Feb 4, 2011

Games as Artistic Media (Or Not) - Game Studies (Part 3)

In Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet H. Murray writes about games as a new way of conveying narrative. She appears to see them as a new form of literature, but is more focused on examining the potential of games as a story-telling medium than on their technical or theoretical qualities. For her, games present a new and extremely exciting medium for story-telling, which may some day produce virtuosos capable of creating works as important and artistic as those of Shakespeare. Indeed, the conclusion of her book is to say that computers are “first and foremost a representational medium, a means for modelling the world that adds its own potent properties to the traditional medium it has assimilated so quickly. As the most powerful representational medium yet invented, it should be put to the highest tasks of society. Whether or not we will one day be rewarded with the arrival of the cyberbard, we should hasten to place this new compositional tool as firmly as possible in the hands of the story-teller.”1

This presents a very hopeful outlook, and suggests that games may emerge as the most powerful artistic medium yet conceived. I'm not convinced, but it is a problem more appropriately dealt with later in the thesis. Returning to the book itself, Hamlet on the Holodeck does propose four essential properties of digital environments. Digital environments are, according to Murray, procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopaedic. Descriptions of what, exactly, she means by these terms follow.

That digital environments are procedural means that they have the ability to execute a series of rules, that “the computer is not fundamentally a wire or a pathway but an engine. It was designed not to carry static information but to embody complex, contingent behaviors.”2 Chatbots, such as ELIZA (designed to simulate a psychiatrist and used as an example in the book) are an example of this. These bots effectively exist as a set of rules which govern response to user input, with the aim of simulating a person with whom it is possible to converse. These chatbots are not the textual information which they put out, but rather they are the rules – the procedure – which generates this output. Murray identifies this procedural aspect, or rather, learning to control it, as being a key to making games into a compelling medium for story-telling. ELIZA has been mistaken for a real person on more than one occasion, and is capable of producing dramatic dialogue with the help of user input, an example being the following exchange, which is coherent, dramatic and mildly humorous.

Eliza: Tell me more about your family.
Patient: My mother is very motherly.
Eliza: Who else in your family is very motherly?
Patient: I am very motherly.
Eliza: Is it because you are very motherly that you came to see me?
Patient: Do you need a mother?
Eliza: We are discussing you, not me.3

It's easy to see how a program capable of generating this kind of dialogue could become a compelling tool for procedural storytelling. Murray says that “The challenge for the future is how to make such rule writing as available to writers as musical notation is to composers.”4

That digital environments are participatory is fairly straightforward. What this means is that not only are digital environments procedural, but that the procedures performed by them are influenced by the user; in ELIZA's case, through text input. These first two properties more or less make up what is meant by the word 'interactive' in relation to games – we can participate with games, and see the results of our participation in real-time because the text is procedural.

What is meant by games being spatial is not that digital environments occupy real space in the world (because, of course, they do not) but rather that they “represent navigable space.” Although other mediums can portray space, they do not allow the reader to navigate it in the same way that space can be navigated by a game-player. In both cases the space portrayed is illusory, but in games it is less-so, because there is actual space within the text itself that can be moved through in a way dictated by the player. What Murray means when she says games are spatial is that they are navigable, however it could also be interpreted that this navigability is caused by the interplay of participation and space.

That digital environments are encyclopaedic simply means that they are extremely capacious. In terms of raw data, a 5.3 gigabyte DVD can store the equivalent, in terms of data, of 5,300 books stored in virtual format (100,000 words takes up roughly a megabyte when fully formatted). Many modern games take up up to or over 10 gigabytes of hard-disc space when installed – the equivalent information of over 10,000 books. The capacity of computers to store data is truly huge, and becomes virtually infinite when couple with access to the internet. Furthermore they are encyclopaedic as, because they are capable of holding so much data in so many different forms, it is not unrealistic to expect complete catalogues of information to be available. Murray identifies this capacious nature of the medium as being one of the most important things for presenting narrative through games, saying that “The encyclopaedic capacity of the computer and the encyclopaedic expectation it arouses make it a compelling medium for narrative. The capacity to represent enormous quantities of information in digital form translates into an artist's potential to offer a wealth of detail, to represent the world with both scope and particularity . . . It offers writers the opportunity to tell stories from multiple vantage points and to offer intersecting stories that form a dense and wide-spreading web.”5

As such, digital environments are not just spaces that a player can interact with an navigate thanks to their procedural and participatory nature, but they can also be very large and very detailed spaces. What this suggests is that the medium has the potential to create very convincing worlds, and drama to take place in them, or at least, simulations of what such worlds would be like. This can already be seen in some games, both recent and older titles, particularly in the broad category of games defined as “sandbox” games, which are identified by exactly this property – that they take place in a large, open, simulated world which serves as an expansive backdrop above and beyond the scope of the core narrative or drama that takes place in the game.

1 Hamlet on the Holodeck, 284.
2 Hamlet on the Holodeck, 71.
3 Hamlet on the Holodeck, 73.
4 Hamlet on the Holodeck, 74.
5 Hamlet on the Holodeck, 84.

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