Altuğ Işığan The Open and the Closed: Notes on Game Narrativity Presented at theInternational Symposium on Electronic Arts(ISEA) Istanbul, September 16 2011
Eco, 1962 Almost 50 years ago, just around the times when engineer Stephen Russell created and ran the game Spacewar! on a car-sized PDP-1 computer at the MIT labs, Umberto Eco published his book The Open Work (1962).
In this book, Eco defines open works as narratives that manifest themselves as the reader interferes with them.
They invite readers not only to interprete the text, but to play an active role in their configuration as texts.
They provide the readers with a set of rules and elementsthat may be combined randomly to yield a large number of text variations.
Emergent Narratives...? We speak of emergent yet coherent narratives here A large number of variations come to life Yet each one of them individually makes sense as an aesthetic experience. Examples: Raymond Queneau – A Hundred Billion Poems George Perec – Life (A Manual)
Ludology’s Take Classic Ludology seems to be convinced that only games possess this quality of emergence. To them, “narrative” (which they perceive as being of a “scripted” nature) is against the emergent nature of games
Ludology’s Take For example Jesper Juul says that when you apply narrative to games, you destroy their emergent character and they turn into games of progession (2002). However, Eco’s work clearly shows that narrativity and emergence aren’t mutually exclusive
This urges me to rethink the notion of “emergence”.
Can we speak of emergence as being the nature of only certain media, but not others?
Can we safely assume that there is a type of media that renders “emergent” every instance of its use?
I believe that Ludology comes to a too hasty conclusion in regard to games being emergent by their very nature
Interactivity seems to be enough to convince Ludology that game system are truly non-linear.
I see two problems here:
1 - The need to explain patterns in emergentbehavior
2- A theorethical challenge: Could it be that emergence needs to be crafted artificially rather than being the nature of games?
I will now elaborate on these two problems...
Let’s start with a look at patterns in playerbehavior
There is a famous quote of Berthold Brecht:
“The shortest line between two points –if there’s an obstacle inbetween- is a curve.”
Conflict This is actually a very good definition of the notion of conflict in classical drama theory.
Necessity Technically speaking, any character who is trying to solve a conflict is subject to necessity. Necessity addresses the fact that there is a force at play that keeps the character on search for a optimal solution to the conflict that she is facing
Necessity In other words, necessity renders “logical” and meaningful only certain types of actions. In the light of necessity, only a limited part of the available possibility space is of use; the useless parts will probably never be discovered.
Necessity This means that even if we could, we do not simply roam freely in the open world Our actions are rather motivated and telic This goal-orientedness causes patterns to emerge in the ongoing emergent behavior
Necessity Drama Theory addresses these issues under the topic of motivation “Why can the character not simply walk away and ignore the challenge?” When arriving at decision nodes, why does the character chose what is good for the story?
Sample Game To illustrate the point, let’s have a look at a formal game with emergent qualities ... TETRIS!
“Linear” Emergence! Although every playing session may vary considerably, we basically push ourselves through the same AB sequence over and over again In other words, the system is quitedeterministic Andplayerbehavior is quitepatterned But why?
Necessity Cap Becausewe are motivated by necessity This doesn’t leave much space for the type of deviation and free-roaming we credit non-linearityfor Thisputs an invisible cap on experimentations
I call this theNecessityCap
A Sidestep into Chaos Theory Chaos Theory would probably consider these types of games as examples of aperiodic behavior, something that is slightly less linear than linearity in each “free” iteration similar behavior emerges due to the forces that are at play
Aperiodic Behavior and Attractors In aperodic behavior, there is a single attractor that structures emergent behavior so that it takes similar shapes while on its way to a predictable end.
Necessity as Attractor We could say that in most video games necessity works like an attractor Hence emergent player behavior in these games tends to display a pattern As a diagram it would look like...
So, the overall narrative construct that we face here is quite predictable, linear, and closed.
Hence I dare to call these kind of emergent games pseudo-non-linear.
Despite their openness, these games are built around relatively narrow possibility space and an essentiallylinear premise.
They are much more a repetition of the same sequence of events as of being truly open-ended and non-linear.
A Game Difficulty Perspective So far about patterns... My second question was asking whether we can safely assume that the game medium renders every instance of its use emergent. Looking at the relationship between game difficulty and possibility space may give us an idea.
Is There A Linear or Non-Linear “Nature” of Media and Narratives?
I don’t know if you have noticed, but thissimpleobservationshows us that under certain conditions a non-linear system may turn linear, and vice versa.
This situation seems to put a dent to claims that emergence is the “nature” of the game medium.
Actually we could say that under certain conditions games resist to ambitions of emergence.
In other words, the designer has to craft and maintain the conditions of emergence
For example using save-points and extra-lives is a way to artificially overcome problems of insufficient possibility space under hard difficulty settings
“Nature” or Mode of Consumption?
My conclusion here is that neither games nor narratives have a “nature” that by default allows us to label them as open or closed.
Maybe we are just making the mistake of seeingtheaestheticconventions of a certain historical mode of productionin a particular mediumas the nature of that medium
The Indifferent Medium and the Designer’s Craft
To sum it up:
Bothlinearity and non-linearity are design achievements, depending on authorial skill and intention.
The medium won’t do the work for us, because it does not know linearity or non-linearity.
It just makes itself available to our vision and it’s up to us to realize that vision by bending the medium as to serve our needs
If we manage to keep it linear, it will be linear
If we manage to keep it non-linear, it will be non-linear
And if we manage to do so, it will start out emergent but collapse into a state in which nothing can emerge anymore
The Open and the Closed Thank you! http://altugi.wordpress.com İsigan.firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: altugi LinkedIn: Altug Isigan
References Eco U. (1987) Açık Yapıt (çev. Yakup Şahan). İstanbul: Kabalcı. Juul J. (2002). “The Open and the Closed: Games of Emergence and Games of Progression”. http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/openandtheclosed.html Juul J. (2001). “A History of the Computer Game”. http://www.jesperjuul.net/thesis/2-historyofthecomputergame.html Sardar Z. and Abrams I. (2010). Kaos: Düzensizlikteki Düzeni Anlamak İçin Çizgibilim. İstanbul: NTV Yayınları.