Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Narrative with a Side of Gaming Theory, Please. (Final)



Oh hai there. 
The horror genre has a very special place in my heart. From the time I was young, I valued horror among all other genres. Maybe it was my eldest brother who got me into it by locking me and my siblings in his room to watch him play horror games… in the dark. All of the monsters that twisted its way to the screen, each innocent little girl who turned evil, and every dark hallway that held surprises in each room and maybe even under the grates that you were walking on provided a lot of nightmare fuel. But what makes these games just so damn good? Well, narrative of course! 

Laura Parker of Gamespot.com wrote a very intriguing article with a lot of references to popular game theorists and others that were giving their two cents on video games as a storytelling medium.
“We tell stories through words, music, art, and dance; we record them on paper, paint them on canvas, and capture them on film. And now, thanks to video games, we can interact with them. When we play a game we are not merely passive observers; we become active participants in the story as it unfolds.” This is just how I felt as a young girl in my brother’s room because each one of us in that room became part of the story. We were Harry Mason traversing the ever changing world of Silent Hill. I hardly agree with the critics mentioned in the article with quotes like,

“There’s a deep division between the concept of a story as it has come down through tradition and the concept of a story as it is in video games,” Dutton said. “Games do not have the story structure we see in Greek plays, Shakespearean tragedies, or even soap operas on afternoon TV. They are, at their very heart, games and not stories.”

And

“The difference is, of course, that video games combine these traditional elements with interactivity,” Dutton said. “I continue to resist the idea that this can be done easily or effectively. Video games are a new form of make-believe, that’s for certain, but I don’t think I’m ready to call them a new form of storytelling, and beyond that, an effective medium to tell stories. It’s clear to me that Grand Theft Auto and BioShock have more in common with a tea party for teddy bears than they do with the plays of Shakespeare.”



Opening this door seems like a good idea...
Oh hey man, I'm just hanging out. 
Most games do not have narrative like those of Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have great stories. I love horror, so honestly, you know its coming. The story in Silent Hill is brilliant. It’s creepy and was certainly something new at the time. You control Harry and search through the town of Silent Hill for your lost daughter Cheryl. Now Game Studies writer Diane Carr does have a point when she writes that, “The survival horror game Silent Hill is comparatively tense, sparse and linear. It is monoglossic, and single minded.” Now at first… I thought she was dissing on Silent Hill (most likely because I have no idea what monoglossic means and single minded always seemed like an insult to me), and I was getting my powder ready, but she is right. Silent Hill is pretty straight forward. But the story is what makes the game progress so well. Sure, there isn’t much talking, as is mentioned in the article, but we have to consider that the article was written in 2001 and the writer didn’t get to see the rest of the series. Well, up to Silent Hill 3 anyways, because those games were pretty boss - especially the story. It’s not on par with any classic writers like Poe, Tolstoy, Emerson, etc. It does have potential however. Parker’s article mentions a few other critics that have an issue with video games being considered a storytelling medium. They make the point that it’s a very childish story and it does not stimulate adults. Well sure, it’s no War & Peace. There is more for video games to give, though.

Alan Wake was released in 2010 and totally blew me away. You are READING a novel while you play! I mentioned this in my first post and I think it deserves a revisit. Wake’s narrative involves the main character Alan Wake and his journey through Bright Falls. You push the story forward by following the map in the upper right corner, or reading the pages you collect to understand what’s up next. Of course there’s also controls that allow you to see what is up ahead, immediate threats, and Wake’s voice instructing you that you may need to go somewhere like to the gas station across the way. The beautiful thing about storytelling is that you know when it’s a good story because it’s always been around. Adding the ability to interact with your surroundings makes it a soooo-guuud. Something we have never experienced before in this medium. It opens all new doors. Like that of Heavy Rain which was a mostly decision based game. There are so many outcomes depending upon what you do with each character that you are allowed to control. You don’t fight much, from the game play that I observed/remember, but it was such an interesting game. You could kill off all your characters, keep them alive, or kill off certain ones to get new endings. Your decisions made the game come alive. You are the sole controller of the story. You… ARE THE STORY. But seriously, it was an amazing game that shows what narrative is truly capable of in video games… or at least, tapping heavily into its potential to be a storytelling medium.

With a wallpaper like that - you know the game is just as good. 


As for gaming theory applied to the games that I have mentioned so far – I draw on the writings of Jesper Juul in his book Half-Real. Most of the games I have picked are the “progression” type. In other words, a sort of adventure type game as described by Juul in his third chapter. Essentially, I like performing actions that are already programmed into the game… instead of emergence games where I have to think (wait a minute, I think I just insulted myself.) As for the six game features – I’ll pick the horror game Amnesia to demonstrate these criteria.

One: Rules. Amnesia has pretty simple rules as do most games. Avoid monsters, ration what you have, find items, check everything, and read what Daniel (your character) has left behind for you to find.
Two: Variable Quantifiable Outcome. The book gives an example of handicaps and such in order to level the playing field. Amnesia will… occasionally make things easier by setting a monster further back or removing them when you die.
Three: Valorization of Outcome. If you get close to the enemies or don’t hide well enough, you’re going to die. If you don’t save the guy that you come across, you get the bad ending. If you save him, you get a better ending. Spoiler: Either way, it still kind of sucks.
Four: Player Effort. You gotta be careful or else you’re gonna be nom-nomed by all those monsters. Not even kidding. It’s pretty horrible.
Five: Player Attached to Outcome. I think of the end when it comes to this feature. I feel attached to Daniel throughout the game because of the letters he has left behind for his future self. He makes it quite clear that Alexander is crazy as hell and that you have to stop him. When you come to that boss fight, you are either greeted with the “good” or “bad” ending. I was attached to the outcome because I believed Alexander was evil and needed to be done away with. So when I got the good ending, naturally, I danced.
Six: Negotiable Consequences. I couldn’t really tell you if this could be attached to real life consequences. Maybe my face hurting from the fact that I’ve been screaming or grinding my teeth can be considered a real life consequence of playing Amnesia.

So far, I’ve covered mostly narrative with a side of gaming theory at the end. I found narrative to really be the most interesting to me. Gaming theory, though still interesting, just didn’t tickle my fancy, but I appreciate that it is a discipline and people are no longer just seeing video games as a violent medium that DEVOURS CHILDREN’S SOULS. Anyways, thanks for reading.

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