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Project Description

Posted: September 5, 2013 in Uncategorized

Narrative Transmission in Video Games

The main goal of this project was to apply the concepts of narrative transmission to specific video games. I realized during the course of the semester, and especially when preparing for my symposium, that I had no practical experience with video games as a medium. It had been many years since I last played any games, and the technology in gaming development has advanced dramatically since that time. I understood the concepts of Genette, but, due to my lack of experience, I was at a loss as to how these theories could be applied to this form of new media.

One question raised during the course waswhether or not games could be considered narratives at all, especially if the story world of the game was optional and dependent on the interactivity of the player. My goal was to explore this question, find out how the concepts of narrative transmission apply to games, and try to find out if games can be an effective medium for story-telling. 

            Simply put, in order to achieve my research goal it was necessary to play video games. I had to choose video games, play them, and analyze them for their uses of narrative transmission. Games were chosen somewhat randomly. Don’t Starve, for example, was chosen because of its lack of rules or instruction and my lack of any previous knowledge about the game. It was my intention to discover the story as I explored the game space and then analyze the narrative as it occurred.  I hypothesized that, by having no rules or instructions, Don’t Starve would allow for a greater level of interaction and exploration of the game space and therefore story.

Finding that Don’t Starve contained very little to no story during my gameplay, I then chose Bioshock as my second game because of its wealth of story. In the symposium with Stefan Schubert, he suggested that it was interactivity and exploration of the game space which determined how the player understood the story. I believed that Bioshock could indeed be considered a narrative if played with a high level of interactivity.  

Gravity Bone, my third and last game, was chosen because I felt another game would round off my research and perhaps provide a happy-medium between my first game, which was practically devoid of story, and my second game, which was packed full of it.

The theories applied are those of narrative transmission according to Genette. I have analyzed the particular games on their different levels of narrative, meaning if the narration is extradiegetic or intradiagetic, and the different levels of story, considering if the narrator is hetero-, homo-, or autodiegetic. Also important to my work was looking at Genette’s distinction between narration and focalization.

Problems encountered were those intrinsic in the medium itself. Video games do not necessarily have narrative elements to which the theories can be applied. Don’t Starve had no initial exposition of story, and story was still non-existent after several hours of play.  

Also there was the problem of who was narrating or speaking. In all three games played, there was no extra- or intradiegetic narrator in any classic sense. Instead, diegetic visual or audio elements and cues were used, as in the case of Bioshock, and the function or absence of narrator became less important in relation to focalization.     

Problems were solved by looking specifically at how the games I played use theories of narrative transmission in their own unique way. As I already mentioned, use and presence of narrators widely differed in the games; therefore, I found that focalization and how I perceived and explored the game world was often of more importance than who was speaking. In order to understand story, I was able to focus on diegetic elements if and when offered by the game. In Bioshock, for example, exploring the game space and picking up on these diegetic elements was key for understanding the narrative. When I played with less interactivity and only to achieve the goal of advancing to the next level, I had much less understanding of what kind of narrative was being played out.

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Sources

Posted: September 2, 2013 in Uncategorized

Sources

Bioshock. Irrational Games. 2K Games, Aug. 2007. Video Game.

Capati, Shawn. “BioShock: Good and Bad Ending HD.” 02 Aug. 2009. YouTube. Web. 02 Sept. 2013.

Castellanos, Michaela. “Concept Definition: Narrator.” Universität Bayreuth. Universität Bayreuth, 2011. Web. 02 Sept. 2013.

Don’t Starve. Klei Entertainment. Klei Entertainment, Apr. 2013. Video Game.

Egendfeldt-Nielson, Simon, Jonas Heide Smith and Susana Pajares Tosca. Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

EthosLab. “Etho Plays – Don’t Starve: Episode 1.” 20 Nov. 2012. YouTube. Web. 02 Sept. 2013.

Fawdz. “Gravity Bone – Playthrough.” 21 Aug. 2012. YouTube. Web. 02 Sept. 2013.

GameSpotTrailers. “Don’t Starve – Origin Trailer. 26 Feb. 2013. YouTube. Web. 02 Sept. 2013.

Gravity Bone. Blendo Games. Blendo Games, Apr. 2008. Video Game.

Lethbridge, Stefanie, and Jarmila Mildorf. Basics For English Studies. Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Mar. 2004. Web. 02 Sept. 2013.

llMadManxllMedia. “Let’s Play BioShock – 1 – Welcome to Rapture.” 05 Mar. 2009. YouTube. Web. 02 Sept. 2013.

Nitsche, Michael. “Focalization In 3D Video Games.” Digital World & Image Group. Georgia Institute of Technology, Oct. 2005. PDF file. 02 Sept. 2013.

Russel, Dave. “Video Game Audio: Diegesis Theory.” Dev.Mag. Devmag.org.za. Dev.Mag, 19. Apr. 2012. Web. 02 Sept. 2013.

Schwanebeck, Wieland. “Chapter 5: Introduction to Narratology: A Brief Summary of Narrative Situations (Stanzel vs. Genette).” An Introduction to Literary Studies. TU Dresden, 2010. PDF file. 02 Sept. 2013.

xXxBunnyEarsxXx. “Don’t Starve – Ending (Spoilers!).” 19 Apr. 2013. YouTube. Web. 02 Sept. 2013.

Conclusions

Posted: September 2, 2013 in Uncategorized

Now that I have actually played a few video games (about 20 hours in total), I have a much better understanding of how narrative transmission in games works. In my analysis of the various games, I have tried to apply literary theory as a means of understanding narrative transmission. Unlike in film and books, however, we have to make some allowances for the new media of video games.

First of all, the category of narrator or the level at which the story is told does not necessarily apply. In all three games there was not necessarily a narrator as we would typically think of as found in literature. Instead, the games I played, especially Bioshock, used diegetic elements such as sound or written information to produce the story.  I am sure there are games which feature definite narrators or voice-over narration, but I have yet to play them. I do not know if or how that affects the way the game is played or the story is experienced.

More important than who narrates, I have found, is the focalization used in games. If exploring the game space and interacting with the game is important for story, then internal focalization at the level of the character is critical. Seeing through the eyes of Jack when playing Bioshock, I was fully immersed in the game world and better able to pick up cues offered to me by the game. Again, my understanding or awareness of these cues and story of course depends on my level of interactivity. When interacting very little with the environment, I was still able to play but my understanding of story suffered as a result. Interaction with and exploration of the game space is key in understanding story in a games such as Bioshock. Without this, it is only a game and not an effective medium for story-telling.

On the other hand, external focalization is appropriate for a game like Don’t Starve where there are no real diegetic elements to pick up on. Seeing from the perspective of Wilson would make the game nearly impossible to play. The world of the game is too large and there are no instructions to guide players. Having a greater overview of the world from above is critical for achieving objectives and facilitating gameplay.

My investigation into video games leads me to believe that games can be an effective, albeit non-traditional, medium for story-telling. They can be, but they do not have to be. A game does not have to offer story to be played, and a story can be available without being experienced. Nor does the story have to be linear, as is often found in films or literature. Depending on what is offerered by the game and on the level of interaction of the player, the possibility for video games as a story-telling medium are endless.

Please stay tuned as I continue to play and explore new games in future, and watch as my life unravels due to my new addiction.

Bioshock – First Impressions

Posted: August 30, 2013 in Uncategorized

In comparison to Don’t Starve, Bioshock is rich with story. From the beginning, compulsory cut-scenes helped to introduce me as a player to the story and immerse me in the game world. The protagonist of the game is Jack, and we perceive the world from his level of internal focalization.

The question of who is narrating is very interesting in this particular game. There is not any one narrator informing the story. Rather there are several intradiegetic characters found somewhere within the game space that speak to Jack through radio communications. They structure the game play with tasks and directions and function somewhat as overt, homodiegetic narrators.

I have been playing with different levels of interactivity in the game space, which I will be more precise about in my analysis. Briefly, the basic idea is thus: after surviving a plane crash, Jack makes his way to an underground city called Rapture. He is given tasks through radio transmission by a man called Atlas.

I have been playing several hours and am very interested to see how this unfolds. Unfortunately I seem to be stuck on the Upper Wharf and do not know how to get out!

After two hours of playing, I still understand nothing more about the story than when I started. I know from the character selection menu that my character’s name is Wilson, and that he is a gentleman scientist.  After clicking play, he woke up on the ground with another man standing over him. The man spoke in speech bubbles that had to be read. (From here on out I will also sometimes be referring to Wilson as the character and me as the player as “we” or “us.”) We were instructed to find some food, and then the man disappeared. Who he is and his role in the game is still unclear. There was no introduction or cut-scene, and there is no voice-over narration, only non-diegetic background music.

We were left to explore some kind of wilderness, collecting food and objects along the way. Wilson is able to examine objects and talks to himself as well in the form of speech bubbles. Sometimes there are speech bubbles to prompt us to eat or start a fire when it gets dark. So far there are no other characters to interact with. I do not know why we are here or what we have to do. Gameplay is structured in days. We are wandering around exploring our world during the day with the help of a map and are keeping the fire lit and tended at night.  The only task seems to be to collect and explore. I assume the purpose is as the title suggests – I should not starve.

Terminology and Further Reading

Posted: August 27, 2013 in Uncategorized

In my blog I will be using some terminology relating to video games and narritology. For anyone unfamiliar with these terms, below I have provided some links for further reading.

A Summary of Narrative Situations (Stanzel vs. Genette) – http://tu-dresden.de/Members/wieland.schwanebeck/introduction_to_literature/course_2/5b.%20Narrativik%20Erzaehlsituationen.pdf

An Introduction to Literary Studies – http://www2.anglistik.uni-freiburg.de/intranet/englishbasics/NarrativeSituation01.htm#narsit

Concept Definitions for Narrator – http://www.amerikanistik.uni-bayreuth.de/de/teaching/Projekte/Melville/Concepts/Narrator/index.html

Focalization in 3D Video Games – http://lmc.gatech.edu/~nitsche/download/Nitsche_Focalization_05.pdf

Audio Diegesis. From Dev Mag – a game development magazine –  http://devmag.org.za/2012/04/19/video-game-audio-diegesis-theory-2/