One of my favorite games of all time is Clue, the “classic whodunit game!” Some people who know me may have heard me angrily mutter under my breath “Col. Mustard with the lead pipe on 495” after a driver cut me off, or “Prof. Plum with the rope in the seminar room” during a frustrating class lecture. I loved this game enough that it became part of my anger management process.

Not only did I have the board game and rent the film more times than it was healthy (you needed to watch at least 3 times for the 3 different endings!), but I also had the Clue VCR Mystery Game (1985), which allowed you to adopt one of the characters as your own while you watched several mysteries play themselves out on the television. Each game (there were several on the tape) allowed you to not only guess “whodunit” but also what characters your (real-life) opponents represented. The acting was terrible, of course, but this was popular “interactive fiction” of 1985, alongside the Choose Your Own Adventure books (the first of which was published in 1979).

So New York Times reports that a Dungeons and Dragons -style DVD – Scourge of Worlds: A Dungeons and Dragons Adventure is forthcoming. No, this is not the flash-in-the-pan movie, but a “roleplaying” experience, where you guide your character through a series of choices in order to come to one of four conclusions. Choose-Your-Own-Adventure on DVD. The creator says:

“This is a hybrid,” said Dan Krech, president of DKP Effects. “We want to bridge the gap between a video game, a movie and the Internet.”

I’m surprised by what seems a backwards approach to developing “interactive fiction” – DVD technology for gameplay does not measure up to the possibilities afforded by a gaming system or a computer. While DVD players might serve well enough for a game like Dragon’s Lair and other Laser Disk-style games (in other words, 1980’s “one-button” games), the richness of RPGs like Neverwinter Nights will certainly overshadow such a hybrid. After all, who likes to play a game with a remote control?

Right now I’m working on an abstract for a paper I would like to present at Digital Games Research (DIGRA) 2003 Conference (full call available here; abstracts due May 1). My working title is “All Thumbs? Ergonomics, Materiality, and Gameplay” – I want to talk about a specific component of gameplay: ergonomics. I’ve brought this up briefly before and have been thinking about this since Geoffery Rockwell gave a guest lecture at MITH about gaming. He proposed a rhetorical approach to game interactions (he was mostly speaking of text-based adventure games); when asked during the Q&A about ergonomics, he said that he thought he would leave that for the computer scientists (not a direct quote, but close). The implication was that the body was for science and representations of the body were for the humanities. Ever since, I’ve been working through this idea of ergonomics and gameplay – how do input devices affect our sense of play, or sense of immersion? How important is the material component of a controller or even a book to our playing or reading practices? [side note: I noticed that one of the articles listed in the Video Game Theory Reader is titled “Stories for Eye, Ear, and Muscles:Video Games, Media, and Embodied Experiences,” by Torben Grodal. I’m anxious to see what it says.]

All of this points to the idea that various media have specific methods through which users/watchers/players/readers “interact” (that word again); these methods are based in part on the material conditions of the work. I agree with Matt – the “M-word” just doesn’t cut it anymore. Material conditions are an implicit part of our critical vocabulary (ok, I think they should be anyway) – now we need specifics. The current battle, at least in video game studies, is a disciplinary one (which is, of course, inherently political). Christopher Douglas recently summarized many of the discussions currently at play in the field (at least from a humanities point of view), so I don’t feel the need to draw up a complete history. I would like to emphasize what I believe are three key ideas implicit in the development of game study as a genre:

1. To paraphrase Stanley Fish, being interdisiplinary is hard. Games are indisciplinary, which means they not only draw from many disciplines, they generally require many disciplinary approaches to understand them. The current battle over whether or not narrative, film, rhetoric or other approaches are *the* approach is somewhat moot. The answer is, of course, that they are useful in their own way, but must be stated with the understanding that they are but part of the (undefined) whole. Why does this need to be said?

2. Because many of the battles waged over the “new-ness” of the field and the proper disciplinary approach have as much to do with creating or maintaining political boundaries as anything else. Claiming a “new” genre as part of one’s own discipline emphasizes the importance of that discipline. Likewise, by claiming that games are outside of current disciplinary realms, one carves out a space for games not only intellectually, but politically. The “new” requires new departments, new journals, and new financial support. But one must also be careful in separating the “old” from the “new” – in claiming the new-ness, there is implicit danger in ignoring the historicity of the subject. Games, in other words, were not born from a vacuum, nor are the theories used to describe and investigate them. Which leads to:

3. Methodology and theory are not the same thing. An important follow-up: theory written in stone is no longer a theory. So what’s the point? I think we should be less concerned about seperating ourselves from former theories (narratology, film, or whatever) in the study of games and more concerned about how games revolutionize our thinking about older media. We also need to pay strict attention to and even emphasize the importance of our methodology (Aarseth, for example, clearly draws from narratology, just as Manovich draws from film), rather than trying to distance ourselves from the weight of previous theory. The importance of games comes not only from their “new-ness” but mainly from their ability to help us reshape conceptions of so-called “older” media, reformulate previous (and always incomplete) theories, and increase interdisciplinary rigor – all necessary components as creations, memes, characters, themes and stories permeate the weave of media.

Case in point, Games to Film Frenzy, an article I found following a link from Klaptrup’s Cataclysms, lists about 20 games that are in various stages of development as film projects. I’ve been tempted to name the first decade of the 21st century “Revenge of the Geeks” as I look around to see the popularity of comic book characters and games in film work, while shows like Buffy and Angel (in my mind at least) continue to put out some of the best writing on television. In other words, the mutant, the freak, the supernatural, the superhero – in short, the realms of the “geek” (a proud title, in my mind) – prevail. Reading over the list, however, I’m not sure many of the films will do much better than Super Mario Bros. or Mortal Kombat.

In the midst of all this media convergence talk, I’m most excited about the forthcoming Matrix titles. Both the film The Matrix Reloaded and the game Enter the Matrix are released on May 15th. As the game’s website states: “This game isn?t just set in the Matrix universe ? it?s an integral part of the entire Matrix experience, weaving in and out of the highly anticipated 2nd installment in the film trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded.” A recent issue of PC Gamer reported that the game cost some $30 million in production. The collaboration between game makers and film makers resulted in a series in which a character might exit the frame in the film only to enter a frame in the game.

I suspect that it is in the storyboard stage that we will begin to see true convergence, where the material condition (the mechanics, or the engine) helps shape the overall story progression. More than just the difference between cut scenes (the section of the game that is usually more like film), I see this as active choice – how do we tell a story *best* using as many media as possible? Not just remediation – game to film (or, in the case of Clue, board game to film and VHS game) – but rather a co-mediation. A term such as convergence can be misleading, however, and so this bears repeating: the materiality (the “M” word) – meaning the interface, the physical manifestations of print, screen, and performance, and even the ergonomics – will serve as crucial aids in understanding the current and developing media ecology and our relationship to it.


The Dragon Lair’s Project has more information on laser disk games.


8 Responses to Col. Mustard, in the blog, with a keyboard

  1. chuck says:

    Lots of useful things to think about here. There are, of course, many alternate-reality films that follow the conventions of gaming narratives, such as Run Lola Run. I was also reminded of a really strange film that someone (I have no idea who) discussed at the Society for Cinema Studies conference in DC a couple of years ago. The film, called Tender Loving Care used DVD technology to simulate a “Choose Your Own Adventure” film. At each bifurcation, you were given one of two options which would lead to different stories. After each choice, a narrator figure (played by John Hurt) would “psychoanalyze” your decision. Interesting stuff (although a little stilted). Based on what I saw, it seemed to fail as a film precisely because th efeeling of immersion normally associated with narrative cinema was lost.

    As my recent post suggests, I *like* your idea of using game theory to talk about older media like film and television.

  2. George says:

    Hey, I was at that paper, too! If I remember this correctly, Chuck, the user doesn’t actually get to make a narrative choice. Instead, a rather oblique questionnaire is presented, sort of a personality profile, at each narrative crux, and based on the user’s responses to this questionnaire, the story progresses in a particular direction. The presenter made of point of saying that it was almost impossible to figure out which combination of answers would make the narrative go in the direction you “wanted” it to go.

  3. chuck says:

    Oh yeah…I think you’re right. I think because he’d played the movie long enough, he had memorized the combinations, which gave a slightly different impression than the movie might actually allow.

  4. Jason says:

    Great point about Run, Lola, Run! – I’m curious about other conventions of “replay” found in media outside of games.

    Come to think of it, I remember George telling me about Tender Loving Care a while ago when we were chatting in MITH. I never got around to checking it out (something I’ll have to correct).

    I will be curious as to the success (or not) of “Scourge of Worlds,” although I’m inclined to project (without, of course, any numbers to back this up) that most folks interested in D&D style of gaming *and* interested in computer games/interactive fiction will more likely spend their money on something like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, or any number of other “interactive” objects already available and, quite frankly, good fun to play — esp. Neverwinter Nights, which not only has many hours of gameplay in the “regular” game but also packaged everything you need to build adventures yourself. It is exactly this flexibility that makes me lean towards computer games and away from console games and, in this case, a DVD interaction.

  5. chuck says:

    Another weird example is a German film called Funny Games, in which two sadistic thieves systematically rob a series of isolated vacation homes, often torturing their victims. During one interesting sequence, a child who has been hiding the entire film sneaks into the living room and shoots one of the robbers. The surviving robber then grabs the VCR remote and “rewinds” the film until an earlier moment in the narrative when/where he can prevent the child from gaining access to the gun (much like going back to a save point in a video game narrative). The film came out in teh late 90s, around the same time as Lola, and like Lola, self-consciously refers back to the history of cinema (New German Cinema, Hitchcock films), while also “looking ahead” through its reference to “new” visual technologies, such as the VCR, video games.

  6. dave says:

    The appeal of all this multi-method, multi-discipline, multi-text convergence is its implicit promise of a Grand Unifying Theory, right? I guess this makes me a sort of teleological critic, but the notion that your contemporary thinker-type-person can (and should) take available approaches and make them better seems reasonable. Your three numbered premises look like that’s what they’re after (not to mention the ability to negotiate the political badlands of interdisciplinarity). I just wonder how a critical approach can accomodate the wealth of intellectual “material” produced by the humanities and then spend some time at the neurobiology lab to get a better sense of why this neurochemical receptor makes the player happy when he gets five more grenades for his Quake II armory. Perhaps more to the point, how a vibrating Playstation controller makes me hit my Gran Turismo brakes.

    Or does that skepticism put me 10 years behind work that’s already been done?

    How pessimistic of me.

  7. Jason says:

    Dave, I think you bring up a great potential criticism. I guess I should contextualize a bit better to make sure I can see my toes over my GUT (Grand Unifying Theory, of course!). In early discussions of hypertext/e-lit/etc – the Landow, Bolter (1990s Writing-Space-Bolter, not 2000s Remediation-Bolter – same guy, developing theories), and so on – we saw discussions of these media as “embodiments” of postmodern thought and theory. As counter-balance, the next wave of theory (the one that I think we’re still working through the end of just now) – including folks like Aarseth, Manovich, Hayles, and many others – argue against this notion, but many adhere closely to the idea of the “new,” even to go so far (such as Hayles does in Writing Machines) to seemingly claim (trying to give the benefit of the doubt) that such ideas as materiality are relatively new (they aren’t). And it is in this idea of materiality – the “M-word,” to refer back to our previous discussion [here and here and here] – that I think we are seeing the roots of the 3rd generation of criticism, where we are starting to get down and dirty by breaking down concepts into smaller parts – beyond the “M-word” and into greater specificity. In any case, while a few claimed old theory for new, others attempted to distance themselves from old theory while still employing the methodology (which they seemed to claim as new) – I would argue that Aarseth does this – in Cybertexts, he clearly tries to distance himself from narratology while at the same time he does use narratological methodology. Not a problem in the latter, but an issue, I think, with the former.

    What does all this mean and how is it relevant? In computer game studies, at least, there are plenty of folks trying to distance themselves from the “old” – theories, concepts, schools of thought – by claiming that computer games are “new,” which is *in part* true. But what I fear at least two things are in danger of being lost in such thought: first, the historical grounding that games have not only in a seemingly parallel history of computing, but also in various artistic forms, genres, trends, and so on; and second, the important fact that media types influence each other … and *more importantly* they can help us reconceptualize and/or reconfigure how we think about media forms that we are intimately familiar with (or think we are).

    Thus, with computing technologies, we also see reinvigorated scholarship in the tradition, materiality, and culture of the book. Not that it wasn’t always there, but such scholarship leapt to the top, as it were, such as in the publication of the weighty Book of the Book. Likewise, in examining gaming, there is potential to reconceptualize what “narrative” might be, or “film,” or “performance” – both in the game and in things that we might have studied before.

    So, I hoping this serves to explain that I don’t want (or even think possible) a GUT, but rather think (oddly perhaps) that in the ILLUSION of media convergence that we pay ever more attention to the differences between and within media. For example: while the Matrix world indicates a convergence of one narrative and multiple media, we should instead pay close attention to how the material conditions of each media experience (the film, the game, the animatrix) affects us. Likewise, in gaming studies, I think we need to be a little more careful in our assumptions (I’m putting myself on trial as much as anyone) that these things called “games” belong in the “games” category and these things called “films” go in the “films” category, and so on with other media types. A game with a TON of cut-scenes has a much greater relationship with a film than perhaps a game that is primarily strategy. An RPG might be much more invested in narrative than a first-person-shooter. Do I have a concrete terminology for all of this yet? No way. But as we’ve been discussing, the base terms immersion, materiality, and interactivity just aren’t cutting it. Which is fine with me – means I have lots to write about in the dissertation 😉

  8. George says:

    Riffing off of your last comment: If a game might have more affinity with film than games, could a film have more affinity with games than film? Does the kind of “playing” that a viewer might do with a film (e.g. subsequent viewings reveal things not noticed the first time) count as a game even if the film itself doesn’t “play back”? Do certain films facilitate this more than others?

    Your discussion of all of these issues is very illuminating.

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