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Shoot, Strafe, Soliloquy: A Crisis in Videogame Narratives

Academic Practice

'If I throw a ball at you, I don't expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories' (Eskelinen 37)

A crisis has been registered by the small academic community involved in games studies. Between these scholars a battle is being fought: there are those who believe that games are a new storytelling medium, and those that see 'game' and 'narrative' as incongruous. Markku Eskelinen is the most vocal (and controversial) voice in the relatively young academic discipline of Ludology. Taken from the latin lūdo, 'to play', Ludology is the study of games as structures of dynamic play. As a result most ludologists 'believe much of current game theory to be founded on a series of ill-advised analogies between computer games and the individual theorist's fields of study - rather than a specific analysis of the "gaming situation" itself.' (Harrigan, Wardrip Fruin 35). Eskelinen argues that games are not a medium capable of supporting narrative in the traditional sense. Instead, he professes that this perception of gaming has been thrust upon the medium by members of existing academic disciplines who have transposed their own paradigms of thought onto an art form still in its cultural infancy.

Another prominent ludologist, Espen Aarseth, rightly supposes that this academic colonisation of games studies has a highly political dimension (Aarseth 45): games are of growing cultural importance and each discipline wishes to extend its sphere of influence. As a result, the 'other side' to which Aarseth refers is difficult to identify clearly. Although the academic study of games is still minute when compared with other media, games have become an increasing subject of fascination for a minority of scholars. Unsurprisingly, many of these figures can be found in the Arts and Social Sciences, each having engaged their idiosyncratic tools of analysis to produce the vast volume of published work on the subject to date. Academics of Sociology, Philosophy and Psychology have been excited at the opportunity to re-contextualise major theorists. Plato and digital environments (Poole 27), Lacan and electronic mimesis (Rehak 105), Freud and uncanny player surrogates (Carr 69); the multitudinous possibilities have proven extremely enticing.

However, according to ludologists, the greatest offenders on the 'other side' of the narrative debate are primarily those schooled in film, theatre and literary studies: members of these disciplines tend to read games as a remediation of their specialist form. According to ludologists, this process is crippling the growth of fresh critical approaches to the gaming medium: conceptualising games as 'interactive films' or 'digital storybooks' fails to take into account that 'the dominant user function in literature, theatre and film is interpretive, but in games it is a configurative one' (Eskelinen 38). This configurative dynamic is a cornerstone of 'gameness'; arguably 'play' is not restricted to certain moments of games; it is the dynamic by which a game comes to exist.

On the other hand, for a medium built upon the dynamic of 'play', games spend disproportionate amounts of time asking their players to experience diegesis. The Old Republic, a game devloped by Bioware[i] and scheduled for release in 2011, has been estimated to be the largest single voice-acting project in history, with over one hundred actors recording thousands of hours of dialogue. Surely diegetic emphasis on this scale cannot be ignored? Outside of academia, cross-media propagation between videogames and these other narrative forms are commonplace, with films, comics and novels regularly being transformed into games and vice-versa.[ii] Critical voices in support of this relationship argue that videogames are structurally inseparable from narrative models . Janet Murray envisions all games as 'cyberdrama', claiming that diegesis is the most important element of a game because it allows players to understand that games imitate life (Murray 3). Henry Jenkins, another narrative theorist, has created a theoretical model which divides videogame narratives into half a dozen identifiable forms: those which are 'enacted', 'embedded', or 'emergent'; each one a modified form derived from a previous medium (Jenkins).

There are undoubtedly more measured opinions on either side of this debate. Several ludologists and narrative theorists believe such polarised perspectives to be reductive. As Diane Carr explains in her analysis of the RPG Baldur's Gate (1997), 'it would be nonsensical to disregard the parts of Baldur's Gate that make it a game, in order to have it conform to a model of narrative structure. On the other hand, it would be counterproductive to ignore the game's narrative qualities in order to have it obey a preconception about what games (and hence the study of games) should be about' (Carr 38). Even Jenkins himself admits that he 'understand[s] what these writers [ludologists] are arguing against - various attempts to map traditional narrative structures ("hypertext", "Interactive Cinema", "nonlinear narrative") onto games at the expense of an attention to their specificity as an emerging mode of entertainment' (Jenkins 2). As I am schooled in both Computer Science and Literary Studies, I have adopted a method of analysis similar to that which Carr prescribes. While I understand the need for videogames to be analysed as an independent medium, I also believe that a truly interdisciplinary approach to game studies is necessary to greater understand its intricacies. Therefore, I shall be bringing tools of analysis from both disciples to bear upon the primary texts in this dissertation. With regard to the use of the word 'narrative', although much of this dissertation is centred around the debate as to whether games are narrative vessels or not, I still use the word with reference to the diegetic content of games because a lexicon that excludes its use has not yet been developed.

The state of games studies (on this issue in particular) has remained an uncertain landscape, lacking consensus and even worse, coherence. However, from the disparate array of voices, three truly important collections have arisen, The Video Game Theory Reader (2003), Computer Games: Text, Narrative, Play (2006) and First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game (2006). These collections of essays are written by the most influential voices in game studies, and are vital due to their self conscious exploration of the theoretical stand-off between disciplines. However, the games industry evolves with such speed that these theories are quickly outmoded. Therefore, I shall also be making sparing use of criticism produced by the burgeoning online community of game-specific critics and journalists, whose insights are often more aware of the contemporary critical landscape.

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[i] Bioware, celebrated pioneers of game narratives, are one of the most prestigious game developers in the world. They are known for their exceptional writing, voice acting and character representation.

[ii] Examples of these practices are numerous, recent games based on film franchises include The Thing (2002) and Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009). This relationship has recently become more reciprocal: the films Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), Doom (2005), Max Payne (2009), and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) were all born from videogames. This process has not been as prevalent in the theatrical world, however, the 2011 play Best Before by the production company Rimini Protkoll attempts to transform the theatre into a gamescape by providing audience members with 'virtual citizens' they can control on a projector screen.