Saturday, February 20, 2010

Narrative in Control

What is about games and narrative these days? Somehow they're improving, subtlely, consistently, trying to snake some sort of pop culture title from movies. In truth, I think gamers, especially those who are quick and willing to jump on the pyres of those who would attack and undermine their beloved medium are the ones who want to compare games to movies.

And it's not complete bull shit for movies to worry and reject games. Games are big business the way movies are big business, and books have business but neither games nor movies will sully their own efforts by thinking books their equal or competitor. When Grand Theft Auto IV released on a Friday, Iron Man and Hollywood shuddered. Obviously they knew what kind of business GTA was capable of, but in the end people see movies AND play games, and both titles saw great audiences.

No, I don't think games are as near to movies as they'd like to be. This forward march of the narrative ability in games has me thinking they they're a lot closer in kinship to books. Mass Effect 2, in particular got me thinking about these similarities, though the same arguments could be made about lots of games, including Uncharted 2 and Assassin's Creed II.

Of course, the character development, the dramatic action, building to a climax and the conclusions afterwards, and the setting are all literary likenesses, but these aspects are not significantly tied to only games and books. These are prerequisites of all storytelling mediums. Building an argument for "games and books" isn't going to reach very far when you consider storytelling techniques as a universal criterium of narrative. Then what is it about games that makes them similar too books?

I believe games are nearer to books in aspects that are not emulated by the rest of the storytelling traditions. Instead, the way games are personal bring them closer in spirit to books. We read books by holding them in our two hands. Games are the same. Whether we are playing a portable system, or clutching an Xbox 360 controller late into the night, we control the medium of games with our hands.

We might not believe that books are as active as games are, especially since games deal so heavily in interaction, but narrative in games is very similar when you consider that books have a form of gating games make more complicated. In a book, you have to turn the page in order to continue the story. What happens when you don't defeat all enemies in a game like Uncharted 2? What happens when you die in Mass Effect 2 (not the ending)? You have to start the encounter again. Dying interrupts the narrative, and is representative of not turning the page. Turning the page is the way we interact with the narrative of a book. Games put this interaction at center stage and sell it even moreso than the narrative. This is the established order, although games like Heavy Rain are bucking this staple of gaming narrative by letting the story continue after a character has already died. The bare bones of it all is that we control the narrative of books in the way we determine when it starts and when it stops. If we never pick up a book without finishing it, what does the narrative do? Dies it sputter and die in our consciousness the way Shephard might die from a flurry of lazed fire?

It is also undeniable that we experience books and narrative games in the same way. We are a solitary audience, whose conciousness is unaffected by a commune of people sitting in the dark. When we finish a game, we can be sure that there are many of us who immediately hop online to share our thoughts on an experience, but the opinion of each player is affected by their individual experiences. How successful were they in dispatching Drake's foes, or did the Shepard the individual commanded use powers or brute force of arms? These fleeting differences in gameplay allow for more personal interaction, and thus draw games closer to books in the ability for one reader to interpret a description of a character different from another reader. This argument could be undermined very easily by disbelief, but how does your impression of a place or person differentiate from another in any given book? The same question is asked of players and the tactics they may use in completing any objectives laid in front of them of any different game. How did you beat this section? How did you get to this area?

I may be full of shit, but I know that drawing this connection has enriched my experience in both literary and interactive works of art of late. If you have any thoughts, please leave them in the comments.

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