Interpreting Video Games
Video games stand as an utterly unique medium in today’s world. Nothing else comes close to what they offer and what they achieve. No other medium involves the same level of artistic interactivity and audience driven design. It is for this reason that both ludological and narratological studies fundamentally fail in regards to video games; they are both forms of study based on preexisting mediums. Ludology, the study of games as games, fails because it lacks the recognition of video games as story driven and containing more than just a series of game rules and mechanics. And narratology, the study of narrative, fails because it principally denies the idea that narrative can be in any way interactive, which is a fundamental basis of video games. To say that either approach holistically describes a proper study and understanding of video games is simply not valid. Now, this isn’t to say that certain elements of these studies can’t be used or adapted to better understand and interpret video games and video game design. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here, and this is evident by seeing and analyzing the common patterns that video games hold between these two schools of thought. And so here we start with narrative.
Narrative in Video Games
It is important when discussing video game narrative to create the distinction between “writing” and “narrative”. Writing, to begin with, is every bit of conceivable text in the game, be it visible or auditory. This includes everything from the dialogue between characters, to the flavor text of in-game items, to the loading screen; anything that is in some form words is the game’s writing. This is, of course, a very broad and pervasive idea of writing, but every little bit counts. Narrative, to continue, is far more broad and complex. It is the overall feel to the story of the game; this can be felt in everything from plot points, to music, to art design, to mechanics, to user interface systems. It is here that we begin to see the overlap of narratological and ludological study in video games; the narrative of a game can be completely undermined if the mechanics of the game don’t fit inside the story. Imagine Legend of Zelda with Street Fighter mechanics. Or Dark Souls III with the user interface of Sonic the Hedgehog. Every little element in video games contributes to how the player interprets the narrative of the video game world.
Video Game Narrative Through Mechanics
Now, there may be doubt in your mind that video game mechanics are integral to video game narrative. So, to not only show that mechanics are incredibly important to narrative in video games but also show that mechanics can be the only thing driving a game’s narrative, here’s a video about the Atari Missile Command and the amazing things it does to create a story.
Moving forward, we should evaluate a newer title and its portrayal of a classic storytelling format: the hero’s journey. Journey was a game released for the PlayStation 3, and received a wealth of positive reviews and criticisms. Its modern adaptation of the hero’s journey, as well as the game’s interactivity, give the game a major narrative of struggle and identity. Here are two videos that more deeply explore the themes of the hero’s journey that are shown in Journey.
Now that we’ve introduced the ways in which mechanics shape both the game itself and the narrative it strives to present, let’s talk a little about video game aesthetics. I’ve already included a lot of video reference for this post, so I’ll link to the Extra Credits video on game aesthetics here. But to summarize, Dan talks about the importance of video game aesthetics versus video game graphics and the ways in which a well-stylized game looks better than one with a bland color palette and design choice. I want to take this a step further and discuss the ways in which aesthetic contributes to narrative, using the first game of the Dark Souls trilogy as an example. To provide context, the world of Dark Souls is set in an abysmal kingdom. The fire that imbued life and power into the world is dwindling, and it is up to you to fight your way through demons, dragons, ghouls, and all manner of inhospitable beasts to reach this flame and make the ultimate decision: to rekindle the flame of life or to let it extinguish and return the world to its origin of dark nothingness. Quite the solemn and dreary task, no? And the aesthetics of the game are infused with the sense of this dark world. Your character’s movements and attacks are slow and heavy, often feeling groggy and weighed down. The unforgiving difficulty of the enemies you encounter forces you to question over and over again why you’re even set out to find this flame of life, and if it’s even worth it. The setting and colorization of every area you enter, from Gothic castles to dilapidated graveyards, all work together to portray this world that feels like it’s giving up on itself. The aesthetic of the game works perfectly to sell the player on the idea of a world on the brink of its own end. Just imagine how different the game would feel if you fought inside bouncy castles, with enemies wearing hot pink armor, and wielding giant bubble wands for swords. All ideas of a dark and foreboding world disappear in an instant, ruining whatever narrative was being presented; and all we’ve changed is the way the world looks. Now, this is an extreme example, but it demonstrates the ways in which unfitting aesthetic design can counteract the goals of the video game narrative. This can happen in small and sometimes hard to notice ways, so it is important to keep an eye out for these small inconsistencies.
While you might think that music design in a game would have little impact on narrative, solid musical delivery can create the perfect mood for any action in a game, tying everything together and enforcing all other aspects. Now, this can be done in many ways, but there are two general approaches for music design in video games: mood music and memorable music. The major difference is in the way that these two music ideas are intended to be received – either to create a particular mood in the game, or to be a self-sufficient music piece. Certainly, video game music can fall into both categories, and often does, but it’s helpful to make these distinctions. Dan at Extra Credits (can you tell that I like them?) has an excellent video showing the changes and growth in game music over time:
Oh Goodness, is there so much more…
These are just a handful of the basic constructs for video game narrative and design. There are worlds more to study and investigate, like user design, animation, character design – the list goes on. I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but this post is already getting long. Let us know what other narrative and game design elements you’d like to see us talk about. I’ll leave you with this hilarious video from YouTuber SethEverman: