I’ll be at the University of Malta workshop on digital games and literary theory next week.
My presentation is called How games might annihilate narratives. [Update: pdf draft here.]
Here I examine two specific definitions of games and narratives — from Herman’s Basic Elements of Narrative (2009) and Suits’s The Grasshopper (1978) as assumptive of formal distinctions between the two forms. I then explore the origins and implications of this formal distinction from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Ryan’s claim (in Avatars of Story, 2006) of compatibility between games and narratives is questioned in some detail, particularly as regards that claim’s emphasis of Herman’s “worldmaking/disruption” function of digital game replay. Ultimately, the essay describes the communicative and expressive functions of, respectively, narrativity and liminality as separate modes of human cognition.
In the relative short history of digital games, games and narratives have mounted an uneasy alliance. Despite the commercial success of narrative-based games and despite considerable theoretical interest in the synthesis of games and narratives, aesthetic tension remains. And, unfortunately, most recent attempts by game designers to resolve this tension (e. g., incorporating quick-time events like those in Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, or including morally ambivalent gameplay like that of CD Projekt RED STUDIO’s Witcher series), appear no more effective in providing an enjoyable narrative experience than the more radical of strategy of switching off the game-play entirely, as offered within Bioware’s newest release, Mass Effect 3.
In contrast to the seeming inability of interactive digital media to adopt a sastisfactory narrative aesthetic, it is interesting to note that the medium of film much more quickly did so. Less than ten years after the Lumière brothers first projected Arrival of a Train at a Station (1895), Edwin S. Porter had produced The Great Train Robbery (1903). And, only ten years after that, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin were household names.
In roughly the same amount of time, digital games have cycled through interactive fiction and adventure games and role-playing games and a variety of other, similarly narrative-inspired and narrative-duplicating aesthetic forms that have failed, consensually, to inspire to the same degree as their originals. Digital games, on the other hand, have had increasing influence and impact during their short history, both when packaged as narratives and when not.
I have presented here an explanation as to why this might be the case: Games and narratives exist most appeallingly as aesthetic experiences within two different modes of human cognition.
These two distinct modes — labeled here luminality and narrativity — originate within the natural history of our species and continue to influence us much in the same manner as did their original forms: one fundamentally expressive, the other fundamentally communicative. In these two fundamental respects, then, these two modes of human cognition function quite differently and independently: they interpret and understand the world around us in different ways and, as a result, offer different ways of being in that world. To be within one of these two is, simultaneously, not to be within the other — just as, analogously, to be entirely rational is not, simultaneously, to be entirely narrative.
Nevertheless, as equally modes of human cognition, these two share common functions of human semiotic systems more generally (including the transgressive function of self-reference). In these shared semiotic functions, games and narratives may yet find some aesthetically acceptable union, even if only an ironic and dissonant one.
For surely, games and narrative are not so far apart in function as raven and writing desk. And the output of one might well serve as fuel and fodder for the other. Certainly, our most aesthetically pleasing game plays and replays provide incentives for their subsequent retelling as narratives — just as, among all chess games ever played, some of these are considered brilliancies. These brilliancies may be relatively rare instances — and, when they do occur, they are governed as much by chance as design — but they occur nevertheless.
More reasonably, then, the relationship between games and narratives might only be so distant as that between Morlock and Eloi, both still recognizably human, but only capable together of producing mulish offspring.