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Introduction: Video Games and Storytelling

1. Introduction: Video Games and Storytelling

Imagine being told to ‘start this mission by entering the red marker at the Johnson House’ (GTA Net, 2015) and then as you, Carl Johnson or CJ, meet your brother Sweet, a rival gang performs an unexpected drive-by shooting and you are to ‘hop on a bicycle and follow Sweet, repeatedly tapping “X” to build up momentum’ (GTA Net, 2015). Is this a story, is it another violent episode in a soap opera or is the reader being mistaken for a member of a real-life criminal gang? The uninitiated reader will probably be having serious doubts about what is happening in the above quote. At first sight, this extract seems to be the story of a certain gangster, Carl Johnson; if it is, then the story strangely seems to be waiting for the reader to create all the events that follow. You, the player (or reader, one could say), are suddenly thrown into someone else’s story and are expected to continue the tale. The part about ‘repeatedly tapping “X” to build up momentum’ makes it seem even stranger: it is as if, besides all the possibilities described above, there is also some kind of interaction with a machine. Given this hybrid scenario, the reader must be excused if she does not guess that this is an extract from a ‘walkthrough’, or a set of possible strategies for playing the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar North, 2004).



2. Machinic Stories: The Literature Machine, Technicity and the Computer Game

In a letter to a friend, typewritten on his famous Malling Hansen writing ball, Nietzsche observed that ‘our writing instruments contribute to our thoughts’ (Kittler, 1997, p. 13). Nietzsche’s comment links technology to what he calls ‘our thoughts’: by implication, this can also mean what is understood by ‘text’, especially in the broader Barthesian sense, of something that is not restricted to materiality. Nietzsche’s comment, made over a century ago, therefore implies that the claim made by so-called ‘new media’ from the last two decades to having newly established the link between the text and the machine is problematic. Of course, it is true that technological developments in the last few decades have strengthened the notion of the machinelike nature of texts. For example, hypertext and electronic text are composed of machine code that is present as a layer of machine-readable text beneath whatever text they convey to us. Similarly, machines are also increasingly being seen as texts, and complex machinic systems like video games and simulations are beginning to be perceived both as programs and as texts that can be read. However, as Nietzsche’s observation indicates, the text-machine relation is not a new development; instead, it is originary. An analysis of video games, arguably one of the latest manifestations of machinic textuality, as well as ‘new media’, helps to examine this idea more deeply.

3. (W)Reading the Machinic Game-Narrative

In the introduction to his book on reading program-code, author and programmer Diomidis Spinellis writes that ‘in a few years our students will learn from existing open-source systems, just as their peers studying a language learn from the great literature’ (Spinellis, 2006, p. xxvii). This comparison between reading code and reading literature cannot be considered fortuitous; rather it vindicates and simultaneously follows from the machinic nature of literature itself, as Chapter 2 illustrates.



4. Reading Games and Playing Books: Game, Play and Storytelling

The traveller in Calvino’s

The Castle of Crossed Destinies

begins his series of strange tales with an even stranger description of how they were narrated to him. In a castle, where some unknown power had rendered everyone speechless, the guests were still telling each other their stories but they were doing so in a rather unique way. The traveller describes a scene where tarot cards were laid out after the banquet and what followed thereafter:

One of the guests drew the scattered [tarot] cards to himself, leaving a large part of the table clear; […] We all noticed the resemblance between his face and the face on the card, […] and that he was preparing to tell his story. (Calvino, 1979, p. 6)

5. Shapeshifting Stories: Reading Video Game Stories through Paratexts

Will it ever be possible to ‘read’ games as the previous chapter seems to suggest? How does one read a text that keeps changing and indeed, what is the text of a video game that is being played again and again by many players? In Literary Gaming, Astrid Ensslin, writing as recently as 2014, takes on the analysis of what she calls ‘hybrid literary-ludic artefacts’ (Ensslin, 2014, p. 38). In her conclusion, she points to possible projects, one of which is ‘to examine literary gaming from the user’s perspective, applying methods of empirical reader-response, audience, and player’ and also to look at ‘the creators of literary-ludic artefacts and studying their creative agendas and processes.’ As seen in the previous chapter, the analysis of storytelling in video games needs to reflect the originary supplementarity between the literary and the ludic; as such this book extends its scope beyond any specific category that can be called ‘hybrid literary-ludic artefacts’. Ensslin’s conclusion, however, points at some key interventions that are necessary in the field. The story that unfolds in the experience of playing a video game varies from player to player, of course depending on the game itself. This is the challenge that The Stanley Parable throws at its players/readers and the Prince of Persia in The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time reiterates in his attempt to negate the player’s death, ‘No no no, that’s not how it happened — do you want to hear my story?’ The complex multitelic experience described here will be addressed in the following chapter; this one will attempt to understand whether the ephemeral text, which the player plays out and changes with each gameplay, can be analysed at all.



6. Ab(Sense) of an Ending: Telos and Time in Video Game Narratives

The plots of the video game narrative(s) are a great deal more complicated than the mesh of stories created in Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies. The structural constraints seen in the codex form are present in a lesser degree: unlike the apparently linear plots of earlier narrative media, the story-space in digital games is seemingly endless or multitelic. For some commentators, this poses major problems in conceiving of them as narratives. Often, unlike in older media, the game-text’s ending does not correspond to the spatial and the temporal limits of the game. Time operates in a complicated manner in the game-text and the replayability of the text gives rise to different narratives; yet, as any gamer knows, the ‘different’ narratives may be extremely repetitive with scarcely any variant feature to mark them out. A number of studies on ‘reading’ (or (w)reading) video games refer to their multiple endings as a unique feature but none attempt in-depth analysis. However, as this peculiar nature of the endings is a significant factor in compounding the problem with ‘reading’ digital game-texts as a narrative medium, a discussion of this is now long overdue.

7. Playing in the Zone of Becoming I: Agency and Becoming in Video Games

When the Prince of Persia turns the clock back yet again and recreates his narrative, who is the author of this story? Is it the player acting as (w)reader, both reading and scripting the story, or is it the game designer who shapes the outline of the plot and the spaces of possibility? Finally, what about the Prince himself — as the embodiment of the artificially intelligent processes and the algorithmic environment of the game? The multiple narrative strands in the rhizomatic structure of video games raise yet another key question in the analysis of video games as narratives. How is it possible to explain the creation of these multiple narratives? Can the process of (w)reading these narrative actualisations into existence be likened to authorship? Even if it is, then such a process is quite different from the commonly held conception of the text as a product of the author’s imagination. In video games, as stated previously, the process of narrative construction involves the machine and the player besides the game designers themselves. A straightforward explanation of gameplay as authorship cannot suffice to comprehend the situation in its full complexity.

8. Playing in the Zone of Becoming II: ‘Becoming’ as Identity-Formation in Video Games

The ‘zone of becoming’ in S.T.A.L.K.E.R, is a space where the player literally and metaphorically gains another identity. The player enters the game as a Stalker who has been left for dead on the outskirts of the Zone, suffering from a complete memory loss. The progress in the gameplay therefore involves the development of the identity of the protagonist in the game’s ‘plot’ (or the avatar) and simultaneously, also that of the player. Within the space of possibility, or the ‘zone of becoming’, the identity of the player-protagonist in the computer game changes as the possibilities within the affection-image are actualised as the action-image. Certain games like Fable (Big Blue Box, 2004) or Black and White (Lionhead Studios, 2001) lay this down in no ambiguous terms: what one does in the game determines what one becomes. This perception of a shift in identity is a symptom of ‘becoming’. Following on from the earlier discussion on agency, this chapter shows how the identification occurs not only with the avatar but also with parts of the entire game-environment and the machine itself.

9. Concluding Remarks: Video Games versus Books, and Other Egg-Endian (Non)Debates

In thinking of the video game player’s involvement in the multiple instances of gameplay, a comparison with a scene in a children’s story by the Bengali writer, Sukumar Ray (Ray, 1997), comes to mind. In Ray’s story, written in the style of Carrollian nonsense-literature, the protagonist has a bizarre experience: his handkerchief turns into a cat. The cat (or the handkerchief-cat), however, is not bothered by this metamorphosis. In fact, it claims that it is simultaneously a cat, a handkerchief as well as a semi-colon. This strange feline argument resembles the problematic questions about identity and action that video games also ask. In the three identities that the cat provides, each is equally valid and in effect, the cat claims to be all the three things and even more.


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