Feb 18, 2011

Games as Artistic Media (Or Not) - Game Studies (Part 5)

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The first ludological argument is that narrative can not properly be transposed into video games. If one wishes to view the narrative as being a separate entity, independent of medium (and this is necessary if one is to argue that games, books and films are all narratives, as narrativists wish to), the strongest argument to adopt is that narratives must be independent structures because they can be told in a variety of mediums (in Chatman's terms above, the same story expressed through a different discourse) and be recognisable as the same thing across these mediums. An example of this is that someone who has read The Lord of the Rings but not seen the movies will be able to identify the same narrative if they hear a description or re-telling of the films. Ludologists would argue that a game cannot be successfully transferred to another medium and understood in this way, and that it is not possible to preserve the same story when re-telling a film or book as a game. The reason for this is that, when attempting to re-tell a film or narrative in game form, the users ability to shape events will make the story unrecognisable, especially when considering that any game has at least two outcomes – success or failure – where a film or book only has one outcome. To continue the above example, if someone playing a game version of The Lord of the Rings fails to destroy The One Ring, they will have experienced a fundamentally different story that will not be recognisable as being the same story as the original.

Similarly, it is easy to find examples of games which cannot be translated into a film. Tetris is a puzzle game in which the player controls falling blocks in order to make matches between blocks of the same colour. With no protagonist or characters suggested, and nothing much changing aside from the players score increasing from matching blocks, or the player losing as a result of failing to match blocks, the concept of Tetris being portrayed in a film or book is laughable. Films adapted from games with more complex stories in them, such as the Tomb Raider films are also not generally recognisable as retelling the same story as the game – they are fundamentally altered to suit the medium in which they are being presented.

The second ludological argument is to do with differences of time. In a narrative, it is generally possible to talk about three different times. The story time is the time that the story is developing in, the discourse time is the time that the story is being told in, and the reading or viewing time is the amount of time it takes for the story to be told in. Because of these distinctions, it is possible to relate in the space of two hours (reading or viewing time) a story that takes place over the course of several years from 1939-1945 (story time) through a film in the year 2009 (discourse time). In a game, it becomes difficult or impossible to make these distinctions, because the story is happening now, in real-time. Even if a game is set in 1942, the events which the player is taking part in are, in a more real sense, happening at the time it is being played. If this was not the case, it would not be possible for the player to interact with the game or change events, because it is not possible to alter events unless they are happening at the time one wishes to alter them. Hence, all three of these different times are concurrent in games, where as in narratives they are distinguishable.

The third argument for ludology is that the relationship between a reader or viewer of a text to that text is different from the relationship between a user of a game to that game. Aarseth covers this quite nicely – users exert extranoematic effort, can impact on events directly (leading to non-linearity) and are, as such, involved with the text on a different level than the standard reader. The argument presented in Juul's argument is that this difference of relationship is most clearly seen through games that do not have a protagonist. The reason the concept of Tetris: The Movie is laughable is because there is no anthropomorphic protagonist for the audience to care about; there is no reason for them to be interested. But a player of game is interested, because there is always at least one anthropomorphic protagonist present in a game, that of the player themselves, who has a vested interest in winning the game or acquiring the maximum number of points because of the simple fact that the game is evaluating their performance.

Juul concludes, I think correctly, that there is an important difference between games and narratives, even if the player can tell stories of a game session, many computer games contain narrative elements, and games and narratives share some structural traits. What this means for us is that, when examining games to determine if they are art, it is not enough to establish that stories in games resemble stories shown in films and books, and to say that games therefore must be art. Nor is it necessarily appropriate to try and apply wider literary and narrative theory to a study of games.

In the following chapter we will perform a case studies of the game "Fallout" to try and determine if it contains art, applying knowledge gained of the different definitions of art from the previous chapter, and also the knowledge gained from this chapter regarding the structure of games. Furthermore, it is necessary to look at games from a holistic standpoint in these case studies, and give particular attention to the ludic aspects of these games, rather than focusing specifically on their narrative aspects to try and understand them.

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