Where is a Video Game? Pt. 2

In the last article, we examined how the concept of ‘space’ within the video game is not wedded only to the concept of a diegetic (or in-game) world, but can also manifest in the tangible world around the player. Specifically, we looked at the distinction between the diffuse communication patterns native to traditional modes of storytelling, in contrast to the video game’s extremely personalized approach. These distinctions, however, do not end with the positioning of an audience in real space. In this second addition to my series on the ‘where’ of video games, we examine some of the mechanisms and strategies developed by developers to build stories in the diegetic world.

Mark Wolf defines the diegetic ‘world’ in the context of a video game as “an imaginary or fictional world in which game events take place, and where the game’s characters live and exist”. Just as Tolkien’s Middle Earth is developed and populated through the movies, universes like that of The Legend of Zelda’s Hyrule can do the same. However, the idea of player interactivity serves to complicate these once purely diegetic spaces. Games are fundamentally different from traditional diegetic worlds in that they allow players to situate themselves spatially in the story world. To Wolf, video game storyworlds exist in the present tense: “…as mathematical models in the computer’s memory, ready to be incarnated as interactive imagery”. In other words, while traditional media like films and books can be seen as a recounting of a diegetic reality, gameworlds are lived and experienced in the moment; game worlds are explorable. Of course, in order to interact with the worlds constructed by game developers, players require a sort of ‘cursor’ to bridge the gap between real and diegetic spaces. This role is fulfilled by the figure of the player-character avatar.

According to communications scholar Jaime Banks, an avatar is “an interactive, social representation of a user”. Within the context of games, an avatar is the basic tool by which players traverse between real and storied spaces. Pacman, for example, is a figure that embodies the player’s ergodic inputs in the world depicted on-screen, as both he and the player attempt to eat the bits and avoid the monsters. Marshall McLuhan famously argued that we see technologies as extensions of ourselves, giving a good analogy for the player-avatar’s function of extending the player into the game. This concept pairs well with a notion of ‘transportation’ into story worlds suggested by some psychologists.

Gamers are ‘placed’ through their avatars within the diegetic world; when playing a game, the player is simultaneously occupying both real and diegetic space. This is not to suggest, however, that the player and their avatar are the same person by default. On the contrary, Banks argues that the relationship between player and character can vary between roles of tool/user to more complex conceptions of friendship. Literary scholar Barry Aktins also notes in his study that the player and Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft act as distinct entities whilst progressing. Nevertheless, the point remains that avatars allow a certain access to the on-screen realities that are simply not found in more traditional modes of storytelling.

In terms of game spaces, Aspen Aarseth’s work on quest theory may serve as the most salient extension of the ‘gamification’ of storytelling. Being situated in, rather than distinct from, the diegetic world, Aarseth notes that the mechanisms pushing stories forward in games need to be different from other media. In traditional narrative forms, writers must justify the advancement of the story through character contextualization and plotted events. On the contrary, literary theorist Marco Caracciolo suggests that games also need to incentivize action from the player to move the plot forward, as the player embodies (at some level) the protagonist in the non-diegetic space.

The impetus to move through the story must therefore be generated individually; a game character might be effectively contextualized with traditional plot justifications, but if the player puts down the controller, the story halts. Games like Skyrim, with highly explorable diegetic worlds, are especially in need of a central motivation. If there is no way to tie plotted ‘events’ to a player’s motivation in an open world, then the game devolves into a randomized, non-narrative ‘sandbox’; play without form. While this is certainly a way of making successful games, Minecraft being the quintessential example, it does not lend itself to good storytelling. Thus, when negotiating with explorable diegetic environments, game writers also require mechanisms to incentivize forward movement. 

Minecraft, the quintessential non-narrative sandbox

Within gamespaces, quests serve this role by teleologically organizing stories in space and time. To Aarseth, the quest is a central concept for the narrative game. It entails a non-trivial (i.e non-point based) goal which appeals to a player’s desire for competitiveness, problem-solving, and choice. Examples of this might include a space-based goal (go to ‘x’), or an objective-based goal (do ‘y’). Quests are important for our analysis because they give a formal connection between story and play. In fact, quests themselves are usually structured in a manner similar to a short story, with a clear beginning (accepting the call), middle (carrying out the task), and end (receiving rewards and feedback). 

Moreover, quests entail a spatial component. Aarseth, for example, argues that quests are by basic definition “mere movement from position A to position B”, and “force players to experience the game world, to go where they have not gone before, and barely can”. Game landscapes, as in Skyrim, are littered with quests which aim to embrace the interactivity of their diegetic environment while also allowing writers to code narrative structures into their work. Quests can thus be seen as providing a mechanism that motivates the movement of characters and stories through diegetic space. By providing objectives to gamers within the context of an overarching plot, designers and writers can resolve some of the challenges associated with the medium. 

The realization of quest theory as the result of a story molding to its interactive system is perhaps the largest structural departure from traditional narrative modes. Nevertheless, gameworlds offer one other significant intersection that serves analysis; this is theorist Henry Jenkins’ concept of ‘emergent storytelling.’ Wolf notes that as video game technology has improved over time, the ability to convey detailed game worlds has increased significantly. For example, with greater memory space, computers are able to hold more information, which is conducive to larger environments, while more advanced graphics cards allow designers to render detailed and extremely polished worlds. 

This development has been especially beneficial to an important aspect of a game’s exploratory nature. Namely, the methods by which a story can seep out of its interactive environment, as opposed to being directly communicated, are very effective in games. This idea is axiomatic of Jenkins’ argument. As he puts it: “game designers don’t simply tell stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces”. According to Jenkins, developers in video games may be more comparable to architects than writers. This is because they do not solely commit to writing characters or planning plotlines. Instead, developers also need to design storytelling spaces which immerse the player and contextualize the avatar. Accordingly, developers have much more control over the look and feel of their diegetic spaces; stories in game worlds act as an emergent aspect of their environments.

This ‘emergence’ can be the result of a myriad of design choices. Jenkins notes three primary methods which stand out: evocative spaces, enacting stories, and embedded narratives. Of the three, ‘evocative spaces’ are perhaps the easiest to grasp. This concept describes the ways spaces are represented aesthetically that serve to evoke ludic or narrative responses from the audience. While this method bears obvious connections to more cinematic forms of storytelling, it differs slightly in that the game can communicate directly to an individual player. For example, a change in the color of the level’s soil might indicate the nearing of a new area. The sound of eerie music might alternatively alert the player to a nearby savepoint, as was the case in The Evil Within

‘Enacting spaces’ continues this point, noting the ways in which the layout of an environment can influence the ‘narrative’ decisions that a player makes. For example, if a player-character is unarmed and fleeing from a gang of enemies and the developer places a weapon-type item in their path, the narrative choice for the protagonist to pick it up and fight merges with the player’s desire to ‘survive’ or ‘win.’

Finally, Jenkins points out that information important to the story can be ‘embedded’ within game environments to deepen the immersion of a diegetic world. While more heavy-handed exposition might be useful for establishing the rules of a gameworld, elements of the mise-en-scene like unlockable dialogues or ‘easter eggs’ can help to round out a game world and convey tidbits of information to the player over the course of their exploration. 

Loosely, Jenkins’ arguments demonstrate how games can allow their players to ‘discover’ the narratives planned out by writers in gamespace, rather than have them be recounted. In other words, this model offers a more immersive example of the saying ‘show, don’t tell’—interactivity, which renders emergence an experience unique to video games. Emergence is a concept which arises out of the semiotic process shared between the player and their environment. More clearly, meaning is constructed through the player occupying the real, and the gaming apparatus presenting the diegetic. Indeed, interactivity remains the common thread that defines the video game as a medium. We can see it in every aspect of a game’s story; while the player-character binds the tangible and intangible worlds together, quests give impetus to move forward, and game design provides context. The computer is always implicated, always conversing, even when the focus shifts to the action on-screen.

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