Gaming: Storytelling and ludology

Minecraft from playstation
Source: Playstation

Playing video games is, I am sorry to say, not my favourite pastime. My first attempt at playing was The Hobbit back in the 1980s on my brother’s Spectrum 48k and it frustrated me no end. Though, I did like playing PacMan a couple of years later, on a handheld device which only had Pacman on it. In the late 1990s I was introduced to MOOM – one of the first mass multiplayer online games – which I felt very excited to take part in it (I was asked by one of the creators) but alas, I didn’t really persevere because I didn’t have the patience.

Now when I play video games (and I get asked everyday) I last about 10 minutes because I hate learning all the rules to find out what to do. However, I love watching others, especially my girls, playing video games, because the games are fantastic entertainment. So, I understand completely how the likes of Stampy became so popular, and I love thinking about what gaming means. Apparently, this means that I like thinking about fun rather than having fun, sort of a theory of fun.

Storytelling

You know what kind of gamer I am? When we come to a cinematic, I jump it. I go ‘I’m not watching a movie’ – Guillermo Del Toro

Video games can be viewed in a context of storytelling, or narratology – the way we construct meaning from creating stories about the world around us. Games have cinematic effects, great plots, soundtracks and super cool music, as well as cut scenes which explain backstory, or give rewards to players, or move the story along.

I love cut scenes and enjoy watching whole movies of cut scenes like LEGO Lord of the Rings. But, film directors, Guillermo Del Toro and Steven Spielberg have criticised cutscenes saying that they interrupt the flow of the game, as they are non-interactive.

With or without cut scenes, video games have structure and tell a story to engage players emotionally which then motivates them to perform certain actions. Consequently, they have been analysed in the humanities as interactive storytelling or electronic literature which began before the WWW and focuses on readers interacting with stories to change the outcome of the narrative. Games can be played many times, and each time it is different. Narratives generally, unless they are our favourites, are read once, and don’t change each time we read them. We change though and our interpretations change too (which is a different though equally interesting phenomena to blog about).

Each experience in a game is different and we can be surprised and delighted with what happens next, like the time my girls went swimming in the Los Angeles River in Grand Theft Auto and were eaten by a shark.

Once dead, they could start that level again and follow another outcome not necessarily following the prescribed narrative, because they love unstructured play and often choose open world settings. This desire to play without structure is another area of gaming study, and has led to many video games set in real world simulations like Sims and Second Life.

Simulation and simulacra

In these virtual worlds, we can explore and make, we can all be designers, and we can have different experiences in order to fulfil our basic needs but we do it in an immersive environment. That is to say, we feel like we have left our world and are present in a simulated world. When we are so immersed, there are fewer blanks we need to fill in in order to make sense of that world. It feels normal to walk about The Shire, drive a car round LA, or ride a horse in Red Dead Redemption.

The stronger the narrative is and the more the environment demands of us, along with giving our senses all the information they need – sight, sound, touch (haptic feedback) the more complete it feels.  And our minds, don’t really know, or care if it is real or not. So, we feel like we are stealing cars in Los Angeles or being a super hero in New York. And, often we interact with simulated humans in video games which are non-player behavioural algorithms that look like humans.

It was The Matrix which first got us all talking about algorithms which aren’t human as well as simulation and simulacra.  Simulation is a copy or version of something, say the real world, and simulacra is a version which does not have an original copy. For example, a digital file is not real until it is printed out, and music which is recorded in a studio one instrument at a time is not a performance and never has been. It is a simulacra of a performance.

Ludology

However, Professor of Humanistic Informatics, Espen Aarseth has contested the idea of describing video games as storytelling narratives simulated or not and proposed the term ludology because, after all in video games we, via our avatars, are normally action driven and want to win.

Ludology is the study of games. When playing a game, we need to: 1) learn the rules, 2) play the game, 3) win or lose. In terms of ludology, we play to win.

However, Aarseth proposed this back before the World of Warcraft (WOW) which was released back in 2004 and became one of the most popular most popular massively multiplayer online games with more than 10 million active subscribers worldwide. Apparently numbers have dropped. WOW allows gamers to play however they want by choosing which class you want to be in in the land of Azeroth and then the quests comes from that choice.

Minecraft too carries this idea further, released in 2009, it has been in development ever since and allows players to be and do whatever they want. Players can build extraordinary works of architecture, or live in villages and interact with villagers (non-player behavioural algorithms) who grunt instead of talking. It is an amazing construct, which is really popular.

In 2015, Minecraft released Minecraft: Story mode which is very much like an interactive novel, you can choose to be a girl or a boy, who with a small group of friends tries to win a building competition. Unlike the original Minecraft, it is a game of levels, cut scenes and branching conversations, and little in the way of exploration or creativity. The theory behind it seems to be that people who have an emotional attachment to Minecraft might enjoy experiencing a story in it. Rather like fan-fiction backwards, I guess.

Video games defy categorisation, just when we find a way of thinking about them, a new game comes along to challenge that. And video games remain the fastest growing form of entertainment sector, so it is hard to label constant change. One constant remains though, most gamers when asked tell you that they play for fun. There exists a theory of fun and its purpose is to allow game designers to change the face of game design even further by creating more fun. The theory of fun at its best.

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