Micro-Essay #2: Spatial Storytelling and Virtual Worlds

Cynthia Ahmar (26708587)
ENGL 255
Carolyn Jong
March 24th 2017

 

As we know from the concept of narratology, the study of how narratives affect our perceptions of the world around us, games can tell stories. One could even argue that every game tells a story in its own way, or even that all games begin as stories: a story is intended to convey a message and game creators seek to reach those who will play them, their target audiences, by grabbing their interest, which is what a story is meant to do. However, as Jenkins (2004) points out, games cannot be viewed purely from the perspective of narrative but rather can be understood almost as pieces of art. Just how a game’s visual elements, graphics and other non-textual elements can tell a story is the main focus of Jenkins’ article.

In the game Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2008), we see a prime example of the graphics that depict the physical environment setting the mood in its “An Antique Land” mission: a murky, cloud-covered wasteland inhabited only by skeletons and monsters, the landscape featuring several remnants from a past era and painting a picture of desolation and emptiness. In fact, what can be seen tells us almost less than what we cannot see, what is unnaturally absent. The remnants, located in and around the “muck holes” (Polansky, 2012), tell a story of something that once existed. Seeing them, we can imagine the people who used to live there and the kind of life they lived. Whether our imagination is accurate to the history of this place is not as important as the fact that its environment allowed us to construct our own understanding of it. Jenkins’ (2004) argument that games reveal narrative elements through the use of their designed spaces finds its place there.

Environmental storytelling can also often evoke pre-existing narrative associations: for instance, Dungeons & Dragons (Gygax & Arneson, 2014) uses a lot of fantasy and medieval elements such as dragons, dungeons, wizards and elves. How the game’s environment is set up can also tell us a lot about how we are meant to understand it: a completely empty building can give us a feeling of tragedy, sadness or apprehension. In Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013), visual elements that determine a mood of something that feels unfinished and abandoned include: unpacked boxes and luggage, various paper notes penned by Sam that are positioned in many places throughout the house, cupboards and drawers that can be opened and searched, and even the animations rendered through game code, such as zooming in and out, and moving from one room to another.

Jenkins (2004) argues that as a sensation given through sound, music can also set the mood of a place or situation in a game: an upbeat song can evoke happiness and motivation whereas a slower piece can evoke wistfulness, and if there are lyrics, they can also contribute to the mood through the words used and the voice of the singer. At the end of Gone Home (The Fullbright company, 2013), the feeling that the story is unfinished persists: elements such as the exact nature of Sam’s actions, whereabouts and intentions (both present and future), as well as Katie’s feelings about the entire situation, are left up to personal interpretation by the player who is supposed to be in Katie’s shoes. The song heard at the end also helps to create a mood that reinforces the storyline and its theme of being unfinished, at least from my perspective, with its wistful lyrics and slow and soft music. Sam’s dictated narrative, found at various places throughout the house, is another auditory tool that is used to further unpack the plot while also contributing to this theme: she is sharing various parts of her story with the player but the game ends without a real resolution and on the hopeful note that Sam and Katie will meet again. By the end, these spatial tools have revealed to us a new element in the form of the true meaning of the game: we can see it as Katie (the player) having ‘gone home’, but I think a more interesting interpretation is that of Sam having left her parents’ house and ‘gone’ to her real ‘home’, which to her is anywhere that her girlfriend is.

The visual and auditory elements of spatial storytelling in Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013) serve to create a compelling narrative that contributes to the highly immersive atmosphere of the game, while at the same time potentially leaving the player feeling unsatisfied or at least wanting more by the end. Though this game is a story exploration, it appears to boast similarities to the visual novel game type: expository text, and several accompanying visual and auditory elements. The visual novel is an interactive game particularly distinguished by static graphics and strong characterization, elements that are both present in Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013). Perhaps this game can then be considered a visual novel.


References

Bethesda Game Studios (2008). Fallout 3 [PC Game]. Rockville, MD: Bethesda Softworks.

Gygax, G., & Arneson, D. (2014). Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition [Tabletop Game]. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast.

Jenkins, H. (2004). Game design as narrative architecture. In N. Wardrip-Fruin & P. Harrigan (Eds.), First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game (pp. 118-130). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Polansky, L. (2012, October). The poetry of created space. Retrieved from http://www.bitcreature.com/criticism/the-poetry-of-created-space/

The Fullbright Company (2013). Gone Home [PC Game]. Portland, OR: The Fullbright Company.

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Micro-Essay #2: Spatial Storytelling and Virtual Worlds

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