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!
"All forms of narrative allow people to momentarily escape the restrictions and limitations of their own lives by entering the world of fiction. How does escapism in computer games work differently from traditional forms of story telling?"
Subject: Computer Games - Interactive Spectatorship
by Murray Lorden (2000)
In reality, you quickly get used to the fact that there are physical and social rules and boundaries, which have a very real influence over the limitations of your everyday life. It is through the frames of entertainment forms that we experience a world outside the borders of our own lives, and are freed from the restrictions and strains of everyday life. When you turn on a computer game, a whole new world of possibilities suddenly opens before you, allowing you to virtually transcend your own physical and social boundaries, and perform in one of these virtual dramas.
All forms of narrative allow for this escape because you can become mentally and emotionally involved in the performance of a drama that occurs within a frame that excludes real life. Everything outside the frame can be momentarily dismissed. And these bordered worlds allow for narratives with closure, resolution and meaning; things which defy stability in real life, hence the allure of the frame.
People yearn for something that will allow them to dismiss their life from their mind; to focus their attention on a sustained narrative that is alternate to their own lives. Even oral traditions of storytelling have this attribute of inclusion and exclusion, even if there is no physical frame. One such computer game narrative that I became heavily involved in was Half Life by Valve Software. Half Life is a first person shooter (FPS) which takes its themes from a wide variety of genres, such as survival horror, action and war films.
Computer games allow for a special type of escapism that focuses on the user as both spectator and performer simultaneously. Generic conventions have become so highly ritualised and formulaic, with an audience that is so familiar with them, that the conventions become the currency of pleasure in themselves. The narrative conventions now make up the content of an interactive medium whereby the audience must trigger the next event themselves to forward the narrative, and their heroism is measured by their competency at performing within the conventions of the game world.
These illusionistic realities appear at once related to real life, while at the same time being outside the sphere of reality. In this process of the exclusion of your own worries and concerns, you are still associating things from your own life to the drama in the frame, but the frame allows you to sideline those real-life concerns by focusing in on the narrative event at hand. For example, while playing Half Life, I would get deeply engrossed in the challenges of the game, thus “tuning out” of my real life concerns.
Such entertainment also offers a safety zone, in which the game’s entities and inhabitants can be depended on to make sense and remain consistent. In the case of computer games, a whole environment and its inhabitants can be depended on to behave in a set way. This allows the user to comprehend them completely, “master” them, and perfect their own performance in that environment. Our real world lacks defined rules and boundaries. In these games, you can attain a level of control and autonomy that is not possible in real life. In Half Life, you become more and more familiar with the behaviour and movements of the enemy units, and with your own arsenal of weaponry, and after long enough you become an veritable master at controlling your avatar and manipulating the environment.
Games have not legitimised themselves institutionally in the way that other forms of artistic production have. Perhaps this is because, instead of becoming immersed in the meaning of a book or a film, in computer games, the process of engagement is more often an engagement with the challenges set by the game, such as the challenges of mastering the controls, or of “unlocking” the narrative through puzzle solving. Computer games have certainly never been very interested in searching for “higher meaning” in things, nor have they tried to philosophise on the human condition. The kind of escape experienced when playing a computer game is certainly very different from other types, such as absorbing yourself in cinema or literature, which often have more abstract, philosophical and internal issues as their interests.
Games are often experienced in a more segmented form where the events of the plot are likely to be played out through missions, quests or recurring scenarios. These scenarios do not usually carry any authorial comment, as the hand of the author is more likely to be concentrating on the gameplay itself than working on the deeper meaning of the narrative events. The emphasis is placed on the player themselves to perform the narrative in an environment laden with “moments of narrative” that are set up by the game developers. And so, in games, we are not just allowing ourselves to be absorbed in the events occurring in the frame as we do in a film or a book, but we must actively take control of an element that exists as our proxy within the game world and show that we can play along.
This makes the process of escape into a computer game quite different from other narrative-based media. While a film or a book is generally experienced just for the length of time it takes from start to finish, games allow for the mind to be indefinitely distracted, so long as the simulation of the game world remains appealing. It is much like a card game in that so long as the “rules of the game” keep you engaged, you can repeat the scenario over and over and over. Because “games” are rule-based, the outcome is different each time. Each experience is unique and you can engage with the text indefinitely. A good example of this is the act of playing Half Life, where the rules that govern the environment are so enthralling that I have begun the game several different times, just to “live” the same narrative events over again in a new way. Furthermore, by being able to play Half Life in multiplayer mode against other players online, you can engage yourself in the recurring scenarios indefinitely.
Speaking of how you focus your attention into a defined frame and exclude what is outside it, Britton says, “Entertainment…defines itself in opposition to labour, or, more generally, to the large category, ‘the rest of life’, as inhabitants of which we work for others, do not, in the vast majority of cases, enjoy our labour, and are subject to tensions and pressures that the world of entertainment excludes.”
Curiously enough, the experience of playing a computer game could so often be seen as labour. Computer games are full of problems to overcome, puzzles to solve, objective to complete and tasks to manage. In Half Life, your main goal is to navigate your way out of the Black Mesa Research Facility and get to the surface. You are constantly having to evade enemies, restock your supplies, maintain your equipment, and solve puzzles. In adventure and mystery games, it can get to the point of wandering around, hopelessly stuck and lost, or getting frustrated with attempt after attempt at a puzzle you can’t solve. But this frustration itself can still satisfy the desire to escape into the frame. At least in computer games, you know there is an answer, it just needs to be found. Once you solve a difficult problem, the feeling of reward is all the greater. And unlike real life, there is always just the possibility to give up completely without negative consequences.
Britton also says, “artefacts that tell us we are being entertained (the requisite feature of the kind of product I have in mind) also tell us that they are promoting ‘escape’, and this is the most significant thing about them. They tell us that we are ‘off duty’, and that nothing is required of us but to sit back, relax and enjoy.” Although games require more engagement than to sit back and relax, they certainly do allow you to allocate your time as ‘off duty’. As the player becomes involved in the game, they in fact make a contract about being on duty inside the game environment. The player’s sense of responsibility and connection to the events in the game encourage a deep sense of escape from real life as you focus in on the challenge of the virtual realm.
Games allow you to process a specific set of rules against which you can test yourself, setting goals and achieving them, getting satisfaction from how well you understand the conventions you are negotiating with. Therefore it is a special form of escapism, perfectly suited to making the user feel rewarded and satisfyingly occupied. It is a way to feel as though you have a mastery over the world as a whole by mastering a particular set of rules. This is quite different from traditional forms of entertainment, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is a synthesis of many different forms of entertainment, combining narrative-based entertainment with rule-based games.
In the case of reading novels, the reader’s perception of the environment and events are always different from the author’s due to the nature of the form. You are not explicitly shown the environment or events, but rather, they are illustrated through the abstract medium of words. The main means of immersion is through eagerly reading on to see how the narrative unfolds, and how resolution is reached. The performance of these events is dictated by the author, and involves the reader by engaging their expectations and desires, and by the reader’s act of mentally processing and considering the implication of the text. Similarly, in mainstream films, you are immersed in the performance of the events of the narrative, as explicitly recorded by the process of production. All of the dead time is taken out, and the events of the story unfold quickly and neatly, with nothing left to do except receive the product. Again, the spectator mentally processes the text, but cannot influence the performance in any way.
Hypertextual fiction still involves almost purely authorial domination. The reader can only put together pieces of predetermined, authored work. The same could be said about computer games, seeing that all of the game content must be pre-authored by the developers, but in the case of hypertexts, the user does not have the opportunity to perform, only to choose. In computer games the player is given a realtime simulation of an environment rich in narrative possibilities in which to perform quite freely.
In the case of computer games, the interactivity of the text is the centre-point of the medium, and the element which really sets it apart from other forms of story-based entertainment. It is a form in which the exact performance can sometimes surprise even the developers of the game. The medium is less expressive than traditional story based forms due to the lack of directorial control of the performance of each moment, yet can still be very atmospheric and dramatic. And it is especially engaging in that it requires the player to exercise their agency for the narrative to progress. Once you learn how to effectively exercise your agency, you can achieve a strong sense of control over your environment, domination over its inhabitants and mastery over your own behaviour and actions. Rather than just follow the plot, you must navigate the performance space, filling the appropriate role in the game based on the conventions the game draws upon.
In games, you become a force within the narrative, usually as a character involved in the narrative, usually the protagonist, or maybe even a god or overseer. What sort of role you will play in the game is usually very clear from the beginning. Generic conventions are used to give you clear guidelines as to how you are expected to behave in order to be successful in the game world. For the narrative of the game to reveal itself, you must negotiate a progression through the text by understanding your position within the narrative. The type of role you will play is usually determined by clearly defining the style of gameplay in terms of existing genres, such as action films, adventure stories, or mysteries. Your performance within the game world is then measured in terms of how well you live up to the conventions of the genre. For example, when playing Quake, you must show proficiency as an action hero, much like Rambo. In Half Life, you must be proficient as a “thinking” action hero, like Bond. In a game like Powerslide or TOCA Touring Cars, you must have the skills of an accomplished racer, like those sportsmen you see at racing events or on television.
You can also play (or replay) a game in a different way each time, or with different objectives. Depending on your desires, the contents of the game can change in proportions, where you may decide to avoid fighting and vie for stealth in an action title. Half Life allows you to befriend some non-player characters (NPC’s) and team up with them, cooperating in your battle against the invading aliens. Alternatively, you can just kill them on sight, or use them for bait to shift the attention of the enemy away from yourself. Many contemporary games are now putting an emphasis on such a diversity in possibilities of gameplay styles in the one game. For example, the advertising slogan for Deus Ex was, “Your goal is to save the world. How you do it is up to you!” Still, you know it will not be by organising charity events. Rather, it will be through your choice of the available generic conventions, such as being a cyber-punk hacker, an action man, or a stealth master, or a fluid combination of all types. This ability to fluidly move between different roles illustrates how liberally games play off the array of generic conventions. There are plenty of optional “side-missions” which add to this feeling of player agency, making a real difference to what story ends up being told. This is different from traditional storytelling, in that the performance is set in stone and exactly the same every time it is told.
Speaking of today’s audience having such a familiarity with entertainment conventions, Britton describes his experience of going to the opening of a film called Hell Night. “It became obvious at a very early stage that every spectator knew exactly what the film was going to do at every point… The film’s total predictability did not create boredom or disappointment. On the contrary, the predictability was clearly the main source of pleasure, and the only occasion for disappointment would have been a modulation of the formula, not the repetition of it.” Just such an ability to pre-guess the events of the narrative are the joys of computer games, where it is often your ability to perform the formula that is the test of your abilities and the measure of your success in the game world. It is because genres have built such strong conventions that spectators are literate enough to want to perform within the array of generic conventions themselves.
This aspect of computer games is played out well in Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray’s character keeps repeating the same tasks over and over, trying to improve his performance through practice and repetition. He is just a sarcastic, bitter news reporter, but wants to turn the story into a romantic narrative by altering his behaviour over recurring versions of the one day to fit the role of the romantic male.
Computer games cannot really afford to go a long way into breaking their own narrative ground due to their interactive natures, as the player would have no way to guess at how to exercise their agency. Games must refer to mythic conventions and other narrative works so that the player has guidelines to understand their own possibilities of agency.
Britton says that, “[entertainment forms] are primarily engaged in referring to themselves and other movies, and related media products, and in flattering the spectator with his or her familiarity with the forms and keeping of a hermetic entertainment ‘world.’ ” This is certainly true of computer games, where the possibilities inherent in the text itself are made up of what could be seen as a database of mythic possibilities. The game developers lay out an interactive trail of narrative possibilities, made up of their game entities, each of these built from mythic principles and signifiers.
Soon we will see the first games which use Dynamic Mission Generators, which are basically databases of narrative nodes that employ AI formulas to keep track of and administer the state of the narrative world. Such systems will be used in up and coming Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG’s) such as Freelancer and BigWorld. These are the closest things yet to Janet Murray’s concept of the multiform plot. Such a system allows for an ongoing storyline that emerges based on player agency, generating reactions to players’ actions based on the rules of cause and effect. It is a different kind of storytelling, where the composition of the narrative is not pre-written in a script, but exists as a complex table of possibilities with formulae being used to administer and distribute events throughout the simulated theatre of possibilities.
It will be very interesting to see what the future of narrative theory holds, considering that the new MMORPG’s allow for unpredictable and freeform combinations of the developers’ range of narrative possibilities. The stories are many, crossing over one another, but are experienced linearly by each individual participating in the game. What will be made of these multi-narrative worlds, based on complex formulae of narrative “nodes”? Where will we look to find the meaning of the game?
Computer games allow for a brand of escapism that is unlike previous narrative media. Traditional narrative forms do not allow a dynamic mingling between the author and the spectator, whereas computer games, with their use of formulae and rule-based storytelling, emphasise the spectator’s role in helping to perform the narrative.
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