Wednesday, December 1, 1999

Uni Essays (1997-2000): "How do GAME MODS alter our theories of the traditional author/audience relationship in film theory?"

I found the old essays I wrote for my Arts Degree at Melbourne University (1997 - 2000), and decided to upload some for historical interest and general self-reflective purposes! 

What are the theoretical ramifications of fans actively engaging with, and even altering the "original" computer game text?  How does this alter film theory models that assume a closed text and passive spectator?

Subject: The Entertainment Experience

by Murray Lorden (1999)

In this essay, I will consider the implications of fan culture and the internet, and the function served by the various ways in which a computer game can be modified by the fan.

The modification of games has dramatically altered the shape of whole areas of the computer games industry.  Fans of computer games can interact with the "original text" of a  game in ways that are revolutionary to mass-entertainment forms.  Some "fans" who have made particularly impressive and revolutionary modifications (mods) have gone on to be picked up by game development teams.  Other mods have gone on to become as popular as the games that they emerge from.  Since Id Software first encouraged users to create their own modifications of their game Wolfenstein 3D, the notion of the "closed text" in many factions of the computer game world has begun to collapse.  The phenomenon of modification for many users has become a large part of their involvement with computer games.  The ramifications of this collapse of author and audience are monumental in their scope.  This collapse is made possible only through the new technology of the internet and the communities which have been setup therein.  It signals a complete departure from previous theoretical models of spectatorship.

A modification (mod) describes the alteration of any element of a computer game.  By far the most commonly modified game genre is the First Person Shooter (FPS).  This genre describes a game in which the user plays the game from the perspective of the protagonist.  The frame of the monitor becomes our field of vision.  Through this field we interact with a three dimensional space and the entities that inhabit it.  This space is made from geometrical shapes that form the architecture of the rooms, hallways, landscapes or whatever the space is trying to simulate.  Each side of these geometric shapes are texture mapped, (ie: they are covered with an image file like bricks or wood-slats that works further to create the atmosphere of the location).  As you move through this virtual space, the graphics of the changing viewpoint are rendered in real time.  And in this space, light sources exist, the luminosity of which must also be calculated in real time also.  Within this space there may also be any number of objects that can be interacted with to achieve some effect in the environment such as buttons which open doors, traps which damage your character or numerous other instances.  

This space is also inhabited by virtual entities such as Non-Player Characters (NPC's) which may be friendly, hostile or of a more ambiguous nature.  To deal with the hostile variety of these entities, we generally have a selection of weapons that can be found in the space and wielded against such foe.  The weapon you are currently using will appear in your hands, outstretched from the bottom of your viewpoint.  In these environments, you have the freedom to go in any direction at any time, so long as a piece of geometry is not blocking your path.  The overall effect that is experienced when playing a FPS is a feeling of "really being there" and a strong sense of agency due to the immediacy of the world's response and the freedom of movement.

This freedom of movement and the immediacy of the world's response to your actions is made possible by what is called the game engine.  This is the programming of the game which dictates to all of the elements how they are to behave.  The game engine is forever updating a constant present; forever telling every aspect of the game to "take one step forwards".  It is constantly updating what appears in the player's view of the world, updating the movement of any NPC's, updating the movement of any projectile in motion after its propulsion from a weapon, updating the movement of light being transmitted from light sources which may be casting shadows behind both objects and moving entities.  It also prescribes to the world the "physics" which everything must adhere to.  For example, if the player jumps, it constantly calculates the gravitational effect on the player until they land again.  The same must be done for all NPC's and projectiles which are subject to the physics of the world such as grenades.

The reason why FPS's are the most modified game genre is because each of these elements is largely independent from one another.  Each can be altered on its own without having to change (or even understand) the others.

For the purposes of the remainder of this essay, I will summarise the breakdown of separate components of a FPS:

  • There is the game engine which is the programming code behind the actual running of the game.  It is the component that brings everything together.  It controls the "rules" of the world and dictates how things will behave, including weapons, NPC's, player characters, obtainable items, etc. 
  • There are the map files.  A map is a file which contains all the information that describes one particular three dimensional space.  It is one "level" in a FPS.  It contains all the information of the geometry and textures, and also the information describing which entities inhabit the level and where they are placed in the level (such as NPC's, buttons, doors, weapons, etc.).  A map file also contains the information on where the light sources are placed and what their attributes are, such as the color of the light being transmitted, its brightness and whether it behaves in a special way (ie: an ebbing light or a flashing light, etc.).
  • There are the models, which are the files that contain the information regarding the geometrical shape of a player character or NPC and also contains all of their animation frames.
  • There are the skins which are image files that are wrapped around a model.  A skin is the flat image that, when wrapped around a geometrical model of a monster, become the actual textures which are its eyes, its face, its clothes, the blood stain on its teeth, etc.
  • There are the weapons that - besides their actual behaviour which is controlled by the game engine - are made up of their corresponding models and skins.
  • Finally (although not exhaustively), there is the Heads-Up-Display (HUD) which is the graphical interface that shares your viewpoint and shows you the status of various attributes such as your health status, ammo supply and inventory, etc.

Now the beauty of a FPS is that you can create a map, for example, without ever having to involve yourself with adjustments to the game engine, the models, the skins, the weapons or any other aspect of the game.  All you have to do is obtain a program that will allow you to build the geometry of a level and place textures on their surfaces, place and configure the lights, and position the NPC's.  Such software is available for free over the internet or can be purchased cheaply in any number of normal software retail stores.  Once the map is created you can simply load the game that you are making a map for and choose to play your own custom made level.  Your character arrives in your level just as you would in any level of the original game.  The behaviour and appearance of the NPC's is unaltered and your arsenal of weapons is still the same, yet now you find yourself surrounded by an environment of your own making.

Just like mapping, other software is available that enables you to alter models, skins, or any other element of a FPS.  Some games have more modification software than others.  Often the modification software itself is made and shared by users.  Sometimes people modify games without the use of custom-made modification software.  Some game development companies like Id Software actually release the source code (all of the programming behind the game) to the public for use in non-profit modifications free of charge (providing that no money is charged for the modification).  Some games, such as Unreal and Thief: The Dark Project are sold in stores with a map editor that comes on the game cd.  Games companies have discovered that by encouraging the modification of their games, the lifespan of a title can be increased indefinitely.  It also helps the games industry to expand which is of benefit to every game development studio.

Id Software's Quake was created with specific intentions: to make a game with a highly modifiable engine and where each component can also be modified individually and easily.  This has allowed the game, made in 1995, to still be extremely popular today in its ever metamorphosing forms despite the fact that the technology is becoming dated.  The fact that the way the game is played and the scenarios that can be played out can be forever altered has allowed it to develop with the changes in the industry even though Id Software themselves have not had do the work.  Another title of equal original quality may now be left by the wayside due to the fact that it cannot be modified and is therefore merely a static example of the past.  For example, the average real-time-strategy (RTS) or racing game is quickly superseded by a newer game that has taken on the array of its chosen genre and then enhanced it with new features and ideas.  There is no way that a game can keep up with the evolution of computer gaming if it cannot be modified.  And these games just slip into the past.

Internet sites such as Planet Quake are set up in accompaniment to the Quake series, yet most of the site is devoted to progress that has been made by other developers - both amateur and semi-professional - since the creation of the original game.  The main menu of the site ( covers: Files, News, Mods, Skins, Models, Maps, Bots, Utilities, Editing, Strategy, Enhancing and Creativity.  Almost every one of these links pertains to the modification of the game; either to help you to work on your own mods or to help you find out more about what others have done.  The "Planet" series of sights covers almost every recent FPS available and almost every one of these games has been designed with easy modification in mind.

Skinning is probably the easiest thing to do out of all forms of modification.  It is the practice of drawing your own skins to wrap around a character model.  Usually it is done for player models to wear on your own character but it is also done when modifying an NPC character.  It is the easiest form of mod because you can open up a skin file in any graphics utility (even Paintbrush) and experiment with your own skin designs.  This way you can personalise the look of your own character that you use when you play your favourite game over the internet.

At the other end of the complexity spectrum of mod making is the total conversion.  There is no hard and fast definition for what a total conversion (TC) is, but it is generally defined as any modification that involves the alteration of most of the elements of the game.  An example of a very successful TC would be Action Quake 2.  This modification is a multi-player conversion in which you play on a team and must kill all members of the opposing team to win (unlike Quake 2, which has no such mode of play).  The makers of Action Quake 2 made new weapons (based on real world weaponry rather than Quake 2's sci-fi based arsenal) by making new weapon models and skins.  They also made alterations to the actual game engine, including altering the programming of the weapons and their visual, aural and environmental effects.  They also modified the physics engine so that if you were injured in the leg you would limp.  Elements and details were also added to the game engine to differentiate the game from it's source.  "Bandaging" was a new aspect.  If you are shot or fall from a great height, you must bandage your wounds to stop your health from continuing to drop due to blood loss.  Bandaging also stopped you from limping if your leg was wounded.  Action Quake 2 also introduced its own maps, its own player models and skins and all its own sound effects.  The only element remaining from the original text was the basic game engine.

Such a conversion as Action Quake 2 will almost always rely on users to support the game and make it a success.  Generally this involves relying on users to make maps for the game.  Action Quake 2 only came with 3 or 4 maps and all of the rest (of which there would be over 30 "official" maps) are made by users.  This gives the maps (and therefore the game experience) a great diversity.  This sort of inclusiveness is a complete revolution in terms of theorising mass-entertainment forms.  Even though the people who created Action Quake 2 have opened a text and totally reworked it, they have never even closed it back up, but instead have left it open for ongoing additions.

For such conversions to be made legally, technically and practically possible, it has taken developers, beginning with Id Software, to take the bold move to opened up their text to the public.  Beyond encouraging people to make their own maps and skins for their games, Id Software have actually released the programming code of their games to the public so that people can use it for projects such as Action Quake 2, providing that they do not charge any money for it.  And this is the basis of the huge phenomenon that is the modification community.  It is revolutionary that such a large scale "public-domain" is made possible in such a huge industry.  Game companies like Id Software seem to have realised (fortunately) that the best way for everyone to make the most of the computer's ability to reproduce data with such little use of resources is to encourage it rather than to try to contain it.

For many years now, Id Software have been licensing their game engines to other development companies - for very large fees - for use in their own titles.  Examples of this would be Valve's Half-Life and Ritual Entertainment's Sin which both use the Quake 2 engine as their starting point.  Likewise, Klingon Honor Guard, Deus Ex and Duke Nukem Forever have licensed the Unreal engine.  It is becoming such an important part of the industry now that Id Software (the most famous for licensing their sought after engines) have actually licensed their Quake 3 engine to at least one company before the game has even been released.  Talk about an open text!  They are giving away the basic foundation before they have even finished the original!

As an illustration of the wise investment Id Software made by opening their games up for user modifications, Id Software themselves have actually collected up the best multi-player conversions of Quake 2 and sold them together in the one box under the title Netpack: Extremities.  The proceeds were distributed evenly amongst the developers involved with the mods.  

With the mass-culture forms we are used to, such as cinema, the novel, or the theatre or television show, we assume a closed text; a static work.  Such works can be viewed and interacted with on a level of identification to the degree that we may be able to draw certain meanings from it that may or may not influence us in certain ways.  The complexities of these theories are never-ending but in the end we still have a model that involves a piece of work that is received by an audience (and never the twain shall meet).  What we have with these readily modifiable computer games provides a theoretical-model-busting new relationship between author and audience!

The internet seems to be the element that has made all the difference for this games industry phenomenon.  With the games-dedicated communities set up on the internet, modified files can be shared throughout the world easily and at minimal cost.  Also, because FPS's have been so popular as an internet based multi-player gaming experience, the whole structure was already in place to support the development of modifications that concentrated solely on the evolution of multi-player gaming.  This would easily be the largest single factor in the success of the phenomenon of mod making.  The mod making community competes heatedly to come up with the best new way to play against other players online and in turn these mods have dramatically influenced and inspired professional development companies in their new titles.

The beauty of the internet is its egalitarianism.  Anyone with a recent computer and an internet connection can try to gain notoriety in the modification community.  Everyone has an equal footing because pretty much everyone starts off as a "no-body".  You have no identity until you prove yourself through the quality of your work.  And the quality of your work does not really depend on how much money you have, what race you are, what your appearance is, what sex you are or how well educated you are because these factors simply do not play any significant role in the decision as to what makes a good mod.  And to submit your efforts to an official game site where they will potentially choose your modification as one worth distributing through their site, you do not need your own printing press or film studio or monetary backing.  You do not need to buy film or use up paint.  The cost of resources simply boils down to time, patience and a little electricity.  And the reason why this system is so different from other forms of mass-entertainment is that the whole modification phenomenon is free!  You do not have to pay to download mods or maps or models or skins.  This is because the people who make them give them away for free.  This phenomenon is something that has not been experienced before in any other medium in the way that it exists in the gaming community on the internet.  

Never before in the mass-entertainment world has it been so easy for almost anyone to create something so cheaply that can be shared and used by so many so easily.  Perhaps software companies like Id Software realised that instead of battling the rampant piracy that would naturally come from a phenomenon like the internet would be better put to beneficial use for themselves and gamers alike by making the modification of games a joint aim of theirs and of users, thus benefiting the gaming world as a whole.

It is the internet that has lead to this move by computer game developers.  And so I see the internet as the central factor in the rupturing of theoretical models of spectatorship that are based on a closed text and a passive spectator.  If anything, the growing mod phenomenon signals a monumental movement in the opposite direction!  The mod community, as supported by the computer game industry, is really encouraging the FPS player to become as participatory as possible, both as an active member of a community and as a modifier of the original text.  The internet provides the know-how for beginners and communities are set up to receive submissions and distribute the best examples freely between users.  It is a community that feeds itself and is powered by its own momentum.

The internet is challenging our traditional notions of the "author" because authorship in computer games is becoming very de-centralised - the opposite to the traditional auteur theory.  Now anyone has the potential to become at least a minor star in a specific computer game realm.  The best mappers are noticed, the best AI programmers are noticed and these people are sometimes even picked up by the big computer game companies for their further projects!  For example, Ryan Feltrin created a program called Eraser Bots, an addon for Quake 2 that enabled a player to sit at home and play against artificially intelligent opponents as though they were playing on the internet against other people.  The "other players" (AI "robots") were programmed to learn maps as they ran around and acted much like real players, picking up ammunition, using guns in an intelligent way depending on the nature of the weapon, etc., in a way that made them much more impressive than the actual monsters programmed by Id Software for their version of the single player narrative driven mode of play.  The guys at Xatrix Software were so impressed with his Feltrin's AI programming that they employed him to work on their next title, Kingpin: Life of Crime that features some very impressive and revolutionary use of AI.

Another example would be the Australian made Team Fortress mod for QuakeTeam Fortress is a total conversion mod with strong team oriented play and strategic elements.  Each member of a team takes on a specific class, such as scout, sniper, or engineer, in competition with other teams. The player’s class determines his or her appearance, tools or weapons, and skills.  It was released in August 1996 and today, approximately 40% of current Quake servers are dedicated to Team Fortress.  Valve Software, the makers of Half Life bought Team Fortress Software P/L and employed the lead programmers Ian Caughley and Robin Walker so that they could make Team Fortress 2 using their own game engine called the Half Life engine (a total conversion of the Quake 2 engine which they officially licensed from Id Software).

These developers have been noticed because of their work that has been distributed over the internet and because of its success in that realm.  Such examples illustrate the way that the computer game industry has at its fingertips a wealth of talent coming from a global pool like never before experienced by an entertainment industry!  All they have to do is keep their fingers on the pulse of what is happening in the internet community to get a good idea of what sort of talented people are out there and what they are doing.  There has never been such a way for amateurs, hobbyists and fans to get their work published on an equal footing to semi-professionals and professionals.


  • Auletta, K., The Highwaymen: Warriors of the Information Superhighway, Random House, New York, 1997.
  • Bennahum, D., Extra Life : Coming of Age in Cyberspace, Basic Books, New York, 1998.
  • Bolter, J. & Grusin, R., "The World Wide Web", Remediation: Understanding New Media, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1999, ch. 1.
  • Cartmell, D., [et al.] (eds), Trash Aesthetics: Popular Culture and its Audience, Pluto Press, London, 1997.
  • Cassell, J. & Jenkins, H. (eds), From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1998.
  • Green, L. (ed.), Framing Technology: Society, Choice, and Change, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, N.S.W., 1994.
  • Herz, J., Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate our Quarters, Won our Hearts, and Rewired our Minds, Little & Brown & Co., Boston, 1997.
  • Hillis, K., "A Geography of the Eye: The Technologies of Virtual Reality", Cultures of the Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies, Sage, London, 1996, pp. 70-98.
  • Howard, S. (ed.), Wired-Up: Young People and the Electronic Media, UCL Press, London, 1998.
  • Jenkins, H., "Get a Life!: Fans, Poachers, Nomads", Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Routledge, London, 1992, ch. 1.
  • Jenkins, H., "How Texts Become Real", Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Routledge, London, 1992, ch. 2.
  • Jones, S. (ed.), Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety, Sage, London, 1997.
  • Laurel, B., "The Nature of the Beast", Computers as Theatre, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Reading, Massachusetts, 1991, ch. 1.
  • Lewis, L. (ed.), The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, Routledge, London, 1992.
  • Murray, J., "Agency", Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1997, ch. 5.
  • Murray, J., "The Cyberbard and the Multiform Plot", Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1997, ch. 7.
  • Ndalianis, A., "Evil Will Walk Once More: Phantasmagoria ~ The Stalker Film as Interactive Movie?", On a Silver Platter: CD-ROMS and the Promises of a New Technology, Greg Smith (ed.), New York University Press, New York, 1999, ch. 4.
  • Ryan, M., Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1991.
  • Schroeder, R., Possible Worlds: The Social Dynamic of Virtual Reality Technology, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1996.
  • Sefton-Green, J. (ed.), Digital Diversions: Youth Culture in the Age of Multimedia, UCL Press, London, 1998.
  • Snyder, I., "Reconceiving Textuality", Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth, Melbourne University Press, 1996, ch. 3.


  • Mortal Kombat Paul Anderson 1995
  • Matrix, The The Wachowski Brothers 1999
  • Strange Days Kathryn Bigelow 1995
Documentary Featurette - "Computer Games: The Design & Making of Radical Rex and the Frolicking Frogs", Victoria Fisher, 1994


  • Unreal Ed for Unreal
  • Deathmatchmaker for Quake 1
  • Deathmatchmaker 2 for Quake 2
  • Worldcraft for Half-Life


  • Article on Valve Software's acquisition of Australian company Team Fortress Software P/L and it's staff.


Game/Modification         Developer/Modifier

11th Hour, The         Trilobyte         1995

Action Half Life         Suislide, et al.         1999

Action Quake 2         Suislide, et al.         1998

Aliens vs. Predator         Fox Interactive         1999

Blood 2                 Monolith Productions       1999

Delta Force         Novalogic         1998

Doom 2                 Id Software 1993

Drakan         Psygnosis 1999

Eraser Bots         Ryan Feltrin 1998

Half Life                 Valve Software (Sierra) 1998

Half Life: Cold Ice (Weapons mod)         ColdIce         1999

Half Life: Counterstrike (Espionage TC) Mindvision Software 1999

Half Life: Team Fortress Classic Valve Software (Sierra) 1999

Half Life: War In Europe         Borderline Studios 1999

Heroes Quest Series Sierra On-Line - - -

Jedi Knight         Lucas Arts 1997

Kingpin: Life of Crime Xatrix 1999

King's Quest Series         Sierra On-Line - - - 

Klingon Honor Guard Microprose 1998

Malice         Quantum Axcess 1997

Outwars                 Singletrac Studios 1998

Powerslide         Ratbag 1998

Quake         id Software 1995

Quake: Killer Quake (Collected mods) various         1996

Quake 2                 id Software 1997

Quake 2: Awakening Redchurch 1999

Quake 2: Gunslinger Quintin Stone 1999

Quake 2 Mission Pack 1: The Reckoning Xatrix 1998

Quake 2 Mission Pack 2: Ground Zero Rogue 1998

Shogo: Mobile Armor Division         Monolith Productions 1998

Sin                 Ritual Entertainment 1998

Thief: The Dark Project         Looking Glass Studios 1998

Tomb Raider         Core 1997

Tomb Raider 2         Core 1997

Unreal         Epic Megagames 1997

Unreal CTF         Necrotic Software 1999

Wolfenstein 3D         id Software 1992

Uni Essays (1997-2000): "How do we begin to theorise the narrative forms present in the multi-linear narratives found in numerous computer games?"

I found the old essays I wrote for my Arts Degree at Melbourne University (1997 - 2000), and decided to upload some for historical interest and general self-reflective purposes! 

How do we begin to theorise the narrative forms present in the multi-linear narratives found in numerous computer games?

Subject: The Entertainment Experience

by Murray Lorden (1999)

Computer games are comprised of an "illusionistic reality" which is bound only by the programmers and how they have chosen to set up the environment and its "interactives".  Bound within this collection of pre-programmed possibilities of interaction there lies a plot.  Usually, this plot is singular or has only minor detours into sub-plots.  Computer game plots are usually driven by a cause and effect chain based on character motivations, especially the goals of the protagonist (ie: you).  This set plot differs however from the narrative which is different every time it is performed.

It could be said then, that every time a computer game is played, the actual "narrative" - or the actual way that the story is played out and performed - comes out differently.  The playing-out of the plot is multi-linear, non-linear, and generally very multiple (and also paradoxical when it comes to replaying and reloading the game).  In this sense, computer games are multiple in their execution in a way that films and other traditional forms of story telling are not.  Traditionally, a text is exhibited in a totally fixed way; the product is complete before it is exhibited and is the same every time.  Computer games are played, and although the plot remains intact, the particulars of the narrative are determined by the player.

Despite the changes that the multiplicity and non-fixedness of computer game "texts" provides, their narrative forms can still be understood better if we analyse how they work with the conventions of traditional story-telling media.  Games freely and fluidly use familiar conventions from all the other story-telling media to "cue" the player as to how to interact with the narrative.  A game does this through referring to the whole "array" of film, television, computer games, and every other media which has come before it that it wishes to make a part of its experience.

The "array" of media gone by

Whether an adventure game, a role-playing-game or a first person shooter, you enter a world that operates according to conventions.  Janet Murray says that, "Genre fiction is appropriate for electronic narrative because it scripts the interactor."  She means that the conventions that are employed by the programmers and offered up to the interactor provide the player with expectations of how to most effectively act as an agent in the given environment.  The generic cues let us know what possibilities are likely to be open to us (and therefore programmed into the game) due to knowing - through our familiarity with the "array" - what actions and meanings are usually associated with these conventions.

For example, in an action game the player uses their prior knowledge of action cinema, war films, similar computer games and a mixture of other sources to deduce what attitudes can be taken into the game.  For example, when you start a game in a high-tech sci-fi labyrinth with a gun in your hand and enemy scattered throughout the halls and rooms, you understand immediately what sort of conventions you are entering and are expected to act accordingly if you are to be successful in your agency.

You may need to escape from a planet infested by monsters.  You begin the game alone in the middle of enemy territory where your space pod "accidentally" split from your fellow soldiers during deployment.  And so starts a constant battle to achieve the team's mission on your own and then escape!  Most action games are based on a similar premise, but often involve missions into enemy territory where missions must be carried out successfully to move on to the next mission.  The door to the next level is naturally locked and guarded by furious monsters.  You must find the key, or press the button, or pull the lever, or get the PIN code, and unlock that door.  The door is unlocked and a new objective is set and a new hoard of monsters is standing between you and it.  It is, in the end, very linear in form despite the fact that the level can be paced out in almost infinite different configurations.  But whether you walk along the left of the corridors, the right, jump up and down, shoot everyone or run past them all really doesn't make much difference to the plot.  The plot is essentially a tension between the goal of the mission and that which stands between you and it.  However, the performance of the narrative is different every time you play.

Most games are the near ultimate embodiment of the "cause and effect chain", where you cannot access one part of the game until you have completed another.  In this respect, games are very like films, where what is shown to you, and how and when it is shown to you, is predetermined by the author.  Most games are really just an interactive linear narrative.  The plots of these games can usually be written in blurb form, detailing what happens and how it happens.  And this is how the events will happen when you turn on the game and play it to the end.  It is only the unravelling (through participation) of them that is non-fixed (although pre-defined).  It is the details alone which could usually be described as multi-linear, such as the particular route which you take through an environment, or the order that you collect certain objects.

To date, I don't think we have truly seen a game where the plot can diverge at a point where each split offers up a whole different narrative trail than the other choices.  A game must be bound into a finite area of exploration and relevance.  Generally, the way developers like to seal off the narrative possibilities in a game is this:  The illusion of agency is given by allowing the player to make "wrong moves", such as falling off a cliff, letting the monster kill them, or by failing to collect the right items or information.  These "mistakes" (or divergences from the intended "correct" narrative) do not result in a branching of the narrative however, but instead, the narrative will be stopped and you will be put back on track (by returning to a previous point).  Usually this is done by a "mistake" that leads to death, or another form of immobilisation of agency (a "game over" state), such as imprisonment, or getting fired, etc.

Usually, the possible events are waiting to happen, generally in a very specific order, one unlocking the next like classical cinema's cause and effect chain.  Therefore, in a game you cannot just decide to go to Rio.  There is unlikely to be an airport in the game, let alone one which will let you fly wherever you like.  You just can't program every plot possibility.  

Playing the game against the goals

The only way you can diverge from the narrative in ways which are not "terminal" (ie: in ways which do not lead to death or loading a previous saved game) are by setting your own goal - different from those intended by the programmers - which can be achieved within the game world without requiring that you transcend the game's limited set of possibilities.

As Angela Ndalianis discusses in her articles in the readings, there are times when people play games in ways that they were not intended to be played.  This could include wandering about, either for amusement or from lack of ability to figure out what to do.  This produces an effect of non-narrative as is seen in some art-house cinema.  It could be considered a sort of "mort temp" (dead time) where there is no apparent purpose in the "events".  Although they are not helping the intended cause and effect chain of classical cinema (and classical game narratives), it could be said that every narrative path you choose is as valid as the intended one.

This reminds me of another subversion of gaming narratives that I have been involved in lately without really intending it.  I have been wandering around the 3D environments of games taking screenshots (which stores the current view of your character onto your hard-drive as image files).  This could be viewed much like taking photographs as a tourist.  One such game that I have been taking "snap-shots" in is called Thief: The Dark Project.  

The intended narrative of one mission (called "Assassins") is to break into a large mansion of a man named Ramirez who had sent assassins to kill you.

After they bungled the attempt on my life, I tailed them back to his mansion, discovering who had sent them.

I then decided I had plenty of time to go and look around the large township which surrounded the mansion.  This is done purely for the enjoyment of immersing myself in the environments and admiring their aesthetic characteristics.  I suppose such subversions of the intended forms of interacting do create alternative narratives for the player.  

You are still inside the conventions set up for the game you are playing, yet you (as the protagonist) decide to put those priorities aside and to take on your own invented interests.  This makes me think that we do need to open up our analysis of narrative to include the game environment as a narrative "possibility" in itself.

Multiple players in a recurring scenario

Perhaps an even more complex issue for game narratives is the option for games to be played with multiple players sharing an environment at once.  This is called "multiplayer" and is often comprised of playing only with "real" player characters.  These games often have no computer operated characters or any set narrative except for that which is offered in the environment's design.  These games - such as Quake I, II, and III, Half-Life, Red Alert, Total Annihilation and many more (most of which also have a single-player, plot driven option) - are played out in a series of set arenas where the basic narrative could best be described as a "shoot-out", each with small variations.

Players meet up in these environments through the Internet on what are called "servers".  The server usually has a set "timelimit" which, when reached, will change the map or scenario to the next one.  Players join and battle for the highest score (often measured by their number of kills or wins).  It is basically just a huge ongoing shoot-out.  More recent versions of these multiplayer games include opposing teams where each has a specific goal (such as assaulting the other team's base while the other team tries to fend you off by killing you all).  Each day these scenarios get a little more complex.  Ultimately, only two outcomes can eventuate from each "round": one of the two teams will achieve their goal and the next round will begin.  But this repetition of the same scenarios could still be described as a "narrative waiting to happen", where the exact outcome is always performed differently.  A particular configuration of players acts in a certain way to bring about a particular narrative.  These games are just like recurring mini war films or mini action films with the same scenarios occurring differently over and over.  I don’t know whether these narratives are constantly frozen or in constant motion!

Massively Multiplayer Persistent Worlds

This brings me to another form of computer game:  the Massively Multiplayer Persistent World game (MMPW).  These games - of which there are only a few so far - are games which involve a massive world which could be explored for weeks of playing time and you would still not have been everywhere.  These huge environments are then opened up for players to enter together over the Internet where an ongoing narrative begins and potentially never ends.  Thousands of players are involved at a time.  Each player has a small character who participates in the land much like a comprehensive simulation of a living adventurer.

What you do when you are inside this world is largely up to you.  This totally undermines our traditional notion of a "director" of the action.  Here, the notion of "author" relates only to the setting out of the story's parametres, such as the environment's design.  The player is then set free to do anything from killing other players, to killing monsters, to being a pacifist, to selling bread to other players, to being a hermit, even being a flaneur, being an explorer, being anything that you wish, at any time you wish.  You can either try to be consistent about your character or be totally polymorphic in character, changing your goals and intentions willy-nilly.  You can join "guilds", some of which are set up purely to counter other guilds.  In "Ultima Online" A large sit-in was staged at the King's castle by a hoard of players because many did not like some of the particulars of the way the game was being run.

In this environment, how do we understand what is going on in terms of "narrative"?  It is such a good example of a narrative in that it is a chain of events played out by characters with goals and aims.  Yet it somehow seems, at the same time, to defy all notions of narrative in that it is so massively "multiple" and potentially "un-directed".

Such games, however, still revolve predominantly around traditional motifs.  Computer games such as these have the potential to offer up innumerable different potential plots jointly participated in by innumerable players.  How to theorise such narratives is perhaps best dealt with through an analysis of story elements (such as those conducted by Propp or Tobias) rather than through the idea of the "author" and the fixed-text. 

Universal myths and characters have developed over the centuries and these have given form to what Ronald B. Tobias considers a "limited number of plot structures".  Vladimir Propp analysed Russian oral folk-tales, coming up with a list of "essential morphemes" - or plot characteristics which fit into patterns, each with limited (and often merely arbitrary and irrelevant) variations.  It was the author who gave each telling of the narrative it's individuality and specific character.  It is the repetition of a basic plot structures which is then colored, and filled out by the teller, often spontaneously.

In a similar way, it is now the player who puts all the flourishes on the performance of the plot structures laid out by game programmers.  But does this agency make the player the author or an actor?


  • Aarseth, E., "Nonlinearity and Literary Theory", in Hyper/ Text/ Theory, (ed.) George P. Landow, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore & London, 1994, pp. 51-86.
  • Haddon, L., "Interactive Games", in Future Visions: New Technologies of the Screen, 
  • (eds) Philip Hayward & Tana Wollen, BFI, London, 1993, pp. 123-147.
  • Laurel, B., "The Nature of the Beast", in Computers as Theatre, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Reading, Massachusetts, 1991, ch. 1.
  • Murray, J., "The Cyberbard and the Multiform Plot", in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1997, ch. 7.
  • Ndalianis, A., "Evil Will Walk Once More: Phantasmagoria ~ the Stalker Film as Interactive Movie?", in On A Silver Platter: CD-ROMS and the Promises of a New Technology, (ed.) Greg Smith, New York, New York University Press, ch. 4.
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