My Master's Thesis:
Theorising Video Game Narrative

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5. Conclusions

This thesis covers only a few main aspects of video game narrative. Hopefully, however, it has managed to lay the groundwork for further study of narrative in video games.

Above all, it can be hoped that this work has demonstrated the benefits of moving beyond the question of whether computer games should have narrative in the first place. This question, which was explored in the first part of this thesis, has thus far been a staple topic of the academic discussions around video games. A number of different positions were explored. The first of these was Markku Eskelinen’s claim that video game narrative, where it exists, should not and does not need to be studied because it is only an uninteresting decoration tacked onto the games. Subsequently, a number of pro-narrative positions were explored, most notably Janet Murray’s enthusiastic speculations about narrative games being the future of the medium. Both of these positions are problematic at best; far more useful is Jesper Juul’s exploration of the difficulties associated with the fusion of gameplay and narrative in computer games, as it offers an effective starting point for a deeper exploration of video game narrative.

This thesis, it is worth stressing, is not trying to argue that video games with narrative are more worthy of academic study than non-narrative games, or that narrative is the most important aspect within narrative games – in short, narrative video games are neither the best possible future development of this new medium as Murray suggests, nor the worst problem with current video games, as Eskelinen argues. Indeed, given the overwhelming use and diversity of narrative and non-narrative video games, it seems as though it may be time to abandon not only the question of whether video games should have narrative, but also the idea of video games as a single medium. Studying video games with the presumption that they are a diverse group of media would perhaps put an end to the idea that games ‘should’ be one thing or another. An academic studying the game of chess would not presume to argue that the game of poker needs to be more like chess – how is it, then, that academics studying Tetris or other non-narrative games presume that all video games should be like their object of study?

The next section of this thesis discussed the comparison of video games with drama. Although this comparison seems to indicate that the experience of playing video games is not entirely like drama, there are definitely several similarities, especially when it comes to issues of subjectivity. The degree of subjectivity offered by many video games can only be matched by the experience of taking part in a dramatic performance. On the other hand, where drama according to Brenda Laurel has a tendency towards intensification of the story, depicting the most significant incidents and glossing over the rest, video games are much harder to nail down on this issue – both extensifying and intensifying games seem to exist. The same problem comes up in relation to the unity of structure that exists in theatre according to Laurel – although similar unity can exist in computer games, it usually doesn’t, with games tending more towards an episodic structure.

Another issue considered in this part of the thesis was the problematic nature of narration, both diegetic and mimetic, inside video games. In general, it appears as though video games utilise diegetic narration even less than theatre and films do, primarily because the interactive nature of the video game makes it difficult for the game designers to predict what the narrator and the player should know at any given point. On the other hand, while mimetic narration has some limits imposed on it too, it also adds an interesting feature to video games – it allows the player to take part in the narration of the story to a certain degree.

The subsequent section in this thesis dealt with the structure of video game narrative. First, the three narrative structures prevalent in linear narrative (the classical structure, minimalist structure, and the anti-structure, as described by Robert McKee) were explored and compared to what one might find in video games. In general, it would appear as though the classical structure is the most common one in video games as well, but, unlike in other media, a purely classical structure doesn’t seem to happen too often in video games, with some aspects usually being borrowed from the minimalist structure or the anti-structure.

The findings in terms of linear structure in video games were then applied in an examination of the three main models of video game narrative structure – the string of pearls, branching narrative, and amusement park models. Although these models (and particularly the latter two) are non-linear, once a game is completed its story becomes linear in retrospection, making the cross-analysis of the three models of video game narrative and the three linear narrative structures quite worthwhile. The examination of the three video game narrative models was further augmented with a look at the function of subjectivity, narration and genre within each of the models. Finally, a brief look was taken at a fourth model of video game narrative; this last one, the building blocks model, is quite different from the other three models because it encompasses games where the player creates the story, instead of merely experiencing someone else’s creation.

The findings within this thesis thus illustrate several different areas of video games and their narrative. However, they also identify a number of areas that have yet to be explored in detail. First and foremost among these is the building blocks model of narrative, which needs to be described and analysed in order to better understand pseudo-narrative computer games that, rather than providing the player with a story, provide him/her with a story-writing tool instead.

Another question that would be well worth looking into is that of genre. How exactly does genre and narrative intersect? Can any genre of video game incorporate narrative, or are there any specifically non-narrative genres? These are all areas of computer game narrative that need to be examined. Indeed, even then, there will still be much to be studied – gameplay, for example, needs to be examined from points of view other than narrative.

Nonetheless, a great deal of work related to computer game narrative has already been completed, and this thesis contributes further to the exploration within this area. It is clear enough at this stage that narration within video games is indeed a problematic process. This process, however, it is not more problematic than narration in other media – the restrictions imposed by the video game form do not cripple narration in games, but rather define it, in the same way that the primacy of diegetic narration in literature does not cripple narration in books. The restrictions imposed on some aspects of narration in video games, at any rate, are offset by an increase in possibilities for other aspects of narration. Thus, where films presented entirely in the subjective first-person view are rare, games presented in the first-person view are more than commonplace. Similarly, branching narrative, while its use is limited by its cost and work-intensiveness, is nonetheless fairly standard in computer games; on the other hand, films or books that use such devices are rare enough to be considered experimental.

The specificity of video game narration in comparison to other types of narration is quite clear, with this thesis offering further insights into the particular differences between narration in video games and other narrative media. One may hope that this unique form of narration will be explored in the future on its own terms, with the additional possibilities offered by the interactivity of the video game being given as much weight as the restrictions resulting from this interactivity.

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Copyright 2003 Jakub Majewski