In my last post, I explored Kenneth Burke's idea of Identification as a tool for understanding some of the challenges of creating dramatic play that truly connects with a large player base. In a nutshell, I used the 2nd person perspective novel as an starting point for discussing the difficulty of establishing Identification between player and avatar. For my brief intro to Identification, go here. In this post, I'll explore the concept of Narrative, find a medium suitable for comparison with videogames, and be badass :P
and One Term to rule them All
Let's start by defining some important terms for this discussion:
Dramatic Play - see the link above for Stephen Dinehart's excellent feature.
Narrative - A symbolically constructed experience that replicates a series of events, actions, and/or states of being.
Story - A series of events, actions, and/or states of being.
Based on the above definitions its obvious that all stories are narrated as they are communicated. By symbolically constructed experience, I simply mean that narrative potential is embedded within all media of communication, even if a given medium is not always employed in a narrative mode. "Symbolically constructed experience" is a key phrase within this brief definition, because it suggests that mode (as in the "narrative mode" of Wikipedia) is inseparable from the narrative itself; that is, the way(s) in which the narrative replicates the experience is as important as what is being replicated. This is another way of saying that two narratives may use the same story (i.e. events, etc.), yet even if the two narratives also share a common medium, they may be wildly different. A brief example:
Stu Padasso was chasing me, so I jumped up on a platform. Then I ran forward, then I fell off a cliff and died.
Quaking with fear, I leaped atop the offal-splattered platform, determined it would not be the place where I died, not to the foul-mannered rapscallion Stu Padasso. Running desperately, I tottered on the brink of exhaustion, never seeing the cliff's edge, hidden in the tangle of jungle ahead. Death waited patiently in the fog-shrouded ravine as I fell for an eternity.
Kinda different, huh? This is a basic illustration of one of the mechanisms behind the failure of cloned games; even when they get the mechanics right, they usually lack the narrative depth to immerse the player. If the cloned game actually gets both right, nobody notices or cares that it was clone, instead it becomes a peer within the genre (assuming of course, that there is enough narrative dissimilarity to keep it from being a nearly verbatim copy).
That's it, I've done it! Ended the Ludology vs. Narratology debate forever: Videogames ARE Narrative! Ok - simmer down now, Ludolites, by using such a definition I haven't eliminated ludus from the essence of videogames. In fact, by using such a definition, I've firmly entrenched ludus as the essential element which elevates videogames above every other narrative media: VGs have the richest palette of emotive potential. Why? No other medium has ludus as a narrative resource, yet VGs enjoy many of the resources of other media. So we now know a bit about the narrativity of videogames, so lets go deeper!
Give me one Ping, and one Ping only...
To sound the narrative depth of a game, two sites must be located: Character and Setting (mixing measurement metaphors...Yes! Out of control alliteration...Yes!). Why these two? Well, I'll answer that question with my next post, so for now just go with it. The essential question is - do Character and Setting exist beyond pure abstraction? In the venerable example above, one might argue that there are indeed characters acting within a setting, but it can be countered that both exist in the most abstracted form possible; the same might be said of Tetris, Solitaire, etc. So, we might venture a tentative (and surely innocuous) axiom: the more full the development of character and setting, the 'deeper' the game's narrative.
So our next question might logically be: in the ocean of videogames, where lies the continental shelf? What line separates the shallow from the deep? Visual and Aural style, the presence or absence of dialog and text - the list of relevant factors goes on and on, but I'll venture this: deep games contain multiple characters interacting within a highly contextualized setting. However, depth doesn't necessarily correlate with quality - the former is a necessary but not a sufficient cause of the latter (at least for games intended to produce dramatic play - obviously Tetris is fine without narrative depth!).
Creatures of the Deep
What species of media is most closely related to the deep videogame? In the bulk of the academic and critical literature, the Film and the Novel are the most common objects of comparison. Both contain characters and settings, so why not? I'm one of many proponents of a different candidate: Theater. I see the analogy as: the playwright "programs" the play, the director and set designers "render" it visually, and the actors "play", er, play their roles, completing the process. The combined efforts of all coalesce into something that is emotionally immersive: Art. Deep games work in a similar manner.
Differentiating this from Film's writer/director/actor is easy: Films are meant to be produced once, for multiple viewings; Plays are meant to be reproduced for each viewing, making them more akin to a game. The Play is perhaps a more cogent analogy for multiplayer games, but there are in fact 'one man shows', so it works for single player as well (I'm aware that many such Plays are written by the same individual who performs the work - look it's an analogy, stretch it too far and it will tear!). I guess a better label might be 'single-character games', because most single player games that attempt some form of dramatic play (or just a basic narrative) have multiple characters.
Obviously videogames differ from plays just as they do with every other media, but in the Play we find many of the same essential elements - cooperation between multiple parties, each with a specific role, in order to achieve the completion of the work. For a single instance of a Play to fulfill the script's potential, it must be well staged, directed and acted - even Hamlet is only as great as the production company performing it. Here again we see that narrative affects the perceived quality of a story, i.e. the story's meaning changes as the narrative changes.
The most powerful difference between Plays and Games is that the player is both audience and actor. The challenge of the role can drive a player, as it does an actor, or the meaningfulness of the story (which we now know is the outcome of the narrative decisions of the creator(s), right?) may be the draw, just as with an audience. So what does this mean for the design and critique of games? To find answers, we must journey to... The Center of the Earth, aka my next blog entry.