Being There: the Game as Narrative

by | Oct 6, 2008 | Learning Games & Simulations, The Anthropocene

Narrative story telling has been part of the the human experience since we told tales of the days hunt around the fire, about what it was like to “be there” when this or that event happened. From that oral tradition, we learned to write them in pictures, then glyphs, and a succession of written languages and media from stone to paper, to the celuloid that captured Peter Sellers’ performance as Chance in Hal Ashby’s Being There, to the electrons (all recycled, I assure you) that are making this blog post possible.

As PJ Haarsma’s Orbis, Scholastic’s Rick Riordan (39 Clues) and so many game designers before them have learned, video games are a narrative form too. But how are they different, what makes them unique, how can we leverage those unique strategies for entertainment, learning, propaganda… or to motivate students? The NY Times reports today that authors and libraries are starting to use video games to lure new readers:

When PJ Haarsma wrote his first book, a science fiction novel for pre-teenagers, he didn’t think just about how to describe Orbis, the planetary system where the story takes place. He also thought about how it should look and feel in a video game. […] The online game that Mr. Haarsma designed not only extends the fictional world of the novel, it also allows readers to play in it. At the same time, Mr. Haarsma very calculatedly gave gamers who might not otherwise pick up a book a clear incentive to read: one way that players advance is by answering questions with information from the novel. Story continues here…

And in July, game designer Steve Gaynor pondered similar questions in a thoughtful essay on his blog Fullbright:

In my estimation every medium has its primary strength. Literature excels at exploring the internal (psychological, subjective) aspects of a character’s personal experiences and memories. Film excels at conveying narrative via a precisely authored sequence of meaningful moments in time. And video games excel at fostering the experience of being in a particular place via direct inhabitation of an autonomous agent.

Video games are able to render a place and put the player into it. The meaning of the experience arises from what’s contained within the bounds of the gameworld, and the range of possible interactions the player may perform there– the nouns and the verbs. Just like in real life, where we are and what we can do dictates our present, and our possible futures. Video games provide an alternative to both the where and the what of existence, resulting in simulated alternate life experiences.

It’s a powerful thing, to be able to visit another place, to drive the drama onscreen yourself– not to receive a personal account of someone else’s experiences, or observe events as a detached spectator. A modern video game level is a navigable construction of three-dimensional geometry, populated with art and interactivity to convincingly lend it an identity as a believable, inhabitable, living place. At their best, video games transmit to the player the experience of actually being there. Post continues here…

I think that’s the crux of what sets games apart: “Video games are able to render a place and put the player into it [and] transmit to the player the experience of actually being there.”

True, a written story does that too, but in a well designed video game the player seemingly controls the world, progressing through the game’s levels (chapters) according to the strategies, tactics and myriad descret decisions made along the way. In that way the story becomes the players own, and particularly for today’s digital natives, more personal and meaningful and impactful than listening or reading alone.


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