Interactivity v. Fiction: Videogame Narrative

Over the course of the coming week, I'll post my reflections and notes from my literature review in preparation for my upcoming conference. The posts during this week will be focused on how we can understand videogames as stories, how those stories are told, and what value those stories have in the lives of our students.

Mateas, M. & Stern, A. (2006). Interaction and Narrative. In Salen & Zimmerman (Eds..), The Game Design Reader (p. 642-667).

There is a continually give a take between narrative and gameplay in videogames. Gameplay centers on the player interacting, changing, and responding to the game world. Narrative centers on the player moving down a specific path to experience a predetermined story. While there is give and take, the ideas are not mutually exclusive to each other. And Mateas argues that can be and should be a balance between the two.

Mateas discusses a variety of types of narratives, including emergent narratives where the player constructs their own story and meaning from the events in the game world. Emergent narratives are an important piece of MMO worlds. Players are creating and adding story elements into the gamespace either as backstory or to expand upon the characters and events happening within the game world. Emergent narratives are not limited to MMORPGs though, gamers have created side stories within a variety of genres and games as diverse as Grand Theft Auto and Madden Football.

Mateas walks through a brief history lesson on videogame narratives by discussing text based adventure, interactive fiction, and interactive drama. He limits the discussion to the early development of narrative in games tying it specifically to traditional literature.

In 1998, Murray presented three categories to analyze interactive stories and they are still valid for game criticism today:

- Immersion, the suspension of disbelief, feeling of being in the game

- Agency, ability to relate to the character, develop a sense of ownership

- Transformation, as masquerade and as personal transformation

Immersion is a sense and experience that most games strive for. Most players are willing to suspend their disbelief, at least for a time. If the game takes the player out of the experience through gameplay or design mechanics, the immersion can be lost. But players are forgiving. Agency is part of the equation in that forgiveness. Players are able and willing to be taking in and out of a game if there is a strong sense of agency developed. Agency is important not only to the success of gameplay, but to the success of the narrative.

“A player will experience agency when there is a balance between the material and the formal constraints (p.654).” Agency allows for a junction of narrative and gameplay. The story is not only compelling the player forward but the gameplay is allowing and supporting the desire to move forward in the plot and in the game. The player not only understands the how of playing the game, but the why as well.

Images: Crackdown from CrackdownonCrime