An Unintended Manifesto

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Today I was thinking about the future of videogames and game design. Whenever I am asked questions about this or given t-shirts saying 'Save the Videogame' to wear, I sink into the couch and get all philosophical. Not so today. It seems that ages ago, GameSpot had interviewed me for an article on narratives in games. Just bits of what I had to say went in because of the context of the article but there was quite a lot left in the questions that they asked. Today, almost a year since, I've found that email of mine. Seems like a mini manifesto. Let's see what the Souvik of a year ago had to say about games:

Questions for Storytelling Feature
  1. Tell me a little about your background and how long have you been researching video game narratives?

My first brush with game studies began in 1999 after I came upon a demo of Age of Empires in a pc magazine. This was in Calcutta in the late nineties and pcs had just begun to appear in middle-class homes. Videogames were still a novelty for the Indian man in the street. As a student of Literature, however, I couldn't help noticing that I was playing and replaying a story (actually history, in AoE) and in a way, writing my own story even as I read it. Since this was quite close to my theoretical orientation, I saw some obvious connections between non-linear and ludic texts (like the Alice books and Borges's short stories) and videogames. In 2000, I presented a paper exploring the links between American McGee's Alice and the Alice books by Lewis Carroll, which received a fair share of attention in my university. Unfortunately, I had little access to the works of Ludologists and Narratologists and related literature. Neither did I have much encouragement in terms of funding or infrastructure to pursue this. So while I developed my ideas in my MPhil dissertation, I also saved up to come to the UK and started my PhD in Nottingham Trent University in 2005. Thereafter, I have developed my ideas within a more sophisticated theoretical framework and had the opportunity of testing my ideas at international conferences before I finally received my PhD in April 2009.

2. What research have you most recently done?

My PhD thesis explores the narrative aspects of videogames, stressing the importance of viewing them in relation with older narrative media and related theoretical frameworks. I strongly argue against binarisms such as ludology-narratology and player-studies vs game studies, opting instead for a framework where the game , text and the machine are viewed as intrinsic to the understanding of each other. Simply put, videogames are not conjuring up something terribly new --- they merely point to a more sophisticated idea of reading that has existed through millennia. Videogames, whether you see them as complex ludic stories or narrative games, point to the need for a more nuanced way of engaging with texts. My research explores some of the complexities of videogame narratives particularly controversial and/or confusing issues like their multiple endings (made even more complex by the save and reload function), immersion and agency (I am uneasy with both of these terms and am using them as a shorthand). I use some ideas from the philosophies of Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze as my main theoretical framework.

Recently, I have started working on videogames and trauma and am simultaneously developing my work on the multiple endings and the complex time structures that videogames present. For the forthcoming DIGRA conference, I intend to analyse the save and reload functions in videogames in comparison with the cyclic notion of endings and telos in Eastern philosophical traditions.

3. What are the results of this research?

The results ? Well, in tangible terms they would be 120,000 words on videogames, millions of dead zombies and terrorists (pixellated), endless levels completed, undiscovered pathways and many more worlds (games) still remaining on my exploration wishlist. Academically speaking, my research is yet another small step in raising the awareness of videogames as an important narrative media and also an attempt in moving game studies beyond the simplistic theoretical parameters that define it, so far. Finally, it also aims to bridge the gap between the academia, the gamer and the industry in general. Quite a dream, I know but I am one of the many people who share it and I hope to chip in with my bit.

4. Do you think video games are an effective storytelling medium? Why/why not?

For me some are and some aren't. Some are effective enough to keep me hooked on to a narrative which I read as well as bring into existence (of course different games have different limitations for this). Think of a game like Max Payne and I don't think there should be any doubts. Do you not remember what happened to you in City 17 when you were Gordon Freeman? The term 'effective', of course, brings in a value-judgement that I do not subscribe to. I view videogames as a multiplicity and, therefore, cannot comment on the phenomenon of 'the Videogame'.

5. The way people tell stories has evolved, and continues to evolve. Would you be ready to call video games the new storytelling medium? Why/why not?

The way people tell stories has evolved although people still tell stories in every way they can and using every medium they can use, whether old or new. Likewise, they way people respond to stories has also changed. Videogames mark both of these developments. I wouldn't call them (or any other medium for that matter) the new storytelling medium; however, they are certainly significant as storytelling media inasmuch as they point to certain hitherto neglected but key aspects of telling and responding to stories.

6. Some people believe that traditional forms of narrative don’t have a place in the interactive medium, and if placed there, will not work. What would you say to that?

Depends on what they mean by traditional forms of narrative. If they mean the Aristotelian plot with the clear-cut beginning, middle and the end, then certainly videogames will struggle to conform. However, even older narrative forms exhibit a considerable degree of multiplicity, which is often not adequately focused on. With the advent of videogames and their subsequent usage of plots and generic conventions from novels and films, this multiplicity is coming more and more to the forefront. Deleuze's idea of the 'rhizomatic text' is quite useful in understanding this. I am quite surprised that people still make such extreme claims and I believe more research needs to be done in the area before coming to quick conclusions.

7. Similarly, what do you say to the view that that video games should only focus on creating good interactive gameplay (instead of focusing on story) because at the end of the day, games are supposed to be fun?

Aren't stories fun? And isn't there a link between the story and the gameplay? Pace the Ludologists, gameplay includes the narrative potential of those videogames that tell stories. The story and what an earlier GameSpot definition of gameplay calls 'how well a game plays' really go hand in hand. Consider, the Prince of Persia games or Assassin's Creed without the context and without the Prince and Altair. Difficult, isn't it?

8. Do you think that what you are doing in your role as an academic looking into video game narratives is helping video games progress as a storytelling medium?

I certainly hope it is. I have answered this somewhat in the earlier question on the results of my research. I should clarify, though, that videogames are already a narrative medium. All I'm trying to do is to make this more obvious to academics and designers alike so that there is a deeper and more serious engagement with videogames and so that people stop dismissing the gamer as a geek and the videogame as a teenager's toy. Really, it's high time people realised.

9. Do you find yourself actively trying to change the medium in the way described above? If so, how, and why?

I am not trying to change the medium as such although I earnestly desire better games that explore the narrative potential of such digital media. I was asked in a recent conference about what I thought of the Sherlock Holmes adventure games and I answered that I was greatly disappointed with their restrictive interface. I am looking at ways of tying together storytelling and design in a more efficient manner. My Sherlock Holmes should be able to hail a Hansom and wander around London looking for clues but without getting thoroughly lost and getting away from the game.

10. What’s the opposing view to video games as effective storytelling mediums? What does this view say and suggest about games?

Well, in the early days of game studies, the field was was marked by what is known as the Ludology-Narratology debate. Ludologists would often make extreme claims about videogames being only games and not stories. Markku Eskelinen famously said that when you throw a ball, you don't expect it to rebound and tell you a story. The so-called Narratologists (the term usually applies to a group literary critics who have very little or nothing to do with videogames) counter this by a claim that videogames are the same as literary texts. Both of these positions are problematic and recent scholarship in videogames acknowledges them as being so.

11. Do you think that video games can, and will, one day have the same reach as books, films and TV (i.e. other traditional storytelling mediums)?

I think they will. The industry (if I am rightly informed) has done well despite the recession. Games are fast becoming popular outside the West and Japan. From another angle, they are being used for a variety of purposes and are impacting people from all walks of life. We must remember that the initial hostility towards videogames and the difficulty in understanding them were also experienced by other narrative media such as the novel and cinema. Look at how influential these are, today.

12. Some video games have great stories, and others have great gameplay. But it’s very rare for a game to successfully marry the two and make players strengthen their engagement with the narrative through gameplay and vice versa. Why do you think that it’s so hard to make a game that has good balance between story and gameplay?

Well, making a game that is fun is always a difficult task and this holds true even for non-digital games. Similarly, there must be millions of novels being written every month the world over and we only come to know of a few of these. Videogames bring the two together and it is quite obvious that this isn't easy. It depends on the designers and what they want to achieve. If you are making a racing game like NFS then I suppose you won't think much about a story or say, you make a super-gory shooter like POSTAL (apologies to fans who think otherwise) then the story element won't be a terribly important factor. However, if you consider the Half-Life games, Max Payne, Splinter Cell, Metal Gear, Assassin's Creed, Fable (the name says it all) or Fallout 3 , the story and the gameplay go hand in hand. I'm sure there will be gamers who will disagree with me but then again, that's the point about texts - they make you think and engage with them at various levels. Videogames clearly do this.

13. Do you think new technologies and a growing appreciation of video games in society are helping video games to become better and more effective storytelling mediums?

Yes to both. Good graphics and game engines can enhance storytelling possibilities (although they do not necessarily do so always). Certainly, if more sections of society are involved with videogames then that increases the reach and the range of the medium. This impacts on the storytelling as well.

14. Finally, please feel free to add anything else you think is important for this story!

Very good questions. I've tried to answer them as best as I could but I'm sure a lot more remains to be said. Some day, I think, videogames will be analysed in classrooms much like other narrative media and some day, not very far away, I'll play my 1000th videogame.

Well, that's that then. What do you think?

note: I have since this interview done all the things that have been reported on this blogspace. Right now, I am thinking about working on walkthroughs and 'docugames' as future projects - watch this space for more. Meanwhile, I have done some research on morality and ethics in games and I will soon be writing a paper on reading Sherlock Holmes as a videogame!

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