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Interactive Texts (VG article)

Posted on June 2, 2013 at 8:15 AM

Gamers are positioned as active “participants” in the narratology and ludology of video games, as well as “consumers” of gaming media. This dynamic signifies how fluid the cultural understanding of video games is, with some gamers interpreting them as an interactive artform (or texts), while others view them in purely mechanical, gameplay terms. And like all creative modes (cinema, music, design), video games are part of a highly competitive industry that, at the end of the day, seeks to turn a profit.

 

The balance between art and business is important to maintain, especially when dealing with a product so expensive to produce and purchase. Pushing too far in either direction can end in disaster. The financial crash of the mid-1980s in one such example this, wherein game companies flooded the market with low quality titles, and saw diminishing returns. Conversely, developers invest a significant amount of time and money into their products, and cannot subsist on critical acclaim or artistic appreciation alone (Flew 131). They need a solid revenue stream and a sizeable market share in order to survive. Franchises are very valuable in this respect, creating a financially stable framework through which game developers are able to create new and exciting content; experiment with different ideas and mechanics; and craft interesting, complex narratives (Bodman 11).

 

The risk, of course, is that developers rely too heavily on the franchise format, and continue to release the same basic model over and over. Arguably, the Madden football series has fallen into this trap. Its developers release a new instalment each year, and while the player line-ups are incrementally updated (to coincide with actual NFL drafts), there are only minor alterations to the game’s visuals, audio, online architecture, and gameplay mechanics (Taylor 12). Conversely, The Legend of Zelda series has resisted the franchise impulse, with each new game being vastly different than its predecessors, featuring unique graphical and gameplay styles. For example, Wind Waker uses cartoony cell-shaded visuals, and is framed as an epic, sea-faring adventure, while Majora’s Mask is much darker in texture and tone, more limited in scope, and focuses on concepts of time travel and death (14). Images of the two games are seen below, illustrating their divergent styles. Unlike Madden, which recycles the same engine each year with minimal alterations, each title in The Legend of Zelda series has been built from the ground up, and contains a self-enclosed narrative, while also abiding by, and adding to, a much greater Zelda mythology (both in terms of an ongoing storylines and characters, as well as introducing new gameplay mechanics and items). It is an example of a franchise building upon its past successes, but never becoming stale in its ideas, a trait which tends to turn gamers off.



Wind Waker (2003)                                                                           Majora’s Mask (2001)


Gamers are arguably the savviest of all media consumers, and are likely to conduct extensive research on a specific video game or console—monitoring production and development, watching gameplay videos, and reading reviews and articles—before they make their purchase. This may speak to meticulous (perhaps obsessive) nature of gamers, but is also due to the high costs of mainstream games, which can be upwards of $60, and usually $80 to $100 in Australia (Squire). Compared to a movie or music download, it is a significant investment on the part of the consumer, both in terms of money and time, with the average game taking over thirty hours to complete. This presented a problem in the mid-1980s when media companies began flooding the market with poorly developed, low quality video games. At the time, the medium was being treated by companies as a fad, to be mined quickly and efficiently before it passed (like so many other trends of the 70s and 80s). However, gamers cottoned on to the cynical marketing push, and sales plummeted. This crash almost single-handedly stymied the development of video games, and was seen as proof of their fleeting interest among consumers. However, a few years later, the Nintendo Entertainment System was released, and with its emphasis on the quality of games, rather than the quantity, sales ascended once more. From a corporate perspective, “games were once again seen as a profitable commodity”, and “gamers” recognised as a demographic worth pursuing.

 

Besides being marketed as products in their own right, video games have also been converged with other industries and technologies. For example, various film studios have released game adaptations, as a means of advertising current cinematic titles, as well as expanding upon their narratives (Jenkins). For example, the 1997 adaptation of GoldenEye, included levels and sequences not seen the original film (though partially present in early screenplays), and lead to a renewed interest in the film through home video and rental agencies. This signifies a cross-pollination arrangement between various entertainment industries, in which separate mediums (cinema and games) build off each other’s brand, and advertise in their respective markets for the benefit of both. Regarding technological convergence, in the early 2000s, Sony actually used their gaming console (the PlayStation 2) as a means of ingratiating their most recent video technology (DVD) into people’s homes. The success of their DVD format lead to non-gamers buying their console, while gamers who already planned to buy a PS2, now had a DVD player to buy movies for. Consumers find this combination of home entertainment devices (games, movies, music, internet) very appealing, and a desire for each format, cross-pollinates the consumption of the others. During the succeeding console cycle, Sony again tried to merge their new home video technology (Blu-ray) with their new gaming console (PlayStation 3). This time, however, they had competition, with Microsoft pushing HD-DVD via the Xbox 360.

 

The practice of “modding” represents a junction between gamers as consumers of content and gamers as creators of content. It refers to the act of modifying old video game engines, in order to create new games. It can involve re-arranging the textures, mapping, and models of the original game, or simply taking the shell of the game, and filling it with new content (Flew). Modding is employed by game developers and gamers alike. For example, the 1998 first-person shooter Half-Life was created from a modified version of the 1996 game Quake. Half-Life was then modified by gamers in 1999 to create team-based action game Counter-Strike, which set the mould for online shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield. Game developers spend a lot of effort building these game engines, so they want to get their money’s worth out of them. For example, contemporary games like Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire are all modelled from a single engine (RAGE), as are games from developers CRYTEK. The point, is that video games are built on top of each other. New games are modelled on the style and structure of old games, and contain the programming DNA of games from the past; old digital art is broken down and re-assembled into new art (Taylor).

 

As well as being involved in the marketing and developing process, users are also actively involved in the content of video games. Unlike watching a film or listening to music, gamers act as spectator and participant. They experience the game as a visual narrative, whilst interacting with its virtual world and effecting its narrative (or ludic) outcomes. The storytelling, aesthetic, and conceptual elements of games, combined with the influence of the user, constitute them as being “interactive texts” (Bodman). However, there are divergent theories over whether video games should be treated as narrative or mechanical forms of entertainment. The theory of “narratology” argues that games are a storytelling medium, in which the gamer takes on the role of a character, and plays out a “cyberdrama” within the context of a virtual world. The complexity of the narrative, and the amount to which the player can alter or influence it, may vary greatly, but the gameplay is still structured around a narrative arc (in which the gamer embodies a central role). Conversely, the theory of “ludology” argues that games should be understood primarily as a system of rules, interfaces and objectives, and that representational elements are purely incidental. It argues that narrative components, such as cutscenes and character dialogue, are irrelevant, and that gameplay is determined by the underlying set of rules and expectations imposed on the player (Flew).

 

The Uncharted series can be used as an argument for ludic theory. The narrative of these games is communicated to the viewer through pre-rendered videos, called “cutscenes”, which play out like scenes from a movie (in this case, a movie about a treasure hunter). These cutscenes are scripted, and cannot be altered, influenced or controlled by the player. They are there primarily as a way to contextualise the gameplay, and outline player objectives (Bryce). For example, a cutscene may provide exposition on where a valuable item is, and why the player needs to acquire it to continue. The actual gameplay, however, focuses on the player’s attempts to get from point A to point B, whether that entails defeating enemies, or solving puzzles. The point is, while the narrative structure of the game may be entertaining and helpful in providing direction, it does not alter the actual gameplay. Likewise, the player cannot influence the narrative, and can focus only on achieving an objective, which in turn activates the next cutscene, which indicates the next objective (and on and on it goes until the “final boss”). The narrative structure is, as a ludic would argue, incidental to the mechanics of gameplay; that is, the story cannot be alter (or be altered by) the decisions of the player. This fact is made most obvious via the player’s option to “skip” cutscenes (so called, because they splice up the actual game), and immediately return to gameplay.

 

Conversely, the Fallout series can be used as an argument for the narrativist theory. The narrative of these games is communicated primarily through conversations, in which other characters will ask you questions, and your responses will directly affect the course of the game (an example is pictured below). Rather than entering pre-scripted cutscenes, players must seek out these one-on-one dialogue sequences. The player can also customise their abilities, weapons, armour, personality, gender, wealth, and morality, all of which affect how the world and characters of the game relate to you. Most importantly, control and perspective never leaves your character, giving the player a greater sense of “self” within the environment (Bryce). Unlike Uncharted, which leads players down a set order of objectives and obstacles, the world of Fallout is completely open-ended. It is a vast expanse of land, filled with dozens of quests and locations (cities, townships, caravans, caves, sewers, harbours, vaults) for the player to pursue at their leisure. That is, it is entirely up to the player to seek out activities, and to forge their own unique story within the context of the game. The world itself may be bound by an established narrative structure (a post-apocalyptic wasteland, overrun with mutants and militia), but the individual story of the player is endlessly customizable, and can be different with every play-through. This supports the narrativist theory, allowing each player to realise their own unique storyline, based on conversational questions and answers; how a player reacts (and how quickly) to various scenarios (many of which are randomly generated); and what order the player chooses to visit locations, or peruse objectives (if at all). Far from incidental, narrative is intertwined with gameplay, simultaneously informing, and being informed by, the player’s decisions and actions (Morris).

 

The concept of a “gamer” is as fluid as the cultural understanding of video games. Gamers embody multiple roles within video game culture, including consumers of gaming media, viewers and players of interactive texts, and creators and modifiers of content. The term “console wars” has come to embody the intense competition between game developers for market share, with the “winners” of each console generation (for example, Wii v PS3 v 360) being determined by such factors as financial success and fan loyalty.

Categories: ARTICLES, Video Games

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