Simulation as Storytelling

I’ve been wracking my brain recently over the issue of storytelling in videogames; namely, that videogames aren’t narratives in the traditional sense and actually supersede narrative form through mediated interactivity and a temporal experience. As Patrick Crogan suggests in his article “Gametime: History, Narrative, and Temporality in Combat Flight Simulator 2," this mediated interactivity and temporal experience “can best be understood as a transformed narrative operation,” or a narrative that operates within the rules of a videogame to become something else entirely.[i] Though videogames have often sought to merge media and--particularly in its early history--looked to filmic design for inspiration, the last decade has seen some insight and new approaches to storytelling through the videogame medium. Many games have approached storytelling with what now has become typical and quite dated—a switch between interactive and noninteractive states, such as between active gameplay and cut-scenes or cinematics. This “temporal oscillation,” as Lev Manovich calls it in his book The Language of New Media[ii] is the very indication of a separation between narrative and gameplay. The gameplay stops, control is taken from the player, and a narrative chunk ensues. When that narrative chunk ends, control is returned to the player, and gameplay resumes; in essence, the narrative chunk needn’t be there for gameplay to exist as it was. The narrative is delivered separately from gameplay, acting in a supplementary and secondary role. The supplementation of narrative in a videogame like this does not exist “as surplus,” but is exterior in its existence. It replaces the identity of the game itself to produce something new; the contexts the videogame’s story introduces are not irrelevant to the game itself. It does not exist separately as the game is experienced. Nonetheless, there is a very obvious split when it is delivered as temporal oscillation.

Looking at videogame storytelling in the same way that we might look at drama, film, or text is misleading as the medium itself is so different from those forms. Videogames are naturally interactive and, of course, are games based on play and their own set of rules. In order to experience a videogame one has to learn to operate within its rules and thereby master the functions that allow agency and control in the gameworld. This leads to a transformed narrative operation. We cannot approach videogames as narratives, but must see them as a new media and more than just a conglomeration of different devices. I completely agree with Manovich when he said that the literary and traditional narrative is “too restrictive” for new media,[iii] and with Crogan who suggests that videogames are a new form, a “mutated temporalization” in which story/narrative functions on the same plane as gameplay.

Developers have addressed the issue of narrative and temporal oscillation in several ways in an attempt to make stories more immersive and merged within the gameplay itself. A game like Electronic Arts’s Dead Space ignored Manovich’s temporal oscillation since the game doesn’t switch between interactive and noninteractive segments of gameplay. Control is always in the player’s hands as protagonist Isaac. All noninteractive elements are within the controllable—or diegetic—gamespace, such as Isaac’s heads up display (HUD) or as other characters onscreen. Though these particular elements may not be interacted with as they are (the HUD can be changed at will, completely ignoring the visualization of transmissions, but the transmission itself cannot be reconstituted—a player may not change the script, facial expressions, or camera angles in the transmissions) it is up to the player if they wish to stop and watch, continue on, or fool around in the environment as the transmissions commence.

When I first experienced this it absolutely blew me away. I had experienced other games that attempted to make all nondiegetic elements (like menus) diegetic, but I had never seen it done with such fluidity. In Dead Space, if a menu is opened, it hovers in front of Isaac like a floating virtual window, and the player may spin the third-person camera around to see the menu in reverse from in front of Isaac. This goes the same for every transmission Isaac receives from other characters. I was astounded, and the fact that control and point of view is never relinquished by the player in the manner of temporal oscillation was groundbreaking to me. The gameplay and narrative come together as one stream of temporality. This tactic allows players to completely inhabit the world during their session, maximizing immersion in the visual and cognitive sense.

Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us still uses temporal oscillation with cinematic switches to deliver important plot points, but a great deal of character development takes place while players are in control. Lots of discussion happens while players traverse the landscape, and even while sneaking up on enemies or fighting them in the open. The banter between Ellie, Joel, and other characters in these sequences feels natural and fills the otherwise empty space. Not only that, but it creates a continuum between cut-scenes and gameplay that was otherwise absent. The dangers of the world feel more “real” in the sense that the characters themselves feel more human, so players care more about them. I felt closer to the characters because of those light touches, and the experience as a story rather than just an algorithm to master made my actions feel significant. Cut-scenes feel less like a reward for completing a section of gameplay and more like a continuation of it.

My point with this academic interlude is that games have changed a great deal in just the last decade, and there are improving examples of games that merge storytelling and gameplay into a very cohesive, natural, and effective experience. This is the very strength of videogames as a medium; they provide experiences that we participate directly in, and therefore become a part of. We enter a simulation of a fictional space that we then inhabit. It is my hope that videogames continue evolving as a medium to provide more and more meaningful experiences.

[i] Crogan, Patrick. “Gametime: History, Narrative, and Temporality in Combat Flight Simulator 2.” In The Videogame Theory Reader. Edited by Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron. New York: Routledge, 2003.  Pg 275

[ii] Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001. Pg 210-211

[iii] Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Combridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001. Pg.264