(This article is reworked from a talk originally given at &NOW 2013 in Boulder, CO.)
“To imagine a language is to imagine a way of life.”
This is intended to be a straightforward piece about how exploring the interface, or specifically, video games, can help us explore new possibilities within the realm of experimental literature. So first I want to start with a few assumptions / definitions.
The internet, and its associate technologies, is unique in that the closer we feel to the technology, that is, the better interfaces become at making us feel like we understand the technology, at making us feel like the technology is more intuitive, natural, adaptive — the less we actually know about the mechanisms that power the interfaces we encounter every day. The closer we think we are, the further we are, in reality, from the core of the technology that drives these interactions.
You’re not a cyborg, you say? Sure. I’m not a cyborg either.
In a parallel world, literature, via language, also works in a textual interaction with a reader, and, distinguishing here between narrative and narrativization, provides a sense of closure while providing a particular presentation of reality, a reality we enter via the text. I’m not going to delve into a history of narrative theory. Let’s assume we all know enough about literary theory, narrative theory, and even film theory. But where we have an opportunity for another intersection point, another interface, another space for potential, is video games. When I say video games, I mean all video games, including the Nintendo games you played as a child, console and PC games, and even Angry Birds on your phone, and also relevant are tabletop RPGs like D&D. For today, I assume that everyone in this room has played a game at least once their life. I also assume that we are nowhere near any kind of final theory or language of games. This: we are still working out together.
“The Memex wouldn’t see the world as a librarian does, as an endless series of items to be filed away on the proper shelf. It would see the world the way a poet does: a world teeming with associations, minglings, continuities. And the trails would keep that radiant universe bound together.”
– Steven Johnson on Vannevar Bush
A definition: The interface is that fusion of art and technology that attests to the importance of multidisciplinary knowledge and collaboration, that strange zone between medium and message. An interface basically refers to the software that shapes the interaction between user and computer. The interface serves as a kind of translator, mediating between the two parties, making one sensible to the other.
When Doug Engelbart introduced the mouse pointer, and thus the principle of direct manipulation, the user’s virtual doppelganger was born. Instead of typing in obscure commands, the user could simply point at something and expand its contents, or drag it across the screen. Instead of telling the computer to execute a particular task — “open this file” for example – users appeared to do it themselves. There was a strangely paradoxical quality to direct manipulation: in reality, the graphic interface had added another layer separating the user from his or her information. But the tactile immediacy of the illusion made it seem as though the information was now closer at hand, rather than farther away.
“If patterns of ones and zeros were “like” patterns of human lives and deaths, if everything about an individual could be represented in a computer record by a long string of ones and zeroes, then what kind of creature would be represented by a long string of lives and deaths? It would have to be up one level at least–an angel, a minor god, something in a UFO. It would take eight human lives and deaths just to form one character in this being’s name–its complete dossier might take up a considerable piece of the history of the world…”
– Thomas Pynchon, Vineland
In talking about narrative potential in video games and experimental literature, I want to also distinguish between story and narrative, using in particular a definition by David Antin. What Antin claims, is that a story, or an organized sequence of events, can yield several different narratives from several different subject positions — but a narrative requires a sense of something at stake for somebody in some particular subject position, which is what characterizes the stake. It is this sense of stake that should be taken as the center of narrative. To articulate the meaning of this sense of stake, Antin redefines narrative away from story. He defines narrative: the representation of the confrontation of a desiring subject with the threat or promise — or threat and promise — of transformation.
What Antin is saying is that subjects are continually confronted by the promise and threat of change. But no promise comes without the threat of fulfillment.
This confrontation by the promise and threat of change seems, to me, to be at the core of video games. Even without story (indeed Roger Ebert and many others have repeated the dictum that video games have horrible stories and therefore can never be art), video games are able to create a complex system of interactions that ultimately revolve around the stake that an individual player has in this new world.
Like with Engelbardt and the introduction of the principle of direct manipulation (more recently the ability to make things happen with a swipe of your finger, and even more recently, any gesture of your arm), part of what makes games feel so immersive and intimate is the immediacy of the feedback, the significance of feeling that you’re the one causing the actions, that you’re the one pulling the trigger, making the decisions, driving the car, etc.
This is not a momentary or fleeting feeling of fulfillment. This is serious business. An example of the emotional impact that video games can have is the famous Mass Effect 3 incident, when, fans who had devoted hours of their lives and large portions of their emotional capacities into a series of games, and had been led to believe that the decisions they were making were really influencing the plot of the game and character’s moral compasses, were so devastated by the series ending that reactions ranged from protest and outrage against the company to genuine depression, shock, and inability to cope emotionally.
“Computer games are not narratives.. Rather the narrative tends to be isolated from or even work against the computer-gameness of the game.” – Jesper Juul
This isn’t a view I necessarily agree with, but what is clear is that we don’t yet have the adequate language to talk about video games the way we do about literature and films. The standards and criteria used for literary and filmic narrative don’t translate easily into the immersive and interactive world of video games. But, in trying to talk about what makes narrative in video games operate on such a unique level might lend us new ways of thinking of narrative in other mediums, to widen the potential for narrative in writing.
One of the most unique aspects of video games is that narrative in video games is not primarily reliant on story, nor on character, nor on language. Rather, the primary narrative mode of video games, is spatial. Not only does time not pass in a video game the way it does in a book, or even a film, there is also a conflict between the now of the interaction and the past of the narrative. As Jesper Juul summarizes: 1) Games and stories actually do not translate to each other in the way that novels and movies do. (but this is the interesting part, he notes) 2) You can’t have narration and interactivity at the same time; there is no such thing as a continuously interactive story. & 3) The relations between reader/story and player/game are completely different — the player inhabits a twilight zone where he/she is both an empirical subject outside the game and undertakes a role inside the game. If you played early side scroller games like Mario, you probably have a better memory of the layout of the levels and spaces that you traveled through, than the story or narrative. Even in collaborative storytelling RPGs like D&D, dungeon masters usually start with designing the space – the dungeon – where the players’ quest will take place. Spatial stories and environmental storytelling (a term I borrow from Henry Jenkins), create the preconditions for an immersive narrative experience by evoking pre-existing narrative associations, providing a staging ground where narrative events are enacted, embedding narrative information within their mise-en-scene, and providing resources for emergent narratives. So it is space, and not time, that provides the primary momentum for moving the player forward.
As the game space becomes a memory palace whose contents must be deciphered as the player tries to reconstruct the story, another unique feature in games become that of the specific encounter. In a game, it is often those narrative events that happen on a local level, even when the player may not be invested in the overall narrative arc, that stand out as significant. If you played D&D, you probably remember that one EPIC battle you had versus a giant green slime, that EPIC battle in which you almost died, maybe you did die, and to this day remember, even if you don’t remember the other details of the campaign. In Minecraft, you might remember spending your time and resources on finally getting your shelter built, maybe you even planted some flowers in the front yard, only to have your hard work ruined in less than a second by a passerby exploding creeper.
In an essay called “Potential Emergency Minecraft,” (Part 1 & Part 2) Byron Alexander Campbell writes: Interactive stories, video games included, should be judged not by their scripted content, which is often limited. They should be judged by the potential stories they make possible, which are infinite. These potential stories don’t exist anywhere in a trailer or script; they can only be experienced by means of true, invested, 1:1 personal interaction.
In this essay, he looks at 3 more layers of narrative found in video games, mainly via Minecraft, an open world, or sandbox indie game that has sold over 33 million copies worldwide.
The first type of narrative he looks at is lore. Lore usually refers to the “largely unspoken but internally consistent rules and backstory that govern the behavior of the secondary characters and the setting they inhabit.” In Minecraft, this doesn’t refer to the actual game mechanics persay, but a player’s understanding of the mechanics can add a lot to the gameplay. For example, a player might know that different creatures (known as “mobs”) drop different objects and materials. A player might know that coming across stone covered in green moss indicates the presence of a dungeon. A player might find a saddle in a dungeon chest, with which they can ride a pig. Recipes for refining and crafting items from raw materials are also part of the lore, or, more complex, lore can also include The Nether, an underworld that can only be accessed by creating a portal with obsidian blocks.
Campbell continues: Lore, in the specific sense suggested by these examples, can be understood as an effort to suggest a much larger framing narrative fueling and lending interpretation to the player-character’s passage through the interactive world. World-building would be an acceptable alternative term, as might paratextuality. It’s useful to to consider lore more broadly not simply as the hidden details or worked surface surrounding the narrative, but as every aspect of the narrative that is fixed in place. Lore is the only degree of control the author of an interactive story has over the way the story will shape up, even in the most linear of interactive stories. This would make the blocky visual appearance of everything in Minecraft part of its lore. It makes any prologue or supplement found in an instruction manual, or on the back of a game case, lore. Lore now includes the actions mapped to individual buttons or commands, the player-character’s library of verbs.
As a game’s interactive elements create emotional and narrative stake through lore, the game’s story also includes every interaction the player provides directly. This is potential narrative. In Minecraft, this might be traversing a dungeon. The player knows there will probably be skeletons and zombies and treasure, but it’s up to the player to decide what happens in each encounter and how they control their character’s actions. In D&D you may step into a dark and foul-smelling room, but it is up to the player if they want to leave or continue exploring and face a potentially dangerous beast. These encounters may or may not add to the story in any significant way, but operate as independent and potentially emotionally charged events. In games like Mass Effect, players can make different moral choices and decide whether they want to go the Paragon or Renegade route by choosing different dialogue options. These choices often have repercussions later on in the storyline.
Then, we have emergence, or emergent narrative. Campbell writes:
Emergence arises when interaction governed by a simple set of rules transforms into something significantly more complex. While you could view it as a question of degrees — emergent narrative is one notch up from potential narrative — they’re actually complementary concepts. The easiest distinction to make is that potential narratives are, at least conceptually, measurable and recordable. Emergent narratives, on the other hand, can’t be found in the screen or on the page. They are entirely psychic phenomena, and can afflict, without warning, any person tuned in to receive them. In most potential narratives, the player-character’s actions are built from the lore provided by the author. In emergent narratives, the player-character’s actions are built from the actions of the player-character. If potential narrative is like a dungeon full of monsters and treasure, emergent narrative is like Survival mode. A dungeon can be carefully crafted out of lore to lead adventurers to discover certain paths. A dungeon can be constructed. Minecraft’s Survival mode, on the other hand, procedurally & randomly (by way of computer algorithms) generates entire worlds, complete with forests, oceans, islands, mountains, and cave systems. Emergence is why the minutiae and tedium of potential narratives — that 1000th skeleton vanquished, those hours spent mining wood from trees — remain vital. Emergent narratives are unpredictable, and can therefore reliably be expected to adhere to the least expected moments.
Campbell continues: Advertising for video games, which are by and large fairly linear potential narratives, often make a big fuss about the choices presented to the player, all of which tend to fall into uninteresting binary categories. “Will you be a hero? Or a villain? Will you save the world? Or destroy it?” An emergent narrative, on the other hand, doesn’t ask such questions. It doesn’t offer choices. It simply offers a space in which the player is free to act as they see fit. Most potential narratives are multiple choice tests. Emergent narratives are Rorschach tests.
Unpredictable narratives emerge when a simple set of rules yields something more complex. What could be more simple, and more complex, than written language? Campbell asks.
The final layer I want to touch on is the collaborative and social aspects of video game narrative. Video games also allow for a social and collaborative dimension, such as the collaborative storytelling of D&D or the collaboration of a guild in completing quests together in an MMO like Spiral Knights or World of Warcraft. And, more interestingly, games also allow players to be co-authors. League of Legends, one of the most popular games today, began as a mod, an alternate map for Warcraft 3. In Minecraft, anyone can create their own adventure maps, a planned and constructed map with an interactive story, that others can download and play through. Even just in the default mode of Minecraft, there is a great sense of camaraderie in collaborating with other players on a private server to build new cities and worlds, to explore new realms together. It’s no wonder that Minecraft has lately been so popular as an education tool in schools across the country, for students of all ages.
On a larger level, there is even a publically accessible Minecraft server where players from around the world are collaborating to recreate the entire world of Westeros, from Game of Thrones, in Minecraft.
These characteristics that arise out of the unique complex narrative system that is the world of video games might help in also redefining the standards and possibilities present in written literature, in thinking about form, medium, content, space, & the interface. Through an exploration of video game narrative, through exploring these unique layers of interaction and feedback, writers may also be lent new ways of thinking about narrative in experimental literature, and to widen the narrative potential in writing.