Feb 11, 2011

Games as Artistic Media (Or Not) - Game Studies (Part 4)

It is worthwhile to take a look at the ludology/narratology debate, so that we can assess the relative importance of ludic and narrative concerns in games, but before we do this, it's worthwhile to mention what we actually mean when we say 'narrative' in this context. In general, when speaking in relation to games, we mean the following:

each narrative has two parts: a story (historie), the content or chain of events (actions, happenings), plus what may be called the existents (characters, items of setting): and a discourse (discours), that is, the expression, the means by which the content is communicated. In simple terms, the story is the what in a narrative that is depicted, discourse the how.1

This is the definition most commonly referred to in the specific articles and books with which we are dealing, and it is mentioned specifically in several of them.

Jesper Juul has written a useful article entitled “Games Telling Stories?” which outlines some of the key arguments from both sides of the ludology/narratology debate. The arguments of the narrativists are firstly that we use narrative for everything, that most games have a narrative introduction or back-story and finally that games share some traits with narratives. The ludological arguments are that firstly, games are not part of the narrative media ecology formed by movies, novels, and theatre. Time in games works differently than in narratives. Finally, the relation between the reader/viewer and the story world is different than the relation between the player and the game world.

The first narrativist argument is that, since we use narrative to make sense of our lives, and we can tell a story about anything that happens to us, such as the events of a game which we have played, no form can be said to be outside the narrative. Even games that are abstract with no obvious story or plot line can be described in terms of an emergent narrative defined by 'what happens to the player'. This is at first compelling, until one considers that just because it is possible to describe something in narrative terms, it does not mean that one should describe things in narrative terms, when looking at it another way may be more useful. This means that it becomes a non-argument, because it ends up raising the question of what is more useful in studying games – ludology or narratology – which of course brings us back to the very question the argument was meant to be addressing.

The second argument is more compelling. Most games come, at the very least, with a story published on the packaging or in the manual to give context to a players actions, or feature a story explained through the game itself. Even very simple games, such as 1977's Space Invaders end up at least suggesting a story. As Juul writes;

A prehistory is suggested in Invaders: An invasion presupposes a situation before the invasion. It is clear from the science fiction we know that these aliens are evil and should be chased away. So the title suggests a simple structure with a positive state broken by an external evil force . . . Most modern, single player non-arcade games . . . succeed in presenting a fixed sequence of events that the player can then afterwards retell. This means that some games use narratives for some purposes.”2

I would suggest that Juul's conclusion regarding this argument doesn't go far enough. It seems to me that all games must use narrative for some purpose (intentionally or otherwise), because as soon as the player can take an action to change the initial state of the game, this suggests at least a very basic kind of narrative where, through a certain process, something changes from one state to another.

The final argument is that games share some traits with narratives. These are identified by Juul as being the following traits; games feature changes from one state to another (as identified above), most games have quest structures and protagonists, and games are experienced in a linear manner, one event at a time, in order, like a narrative. We already know from Cybertext that the last point is contentious – Aarseth identifies games as being non-linear because to call them linear ignores the vital aspect of user involvement in the game, and the potential for variable expression. The easiest response to this argument is a whole is that, while undoubtedly games share some traits with narratives, or use narrative in some way, similarity is not equal to congruency. This puts the ball in the court of the ludologists in a way, because for this to be a strong argument one needs to present evidence that, despite the evidence of the similarities, games are not narratives.

1 Quote as it appears in Computer Games (p. 35). Originally from Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film by Seymour Chatman, 1978 (p. 19).
2 “Games Telling Stories?”, <http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/juul-gts/>

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