The first half of my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” course is devoted to five major debates that have hovered around games over the past couple of decades. Some of these are legal, some have occurred in the art world, some have occurred in the sphere of popular discourse, and others are academic. For the first academic debate, I pitted Janet Murray‘s ideas about the storytelling potentials of new media agains the hard-core ludologists.
When prepping for this lesson, I found re-reading the ludologists in 2017 to be an unpleasant experience. Looking back at the early-2000s era writing of folks like Espen Aarseth and Markku Eskelinen, it’s pretty clear that they were the academic precursors of the game police. And not the snarky, tongue-in-cheek Game Police parody twitter account that arose in 2013. I mean the angry young men, who would later become Gamergate, but who already, in 2012–2013, were barking back at “corrupt” journalists praising games they didn’t see as games: games that told stories, rather than let you shoot things. These young men took it upon themselves to politicize the term game, to define its boundaries and beef up its border security. A “videogame” became a medium you couldn’t freely pass into until you showed your papers, and proved that everything was in order. The most vigilant among these enforcement agents, the Joe Arpaios of gamer culture, enjoyed a wide jurisdiction and acted at their own discretion, with great impunity. (Is it really any wonder that this burgeoning culture of alt-right gamer trolls would evolve into one of Donald Trump’s key blocks of support?)
As I said, it is tough re-reading, let alone teaching, the ludologists in 2017. As a consolation, though, it is a delight teaching Janet Murray. Time has proved her to be an exceptionally good predictor of the future, meaning that reading her twenty-year old Hamlet on the Holodeck is a surprisingly exciting experience.
Take, for instance, this pasage:
Putting broadcast television into digital form would also allow producers to make previously aired episodes available on demand. A hyperserial site would offer a complete digital library of the series, and these episodes, unlike the same content stored on a VCR tape, would be searchable by content. … Such an encyclopedic representation of the complete series would offer television writers, the larger, more novelistic canvas that serial drama has been moving toward for the last two decades. Writers could think of a hyperserial as a coherent, unfolding story whose viewers are able to keep track of longer plot arcs and a greater number of interconnected story threads.[i]
Yes, Janet Murray, writing in 1997, just described the contemporary Netflix & Hulu-powered “quality television” moment, beat for beat. When I read that passage out loud, the jaw of one of my students literally dropped. And, as I continued on, it just … kept … dropping. It’s nice to see such engaged reactions to course reading materials!
Elsewhere, Murray makes some predictions that are directly relevant to videogame storytelling. How does she stack up, here? To answer this question, I had students look at three games: Façade (Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, 2005), and the much more recent HER STORY (Sam Barlow, 2015) and Oxenfree (Night School Studios, 2016).
Now, admittedly, I was stacking the deck here somewhat in Murray’s favor. HER STORY and Oxenfree, though they came out in the last couple of years, feel tailor-made to re-invigorate old debates over how successfully a game can tell a story. There’s a definite “party like it’s 1999” vibe to HER STORY, in particular. Paolo Pedercini of Molleindustria is quite accurate when he writes, “Old New Media folks would call it database storytelling. Old gamers would see it as harbinger of a Full Motion Video revival.” Still, though, I think there’s a way to talk about the successes of these games, and the possibility that contemporary game designers have learned from the conversation between figures like Murray and figures like the ludologists, and figured out how to better turn stories into games (and vice versa).
Discussion: HER STORY and “story as reward”
I had students play HER STORY as a take-home assignment, so we began class discussion with that. I lead with a brief five-minute free writing exercise, in which I asked students to write a quick gameplay experience reflection. “Take a moment to describe your experience playing HER STORY,” I instructed my students. “Don’t just talk about the game, and its story in the abstract. Write down a few first-person details of your time with it.”
After students had written these, and a few students had presented their reflections, I broke students into four groups. I posed the following four questions, asking each group to give a quick presentation on each, before opening all of these to broader class discussion:
- What is the story of HER STORY? Who are the characters? What actually happened? (Be specific!) How is what happened told?
- In what ways is the story of HER STORY not told in the same way as the story in a novel? Or in a film? How would you describe your experience of discovering the story?
- What do you think Janet Murray would say about HER STORY? What sort of literary or artistic traditions might she connect it to? Do you think she would like it?
- Do you think that someone arguing from the perspective of “ludology,” such as Espen Aarseth, would characterize HER STORY as a “game”? Why, or why not? What might someone like Aarseth have to say about it?
In the discussion that followed, a couple students made some insightful points about how HER STORY turns story into a reward, using the classic mystery questions of “whodunit” and “howcatchem” as a motivation for players to keep exploring its database of clips.
This struck me as a great avenue of conversation. In fact, it left me me regretting that I hadn’t assigned Celia Pearce’s article “Towards a Game Theory of a Game” as either an addition to, or outright alternative to, Aarseth’s “Genre Theory” and Frasca’s “Ludology Meets Narratology.” (These were my two representatives of “ludology” for the week). Pearce offers perhaps the best example of the way in which “story as reward” tended to be dismissed in this particular moment in game studies. “Whereas narrative theorists, academics, and those engaged in a critique of games are obsessed with narrative, many game players find narrative quite problematic” Pearce writes, criticizing to the practice of “cutscene as reward,” in particular. “It seems counterintuitive to use passivity as a reward for play. Many game players associate the idea of ‘narrative’ with this type of enforced linearity.”[ii]
However warranted Pearce’s complaints about “cutscene rewards” might be (and however warranted similar points made by figures like Aarseth might be), the fact of the matter is that HER STORY doesn’t fall into this trap. It doesn’t simplistically use “story” as a reward for successful gameplay. Instead, it offers up answers and the satisfaction of our curiosity as a reward. It transforms the pleasures of motivations built into our appreciation of any form of storytelling—the basic driving questions of “and then what happened?” and “what is really going on?”—and uses them as the reward system guiding our continued rule-based exploration of a database.
In stark contrast to Pearce’s charge, the result is anything but linear. One of the central features of HER STORY—and the reason I find opening any discussion of it with personal gameplay experience reflections to be a necessity—is that it is more or less impossible to have the same experience of the game twice. No two players’ untangling of the story will be exactly the same. Furthermore, it would be impossible for any player to ever return to the game and experience the story in the same way. The tiny “aha!” moments that propel the player on to making a specific connection, finding a new and productive term to search for in the database, will always be a feature of that playthrough, and that playthrough alone. Yes, several players might point to the same clip as representing the moment where they “got it,” but the process by which they discovered that clip will always be unique to each player. Pulling from Pearce again, we could say that the most interesting story one can recount when it comes to HER STORY is not the set, authored narrative, but rather the descriptive accounts of one’s own experiential narrative, that emerged as they negotiated this piece of software and discovered the secrets of what was hidden within.
In other words, HER STORY, an an experience, is less about this …
… and more about this.
Discussion: Façade, Oxenfree, and Murray’s trade-off
Alright: although HER STORY is, I think, an example of something that came out recently that Murray would like, we’ve drifted a bit from the explicit discussion of Murray’s predictions. Let’s turn to another block quote from Murray’s own writing, shall we?
At one point, Murray proposes that future interactive narrator authors will face a trade-off between what we might call interactor freedom and authorial control. Some relevant passages:
If participatory environments merge with authored environments, as I think they will, tensions between the author and participants may increase. There will always be a trade-off between a world that is more given (more authored from the outside and therefore imbued with the magic of externalize fantasy) and a world that is more improvised (and therefore closer to individual fantasies). …
A cyberdrama that combines a strong central story with active role-playing would need clear conventions to separate the area in which the interactors are free to invent their own actions from the areas in which they cannot expect to have control.[iii]
I used Murray’s description of this trade-off as my launching off point into Façade and Oxenfree. For pragmatic logistical reasons, I didn’t have students play these ahead of time. Instead, we took time in-class to have one volunteer do a complete session of Façade, and another volunteer play a portion of Oxenfree in front of the class.
After these play sessions, I again had students to a quick five-minute free-write, before breaking off in to groups to tackle more specific discussion points. My free-write question this time was:
- Offer your impressions on these games, as we saw them. What seemed to be their strengths, and their weaknesses? (Think especially along the lines of user interfaces.)
And my four questions for group-based discussion were:
- Which game do you think “works better”? What this means is up to you, but some things to consider: which seems more fun? Which is more ambitious? Which succeeds more at its ambitions? Why, or why not?
- Which game would you be more likely to enjoy in another medium … if it were translated into, say, a theatrical play, a movie, or a television series? What would be the pleasures of that play/movie/TV series/etc.?
- Which, if either, do you think Murray would like better? Why?
- Which, if either, do you think a “ludologist” like Aarseth would like better? Why?
The relative successes of these games when taking into consider the varying ambitiousness of their user interfaces is a major interest point for me, and something I wanted to use to steer students’ reactions toward these games back in the direction of Murray. Specifically, it is quite clear to me that Façade and Oxenfree stand on opposite sides of the gulf Murray posits between interactive fictions that seem improvised, versus interactive fictions that are more given by the author. Both have their pleasures, and their drawbacks.
Façade, with its natural language parser, gives players a tremendous amount of freedom to improvise a character as they see fit. There are drawbacks to this approach, to be sure. The pacing is weird, given how long its characters (Trip and Grace, a couple whose marriage is clearly crumbling in front of their friend’s eyes) need to pause to give the player the time to type in their responses. And there are times that the parser—though admirably robust in some ways—very clearly picks up on a key word and uses it as a flag to direct conversation, even if the overall tenor of the player’s response was at odds with the way the computer is reading it.
Overall, though, it’s something that, over a decade later, can still impress students … if only as a simulator of cringingly awkward social moments, complete with long, confused silences.
One thing that students found shocking was the revelation that, since 2005, adventure games and interactive fiction built around natural language processing really haven’t progressed that much. In a world where many people can interact daily with Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and “OK Google,” it seemed odd to them that this type of interactive drama game had withered on the vine, rather than keeping up with contemporary natural language interfaces. (One of the only notable recent examples that I’ve played is last fall’s Event.)
Instead, we’ve seen a swing toward the “world that is more given,” on Murray’s scale. Developers such as Quantic Dream and Telltale Games have helped push the contemporary big-budget adventure game further in the direction of “interactive drama,” and the approach both companies favor is to strip away the weirder possibilities of something like Façade‘s parser in favor of clearly-delineated dialogue options.
Up until recently, I would have assigned one of Telltale’s games to explore this aesthetic. However, 2016 gave us both Firewatch and Oxenfree, games made by ex-Telltale developers that arguably do this sort of thing even better. I ended up going with Oxenfree, as I found its dialogue to be the snappiest of any I’ve encountered in a videogame so far.
The tradeoff here is, I think, clear: Façade gives its player an impressive amount of freedom, but the price we pay for this freedom is a certain degree of unresponsiveness and awkwardness. Something like Oxenfree chucks freedom aside for a limited palette of options, but the benefit is crisp dialogue with razor-sharp characterizations, with a Whedon-like pacing (and sometimes Altman-like propensity for overlapping dialogue) that Façade could never dream of.
Perhaps such pleasures are not enough. Perhaps they seem too close to the pleasures of television, or cinema. Still, though, between things like HER STORY and Oxenfree, I think it’s an exciting time to be a Murrayite.
[i]. Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free Press, 1997. Pg 256.
[ii]. Pearce, Celia. “Towards a Game Theory of Game.” In First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. Pg 148.
[iii]. Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck. Pp 266–267.