Gameplay as Style as Narration in Narrative Video Games


October 19, 2012 by johnroberts373

In Extra Lives, Tom Bissell describes a problem with many narrative-based video games:  differences between narrative and ludonarrative oftentimes make storytelling an “unmanageable” process. For Bissell the inflexibility of fixed narratives, often delivered to the player through cutscenes or other non-playable sequences, is often difficult to integrate with the variable experiences of gameplay (Bissell 37). The difficulties in reconciling, or even in addressing narrative and ludonarrative (“The “fun” portions of the “played” game” (37), i.e. gameplay) on similar terms hits the core of the narratology-ludology debate and remains a problematic area of games scholarship. It is clear that games with narrative aspirations share creative control over the activity of narration with game players and indeed do so to a larger and more conspicuous degree than other forms of narrative media. It is therefore worthwhile and perhaps necessary to understand more precisely what form the player’s narrative agency takes. Bissell lauds Left for Dead for its unobtrusive frame narrative and emphasis on what he calls “found narratives,” stories which emerge solely through gameplay, but I argue, following a model of narration developed by film theorist David Bordwell, that the narrative agency Bissell describes is more aptly conceived of in terms of style, and integral if overlooked feature of the story/plot narrative model.

Bordwell defines film style as “the systematic and significant use of techniques of the medium” (Bordwell, On the History of Film Style 4). In discussing narration elsewhere more broadly Bordwell also notes that the story/plot distinction is transmedial (Narration in the Fiction Film 51), so it is not necessary to consider style as being limited only to the medium of film. According to the story/plot/style model, narration occurs when style interacts with plot in order to cue viewers to mentally construct a story, one which is never materially actualized by the medium (Bordwell, Narration 50). Gameplay is a limited and circumscribed transfer of control, from the machine to the player, over some aspects of the machine’s computational and algorithmic processes. In many narrative games this takes the represented form of character choice or creation, character movement through space, equipment management, as well as more conventionally narrative dialogue and plot choices made by the player. I submit that these kinds of gameplay activity, which are bounded by game rules into a finite set of possible player options, constitute the formal techniques of gameplay and are capable of being employed systematically by players. In Left for Dead, for instance, a player must choose a character, choose which weapons and items to equip, and makes a variety of strategic choices in the process of reaching the game’s immutable objective. Moreover, each of these kinds of choice represents a set of functionally equivalent choices. A player can choose to play as Coach or Ellis, can wield a shotgun or an electric guitar, but these stylistic choices can be substituted for each other without affecting the game’s overall (“frame”) narrative. On a more fundamental computational level this means that any active game state (any state of active play) is, in narrative terms, functionally equivalent to any other from the game’s perspective, if we may metaphorically assign it one. The game, as it were, is not concerned with how significant game states (actualized goals, or failure) are achieved, only if they are achieved or not.

What I am arguing is that the narrative agency that players possess is manifested in the stylistic system of the game’s narration, which interacts with the game’s discursive plot in order to imply a more or less coherent story. By actualizing a limited ability to choose between functional equivalents players create stylistic variation within immutable narrative and rule boundaries. This account of player activity is quite different from the simple narrative/ludonarrative model described by Bissell in that gameplay is not isolated from inelective, immutable narrative elements but is closely related to those elements. A conception of gameplay as stylistic action clarifies the story/plot distinction that Bissell finds unmanageable by bridging concerns between narrative and free play. The choices a player makes might not have any direct impact on the architectonics of plot construction, as Bissell notes of Call of Duty 4, but the player’s choices construct a variable story (in the sense of Bordwell’s fabula) out of the game’s plotting. Bissell’s anecdotally-related heroic experience in Leaft for Dead (and perhaps many player’s experiences in any games) doesn’t change the cutscenes, or the larger fixed narrative of that game’s framed narrative per se, but the story he constructs out of his gameplay experience is dramatically different because of his style of play.

As a concluding thought we might consider briefly those games, like Skyrim and numerous others, where the player can choose the order in which quests or missions are completed. According to Bordwell’s definition of it, this would be an alteration of the narrative’s plot and not merely a stylistic choice. Likewise, games with certain important moral choices solicit dramatic syuzhet (plot) decisions from the player in addition to stylistic ones. For Bordwell, in the “normal film” the stylistic system is controlled by and functions in the service of the syuzhet system and style is subordinated to narrative concerns (Bordwell, Narration 52). It appears increasingly common that in video games this relationship is reversed: plot functions in the service of player style. In many video games, the act of configuring the game’s plot through choice becomes subsumed as an aspect of the player’s style; good and evil are functionally equivalent game states. This suggests that understanding the interrelations between narrative and gameplay requires a broadened conception, but not a wholesale disposal, of narrative theory.


One thought on “Gameplay as Style as Narration in Narrative Video Games

  1. I really appreciate the way you map out the application of Bordwell’s “film” terms (actually media-blind) to video games. Your final paragraph, as I’m sure you intended, is particularly provocative, reminding me of my experience in Burnout Revenge; I’m fairy certain that to this day I have never actually “finished” the game. The way the unlocking of progressive levels works in the game works, you don’t need to necessarily finish all of the races available to you to advance. As such, I always end up getting completely obsessed with the “crash” levels and just completing those as they become available to me. This is completely destructive to the intended – albeit extremely weakly implemented – “plot” of advancing through different racing “tours” through the game; I’m actively deconstructing this plot through my style of gameplay, writing my own story in the process, and loving every minute of it!

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