Souvik Monday, August 10, 2009(read the article here: http://au.gamespot.com/features/6214951/index.html)
Laura Parker of Gamespot Australia interviewed me a few days ago about that most contentious of subjects in videogame studies: the role of storytelling in games. Every time I speak about this, I do so with mixed feelings: I anticipate rising degrees of opposition, easy acceptance and finally, the risk of being scoffed at yet again for daring to equate videogames with the established and lofty notions of literariness. However, as the days have gone by since I first started thinking of videogames as storytelling media, academia has stopped considering videogames in the earlier pejorative light and pockets of research are emerging in the unlikeliest corners and adding academic respectability to videogames. Even as videogame studies has moved far beyond its earlier coaxial locations of some Scandinavian universities and Georgia Tech in the US, game studies has not yet decided on whether it wants to admit to the narrativity (another game studies coinage, I think) of videogames. Some of the so-called Ludologists have now softened their earlier anti-story positions and some like Jesper Juul, in his book Half Real and as quoted in Parker's article, have altogether re-evaluated the situation. I find it difficult to disagree with the spirit of Jesper's comment and I admire how much his position has developed in these ten years. By beginning to ask the important questions (particularly relevant to my interests are his notions about time in videogame narratives), he has opened up many avenues for other researchers. To comments such as that of Professor Dutton, all I would say is that they are not new. Robert Wilson was making a similar case against the ludicity of narratives and the narrativity of games as long ago as the 1960s. The Ludologists, especially those like Markku Eskelinen, Like his notions of Physics, Aristotle's conception of the plot (as might be inferred from his Poetics) have achieved a rather questionable sense of finality that most students of literature learn to question in their first undergraduate year (or so I hope). The formula of distinct beginnings, middles and ends is not universal. Neither do stories necessarily have predetermined endings. I could go on at length about how this applies also to Dutton's example of Homer's Odyssey (thinking about the Homeridae etc) but of that another time. Eastern (or shall we say non-Eurocentric) notions of narrative have always been at variance with such set parameters. Recent developments in literary theory also point towards multitelic stories. I will make another quick point here against Dutton's description of the story element in videogames as a 'window dressing' and his comparison of BioShock and GTA 4 with 'a tea-party for teddy bears'. While these make me laugh, it is quite clear that such conclusions are extremely contestable. The teddy-bear bit quite intrigues me - a very unusual metaphor considering the plots of the games he cites. As for the 'window-dressing', oh well, I think that the whole context of the games involves a supplementary narrative experience (for the Derrideans out there, the word 'supplementary' was used on purpose - read the right hand column of Ludus Ex). Finally, whoever said that we do not get inside the characters we play - I know of people (and can see at least one in the mirror) who often feel as if they are Max Payne or Gordon Freeman. Shan't say any more on this.
Anyway, I really liked Laura's article. She doesn't take sides and presents the case lucidly while also reminding people that this is important stuff. I learnt a lot from the article - Rhianna Pratchett's comments being my favourite. Am eagerly awaiting the next part of the article (coming out next Friday) - check out Gamespot Australia or watch this space. I had so much more to say on this but then my 9 to 5 job usually kills all my enthusiasm by the end of the day (game research is increasingly becoming a luxury , yet again) and I am struggling to keep my eyes open. Thanks a lot to GameSpot Australia for discussing this issue and for featuring my comments.
'Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material [...] but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning' - Italo Calvino