Dublin Diary: Another After-Action Report

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Back to the hot Delhi summer and temperatures that do not seem ever likely to drop. The peacock cries outside my Greater Noida home sound jarring after when I remember Temple Bar in Dublin from the last three or four days. I was at the SHARP 2012 conference in Dublin  - a brief respite from the heat and dust. Now, unusually jetlagged, I am wide-awake with the memories of the last few days floating in my head.Yes, I was speaking about after-action reports and other videogame paratexts; Dublin with its history of literary innovation was the best venue one could have asked for. After all, this is the place where the 'after-action report' of a day in the life of a certain Leopold Bloom is set...

I've long argued that the narrative element in videogames is of crucial importance for an understanding of how stories work. The burbling of Rushdie's 'sea of stories' with all its multiple potential stories developing all at once and yet with paradoxical difference is encountered in the medium of the videogame. So to Dublin and the 'Battle for Books' Conference organised by the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing. My aim was to speak to a wider audience than just the community of game studies researchers and to reach out to literary critics, scholars, book historians, librarians and publishers with this message:

Videogames tell stories and they tell them interestingly; however, the stories are multiple, ephemeral and much of the storytelling occurs within the performance itself. It is, therefore, not easy to analyse these stories or even to recognise them as such using traditional methods of narrative analysis. To ignore them, however, would be to turn away from the complex ways in which storytelling occurs.

Difficult as it is to analyse such ephemeral texts, using Gerard Genette's framework of 'paratexts' it is possible to approach the textuality of the ephemeral videogame-stories and to freeze individual sessions of gameplay for analysis. Paratexts such as walkthroughs, after-action reports and 'let's play' are helpful in this. My paper was an attempt to establish these as serious objects of research and (may I be so bold) narrative analysis. 

What made it more interesting and easier was that I spoke as part of a panel on New Media forms of the book. Professor Alexis Weedon, the chair, had already established the strong links with older narrative media here : the other presentations were on  screen adaptations and the much-neglected importance of the practice; and on the transmedial textuality of the videogame Muddle Earth with the books and films telling the same story and with other texts across various media. The first by David Moorehead, a PhD scholar from the University of Bedfordshire, was key in setting the tone and showing how all adaptations link to each other and how the media-specificity of each should not be neglected. This was followed by Claudio Pires Franco's talk on tranmediality. Claudio is the gaming and research consultant at Dubit Limited and as a designer cum academic bridges some massive gaps between the two arenas. Claudio's was an interesting take on how important the story is in games and with a clear introduction to the game narrative, game engines and in-game limitations (such as the lack of slapstick humour due to budget constraints of the producers), he made it much easier for me to ground my presentation in the discourse around transmediality and take off from there.

Anyway, here's a preview for those interested. The slideshow's too big to upload but I'll work something out soon (a pdf maybe)

Rewriting Unwritten Texts: Videogames, Storytelling and Paratexts

The Patachitra painter in Eastern India paints pictures that tell many stories; accompanied by performance every painting brings to life some narrative that is told and retold, often with variation. On the contrary, in the Pata paintings the same story is represented by differing iterations of the painting – lines, brush strokes, colour and even images keep changing thus presenting a complex pattern of difference and repetition.  The shape-shifting narrative is still contained on canvas in the Patachitra; moving on from the eighth-century art form to the present day we find a similar problem in a new narrative medium: the videogame. Videogame narratives are ephemeral and experiential; as such they cannot be ‘fixed’ as texts or contained in any medium. One way to approach the elusive textual experience of videogames is through player-created texts, whether visual or written recording the experience and the strategies of play. Moving beyond earlier debates on whether videogames tell stories at all(for a conspectus of the ludology-narratology debates, see Frasca), this analysis is concerned with the many games that have an explicit storytelling purpose and tries to address the ephemeral experience of ‘playing’ and ‘wreading’ (Landow) these game-stories as texts – a task which traditional Literary Studies and the Humanities at large, struggle to achieve. As in many other aspects where digital technologies have raised key questions about how texts and culture are experienced, this is an attempt to look at these problems from a Digital Humanities angle and using the tools of poststructuralist theory.

In the game, The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the protagonist is aware of the temporal complexity of his story when he tells the player ‘no no that is not how it happened.’ The Prince, nevertheless, has to realise that the sands of time that he has unleashed have made it possible for different events happening at any particular time and space or for the same event repeating itself in different iterations. All the stories that emerge out of this are valid; like Borges’s Garden of the Forking Paths, time folds upon itself in myriad ways. Like Borges’s Pierre Menard rewriting the Don Quixote through his ‘translation’, the videogame player also constantly rereads and rewrites the story in a videogame. Only in this case, the text is not captured on paper. To analyse such a text and thereby to give videogame-texts greater legitimacy in Humanities research, one needs to access the material created around the text. Gerard Genette’s concept of ‘paratext’ describes the ‘reinforcement and accompaniment of a certain number of productions, themselves verbal or not, like an author’s name, title, a preface, illustrations.’ For Genette, the text (that is the printed text) does not come ‘in its naked state’; this is all the more true of videogames. Few gamers will will claim that they were not in any way influenced by a walkthrough (a sequence for solving a game designed by a player who has already done so), cheatcodes, their own memories of failure in an earlier instance, guidebooks, adverts and even game covers. Mia Consalvo rightly comments that:

In two decades, we have moved from a trickle to a torrent of information, and it all plays a role in shaping our experiences of gameplay— regardless of the actual game itself. Yet how can we make sense of such a system? This system isn’t the game industry but is closely related to it. To call it peripheral dismisses or ignores its centrality to the gaming experience. Whether we admit it or not, we have learned how to play
games, how to judge games, and how to think about games and ourselves as gamers in part through the shaping of these industries.

The paratextual material is being recognised as being increasingly influential in making sense of all aspects of the gameplay experience. Among this assemblage of paratextual material, one needs to  identify those that come closest to representing the game story. Perhaps, ‘paratext’ itself is too loose a term – the main types that that are of interest here would be walkthroughs, player-diaries, game guides and books which tell the story of the game in print. Henry Jenkins concept of transmedial texts is important in this context. Jenkins describes it thus: ‘the encyclopedic ambitions of transmedia texts often result in what might be seen as gaps or excesses in the unfolding of the story: that is, they introduce potential plots which cannot be fully told or extra details which hint at more than can be revealed.’  To analyse videogame stories, those transmedial paratexts that come closest to presenting the game-story with all the potentialities need to be tackled. Two obvious choices to consider would be the game-diaries that gamers often call after-action reports and also what is called the ‘Let’s Play Archive’. 

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