My Master's Thesis:
Theorising Video Game Narrative

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3. Reader, actor and narrator - subjectivity, performance and narration in video games

[Drama and narrative – subjectivity and performance]
[Who’s narrating here?]

Given the player’s active involvement within the computer game, there is a need to examine games not only from the point of view of narrative studies, but also from the fields of drama and performance studies. Indeed, the player’s active participation in games has led some authors, and Brenda Laurel in particular, to claim that computer games are (or should be, as Laurel’s work is both descriptive and prescriptive) drama rather than narrative. Laurel argues that drama differs in three primary ways from narrative, by involving enactment rather than spectatorship, intensification rather than extensification, and unity of action rather than episodic structure (57).

Each of these differences will be discussed in turn, in order to determine whether games are indeed more like drama than narrative. The rest of this part of the thesis will then be used to examine the limitations and possibilities of the use of diegetic and mimetic methods of narration within the video game.

Drama and narrative – subjectivity and performance   [back to top]

Firstly, then, drama involves enactment, rather than spectatorship. The events unfold in real-time, and the player takes action within the drama – as Laurel puts it, the stuff of narrative is description, while the stuff of drama is action (58). Of course, this claim seems to carry with it the implication that drama only exists from the point of view of the actors involved – since the audience at a dramatic performance does not take action, to them this dramatic performance would simply be a particular form of narrative (59). Be that as it may, however, the player’s active participation within the computer game does suggest that the player experiences the game more from the subjective point of view of an actor within the game than a spectator.

Indeed, games can be an intensely subjective experience. Playing a first-person shooter, you are encouraged to feel as though you are there, in the game world. You see and hear everything from the point of view of the character you’re playing. This character forms the interface between you and the game world (60). And it is not merely perceptual subjectivity – when the player’s character is wounded in Quake, the screen flashes red, as though the character was in pain. It is total subjectivity, and when speaking of their first-person game experiences, players often make no distinction between themselves and their characters (61).

Even outside of the first-person view, subjectivity remains strong. Thus, in the third-person action game Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb (2003), the player has some control of the camera, but ultimately cannot see more than the player’s character, Indiana Jones (Indy), might himself see if he chooses to look around. The player still controls Indy’s every move. Every once in a while, Indy reacts to a player’s action by speaking, but it doesn’t seem like he’s speaking aloud – it is his thoughts that the player is privy to.

It can sometimes be a very curious relationship. On the one hand, the player seems to become the character that he plays. Indy represents the player in the game world, and in fact cannot make any move without the player’s input. Thus, the player is Indy, in the same way that an actor may for the duration of a play become Hamlet. On the other hand, however, Indy’s thoughts are not the player’s own. In the satirical Escape from Monkey Island, the player’s character, Guybrush, at one point in the game has a conversation with a dart-thrower in a bar. One of the options that the player has is to instruct Guybrush to ask the dart-thrower to throw a dart at ‘that guy over there’. When the dart-thrower complies, it comes as something of a surprise that the dart is thrown in the direction of the player – not only does Guybrush have, like Indy, his own thoughts and comments on the game situation, but he even appears to be vaguely aware that he is being watched and controlled by the player.

Subjectivity can thus vary a lot from game to game and genre to genre (even non-narrative games can be highly subjective, although they will not be discussed here). In general, however, there will be a lot more subjectivity involved than in other media (62). The player is always more than just the audience, and frequently she’s more than even an actor in a play.

Given this heavy reliance on subjectivity in games, it is natural that some academics would approach the study of games from the points of view of drama and performance studies. Lancaster, for example, notes the similarities between video games (or rather CD-ROM movie, as Lancaster seems insistent on separating the interactive CD-ROM movie from the video game) and the experimental drama of environmental theatre, where the audience’s interactive capabilities are also placed somewhere between performance and spectatorship (63). The similarity does indeed appear to be there, although it is not a perfect analogy – the interactivity of environmental theatre is still quite different to that of the video game. The spectator in environmental theatre can move about freely, interacting with the cast members as though she was in fact a part of the cast. Thus, the spectator’s possibilities of action are very broad – however, the spectator cannot influence the outcome of the plot (64). This is different to the video game, where the player’s scope of actions is generally limited (65), but where (in some cases, at least) the player’s influence on the outcome of the plot may be greater. For example, in Wing Commander IV (1996), the player, through the character of Blair, can dramatically affect the final outcome of the story, but his range of possible actions is severely limited – actions that can be directly seen to affect the plot usually come in the form of dualistic choices. Furthermore, even in games where the player cannot affect the final outcome, her role within the game story is much more significant than that of the spectator in environmental theatre, who, ultimately is nothing more than a bystander, albeit a diegetic one, unlike the audience of a traditional theatrical performance – in the video game, the player performs the role of a character central to the game’s story. Indeed, as Angela Ndalianis notes, the game cannot progress if the player refuses to play the assigned part (66). Whereas the spectators of environmental theatre are present merely to observe the events unfold, the player of the video game actually drives the narrative progression there.

There is another feature that makes the player’s experience of interactive media different to environmental theatre – most video games with narrative utilise the non-interactive cutscene to further the plot, periodically forcing the player out of the subjective interaction mode. The player is separated from the character, seemingly becoming an ordinary spectator. This is not something the player has any choice about – as Lancaster notes, it is the director at work, returning control of the game to the computer (67). These periodic interruptions of interactivity are one of the more frequently criticised aspects of games. Poole notes that this loss of control for the sake of the story, is (depending on whether it is the story or the gameplay that’s of primary interest to the player) either like being forced to play a game of ping pong between every chapter of a book, or like being forced to read a chapter of a book between games of ping pong (68). A similar argument can be detected within Juul’s work that we examined earlier – the idea that gameplay and narrative are in conflict with each other in fact presupposes that narrative cutscenes are to be considered as a separate entity from the gameplay. Other authors have also noted that the transition from active participation in gameplay to that of a spectator in a cutscene is a highly disruptive one, and has been especially so in the past, when the visual quality and level of detail within the cutscene was invariably higher than that of the gameplay, making the transition even more obvious (69). 

Yet, the use of cutscenes to further the plot is, at least with the current technology used in video games, a necessity. Indeed, it seems to be the only way to ensure that the game’s story has any noticeable dramatic and emotional resonance – as we had discussed in the previous section of this thesis, dramatic events only seem significant if the player has no control over them – if a character dies because of the player’s ineptitude, the player will merely re-play the level; but if the same character dies in a cutscene, the player will know that the event was inevitable.

The necessity of the cutscene, however, does not mean that the player remains stuck in a situation of two opposing modes of experience, connected only by the fact that they both came from the same box. James Newman has challenged the notion of the cutscene being an entirely passive experience. He notes that the distinction between active participation and spectatorship is often blurred. The player might retain some minute amount of control during a cutscene – for example, in the game Shenmue (2000), the cutscenes are punctuated with brief interactive moments (70). Similarly, in Wing Commander III (1994) and Wing Commander IV, the player is given a certain amount of control within the cutscenes – at critical moments, the player will be required to make a choice of what his character, Blair, says or does. These choices are always binary, and pre-designed by the game’s developers. However, the very existence of some kind of choice, together with the fact that the cutscenes can unfold very differently depending on the player’s choice (which may also have long-term ramifications), means that the player remains highly involved within the cutscene – he is not merely a spectator. Blair may have a mind of his own, but some vestigial control over his actions remains. It also seems logical to assume that this sort of residual involvement will be present even in cutscenes where the player has no control whatsoever. Since the cutscene is always triggered by the player accomplishing (or failing to accomplish) something within the game, the player would presumably feel that the cutscene is in some way a result of her own actions. As Sacha Howells notes, cutscenes are often used not merely to further the narrative, but as a form of reward for the player, replacing the more traditional (and more abstract) system of scoring points (71).

Returning to Laurel’s work, it seems as though, while the difference of enactment versus spectatorship that she has identified as distinguishing drama from narrative does indeed indicate that games tend more towards drama than narrative, things are not entirely black and white here. As Newman argues, spectatorship and enactment are not binary opposites per se, but rather form the extreme edges of ‘an experiential or ergodic continuum’ (72). Thus, in terms of the player’s involvement in the story, most computer games lie somewhere in between spectatorship and enactment; indeed, the player’s position on this continuum is different not only from game to game, but from one part of the game to the next.

The second difference that Laurel identifies between drama and narrative is that drama intensifies the experience, while narrative extensifies it. That is to say, drama condenses time and intensifies emotions, trying to reach a maximum emotional impact, whereas narrative frequently does the opposite, expanding time for the sake of description or to depict a particular incident from multiple points of view (73). This argument is a difficult one even outside of computer games, as it would imply that if a book consisted of sufficiently terse descriptions of events, it would no longer be narrative, instead becoming drama; however, Laurel does note that this argument is something of a generalisation (74), which would presumably make exceptions are more or less acceptable.

To discuss this idea in terms of video games, meanwhile, it is worthwhile to recall Juul’s argument that games, at least during gameplay sequences, tend towards real-time experiences (75). If intensification makes an experience more dramatic, then the tendency for video games not to expand time for the sake of description would certainly indicate that games are quite dramatic. Of course, even while being real-time, the computer game might still move quite slowly. If the player is exploring an empty area, one cannot expect there to be a lot of intensity, regardless of whether the player does so in real-time or not. This potential problem of low-intensity (and therefore, boring) periods, Juul notes, is solved in many computer games by designing a game world where non-stop action is required of the player (76). However, this would seem to only apply to action (and non-narrative) games – and even then, only to situations where the player continues to move forward in the game. In the first-person shooter Doom II, for example, once the player eliminates all the enemies in an area, there is no longer any danger there – one can revisit and simply look around. Indeed, if the player failed to pick up an item or activate a switch during her first visit, a return journey may well be required. In such a case, the player is likely to remain in the constant action of walking – but even if walking is action, it is certainly not the sort of action that Laurel suggests is intensified in drama. Nor is walking necessarily looked upon by the player as nothing more than a way to get from one area of intense action to the next. In The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002), for example, one of the primary attractions of the game is in fact the huge game world, which the developers make a point of advertising on the game’s cover:

“The enormous game world is open and free for you to discover. Go anywhere you want and do anything you want.” (77)

In such a game, walking and looking become the attraction. The player may seek out locations where intense action is required to survive, but she may also choose instead to move slowly (even though the game is real-time), stopping to look at the scenery. Thus, whether the game is an intensive or extensive experience is a choice for the player to make – a fact well worth considering regarding the question of the narrator in video games, which we will examine further on. As far as the intensiveness/extensiveness of the experience is concerned, it should also be noted that the difference between cutscenes and gameplay sequences makes it harder still to pinpoint even a tendency for games to go into either of these directions. It seems likely that taken separately of their games, cutscenes would probably tend towards an intensive approach, depicting important events as needed to continue the plot – however, the cinematic origins of the cutscene, along with its secondary role as a visual reward for the player (78) suggests that cutscenes may just as easily take an extensive approach, focussing on visually interesting details rather than on emotionally intensive events. All in all, to conclude that games in general are either intensive or extensive would almost certainly be erroneous – there is a vast scope for varied approaches both between and within games.

The final difference between drama and narrative that Laurel describes is drama’s tendency towards unity of action, as opposed to the episodic structure of narrative – thus, there is a strong central thread of action within drama, with the various incidents being causally linked, while narrative often consists of semi-independent events, ‘connected thematically rather than causally to the whole’ (79).

This difference, according to Laurel, drama is likely to be a tighter, more economical and more intense experience than narrative. At the same time, her wording highlights the fact that these are merely tendencies, rather than a strictly binary opposition, so in this aspect, the difference between drama and narrative is fuzzy to begin with (80).

Unsurprisingly, things become even fuzzier when we try to apply this concept to video games. Laurel herself notes that in the period when she wrote her book, the text adventure game, which she claims to be more narrative than dramatic, had been replaced with graphical adventure games with ‘a stronger central action’ (81). This is a somewhat peculiar claim, given that graphical adventures were never dramatically different to text adventures in this regard. Indeed, adventure games like Ron Gilbert’s (whom Laurel cites at this point) The Secret of Monkey Island (1990), had a central plot running through, but there was an episodic element to them, as well – the player’s quest to become a pirate, as is the case in the first part of The Secret of Monkey Island, does not really have very much to do with the subsequent quest to rescue the kidnapped Governor Marley. At any rate, game storylines in general tend more towards semi-independent episodes with an overarching plot to connect them, than towards strong central action. In Wing Commander III, for example, the overarching story is the Terran Confederation’s quest to defeat the alien Kilrathi Empire, which threatens to wipe out mankind. Within this story, the player’s character takes part in several loosely connected military actions, each of which consists of one or more independent missions. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is even more episodic – as a player, I spent approximately 40-60 hours playing this game, of which perhaps 10 hours had been the pursuit of the main storyline. The remaining time has been spent exploring the world and pursuing sub-plots unrelated to the main storyline.

Not all games, however, are episodic. The horror survival game Alone in the Dark (1992), for example, had a more tightly focused plot – the player’s character was trapped by supernatural forces in an old mansion, and the game revolved around the escape from the mansion. Thus, whether a game is episodic or not is likely to depend on the game’s genre. Furthermore, it may also depend on the player’s choices – in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, a player could focus exclusively on the main storyline, making the experience somewhat less episodic. On the other hand, the player could also neglect the main storyline altogether, turning the game into a series of completely unrelated episodes.

In general, then, it is not possible to conclude that computer games are explicitly dramatic rather than narrative, though they certainly do contain elements of the drama. There is a clear tendency in games towards an experience far more subjective and active than within more traditional linear media where the spectator has little power to influence the reading of text. When it comes to intensification versus extensification, a clear tendency in either direction is harder to locate. Finally, games can just as easily consist of semi-independent or fully independent episodes as they can of a central, tightly focussed plot. Laurel’s work, then, can help to identify whether a game is more like drama or narrative, but unsurprisingly, it is of little use in defining the nature of games in general.

There is, however, one clear trend that we have touched upon briefly before, and which the examination of Laurel’s work highlighted even further. This trend is the tendency for the player to exercise a certain control over the narration of the text. It is now time to take a closer look at the role and identity of the narrator within the computer game.

Who’s narrating here?   [back to top]

The narrator’s power lies in determining how the narrative is experienced in every way – how and what is seen, how and what is heard, and by extension, how and what is felt and thought by the audience. This power becomes especially evident in oral narrative, where, because of the interaction between the audience and the storyteller, the story is always different – the narrator adapts it to the audience (82). In an oral telling, the interaction between audience and storyteller is constant, and serves as both a constructive and disruptive force – disruptive, as the audience generates ‘noise’ that disrupts the telling, and constructive, because it generates energy, pushing the narrator towards better narration (83). Intriguingly, it has been noted that one way of looking upon oral narrative is as a game or even a battle:

“Narrative may be seen as a delicate interplay of power in which the narratee submits to the control of the narrator while the narrator must scheme to overcome the power of the narratee.” (84)

Thus, the narrator has power, but is only in control as long as the audience permits it. Some of this power translates from oral narrative to other, more formalised types of narrative – the reader of the book, for example, is free to close the book at any time, or to read it out of sequence. Thus, a pre-designed text, such as a book or a film, is completely under control of the reader (85). However, this is a different power than that of the audience listening to the oral narrative – the reader may close the book, the audience may walk out of the cinema, and indeed they may even change the text, by skipping a chapter of a book or writing on its margins. They do not, however, have the power to directly influence the narrator – the written or recorded text interacts directly with the reader (86). Thus, it seems that the narrator’s narration of the text is completed when the text is published, becoming permanent.

The video game, seems to once again present a multitude of different models of narration, some tending more towards the model of oral narration, and others closer resembling written or recorded narration. Before we begin, however, to examine this question in detail, we must briefly consider exactly what the tools of the narrator are.

According to Bordwell, there are essentially two sets of theories of narration. The first of these sets includes diegetic theories, which look upon narration as the telling of a story, verbally or in written form. These theories, then, deal primarily with the role of language in narrative, and how language can be used to manage temporality and subjectivity within the story (87). Most of the works discussed so far in this thesis have analysed video game narration from this angle. Jesper Juul, for example, was comparing the temporal limitations of video game narration to the much wider range of temporal possibilities present in literature (88). Similarly, Espen Aarseth, in his discussion of the adventure game, limits himself mostly to the text adventure game, and indeed seems to view the graphical adventure game (which, in its narrative methodology, would draw as much from diegetic as from mimetic narrative techniques) as a much more commercialised and therefore less interesting form than the text adventure (89). It also seems as though Laurel’s comparison of drama and narrative is in fact a comparison of drama and diegetic narrative rather than narrative in general.

At any rate, the diegetic narrator’s tool is language. In literature, of course, language is the only tool available to the narrator, allowing him/her to make smooth transitions between times, places, and people. The diegetic narrator does not control what the readers see, hear or feel; instead, he tells them what is experienced within the diegesis. Bordwell writes that the diegetic narrator does not try to conceal the fact that she is in fact the narrator (90) – this very explicit nature of diegetic narration is perhaps why diegetic narration seems to dominate the discourse about computer game narration, leading authors like Juul to compare computer game narration directly to narration in literature. Indeed, Juul’s work paints quite a detailed picture of the use (and limitations thereof) of diegetic narration in the video game. Diegetic narration, then, is vestigial at best in video games, and mostly appears within cutscene sequences. The problems associated with changing temporal and subjective conditions within gameplay enforce this restriction on diegetic narrative – in games like Doom II or Space Invaders, even if the narrator was to relay to the player what is happening in the gameplay, the games’ real-time nature and lack of variation in the narrative frame (91) would mean that this narrator would be more like a sports commentator in television or radio than the storytelling narrator in literature. The diegetic narrator is invariably placed in the game by the designers – like the reader in traditional media, the player cannot really add anything to the diegetic process of narration. Players can, of course, recount their game experiences to somebody else, resulting in a kind of emergent narrative that Henry Jenkins and Mary Fuller compare to the narratives of New World exploration, published in personal accounts by explorers like Walter Raleigh (92). In doing so, however, they do not add anything to the original narrative – their narration is a new work including elements of their play session and the original story and spaces of the game. Indeed, as Juul notes, the fact that something can be recounted through narrative does not mean that it was a narrative to begin with (93).

Because the diegetic narration comes primarily from the designer, it becomes a lot more noticeable in cutscene sequences, where the designers have far more direct control over what they choose to reveal to the player, and may freely change conditions like time and degree of subjectivity without causing problems for the gameplay. The contrast between diegetic narration in the cutscene and the gameplay can be seen particularly well by examining the example of Max Payne (2001). A third-person action game, Max Payne tells the story of an undercover policeman, Max Payne. Although both the gameplay and the cutscenes use the third-person point of view, looking at Max from outside of his body, it is primarily his story, narrated by him. In the game’s introductory cutscene, which in fact depicts events that take place later in the game, Max tells the player what he has been through; then he proceeds to recount the events from the beginning. The diegetic narrator’s capabilities within the cutscene, then, seem as potent as in any other narrative medium. Once the gameplay begins, however, the range of diegetic narrative techniques used is much reduced – all Max can do is report directly on what the player sees and finds.

One must note, however, that while diegetic narration during gameplay in Max Payne is much weaker than during the cutscene, this may be more a consequence of conservative game design than of any inherent limitations of video game narrative. Since Max’s oral narration presumably comes from the future (that, as the player saw in the introductory cutscene, is when he began telling the story), there is certainly no reason why Max couldn’t, at the start of a new level, inform the player of how dangerous this particular location was, thus using diegetic narration to build suspense within the gameplay. Thus, it may well be that the limitations of diegetic narration in video games that Juul describes may only apply to currently-available games, and not to video games in general. However, no matter how complex diegetic narration in video games could become, it will in most of its aspects merely imitate diegetic narration in other media. Although video games are interactive, there is little scope for the player to actively participate in the creation of the diegetic narrative – the best the player can do is participate in the selection of the diegetic narrative that is being recounted (in a game with branching storylines). Such selection, however, in turn limits the narrator’s options. As Poole notes in his discussion of the problems and capabilities of branching narrative, it is difficult to think of a film or a novel where the lead character does not at any point comment or think about previous events (94). Yet, the only way that a diegetic narrator can make the narrative more complex than the running commentary of a football game is to look back upon past events – in which case, the narrator must, like in Max Payne, be narrating from a time after the story – as Juul notes, narrative in literature is almost always presented in the past tense (95). This potentially frees up the narrator to speak of any event in the story, including events that have yet to happen (but already have happened from the narrator’s point of view). If the player, however, can have an impact on the outcome of the story (which is not the case in Max Payne, where the story is linear), the narrator’s possibilities are restricted – only events that have already happened to both the narrator and the player can be discussed, and the narrator cannot in any way suggest or imply what is yet to come, due to the risk of creating a paradox by discussing, as though it has already occurred, an incident that the player can then choose to avoid.

The other narrative theories discussed by Bordwell are those that deal with mimetic narration – that is, narration through the imitation (mimesis) of the action being narrated. Mimetic narration, thus, is a method of presenting a spectacle (96). Consequently, although some scholars have used mimetic theories of narration in their examination of literary narration (97), for the most part mimetic narration has been bound to theatre and film, the two media where narration generally means depicting an event rather than telling the audience about it. It is therefore rather natural to assume that mimetic narration also takes place in video games, where the depiction of events as though they were happening right before the player’s eyes is standard procedure.

There are many different factors that affect mimetic processes of narration, offering the narrator (that is, whoever is responsible for the spectacle’s presentation) many different tools and methods of narration. Thus, for example, there is perspective, which determines how the story space is shown, and the spectator’s position relative to this space. Perspective can be manipulated in many different ways and for many different purposes – for example, by depicting an object or person from below and looking up at it, the object can be made to appear larger and more imposing than it is in reality (98). Apart from the angle, perspective can be manipulated through the vertical location of the spectator or camera, as well as the spectator’s viewing direction and distance from the action. Perspective can be pre-determined by the use of a particular medium – ancient Greek theatre, for example, was so organised that the spectators would have the same perspective on the scene regardless of what play was being shown (99). In a more flexible medium, perspective will vary between individual works and within these works.

Obviously, mimetic narration involves more than perspective. Consciously or unconsciously, the narrator manipulates every aspect of the visual and aural presentation of the story – the lighting, use or lack of colour, stage direction, sound, and indeed every object and actor visible on the stage as well as their words and actions, are all determined by the narrator within the limits of the medium. Depending on the medium and the work, each of these aspects can be manipulated to depict the action in the most interesting or aesthetically appealing fashion, or in a more utilitarian way, to depict the action from the perspective that allows the audience to absorb the story easily and comfortably. Such a utilitarian style can be observed, for example, in classical Hollywood cinema narration, where the objective of the narration is to become invisible, allowing the audience to forget the fact that they are watching a mediated spectacle (100). The opposite can be seen in the cinematic style of German expressionism, where the action was often presented in a distorted fashion, for example to recreate the point of view of a madman in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921) (101).

Mimetic narration in computer games often imitates the mimetic narration of the fiction film, but, as with diegetic narration, the narrator’s access to options commonly used in the fiction film is limited by the interactive nature of the computer game. Where a cinema director might choose to obscure the viewer’s vision of the action to create tension or surprise, mimetic narration in video games cannot be entirely subjugated to the narrator’s wishes to impart a particular mood on the player – video game narration always has a utilitarian element. In order to control the character on the screen, the player needs to always be as aware of the character’s surroundings as the character is. As Poole notes, where in the cinema the difference in the level of the spectator’s knowledge compared to that of the on-screen protagonist serves the purpose of generating dramatic irony, no such irony can be present in video games, where the player is both spectator and protagonist. Similarly, although the game may sometimes switch from one point of view to another, it remains severely limited in terms of editing – if a game was to use the kind of rapid editing that often appears in film, it would become confusing to control, and consequently difficult and frustrating for the player (102). Thus, during gameplay, the game cannot intercut between two story threads happening in different places; just as the gameplay needs to remain relatively close to real-time, so it needs to remain bound to the player’s character.

In general, then, pre-scripted mimetic narration in the video game is limited to those techniques that do not interfere with the player’s actions. Indeed, in some cases, the range of available mimetic techniques is even further limited by the type of game – the first-person shooter, for example, is distinguished from the third-person shooter by the manner in which it restricts the player to looking through the character’s eyes (103). The main exception to all of these limitations would of course be the cutscene, which allows the game’s creators to the complete range of mimetic narrative techniques that are present in film (104). This can result in the cutscene defining the game to a certain degree – for example, when discussing the generic links between the stalker/slasher film tradition and the adventure game Phantasmagoria (1995), Ndalianis notes the similarities between the camerawork of the game and the type of camerawork that appears in stalker/slasher films (105). However, Ndalianis also notes that the game uses some of the subjective camera conventions of the stalker/slasher films within the gameplay sections (106), indicating that the generic roots of the game’s style of narration are visible both in gameplay and cutscenes. All in all, given the extremely broad range of options that the mimetic narrator has available, the limitations imposed by the computer game are not really that significant – the player, after all, still operates within a world designed by the mimetic narrator in almost every aspect.

Interestingly, video games are able to further compensate for the limitations they impose on the mimetic narrator by shifting some of the responsibility for mimetic narration from the game designer to the game player. Unlike any other narrative medium (except theatre, and especially the environmental theatre that was discussed earlier in this thesis), the audience’s view of the action is determined by the audience itself. This is as true for first-person games, where the simple act of the player moving also determines what the player sees and from what angle, as it is for third-person games, where the player is often explicitly given control of the camera, allowing him/her to determine what the best viewing angle would be for a particular section of gameplay (107). Of course, the player’s mimetic narrative abilities are as restricted as the game creators’ abilities – while the creators do not have the freedom to manipulate the camera any way they like, the player does not generally have much freedom to alter the lighting beyond the options available diegetically to her character. Thus, in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the player can use a torch to light up a dark cavern, but only if the player’s character is in possession of such an item.

All in all then, narration in video games is rather different to what one might find in other media. Outside of the cutscene, the narrator is constrained by the interactive nature of the video game, which makes it impossible to use the full range of narrative techniques, both diegetic and mimetic. Diegetic narration is particularly limited – during gameplay at least, the diegetic narrator cannot do much, because such narration depends to a large degree on the narrator being aware of what happened before and what will happen next – and the video game narrator can only know about events which have been pre-scripted by the game designers. Thus, diegetic narration can only develop in games with only one ending, and indeed even in such games, there has been very little development of diegetic narrative complexity. Furthermore, mimetic narration is also limited by the interactive nature of the experience. However, unlike diegetic narration, mimetic narration manages to maintain some of its complexity by shifting some of the narrator’s responsibilities from the game designer to the game player.

It is also worth noting that while both mimetic and diegetic narration is restricted in the gameplay, they are much less restricted within cutscenes. Thus, by combining gameplay with cutscenes, video games can present narratives in no way less complex than what we’re used to encountering in other media. Indeed, video game narratives are often more complex than traditional narratives, because their structure must take interactivity into account. Having examined how subjectivity and narration works in the video game, it is narrative structure that we will now proceed to examine in the next section of this thesis, with the objective of theorising the basic structural models of video game narrative and determining how the various aspects of narration discussed above function within these models.

Footnotes   [back to top]

57. Brenda Laurel, op. cit., pp. 93-97. [back to text]
58. Ibid., pp. 94. [back to text]
59. Indeed, this is the point behind the idea of mimetic narration – to depict action, such as a dramatic performance, to an audience. See David Bordwell, op. cit., pp. 3-7. [back to text]
60. Jo Bryce and Jason Rutter, ‘Spectacle of the deathmatch: character and narrative in first-person shooters’, in Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska (eds.), Screenplay: cinema/videogames/interfaces, London, Wallflower Press, 2002, pp. 71-72. [back to text]
61. Talmadge Wright, Eric Boria, and Paul Breidenbach, ‘Creative player actions in FPS online video games’, Game studies,, vol. 2 no. 2, 2002, [back to text]
62. Jesper Juul, Time to play – an examination of game temporality, op. cit.. [back to text]
63. Kurt Lancaster, op. cit., p. 108. [back to text]
64. Ibid., pp. 108-110. [back to text]
65. So far, in fact, always. The scope of actions the player can undertake has been increasing as the technology used by the video game has improved, and it probably will continue to increase in the future, but it seems unlikely that game designers would ever want to implement the possibility of actions that have absolutely nothing to do with the objectives of the game. [back to text]
66. Angela Ndalianis, ‘“Evil will walk once more”’, in Greg M. Smith (ed.), On a silver platter: CD-ROMs and the promise of a new technology, New York, New York University Press, 1999, p. 97. [back to text]
67. Ibid., p. 112. [back to text]
68. Steven Poole, op. cit., pp. 95-96. [back to text]
69. Sacha A. Howells, op. cit., pp. 114-117. [back to text]
70. James Newman, ‘The myth of the ergodic videogame’, Game studies,, vol. 2 no. 1, 2002, [back to text]
71. Sacha A. Howells, op. cit., pp. 112-114. [back to text]
72. James Newman, op. cit., [back to text]
73. Brenda Laurel, op. cit., p. 94. [back to text]
74. Ibid., p. 94. [back to text]
75. Jesper Juul, Time to play – an examination of game temporality, op. cit.. [back to text]
76. Jesper Juul, A clash between game and narrative, op. cit., [back to text]
77. Bethesda Softworks Inc., The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, 2002. [back to text]
78. Sacha A. Howells, op. cit., pp. 110-114. [back to text]
79. Brenda Laurel, op. cit., p. 95. [back to text]
80. Ibid., p. 95. [back to text]
81. Ibid., p. 96. [back to text]
82. Marie Maclean, Narrative as performance, New York, Routledge, 1988, pp. 4-6. [back to text]
83. Ibid., pp. 2-4. [back to text]
84. Ibid., p. 17. [back to text]
85. Ibid., pp. 8-9. [back to text]
86. Ibid., pp. 10-11. [back to text]
87. For a closer look at diegetic theories of narrative and particularly in the context of film, see David Bordwell, op. cit., 
pp. 16-26. [back to text]
88. Jesper Juul, A clash between game and narrative, op. cit., [back to text]
89. Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature, op. cit., pp. 127-128. [back to text]
90. David Bordwell, op. cit., p. 16. [back to text]
91. Jesper Juul, A clash between game and narrative, op. cit., [back to text]
92. Henry Jenkins and Mary Fuller, Nintendo and new world travel writing: a dialogue, 1995. [back to text]
93. Jesper Juul, ‘Games telling stories?’, op. cit., [back to text]
94. Steven Poole, op. cit., p. 98. [back to text]
95. Jesper Juul, A clash between game and narrative, op. cit., [back to text]
96. David Bordwell, op. cit. p. 3-4. [back to text]
97. Ibid., p. 4 and p. 16. [back to text]
98. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, op. cit., pp. 218-224. [back to text]
99. David Bordwell, op. cit., p. 4. [back to text]
100. Ibid., pp. 162-164. [back to text]
101. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, op. cit., pp. 406-408. [back to text]
102. Steven Poole, op. cit., pp. 81-83. [back to text]
103. Sue Morris, ‘First-person shooters – a game apparatus’, in Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska (eds.), Screenplay: 
, London, Wallflower Press, 2002, pp. 85-86. [back to text]
104. Sacha A. Howells, op. cit., pp. 119-120. [back to text]
105. Angela Ndalianis, op. cit., pp. 98-100. [back to text]
106. Ibid., pp. 97-98. [back to text]
107. Steven Poole, op. cit., pp. 133-134. Some games also offer the possibility of recording the gameplay for subsequent watching, often giving the player a lot of freedom to re-edit the recorded sequence later, using even cameras that were not used during the gameplay sequence itself. This, however, is more like the creation of new cutscenes than the manipulation of mimetic narration in gameplay or in existing cutscenes. See Steven Poole, op. cit., pp. 84-85. [back to text]

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Copyright 2003 Jakub Majewski