Monday, September 14, 2009

Fontaine's Ghost

The following is a letter I wrote in response to an article in Edge Magazine (E206) titled "The Death of The Author" in which Clint Hocking of Far Cry 2, Chet Faliszek of Left 4 Dead, and Ragnar Tornquist of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey talk (quite bleakly) about the irrelevance of authored narratives in the future of gaming. I agreed with a lot of what Tomquist said, but really disliked what Hocking and Faliszek said--which is ironic as I love their games and have never heard of Tornquist's. Anyway, this is my response--one that could be far more elaborate and detailed, but it is a start.

I find it disappointing and somewhat unsettling that the minds behind some of recent history’s most interesting interactive narratives (namely Clint Hocking of Far Cry 2 and Chet Faliszek of Left 4 Dead) have some of the grimmest, most apocalyptic predictions on the importance of authored narrative in the future of gaming (“Death of the Author”, E206).

The issue of authorship in narratives, and just who possesses it, has been debated in literature circles for decades. Certainly, the unique element of player interaction that makes gaming narratives so interesting complicates the author’s role, but I think it is rash to claim that the author is made redundant simply because two players will play through the same game in a different way. Player expression has not killed the author, but has merely given the author a new, slightly more subtle responsibility: that of story-presenter instead of storyteller. The author no longer writes a script for the player to read in a linear order, but instead writes a world and presents it to the player.

Left 4 Dead is an interesting example as it straddles the fence between authored narrative and player expression. Certainly, each play through the campaign will leave the player with a different experience and a slightly different narrative—one time it may be the narrative of the college student who saves the day; the next day it is the Vietnam veteran who uses his training to get the survivors to safety with a valiant self-sacrifice. However, regardless of what stories the players tell in the social experience, the games author still looms overhead, ensuring that whatever narrative is told by the four interacting players, that narrative will still be about four survivors of a zombie outbreak making their way to a hospital rooftop.

An author is required to present the narrative of Left 4 Dead, to present the narrative of four survivors desperate to escape the city. Within that presented narrative, it is the player’s responsibility to shape how the story is told. This is the opportunity that gaming alone offers us, and what makes our medium of choice so exciting.

Bioshock attempted to teach the gaming community this lesson in 2007. No matter how the player chooses to play the game, no matter what choices they make, the game’s author is still looming above them, whispering in their portable radio, saying, “Would you kindly play this narrative that I have presented, and no other.”

To state as the article’s interviewer does (and as Hocking and Faliszek agree) that players constructing their own narratives makes the author’s role redundant, is only addressing half the problem. In gaming, the author has a new role: to present the tools that the player requires to construct that narrative.

Player expression has killed the author about as successfully as Andrew Ryan killed Frank Fontaine, but all of Rapture is still jumping at his shadow.


Justin Keverne said...

Something I think was lost, or possibly ignored in the discussion of authorship is that in reality all narratives are a form of shared authorship. Though we may both read the same book or watch the same film what we take away from the experience is different for each of us as we will come at it with different beliefs and a different world view. See the world of Corvus Elrod, and specifically his posts on the concept of the fabula.

What games do is make this separation between audience members much more explicit, and the role of developing the story a much more active one.

As you stated authors still have a role, defining what I would call the context of the story and the constraints placed on possible actions.

When it comes to the more explicit role of the author I've had this discussion with Clint and his belief is that players know what they like better than authors do. I would counter that by saying that the very fact players do know what they want is the problem, we cannot be affected emotional by something when we know it is coming. The power of the authored form comes from experiencing Clint Hocking’s view of reality, or Ragnar Tornquist’s view of reality, NOT from experiencing our own view of reality after all we experience that every day.

deckard47 said...

I just read this article in my imported version of EDGE, and it pissed me off too. All of them (especially Hocking, who I've had issues with for a while because what he says about "stories" and "narratives," not that he ever clarifies what he means by those) discuss this topic, as you say, without addressing the have of the equation they seem to think is "on the way out." As Justin says, I think it's impossible to remove the author from the process of reading and re-authoring; it's damaging to try to the extent that Hocking and others want.

Oh, and I don't think I've commented here before, so hi, it took me a while :)

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