Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

Notes on Game Design as Narrative Architecture from First Person

Posted on | October 25, 2015 | No Comments

Sarah Voisin

- the biggest problem that crops up in game theory is a lack of codified terminology, and a gulf between academic terminology and the terminology used by game users

-this book is organized around the debate of narratology versus ludology; that is, are games texts that can be read as such, or are they something closer to pure play. If you read the Ergodic Texts reading you have a good idea of where the ludologists are coming from.

-Jenkins is responding to attempts to map traditional narrative structures onto video games. Hypertext narratives are too avante garde for a commercial audience, and more classical forms like film criticism miss the mark. We shouldn’t be applying these ways of reading to video games, but there are things to be learned from them.

-onto this argument Jenkins places a few caveats; yes, not all games have narratives and they are fun but we are lacking in the type of vocabulary needed to explore their nuances. Many games do have “narrative aspirations” that rely on the tropes and idioms of “genre” and action entertainment to guide the player, so we need to understand video gaming’s relation to narrative in order to move forward. The future of games falls in neither direction and nor should we encourage it to do so, dammit Jim this is art and we need to encourage experimentation for it to live and breath. A good game is based on more than just its story, and again, work into critical language is needed in order to talk more productively about video games. And finally the longest; games aren’t going to tell stories in the same way that other media tell stories, which is why you can’t map old narrative models onto them. The ludology argument is to concerned with pushing games as far away from their “cinema envy” as possible. In doing so they operate with restrictive models and understandings of narrative, typically limited to classical linear Western storytelling. They also tend to focus on whether the game as a whole is telling a story.

-Jenkins posits rethinking these issues in the context of spatiality, to move away form linear storytelling and toward “narrative architecture”

Spatial Stories ad Environmental Storytelling

-“Game designers don’t simply tell stories, they design worlds and sculpt spaces.” The argument here is that games, even in a classical non electronic sense start with a sense of space, a geography, whether it be a game board or a dungeon. To talk about game narrative we need to talk about game space. And I don’t know which reviewers Jenkins has been watching but there are at the very least a large chunk of them that focus on the story, its why we’re having this argument in the first place.

-positions games in the tradition of “spacial stories” ie travel narratives like the Illiad and The lord of the Rings.

-games already tap literary genres that are most invested in spatial storytelling and the characters are sometimes stripped to faceless guides.

-cites Don Carson who worked on Disney attractions saying that the space of an experience must reinforce any narrative you might want to tell. Carson specifically uses the example of drawing on the audience’s understanding of pirates and reinforcing that with every sense you can.

-environmental storytelling creates immersive narrative in at least one of four ways; evoking preexisting notions from the player, as a stage where the narrative events take place, by providing narrative information in the mise-en-scene, or “providing resources for emergent narratives”

Evocative Spaces

-games can evoke narrative using elements that a player is already familiar with. For example, you won’t get the plot of Star Wars by playing a Star Wars game, you’re playing a Star Wars game because you’re already familiar with Star Wars, and where the game sits is within a larger narrative ecosystem. Sometimes I wonder if Timothy Zhan is angry over the new movie.

Enacting Stories

-spacial stories are often dismissed as episodic, uncontrolled, loose, lacking in authorial craft. They do not conform to the traditional Hero’s Journey

-Jenkins argues that narrative can enter a game in the form of micronarratives, the best definition he offers being “short narrative units that intensify our emotional engagement”, using the infamous Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin as an example.

-however in this context the importance of t an overall structures / narrative for these scenes to support is downplayed. Rather, a game is an overall construct that bends to the actions of the player, based on a vocabulary of possible actions (even though in about 99% of cases, the player starts and ends in the same place no matter what. No matter how much time you spend fishing in Orcarina of Time, the game still opens and closes with the same two scenes).

-gaming is a performance centred genre, and exposition interrupts that performance. Jenkins thinks of game design as a balancing act between these elements

Embedded Narratives

-Jenkins points out that nonlinear storytelling has become pretty popular, asking the reader to keep in mind the Russian formalist distinctions between fabula, the “raw material of a story” according to Wikipedia, and plot, the way the story is organized / told / structured / made interesting.

-it isn’t necessary for the maker of a game to be so controlling over the information the player receives, because unlike a filmmaker they are not constrained by the temporal structure of the film, they have this big ol’ game space to play with

-they are in a sense designing an unstructured narrative space (the world) filled with narratively relevant pieces for the player to explore, and the prestructured narrative they will be unlocking.

-he uses the flashback as an example of how mise-en-scene can convey plot information; the game doesn’t usually pull the player back in time, but they can return to a changed space and witness the consequences of off screen events, or be queued into recalling past events (think of the use of the Citadel location in Mass Effect).

-Melodrama is a familiar genre to look to that uses the mise-en-scene to give the reader clues as to characters internal states, and is a good place to look to in visualizing what he’s talking about

Emergent Narratives

-sandbox games in the style of the Sims as opposed to Minecraft; narrative possibilities rather than building blocks

-using the Sims as an example; you can create characters certain traits and put them into conflict with one another

-In conclusion the design of game spaces has narratological consequences

Questions and Things to Think About

-what elements are most important to you as a player?

-how does spaciality disrupt the linear nature of time

-what kind of alternative modes of storytelling do video games support

-how a player interacts, or is allowed to interact, with the narrative architecture is an important part of the design that Jenkins glosses over in what is more a discussion of commedia dell’arte. Is the question balance or is it how we mesh performance and exposition. There are a lot of games where the how is a lot more interesting than the what.

-how in your experience has the player’s use of a game differentiated from the intention, or the reading of the intention that Jenkins presents. Do you play the Sims for a sense of narrative or do you play it to see what happens when you lock someone in a doorless room and then set it on fire.

And also a ten minute video that gives a quick explanation of the narratology / ludology debate that Jenkins is referring to. With sources!

The Debate That Never Took Place


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