Class Thread on Games (Week 7)

From Brian:
As we approach the subject of ‘Video Games As Literature’, it becomes evident that the two are not necessarily synonymous. Some games forgo any semblance of story and go straight for the skill-based, easily understood genres such as shoot-em-ups or puzzle games. Others focus on narrative almost to the exclusion of gameplay, such as the current generation of story-driven adventure games.
When an author chooses to tell their story through the medium of a video game, what elements of ‘game’ and video gaming’s genre conventions must they deal with when working in the medium? For example, cinematographers deal with issues of point-of-view, chronology, and multiple media (audio and visual), regardless of what the movie they are making is about. These are issues that always arise with the medium of film, and a movie’s answers to them help define it as a work of art. What, then, must game-makers both artistic and practical wrestle with when producing a video game?
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  1. I’ll probably struggle through my response here, mostly because I’d like to include all kinds of comments from my experience of games outside of the selected items for this week (I may still do that). To keep my response focused on the selections for this week, I’ll just try to reckon with what separates these items from texts we’ve encountered previously.

    Any conversation of games, whether they be odd and experimental like these selections or mainstream and big-budget like most on-market options, will ultimately have to account for “mechanics.” There is, of course, room for visual aesthetics and audio aesthetics–though the governing principles behind these come from prior media. But what sets games apart first and foremost is the focus on and design of the player’s interaction. For narrative, it’s important that the player can interact and has some input in the first place (more on that later), but it’s equally important to consider exactly how and why the player is able to interact. This goes far beyond clicking a hypertext link to progress a story. Mechanics can introduce spatial navigation–as in all of this week’s examples. Mechanics can introduce artificial limitations on that navigation–like the blurred edges of the screen, the procedurally generated maze, and the five-minute time limit in Passage. And mechanics can introduce key features of the narrative in player-dependent ways–like the various ‘collectables’ in Nelson’s stuff.

    If a game’s first consideration is mechanics, then the examples from this week–odd as some of them may be–satisfy a kind of attention given to the forms of interactivity. Passage is probably the best example among them as a game whose mechanics are exclusively and intentionally tied to the thematic intent underlying the game’s creation.

    Beyond the mechanics, or the type/mode of a player’s interaction with a game as related to the game’s themes, any discussion of games as related to narrative needs to reckon with the fact that players can interact at all. This is what I’d mentioned as agency in a previous class period, and as something that serves to set games apart from something like hypertext fiction or fringe examples of kinetic poetry. In those examples, the player’s interaction is navigation only, and even then not spatial but more like clicking to open the next gate in a fenced off storyline.

    Nelson’s examples aren’t the best examples of this, but Passage works well enough to convey the sense that the player’s agency–ability to work within the system of the game–is free enough and yet crafted enough to shape the kind of story that is told. That’s choice, ultimately. Passage presents that choice as a kind of vague metaphor for life, and your agency determines the kind of life that the play session reveals. This translates to a narrative that is only authored in so much as the frame and limitations of the story are authored. If a game doesn’t account for that, then it has largely failed to understand the impact of including players in its narrative.

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  2. I find myself a bit at a loss at answering this question, just because my knowledge and experience with video games is so limited–in contrast with Geoffrey, the five pieces assigned are really probably the extent of my experience with video games. So, please excuse any ignorance on my part.

    I agree with Geoffrey’s point about the importance of mechanics in video games and how creating literature within a video game truly transcends the possibilities of hypertext with the addition of audio and visual effects that just weren’t present in the hypertext pieces we saw.

    Further, I think this level of interaction and the reliance on visual images create a unique problem for those who choose to present a story through the video game as a medium. Although it is certainly not a rule among video games—particularly those ones where the narrative is more firmly intertwined with the actual interaction of the player—I found myself ignoring the words of the game in favor of the actual play. This was most obvious to me in Nelson’s “Game, Game, Game and Again Game,” where I was more interested in moving my character and advancing to the next level than reading the text that was revealed as I played. How can an author present their piece through video games in a way that ensures the player is actually comprehending and reading the piece in the way that they meant it to?

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  3. An issue that is unique to the medium of games is that of difficulty. No one (unless they are hard of hearing or visually impaired) has more difficulty watching a movie than any other person. They may misunderstand complex lines of dialogue or mix up elements of a convoluted plot, but the actual experience of the viewer is not determined by any kind of skill level that must be attained.
    Games, on the other hand, require skill to complete and therefore are limited by levels of difficulty they expect the player to perform at. Difficulty must be built into a game. Even a casual gamer (which I consider myself) knows the thrill that comes from besting a particularly difficult part of a game. When the difficulty level is high, the reward of success is high too. This is one of the best aspects of games and part of their appeal.
    However, the so-called “rage quit” is a real phenomenon, and there is a certain level of difficulty (or impossibility) that would bar all participants from enjoying or experiencing the full work. Even at a lesser level, difficulty can make the experience of playing a game frustrating and, if the player quits before finishing the game, incomplete.
    The pieces we read this week toyed with this idea of difficulty and accessibility. In “game, game, game, and again game” the existence of “death” as a possible outcome (common in most platformers) affects the way the reader deals with the text. Choosing to make this piece as a game brings new levels of meaning with the fact that one can quite literally fail at finding a way through the text, which changes how quickly one goes through the levels and even if they ever get through certain levels – although being able to start over is an option (which brings its own meaning to the piece). A kinetic poem would not proceed with the same inherent risk or challenge that this piece had.

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  4. We’ve explored a few ideas in class about video games thanks to the gaming trio, and the one that I think has been most important is player involvement with the narrative. I’d say that literature is a tool to be used in video games, rather than video games being the medium of literature. The first and foremost important aspect of a video game is the fact that you can “play” it (Dr. Gibson has referenced “play” in quotations before. I have no idea what he’s referring to…). I use the term “play” by its common definition. We’ve established that literature goes beyond “reading” and “comprehending” in some meaningful way when it comes to discussing E-Literature, though have not yet managed to pinpoint exactly what it is. However, I do not believe that you can “play literature”, no matter how you use either of those words.

    In Baldwin’s New Word Order: Basra, the author essentially just reskins elements of the game into text from Billy Collin’s poetry. The main point of the game is still to shoot targets with guns. Sure, the targets are words, and certainly the theme of violence fused the two in a homogeneous manner, but one can hardly expect a player to focus both on the mechanics (as Geoffrey first mentioned) of gunplay and the text of the words. I’m reminded of the end credits to Super Smash Bros. Melee where the players can shoot lasers at the credits. Nobody cared about the names on the credits, they were simply interested in shooting as many as possible. In the context of an FPS such as NWO:B, I believe this is the case as well. The words are only important if that is your reason to play a video game. Fundamentally, the video game mechanics themselves supersedes the work, even if it were to be considered E-Literature. I did enjoy the thematic overlap, but I just wanted to shoot guns.

    I do not think that FPS’s are a proper medium for conveying literature through video games. Half Life did have a good narrative in terms of storyline and dialogue, but Baldwin failed to bring the literature to the foreground of NWO:B, simply due to the nature of the game. It’s interesting to observe, however, that Tori, who did not have a background in video games, is the only one thus far to not focus on the gameplay itself but rather the nature of the literature. Since I do have a reasonable background, specifically in FPS, I wonder how much of my experience with NWO:B was affected by my expectations and behavioral/psychological patterns. At the end, I am open to considering it a work of E-Literature and not simply a horribly skinned game.

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    • Yeah…I’m a little bit confused as how to answer this question just because it seems very based on some knowledge of gaming and I don’t have any. In comparison with some of the past weeks that required some form of the reader “interacting” with the piece, this was very similar to that. There was always something that I needed to do to further the progression of the game or story on my screen. (except for passage…I minimized it for a minute and when I opened it back up he was an old man and his wife was dead?) I think that a game-maker would need to be very thoughtful in creating a game that is could also be considered e-literature. I am so bad at games that in Game, Game and Game Again I actually struggled with beating the levels. I became so frustrated that the only thing I was focusing on was getting the lil guy to the door. I think in this case he just made a simple game and programed it so that text would pop up at various places. I think in order for the merging of gaming and e-lit to be successful there needs to be an emphasis on both. The game has to rely on the literature to give the game meaning and the literature has to rely on the game to move forward.

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  5. I never considered myself to be much of a gamer, but I do remember playing this one game constantly throughout my childhood: Kirby and the Nightmare in Dreamland. I played through that entire game so many times that I might even be able to do it with my eyes closed (except not really, because you need to be able to see where you’re going…) The point is, I played that one game a lot, but I never really read the words but instead pressed “Start” or “A” to skip all the “useless text.” However, aside from the one game, I never really had much exposure to other games, so I’m in the same boat as Tory.

    What I find so fascinating about this class is that we started with “first-generation” electronic literature and keep on “one-upping” the previous week’s pieces with more advanced technology and it’s incredible to see how new technology opens so many doors for authors. Before this class, I would have never said that games were a form of electronic literature. However, after last week’s hypertext pieces, it’s interesting to see how games can add another dimension to literature which wouldn’t be possible in a traditional hard-copy format.

    I factored in the “depth” of interactivity that the games offered. As opposed to some of last week’s pieces, the ones for this week truly felt interactive, but because of that, as I mentioned last week, I don’t know if I would classify it as literature. If you just press a “next” button and continue with the game, to what extent do you truly interact with it? How much of the game should be “accessible,” and how much of it should be filler art that exists solely to make the game feel more organic? I believe that would depend on the genre of the game itself. I’m unfortunately lacking in gaming experience and am unable to list off any examples, so I’ll instead try to describe some. A first-person shooter game should have plenty of hiding spaces that would work as attack and defense vantages, but I’m still not sure how much of the environment should be “interactible” with the player. We’ve also seen the rise of more realistic games as a rise in computer graphics technology allows for the creation of a more realistic environment. An 8-bit tree can now become a swaying organisms with leaves that rustle in an imaginary wind.

    On a side note, I realize I’m posting late, but I hope that everyone likes chocolate cake because that’s what I’m bringing…

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