John Noel Buendia De Leon
ENGL 255: Video Games and/as Literature
17 February 2017
It’s all about the game and how you play it
The experience of video games does not only differ from game to game but also from person to person. But before we can critically talk about these differences, some argue that there should be certain parameters in how to steer that conversation, creating a debate on how video games should be talked about and analyzed. As discussed by Murray, the study of video games can be divided into two camps: ludology and narratology. The former is interested in video games as a distinct form of media (with its own unique properties unlike movies, novels, etc.) while the latter is concerned with the narrative aspects of games including storytelling and characters. However, I would argue that games should be studied in terms of both their formalist and narrative properties by showing how advantages of both viewpoints make for a more coherent understanding of video games.
As pointed out by Juul, video games and narratives collaborate to give the player the “gaming experience”: Narratives can instruct players on how to progress through the game, reward them with cutscenes (maybe learn more about the different characters) and give players the opportunity to talk about what went on in a particular gaming session. In contrast, the “gaming experience” can be acquired without these narrative aspects as, unlike movies and novels, video games have the unique distinction of having an interaction between the player and the game. This results in games that have no clear stories or characters but still be very popular. Juul brings up the example of Tetris, where the main character is the players themselves who receive in-game evaluations as reward for their tile-matching efforts and motivation to progress through the game.
While the two above points show the advantages of viewing games as ludology and narratives, it is only when they are put together that we can understand all aspects of a game. Perhaps a personal experience can help to explain this matter. In the game Every Day the Same Dream, you play as a man who just woke up from his sleep and needs to go to work. At one point in the game, an old lady tells you there are “5 more steps and you will be a new person”. Eventually, when I was outside, I went the opposite direction the game “seemingly” wants you to go (the parking lot to your car) and ended up meeting a hobo who took me to a cemetery. I was then returned to the start of the game. After running into the old lady again, she said that there were only 4 more steps left. It is at that moment that I understood that the idea of the game is to find the remaining endings. In this example, it was both the game’s mechanics (going back to the start of the game) and narrative (the old lady’s foreboding message) that helped me figure out how to progress and eventually finish the game.
As both Murray and Juul argued, the study of games should consider both aspects of ludology and narratology. As stated in “Bad Writing – Why Most Games Tell Bad Stories”, game development should take into account the game’s narrative just as much as its mechanics. If this is what it takes to make a good game, then it follows that a good study of a game should follow suit.
“Bad Writing – Why Most Games Tell Bad Stories – Extra Credits.” YouTube, uploaded by Extra Credits, 25 Jan. 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=KG1ziCvLkJ0&ab_channel=ExtraCredits
Every Day the Same Dream. Molleindustria. 2009. Video Game.
Juul, Jesper. “Games Telling Stories? A Brief Note on Games and Narratives.” Game Studies 1.1, July 2001, http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/juul-gts/.
Murray, Janet. “The Last Word on Ludology v Narratology in Game Studies.” Conference Proceedings, DiGRA 2005, 28 June 2013, http://inventingthemedium.com/2013/ 06/28/the-last-word-on-ludology-v-narratology-2005/.
Tetris. Alexey Pajitnoc. 1984. Video Game.