) is a murder mystery adventure game[i] which focuses obsessively upon expanding the minutiae of its narrative. Players may brush the protagonist's teeth, engage in idle chit-chat, or engage in any number of other activities which can only tenuously be described as 'gameplay'. Some games have even begun to state their subversive intents clearly: Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2011) is a first person horror game which, upon opening, urges the player that 'Amnesia should not be played to win. Instead, focus on immersing yourself in the game's world and story' ("Amnesia: The Dark Descent"). If winning is no longer the objective of such games, is their primary function now the expression of their 'world and story'? Some games take this ethos even further: Dear Esther (2011) is a recent game modification[ii], for the videogame Half Life 2 in which there are arguably no 'play' elements whatsoever [Please refer to V. A1]. The game features no objectives, win or lose scenarios or perceptible rules of play. As the video demonstrates, Dear Esther is merely a single environment the player is free to explore, slowly excavating the game's fragmented narrative through diary entries and cryptic hieroglyphics. When asked how to define his work, Dan Pinchbeck one of Dear Esther's creators responded as follows: 'I often find myself avoiding the word "game", I prefer to describe it as more of an experience or story' (Denby 28).

[V. A1] Opening of Dear Esther followed by tunnel exploration.

These are a handful of highly polarised examples in a wider canonical trend. The four aforementioned games have overtly sacrificed elements of gameplay to pursue narrative aspirations, however, these developments have also permeated major generic foundations. Some genres are now expected provide narrative experiences where they lacked any diegetic content whatsoever. What the previous examples demonstrate about this trend is the tension it causes between 'gameplay' and 'narrative': some game developers have attempted to nullify the majority of gameplay elements to leave the bones of a narrative structure bare, others have tried to keep them in separate representational spheres, and most interestingly, an even greater number have attempted to synthesise these two elements. The canon is experiencing a crisis of expression: how can videogames articulate their narratives and still function as structures of dynamic play?

Figure 1.1 - A conversational moment in Heavy Rain

[Figure 1.1] A conversational moment in Heavy Rain

Figure 1.2 - Coded scrawlings in Dear Esther

[Figure 1.2] Coded scrawlings in Dear Esther

Before this question is investigated further, it is important to establish a basic history of videogame genre and diegesis. The umbrella term 'game', like 'literature' includes a vast ocean of electronic media from disparate cultures and traditions. Discussing a collective history of 'narrative driven games' is not a simple task: every genre, and game within that genre, possesses different tools for producing diegesis. However, I shall provide a simplified (and necessarily reductive) explanation: videogames are divided by genres that have developed from their arcade[iii] and console origins, for instance, space shooters, beat'em ups and platformers. These genres originally possessed negligible diegetic content, however, in the past forty years the frameworks which support games have undergone hundreds of hardware[iv] and software mutations which have allowed for the mass propagation of form and genre. The primary texts discussed in this dissertation all belong to one of the following categories: First Person Shooter[v], Role Playing Game[vi], or Action Adventure. Above all others genres, these have assimilated narrative structure into their composition through the complex shifting of generic boundaries and capabilities. However, these games are not disparate entities, they all share common aspects which lend themselves well to diegesis: they are all single player experiences, they tend to include human player-surrogates[vii] and characters, and they all feature goal-oriented dynamics[viii].

The questions remains, how have these genres have traditionally expressed their narratives? Why is this crisis of expression in the gaming canon only a recent phenomenon? The answers to these complex questions cannot be attributed to any single factor, but I shall attempt a brief explanation. The rise of narrative storytelling in games is arguably related to the transition of the gaming canon from abstract to representational environments. The first electronic games were abstract in nature (Wolf 50). because the aesthetic capacity of hardware was extremely limited. [Please refer to Figures 2.1 to2.3]. As time progressed, advances in computational power and image rendering supplied the ability for game-space to more accurately emulate the real world, games moved into 3D and ultimately began to present more representational worlds. This audiovisual advancement required increasingly sophisticated content to frame its gameplay; narrative techniques filled this void perfectly. Catalysed by the rise of representational worlds, narrative and character sophistication in certain genres are now basic expectations: players want characters that look and behave more human.

Figure 2.1 - An abstract environment in Battlezone

[Figure 2.1] An abstract environment in Battlezone

Figure 2.2 - An environment with textures, sprites and simple colour in Wolfenstein 3D

[Figure 2.2] An environment with textures, sprites and simple colour in Wolfenstein 3D

Figure 2.3 - Taken from Crysis (2007), a modern benchmark of visual sophistication.

[Figure 2.3] Taken from Crysis (2007), a modern benchmark of visual sophistication.

Out of these developments were born a multitude of methods for games to express narrative content. Some of these techniques were integrative: within the game-engine[ix] characters became imbued with basic conversational capability and game scenarios generally provided a diegetic context. However, scenes of narrative complexity still proved difficult to express in an integrative manner. As a result, game developers immediately sought to emulate pre-existent methods of conveying narrative content: those of literature, theatre, and cinema. In the 1980s, Adventure games and RPGs began to use reams of prose for expositional purposes, allowing more complex events to be conveyed to the user. When hardware advanced further still the cutscene[x] and FMV[xi] became favourite techniques with developers: when they wished to supply the player with a narrative development the game environment would switch to a pre-rendered[xii] video. [Please refer to Figures 3.1 and 3.2]

Figure 3.1 - Still images and prosaic exposition in Gateway (1992)

[Figure 3.1] Still images and prosaic exposition in Gateway (1992)

Figure 3.2 - An FMV from the Japanese RPG Final Fantasy VII (1997)

Figure 3.2 - An FMV from the Japanese RPG Final Fantasy VII (1997)

There are two factors regarding these developments that mark them as separate from the current gaming condition. Firstly, heavily diegetic moments were, for the most part, clearly separate (if only chronologically) from gameplay: FMVs and cutscenes involved denying the player agency for a short period of time, thereby creating pockets of filmic experience that punctuated the gameplay. Secondly, narrative was generally a subordinate factor designed to augment the other qualities of a game. A specific moment of transition from this state to current conditions is impossible to identify, rather, the rise in diegetic integration and importance has been a process of gradual, systemic change.

The primary texts in this dissertation have been included on the basis that they represent key moments in the gaming canon, gesturing towards its seemingly endless possibilities as well as its limitations. Each of the three games relates to three vital questions I shall explore surrounding contemporary gaming diegesis. Firstly, can 'narrative' be identified as a separate element from 'gameplay'? Secondly, is it possible to 'play' a narrative? Thirdly, have videogames produced a genuinely unique form of diegesis?

Contents . 1 . 2 . 3 . 4 . 5 . 6 . 7 . 8 . 9

[i] 'Adventure Game' - A genre of videogame which features a mix of puzzle solving and narrative progression. Designed primarly to test a player's lateral-thinking abilities. (Genre examples include Day of the Tentacle , Grim Fandango, Escape From Monkey Island, Space Quest, Beneath a Steel Sky, The Longest Jouney)

[ii] 'Mod' - Software designed to modify the function and content of a computer game. Generally popular with online communities of gamers who will share 'mods' that redefine the content of popular games.

[iii] 'Arcade' - Refers to two entities: A) Physical structures such as 'Penny Arcades' which are filled with machines designed specifically to play games. B) Games which are generally simple, abstract, and bear a resemblance to the games formerly played in 'Penny Arcades'. This is now considered a genre of videogame.

[iv] 'Hardware' - The physical apparatus that constitutes an electronic machine. This can range from processing hardware (central processor, graphics card, motherboard) to peripherals (mouse, keyboard, gamepad) to audiovisual equipment (monitor, television, speakers). Generally used in reference to internal components of computer systems.

[v] 'First Person Shooter' - As the title suggests, FPS games are centred around the use of ranged weapons from a first person perspective. These games are as much a test of reflexes and quick thinking as tactical planning, generally players will be pitted against levels of armed enemies who they must dispatch. FPS games are traditionally linear (less so in recent years) and use carefully planned level design to guide the player forward and produce shifting game dynamics. Narrative has become increasingly important to FPS games as their linearity has proven a proven an ample vehicle for the complex storytelling techniques of writers. (Genre examples include Half Life 2, Doom, Quake, Wolfenstein, Crysis, BioShock, Medal of Honor, Call of Duty)

[vi] 'Role Playing Game' - RPG (Role Playing Game) - These games originate from tabletop Dungeons and Dragons games where players assume fictional roles and play out a sequence of written action, usually in a fantasy setting. In electronic RPGs the player assumes a digital avatar and plays through narrative driven combat scenarios against computer controlled characters. RPGs are not (traditionally) concerned with testing a player's reflexes, but instead provide tactical challenges, the computer calculating how successful each attack will be based on a character's attributes. There are three primary focuses in RPGs: combat and questing- nearly all RPGs require players to fight incrementally tougher enemies and complete tasks for others (i.e the mayor sends you down the mine to kill a troll) in order to progress, character development - here accrued experience points from combat and quests allow the player to upgrade their character, narrative progression - RPGs have a history of high quality, goal oriented narratives which frame the player's character and combat goals. (Genre examples - Final Fantasy I-XII, Fallout, Baldur's Gate, Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect)

[vii] 'Player Surrogate' - The character or object which represents the player within the game environment. Pac-Man is a simple example of such a surrogate, however it may vary from simple objects, to spaceships, to human surrogates such as Lara Croft.

[viii] As this focus suggests, many genres are immediately excluded from discussion. Real Time Strategy games, Arcade games, Sports games and Simulation games are but a few that do not conform to these rules. There are also complex variances of the included genres that are not applicable such as the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online RPG) and Online FPS which feature complex multiplayer mechanics that complicate their diegesis beyond the scope of this dissertation.

[ix] 'Game-Engine' - This is arguably the heart of what games are. Game engines are the framework within which games exist. They calculate every aspect a game: visual rendering, physics calculations, artificial intelligence, combat damage etc. If something is said to be 'within the game engine' it exists within one of the functions for which the game engine is responsible. FMVs, for instance, are outside of the game engine because they are rendered by separate software.

[x] 'Cutscene' - Events in games where the player is taken through a series of pre-scripted events over which they generally have no control. This may happen in first person or third person, as well as inside or outside of the game environment.

[xi] 'FMV/ Full Motion Video' - When a game drops out of its native environment (see Game Engine) and shows the player a pre-rendered section of live footage or animation, this is called an FMV. When games were not capable of rendering complex scenes this was a common method of progressing the narrative.

[xii] 'Rendering / Pre-Rendered' - The process of creating and displaying a visual image. With regard to games, the term is generally used in reference to whether a the image/video was rendered on the fly, or pre-rendered and then played back again. If said image/video occurs within the game engine, it is always rendered on the fly, however, developers may trick players into thinking a visual sequence is occurring within the game engine by recording it and then playing it back again. This technique is useful when trying to render large numbers of characters/sprites simultaneously (which takes a lot of processing power) because the developers are able to record the sequence on an extremely powerful computer, compress it into a small video file, and play it during the game.