Monday, February 22, 2010

Ludology, narrative, stalemate.

So it has once again been a very long time since I posted here. Since October, I have been doing quite a lot of academic reading for games. In particular, Hamlet on the Holodeck by Janet H. Murray (a good place to start), and various articles in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Thanks to the dudes who took the time to comment on my last post and give me a place to start reading. There are still a lot of names there I am yet to read, but a lot more of them are beginning to look familiar the more I read.

This semester (commencing next week) I am returning to uni. I am not starting Honours until next year (I will be doing Communication & Cultural Studies), but this semester I am doing a Media Studies research topic as I kind of precursor. I am planning on either looking at Grand Theft Auto IV or Fallout 3 in relation to Jenkins's article, "Game Design as Narrative Architecture". Specifically, his concept of examining games less as stories and more as "spaces ripe with narrative possibility".

I have also forced myself to read some articles in First Person that do not relate specifically to my interest in narrative, as well as those that fight more for ludology (out of those that still frame the issue as a debate between the two). These viewpoints that I do not normally consider have been challenging but very interesting and insightful.

So for this post, I just want to empty my head with a few ideas and things that are running around in there. They are ideas that are related, but in this post they will be presented in separate blobs.I will work on pulling them together as time passes and I get more confident with the texts I am reading. Also, I accept there is the very likely probability that I am going to a) give acknowledgement of concepts and ideas to the wrong people; ie. to the person who wrote the article I first read it in when there may very well be a previous piece that covered it first; feel free to correct me. And b) to have epiphanies and ideas that are either proven wrong already or are better worded by academics I am yet to read; again, please correct me or point me in the right direction.

So here are just a few things running around my head. Firstly:

1. Don't ask what narrative can do for games, but what games can do for narrative.

Okay, that is horribly cliche, but it is the best way I can think to describe simply what I mean. Games don't need narrative. Fact. They are able to "have narratives" (in a very vague sense that I will get to later) but they do not need narratives. Tetris does not need a narrative; Chime does not need a narrative; Geometry Wars does not need a narrative; yet all of these are still able to be amazing games.

In the introduction to "Towards Computer Game Studies", Eskelinen invokes the metaphor of colonisation:

"So if there already is or soon will be a legitimate field for computer game studies, this field is also very open to intrusions and colonisations from the already organised scholarly tribes."

This got me thinking and I kind of got carried away with the metaphor in my head. Narratologists, Cultural Studies Peoples (what do you call people who study Cultural Studies, btw?), English Literature Peoples, etc. are all looking at games and how they can be "improved", so to speak, with narrative. I guess this is similar to a bunch of Europeans riding a boat to [insert Oriental country here] and "improving" the indigenous population by civilising them. In a way, the staunch ludologists are the indigenous tribes refusing to give up their own culture and constantly pestering the advancing colonists instead of just submitting.

Until Eskelinen's article, which I only read a few hours ago, I was one of those colonists, keen to "improve" games with better narrative, whatever that means. But now I realise that I don't want to improve games with narrative, but I want to see in what ways games can make narratives more emotive, more expressive, than any previous medium could beforehand. I want to learn hunting skills and natural medicine from the locals as opposed to converting them all to Christianity, so to speak.

Now back to that thing where I said games "have narrative", which was really just me using a gap filler.

2. Games are not, and can not be narratives. They can be narrative-spaces, or (if I dare coin a term) prenarratives.

Games are not narratives. "Most naive comparisons between narratives and games usually result from too narrow, broad, or feeble definitions of the former," says Eskelinen, and I realised I agree with him. Sure, games are able to have narrative elements, but they do not have ALL the elements. You can not just conveniently forget or add certain properties of what defines 'narrative' just to make it fit. Games are narrative-ish, I suppose.

Sticking with Eskelinen for now. This has got to be one of my favourite ludology-leaning quotes so far:

"[I]f I throw a ball at you, I don't expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories."

Very true! BUT! If you throw a ball at me, and I throw it back, then perhaps later I could tell you the story of how you threw a ball at me and I threw it back. Eskelinen also says this:

"A sequence of events enacted constitutes a drama, a sequence of events taking place [constitutes] a performance, a sequence of events recounted [constitutes] a narrative, and perhaps a sequence of events produced by manipulating equipment and following formal rules constitutes a game." [bold added]

A sequence of events recounted is a narrative. This is very true. I'm sure there are hundreds of academics and theorists who have said this before me, but narratives happened in the past (before they could have been considered 'narratives' and were just events) and are recounted in the present (thus turning the events into narratives). This is why most stories are in the past tense. But games are more immediate due to the unique attribute of being interactive. Games are happenings, not recountings. BUT what about after the game is finished, what then? When that game experience, the events that constituted that playthrough, are connected in the form of a narrative with both plot and story. This is the case whether you are simply talking to your friend about something that happened to your character in Fallout 3, or writing a blog for your Sims, or creating a user video out of Grand Theft Auto IV, or recording your perma-death experiment on Far Cry 2. Games are not narratives, but the events of games can be retold as narratives. My life is not a narrative, but it can be written as a narrative once it is over.

So this leads me to Jenkins's "Game Design as Narrative Architecture" and the idea of "examining games less as stories [and more] as spaces ripe with narrative possibility." Or, more simply, narrative-spaces. To use the biography analogy again, our lives are full of choices and events capable of forming our lives into a compelling narrative if formed in the right way. As are the events and choices we make in any "story-based" video game (another term that will need clearing up).

Open world games like Bethesda titles are probably the best example, but not the only examples. I am going to use Fallout 3 as an example. The Capital Wasteland is littered with compelling narrative elements which, independently, are not narratives in their own right. A comm log here, the corpses of a raided caravan there, a town infested with Death Claws beyond that hill. But as my character threads her way across the Capital Wasteland, discovering her own character and morality by the choices she is forced to make(no different, I believe, to a character "finding herself" in any journey story), these separate elements are stitched together through my interaction with the narrative-space (the game world), and these events can then later be retold as a narrative.

So whether or not games are narratives is irrelevant. Games can be retold as narratives. The choices Qwae, my first Fallout 3 character, had to make in the final chapters of The Pitt have shaped who she is ever since. I can recall this story as clearly as I can recall any story on the bookshelf beside me, it affected me so greatly--more so because I had a role (an interaction) in the decision made.

So games are not narrative.
Games are prenarrative, perhaps. They are the building blocks, the events, that must exist before the narrative does, no less so than the events in a novel or a film or a life exist (even if only in the author's or director's head) before the narrative does. The fact that each person who plays through Fallout 3 will have a slightly different narrative to recall afterwards is what makes games so valuable to narrative (as opposed to narrative being valuable to games).


So this is quite long, but I think those are the two key things I needed to get out of my head before I forgot. Any opinions are welcomed. Am I crazy? Am I stating the obvious? Has all this already been stated far better by someone else? Has all this already been proven wrong by someone else? Let me know.