Story and Narrative, Games and Culture

Maybe I’m on the wrong path.

Perhaps I’m on a deserted Scottish Island, just like the one in Dear Esther, wandering down a path that is going to come, in time, to a dead end, I won’t be able to climb the rocks, or I will slip down a cliff and find myself on the path I should have taken.

Or am I distracted by a side-quest? Perhaps this is an entertaining branch off the rhizome, an investigation that might prove character building, but that doesn’t get me any further along the real story.

My stated intention was to discover what cultural heritage institutions could learn from games developers about narrative, and whether the way story is applied to the virtual spaces of games had any relevance to telling stories in the three-dimensional spaces of the real world. But today I found my way to a 2003 paper by Henry Jenkins, which kicked off with three quotes that stood like three threshold guardians in my way:

“Interactivity is almost the opposite of narrative; narrative flows under the direction of the author, while interactivity depends on the player for motive power” –Ernest Adams

“Computer games are not narratives….Rather the narrative tends to be isolated from or even work against the computer-game-ness of the game.” –Jesper Juul

“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.”
–Markku Eskelinen

Even though Jenkins makes a case for story and narrative in (some) games he warns against “something on the order of a choose-your-own adventure book, a form noted for its lifelessness and mechanical exposition rather than enthralling entertainment, thematic sophistication, or character complexity.” And with some shame I realise I’ve already used the words “choose-your-own adventure” in this very blog.

Perhaps I should turn back, and find the main path.

And yet, Jenkins goes on to tempt me further down the path, when he introduces “spatiality – and argue[s] for an understanding of game designers less as storytellers and more as narrative architects.” He even goes on to explore how story and space work together in the virtual environment:

“a story is less a temporal structure than a body of information. The author of a film or a book has a high degree of control over when and if we receive specific bits of information, but a game designer can somewhat control the narrational process by distributing the information across the game space. Within an open-ended and exploratory narrative structure like a game, essential narrative information must be redundantly presented across a range of spaces and artifacts, since one can not assume the player will necessarily locate or recognize the significance of any given element. Game designers have developed a variety of kludges which allow them to prompt players or steer them towards narratively salient spaces. Yet, this is no different from the ways that redundancy is built into a television soap opera, where the assumption is that a certain number of viewers are apt to miss any given episode, or even in classical Hollywood narrative, where the law of three suggests that any essential plot point needs to be communicated in at least three ways.”

Writing in 2003, Jenkins admitted that “the player’s participation poses a potential threat to the narrative construction, where-as the hard rails of the plotting can overly constrain the ‘freedom, power, self-expression’ associated with interactivity” but since then many games have been critically acclaimed for balancing narrative and interactivity, not least the game that started me on this train of thought, Red Dead Redemption (2010) on which one reviewer said “Rockstar has claimed that that Red Dead Redemption is the ultimate sandbox game – and dozens of hours in, we can’t help but agree. It’s immersive, engrossing and superbly addictive. In fact, this review almost didn’t happen at all; we were too busy playing cowboys.”

And Googling for Jenkins’ paper also led me to Games and Culture, a journal of interactive media. I’ve already pulled a number of articles out of that publication that I want to read. So maybe this path isn’t as barren as I was beginning to suspect.

One thing I have noticed in the literature already is a sight tendency to conflate or confuse “story” and “narrative.” It is easy to do, and I’m guilty of it myself, especially in conversation. The word I use often depends on who I’m talking to – if I want to appear plain speaking and unpretentious, for example, I’ll use “story.” The the two words do mean different things and I must be more disciplined in using them. So from hereon in (and comment if you catch me not following these definitions in this blog), “story” is the sequence of events as they occur chronologically, and “narrative” is the way the story is told. So flashbacks, for example are a narrative tool, and this blog is the narrative tool which I’m using to record the story of my research.

I fear I might have been an unreliable narrator, I might have given the impression that I have actually played Red Dead Redemption. I have not. On the path ahead of me I see, not just the papers I’ve downloaded from Games and Culture, but a horse and a six-gun.

A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

2 thoughts on “Story and Narrative, Games and Culture

  1. Hi Matthew! I have just found your blog and I’m loving it so far. I am writing about videogames and culture for my high school, relating it with traditional media, and I hope to not only use your findings as a guide but helping you in this quest. Kudos for both the content itself and the way you write, keep up the good work!

    PS. I’m not from U.S. so forgive me for my english. 🙂

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