Ludologist : Someone who believes games should be studied as games
Narratologist : Someone who studies narratives and believes that games too, can be studied as narratives
Around the year 2000, when a growing number of academics started to study video games, a huge debate broke out: Should games be studied as narratives? Should they be studied by narratologists? A group of game scholars tended to be against narratology and narratologists. They were labelled Ludologists.
The Ludology-Narratology debate reaches its peak when a group of Ludologists launched the online journal Game Studies and criticised Narratology as being insufficient& invasive
Video games are fictional worlds . In order to come into existence, these worlds must be narrated by something/someone Without narration we wouldn’t know they exist. We also wouldn’t know what we are doing in this fictional world.
Video games are a process of mediation : Hence there’s a medium that brings me news from a world that I wouldn’t be able to “ interface ” with otherwise. The medium narrates my actions to the game world, and the happenings in the game world to me.
By the way: Mediation and Narration takes place even in non-digital games ;)
Think of the Dungeon Master (DM) in a typical FRP Session:
The DM is a medium : He brings me news from a world that I cannot access otherwise
The DM narrates the events and happenings in the fictional world so that I can position myself and consider my situation. He also narrates the outcome of my very own actions. As a player, I depend on the DM’s narration in order to orientate myself and make decisions.
The Video Game is basically a digitalized DM, a medium, that narrates my actions and the fictional game world
In short, Mediation and Narration are inescapable!
Contructivist theories , and Reader-Response theory have found out that a reader is never passive , but actively involved in the construction of the meaning of the text This cancels out Ludology’s claim that readers are passive A reader is pretty much lika a player, only his “input” is “invisible”
Any “ text” , including video games , works only with the active participation of the “ reader” , be it by articulating letters in his mind or by hitting frantically on a keyboard
Since a narrative * is * a reciprocal relation between text and reader that aims at (or results in) signification, the logical conclusion is that any “text” (written, audial, visual or tactile) must solicit the (interpretative or physical) actions that it wants it’s “readers” to carry out It’s only that in games the “readers” actions are often more “visible” than those of “book readers”. Hence, “reading” and interpretation lie at the heart of playing.
The player “interpretes” this sequence that she must bounce the ball back to avoid conceeding a goal The “game text” has solicited at least one of the actions that it wants the player to carry out
The more such actions the text solicits, the more it enables the player to constructs the narrative, which is “To win the game, score more than you conceed” Now a conflict has been established, the action has telos, and events are connected in terms of causality and chrono-logy
This is the ludic way of narration; all communicated through the game medium.
The highly abstracted world of Pong : a fictional universe narrated through a medium !
Narratives have been described as “linear” by Ludologists This is to say that they can’t be changed once the writer is finished with his work. There is one single storyline that we will experience each time we traverse the narrative The medium and genre Ludologist’s think of here are books and novels.
However, Non-Linearity isn’t a new concept to literature
Great examples for this are the “permutational novels” of the Oulipo movement George Perec , Raymond Queneu etc
There is also a wealth of “ create your own story ”-type of books
These gave readers a lot of options to interprete/manipulate the text, not just in terms of interpretation, but also plot construction.
Hence the assumption of Ludologists that narratives are linear by nature is wrong.
But it took some time until in narratology someone came up with a theory of “non-linear” narratives In 1962, Umberto Eco publishes his book The Open Work and speaks about “ narratives that come to life the moment the reader interferes with them ”.
Eco calls narratives that develop into various directions based on the decisions made by readers “ open works ”. The reader can decide on the content, structure or style of the narrative. The reader isn’t any longer bound to a single way of traversing the narrative presented to him.
IOW, the author of the open work gives the reader a narrative sandbox to play with and doesn’t force onto the reader a single way to experience them.
This gives us a very strong basis to theorize video games from within narratology because when it comes to video games, we basically deal with digitalized narratives that ask for reader input on a variety of narrative layers in order to come to life and be able to progress.
Another important figure in narratology is Claude Bremond .
He analyzed narratives based on decision nodes and diagrammed them as logical circuits in which the characters need to make the “right decisions” in order the story to proceed to the ending that was foreseen by its author.
In theory, a character in a story could decide to do what’s not good for the story, i.e. he could decide at a decision node to do what brings the story to an unwanted end. Imagine a detective saying in the middle of a story “I’m no longer interested in solving this puzzle, good bye!”
Hence, whenever the character arrives at a decision node, there exists a risk for the story to come to an end. Therefore, Bremond calls every decision node (or switch) in the logical circuit of the narrative an “ area of risk ”.
However this is a potential risk The author will make sure that the conditions in the fictional world make the characters chose what’s good for the story The character choses to do what the author wants him to do, but it feels like he has chosen it by his own free will in response to the conditions surrounding him. This brings us to the notion of Fate!
The illusion of fate is achieved by using a principle in dramaturgy called neccessity A good writer will make it look like it was fate, and not his power as the author of the story, that made the character chose what’s good for the story.
So what happens to the “areas of risk” when it comes to games?
They are no longer potential risks but now bear a real risk !
Because ultimately, as much as the author makes sure that necessity is in its place, a player can always decide not to do what was expected from him ! It’s now the reader/player who has the final word.
This makes it a really difficult task for the game designer to make sure that the player does what’s good for the game.
An additional challenge to the game narrative designer is the need to introduce the player vocabulary the means and ends that the player makes use of to exist and act in the game world.
In a video game, introducing game controls and helping the player to feel convenient using them is an elementary part of exposure . In games it is often presented in the form of Tutorials or Cutscenes rather than being gradually revealed in a process of dramatization However, both methods are under dispute
The dilemma here is: As a narrative designer you want to introduce the problem and turn it into a conflict as soon as possible. That’s why teasers are popular in film
But as a game designer, you know you can’t send the player into the conflict before you haven’t made sure he’ll get along fine with the player vocabulary.
Introducing the player vocabulary without slowing down the build-up of the story is a very difficult task and can tell the master game (or narrative) designer from the apprentice.
A narrative model of narratologist Roland Barthes identifies four narrative layers that are in a vertical relationships:
According to the model, Events gain their meaning on the Story Persons (or Actants) layer; Story persons gain their meaning on the Narration layer; and ultimately the Narration gains its meaning through the Narrative Situation it is placed within.
T he fictional beings who carry out the actions which articulate as events. Often they'll signify something larger than their parti c ular presence and connect /equal to a "will".
Diablo example: All monsters in the game are actants or story persons. But ultimately they articulate under a narrative "force" that we can identify as "Diablo“ That’s the “will” of the antagonist in the story
Through input, players influence how a row of Events turn s out
Gameplay built around influencing the Events layer has been the dominant mode of interaction for many decades, exemplified right from the beginning through games such as Spacewar! , Pong, Asteroids, Galaxian , Centipede, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Zaxxon
This is the archetype of video game interactivity and it remains until today fundamental to any game .
A way to better understand the problem is to approach games in terms of the Motion Types that they stick with
We can identify three motion types in audio-visual communciation:
Motion Types Primary motion refers to object movement. It can be best exemplified by objects or persons moving within, or, in an out of the borders of a static frame. A great number of games are built on primary motion. Examples with static frames are Tetris , Centipede , Space Invaders , Pac-Man There is hardly a game that doesn’t have primary motion. Primary motion within a static frame answers the player’s need for surveillance
Motion Types Secondary motion denotes camera and/or optical movement. The frame is dynamic and the camera performs a variety of moves like travelling, panning or zooming Often such movement will go together with types of primary motion. All games that use a moving camera can be given as examples: Zaxxon Secondary motion creates depth and is easy to cope with as long as there is vector consistency
In terms of visual narration (or, the visual construction of screen events), many video games build their event-dense play sequences around primary and secondary motion types .
A lot of games still make use of tertiary motion, but rarely ever does it happen that it is used in moments where control is more important than visual variety . In most cases i t would be regarded as a design flaw to sacrifice controls over spectacle during actual gameplay
The camera in God of War makes use of switches in scale and angle during its continuous movement.
Without breaking the visual continuum,
it backs off to give a birdsview of the approaching war scene ;
it accelerates and drags the player behind to anticipate danger/action ;
it slows down and allows the player to move freely to signify a relatively safe section ;
it up-closes and re-adjusts to the best scale and angle during the presentation of battle action
The switch in scale and angle also polish es and bring s to the foreground the ongoing primary motion in order to enhance spectacle and experience intensity. This creates rhythm through bringing into focus one type of action over another Focus switches between figure and ground
Many games use multiple frames to narrate an event from multiple scales &angles, or to present more than one of its aspects at a time .
Graphication Devices like HUD’s are other ways of exposure
Multiple frames & Graphication Devices can be used to maintain
Orientation& Surveillance mini maps in AoE , mini-windows in Rollercoaster Tycoon , the rearviewmirror in NFS
To present details that otherwise would require sequence motion to be squeezed in and would therefore be in conflict with game control needs the mini-frame with the beaten faces in International Karate
Elements of a HUD’s display are a way to expose crucial information when it is needed The speedometer in NFS , the fatigue bar in Tekken
Even in games with a static frame, where not only tertiary, but also secondary motion is out of the question, object movement can be used change the pace and rhythm in the game .
I n Centipede , the experience density increases when a spider comes along. t he appearance of an additional moving object increases event density. In addition, the spider moves faster than all other objects and gets very close at us (no need to mention that a collision with it kills us immediately). Hence we feel an increase in pace when a spider appears. Once it has left the screen, however, we feel that we have returned to normal game pace. Hence rhythm is created.
Pac-Man : In those section in which the roles are reversed and we can be a ghostbuster for a few seconds, we feel increased game pace. The ghosts move slow now (which feels like we've become faster) and there is limited time to catch them and get the reward. But soon it's us again who'll be the hunted and the pace will normalize. The switch between hunter and hunted roles creates rhythm.
V olume, form and shape are other important factors that especially architecture draws attention to
For example i n racing games, delineation of sequences is partly achieved through the proportion of negative volumes to positive volumes:
The varying textures of the landscape create rhythm: Need for Speed : the highway section, followed by the Chinatown section, followed by the claustrophobic tunnel section, followed by the traffic-plagued downtown section that we have to rush through before we reach the finish.
S witching between a curvy sequence and a long straight will have an impact on pacing and rhythm.
An often ignored way of pacing and rhythm in video games is the tactile dimension of the fictional universe. This is a very important aspect in architectural design.
Change in the texture and feel of the space that we walk through has an impact on our perception and mood. A sequence of various tactile qualities will bring a series of changing moods with it and that can be used for pacing and rhythm.
For instance the way our avatar slows down or accelerates while climbing or walking down a slope, while performing a rather unus u al move like strafing, or while wading through water or mud, all these are of a tactile nature. Collin McRae Rally
Our avatar would be still presented to us through secondary motion, but despite the contin u ous long take that follows our actions, we would perceive a transition from one area to another, which would bring variation to the experience we have.
As we move through a level, we will witness how relatively safe and relatively dangerous sections keep replacing each other. The way in which their order is set up, is another important way to pace a level and create rhythm.
In Diablo , there ar e sections in which enemies are always placed within each others line-of-sight, hence we are forced into a killing spree because each new kill already triggers another monster coming at us.
T he designers make sure that after such a killing spree we have a pause.
The next killing spree arrangement is positioned a bit farther and wait s for us to tap into it and trigger the new action section.
Inbetween the killing sprees, we would re-assess our situation, re-arrange our inventory and make plans on what tactic or strategy to adopt next.
Since all this would be presented along a single uncut shot, we would experience a feel of delineation that is being created without the use of tertiary motion.
In a lot of games, we witness constant switching between object motion and camera motion as the long shot unfolds.
This works in the following way: As we walk through safe sections, secondary motion rules. We walk, and the camera moves with us. Then, as we spot the enemy and engage with it, it is rather object movement that dominates the scene.
Often the density of the attack means we’re getting stuck at that point and can only move on when the threat is eliminated, hence the camera wouldn’t move, but a lot of object motion would dominate the scene.
An example for this is Diablo where during the walkthrough of a level the rhythmic structure consists of a constant switching between exploration/spotting (secondary motion) and ambush (primary motion): the monster attack nails us to a certain spot on the map and hence the camera seems to be locked on there; then, after we’ve killed the attackers and keep moving, the camera again starts to travel with us.
Despite no use of tertiary motion, the result is controlled change in pace, which is just another name for rhythm.