This section examines the academic debate dealing with the presence, need for, and problems associated with narrative in video games, given the video game’s emphasis on the interaction between the player and the game. This emphasis on play in games has led some academics to suggest that narrative should not be present at all in video games, or at least that there is no reason at all to study game narrative. Others, meanwhile, have responded by pointing out the video game’s potential for interactive narrative, where the player can interact with the world of the story and thus influence the story’s outcome. The arguments presented by both sides of the debate are problematic, as they generally have little to support their opinions besides the deep conviction that they are correct. Meanwhile, other scholars have, rather than pronouncing that games should or shouldn’t have narrative, chosen to explore the issues that come up when narrative is implemented within a medium that emphasizes interactivity over linearity.
This section of the thesis will examine the three points of view one after the other. The anti-narrative positions will be examined first, followed by the pro-narrative positions, and ending with a discussion of the third view, that it is possible – but not unproblematic – for video games to incorporate narrative.
Games as a non-narrative medium [back to top]
Let us begin this discussion by looking at the anti-narrative positions at their most extreme. Consider, for example, Markku Eskelinen:
“Outside academic theory people are usually excellent at making distinctions between narrative, drama, and games. If I throw a ball at you, I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories. On the other hand, if and when games and especially computer games are studied and theorised they are almost without exception colonised from the fields of literary, theatre, drama and film studies.” (19)
As far as it goes, Eskelinen’s argument is at least partially accurate – in real life, we don’t expect ball games to have a story attached to them. However, there are other types of games in real life where a story may be present, even if not narrated per se – one need only look at children playing, according to Henry Jenkins (20). Indeed, Jenkins has argued that today, computer games replace outdoor play, rendered impossible by the lack of space in a highly urbanised environment (21). Of course, the outdoor play that Jenkins describes, incidentally, might best be qualified as unstructured narrative following the building blocks model. However, non-digital games with more structured narrative also exist – one need only to look at role-playing games, where one player (called the game master or the dungeon master) performs the role of the author, controlling the game world, while the remaining players attempt to fulfil their objectives within the context of the game master’s storyline (22).
In the above quote, Eskelinen also claims that the study of computer games has been colonised by scholars from various fields that deal with storytelling in one form or another. This seems to be true as well – except that ‘colonisation’ seems to carry with it connotations of foreign invaders taking control of an area from its rightful owners. This, I would argue, cannot be the case – after all, computer games are a new phenomenon, and there were no rightful owners to speak of. Indeed, given the diversity inherent in these games, it seems that there is more than enough room for scholars from a very wide range of academic disciplines. At the same time, Eskelinen’s claims, as a response to the more extreme arguments from the other side of the narrative debate (which will be discussed further on), serve as a warning well worth heeding – there is an inherent risk of narrative studies becoming too dominant in the study of games, with other game elements being given too little attention or ignored outright.
As far as academics that deal with narrative or drama, their presence is wholly justified by the presence of storylines within games. Even Eskelinen does not dispute the presence of such storylines. He does, however, conclude that stories are just ‘uninteresting ornaments or gift-wrappings to games’. Stories in games thus function purely as a marketing tool, and it is a waste of time to study them (23). By dismissing the value of narrative in computer games, Eskelinen is arguing that in fact, it is the gameplay that we should be studying. He illustrates this point by examining the game Tetris, first by criticising Janet Murray’s narrative-oriented analysis of the game, and then by applying his own criteria to examine the game. Janet Murray’s analysis of Tetris as a metaphor for modern life (24) is, according to Eskelinen, completely irrelevant, because instead of studying the game, Murray tries to interpret the game’s content, or perhaps even “project her favourite content on it” (25).
The problem with Eskelinen’s claims is that he does not in any way attempt to justify his dismissal of game stories as unworthy of academic attention. He does not explain why he believes they are mere marketing tools (or indeed, why, if they were marketing tools, they wouldn’t need to be studied). However, he is also correct – there are games out there, like Tetris, which are better studied through their gameplay than through their non-existent storyline.
Eskelinen’s arguments are quite illustrative of the difficulty (or even futility) of arguing against narrative in video games. Yes, it is possible to argue, based on non-narrative games like Tetris or Spacewar! (1962), that it is not necessary to examine narrative or performance in video games. However, such an argument must either ignore outright, or dismiss as worthless, any games that do have a story. The former option is hardly worth considering, as ignoring something won’t cause it to disappear. Dismissing the value of game stories is a more defendable position, but it does ultimately fail, as I will discuss in a moment. All in all, Eskelinen’s discussion of the characteristics of gameplay is certainly worthwhile, and reveals much about the nature of games – but only non-narrative ones. As far as narrative games are concerned, Eskelinen’s position doesn’t achieve much, because he does not defend sufficiently his claims about the low value of game stories.
Games as the future of narrative media [back to top]
Eskelinen represents the extreme end of one side in this debate. However, there is also an extreme element on the pro-narrative side, highlighting the problems of coming in from a narrative or drama-related field of study and trying to apply the theories from such a field without acknowledging that narrative is just one aspect of games, and that gameplay is generally the more important aspect. These kinds of problems are visible, for example, in Kurt Lancaster’s discussion of the game Quantum Gate (1993). Describing the ending of the game, Lancaster criticises the game’s designers for including a particular gameplay segment near the end of the game, rather than using a video clip, primarily because according to Lancaster, the game segment detracted from the drama of the situation because it did not look particularly good, while video could have looked better (26). This criticism may indeed be valid – Quantum Gate’s ending might indeed have been more dramatic and satisfying if it was done entirely in a video segment. However, it may be that a different game player would disagree with Lancaster – the player might enjoy the gameplay more than he would enjoy a video clip.
Furthermore, it would be easy to take such criticisms too far. For many older games in particular, one might conclude that the gameplay elements detract from the experience because they are visually inferior to the pre-rendered or pre-recorded images used to present the storyline. Thus, such a criticism threatens to devalue the very notion of gameplay being an important part of games.
Because the narrative in present-day games is often displayed in the very same style and quality of graphics as the gameplay (27), such arguments are redundant for modern games, and in general will only apply to discussions of older games. Nonetheless, even where they are applicable, such arguments need to be treated with a lot of caution. Games may involve drama and narrative, but if these elements were to be considered more important than the gameplay itself, then game studies would cease to be game studies, instead becoming just another sub-field of narrative or performance studies. Such a situation would certainly justify Eskelinen’s warnings about colonisation.
A similar problem is associated with a few works that discuss the relationship of games and narrative in ideological, indeed evangelical tones, with authors such as Janet Murray arguing that the potential for future development and improvement of games lies primarily in their narrative aspects (28). Unsurprisingly, where the proponents of games as a non-narrative medium tend to focus on examples of games without narrative, arguing that these games are the most representative of the medium’s potential (29), the reverse is the case here, with narrative games being presented as the best possible future for the medium (30). Thus, where Eskelinen (and, to a lesser extent, Jesper Juul, who will be discussed later) rejects narrative in games as a worthless marketing tool, here non-narrative games are the ones being rejected. The computer, Murray writes, ‘is first and foremost a representational medium, a means for modelling the world’, and ‘we should hasten to place this new compositional tool as firmly as possible in the hands of the story-tellers’ – for games to become mature, we need a cyberbard, the digital age’s equivalent of Shakespeare (31). Much like Eskelinen’s arguments, Murray’s arguments are valid to a certain degree – narrative games (while arguably already an art form well worth investigating) hold a lot of potential for the future. However, there seems to be no particular reason why non-narrative games should be considered only as a starting point for the evolution of narrative gaming.
Another problem with the arguments of authors like Murray is their tendency towards utopianism. There is a desire here not only for stronger narrative with ‘more dramatic resonance and human import’ (32) within them, there is also a desire for increased interactivity and control, with current games being criticised both for their narrative poverty and their lack of interactivity (33). This idealistic vision, embodied within the ‘Holodeck’ from the Star Trek franchise, is nothing less than an environment where the player does not simply control, but actually becomes a character, becoming intellectually and emotionally involved at every stage of the story.
Yet, as Poole notes, there is an opposition between strong, emotional narrative and interactivity. Not only is it technically difficult (with current technology at least, it may well be outright impossible) to design a narrative that would allow the player to truly influence it at any point, but such interactivity, if implemented, would weaken the story’s impact – dramatic events need to be irreversible to have emotional resonance (34). Games, however, are almost always reversible – if the player’s character dies in a video game, the player will not stop the game there, but will rather reload a previously saved game and try again. This means that the player character’s death has no emotional impact, and indeed isn’t really an option in the story (35). In fact, it is desirable in game design to ensure that the player will die (at least) a few times during a game, while at the same time it is even more important to ensure that, in the hands of an expert player, the game can be completed without any loading of saved games (36).
Thus, as interactivity increases in a game, narrative becomes more and more problematic. It is a paradox – the closer the game designers would get to one aspect of the utopia, the further away they would be from the other aspect, and vice-versa. Even if the technological problems associated with creating a truly interactive narrative could be overcome, the emotional impact of the narrative would depend on a psychologically unlikely leap of faith by the player. The player, faced with an undesirable narrative event, whether this event was pre-planned by the game designers or a consequence of her own actions, would have to accept this event without utilising the game’s interactivity to change it by loading a previously saved game and adapting one’s actions to prevent the undesirable event. As Marie-Laure Ryan notes, it is uncertain if the player would get any gratification (which is always one of the primary reasons for a reader or a player to engage with a text, interactive or otherwise) from experiencing the emotions of a character in an a strong, complex and emotionally resonant narrative – the main characters in such narratives often suffer a lot during the course of the story. Such suffering would be experienced very differently if the player and the character were the same person:
“Any attempt to turn empathy, which relies on mental stimulation, into first-person, genuinely felt emotion would in the vast majority of cases trespass the fragile boundary that separates pleasure from pain.” (37)
We will return to the relationship between players and game characters later on. For now, it is sufficient to say that the idea of the Holodeck is an impossible utopia, because it ignores the fact that games are games, and the player’s desire for an emotionally-powerful narrative experience will be tempered by the desire to overcome the challenges of the game – to win.
The examination of the various arguments for and against narrative games has allowed us to establish, thus far, that in this complex situation, neither side can actually win. Both sides are simultaneously correct (in their claims about the nature of present-day games) and wrong (in their rejection of narrative or non-narrative games as worthwhile, and their imposition of narrative/non-narrative games as the only desirable future for games). The problem lies within the assumption that if one of these game types can or should exist, then the other cannot or should not exist. There is no reason to accept such an assumption – it is time to accept that narrative and non-narrative games are two separate entities, both equally worthy of our study.
Gameplay and narrative as a problematic combination [back to top]
During the examination of the game vs. narrative debate, we have also touched upon the fact that the relationship between gameplay and narrative is a problematic one. The problems of this relationship are the primary subject within the works of Jesper Juul. Juul does not attempt to determine whether games with narrative should or should not exist – his argument, instead, is that while narrative can exist in games, its relationship with the rest of the game will generally be a problematic one. This is because, he argues, interactivity causes difficulties for narrative, for similar reasons as have been discussed above – that a continuously interactive story cannot exist, and that the relationship between the player and the game is different than the relationship between the reader and the non-interactive story (38). Juul’s argument is also not without problems; he limits his analysis of the nature of narrative to literature, and consequently his description of narrative does not necessarily apply even to other media already accepted as narrative media, such as film and theatre. Furthermore, the distinction between his arguments and those of more extreme authors like Eskelinen is a delicate one.
Nonetheless, the difference is there – where Eskelinen argues that games shouldn’t have narrative at all, Juul’s argument is that the more a game develops its narrative complexity, the less game-like it is going to be, and that consequently, it will be less interesting than a game with less narrative but more interactivity. Such a claim definitely cannot be rejected outright. The first part, indeed, is almost certainly true – in current games, the increasing strength of narrative does adversely affect the player’s ability to influence the outcome (39). Whether this indeed makes a game less interesting, is much more arguable. We will now examine Juul’s arguments in detail. In doing so, we will begin to develop a picture of the relationship between game and narrative, and the methodology of narration in games, and thus make the transition from the game vs. narrative debate into the study of the nature of video game narrative.
To begin with, Juul points out that computer games and narrative, while sharing some traits, are extremely different. He notes that narrative’s weight comes from the causal logic and inevitability that bind together a sequence of past events. Thus, even if a narrative takes place in the future, it will still be written in past tense, as though it had already occurred. It’s a different story with video games – they are defined by the player’s influence of present events. Thus, the player can only interact with the game whenever it is using the present tense (40). In a game like Doom II (1994), Juul notes, it is difficult to see any temporal distance between story time (the time when the story is set), narrative time (the time when the narrator relays it), and reading time (the time when the reader experiences it). There is no grammar to depict any temporal distance between story, narrative, or reading time, and in fact the player’s ability to directly influence the events represented makes it clear that the events cannot be past or future, or else the player wouldn’t be able to influence them (41).
This is only partially true, however. Even in Doom II, which has very little indeed in terms of storyline, the player is given sufficient information to know that the events he is participating in take place in the future. This is not especially different to what one might experience in film, where story events are usually depicted in the present tense. This creates the illusion of story time and reading time being one and the same, but the distance is merely hidden, not removed. In video games, the concealment of the distance is even more sophisticated, with the player being able to influence events regardless of whether they are set in the past or the future (42). It is further worth noting that in most cases, it is not the player that influences the story – more often than not, the player doesn’t exist in the game world. Instead, she guides a character within this game world, and interaction with the world takes place through this proxy. This becomes more complicated in games where the discourse between the game and the player is in second-person (you are here, you see this). Even there, however, the player isn’t necessarily a character in the game world, but rather the relationship between him/her and the game character becomes an even closer one, not unlike the relationship between the actor n a play and the character he’s playing.
The difference between the time of narration and the other two temporalities is a more problematic one. Here, it seems, Juul is indeed correct – given the lack of a distinctive temporal setting for the narrator, it seems logical to assume that the narration is taking place now. However, this doesn’t actually make games different from narrative – it merely makes them more similar to the oral storytelling tradition (where reading and narration time are the same) than to narrative in literature.
A further point related to temporality in games as compared to other narrative media is the seeming inability for a game to use the temporal devices that appear in those media. There is, Juul argues, a problem when it comes to use devices such as the ellipsis (skipping time) and pauses; returning to his example of Doom II, he notes that the game essentially takes place entirely in real-time (43). The player does have the ability to pause the game – but this is more like the act of putting away the novel than a story pause within the novel itself. Juul is also correct that ellipses serve no purpose in games (44). It is worth noting that ellipses are actually used in game cutscenes. A cutscene, however, suspends gameplay, and thus the use of narrative devices such as ellipses in cutscenes helps to support Juul’s claims about the conflict between game and narrative – in order to become more interesting from a narrative point of view, the game must temporarily surrender its interactivity. Still, some temporal devices are available in the game, though they are controlled by the player, rather than by a separate narrator. Thus, the player can slow down or accelerate the game speed (45).
Another temporal issue that differentiates between games and narrative according to Juul is sequentiality and chronology. Juul notes that narrative is based on repetition; the narrator, within the plot, repeats the story. Games, meanwhile, cannot be based on repetition, because they do not follow a fixed sequence. They thus lack the inevitability that is present in sequential narratives – when a character dies as a consequence of the player’s actions, it does not feel like inescapable destiny; indeed, if the character has a detailed psychological profile, the player might end up pursuing a course of action that the character’s psychology would not permit (46). In this way, the interactivity of games does indeed destabilise narrative structure – as we had discussed earlier in relation to Murray’s work, in a video game a character might die at the wrong time ending the story prematurely. This, and the player’s other possibilities of changing the outcome, weaken the emotional resonance of events – rather than destiny, they are now an option.
The interactive nature of games also means that the designers’ options in terms of chronology are severely limited. While there is no problem depicting events in a non-chronological order in a novel or a film, doing so in a game may cause difficulty. In a non-chronological game, a player’s actions in the game world’s past could make impossible the actions that she had already taken earlier during the gameplay, but which take place later in the game world’s time (47). Here too, Juul’s point demonstrates that narrative and gameplay do not sit perfectly together – any time a game wishes to revisit the game world’s past, it does so in a non-interactive cutscene (48).
A further point that Juul makes is the problematic nature of the narrator in video games:
“A narrative can also be characterised by the fact that there is narration. If the narrator is not characterised as such, at least there is some kind of selection of what to tell and emphasise. This selection is related to the temporal situation and variations in narrative speed.” (49)
Juul goes on to note that in a game like Space Invaders, the process of selection and variation does not exist during gameplay. It does appear, in a vestigial manner, between gameplay sequences, but not sufficiently to give the audience any idea of the narrator. In another of Juul’s examples, Myst (1993), there is a more explicit narrative frame, but here the narrator only establishes the world of the narrative, setting up the structure within which the player’s actions take place, but having no control over the actions themselves (50). However, Juul does seem to be overly focused on what David Bordwell calls diegetic narration – how the story is told. In doing so, he ignores the other type of narration that Bordwell identifies – mimetic narration, where the narration controls how the story is shown (51). The latter type of narration seems clearly enough to exist in all video games – somebody, after all, controls what is shown on the screen, and what is heard through the sound system. This can be the game designers or the player, but in either case, a fully-fledged narrator does exist (the fact that the player can be both the reader and the narrator is an intriguing one, and we will return to it in the next section of this thesis). Thus, while narration in video games certainly is not without problems, it does also appear to be more sophisticated than Juul would suggest.
The final of Juul’s points that we will consider here is the question of replayability. Juul notes that our culture values the idea of the ‘endless work’, a text that can be read and reread repeatedly without it becoming tedious. In non-interactive narrative media, this is the category that high literature (as opposed to ‘trash novels’, disposable after a single reading) falls into. However, in video games, it seems as though the less plot a game has, the more replayability it will have. If you add a story to a game, it will become less replayable, and thus will get further away from the high-culture endless text – once you know the story, there’s just no point playing again, as you already know exactly what to do (52).
As far as Juul’s work is concerned, this is the closest he comes to supporting Eskelinen’s arguments against the study of video game narrative. It is, however, a curious and self-destructive argument. If the lack of interactive challenge was to dissuade one from replaying a narrative game, then how can a non-interactive ‘endless work’ exist in the first place? It would certainly be fair to argue that, playing an adventure game like The Curse of Monkey Island (1997) is much less of a challenge the second time around - the player can already get through all the puzzles that blocked his progress the first time. However, it is not logical to argue that this reduction of challenge will also automatically reduce the value and enjoyment of replaying the game. It might do that, if the game’s narrative is not worth re-experiencing; however, the narrative may well be interesting and worthwhile enough to rise in value above the gameplay. As Ben Talbot notes, the lack of playability in Myst does not necessarily come from its use of narrative, but rather its game engine (53).
Indeed, it is worth noting here that in terms of limiting gameplay possibilities, narrative is not necessarily any different to the other rules of the game. In Tetris, blocks fall from the top of the screen, and the rules require the player to keep arranging them as long as possible – failure to comply will result in defeat. The gameplay is thus very restricted, and these restrictions are just as arbitrary as one might argue narrative restrictions are. Thus, narrative can be looked upon as merely providing another type of game rules. Gameplay would not be any more open or freeform without narrative. As Johan Huizinga notes, all play has its rules (54). Narrative, therefore, is not necessarily an alien presence within games.
In conclusion, it seems clear enough that the combination of narrative and gameplay is a technical challenge. The points made by authors like Juul and Poole certainly need to be considered; it is difficult to conceive how narrative could make the transition from a linear, non-interactive to an interactive, exploratory media without any difficulty. However, this does not necessarily mean that narrative should not exist in video games, or that, as Eskelinen argues, it is unworthy of academic study where it does exist. At the same time, the future of games is not the development of narrative games exclusively – it is time to accept the diversity of possibilities within video games. Narrative games and non-narrative games can exist and develop alongside each other, and indeed they already do. Outside academic theory, this debate simply does not exist. A game designer may not like to implement complex narrative in her games, but is also not likely to categorically dismiss narrative games as something that should not exist (55). At any rate, most commercially available games of today do have some form of narrative (56), and that fact in itself makes the study of game narrative a necessity. It is this necessity that I will now attend to. We have already begun, above, exploring some aspects of game narrative, such as their limited temporal possibilities and their focus on mimetic narration. Let us proceed to explore some of these issues further, by looking at subjectivity, performance, and the player’s participation in the process of narration within the video game.
Footnotes [back to top]
19. Markku Eskelinen, op. cit., http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/eskelinen/.
[back to text]
Copyright 2003 Jakub Majewski