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COG II: Whose story is this anyway (2)

Caram on Games (COG) is an occasional ramble in which I discuss computer gaming, gaming culture and how I perceive them, in an attempt to talk about a medium that I've always been passionate about, or at least enjoyed. Every part is an exploration of thoughts, meaning that it comes together as it is written- so while they may meander for a while, a point will eventually be reached. Maybe. After a lot of words, and sometimes numbers. You have been warned- there will be a lot of waffle and fewer pictures than befits a visual medium. Now you've been warned twice. Enjoy!

There is a problem with writing about video games. Every time I do, I can't help but feel that this segment should be called "letters from the Matrix", that I might as well be discussing the systems and gameplay that underpin what we still agree to be our "real" lives. Is there a point to discussing the flat economy of traveling through Tamriel, when there are trade wars and very real economic crises looming? Why attempt to discuss violence in video games when violence is prevalent and perpetuated in a world that seems hell- bent on mutual destruction? Why parse narratives, emotional impact and in-game storytelling when the news has become a caleidoscope for opinion?

Especially when I am not actively and obsessively gaming, reading back over what I have written about my connections to stories and player characters feels like it takes a step back from what I am actually trying to say, veiling it in the guise of talking about escapes into imaginary and constructed worlds. But at the same time, as a fan of what Nancy calls the Imaginative, I cannot dismiss the beneficial effect of taking this step into parallel and multiple universes, nor the way that the way I think about computer games (and games in general) affects my perspective on life and approaches I take to certain situations.

Thinking- and writing- about games helps me frame an ongoing discussion about narratives, counternarratives, news media and what I consider a truth, and come at it from the tangent of the way computer game narratives are constructed. And I do believe that the empathic connection every player can make with an imaginary world can only be of benefit in a world that is not entirely made of pixels on a screen- the more worlds people can share, the better, and pop culture (as a subgenre of artistic production) is uniquely suited to bring people together, as these shared mythologies create a basis for understanding and communicating with the Anthropologist Other. A common story is a good beginning.

With that in mind, let's talk about protonarratives-  terms coined by Hartmut Koenitz- narrative vectors and narrative design for a minute. My interpretation of these terms has them describe the narrative situation and possibilities at the outset of a game, the decisions a game allows and the paths a player can choose within. I like these terms, and the reasoning behind them, as their definitions take into account the technological and interactional factors that make computer games a medium that allow you to narrate your own story within someone else's. They also take into account the malleability of these narrative as they are played, adding a layer of non-linear narrative theory to the layers of linear theories, and that a player is not a classical "audience", but rather a participant in the narrative. If I were to put it in terms of basic Anthropology, this is participant observation- participating without influencing.

This sounds somewhat passive, especially if compared to the earlier comparison to improv theatre, but in most games, it is accurate: most games, even those that boast massive open worlds, put the player on a narrative rail, with some choice in which tracks to follow and upgrades to the train as the player progresses. They can shape their experience, but the experience is subject to many design choices, established relationships and narratives that have been pre-determined that suggesting a personal narrative in the total framework of a game is ridiculous. This is where individual playthroughs become relevant: they delineate a single story developed out of the totality of narrative content- something with a beginning, many middles and an end that is specific to the individual(s) playing through that story. It is defined as much by the experiences made in the course of that story as it is by the experiences not made.

If every playthrough explored every possibility a game has to offer, every narrative branch, every design decision, it would not be so. In life, our perceptions of the world are shaped by what we perceive of it, by the people and places we know. I'm fairly sure my next-door neighbors have a very different perception and idea of life in Berlin, even though we live in the same house and leave it through the same gate every day. We frequent different places, choose to hang out with a different set of people and have made different choices that have shaped our characters. We may not even be playing the same game. Even though our story is superficially similar, and our geographical location would- theoretically- allow us to live the same life as the other, it's the things we don't do, especially when compared directly, that define us as much as those we choose to do. And so our narratives appear personal and specific to each individual, even if we are on rails.

Getting back to part one of this thought: it is not only the emotional journey of the indvidual through a games narrative that makes the story specific to the player. The experiences made within a playthrough out of the totality of possible experiences offered in the game world are subjective to the player in that playthrough. Games have the advantage of multiple playthroughs and repeated, or completely different experiences, over life, which is a strictly Ironman playthrough you experience once, religion and metaphysics aside.

The conclusion from all of the above is that rather than think about the totality of a games' narrative content, reducing it to single playthroughs does allow for a form of personal storytelling and narrative within a game, even though this does reduce the game itself to a linear experience. But as we are wired to experience life in a linear fashion, and parse most impulses sequentially, that has to be OK.

Though I would still argue for a differentiation between an interactive story and a game in that the approaches to narrative design and development are different in exactly how linear the narrative development in either is. I'm sure I'm hardly the first person to suggest this.


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