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The Narrative and Ludic Nexus in Computer Games: Diverse Worlds II

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This study demonstrates the relationship between the two major approaches in contemporary video game theory, narrative architecture and ludic design, by interrogating their application in 80 contemporary significant titles. The debate between narratologists and ludologists has run that games are either optimally story-telling or optimally play-based media. This study forces together theoretical concepts of narrative architecture from Jenkins’ (2003) and others and the ludological typology from Aarseth, Smedstad and Sunnana (2003). In four steps we… 1. identified narrative and ludological concepts, 2. determined the meaning of the concepts in concrete terms so that they could be observed in contemporary games, 3. deconstructed titles in the five major gaming platforms to observe the presence or absence of the narrative and/or ludological concepts, and 4. analysed the results to explicate patterns of nexus between narrative architecture and ludic design. The Diverse Worlds Project is an ongoing large-scale interdisciplinary study of computer game texts. The first study (Brand, Knight and Majewski, 2003), was a content study of 130 top-selling games in the five dominant platforms. It presented a quantitative baseline of over 90 measures for representation of physical space, characters, style and narrative. Diverse Worlds II picks up where the original project ended. It adds to the data pool an additional 80 titles selected as the most significant produced between 2002 and 2003 on the basis of popular critical acclaim . More importantly, in addition to studying physical space, characters and style, Diverse Worlds II extends the focus of the project to study the nexus of narrative and ludic factors, the focus of this paper. Tthe titles for this project included potential canonical works such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Metroid Prime, The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker, Max Payne II, Advance Wars II: Black Hole Rising, Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Super Mario Sunshine, Panzer Dragoon Orta, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight. Seven narrative factors studied in Diverse Worlds II included the narrative model (Majewski, 2003), narrative architecture (Jenkins, 2003), formal system, degree of player causal influence, temporal setting, manipulation of story order, range of story information, and depth of story information (all Bordwell & Thompson, 2001). Three-fourths of games in this study featured a narrative formal system. About a tenth each were pseudo-narrative and non-narrative. In terms of those games that exhibit narrative form, half employ a string of pearls narrative model. This model uses a series of pre-set events between which the player has a degree freedom. However, the player can only progress according to the designers’ narrative structure as determined by the pre-ordained sequence of events. According to Jenkins (2003), "Environmental storytelling creates the preconditions for an immersive narrative experience in at least one of four ways: spatial stories can evoke pre-existing narrative associations [referred to as evoked narrative]; they can provide a staging ground where narrative events are enacted [enacted narrative]; they may embed narrative information within their mise-en-scene [embedded narrative]; or they can provide resources for [the player to imagine or author] emergent narratives [emergent narrative]." Nearly three-fourths of games in this study employed evoked narrative, four-fifths use enacted narrative, nearly half use embedded narrative and just over a tenth use emergent narrative. More than half of narrative games are set in the present, very few manipulate story order, most restrict the range of story information and present it objectively. Twelve ludological factors drawn from Aarseth et al. (2003) included topography, environmental control, temporality in terms of pace, representation and teleology, player structure, mutability of character powers, savability, determinism, and rules including topological, time-based and objective-based rules. The overwhelming majority of games in the study offered geometrical topography allowing freedom of movement that is continuous in the game space. Very few games allow dynamic control of the game environment. Temporality is presented in real-time rather than turn-based, mimicking the real world and time is finite in which the player reaches a clear winning or end state. Most games employ the traditional single- or two-player player structure with less than a third offering more complex player permutations. Most games reward the player with experience levelling mutability of the player’s character; less than half of games offer temporary mutability mainly in the form of power-ups. Savability of the game is conditional in two-thirds of texts. Random and/or intelligent environments are the exception with nearly two thirds of games employing deterministic responses to player input during game play. Topological rules feature in two-thirds of texts, time-based rules are used in less than half of games while objective-based rules are the norm. The Nexus Forcing together narrative and ludic dimensions of computer games reveals the connections and, indeed, potential interdependence of narrative and ludic functions in this emerging medium. The full paper explores connections between each of Jenkins’ four narrative architectures and Aarseth et al.’s twelve ludological factors. It provides a matrix of surprising relationships. Take for example, the relationship between emergent narrative and ludic principles. In this nexus, ludic principles feed the openness of the emergent narrative architecture. Geometrical topography allows the freedom of movement and options for play that "provides resources" for environmental storytelling in the imagined and player-authored diegesis. Similarly, environmental control tends to be dynamic, allowing players to engage in authoring experience. The ludic principles of time in emergent narrative naturally exhibit real-time pacing, mimetic temporal representation and infinite teleology. The emergent diegesis, by virtue of possessing a player-centred construction, lends itself to single-player or multiple-player (but ultimately individual play) structures. The relationship so far between the emergent narrative and ludic principles suggests more fidelity to nature and realism. Indeed, in this way, emergent games exist in a non-deterministic universe much more often than games not exhibiting an emergent narrative system. Furthermore, aside from groundbreaking texts such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002), which is one of the few that employs all four narrative architectures, temporary mutability (power-ups for instance) has little or no function when emergent architecture dominates. References Aarseth, E., Björk, S., Klabbers, J. H. G., Smedstad, S. M., & Sunnana, L. (2003, 4th-6th November). Symposium: What's in a game? - Game taxonomies, typologies and frameworks. Paper presented at the Level Up Games Conference, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (2001). Film Art: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill. Brand, J.E., Knight, S.J. and Majewski, J. (2003, 4th-6th November). The Diverse Worlds of Computer Games: A Content Analysis of Spaces, Populations, Styles and Narratives. Paper presented at the first Level Up Digital Games Research Conference, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. Jenkins, H. (2003). Game Design as Narrative Architecture. Retrieved 16 November, 2003, from Majewski, J. (2003). Theorising Video Game Narrative. Minor Thesis for the Degree of Master of Film and Television, Bond University, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia.
Contact: Jeffrey Brand, Bond University,
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