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Video Game Narratives

The field of video games is extremely popular today with over three billion active video game players (Howarth, 2023). As video games are such a prominent art form, many researchers have studied their concepts (Domsch, 2013; Eskelinen, 2001; Juul, 2001; Ryan, 2006). An early debate among researchers focused on the concept of narratology in games (Ryan, 2006, p. 181). The debate opposed ludologists to narratologists: “Narratologists claim that video games are narratives; ludologists claim that video games are not narratives” (Domsch, 2013, p. 13). Both positions are somewhat correct. Many games include narratives, such as Halo: Reach (2010) and Mass Effect (2007), and some do not, like Tetris (1984). Video games are a new media, it is only natural that theories that apply to film and literature cannot be used (Juul, 2001). While theories of narration and story structures, from Aristotle (c.335) to Robert McKee (1997), famous narrative theorists, cannot always be directly used in video game analysis, claiming that games are not narrative is incorrect as proved by the incredibly successful Mass Effect (2007) and Halo: Reach (2010) games, scoring 9.4/10 and 9.5/10 respectively (IGN, 2007; IGN, 2010). Similarly, excluding the new media form and the interactivity of video games is a mistake when it comes to game studies.

Ludologists perceive stories as a waste of time: “Stories are just uninteresting ornaments or gift-wrappings to games, and laying any emphasis on studying these kinds of marketing tools is just a waste of time and energy” (Eskelinen, 2001). Stories in games are seen as nothing more than marketing tools or gift-wrapping, not the gift itself (Eskelinen, 2001). Ludologists admit that video games have stories, but still deny their place in the new media based on the assumption that it is not a real part of the game, simply a marketing device, thus making stories exterior to the art form (Eskelinen, 2001). This idea seems to be mostly founded on opinion rather than fact. In the same way a moviegoer can find the picture more interesting than the story, a video game player could find a story more interesting than the gameplay. The basis for this claim mostly lies in the interactive nature of video games: “you cannot have interactivity and narration at the same time” (Juul, 2001). This is mostly correct. It is impossible to offer complete interactive freedom and narration at the same time.

Figure 1: Games are played, not viewed (Shah, 2021).

According to Marie-Laure Ryan (2006), an award-winning literary scholar, a narration does not support active participation: “The Aristotelian plot of interpersonal conflict leading to a climax and resolution does not lend itself easily to active participation because its strength lies in a precise control of emotional response that prevents most forms of user initiative” (Ryan, 2006, p. 113). Indeed, in the realms of literature and film, readers and viewers are not users in the way gamers are since they are not active participants (Ryan, 2006, p. 113). Narration requires plot structures and control of story events; a game, however, is at the mercy of the player’s decisions through interactivity (Ryan, 2006, p. 99). For instance, a player is free to run into walls for three straight hours even if the in-game story’s character does not. In the same vein, a player’s avatar may die several times attempting a level, but the in-game character does not. For example, in Halo: Reach (2010), a game taking place 500 years in the future, when humanity has explored the far reaches of the galaxy and fights a vicious alien enemy called the Covenant, the main character and the player’s avatar, Noble Six, only dies once, at the end of the game. However, the avatar may be killed dozens and even hundreds of times depending on the player’s skill, but story-wise, Noble Six only dies once (Lehto, 2010). Every single playthrough is a different experience. As for emotional responses, game developers only have so much control. A player could experience great frustration or boredom during one level and not at all for another (Alexander et al., 2013, p. 53). This lack of control further increases when the player chooses a higher difficulty setting, making the gaming experience harder. Changing the game’s difficulty does not change the story, it is a choice based purely on each player's personal preferences (Alexander et al., 2013, p. 53). From this perspective, ludologists are correct. Stories are just ornaments to the gaming experience (Eskelinen, 2001). However, it is the very notion of experience that contradicts them. The most obvious example comes with the difficulty setting. Players who prefer the story over the gameplay will choose an easier difficulty. Oddly, that interactive choice proves that narration cannot be excluded from games (Hashino, 2021). Games often explicitly mention that the easier difficulty is meant for players who would rather enjoy the story than the gameplay (figure 2).

Figure 2: Difficulty selection in "Persona 5 Royal" (Hashino, 2021).

While complete interactivity and narrative cannot coexist (Juul, 2001), they are not mutually exclusive: “[R]ather than games being narratives, they contain narratives” (Domsch, 2013, p. 31). Games cannot be narratives because of interactivity, but they can contain them. Using the example of Halo: Reach (2010), Noble Six’s death is a scripted event; it is part of the story. Furthermore, Halo: Reach (2010) follows a traditional three-act structure. Of its 11 levels, the first two, (1) Noble Actual and (2) Winter Contingency, are act one. The first half of act two is composed of three levels: (3) ONI: Sword Base, (4) Nightfall and (5) Tip of the Spear. The midpoint is (6) Long Night of Solace. The second half of act two is (7) Exodus, (8) New Alexandria and (9) The Package. The final two levels are act three: (10) The Pillar of Autumn and (11) Lone Wolf. Halo: Reach’s (2010) overall structure follows Syd Field’s (2006), author of Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (2005), popular screenplay paradigm as shown in figure 3. In the screenplay paradigm, act one is 25% of the story, and acts two and three are 50% and 25% respectively (Field, 2006, p. 226). Acts are divided by percentages instead of page numbers as video games do not have any pages, allowing for better comparison. Halo: Reach’s (2010) acts go as follows: act one 18%, act two 63% and act three 18% (percentages are rounded down for simplicity). As a video game, Halo: Reach (2010) uses slightly different lengths for each act, but the overall structure remains the same. It is important to note that these lengths may vary greatly from one player to another as not everyone takes the same amount of time to complete each level. Additionally, the very first level, Noble Actual (Lehto, 2010), is only a cutscene. Regardless of each player’s gameplay experience, story events stay the same within the narrative (Lehto, 2010). Side characters always die at the same moment, Noble Six always accomplishes the same missions, and they always die at the end. The player’s freedom is constrained by major plot points as explained by Ryan (2006):

It would be of course easy to constrain the user's choices in such a way that they will always fit into a predefined narrative pattern; but the aesthetics of interactive narrative demand a choice sufficiently broad to give the user a sense of freedom (pp. 99-100).

Within an overarching plot structure, players can play games and complete levels however they wish whether it takes them four hours or five minutes. Players have absolute freedom to play the game the way they want to, but they cannot change the game’s story events.

Figure 3: Syd Field's Screenplay paradigm (Calhoun, 2013).

Today, the debate between ludologists and narratologists has mostly settled. The interactive nature of video games does distinguish them from the older arts of literature and film. However, completely excluding narratives from the art form is a mistake that alienates the player base as some people may enjoy a game’s story more than the gameplay. Video games may not be narratives, but they can often contain them (Domsch, 2013, p.31). Halo: Reach (2010) proves it. Although Halo: Reach (2010) follows traditional structure quite closely, a wide variety of narrative structures may be used. This is due to the fact that games can exist with little to no story as demonstrated by Tetris (1984).

Bibliographical References

Alexander, J. T., A. Oikonomu & J. Sear. (2013). An investigation of the effects of game difficulty on player enjoyment. Entertainment Computing, 4(1), 53-62.

Domsch, S. (2013). Storyplaying: Agency and Narrative in Video Games. De Gruyter.

Eskelinen, M. (2001). The Gaming Situation. The International Journal of Computer Game Research, 1(1).

Field, S. (2006). The Screenwriter’s Workbook (revised ed.). Delta.

Hashino, K. (2021). Persona 5 Royal. Atlus.

Howarth, J. (2023). How Many Gamers Are There? (New 2023 Statistics). Exploding Topics.

Hudson, C., D. Karpyshyn & P. Watamaniuk. (2007). (Creators). Mass Effect. BioWare.

IGN. (2007). Mass Effect.

IGN. (2010). Halo: Reach.

Juul, J. (2001). Games Telling Stories? The International Journal of Computer Game Research, 1(1).

Lehto, M. (2010). (Director). Halo: Reach. Bungie.

Pajitnov, A. (1984). (Creator.) Tetris. The Tetris Company

Ryan, M.-L. (2006). Avatars of Story. University of Minnesota Press.

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Angelika Argunova
Angelika Argunova
Dec 14, 2023

This article on video game narratives is spot-on! It highlights the essential role of storytelling in game development. As a game developer, I appreciate the focus on how narrative drives player engagement and shapes the gaming experience. It's a reminder that, in game development, weaving a compelling story is just as important as the technical aspects of game design.

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