Friday, February 27, 2009

Readings in Narrative Theory: The Rhetoric of Fiction

I have saved the best of my narrative theory summaries for last with Wayne C. Booth's classic The Rhetoric of Fiction (second edition). This book and this critic have been cited in nearly ever other narrative theory work I've read (at least, the ones that came out after this book was published). To be quite frank, I can see why. Not only is he complete and insightful, he is also clear and concise. Therefore, before I get to the actual text, I would like to begin this post with a short note about writing style and readability.

It is a painful task for students, scholars, and general audience readers to have to slog through a badly-written text, particularly an academic text. Writing clearly and obviously is a skill that many academics seem to lack. If your text is indecipherable to the average reader outside the field, this does not automatically make it a good text. In fact, unless it is about a topic so specific that such language and obscurity is required, I would even go so far as to say that this automatically makes it a bad text.

I've heard excuses before like, "This author is very dense, and you have to read him several times to truly understand what he's talking about." But in my mind, this is not an acceptable excuse. Booth is very dense, and his text definitely benefits from re-reading, yet The Rhetoric of Fiction text is still entirely accessible. Compare, if you will, a selection from two narrative theory works. The first is from Reading for the Plot, by Peter Brooks. (Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot. New York: Knopf, 1984.) The second is from the Booth book:

"Plot, then, might best be thought of as an "overcoding" of the proairetic by the hermeneutic, the latter structuring the discrete elements of the former into larger interpretive wholes, working out their play of meaning and significance. If we interpret the hermeneutic to be a general gnomic code, concerned not narrowly with enigma and its resolution but broadly with our understanding of how actions come to be semiotically structured, through an interrogation of their point, their goal, their import, we find that Barthes contributes to our conception of plot as part of the dynamics of reading." (Brooks, page 18)

"For experienced readers a sonnet begun calls for a sonnet concluded; an elegy begun in blank verse calls for an elegy completed in blank verse. Even so amorphous a genre as the novel, with hardly any established conventions, makes use of this kind of interest: when I begin what I think is a novel, I expect to read a novel throughout, unless the author can, like Sterne, transform my idea of what a novel can be." (Booth, page 127)

To me, the latter paragraph displays a high degree of skill in communication. While the relative value of the subject matter may be something for critics to debate, the forms in which the subjects are related are clearly of very disparate quality.

There are three reasons, I think, why a critic might write with the former tone rather than the latter. The first is a lack of ability to communicate clearly, either through an intrinsic inability or perhaps the blunting of communication skills through too much exposure to similar academia. Judging by the prestigious list of schools attached to Brooks's name, I would hesitate to attach such lack of skill to the man. Especially considering he is working in a field dealing with the English language, if anyone should be able to communicate effectively, it should be him.

The second reason a critic might write with such obfuscating language is that the subject matter is so detailed and in-depth that it defies more conventional language. I think this excuse is dangerous territory, although it may often be the justification that writers use for themselves. Booth covers very detailed and nuanced ground with perfect clarity. My suspicion is that Brooks's own points have the potential to be captured just as neatly, with the right choice of language.

The third reason is a selfish and misguided one, and that is a certain pretension of appearance. The idea that such language will keep those who are "not worthy" from understanding the subject matter, or the idea that there should be no reason why the author should have to "dumb down" his language for the sake of his audience. Clear communication is not dumbing-down - in fact it shows the author's skill more clearly. Not only that, clear communication allows readers of all levels to enjoy a work and to absorb the ideas it contains, which should be the goal of any author who is convinced that his ideas have merit. I can't claim to be an expert in such clarity myself, but I think it is something that one should strive for.

I'm not sure which of these three reasons - if any - afflict our dear Mr. Brooks, but I do have to say that I was disappointed with his text. I think the writing style is an unpleasant barrier to the understanding of his work, and that his ideas suffer for it. It is my hope and my goal to write in a clear, understandable way. If I am not, feel free to call me on it.

Anyway. Now that I've gotten that particular vitriolic rant off my chest (I apologize - sometimes I get a little too passionate about these things), on to Booth.

Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Second Edition. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1961, 1983 (second edition).

I've found much of interest in my reading of Booth, even beyond what directly relates to my project. For anyone doing anything even tangentially related to narrative theory, I would include this work as a must-read (even somewhat dated as it is). Don't be afraid of its large size - it's relatively easy to read (for an academic text, very easy). Because of space limitations (this entry will be quite long as it is), I will only cover the areas I found directly related to my work, but even so, there are multiple. I will therefore be dividing up the rest of this post into segments based on focus.

Section 1: Reader Objectivity / Player/Character Empathy

As readers of this blog might remember from previous posts, I have a particular interest in the ability of games to give the player a strong emotional connection to the character she plays. In the novel, it is much more difficult, requiring great skill on the part of the author, to give the reader a sense of emotional connection to his characters, especially if the characters are very different from the reader. (Booth compares the reaction of two readers - one with a lisp and one without, to a character that speaks with a lisp. Obviously the more similar reader will react more strongly to the character.)

I will not go into too much depth at the moment about how this technique of empathy is evoked, since I do so not only in previous posts, but also in the section below. Nevertheless, I would like to offer the quotes that Booth has on the subject.

[speaking about the tendency towards an "alienation effect," where good works are considered those that don't involve the emotions] "...the novelist will find himself in difficulties if he tries to discover some ideal distance that all works ought to seek. "Aesthetic distance" is in fact many different effects, some of them quite inappropriate to some kinds of works. More important, distance is never an end in itself; distance along one axis is sought for the sake of increasing the reader's involvement on some other axis." (123)

"It is only as I read that I become the self whose beliefs must coincide with the author's. Regardless of my real beliefs and practices, I must subordinate my mind and heart to the book if I am to enjoy it to the full. The author creates, in short, an image of himself and another image of his reader; he makes his reader, as he makes his second self, and the most successful reading is one in which the created selves, author and reader, can find complete agreement." (138)

"Much more important [than authorial commentary], the sustained inside view leads the reader to hope for good fortune for the character with whom he travels, quite independently of the qualities revealed." (246)

"While only immature readers ever really identify with any character, losing all sense of distance and hence all chance of an artistic experience, our emotional reaction to every event concerning Emma tends to become like her own. When she feels anxiety or shame, we feel analogous emotions. Our modern awareness that such "feelings" are not identical with those we feel in our own lives in similar circumstances has tended to blind us to the fact that aesthetic form can be built out of patterned emotions as well as out of other materials. It is absurd to pretend that because our emotions and desires in responding to fiction are in a very real sense disinterested, they do not or should not exist. Jane Austen, in developing the sustained use of a sympathetic inside view, has mastered one of the most successful of all devices for inducing a parallel emotional response between the deficient heroine and the reader." (249)

[on a lack of authorial commentary] "[Miranda] must be accepted at her own estimate from the beginning, and that estimate must, for greatest effect, be as close as possible to the reader's estimate of his own importance. Whether we call this effect identification or not, it is certainly the closest that literature can come to making us feel events as if they were happening to ourselves. As we read, we know only Miranda's world and we know only her values. Our only value becomes, in a sense, her well-being, and we accept any threat to her happiness precisely as she accepts it. The slightest suggestion that she is at fault will create too much distance; the slightest sign that author and reader are observing Miranda from above rather than alongside will destroy at least in part, the quality of our concern and hence of our final revelation." (277)

"This kind of near-identification can be used for innumerable effects. [...] A motion picture can achieve this kind of thrill perhaps more easily than any other medium, but the devices of showing developed by modern fiction can do it well." (277)

"And then he is gone. He is dead, and we have experienced a personal loss, a personal blow, of a kind that would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to achieve with a technique which provided us with any clear moral or intellectual guidance about the meaning of his death." (278)

Section 2: Types of Literary Interest

Booth has a very interesting section in his text where he discusses the "types of literary interest," or the elements of fiction that keep our attention and force us to continue the experience. While this is related to the idea of immersion, I think a look at how these interests relate to games may deserve an additional section of its own.

Booth breaks up literary interest into three types: intellectual interests, completion of qualities, and what he calls practical interests, but which I shall call empathic concerns (since I feel that more accurately captures the sort of interests he describes).

Intellectual interests refers to curiosity. We have a sort of impartial, academic interest in facts and in how the story will play out. Completion of qualities refers to pattern recognition and the desire for pattern completion. Booth includes in this all types of pattern completion, from story concerns - capture and punishment being the natural completion of crime, and so on - to more formal concerns dealing with the literary discourse (the form of the story rather than the content) itself, as described in the first quote ("a sonnet begun calls for a sonnet concluded..."). Finally, empathic concern deals with our relation to the characters, and our desire to see things unfold based on how we relate to them. We would like to see sympathetic characters have happy endings, villainous characters get their just desserts, and so on.

Booth's analysis of these three aspects and how they interact with one another is quite in-depth, and I will not go into all of it here. (If you're curious about it, it's in chapter V of the book, beginning page 125.) What I would like to discuss is how these types of interest might relate to game studies. Let's put side by side the way each of the three interests work in both media.

Intellectual interest in the novel: I am curious about how this strange egg came to be in the middle of the field. I am curious about what the egg is. I am curious about what will happen if the main character goes up to the egg and touches it. I keep reading, hoping that the author will see fit to answer these questions.

Intellectual interest in the game: I am curious about how this strange egg came to be in the middle of the field. I am curious about what the egg is. I am curious about what will happen if the main character goes up to the egg and touches it. I go up to the egg and touch it, definitely answering at least the final question, and hoping that my interest will trigger further information about the first two.

The interest has gone from a passive experience to an active one. In the case of intellectual interest, a game can be directed by the specific interest of the player, allowing for more engagement - the player need not rely, as the reader must, on the good grace of the game's creator to focus in on what the player finds interesting. The player chooses the area of focus. However, she must still rely on the game designer to create the game in such a way as to allow it to respond to her curiosity in a satisfactory manner. The game designer can accomplish this by making as much as possible of the environment reactant. A reader, on the other hand, must hope that the author's area of intellectual curiosity matches up with her own, because only the author determines what areas of the novel are further explored.

The completion of qualities area is similar. Rather than waiting in suspense to see if the author will complete the patterns I see forming in the novel, I will actively seek out these pattern completions in a game, if I find them desirous. However, this does remove one element crucial to the enjoyment of the novel - suspense. Because he maintains total control, the author can withhold the completion of certain patterns as a method of keeping the reader interested. When the player can actively seek out completion, the suspense is weakened, if not destroyed.

Pattern recognition is also an integral aspect of gameplay, and the learning inherent in gameplay. Players learn that certain actions are available, and will have certain effects. Unlike the real world, the effects of actions in a game are generally consistent. We build our experience of playing the game through learning to recognize and use patterns, in fighting, in problem-solving, and in a number of other ways. Many players gain pleasure from the repetitions of certain patterns, as in the steadily increasing difficulty of certain puzzle games, where the answer to each new puzzle incorporates skills and tricks learned in previous puzzles, and a recombining and shifting of patterns produces new results, which can then be added to the player's repertoire of puzzle solutions for use on future puzzles.

Finally, empathic concerns. This, as touched upon previously, is an area where games really shine. Controlling the empathic relations of a character with their reader is exceedingly tricky business in a novel, and requires a good deal of skill on the part of the author. A game, on the other hand, generally starts with an advantage, given that the character is under the control of the player, and thus the player is forced to relate to their actions (as they are the player's actions as well). We have a very personal stake in whether the story will work out well for the main character, because this happy ending likely coincides with our successful completion of the game. There are, of course, exceptions to the happy ending - but we still tend to presume that we are moving the character towards a certain goal, and that the goal is somehow desirous, at least for the player. Our empathic concern is less necessarily for the happiness of this character, but more of the success of ourselves as players. Nevertheless, this method still operates by harnessing the same sort of interest as does our empathic concerns for a character in a novel. The focus has just shifted from an exclusive focus on the character to a mixed focus on the character and ourselves.

A combination of these three elements of interest are why I think games have a tendency to be "addictive." Combining a high degree of emotional resonance with the pleasure of repeated pattern recognition (technical, at the very least) and the ability to actively pursue the objects of one's curiosity combine to capture the audience's interest and hold it fast.

Here are some relevant quotes from this section of Booth:

"...our desire for causal completion is one of the strongest of interests available to the author. Not only do we believe that certain causes do in life produce certain effects; in literature we believe that they should. Consequently, we ordinary readers will go to great lengths, once we have been caught up by an author who knows how to make use of this interest, to find out whether our demands will be met." (126)

"If we look closely at our responses to most great novels, we discover that we feel a strong concern for the characters as people; we care about their good and bad fortune. [...] It is of course true that our desires concerning the fate of such imagined people differ markedly from our desires in real life. We will accept destruction of the man we love, in a literary work, if destruction is required to satisfy our other interests; we will take pleasure in combinations of hope and fear which in real life would be intolerable. But hope and fear are there, and the destruction or salvation is felt in a manner closely analogous to the feelings produced by such events in real life." (129-130)

"Such [emotional] concerns are not simply a necessary but impure base, as Ortega would have it, to "make contemplation possible" but "with no aesthetic value or only a reflected or secondary one" (pp. 80, 76). In many first-rate works they are the very core of our experience. We may refuse assent when an author tries to manipulate us too obviously or cheaply with a casual bestowal of goodness or intellectual brilliance or beauty or charm. We all have use for epithets like "melodramatic" to apply against abuses of this kind. But his does not mean that human interest in itself is cheap. It is true that our involvement in the fate of Raskolnikov is not different in kind from the involvement sought by the most sentimental of novels. But in the great work we surrender our emotions for reasons that leave us with no regrets, no inclination to retract, after the immediate spell is past. They are, in fact, reasons which we should be ashamed not to respond to." (130-131)

" is clear that no great work is based on only one interest. Whenever a work tends towards an exclusive reliance on intellectual interests, on the contemplation of qualities, or on practical desires we all look for adjectives to whip the offender with; a mere "novel of ideas," a mere "desiccated form," a mere "tear-jerker" will offend all but the small handful of critics and authors who are momentarily absorbed in pushing one interest to the limit." (133)

Section 3: Person / POV

I don't have much to offer in the way of quotes for this section, but I am impressed nonetheless by the incredibly nuanced view which Booth takes towards the idea of "point of view" in literature, from distinguishing between "person" in the traditional manner to more complex ideas of "dramatized narrators" and so on. What I think is very interesting about point of view in games is the way that certain games embody what we often think of as traditional points of view.

A game is almost always told from the point of view of the PC. This makes the PC the "narrator-agent," as it were, or the narrator who is also a character in the story. However, the character also shares the experience of being the implied reader as well, as he is the intended avatar for the player within the game, and thus all responses to the player's input will be received via the game's relation to this character. In the same way as a text is "speaking" to the implied reader, the game is "reacting" to the character, which is implied to be the player. Narrative theory will have to come up with a whole new terminology to describe exactly what position the player and the PC hold within the narrative - games have a tendency to twist the existing terms to their breaking points.

Oddly enough however, what we think of as some of the most basic and elementary (in the sense of sort of juvenile, in addition to simple) categories of literary point of view hold true in games, and do so in ways that provide an interesting visualization for how we think of the literary equivalents.

First-person games present a camera situated "behind the eyes" of the PC. Only the hands and perhaps some of the arms can be seen of the character being played. We see of the character and of the world only what we would see of ourselves if we were in the same situation, thus helping to increase our sense of being the character in question, the limited "I" perspective.

Third-Person Limited
Third-person games such as RPGs have a camera situated behind and usually slightly above the main character. We see the figure of the character from the outside, and a portion of the surrounding environment. This gives us a sense of greater grasp over the world/map, perhaps seeing some things that the character himself might not be able to. Thus we increase the scope of our viewpoint while limiting our identification with the character.

Third-Person Omniscient
Common to RTS and other God games, this perspective puts the camera high above the ground, allowing the player to see large portions of the world at once, and to move back and forth across the world independent of any particular character. This is also the only viewpoint where the player is not specifically relating to a single character in the game. In this perspective, we lose almost all empathy with individual characters - more often than not, characters are resources rather than individuals, and the player is an invisible god-force that controls their actions. With our view at its fullest availability, we sacrifice the most player/character empathy with any single character.

It would be very interesting to me to see these perspectives related, in turn, back to the literary medium, but I do feel that this is somewhat outside the scope of this project.

In conclusion, go read Booth. It will quite likely be less tiring than what you have just finished.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Why I Hate Edutainment and MMOs

I suppose this title is a bit harsh. Actually, I don't really hate edutainment OR MMOs. I have no gripe against the games themselves (any genre that can produce a game like The Typing of the Dead is alright by me), nor against the people who make them. My gripe is really with the way they're studied, particularly in the larger context of game studies.

If you're unfamiliar with either of the two genres, allow me to explain. "Edutainment" is the term used to refer to games that teach a subject. This could be old-school games like Number Munchers or more complex games that happen to have an educational element, like Civilization. Because of the immersive and interactive nature of video games, many have found that games are a good way of teaching people facts and skills. The fun and playful nature of games keeps people coming back, and helps them to absorb the information. It's no secret that games and play are a great way of learning - people have used games to learn and teach since long before the video game.

MMOs are Massively Multiplayer Online games, games which include communities of sometimes millions of players, all interacting and playing with each other online. World of Warcraft is usually the first game to come to peoples' minds when discussing the subject. MMOs can provide a very interesting forum for the study of virtual worlds, and various sociology/social dynamics/anthropology studies.

As interesting as games in either of these genres can be, more and more I have found the way they are studied to be somewhat degrading to video games as a medium. Both genres deflect attention away from the medium, forcing it to be little more than a vehicle for something "more interesting."

When people look at the potential of video games to teach, particularly people outside the Game Studies community, their enthusiasm seems to contain the implicit criticism, "Well, games are pretty useless by themselves, but look, we can use them to teach people things of real value." It's as though the medium is only valuable to the extent that it can teach us history, or a foreign language, or typing skills. You know, useful information.

To me, this is like someone saying that only non-fiction books have any value. While I know a lot of people prefer to read exclusively non-fiction, I think most of them would agree that some fiction, particularly the classics (Shakespeare, anyone?), have at least some intrinsic value as works of art. Even if they would argue otherwise, I think they might have a difficult time supporting their points while running from the angry mob of literary critics at their heels with torches and pitchforks.

It's the same thing with MMOs - games are looked at not for their worth as games, but for how they can illustrate interesting social phenomena and, more often than not, are lumped in with non-game virtual worlds like Second Life. The sort of studies people usually talk about when they discuss MMOs seem to belong more in the field of sociology than in Game Studies. The game itself is largely ignored in favor of the players. And while it is certainly interesting to see what this new medium can tell us about ourselves, it seems terribly rude to that medium to ignore so much of it. Studies of MMOs often seem to largely ignore the existance of single-player games, as though multiplayer games were all that the medium consisted of, or at least all of any importance. In fact, MMOs and single-player games are vastly different from each other, and should not be lumped together.

Games can be art. I firmly believe this. I want to study them for what they are, and what they can give us as a medium, not how they can be exploited for the purposes of other schools. I wouldn't study filmmaking for what it might teach me about how to make educational science videos. I would study it as an artform and as a medium. This is how I think we need to look at games as well.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

So, What Is This Project Of Yours?

The following is a brief (well, perhaps not so brief...) summary of my current work. It began Fall semester, and will conclude when I give a public presentation on the subject at Hamilton College on April 17th.

What is a Senior Fellowship?
The Senior Fellowship program is offered every year at Hamilton College to members of the senior class who wish to pursue an in-depth personal project. At the end of their junior year, interested students submit a 10-page proposal outlining their academic studies to date and the project they would like to pursue the following year. A committee of faculty members read these proposals, and select up to seven that they feel have academic merit.

The selected students are exempt from all classes their senior year, and all other requirements for graduation, including major and number of credits (although students may still choose to fulfill any of these requirements). Instead they spend the entire year working on their project of choice under the supervision of one or more faculty advisors. At the end of the year, they must give a presentation (open to the campus) to a board consisting of their advisor(s), two Hamilton faculty members, and a member of the student's chosen field from outside the college. This board determines whether the student fulfilled his or her obligations as defined by the original parameters of the proposal and, therefore, whether the student graduates.

The Senior Fellowship program is designed for independent, self-motivated students who have a very strong desire to pursue a project that is too large and/or too interdisciplinary to qualify for a senior thesis in the student's department. Projects vary from creative works, such as writing novels or creating comic books, to research projects, including scientific and social. Almost any topic is game as long as the committee determines that a) it has academic merit and b) is large/in-depth enough to merit a full year's worth of intensive work by the student.

What is your project about?
The subject of my paper (book, really) is narrative in video games. Tentatively, I have decided to title it either "Hands-On Narrative" or "Playing Stories" (with the subtitle "Video Games as a Narrative Medium"). For research, I have been playing video games and reading books on both narrative theory and game studies. The major final product for the project is going to be my paper, but there will also be a preliminary outline/design for a video game of my own that exemplifies some of the techniques I have been studying for game narrative. (The game tentatively titled "The Legend of Acornus.") This latter connects my project to my chosen career field - video game (story) design.

What has your research encompassed?
My research currently covers 43 games and 54 other sources (with 6 or 7 sources still pending in the latter category). The other sources include academic works such as texts on narrative theory and game studies, popular culture sources such as podcasts and video reviews by gamers and game critics, and other sources such as films. The current bibliography for my paper is as follows (I apologize for reproducing the entire thing here, but a) perhaps it will be useful for those researching on the same subject and b) I plan to use this page for a presentation in which I will need to display my bibliography. So, sorry.):

2K Boston. 2007. Bioshock. Windows. 2K Games.

Arc System Works. 1998. Guilty Gear. Playstation. Atlus.

Black Isle Studios. 1999. Planescape: Torment. Windows. Interplay.

Blizzard Entertainment. 1998. StarCraft. Windows. Blizzard Entertainment.

Bullfrog Productions. 1997. Dungeon Keeper. Windows. Electronic Arts.

Capcom Production Studio 4. 1996. Resident Evil. Playstation. Capcom.

Cyan Worlds. 1993. Myst. Windows. Broderbund, Midway Games, Mean Hamster Software, Sunsoft.

Double Fine Productions, Budcat Creations. 2005. Psychonauts. Playstation 2. Majesco Entertainment.

Game Freak. 1998. Pokemon. Game Boy. Nintendo.

HAL Laboratory. 1999. Super Smash Bros. Nintendo 64. Nintendo.

Hudson Soft. 1999 – present. Mario Party series. Various platforms. Nintendo.

Infinity Ward. 2007. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Windows. Activision.

Ion Storm Inc. 2000. Deus Ex. Windows. Eidos Interactive.

Konami Computer Entertainment. 2006. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Subsistence). Playstation 2. Konami.

Level-5. 2008. Professor Layton and the Curious Village. Nintendo DS. Nintendo.

Lionhead Studios. 2001. Black & White. Windows. EA Games and Feral Interactive.

Lionhead Studios. 2005. Fable: The Lost Chapters. Windows. Microsoft Game Studios.

Maxis. 2000 – present. The Sims series. Windows. Electronic Arts.

Maxis. 2008. Spore. Windows. Electronic Arts.

Media Molecule. 2008. LittleBigPlanet. Playstation 3. Sony Computer Entertainment.

Namco. 1999. Soul Caliber. Dreamcast. Namco.

Namco. 2004. Katamari Damacy. Playstation 2. Namco.

Nintendo EAD. 1985. Super Mario Bros. Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo.

Nintendo EAD. 1992 – present. Mario Kart series. Various platforms. Nintendo.

Nintendo EAD. 1993. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. Game Boy. Nintendo.

Nintendo EAD. 2006. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Wii. Nintendo.

Nintendo EAD. 2007. Super Mario Galaxy. Wii. Nintendo.

Nintendo EAD. 2008. Wii Fit. Wii. Nintendo.

Nintendo R&D4. 1987. The Legend of Zelda. Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo.

Pajitnov, Alexey, and Vadim Gerasimov. 1985. Tetris. Various platforms. Various publishers.

Ready at Dawn. 2008. Okami. Wii. Capcom. (Originally developed by Clover Studio and released for Playstation 2 in 2006.)

Rockstar North (DMA Design), and Tarantula Studios. Grand Theft Auto series. 1998 – present. Playstation 2. Rockstar Games.

Silicon Knights. 2002. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. Nintendo GameCube. Nintendo.

Square. 1987. Final Fantasy. Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo of America.

Square. 2000. Chrono Cross. Playstation. Square Electronic Arts.

Square. 2001. Final Fantasy X. Playstation 2. Square Electronic Arts.

Square. 2002. Kingdom Hearts. Playstation 2. Square Electronic Arts, and Disney Interactive.

Square Enix. 2006. Kingdom Hearts II. Playstation 2. Square Enix and Buena Vista Games.

Square Enix, and Jupiter. 2008. The World Ends With You. Nintendo DS. Square Enix.

Team Ico. 2001. Ico. Playstation 2. Sony Computer Entertainment.

Team Ico. 2005. Shadow of the Colossus. Playstation 2. Sony Computer Entertainment.

TOSE. 2001. Chrono Trigger. Playstation. Square Electronic Arts. (Originally developed by Square, and released for Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1995 by Square Soft, Inc.)

Valve Corporation. 2007. Portal. Windows via Steam. Valve Corporation.

Other References:
Adams, Ernest. “The Designer's Notebook: Difficulty Modes and Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment.” Gamasutra. May 14, 2008.

Adams, Ernest. “The Designer's Notebook: Three Problems for Interactive Storytellers.” Gamasutra. December 29, 1999. October 25, 2008.

Bissell, Tom. “The Grammar of Fun.” The New Yorker. November 3, 2008: 78-84.

Booth, Wayne. “Distance and Point of View: An Essay in Classification.” in Hoffman.

Bradley, Ed. “Can A Video Game Lead to Murder?: Did Grand Theft Auto Cause One Teenager to Kill?” June 19, 2005 (originally filed March 6, 2005):

Carson, Don. “Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry.” Gamasutra. March 01, 2000. October 25, 2008.

Carson, Don. “Environmental Storytelling, Part II: Bringing Theme Park Environment Design Techniques to the Virtual World.” Gamasutra. April 05, 2000. October 25, 2008.

Chatman, Seymour. “Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories.” In Hoffman.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Consalvo, Mia. “From Dollhouse to Metaverse: What Happened When The Sims Went Online.” The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Williams, Patrick J. and Jonas Heide Smith. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007. 203 – 222.

Coomer, Greg. Portal commentary, Stage 10. Portal. Valve Corporation. 2007.

Costikyan, Greg. “Where Stories End and Games Begin.” Game Developer Magazine. 2000. October 25, 2008.

Doody, Margaret Anne. The True Story of the Novel. New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press: 1996.

Dunniway, Troy. “Using the Hero's Journey in Games.” Gamasutra. November 27, 2000. October 25, 2008.

Eladhari, Mirjam. “The Player's Journey.” The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Williams, Patrick J. and Jonas Heide Smith. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007. 171 – 187.

Frank, Joseph. “Spatial Form in Modern Literature.” In Hoffman.

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Ludologists love stories, too: notes from a debate that never took place.” Digital Games Research Conference 2003 Proceedings. 2003.

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative.” Parnasso #3 (Helsinki – Finnish version). 1999.

Hoffman, Michael J. (ed.) and Patrick D. Murphy (ed.). Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. Second Edition. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996

Iron Man. Dir. Jon Favreau. Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges. Paramount Pictures, 2008.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design As Narrative Architecture.” Publications: Henry Jenkins. March 25, 2002. MIT. October 25, 2008.

Jenkins, Henry. “Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked.” The Video Game Revolution: Impact of Gaming: Essays. PBS. October 25, 2008.

Keller, Daniel. “Reading and Playing: What Makes Interactive Fiction Unique.” The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Williams, Patrick J. and Jonas Heide Smith. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007. 276 – 297.

Konzack, Lars. “Rhetorics of Computer and Video Game Research.” The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Williams, Patrick J. and Jonas Heide Smith. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007. 110 – 130.

Krahulik, Michael, and Jerry Holkins. “Our Crucial Pamphlet.” Downloadable Content: The Penny Arcade Podcast. Penny Arcade. March 7, 2008. Podcast.

Krahulik, Michael, and Jerry Holkins. Penny Arcade. Nov. 18, 1998 – Present. Retrieved 11/12/08.

Krahulik, Michael, and Jerry Holkins. “The Spore Cult.” Downloadable Content: The Penny Arcade Podcast. Penny Arcade. February 15, 2008. Podcast.

Leaska, Mitchell A. “The Concept of Point of View.” In Hoffman.

Montes, Rafael Miguel. “Ghost Recon: Island Thunder: Cuba in the Virtual Battlescape.” The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Williams, Patrick J. and Jonas Heide Smith. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007. 154 – 170.

Mortensen, Torill Elvira. “Mutual Fantasy Online: Playing with People.” The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Williams, Patrick J. and Jonas Heide Smith. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007. 188 – 202.

Murray, Janet H. “The Last Word on Ludology v Narratology in Game Studies.” Digital Games Research Conference, preface to keynote talk. June 17, 2005.

Palmer, Alan. Fictional Minds. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Phelan, James. Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1996.

Pirates of the Caribbean. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley. Walt Disney Pictures, 2003 – 2007.

Prince, Gerald. “Introduction to the Study of the Narratee.” In Hoffman.

Rabinowitz, Peter J. Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Ratatoille. Dir. Brad Bird. Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano and Peter Sohn. Walt Disney Pictures and PIXAR, 2007.

Rickey, Garret. Portal commentary, Stage 10. Portal. Valve Corporation. 2007.

Sinclair, Brendan. “Q&A: Diving deeper into Bioshock's story.” GameSpot UK. September 20, 2007. Accessed November 6, 2008.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Dir. David Hand. Adriana Caselotti, Lucille La Verne, and Pinto Colvig. Walt Disney, 1937.

Taylor, Laurie N. “Platform Dependent: Console and Computer Cultures.” The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Williams, Patrick J. and Jonas Heide Smith. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007. 223 – 238.

The Emperor's New Groove. Dir. Mark Dindal. David Spade, John Goodman, and Eartha Kitt. Walt Disney Pictures, 2000.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “Reading as Construction.” In Hoffman.

Totilo, Stephen. “Playa Rater: The 10 Most Influential Video Gamers Of All Time.” MTV News. June 21, 2006.

Toy Story. Dir. John Lasseter. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and Don Rickles. Walt Disney Pictures and PIXAR, 1995.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. London, Chatto & Windus: 1967.

Williams, Patrick J. (ed.) and Jonas Heide Smith (ed.). The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007.

Yahtzee, aka Ben Croshaw. “Bioshock.” Zero Punctuation Reviews. The Escapist Magazine. September 5, 2007. Video review.

Yahtzee, aka Ben Croshaw. “Console Rundown.” Zero Punctuation Reviews. The Escapist Magazine. August 29, 2007. Video review.

Yahtzee, aka Ben Croshaw. “Fable: The Lost Chapters: in retrospect.” A FullyRambloMatic Review. July 29, 2007. Video review.

Yahtzee, aka Ben Croshaw. “Little Big Planet.” Zero Punctuation Reviews. The Escapist Magazine. February 4, 2009. Video Review.

Yahtzee, aka Ben Croshaw. “Super Mario Galaxy” Zero Punctuation Reviews. The Escapist Magazine. Jan 2, 2008. Video review.

Yahtzee, aka Ben Croshaw. “The World Ends With You.” Zero Punctuation Reviews. The Escapist Magazine. May 28, 2008. Video Review.

Yahtzee, aka Ben Croshaw. “Tomb Raider Anniversary.” Zero Punctuation Reviews. The Escapist Magazine. September 12, 2007. Video Review.

(The pending sources for the paper include 2-3 more books on narrative theory and 4 books on game studies.)

What do you cover in your paper?
Below is the table of contents for my paper, along with a brief summary of what is included in each chapter.

In which I compare the rise of video games to the rise of the novel - both were treated either skeptically as escapes from reality, little more than pop culture fluff, or as potentially dangerous - causing the disconnect of their audiences from reality. I also use the introduction to outline the content of the rest of the paper.

Chapter 1:
Narratology vs. Ludology
In which I address the narratology/ludology argument in the field of game studies, and use this argument to present the framework through which I will analyze narrative in video games - as a relationship between a story and its medium.

Chapter 2:
Anatomy of a Game
In which I outline the basic narrative and structural anatomy of a game, presenting the most common way a game is segmented, and the narrative/gameplay purpose of each segment.

Chapter 3:
Choice and Non-Linearity
In which I discuss the first of two narrative tools unique to video games - non-linear storylines. This chapter details the ways in which games make use of player choice to dynamically adapt the storyline of a game to the individual player.

Chapter 4:
Empathy and Immersion
In which I discuss the second of the two narrative tools - player/character empathy. This tool allows video games to draw in their audiences in a way that more traditional media cannot.

Chapter 5:
Storytelling Techniques and Traditional Narrative Tools
In which I outline certain elements of video game narrative that have interesting parallels with elements of more traditional narrative. Topics in this chapter include point of view, genre, and breaking the fourth wall.

Chapter 6:
Non-Narrative Elements
In which I briefly outline various elements of video games that are not necessarily directly associated with narrative, but which may greatly affect the gameplay experience.

A brief concluding statement regarding the content of the paper.

A glossary of narrative and game-related terms, both those used in the paper, and other terms that might be useful for a discussion of game narrative.

An appendix of game reviews - a bibliographic record, brief summary, and highlighting of interesting elements of many of the games which are referenced in the paper.

Reproduced above.

The total work currently comes to 95 single-spaced pages, but it is only the rough draft.

What about this game you're designing?
The game I am designing will, unfortunately, be forced to remain a briefly-sketched outline. My original intent was to have a full design ready for implementation as part of my work, but time constraints have forced me to cut this segment of the project. However, I will be pursuing a completion of the design after the project has come to an end, so that I might have a full game design to add to my portfolio. I am quite enamored with the concept - it stars a small group of rodents fighting for their independence on the Hamilton campus. Through this work, I hope to use the power of player/character empathy to show how radically different the same story can be when told from multiple points of view.

I hope this helps to illuminate both the direction of my work and the purpose of my blog. If anyone reading this feels that they have something valuable to contribute, please don't hesitate to comment!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Personal Pronouns in Discussing Games

I originally wanted to talk about this in my paper, but finally decided that it was too difficult a point to support, based as it is mostly on anecdotal evidence. Still, I find it to be largely true, and I think it's worthwhile to mention regarding games, because it helps to shed light on how players relate to in-game characters, and the gaming experience in general. The topic in question is the way players talk about games - specifically, what pronouns they use.

Depending on the person of the pronoun a player chooses, she might be talking about a variety of different perspectives on a gaming experience. The first-person "I" denotes something that the player in particular did at a given point. Third-person "he" or "she" usually refers to an action taken by the character being played. The second-person "you" refers to an action that any player may or must take in a given situation. (This last is often used on shows like G4's "Cheat," to describe how a game can be played - "Pick up the gun and get onto the platform before you press the button to go up," etc.) Think of these pronouns as three entirely different (although perhaps not entirely separate) levels of gaming:

Level 1: He/She/It
The game's intrinsic story, as presented by the game designer. This level includes the immutable actions performed by the player - static cutscenes, character dialogue, and so on. This is largely the game's "context," or the self-contained world of the game itself.

Level 2: You
The game as a playable (not played) experience - all the decisions and dynamic elements that exist in the game in potentia, elements that may or may not be expressed depending on player choice. A sort of theoretical game experience that could apply to any gamer that might play the game.

Level 3: I
The actual played experience, as opposed to the level 2 playable experience. What actually happened when the player played the game. The decisions she made, the weapons she chose, the direction she decided to go in. The dialogue path she enacted, or the character skill tree she selected. This level corresponds to a single instance of game play, an actual performed example of the level 2 theoretical layer.

While the different levels that can be designated by pronoun use is interesting, what really fascinates me is the way players use these pronouns in conversation when they are discussing games. Players routinely switch back and forth from one to the other, bounding across the layers of designation, sometimes using multiple persons in the same sentence. The experience of playing the game is such a complex one that it cannot merely be related on one of the three levels - the player holds all three in her head at once, and a memorable moment can occur on any of the three planes. This can lead to some confusion of speech, as in the following (not directly quoted, but very typical of the sort of story that players might relate) description of the beginning level of Kingdom Hearts (for those unfamiliar with the game, "Sora" is the name of the player's character):

"So you run across the beach towards the island where Sora and his friends play, only to notice that Sora's friend Riku, who he was fighting earlier, is standing there, apparently surrounded by darkness. So Sora sort of skids to a halt and they have this conversation where Riku's being all weird, and then Riku opens this vortex, and you almost get sucked in, but then you wake up with this weapon, and hear these voices talking about a keyblade. So then I remember that weird cave that I explored on the island earlier, and head back to it, but when I get there it's turned into this huge white door, like the one Sora saw in his dream. And I'm like, 'oh shit,' because that door was really big and important when you run into it before."

I first took note of this phenomenon when it was pointed out to me that I myself was doing it. I had just finished playing Kingdom Hearts 2, and was rather enamored with the game. I was relating my experience to a non-gamer friend with enthusiasm and wild gestures when she smiled at me and gently reminded me, "You know that you're not the main character, right?"

I realized that I had been talking in the first person about unchangeable game events, as though I myself were in control of them. ("And so I run down the mountain, trying to catch him, because I'm pretty sure it's Riku...") It must have seemed silly to my friend that I was saying "I" when I was in fact talking about a young spikey-haired boy with mystical powers. But my connection to the game was so strong that I did feel as though I were in control of these actions, even the immutable cut scenes.

Even though Sora is characterized in a way that is completely different from myself as a player, I still felt a strong enough connection to him, a deep enough immersion in the story, that I experienced it from his point of view. His confusion was my confusion, his actions were my actions. It probably helped that I personally felt very connected to and interested in this story, just because it's the sort of genre I happen to enjoy - but other games accomplish this effect with more widely-applicable immersive tools, such as silent and/or generic (implicitly rather than explicitly characterized) protagonists, or dynamic storylines that actually change depending on player action.

To me, this sort of pronoun confusion indicates that we don't really know who we are when we play games. If we're immersed in the story, the character might be "me," otherwise, a character we feel distant from might be "him." If we're trying to describe to a friend how to play a game, we might put that friend in the position of main character, and the character might be "you." And strangely enough, all three of these persons can apply to the very same gaming experience, in the same telling, interwoven with one another. It truly speaks to the power of gaming as an immersive experience, that it can confuse our very concept of who we are.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Readings in Narrative Theory: Story and Discourse

As promised earlier, I'd like to take a moment to explain my position in the narratology vs. ludology argument, a debate which has raged to the point where even the game studies critics involved seem to be growing tired of it. If you're unfamiliar with the debate, allow me to quickly summarize: it boils down to the question, "Should games be studied as narrative texts or as games (challenges, simulations, etc.)?" My answer to this question, and thus my position in the argument, is, "How can you possibly do one without the other?"

My viewpoint boils down to the distinction of video games as, and I cannot stress this enough, a medium for narrative. I mean this in the same way that books or films are also mediums. While it is entirely possible to study the medium for itself - the tools it has to offer, the way in which it may accomplish certain effects of tone or voice, etc. - a true, and truly complete, study of the medium must include individual examples of that medium, and these examples will always include the narrative - for how can you describe what takes place in a narrative game without at least outlining the narrative?

The reverse is similar; although you can technically relate just the contents of a "story," it is nearly impossible to truly study a narrative without studying the medium in which it is present. You may talk about the "what" of a story, but the "how" will be mired in stylistic details unique to the medium. When the medium is video games, this includes all elements of gaming - difficulty level, graphics, gameplay, physics, cutscene types - everything. Therefore, in order for games to be studied as narrative texts, they must also be studied as games. The two are inseperable aspects of the same artifact.

This distinction between the story and the medium in which it is told is recognized in literary narrative theory as "story" and "discourse." Thus, the following book from my reading list:

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Chatman's book turns specifically on the differences between story and discourse. It outlines which elements of a work of literature belong to which category, and how both influence and craft the work. For my purposes, I was mostly concerned with supporting the idea of differentiating between the story and medium for video games, and therefore with how Chatman portrays the differences between his "story" and "discourse." Here are some of the quotes I found to be relevant:

"Following such French structuralists as Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, and Gerard Genette, I posit a what and a way. The what of narrative I call its "story"; the way I all its "discourse." (9)

"Taking poetics as a rationalist discipline, we may ask, as does the linguist about language: What are the necessary components--and only those--of a narrative? Structuralist theory argues that each narrative has two parts: a story (historie), the content or chain of events (actions, happenings), plus what may be called the existents (characters, items of setting); and a discourse (discours), that is, the expression, the means by which the content is communicated. In simple terms, the story is the what in a narrative that is depicted, discourse the how." (19)

"What in narrative is the province of expression? Precisely the narrative discourse. Story is the content of the narrative expression, while discourse is the form of that expression. We must distinguish between the discourse and its material manifestation--in words, drawings, or whatever. The latter is clearly the substance of narrative expression, even where the manifestation is independently a semiotic code." (23-24)

"So far we have considered gaps common to all narratives regardless of medium. But there is also a class of indeterminacies--phenomenologists call them Unbestimmtheiten--that arise from the peculiar nature of the medium. The medium may specialize in certain narrative effects and not others. For instance, the cinema can easily--and does routinely--present characters without expressing the contents of their minds. it is usually necessary to infer their thinking from what they overtly say and do. Verbal narrative, on the other hand, finds such a restriction difficult--even Ernest Hemmingway, at such pains to avoid directly stating his characters' thoughts and perceptions, sometimes "slips." Conversely, verbal narrative may elect not to present some visual aspect, say, a character's clothes. It remains totally unbestimmt about them, or describes them in a general way: "He was dressed in street clothes." The cinema, however, cannot avoid a rather precise representation of visual detail. It cannot "say," simply, "A man came into the room." He must be dressed in a certain way. In other words clothing, unbestimmt in verbal narrative, must be bestimmt in a film." (30)

(Chatman also has several points to make on the subject of reader construction of narrative, but I feel that these points are made more clearly and at more length by Rabinowitz, so I will not include the relevant quotes from Chatman here.)

So what does this duality between story and medium mean for video games? Well, quite a lot actually. As a unique medium, video games become a rich ground for academic analysis. The medium of games has storytelling tools we've only barely begun to think about - and the implications of which can be staggering. (Player/character empathy, in particular, is quite the can of worms, not to mention dynamic storylines.) Being around at the current state of Game Studies is very much what I imagine being around for the beginning of film to have been like. The potential for the great films of the future can be seen even in the most rudimentary early examples of the medium.

And I do think that this duality also implies that such great works are possible in the medium of video games as well. By coming to understand these tools and harnessing them, game designers can create games of true artistic and academic merit. Already we are beginning to see glimpses of genius in the way these tools are used - the manipulation of player emotion in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, or the complex interlayering of distinct and yet unified characters in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, or the subtle horror and paranoia of the Silent Hill games. There is more to games than entertainment - entertainment is merely the first and most logical expression of a new medium. But, as it has with other mediums, I am confident that art will soon follow.

Readings in Narrative Theory: Before Reading

Allow me to preface this by saying that not only is the author of this text a professor of my college, he is actually on the board of examiners that will eventually evaluate my project to determine whether or not I graduate. Not that I'll be overly generous to him or make a point of being nicer than I otherwise would in my analysis. Just fair warning that if, for some reason, you bear a mighty grudge against Rabinowitz (although why you would I have no idea - he seems like a very nice man) - there is a reasonable chance he may read this blog. Bear your audience in mind when leaving comments.

Rabinowitz, Peter J. Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987.

One of the things that interests me in my readings on narrative theory is the idea of reading as construction - specifically as the cooperative construction between reader and author. I use this idea as a counter-argument to a particular thread of ludological extremism that tends to go along the lines of "successful narrative is completely under the control of the author, while a successful game should be as open-ended and player-decision-oriented as possible. Thus, the two mediums have opposing goals and are not compatible." (For an actual example of this argument (well-constructed, for all that I violently disagree with its premises), see this article by Greg Costikyan: (For the record, I'm not against ludology in general - I'm probably a ludologist myself, all things considered. (I will have to write about my exact position in the debate at a later point.) I just dislike the extremist end of the school of thought that declares that video games can't tell stories.)

I happen to disagree with both the assumptions of this argument. The second assumption, that a more successful game must inherently be more open-ended (less linear), is easy enough to undermine with examples of successful linear games like Portal or Call of Duty 4. Games, I might add, that are successful not only from an entertainment/sales point of view, but from an academic/artistic one as well. (I use them both as examples in my paper to support various points about effective use of the medium.)

The first assumption of this argument, that literary narrative must be entirely under the control of the author to be successful, is also faulty. This point is best supported through the analysis of reading as a cooperative construction - a much-explored topic of literary narrative theory. This is where Rabinowitz's book comes in.

Before Reading is about the aspects of reading that go into a narrative construction before the reader even opens the book. These are things like narrative conventions that the reader might expect when picking up a book from a particular genre, assumptions - ethical, logical, emotional - that the reader brings to the construction, or even the way we are taught to read. Thus, before we begin the first sentence, we as readers have already assembled a framework with which to interpret the text. Moreover, this framework will be different for every reader, thus flying in the face of the argument that "literary narrative is strictly controlled by the author."

Here are some relevant quotes from Rabinowitz's work:

"There can be no reading without a reader--but the term reader is slippery, not only because all individual readers read differently, but also because for almost all of the them, there are several different ways of appropriating a text. This fact has been recognized, at least implicitly, by the large number of critics whose models of reading are multitiered. Usually, a two-leveled opposition is posited, although different critics use different terms. For Hirsch, it is "significance" and "meaning." For Wayne Booth, it is "understanding" and "overstanding." For Tzvetan Todorov, there are three terms: "interpretation," "description," and "reading." Many other critics, despite the recent arguments of Fish, remain wedded, in one form or another, to the distinction between literal meaning and interpretation." (20)

"[...] despite the theoretically infinite number of potential authorial audiences, it does not follow that authors have total control over the act of writing, any more than that readers have total control over the act of interpretation. In a trivial sense, of course, they do: authors can put down whatever marks they wish on the page; readers can construe them however they wish. But once authors and readers accept the communal nature of writing and reading, they give up some of that freedom. Specifically, once he or she has made certain initial decisions, any writer who wishes to communicate--even if he or she wishes to communicate ambiguity--has limited the range of subsequent choices." (23-24)

"A reader in the genre [of classical British detective stories] will know fairly quickly what to fasten on to. Of particular importance will be such details as who has seen the victim after the train has left the Gare de Lyon. Such a reader, from his or her experience with other similar novels, will also know that in detective stories, "there must be no love interest." He or she will therefore rightfully dismiss as window dressing the romantic story of the pure and simple Katherine Grey, who has just inherited a fortune from the crotchety old woman to whom she was a companion." (40)

This final quotation is of interest to me for an entirely different reason - the concept of "genre." I've found it interesting that, in gaming, "genre" rarely refers to the narrative content of the story, but instead to the gameplay method. Instead of "mysteries" and "romances" we have "shooters" and "RPGs." (Role-Playing Games) And yet, some of the same reader strategies indicated by Rabinowitz above apply to these game categories as well. A player will come into an RPG with a certain set of expectations about what the genre will provide. This can even include (although does not always) certain narrative conventions. An RPG player may expect, instead of a single main character, that she will control a party of main characters, each with their own unique set of skills. She will expect an inventory screen through which to access the items she's collected. An FPS (First-Person Shooter) player might expect the "jump" key to be located by default on the space bar, "wasd" to be the movement keys, and primary fire to be controlled by the left mouse button. The same way that a reader picks up an example of the mystery genre with an in-place mental framework about how to read the narrative, players of a particular gaming genre come into the game with an idea of how to play it.

Readings in Narrative Theory: Narrative as Rhetoric

At the moment, I am doing some intensive reading in narrative theory and game studies. I'd like to present some summaries of my readings here, as well as quotes of interest I have found, and how the reading topics relate to my work. In addition to helping me organize my own thoughts, I hope the summaries might be helpful to others looking for readings on the same or similar subjects. Work summaries will be preceded in posts by their bibliographic information.

Phelan, James. Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1996.

Of the chapters from Phelan's book I read, only one ended up frantically pasted with post-it notes; I found the chapter on second-person narrative to be particularly interesting and very relevant. One of the topics of my paper is the feeling of empathy that the medium can generate by combining the personas of the player (as audience, narratee, etc.) with the persona of the main character (as protagonist, narrator) - having the decisions and actions of the former control the latter, allowing the player to in effect mentally substitute himself for the character in the world. (What Gee apparently calls "projected identity.") Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best literary parallel I've come across so far has been second-person narration. A quote (this and all following quotes are from chapter 7 of Phelan's book, entitled "Narratee, Narrative Audience, and Second-Person Narration: How I--And You?-- Read Lorrie Moore's "How""):

"When the second-person address to a narratee-protagonist both overlaps with and differentiates itself from an address to actual readers, those readers will simultaneously occupy the position of addressee and observer. Furthermore, the fuller the characterization of the you, the more aware actual readers will be of their differences from that you, and thus the more fully they will move into the observer role--and the less likely that this role will overlap with the addressee position. In other words, the greater the characterization of the you, the more like a standard protagonist the you becomes, and, consequently, the more actual readers can employ their standard strategies for reading narrative. However, as recent commentators on the second-person narration have consistently observed, most writers who employ this technique take advantage of the opportunity to move readers between the positions of observer and addressee, and, indeed, to blur the boundaries between these positions." (137)

When Phelan uses "observer" in this passage, he means the audience as reader, the person observing and mentally cataloguing/interpreting the text. The "implied reader," to use the literary lingo. In gaming, this would be the audience as player. The gamer with the control pad, controlling the character's actions from outside the game's context.

The "addressee" on the other hand, is the "you" of the second-person narration, the addressed individual that the narrative describes. Phelan quotes from a work by Lorrie Moore ("How") as his example of second-person narration:

"Begin by meeting him in a class, a bar, at a rummage sale. Maybe he teaches sixth grade. Manages a hardware store. Foreman at a carton factory. He will be a good dancer. He will have perfectly cut hair. He will laugh at your jokes."

The addressee here is the "you" who is telling jokes. The "you" who meets "him" at a bar, or a rummage sale. The "you" is a character in the story, and has specific characterization (in particular, in this passage, she is female and dating). The gaming parallel here is the PC - the character that the player controls. Though characterized (we know exactly what Sora from Kingdom Hearts looks like, who his friends are, how he talks, etc.), the PC is still conflated with the player by allowing the player to control his actions, in the same way that the observer and addressee are connected by the pronoun "you."

Phelan's point about characterization steering the audience towards the observer role rather than the addressee role is particularly relevant to my work - in my chapter on player/character empathy, I posit that "implicit characterization" - or characterization that takes place mostly in the mind of the player, rather than in cues inherent in the game - lends itself more readily to a high level of immersion and empathy. This is as opposed to "explicit characterization," which provides the characterization for us within the game, and thus limits the degree to which we as a players can substitute ourselves into that character's role. If the player is thought of as the implicit "you," then he may assume that all characterization elements that apply to him also apply to the main character, unless told specifically otherwise. For instance, if I do not know the gender of a main character, I might choose to believe that she is female, to better empathize and put myself in her position. However, if I am told (as I often am) that the main character is male, this is one step of distance between who I am and who the character is.

For this reason (empathic generality), many games have silent protagonists (the "Silent Protagonist Phenomenon," as I like to call it) - the PCs have no voice, and no dialogue. This very important trait - how the character responds to the world around him, is left up to the player's discretion and imagination. A sarcastic player may choose to imagine sarcastic responses to questions posed to his character, while a sympathetic player may imagine sympathetic responses. We, as players, are allowed characterization that suits our preferences and personality, allowing us to draw as close to the character as possible.

Other quotes:

"Because Moore begins by narrating an event in which the actual reader is not directly involoved--girl meets boy-- the observer role is initially more prominent. But in the second paragraph, where the gender of the you is not specified and the general trajectory of the you's experience is widely recognizable, the actual reader is likely to feel the pull of the adressee role." (137-138)

"As Rabinowitz says, Prince's narratee remains "out there," distinct from the actual reader; a narrative audience, by contrast, occupies some part of the actual reader's consciousness and, given the default position, the actual reader also gives traits to the narrative audience." (143)

"Is it adequate to say, as a structuralist narratology would, that the unnamed you addressed by the narrator is the narratee and the protagonist, that the narrative's implied reader is different from this narratee, someone who infers from the narrator's address a larger cultural story about female-male relationships? Although this account gets at a good part of the communicative structure of the text, it is not fully adequate. It leaves out the way that the second-person address exerts pressure on the actal reader--even the male reader, as in the second paragraph--"to take on the role" of the narratee-protagonist as "you" experience(s) the ups and downs (especially the downs) of the relationship. In other words, continuing to assume that the narratee is a distinct character who is "out there" will mean not just that we prefer the structuralist to the rhetorical framework; it also will mean that the structuralist analysis will neglect a significant aspect of how the text attempts to communicate." (143-144)

"For the mimetic illusion and the emotional force of a play to work, we must enter the observer position of the "narrative" ("dramatic"?) audience and believe in the reality of, say, Othello, Iago, and Desdemona. Indeed, the oft-discussed instances of people leaping upon the stage to stop the action are, in these terms, examples of what happens when we enter so deeply into the narrative audience position that we fail to maintain our simultaneous participation in the authorial audience." (145)

"In narrative, where we always have narrative audiences and narratees, one of the variables in narrative discourse will be how much the narratee and the narrative audience overlap. As I suggested earlier, what second-person narration shows is that the more fully the narrative is characterized, the greater the distance between narratee and narrative audience; similarly, the less the narratee is characterized, the greater the coincidence between the two." (146)

"As I noted above, "How" identifies the narratee as female, but the second-person address blurs the separation of narratee and narrative audience frequently enough for the observer of either sex to be pulled into the narrative's subject position." (148)

"While the clear distinction between the narratee and the narrative audience allows us to infer so much about the narratee's behavior and situation, the "you" address also invites us to project ourselves--as narrative audience, authorial audience, and actual readers--into the narratee's subject position. Consequently, the inferences we make as we occupy the narrative audience position lead us to a complicated vision that mingles narratee and self in the narratee's position. We both occupy the position and know what the position is like in a way that the narratee herself does not. In this way, we feel addressed by the narrator but not fully coincident with the narratee." (151)

As you can see, Phelan's conclusions about second-person address have direct parallels with gaming. Because the player is required to participate in the narrative, she is always addressed as an implicit "you" by the game, by sheer virtue of the fact that her actions/decisions control the main character. The character is her window into the world, her remote-controlled puppet, and addresses to that character by the game automatically become addresses to the player as well, in the same way that the player's actions become the character's actions.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Allow me to introduce myself

Welcome to gamEstrogen, a blog about narrative and video games, as experienced from the perspective of a girl gamer/academic. Here's what I'm all about:

Currently I am a senior at Hamilton College, working on a "senior fellowship" project about narrative in video games. My background at the college has consisted of a double-major in computer science and creative writing. My personal background consists of a great deal of reading, writing, and gaming.

This blog is intended as a way for me to share my current thoughts and research, in the hopes of reaching out to the academic game studies community (as well as the pop culture gaming community) for their thoughts, insights, and experiences, in the name of furthering the study and reputation of video games.


Because games deserve to be recognized for their academic and artistic merit - though the medium is in its infancy, there is much that can be accomplished with the unique tools it has to offer. Video games do not deserve their reputation as "mindless" diversion - in fact they're very interesting and worthwhile diversions, as books and films are. They just need a few good champions to demonstrate that to the rest of the world.

How do you pronounce the name of my blog? Well, there are a number of ways. Personally, I prefer game-strogen, although I would also accept game-estrogen. It should definitely not be gam-strogen, however, nor gam-estrogen. That would just be silly.