End of story? Quest, narrative and enactment in computer games

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Narrative, quest, enactment, Max Payne
Media studies, game studies

In a recently published article (1) Espen Aarseth claims that all those computer games that have been described as ‘narrative games’ could better be described as ‘quest games’. Unless a valid counter-example can be found, he suggests that the long and heated debate between ludologists and narratologists about wether or not games are narratives has been settled in favour of the ludologists. My claim is that the computer game "Max Payne" (2) is the counter-example Aarseth is asking for. One central question in all theories of games must be: What is it that makes a game pleasurable? It seems clear that the huge popularity of "Max Payne" can not be contributed to graphics and gameplay alone – after all, the game has been widely criticized for minimizing player freedom through a strict, linear design. The pleasure of playing Max Payne can simply not be fully understood without regard to the innovative storytelling aspects of the game. As in a classic Hollywood movie the game starts with the end, the winning situation, and throughout the rest of the game the player is guided by a voice-over narrating in retrospect the events as the player experiences them (3). The rules of the game are all but clear; staying alive seems to be the one objective of the gameplay. So if any game is narrative, "Max Payne" is, but is it a quest game? If so, it is a very different kind of quest than the ones that Ragnhild Tronstad is talking about, and one must distinguish between the player’s quest and the avatar/main character’s quest. In puzzle-solving quests the central problems of the quest are identical for the player and the main character. However, while the central character in "Max Payne" is on a complex film noir quest of unraveling conspiracy and dealing with his own guilt, most of the player’s quest can be described with an algorithm consisting of the three instructions ‘walk’, ‘aim’ and ‘shoot’. I do not wish to discard the fundamental ontological divide between games and narratives that Aarseth and other ludologists have argued convincingly for. However I wish to focus on the way in which story and game can be integrated in each other in hybrid forms that are indeed new media, with equal emphasis on both words. I suggest that a different concept should be used to describe the pleasure of using such media; the concept of enacting. Disregarding the story aspect of these games may contribute just as much to the perception of computer games as an inferior art form as disregarding the ludus aspect; for even if these games tell stories, they do it in ways that are significantly different from traditional storytelling. Interestingly, "Max Payne" uses game design techniques with similarities to those proposed by Gonzalo Frasca for the purpose of developing "serious" games (4). Thus "Max Payne" is able to create something – wether you call it a "gamestory" (5) or a "story cleverly disguised as a game" (6) – that needs to be studied from more than one perspective to be fully understood. References: 1) Aarseth, Espen, "Quest Games as Post-Narrative Discourse", in Marie-Laure Ryan (ed.): "Narrative Across Media", University of Nebraska Press, 2004. Aarseths central claim builds on Tronstad, Ragnhild: "Semiotic and Non-Semiotic MUD Performance" http://www.cosignconference.org/cosign2001/papers/Tronstad.pdf. 2) "Max Payne", PC version, Remedy Entertainment Ltd, 2001 3) Contrary to the claim that flashbacks are not compatible with computer games – see Juul, Jesper: "Time to Play", in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, MIT Press 2003 http://www.jesperjuul.dk/text/timetoplay/ 4) See Frasca, Gonzalo: "Videogames of the Oppressed: Videogames as a Means for Critical Debate and Debate", Masters Thesis, Georgia Institute of Technology, 2001. Available online at http://www.ludology.org 5) Zimmerman, Eric. "Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games", in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Harrigan, Pat, MIT Press, 2004 6) See Aarseth, id.

Contact: Anders Sundnes Løvlie, Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo; S, alovlie@sfu.ca
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