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.

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Cursor in Fabula

In this article I will have a look at how point&click interfaces work in the articulation of a game’s story. First I will draw a distinction between three fundamental narrative layers. Then I will define the types of narrative articulation that an interface must support for a meaningful and compelling gameplay experience. Finally I will have a look at the game Diablo to describe in more detail how its point&click interface is utilized in achieving the construction of its story.

 

The Fundamental Layers of Narratives

We can distinguish three layers [1] that work together to build the structure of a narrative. These are:

    • Events: This layer entails all narrated (see Narration below) action that initiates, continues and terminates a logically connected sequence of events. [2]

 

  • Actants (story persons): the fictional beings who carry out the actions which articulate as events. [3]

 

  • Narration: the various audio-visual elements and stylistic devices through which the actants and events are constructed and presented: animations, sound effects, POV, camera movement etc.

In the video game, these layers are open to interference/alteration. What enables such interference is of course the ‘interface’, which is a set of input devices that re-configure a user as to identify with, and perform as, a fictional entity in a fictional universe. [4]

 

The Articulation of Narrative Elements via the Interface

An interface will enable the articulation of narrative elements that belong to the three layers mentioned above. In other words, we can speak of three types of narrative articulation that take place as we use the game interface.

  • Chrono-logical articulation: this is the articulation of Events through initiating, manipulating and terminating sequences of actions. Moving a group of soldiers through a desert by clicking on the interface is an example for this.

 

  • Audio-visual articulation: the player’s interferences on the audio-visual continuum that is in progress. Clicking on a mini-map to view different areas of the game world is an example for this. This type of articulation works on the Narration layer since it modifies the way events are presented to us.

 

  • Actantial articulation: gradually unvealing and altering a ‘paradigm of traits’ (=character) [5] through the use of affordances and the making of choice. Every choice we make, and every gameplay option we use will add up to shape and define a story character with specific abilities, skills and personality. This is connected to Actant layer.

As each three types of articulation take place as a result of player interference, the game narrative, which is the combined structure of Events, Actants and Narration, comes to life.

Blizzard’s Diablo: Articulating Three Narrative Layers with One Click

Diablo is one of the best examples to illustrate the successful articulation of a game narrative via a point&click interface. In this game, only by clicking on the interface, a player puts all three types of narrative articulation simultaneously into motion. The result is one of the most addictive games that has ever been created. Using the cursor as the focal point around which all other game systems (such as the camera) are built, provides the player with extremely fluent gameplay that fosters a very strong narrative feel. Let’s have a look in detail at how it happens:

This diagram illustrates how the point&click interface in the game Diablo articulates narrative layers to create a compelling story

At the center of the game flow is the click. A click results in articulation on all three narrative layers:

  • Actantial: A choice is being made, and an affordance is being used. Both are elements that shape and define character.

 

  • Chrono-logical: An action like walking, looting or fighting is carried out. These create a sequences of events. They form the basis of the narrative.

 

  • Audio-visual: Elements of narration, such as camera action and sound, are put into motion. For example the camera performs a travel when our avatar walks, and we hear her footsteps.

As the player continues to interfere with the open work, gameplay builds the narrative.

 

Conclusion

In this article I tried to illustrate through the game Diablo how game narrative can be tied to a game interface in a simple yet striking way. The better we understand the role of particular player interferences in the articulation of narrative layers, the higher are our chances to provide gameplay with a strong feel of story progress.

Notes

[1] A fourth layer, which has been left out of the scope of this article, is the Narrative Situation. For a broader description of these layers, check out my earlier article “Four Categories of Interaction“.

[2] We are speaking of ‘event’ here in a strictly narrative sense, as things that take place in a fictional universe. The narrative event (for example killing a monster) is, although both are obviously connected, not to be confused with the user event itself (like clicking on the interface). This would ignore the process of mediation and synchronization that takes place in order to immerse a being primarily external to the fictional game universe into a primarily fictional role within that game universe. Furthermore, the Events layer cannot be limited to events originating from player input since a variety of events are performed/simulated by the game system itself (like actions of NPCs).

[3] Again, we are not talking about real players/users but narrative entities whose actions and traits are narrated/mediated to us. An actant’s presence is always a narrated one. Hence it is not identical with the real person that gives her input to decide the actions of that narrated presence. Besides, user input is only one of the many ingredients that are used by the game engine to construct the actants presence. Also, games feature many actants which are not controlled by the player but the game system.

[4] An interface isn’t simply the extension of a real person. The role of the interface is to re-configure and synchronize our real presence with an in-game presence that is designed to possess the qualities that drive the plot forward. This is crucial in creating a feel of immediacy between, and identification  with, the actant’s role that we will perform in the game world.

[5] The definition of character as a ‘paradigm of traits’ has been put forward by the American narratologist Seymour Chatman.

References

Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film.

Four Categories of Interaction

Interaction has often been used as a term to support the argument that games should not be studied with the concepts and tools of narratology. In this article I go the other way and approach interaction from a narratology-based perspective.

The Layers of a Narrative 

 An analyses of narrative structure reveals four narrative layers:

  1. Events (or Functions): all actions that are carried out to initiate, continue and terminate a logically connected sequence [an example from Diablo: zombie is on attack –> kill zombie –> collect gold]. [1]

  2. Story persons (or Actants): the fictional beings who carry out the actions which articulate as events. Often they’ll signify something larger than their partiular presence and connect to a “will”. [Back to the Diablo example: All monsters in the game are actants or story persons. But ultimately they articulate under a narrative “force” that we can identify as “Diablo”. This is the “will” that aims to break the “will” of the story person that we act as in the game world.]
  3. Storytelling (or Narration): the various techniques and methods through which the events and story persons to which they belong to are presented to the player. [Examples from Diablo: Exposure of information through entering dialogues with the people in town; gothic iconography and low gamma to foster mood and to communicate genre, etc]
  4. Narrative Situation: the broader rules and conventions that shape the way in which games (game narratives) are consumed. This is not really part of the narrative itself, but rather means the circumstances and cultural codes that allow the game narrative to be perceived and consumed as such.

 

The Archetype of Interaction in Video Games: Influencing the Events Layer

Historically, the video game has been a form of narrative that through input allowed players to influence how a row of Events will turn out. While players were not the creators (authors) of the game universe, they were nevertheless the Story Persons that  the design of the control and interface (and the choices they made through these) amounted to [2]. This is the archetype of video game interactivity and it remains until today fundamental to any game. Gameplay built around influencing the Events layer has been (probably because of technical constraints) the dominant mode of interaction for many decades, exemplified right from the beginning through games such as Spacewar!, Pong, Asteroids, Space Invaders, Centipede, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Zaxxon etc etc etc.

Traditionally, the author/game designer would narrow down the possibility space of the game in order to maintain a certain degree of logical continuity within the Events. Despite her freedom, the player would stay on ‘track’ because the design of the ‘system’ and its mechanics would exercise its structuring force onto her choices and behaviors. Today however, we witness games in which the possibility space in regard to the Events layer is kept broader, especially in games that want us to consider the ethical implications of our choices and present to us more than one major course of action. Games like Fable, Deus Ex and Black & White, known for their ‘non-linearity’ and multiple endings, come in mind.

Expanding Into Other Narrative Layers: Story Persons and Narration

Over time we saw game designers explore the possibilities of the other layers of narrative. MUDs and genres such as RPGs and Simulations put emphasis on a variety of interactions that had as their subjects story persons and other game world existents: Players could modify or remove existing characters, create characters from scratch, change their looks, traits and behaviors. Other games allowed us to change the environment, to add, modify or remove objects, to modify terrain etc. Civilization, Sim City, Diablo, The Sims, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Railroad Tycoon, X-Com Apocalypse, Football Manager are games that come in mind. They added onto the archetypical layer of events, the ability to modify the layer of story persons and existents.

Nowadays, most modern games have added to these two layers the modification of the layer of Narration: We can now modify the camera angle or behavior, switch between POVs, chose the music and gamma (ambience) that we want to dominate the game world while we play, alter the frequency of in-game commentary, switch on or off replays, and many many more options… Pro Evolution Soccer, Need for Speed, Medal of Honor are just a few examples that come in mind… 

New Narrative Situations and the Future of Interaction 

With Project Natal announced, we prepare ourselves to witness revolutionary changes in narrative situation (our broader defined relationship with the medium we interact with). The way in which we ‘consume’ games seems to undergo significant changes. However, we yet have to see how “the player as controller” will gain functionality and what it will bring with it in terms of interaction with the other narrative layers present in a game.

Notes

[1] The Events layer implies that characters in a story are in a constant process of decision-making. To give an example:  [phone is ringing –> Option A) answer call; Option  B) don’t answer call –> different outcomes for Option A and B]. In extreme situations chosing the ‘wrong’ option could mean “end of story”.

[2] In drama theory it is often pointed out that choice is character.

The Snowflake: A Model for Stories with Branching Structures?

Today I was at the local bookstore. As I was looking for a copy of Homer’s Odysseia, I came accross a section dedicated to Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel-Prize winning turkish author. An illustration on the backcover of his book Kar (Snow, published in 2002) suddenly catched my attention. Here it is:

Illustration from the backcover of Orhan Pamuk's novel "Kar" (Snow, 2002)

Illustration from the backcover of Orhan Pamuk's novel Kar (Snow) dating back to the year 2002.

The cover artist combined a stylized snowflake with the names of characters and sections in the story. I don’t know wether it was Pamuk’s own idea. But suddenly I heard myself saying: “Stories are like snowflakes: They all look alike, but still each one of them is unique.”

More than that, I think a snowflake model could be useful for game writers that work on stories with “branching” structures.