Introduction to Game Studies – Emma Westecott
October 26, 2011
The Role of Participation in the Narrative Architecture of Video Games
Narratives have been employed throughout history as a means of communicating stories and entertaining imaginations. For many millenia, narratives were told through spoken word. When language was recorded onto paper, and once the printing press was invented, books reached the masses and imaginations were aroused between the pages. Books communicated mostly by engaging our sense of vision, which would be used to read and interpret the language which could imply different narrative elements like setting, characters and dialogue. When photographs were placed in sequence at high-speed and matched with recorded sound, new narrative methods were developed through the medium of film. Film, like books, engages your sense of vision, but also engages your sense of hearing. With the advent of video games, it was not immediately discernible whether video games were just a simulation of real world play environments, or also had the extended ability to communicate narratives.
As video-games have evolved though, they have branched into many different communication strategies, and not all apply or represent the architecture of narratives. This has created a division in philosophies in game studies, leaving two sects ludologists and narratologists. It is, however, evident that video games are a useful storytelling tool and presents it’s own concepts of narrative architecture. Interaction is as crucial to the completion of a narrative presented through a video-game as the cut-scenes are.
All narratives are communicated in a structure that challenges the audience. In literature, the reader is expected to comprehend and digest dialogue and setting descriptions to imagine character intonation and scenes. A piece of literature presents clues to the overarching narrative, and the reader is dependent on their memory in order to fully comprehend the narrative goals of a piece of literature. In literature, a narrative is presented to you but you must read it to yourself, and so it is the audience’s participation in reading the book which completes the narrative. You must, essentially, tell yourself the story but you normally have no influence on the outcome of the narrative.
In works of film, the narrative is usually communicated in a single-run, linear fashion. A series of image and sounds are presented to you through juxtaposition in order to communicate an overall narrative. A film narrative is directly told to you, and the audience experiences no level of participation in the outcome. They are technically less interactive than books in some way, but make up for it by engaging more senses. Attention spans decrease in most films because of this lack of participation, leaving audience members to pick up quips of dialogue and visual signifiers. The more an audience member pays attention to the film, the more they may understand from the entirety of the narrative. Film may have liberated literature into the “choose-your-own ending” genre, allowing books to have multiple outcomes and preparing audiences for the virtual story-telling world.
A video-game’s narrative does not only depend on cut scenes and dialogue or sprite animation, but also dependent on the audience and their use of a game controller (joysticks and buttons). It is the participant using their sense of touch to progress through the narrative of the video game. Aided by their logic and memory, the gamer is a willing participant of the final work and plays a large part in the narrative’s completion and comprehension. In many ways, video games are participatory art works that seek to translate a message to the audience.
Narratives are created to tell stories immerse audiences into believable alter realities. In early forms of narratives, our imagination was our tool for immersion. As story-telling developed along with the evolution of technology, new narrative structures were created. Our minds adapted to these narrative strategies and our communication skills increased, constantly testing our logic and memory patterns.
With the understanding of lingual, visual and auditory communication, narratives are more thoroughly communicated through active participation and content digestion. Therefore, most narratives can be viewed as participatory and video games plateau the audience’s desire to directly participate in the outcome of a narrative.
As far as I can tell, there have been many debates on whether or not narratives can truly exist in video games if a video-game is dependent on interaction. This is not an argument between ludologists and narratologists. It is quite clear that new narrative strategies exist within video games, even if they are in niche markets. However, there are not many arguments that suggest active participation is essential in the effectiveness of narrative communication.
Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative Mark Stephen Meadows (2002)
Pearson Education (2002) ISBN: 0735711712
Game Design as Narrative Architecture Henry Jenkins (2004)
Simulation Versus Narrative – Introduction to Ludology Gonzalo Frasca (2003)
Healing dramas and clinical plots: the narrative strcture of experience Cheryl Mattingly (1998)
The Motivational Pull of Video Games: A Self-Determination Theory Approach Richard M. Ryan, C. Scott Rigby and Andrew Przybylski (2006)
Interactive Drama on Computer: Beyond Linear Narrative – N. Szilas (1999)
The Emergent Narrative Theoretical Investigation Sandy Louchart, Ruth Aylett (2004)