Mediation, Play and Narrative in the Video Game

The diagram below present a model of the communication process in video games.


Mediation, Play and Player

In the upper half of the diagram we see the basic relation between video game medium, game discourse and player (the yellow rectangle).

Central to the process is the relation between the open text (the game) and the implied reader (player). The video game medium frames this relationship.

I define interaction as the mutual influencing between the open work and the implied reader over a medium.

The model takes as its basis a distinction between the real player and his configured presence as the implied reader. Rarely ever do games need us as exactly the real persons that we are. In order to take on the role of an actant in the fictional universe of the game we must adhere to certain restrictions on how to use our body (for example in soccer, outfield players must pretend that they have no hands), or we must allow our actions to be translated into the game world through the use of tools (a physical move being represented by playing a card), and must accept certain assumptions and hypotheses on who we are and what we aim to achieve. These are far away from who we are and what we can do as real persons. Without the reconfiguration of the real player as an implied reader who “speaks” in terms of the game vocabulary, the real player would not be able to join the reciprocity cycle.

Narrative, Artefact and Author

The orange and purple shapes at the lower part of the diagram show the relation between narrative (style and content), artefact (software) and author (game developers).

The narrative form of a video game is managed by the game engine whereas the narrative content of a video game is stored as data. Data contains information on game events and existents. The game engine deals with how this information is assembled, articulated and presented via the medium.

Similar to the distinction between real player and implied reader, the model makes a distinction between real author (the game developers) and the implied author (the persona that presents the account). The distinction is meaningful, because the same real author may create narratives whose implied authors are different.

The implied author is an invented unique voice that gives the narrative a consistent approach in the way in which it frames events and actants. The way in which this implied author gives a picture of the game world, may be completely different from the ethical and cultural views of the real author. For example the real author may construct an implied author who is pro-racist in order to make an anti-racist point.

It is mainly the game engine that is designed in a way to construct the game world based on the assumptions of this implied author. However the style and quantity of the data is equally important. An implied reader may for example not say discriminative things about women, yet female characters may be completely absent from the game universe which in certain instances could be interpreted as a sexist stance. The real author will often be held responsible for creating such implied authors.

Game Narrativity and Interaction

[This article was first published on gamasutra.]

Introduction

This article presents a number of maps that help to frame the relationship between game narrativity and interaction. They define narrative layers and their elements in a game and tell us to what degree they are open to player manipulation.

You may use these maps to detect
 
a) the “open” and “closed” parts of your game (which of the narrative elements in your game are open to manipulation and which ones are not);

b) the focus of gameplay in your game (which narrative elements is the player asked to deal with most);

c.) which narrative layers and elements you may invest more into in order to increase the joy derived from your game.

Let us have a closer look at the maps now.

I. Main Map: Narrative Layers

Classical works on narratology distinguish between four interdependent layers that form a narrative.

The first two of these layers, Events and Actants, provide the content of the narrative.

The other two layers, Narration and Narrative Situation are regarded as the form of the narrative.

Shown as a map, it looks like this:

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II. Detailed Maps: Narrative Form 

Narrative Form contains the first two narrative layers: Narrative Situation and Narration.

Narrative Situation

Narrative Situation addresses the broadest parameters. We usually deal with aspects of the narrative situation when we specify overall gameplay options or when we decide on a certain game mode: For example preferring a Capture the Flag mode over a Deathmatch mode are manipulations in regard to narrative situation. They are about specifying the broadest lignes of the narrative content and its narration.

Before we start to play a session of Rise of Nations or Civilization, we are allowed to specify the settings in the game (whether we’d like to play on a single continent or over a number of islands, which time frame we prefer etc), the number of existents (how many rival nations there will be, what the population limits will be etc) and their aspects (whether special abilities are allowed or not etc), the winning conditions (under what condition the conflict will be regarded as solved) etc. Moreover we can specify sight & sound settings and  change key assignments. All these operations are carried out on the narrative situation layer. Our choices will have an impact on narration and the content that will be narrated.

The bubble diagram below gives an overview of the layers of narrative form and their elements:

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Narration

Narration, on the other hand is the audio-visual and tactile presentation of the fictional game universe, its existents (including the player’s presence), and the events that take place in it (including the narration of and “feedback” on the player’s actions and decisions).  

While interaction is an distinguishing aspect of video games and often leaves the impression that there is no narration since things are done by the player in real-time, players must still be informed about their own actions and the happenings in the game world. This is an elemental part of video game narration.

Video games make use of a huge arsenal of audio-visual and tactile narration style and techniques. Some of them are based on the style and techniques of previous media, whereas others may be regarded as being unique to video games. 

A game that allows us to modify the ways in which sight, sound and other types of information are presented to us can be regarded as being open to manipulation on the narration layer. Examples would be Need for Speed, in which we can switch between first-person and third-person perspective, or Counter-Strike, in which we can modify the angle of our perspective by moving the cursor. 

Statements

Statements are medium-dependent, that is, every medium has its unique possibilities and limitations in expression.

Narration consists of Statements which may be mediated and unmediated, that is, they may be expressed through the voice of a narrator or not. In many games we will find a mix of unmediated and mediated statements.

In cases in which the statements are mediated, they are voiced by or hint at a narrator whose speech addresses a narrattee.

Mediated and Unmediated Narration

A lot of games seem to be narrated eclusively through unmediated statements, that is, they make minimal or no use of a narrator. Instead of a verbal account of things, they go for a “simulation of events”. Indeed, most “formal” games (like for example Tetris) are of this kind.

The text adventure genre on the other hand, can be given as an example in which mediated narration is preferred. In such games, the presence of a narrator and a narrattee is often very easy to detect. The narrator would simply say things like “You [the narrattee] stand in front of a closed door.”

But we should always be prepared to find a mix of mediated and unmediated statements: In a game that went with unmediated statements for a long time, you suddenly may come accross a mediated statement (and vice versa). In Railroad Tycoon 2 for example, for most parts of the game, narration is based on the simulation of events and supported with frequent appearances of newspaper headlines etc. It is difficult to trace down a narrator in all this. Thus, the ongoing narration may be regarded as to be built around unmediated statements. Yet at certain moments, a narrator pops up and gives us an account of things: “The city council of Pittsburg offers you 200 K if you connect to their city before 1872. Do you accept?”; or “Good job. You’ve connected to Chicago. You can still earn a bronze if you connect to Denver before 1879” etc. Also the intro scene of a new game level welcomes us with the speech of another narrator; an old Southerner with a torn voice. He comments about our good work in the past level, and warns us about the challenge we will face in the next one.

Pro Evolution Soccer or FIFA, in which players can turn on or off in-game commentary, the choice is in regard to whether we want a match to be accompanied by a narrator, that is, the presense of flow of mediated statements.

Narrators and Narratees

Football Manager
is a good example of how complex it can become in regard to the presence of narrators. This game uses mediated statements throughout the communication that takes place on the message boards. Here, one of the narrators uses statements like “Your assistant informs you that…” whereas our assistant might have spoken directly to us. Another narrator uses the register of sports news portals. Yet another narrator is the match commentator that accompanies with his comments the simulated events that take place during a match.   

Games that allow us to turn off tutorials are often examples for at least one narrator in the story being eliminated. 

We must distinguish between pure narrators and character-narrators. Some narrators may not be involved into the events that take place, but they may be still all-knowing about them, while others may be actively involved into the ongoing events, but yet possess limited information on the situation. An example for the latter would be Max Payne, in which the protagonist is the narrator of the mystery that he tries to solve.

When a narrator is involved, his statements are always directed towards a narrattee, that is, someone whom the speech is addressing. The narrattee isn’t necessarily the player, but may be some other character in the game world. 

The Sims is an interesting example because it allows players to narrate the lives of their characters by adding character descriptions. That means that the player may add a narrator to the story. This narrator (which could be simply the player’s self) may pretend to know the truth about the otherwise only simulated characters and events, and once this narrator gives a recount, she has already addressed a narratee (which might simply be again the player’s self). 

While modern games give us a lot of freedom in modifying the parameters of narration, we must remember that just two decades ago this was rather rare.  For example the majority of classic arcade games do not allow for manipulations on the narration layer: In games such as Centipede, Pac-Man or Space Invaders the audio-visual style and the aestetic parameters of the statements that are produced through them are not manipulable. We have no option in regard to change whether the statements are mediated or unmediated. We have no chance to manipulate the number of narrators and the style and content of their recount, nor can we modify anything on the narrattee’s side.

The bubble diagram below shows us what questions may be asked in order to tell the openness of manipulation of narrative form.

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III. Narrative Content: Actants

Actants are the characters and the settings that play a central role in the maintenance of the plot. Actants possess a degree of functionality in making the plot progress. Central to this are the actions they carry out, and how central these actions are in deciding the outcome of the narrated sequence of events. 

Degree of Importance to the Plot

A good example for the degree of importance to the plot is how we perceive our encounter with ordinary enemies and with bosses. Ordinary enemies are often just some “loot bags” to us, we often use words like “cannon fodder” when we speak of them and by doing so, we address their degree of importance to the plot. On the other hand,  the encounter with a boss is perceived as a milestone in the progress that we make. We consider this as a core event which also reveals that the boss type of actants have a degree of importance to the plot. Oviously, the actant with the highest degree of importance to the plot is our own actant.

The same counts for settings. In Rise of Nations for example, some environmental elements and existents may have no big importance to the plot, whereas resource areas are central to it.

Aspect

Aspect is in regard to the identity and qualities of the actants, such as their moods and traits. These may be detailed or shallow, depending on the game we play. Also the type of narration sets a limit on how much we know about the aspect of actants. For example in large parts of Duke Nukem we have not much knowledge about the physical appearance of Duke due to the first-person perspective that the narration is visually build around (until we come accross a mirror!).

Sometimes the aspect of actants may only become only visible through their actions. For example in Tetris, the player is an actant that becomes visible through his decisions in regard to how he moves and places blocks; whereas the “antagonist” becomes visible through his choices in regard to which block to send next. “It” challenges us by sending the blocks faster and faster, often denying us the block that we are in need of to clean the level. All these reveal aspect to a certain degree.

On the other hand, a lot of games provide us with a lot of information about the aspects of actants. In Football Manager for example, you may find information about the identities of managers and footballers, and the statements they release in the press tell us about their moods and traits. Some will always apologize when you fine them for unproper conduct whereas others will be very rejective and immediately demand to be put on the transfer list. Actually, the FM Editor provides a database that allows us to overwrite the aspect side of actants: You may change a soccer players identity, his mood (level of aggression), and his traits (likes to the chip the ball, or likes to play it around the keeper etc.) and all these will have an impact on how events will play out.

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In terms of openness of the actants layer, The Sims is a remarkable example: The detailed character creation process in the game is first and foremost about creating characters that are important to the plot. But then, it is also about defining the details of their aspect. We have great freedom in shaping the identity and qualities of characters and settings. And we can simply put an end to their importance to the plot by removing families and homes from the neighborhood. Besides, the many expansion packs of the Sims series add a great number of settings and characters, and new options to alter their aspects. 

A lot of social games (Farmville, Cityville etc) are games with focus on the manipulation of settings. However, we may consider the farms (normally just a setting) as “characters”, because they become so central to the plot. On the other hand, the connectivity of these games due to the broader network that they are part of, ensures that players come across a great number of other players. Depending on how relations develop, some of the players we meet may turn into characters (because they become central to the plot, like a “worker” that agrees to work on your farm), and some remain just as “setting” (a bunch of avatars in the bar that say stupid things anyway).

We must add however, that a lot of games do not allow for change on the actants layer. In most games we use a given character and struggle against a given set of characters. We are often not allowed to change the aspect of these characters. More than that, in such games, the characters degree of importance to the plot is also often given. This is the case in most of the games in early video game history. For example in Donkey Kong, the array of actants, their degree of importance to the plot, and their aspects are fixed.

The questions we may ask about our game in regard to its openness to manipulation of the actants layer are shown in the bubble diagram below: 

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IV. Narrative Content: Events

Events typically include the actions and happenings in the story. Whether an event is an action or a happening depends on agency, that is, the answer who carries out the action, and who is subject to it.

On the other hand, necessity marks how central an event is to the plot. An event that can be skipped or ommitted without making the narrative as whole collapse, is a sattelite, whereas an event that opens a gap in the logic and chronology when removed from the narrative, is a kernel.

Agency

Actions are the things done by actants. Happenings on the other hand are those things that happen to characters. The difference lies in agency. It must be understood that often one actants’s action equals to a happening for the actant subject to that action. For example in a multiplayer FPS, an action is when I shoot at someone, whereas for the player that is my target, the same thing is a happening.

In most single player games, players deal with the actions part, whereas the AI cares for the happenings. In Sim City for example, the actions are centered around the players decisions in regard to how to build the city, whereas the majority of other events comes in form of happenings: Traffic, smog, riots, disasters, crime rates, advisors speaking to us etc.

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Necessity
 
Events are categorized based on the level of necessity they possess. Some events are core to the story, that is, if we’d leave them out, the experience feels incomplete, as if it were truncated. The narrative simply wouldn’t be able to maintain itself without that event. Certain quests or cutscenes are kernels, because when we skip them, we may not be able to obtain a key that is necessary to unlock another level, or we may miss an important information that may be later on necessary to solve the conflict. 

Sattelites, on the other hand, are complementary, but not necessary. For example we can skip quite a lot of quests or cutscenes because the events they contain are sattelites, not kernels. The narrative can live without them.  We may ask the following questions in regard to the events layer:

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Historically, video games have been always open to manipulation on the events layer, even though to a limited degree: The archetype of video game interactivity has been the manipulation of actions. The player was given a minimum of agency by being allowed to decide on the actions carried out by an actant.

However, modern video games allow players for more than just carrying out actions. They may allow players to decide whether they want to be put through satellites (skipping cutscenes; choosing a save point to start from, being allowed to skip entire levels); they may allow to alter the freqrency of certain happenings (setting the traffic level in Need for Speed, or setting the frequency of train robberies in Railroad Tycoon 2), and they may allow to put constraints on certain actions (disabling or enabling special moves) etc.

V. Interaction Chart

The chart below present a summary of the questions we might ask about the narrative layers in a game and their degree of openness to interaction.

The questions are general, but they might be refined depending on the particular game that is being analysed.

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As a designer, you may use this chart to ask testers and gameplayers about the experience they have with the game. The feedback these players provide to you may help you to assess the narrative aspects that they are happy or unhappy with in your game.

You may also use it in design meetings with other designers to discuss certain aspects of the game that you are developing together.

As game researchers you simply may use this chart to see how certain games deal with their narrative layers. You may also apply it in historical studies, trying to follow the evolution of certain platforms or genres in regard to their openness to manipulation of particular narrative layers and their elements.

Note:

The model of narrative layers presented in this article is based on the works of Seymour Chatman and Roland Barthes.

Necessity in Video Games

Necessity: A Necessary Introduction

Necessity is a term in drama theory. It addresses the presence of the threat that inevitably comes at the protagonist and forces him into action. The protagonist is left with no other option than to deal with the problem. For example young John O’Connor won’t get a rest until T-1000 is being defeated because T-1000 won’t stop until John O’Connor’s life is “terminated”.

As can be easily understood from this example, necessity is

  1. central to establishing conflict
  2. a primary source of character motivation
  3. a fundamental tie between conflict and character

Necessity must provide an answer for the following question: Why can the protagonist not simply ignore the threat and walk away from it?

You may be surprised to find out how many stories lack necessity. And you may be even more surprised to find out how many games lack necessity.

 

(Inter-)Action out of Necessity

The fun and addictiveness of some of the best arcade games can be explained by the mastery of their designers in creating and maintaining necessity. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Pac-Man: The ghosts come at you and they won’t stop until you have eaten every single dot in the maze.
  • Centipede: The centipede comes at you and it won’t stop until you have shot every single piece of it.
  • Zuma: The ball chain keeps moving toward the evil mouth and it won’t stop until you have cleared every single ball in it.
  • Tetris: The geometric shapes keep falling and they won’t stop until you have disposed enough of them by forming lines.

As can be seen from the examples, these games provide a clear answer to why the protagonist cannot simply ignore the threat and walk away from it. From the first second on, the threat directly comes at you and you are strongly motivated to take action.

There are many other ways to create necessity and if you look a bit more carefully at the games you love to play, you will be surprised of the many forms in which necessity can be created:

  • Pro Evolution Soccer: The opponent team keeps coming at your goal to score and they won’t stop until the match is over.
  • Civilization: The competing nations will keep coming at your territory until history is over and you will be wiped out if you don’t make progress.
  • The Sims: The bills will keep coming at you and without accepting a job you will starve from hunger.
  • Sim City: The running costs of the city will drive you into bankruptcy if you don’t invest into your city to make it financially grow.

 

No Necessity = No Motivation

On the other hand, some games make us wonder why exactly we deal with the problem that is seemingly posed at us. We lack an explanation of what motivates us into the actions that are demanded of us; we find it difficult to understand why we do the things we are being asked to do. Despite detailed characterization, extensive backstories, and long poetic dialogues, we feel that we have no fundamental reason for our actions. This is because of a lack of necessity.

In such games, it can be said that the game designers and writers put great effort into lower level narrative design, but they forgot to work on the higher level. Without making sure that necessity and motivation is in place, it doesn’t really make sense to go into great detail in regard to characters, backstory or dialogue. After all, it’s not so much about who you are or were, but about what you’ll become in the face of necessity. Hence, putting a lot of effort into characterization and other lower level aspects of story will not be able to fill the gap that has been left open by lack of necessity. After a while we will find no motivation to keep playing the game. We will feel like we are dealing with satellites that are missing their planet.

Some will say that games are different in that regard since they use reward systems to motivate the player. However, phenomena like grinding tell us that reward systems may at times fall so far from necessity that the player may even forget what motivated her into the repeated action. 

 

Outer and Inner Motivation

Necessity is a strong element of motivation, but in games it is also a great way to create identification and characterization. While in non-interactive narratives some effort will go into creating a tie between the protagonist and the spectator (=identification), video games have the chance to go for direct address: Before you even realize it, you *are* identified with the protagonist and start shooting at the threat that comes at you. Half of what you need to know about your role (=characterization) is already told/revealed to you by the actions you are forced to carry out. And the other half often doesn’t matter anyway.

The phenomenon of the sufficiency of outer (=physical) action to create basic dramatic tension has been explained in drama theory by the distinction between two types of motivation:

  1. Outer motivation: The inevitable physical challenge that forces the protagonist into action.
  2. Inner motivation: The psychological dimensions of dealing with the challenge.

Drama theory says that narratives can live without presenting any information on inner motivation (which may make them feel shallow though since we won’t learn much about the character except the actions she prefers to carry out), but that they cannot live without outer motivation. In other words, we will always be exposed to what the characters do, but we may not always exposed to what the things they do mean to them. A lot of games simply leave the latter part to be filled in by the player, since physical action alone is enough to maintain the basis of the narrative; besides, action too, “tells”.

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Thanks for reading!