Intersections of Game and Narrative (Video, 2020)

For my English 302: Advanced Composition class, we were asked to make a Multimodal Digital Project that we could showcase on our portfolios/professional sites. The following is mine:


What makes a game narrative good? Is it realism, creativity, consistency? Can video games ever touch people’s hearts in a way similar to theater, film… porn? 

Hi, thanks for stopping by. My name is Arianna Goodman, and today, we’re going to take a quick peak into the current research and literature surrounding storytelling in games.

Games. Oh, how we love them. From chess to solitaire to League of Legends, there is so much to admire and explore. But what exactly is a game? And what is a video game?

Since the days of Pong, video games have improved rapidly and unexpectedly. Just thirty years ago, very few people would have believed that someone could make a career out of making video games, let alone make a career out of playing them. Because the industry is so new however, definitions, such as what constitutes a video games, have been left rather vague.

So of course, when looking into the literature of video game design, we find a lot of articles discussing the meaning of terms and how useful they are. Take for instance Bernard Suits who asks the question, “What is a Game?” several times in his article of the same name. He decides, “to play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity.” Phew, talk about a mouthful.

Yet, even with that nice and shiny definition, Suits focuses solely on the broader, ludological aspects of game design rather than any of the artistic or narrative facets found in a lot of video games. Only recently has a researcher, Hartmut Koenitz, taken an ontological approach to defining game narrative, expanding on Suits and others to provide a new paradigm from which future research can be conducted.

Fortunately, even without clear definitions, game narrative research diligently presses onward. 

While there is a good number of people who would still argue that video games can never be art, one of the most notable assertions to date would be that of Roger Ebert in the mid 2000s. Ebert, the late American film critic who worked for the Chicago Sun-Times and won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism sparked a generation of discussion around the viability of video games as a medium for fine art with the statement, “Games can never be art.”

Wait, what? When was this? 2010? Had he not heard of Mass Effect 2? Bioshock? Wh-

Anyways… Many authors have adopted the mantle of discussing video games almost defensively by comparing them to more classic forms of literature. 

For example, Rory K. Summerly in the article beautifully titled, “Approaches to Game Fiction Derived from Musicals and Pornography,” engages with a similar quip to Ebert’s by John Carmack: something along the lines of, “stories in games are like stories in pornography – optional.” 

Similarly, Carly A. Kocurek takes German-Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “The Storyteller” to new heights by applying Benjamin’s framework to an interactive medium, video games. I must say, the article is a very interesting read, would recommend.

In contrast, Christopher Goetz takes what is unique about games (their interactivity) and explores how rules can shape and impact how player’s feel. Goetz discusses this interaction of gameplay and narrative by comparing the two to a trellis and a vine respectively. 

Like a trellis, gameplay, or the rules that govern play, is “a carefully patterned structure.” And, just as the vine freely grows around the trellis so too does a player’s interactions form around the gameplay (2). 

Using this analogy, he continues to lay out four scenarios in which the two interact: vines growing alone, an empty trellis, a trellis and vine inseparable, and a vine jutting off of a trellis to form something new. Each one is discussed in depth and provides a deeper understanding of what many games aim to achieve and why. 

Indeed, it is that last permutation that allows for the player’s imagination to take root in the gameplay and carry the story somewhere else (Goetz 13). It is that specific interaction that many consider to make a good game narrative. Terms such as immersion, ludonarrative synergy, and so on further reinforce the idea that crafting structures as a foundation for players is the dream, if not the goal, of many game designers. 

Overall, video game narrative study has a long way to go with much to explore. By using the aforementioned research as a stepping stone, new studies will prove useful to the practical aspects of game design. Formal research on game design will only improve a designer’s creative capabilities, so what else is the industry waiting for?

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