July 12, 2006

Games, Fictions, Narratives

The following post is in response to Francois' excellent points and questions in the previous post on game fiction. To begin with his first comment: the unfolding of a game event is only *sometimes* driven by narrativity, and oftentimes only in collaboration with the ludic drive. In other words, the narrative drive is not always primary (or even present - Poker has plenty of ludic and absolutely no inherent narrative drive). The trick, of course, is to understand how they do co-exist when both are present. To take an example, the playing of a chess piece is not driven by narrative design (an already-in-place narrative design), but by ludic imperatives - the needs presented by the arrangement of pieces on the board at that play moment. We can discard chess as a possible candidate for game fiction.

On the other hand, a more challenging example would be Clue/Cluedo (to keep to board games for the moment). Here we do have some elements consistent with narrative - setting, character, MacGuffins galore. And here (to now get to Francois' second point), the player must manage multiple roles. They are at once a named-character (Colonel Mustard, e.g.) and the unnamed "Investigator." One in six times (potentially) these two roles adopted by a single player must work at cross purposes, because the Investigator may in fact implicate the same player's character as the murderer. In other words, the good Colonel would implicate himself, without any clear motivation to do so.

Clue remains a complicated case because it is, at its heart, an emergent game, rather than progressive. There are 324 possible solutions (6 cards for characters, 9 cards for rooms, and another 6 cards for weapons), and the shuffling of cards, removal of 3, and subsequent game play all revolve around the emergent process of elimination. So, Clue (for me at least) remains this border case for game fiction. It certainly uses fiction within its ludic design, but to borrow from Chatman, I would argue that the fiction functions in service to the ludic design (see Chatman's Coming to Terms).

So, for our third example, let us take a computer game like Half-Life, a single-player "first-person shooter" that is heavily steeped in an apocalyptic narrative: science experiment gone wrong, leading to the invasion of the world by alien beings, with one man (Gordan Freeman, the protagonist) trying to escape from the destroyed science laboratory. Is this a narrative? Some may be tempted to say no, because the action unfolds through player participation in a way that defies narrative conventions. The narrative is not medium-independent (so would say Juul, drawing from Chatman). Or it is quest-based, but not narrative (which is Aarseth's implication in Ryan's recent collection Narrative Across Media). Yet, Half-Life is clearly a game fiction, a ludic narrative. It is progressive, whereby the action moves in stages that are repeatable and consistent. Its purpose is one of actualization of a narrative design (more than one ending exists, but each repeatable and programmed). It is, in essence, scripted and therefore, despite the potential illusion (in play) of occurring in real time (to the player), the player works through a retelling of a pre-planned event.

These, I believe, are some of the distinctions we need to make in order to crack this nut that is at the heart of the oft-cited (and oft-maligned) ludology/narratology discussion.

With regard to the Stewart quotation - the significant shift here, of course, is we have added to the process of reading (or viewing, in the case of film) a feedback loop that is, in Aarseth's terms, "non-trivial" (which I think is perhaps the wrong term, since reading is anything but - yet the point of physical engagement rings true). That feedback loop, what is often (mis?)called interactivity, remains one fundamental distinction between what we have traditionally called narratives and what are, in most respects, narrative games (ludological fictions, game fictions - whatever they must be called to allow us to discuss games-combined-with-narratives). But that players shift between multiple perspectives throughout their engagement with any game fiction is absolutely true, and part of what I'm talking about when I focus on the interface - rather than simply the avatar - in some of my work.

Thanks Francois, as always, for your careful reading and feedback.

Posted by Jason at 6:54 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

June 28, 2006

The End of Things

CC: It's interactive storytelling.
GS: And what does that mean to the common person?

CC: It's a story you get to participate in as the protagonist. You're the hero...and you let the story go. It's not at all like a regular story. It's not as if you're just following the footsteps of the hero in a standard movie. Interactive storytelling has a more meandering feel to it. You don't charge down a plot line towards the end, you meander through a social environment.

-- Video Games are Dead: A Chat with Storytronics Guru Chris Crawford

What is the value of an ending? How does the concept of an 'end' - and the constitution of those steps required to achieve that end - change how we view the design, and the narrativity, of a game? All game rule sets are systems of control, and most contain some sense of an ending (checkmate, Uno!, or even, "and they lived happily ever after"), but most games lean more towards one of two overall types: progressive or emergent. With the potential for vast narrative landscapes in virtual environments, bound by the limits of hardware and broadband connections rather than those of paper and ink, emergent and progressive design are two key strategies for containing space, story, and time. And yet these two genres hold radically different approaches to the alchemy of interaction and narrative.

Progressive games are arguably a narrative, adhering to many of the conventions of the word except for the (rather significant) departure from a fluid narrative communication strategy (outlined years ago by Chatman as flowing unidirectional from "Real Author" to "Real Reader" - see an example of this diagramed here). Emergent games, however, arguably are not - they may create narratives through their play, just as we might create a narrative about our walk to the park, our conversation with the homeless man we met there, or how we tripped and fell into a puddle on the way home. Those are experiences and only become narratives when they are retold. A retelling may happen almost immediately, such as a transcript generated as you play through a game of Facade, but the transcript - not the play - is the narrative.

These two overall types, emergent and progressive, are loosely defined by both the end state for the completed game, and the process by which a player or players achieve that end state. Both may use fiction as a component of the game, but the former, I argue, is the only kind that would be considered "game fiction," a phrase I use to describe a genre of game that draws upon and uses narrative strategies to create, maintain, and lead the user through a fictional environment. Game fiction's two most immediate and obvious connotations are prose fiction and interactive fiction (IF), and it deliberately is suggestive of narrative forms - novels, films, and the like - and yet distinguished by the ludic quality implicit in the game.1

While emergent games provide a series of game states (a shuffled deck of cards, an arrangement on the board, a set of characters or pieces) and a set of rules, the play emerges from any myriad potential combinations. The standard set of chess moves and situations (many of which chess players will keep on note cards for reference and study) is one such example. The process is less "story-telling" and more "lived experience," which distinguishes it from narrative, a form that at its base level is a retelling of events. To paraphrase the above comment by Crawford, in emergent games "you let the game go" - making choices along the way, influencing outcomes based on skill, knowledge, or luck. And yet the outcome - the end - is not designed (one might say, authored) as the completion of a series of staged, repeatable events.

Progressive games, on the other hand, often may adhere to what Aarseth calls the "pearl chain structure" ("Quest Games" 369), although with varying degrees of sophistication, and usually providing for at least some limited choice and configurability. They offer delineated paths, often a quest (either explicit or not) toward the completion of a goal: rescue a princess, defeat the invaders, escape from certain doom, or find the missing pages of a book. Computer games that involve platform jumping, adventure games, first-person shooter (or sneaking) games, and several styles of role-playing game involve predominantly progressive play. Significantly, in progressive games any emergent behavior generally is constrained to the supplementary events (satellites in Chatman's terms) rather the constituent ones (kernels). 2 Rather than following the footsteps of the hero, as Crawford suggests above, the player activity is more akin to following the footprints laid out on the floor by a dance instructor. With emergent games, the design process is one of stimulating potential. With progressive games, the design process is one of encouraging actualization.

Game fictions, then, include a presupposed end-game (or end-games), engendering a process by which the player interacts with the ludic design in order to actualize an ideal completion of the game's goals — to solve a mystery, to build towards a functional system, and/or to actualize a narrative sequence. If the rise of the novel in the 18th century reflected a growing "tendency for individual experience to replace collective tradition," as Ian Watt argues (Rise of the Novel 14), then comparatively the rise of game fiction could be seen to reflect a tendency towards collective tradition under the guise of individual experience. The interactive and competitive nature of the game fiction requires an interface for interaction and a shift in point of view, a framework guiding the player toward goals, which is most often framed as a quest, and establishing the parameters of the player character's abilities within the game and fictional space. Just as the shift from reader to player necessitates these control systems and feedback loops, so to does the shift bring with it thematic focus: encountering new worlds, managing conflict and goals, and bringing a character under player control and managing models of understanding his or her abilities, history, and story. The individual experience is in fact collective tradition, an echo perhaps of Marie-Laure Ryan's musing that hypertextual "aesthetic pleasure, like political harmony, is a matter not of unbridled license but of controlled freedom" (Narrative as Virtual Reality 8-9).

1 "Interactive fiction" would presumably suffice, and yet this term is so closely aligned with text-based adventure games (and some text-based procedural works that aren't necessarily games) that expanding the use of the phrase to encompass all types of game fictions seems unlikely to be adopted. Furthermore, the term "interactive" is limited in many ways as a descriptive term - as discussed in depth by Aarseth, Manovich, and others - so as to discourage my adoption of it over "game."

2Importantly, games may contain both emergent and progressive qualities, but just as texts, as Chatman asserts, adhere to a predominant type — Narrative, Argument, or Description — (CTT 6) so too do games, and either type can function "in service to" the other . So the games that are often heralded as more sophisticated for their non-linearity, such as Grand Theft Auto 3, Morrowind, and so on, often have a broader dose of Emergent play in service to their predominant Progressive type. Also note that games can share many qualities but lean more heavily towards one side or the other on this spectrum, e.g. Half-Life and Counterstrike, or Starcraft (Single-player) and Starcraft (Multi-player).

Posted by Jason at 4:21 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack