Video Game Narrative

Last semester a classmate made a presentation about the narrative strategy in video games. He did a good job (Videogaming 101). Yet I find his enterprise suspicious in a fundamental way. The reason is simple: narrative is the last thing that I would care when I play video games. [1] Of course they exist, but it is fairly obvious that they exist as a pretext to carry the gist—the action & interaction. In this sense, I believe the narrative in video games has a similar status in pornography—extremely amateurish and limited. People would say my claim does not prevent video games to create very interesting characters. But I would argue that these characters are established mainly by our playing their roles and our incorrigible habit of making sense of our game experience. A similar identification process exists in cinema, but is understandably much weaker. When we try to remember a film, we do recall events, places, characters, etc. But when we try to see what has left in the memory for a video game, what do we have? Not the same thing. I played the whole series of Tomb Raider from episode one to eight, together with numerous custom levels. The thousands of hours I spent on this series do they enable me to understand better who is Lara Croft? When I try to remember this experience, all I can recall is running, jumping, climbing, shooting and yes, dying, which are abstract gestures in regards to the story. What really evolves in the series, as obvious to any fan, is not the story, but the graphics. This said, human beings are incorrigibly addicted to narratives. To take advantage of this weakness game developers wrap their offerings in a package that can be understood as a story, as about a British woman who is attractively asexual. But really, what the Tomb Raider series offers is not a story about this woman, but rather about a particular setting (adventure around the world) and a particular mode of playing (problem solving, wandering alone in a vast area with occasional enemy). It is the unique combination of these gaming elements that has made the series appeal to a wide range of players, who enjoy being in exotic places, shooting from time to time, and taking a break to appreciate the texture work.

Other games of the same genre offer slightly different combinations of the same elements to establish their uniqueness. Prince of Persia, for example, is similar in both the exoticness of the setting and the fighting, lonely acrobat aspect. The narrative is however strengthened by a purpose: to save, to revenge for one’s beloved ones, to prevent a disaster, to search for one’s own identity, etc. God of War, another highly popular adventure game, is as childish as Tomb raider when it comes to problem solving. And there is practically not much acrobatics. But what is unique about this game is the prevailing, God-defying anger. I was again and again amazed by the amount of hatred weaved into the narrative: what there is to love is lost forever, all that remains is to kill. In Prince of Persia, what I see from the emotional side is the perennial fear for the beast. Compared to these two, the narrative in Tomb Raider is the blandest. There is little character development, no romance (for a young woman!), and absolutely no cause to keep herself that busy!

If I made some observations on game design, I am sure you will find them also applicable to many Hollywood blockbusters—in fact they cross-breed constantly these days. Take the newest installment of Indiana Jones series. Crystal skull or chalice, this imperialist curiosity-greed for all treasure of the world is the same. One needs an excuse to go after something fancy that one doesn’t already have; one overcomes his enemies—Russians, for Jones—and one eventually comes to possession of the treasure—the world. But instead of the factual routine of bringing it back to British Museum—morally unacceptable these days—one leaves it there; but naturally it has to be destroyed onsite, irretrievably buried, so that nobody else can get it.

[1] If I had ventilated my reservations to my classmate’s proposition (I didn’t say a word), I imagine he would have argued that he talks exclusively about RPG games, from Dungeon & Dragons, Diablo to The World of Warcraft. And his arguments could be partly valid in this particular genre, although we do have to redefine what narrativity is in this circumstance.


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