Games and Narratives in DH

or Games as Literary Fiction



Morgan's notes in progress as of 14 Oct 2014

Reading After you play the game, at least for a while, read

Some terms

The overarching question is What can humanist study bring to a narrative computer game?

Gamer reviews

Gamer reviews focus on play-states and the relation of a game to the gaming genre: how a game works and whether it's worth time playing as a game. We're looking at The Path for its narrative and ludic features rather than gaming features. We're looking at how it works to create meaning and where a game such as this fits in digital humanities. Different criteria.

DH brings a different set of evaluative criteria to the floor. We see this in how gamers evaluate by game play - active, skill-driven. Playing The Path doesn't look like a game - just walking - and reading a novel doesn't look like reading a magazine - Where are the pictures? - nor satisfy in the same way as Harry Potter: closure, good and evil unambiguous, etc. Games reward replay differently than novels do re-reading.

An example from the Telegraph review of Almost Summer: laced up with gaming references rather than literary ones.
Baffling and beguiling in almost equal measure, the latest interactive experiment from Belgian developer Tale of Tales is a willfully obtuse art game that will frustrate as many as it fascinates. For long stretches it’s slow – seemingly deliberately so – and even tedious, but also contemplative, unusual and at times, strangely moving.

It begins with the player selecting an avatar from what looks like a pair of cryo-pods, and there’s a sci-fi tinge to proceedings throughout. Once chosen, your male or female character wanders along the pristine white sands of an empty beach, with digital barriers at either end that recall the invisible walls of the Animus in Assassin’s Creed. Beyond them lies a figure that appears to be observing you, and it seems you’re part of a virtual reality simulation of some description. Press the button that closes your character’s eyes, and this reality fades, the environment reconstructed like a basic 3D computer render, a network of thin blue lines. Here you can speed from one end of the beach to the other, a welcome contrast to your avatar’s slow walking pace.

Or this perspective from GamerDame. The Path is viewed as a story to be interpreted by conventional interpretive guidelines (X means Y, given warrants drawn from pop psychology), as here
[Re Carmen] I think Carmen’s first sexual encounter was with an older man who caused her undue trauma, causing her large amounts of regret & pain, also resulting her in distrusting any future relationships.

[Re Scarlet] The house is how she sees the world: bland & empty of art (covered furniture), filled with meaningless order & monotony (the jars). I think Scarlet fills [sic] resentful towards her family for taking her dreams from her. The wires or strings at the end symbolize her feeling controlled by others & having no control over her own life. The stage at the end represents her lost dream of being a musician. from

This is creating a deformance, which we'd expect because that's the first move in lit crit - but one of a different type than, say, reading Dickinson backwards, or using text analysis as a way of reading. Technically, the deformance seems to be crossing a media boundary from ludic encounter to textual narrative. What GamerDame is coding and decoding is not the game itself but her encounter with it.

GamerDame explains her thinking in this way

The Path, for all its simplicity, is not a straightforward game. Go find a discussion board on the plot & see for yourself. A lot is left up to the interpretation of the player, & I’m pretty sure that’s how the developers wanted it. As one of them stated,

“We create only the situation. And the actual story emerges from playing, partially in the game, partially in the player’s mind.”

How the player interprets the story is just as important as how the developers wanted to portray it. Even the most well-laid out plot can be twisted by the interpretation of the player. Unlike in books, not everything is spelled out. Partly this is due to limitations of gaming technology, but it also allows the player to project themselves onto a character. A lot of times we give our controlled characters a personality, past or motivation that isn’t back up by the game. Check out the Game section of if you don’t believe me.

Where The Path is different is that this ambiguity was intentional from the start. Just as the point of the game is more about the path traveled than the goal, the draw of playing The Path is about your own experience with it. It’s about the journey, not the destination, to put in simpler terms.

GamerDame places The Path in the same realm as literature by her method. She reads her encounter as a meaningful narrative, co-created by the game and a subject encountering the game.

But is it a narrative?

Where would we place The Path? Closer to Eliza? or closer to The Jew's Daughter or Radio Salience? Near Dakota? In placing it, are we drawing out an aspect of narrative, or a computational mechanism that gives us stuff to make sense of?

a note on narrative

from "Towards Computer Game Studies", Markku Eskelinen, note 2.

Those who see and wish to see narratives everywhere (to me, a serious disorder in aesthetic pattern recognition) should at least know their narratology, which is usually not the case. Narrative is a contested concept for sure, but it still doesn't make sense that comparisons between narratives and games, as well as those between print and hypertext narratives, are and were based on seriously outdated and unsophisticated theories of narrative. In order to make any reliable claims for novelties or similarities between modes and media, one should (at least) first gather the most sophisticated knowledge there is; let's say combining formal narrratology (Genette, Prince) with the narrative tricks and treats of postmodernist fiction that once again reconfigured the relations between narrative and textual designs (see McHale 1987, 1992), and the tradition of procedural writing (especially various poetics of the OuLiPo; see Bénabou 1998) — and then transform that knowledge into the digital realm, perhaps through Aarseth's cybertext theory (Aarseth 1997) and its functional and heuristic map of the textual medium (a seriously understudied dimension of traditional literary studies). It's painfully obvious this is not the case, and narrative is just another marketing tool used to sell us everything else except narratives. To complete the irony, it could be observed that various poetries and poetic practices (such as John Cayley's programmatology, Eduardo Kac's holopoetry, and Loss Pequeño Glazier's kinetic works) which give their strings of signs different durational values are much "closer" to games than print and classic hypertext narratives with their static (permanent) scriptons and intransient time.

Overarching question is where to place games and gaming
theoretical fields
narrative or not?

Ensslin places games as narrative and literary.

Games in a narrative manner

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