Video Games, Narrative, and the Russian Post-Apocalypse

By | December 9, 2012

This is a short research article I wrote for an eBook one of my courses is publishing. It’s basically me on a soapbox for a couple of pages arguing that video games can be used to tell good stories, which is something I happen to believe fairly strongly in, being both a writer and a gamer. I’m mostly posting it here to give me an excuse to plug the Humble THQ Bundle, where you can currently still get Metro 2033, along with several other excellent games, for as low as $1, which then goes to charity. It’s a very good deal, as the Humble Bundle always is. I encourage you to take advantage of it while it’s still available.

 

There is considerable debate as to whether or not video games can be considered a narrative medium. Media scholar Henry Jenkins comments, “One gets rid of narrative as a framework for thinking about games only at one’s own risk.” On the other side of the debate between analytical focus on narrative vs. interactive elements, game theorist Jesper Juul states that “You can’t have narration and interactivity at the same time.” One of his primary arguments cites Seymour Chatman’s principle of a story’s transposability between different mediums, giving Atari’s 1983 Star Wars arcade game as an example of a narrative that fails to translate recognizably to video game form (Chatman 20). However, by examining more narratively complex video games as well as the definitions of some key terms, it is possible to gain a better understanding of the potential of games to convey a story.

Much of the disagreement over the narrative capabilities of video games results from differing interpretations of the concepts involved. Therefore, in the course of any discussion on the topic, it is helpful to first define some of the more important terms. So what is a video game? The Oxford English Dictionary provides this basic definition: “a game played by electronically manipulating images displayed on a television screen.” Games are, first and foremost, “played,” that is to say interactive. Anyone who has ever played with muted volume can attest that the game is still a game without sound, and text-only adventures suggest that visual elements are also optional. Simple games like Atari’s Pong allow that the inclusion of narrative elements is likewise not required. Even the presence of difficulty or opposition is not universal, as demonstrated in atmospheric games like Tale of Tales’ The Graveyard, where the entirety of the gameplay consists of walking an elderly woman to a bench. But control is always required on some level: a video game without interactivity is just a video. The only other firm distinguishing feature can be found in the other word, “video”: these games are always displayed via an electronic platform of some sort, be it a PC, a console, or a mobile device. Thus, any interactive game on an electronic display can be said at the base level to be a video game, with sound, graphics, narrative, and difficulty being optional components.

Having established the definition of the medium, it is equally important to determine the nature of narrative in order to examine their relationship. The OED defines a narrative as, “an account of a series of events, facts, etc., given in order and with the establishing of connections between them; a narration, a story, an account.” Can games fit this definition? In 4A Games’ Metro 2033, a series of events and facts is indeed depicted in a variety of ways: the game opens with a video, presenting the voiceover of the main character, Artyom, describing his life and the post-apocalyptic underground he inhabits. While not many specific events are depicted in the video, it does convey facts (within the game’s fictional context) which provide the setting for the rest of the game’s action. Within the game, more narrative information is conveyed in a variety of ways. Spoken dialogue is often used to explain elements of the world or to establish new goals, such as when the character Khan instructs Artyom to go to Armory station and meet with a man named Smith. This then becomes Artyom’s new short-term goal and the driving narrative objective of the next segment of the game. Information is also conveyed visually: when the player sees a floating electrical Anomaly sweep through a tunnel and clear it of mutants, it both removes that obstacle from Artyom’s journey, and communicates knowledge about this new hazard.

None of these elements, however, address Juul’s purported contradiction between narration and interactivity. Can gameplay mechanics themselves be used to further a narrative? In fact, an excellent example of this can be found in Metro 2033‘s “Child” chapter. In it, Artyom meets Sasha, a young boy who has been left alone after his uncle was killed by mutants. Artyom agrees to escort Sasha to the other survivors of his station, and at the end of the section’s opening cut scene, Sasha runs toward Artyom, passing out of the field of view. Once control is returned to the player, they find that the boy is nowhere to be seen, though he can still be heard speaking. This could be mistaken for a glitch if not for the fact that the game’s controls are also altered here: turning suddenly becomes slower and more ungainly, hampering both navigation and combat. The gameplay here thus conveys, without it being explicitly stated (until the boy is returned to his mother later), that Sasha is now riding on Artyom’s back. By itself this would be considered poor gameplay; the “floaty” controls could be derided as sloppy design. It is only when given its narrative context that this episode makes sense: the change in gameplay signals how Artyom gets Sasha back to his people, sacrificing his own maneuverability and safety in the process. The very interactivity of this segment is used to convey information about the character as well as how the narrative is moved forward.

Returning to Juul’s statement that narratives cannot translate to video games in a recognizable form, it is helpful to examine one final concept: medium. Media scholar Marshall McLuhan explains that, “it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (McLuhan 9). Therefore, it follows that an individual’s experience of a narrative in any medium will always be altered by the format in which it is presented, making a perfect translation impossible. This can be seen often in translations between novels and films: movies made from books will remove scenes or entire storylines and characters in order to present a more concise narrative, while novelizations will take advantage of their greater length and depth of material to actually expand on events and concepts only touched upon in a film. A change of medium can also affect a story after its creation: consider the way in which commercials break the narrative flow of a film on broadcast television, altering the viewer’s perception in comparison to theatrical presentation. The manner in which a narrative is presented will always change its form in relation to the audience.

The issue, therefore, becomes not whether narratives can translate perfectly to video games, but whether they are still recognizable as the same narrative after the transition. Juul argues that Atari’s Star Wars arcade game fails this test, but it is possible to turn to Metro 2033 for a far more robust model. In the game, Artyom leaves his home station after being charged by Hunter with carrying a message to Polis, along the way encountering dangers including monsters, environmental hazards, and other humans. He is helped by several characters during his journey and eventually reaches Polis, joining with a group of elite warriors there to destroy the “Dark Ones” plaguing his home station. In Dmitry Glukhovsky’s novel on which the game is based, many of the events are different. Artyom visits different stations and at times encounters different characters. The dangers in the novel are more psychological, eschewing the mutated enemies which fill out the first-person shooter interactivity of the video game.

For instance, in one early portion of the story Artyom is a member of a party traveling one of the metro tunnels, and finds himself the only man not rendered helpless by a mysterious noise that only he can hear. In the novel Artyom rallies his compatriots against various psychological afflictions (one man falls unconscious, another breaks down sobbing, a third wanders forward into the darkness aimlessly.) In the game, all of the other characters exhibit similar signs of psychological disturbance, with one man muttering about an undefined “them” as ghostly shadows appear along the walls of the tunnel. The entire party is then knocked unconscious after being enveloped by a strange light. Artyom awakes in time to fight off a horde of mutant enemies while he guards his helpless companions. This narrative event occurs differently in ways that suit the respective mediums: communicating with a delusional, weeping man would not make for exciting gameplay, while the harrowing battle against the pursuing creatures would feel repetitive and dull in the novel without the excitement of interactivity. But in both versions of the story the same basic event occurs: Artyom’s party is disabled while in transit between his home and the next nearest station, bringing him face to face with the mysterious dangers of the tunnels. He is the sole member of his party to retain his ability to resist, and is seen as the hero of the hour by the other men after he delivers them from danger.

The same principle holds true of the story as a whole: despite changes to accommodate the differing mediums, the basic structure of the narrative remains the same in both versions. Artyom journeys through the Metro for Polis, seeking to save his home station from the encroaching Dark Ones. The setting, beginning, end, and many of the major characters all survive the transition from one medium to another largely intact. Were all mention of the title “Metro 2033to be removed from the game, no one who had read the novel could fail to recognize it as the same story, any less than, to return to Juul’s argument, the events of a Pride and Prejudice movie can be recognized by those who have read the novel.

Although McLuhan’s oft-quoted catchphrase declares that “The Medium is the Message,” what is less often cited is his accompanying statement that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (McLuhan 7, 8). Video game software can thus be viewed as a medium of communication filled with both implicit and optional elements including interactive gameplay, graphics, and narrative, each of which is a medium in itself and carries its own message which interweaves with others to contribute to the meanings created by the video game as a whole. Games are not, intrinsically, narratives, any more than a film or a book is. But they are a valid and unique platform for telling stories.

 

Sources:

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse : Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978. Print.

Glukovsky, Dmitry. Metro 2033. Trans. Natasha Randall. London: Gollancz, 2011. Print.

The Graveyard. Dev. Harvey, Auriea and Michaël Samyn.  Tale of Tales. 2008. Video game.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person. Electronic Book Review, 2004. Web. 2 December 2012.

Juul, Jesper. “Games Telling Stories?Game Studies. 1.1 (2001). Web. 11 November 2012.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005. eBook.

Metro 2033. Vers. 1.0.0.1. Dev. 4A Games. THQ Inc. 2010. Video game.

“narrative.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. OED.com. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.

“video game.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. OED.com. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.


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