Remixing Yarns: Our 2011 Chatter about Narratives

By Rich Shivener in Unraveling Yarns
Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 4:30 pm
limbo-spider (570 x 321).jpg
Limbo's narrative is ripe for analysis.
In the last six months, James Hawkins and I have meditated on narratives in such video games as Limbo, Batman: Arkham City, Bastion and Bioshock. The reader responses to our Unraveling Yarns series have been fantastic, often furthering whatever yarn we've started rolling. Your comments, dear community, give it mileage.    

As 2011 comes to a close, today's installment revisits those conversations. Join us after the jump.

What Military Shooters Leave Out

James said: "In many of the most successful releases to date, we take up arms and simulate the killing of faceless, nameless enemies in the name of some flimsy premise. We absorb bullets and retain our lives. There's no concern in the slightest about what that might represent."

Dcoy3546 2 months ago
"I can't bother with realistic war games anymore after Modern Warfare 3. Shooting peasants in South America as they attempt to defend their homes from marauding British solders was enough. I know it's a minority, but modern war games aren't nationalistic uniformed war anymore. i can't play them anymore and pretend I haven't noticed that these are people I'm fighting not armies."

Joe Schweigert 2 months ago
"Very nice work. There's for sure a need for some perspective in these types of games. Maybe the problem doesn't lie with the developer, though. I'm just thinking back to the whole Medal of Honor deal with the multiplayer. Humanizing the "enemy" in any way could create a huge media backlash resulting in horrible sales. That being said, I would still like to see someone try."

Gameplay Distracts & The Evolution Of The Narrative I.V. Drip

James said: "Even more than that, though, narratives are becoming some of the only ways that first-person shooters can differentiate themselves from one another. Think about this: if you were to take out the narratives of Medal of Honor, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and Battlefield: Bad Company 2, what would you have? You would have three games that are totally interchangeable, with only minor disparities in the graphics and gameplay options."

"I really liked this article. I feel you. One thing I find interesting is what you loved about Bioshock they tried in Halo Reach but with minimal effect. In a way you knew what would happen, so they tried to make you care by dropping in those logs, like they are trying with the Halo Anniv. It seems like an after thought, well shoot, can we keep people interested like we once did when they know what is coming?"

Do We Jet Ski or Scuba Dive? A Gamer's Dilemma

I said: "I think I'm turning into a Jet Skiing gamer, skimming over long-form narratives and touching lots of different areas in the sea of the video games.
Perhaps I'm a Jet Skier because I play many quick-and-dirty video games on the iPad. My focus is shifting away from long-form narrative video games; I have urges to pick up my Android phone or iPad and sift through emails while a cutscene on, say, Batman: Arkham City, rolls on."

RyanWinslett 1 month ago
"I've always been a deep diver, personally. That's why reviewing games is actually a little trickier for me than, I'd assume, most modern gamers. I can spend days upon days getting through a campaign and be perfectly happy. It seems like this newer generation blazes through without taking time to actually experience the damn thing.

Jeremiah Moniz 1 month ago
I've never understood why some gamers complain about cutscenes and dialog. The story is the whole point of the game. If you're just going to skip it, why bother?

Before They're Art, Video Games Need To Mean Something

James said: "I struggle to understand how I'm sometimes delivered pieces of true beauty in a medium that resembles known artistic media, and can't reconcile that they are, in fact, culturally significant on a scale any deeper than just entertainment. And I've been searching for this fugitive answer."

John Brindle 2 months ago

"This understanding of art is essential to talking about videogames because (as you rightly observe) very few are 'about' anything. Yet many if not most display elements of the artistic or at least the struggling-to-be-artistic: coherence, mirroring, deliberate contrast, playful or motivated modification of previous tropes, homages to ancestors, the orientation of different assets towards an artistic whole."

Limbo Is A Poem

James said: "Commonly, poets use their medium to convey their personal response to complex human emotion. Limbo, as it hit me, is about the emotional journey of a boy coping with loss. In his reality -- in the moments before he resumes consciousness in the forest -- we are unsure of what trauma has impacted him, only that it seems like the loss of a loved one has transported him here."

Bink544 6 months ago 

"I really enjoyed this game and you put into words what I loved most about it.  Having been playing games for over years now, it is so rare to cross into that "art" category and still find it immensely playable.  I have posted about Limbo before, and I still love it and think it is by far one of the best games ever made."

Aye! The Case for Tales of Monkey Island as a Saturday Morning Cartoon

What I said: "Its narrative is chock-full of scenes tied together by Guybrush's interactions with the personalities of land and sea. He meets irreverent, larger-than-life characters such as the regal scientist Marquis de Singe, the glass blower Crimpdigit, and most importantly, the devious pirate LeChuck, his eternal enemy. They're shallow, but their comedic actions compensate for what we don't know about their personalties or histories, and they enhance Guybrush's adventures"

Deadly Premonition & The Unreliable Narrator

James said: "When York approaches a crime scene, or is alone and surrounded by danger, the "shadow world" kicks in. This is not an actual place; instead, it is the developmentally sluggish part of Zach's brain projects a child's imagination on the situation, and changes it to a possessed place."

Linkinglizards 5 months ago 

"Emily sees the zombies as well, though."

James responded: "I think, if I remember correctly, that Emily's POV scene can be taken as we're still inside the head of York, only what he's imagining Emily to be doing.."

Does the Double-Narrative Structure Work in Video Games?

I said: "Like House of Leaves, Assassin's Creed invites you to consider how one narrative and its characters are tied to the companion narrative. How do they inform each other? Do they? Such questions are worth exploring, and their answers aren't always easy to find."

RyanWinslett 5 months ago
You should check out Only Revolutions next, also by Mark Z. Yet another crazy reading experience, but only two main characters doing the telling this time around. Still, HOW you read it, and how much the term "Revolutions" applies to every aspect of it, is pretty wicked.
I'm going to offer a dissenting opinion here. I thought House of Leaves was brilliant, but I usually list Only Revolutions as the worst book I've ever read when asked. I'm generally a fan of pushing fiction forward, but that one failed completely for me.

LA Noire's Video Gameness Makes For A Twisted Character Study

James said: "The bits of each flashback to Okinawa, illuminated in grays, are trustworthy depictions of history, and we can take them as such. In these scripted pre-renderings, Team Bondi is delivering us precisely what we need to know, in cinematics, about Cole Phelps' past. The excellence in facial mapping technology and voice acting allow them to do this with the viscous, candid movement of a film. They are supposed to be fundamental in the full realization of Phelps' story."

Yes, a Video Game's Sandbox Can Kill its Narrative

I said: "Once an owner of GTA IV, I'm guilty of diverting from Niko's narrative by sending the main character on paths of unwarranted death and destruction. Sure, I had a blast, but I reached the narrative's end in, oh, 200 hours, rather than 100 hours, as projected by Rockstar Games."

"The main stories of GTA4 and RDR (with the possible exception of the last act of RDR) are awful.  They take themselves way too seriously, which as you say is indeed a problem when it comes to the freedom the player has to go crazy in those game worlds.  The solution though is not to hamper freedom, which you seem to ultimately be advocating for.  The solution is less authored narrative."

Is There a Video Game as Campy as The Room?

I said: "With (Susan) Sontag's notes for criteria, it's easy to weed out games like Duke Nukem Forever and Bulletstorm, which over-exaggerate the testosterone-filled world of first-person shooter video games. In the latter, in fact, you're encouraged to shoot enemies in the ass and balls, trying to find an escape from a planet infested by meatheads. Call this deliberate camp, or perhaps a satire"

BioShock's Rapture Is A Tacit, Metaphorical Narrator

James said: "Throughout the whole of the game, we're exposed to political and social propaganda that motors our perceptions of the characters we've met, or are destined to meet, and how they function in the world we come to know. It can come in the form of cryptic, blood-smeared words on the walls, the Art Deco posters and pillars, or the Rand-eqsue Olympian statues that dot each courtyard and corridor."

"As I read this I started to think about what other games gave me this feeling in any kind of way. I had to say Fable did with books to collect and read some of the past history of the kingdom. As well with making bad decisions and seeing the effect. But it was so boring reading these books and I started to stop reading them after an hour or two."

Recent Video Games and the Advent of Moral Universes

many diggs

I said: "Like other Metal Gear titles, Metal Gear Solid 4 is a video game ripe with opportunities for character development and moral introspection. These opportunities mainly appear in the cutscenes, where we learn much about a quickly deteriorating Solid Snake, who seems to have one fight left in him. Some scenes last more than 25 minutes, affording the viewer time to synthesize and respond to the main character's trials, including the dilemma of suicide and an honorable death, as noted in the video below."

The Ideals of Andrew Ryan & Cave Johnson

James said: "Cave Johnson of Portal 2, and BioShock's Andrew Ryan before him, are characters that serve as foils for societies of that specific time, embodying all that was great and innovative about the post-war philosophical renaissance, while being ultimately crippled by its foundational flaws."

"Cave Johnson is one of the reasons Portal 2 is such a great game"

Where War Video Games Could Go Post 9/11

I said: "It's no secret, and quite understandable, that some audiences aren't prepared for a commercial video game with more direct depictions of 9/11 and the (ongoing) aftermath. The same likely weren't ready for Oliver Stone's film World Trade Center or Paul Greengrass' United 93, which debuted in 2006. But without a blockbuster video game, opportunities -- history lessons -- are missing"

Silent Protagonists Expand Video Game Storytelling

James said: "BioShock provides a narrative that is wholly based on a series of discoveries and revelations. The protagonist Jack is imbued with a complicated past that we slowly uncover as the game's narrative arc rolls out. While we never see Jack's face, and only briefly hear his voice, he's given a nuanced characterization by those that surround him."

The Narrative Poetry of Rez

I said: "Rez, a rail shooter, has an abstract narrative concerning a hacker infiltrating a super network cluttered with viruses and the like. From my view, it's a collection of symphonic poems complemented by transient visuals. That is, the hacker's story is explained through the trance music and her progress through the depths of the super network."

Is Another World the Video Game's Answer to Silent Film?

I said: "My views are shaped by the occasional cutscenes and Dr. Chaykin's silent actions. Sound effects are present in the game, but they don't inform the narrative, and thus, they reveal little about Dr. Chaykin. They're much like what Melinda Szaloky calls "extrafilmic sources" (music, noise effects, etc.) associated with silent films."

"There was a lot of spiel in this for a very simple concept. The more
ambiguous and less detailed the presentation of a work of art (of any
form), the more the audience engages their imagination. Silence is such
an ambiguity, and its use in Another World serves the same purpose.

NBA 2K12 is Fiction Ripe for Reality

I said: What's more, NBA 2K12's "NBA's Greatest" mode is a wonderful exercise in fictionalizing -- perhaps reimaging -- critical games in the sport's history. For instance, you can pit Magic Johnson and the swimmingly awesome '90-91 Lakers against the '90-91 Trailblazers, once again dominating the Western Conference.

Perspective & The Potential Of Rainbow 6: Patriots

James said: "We will take on the role of a civilian thrust into a horrible terrorist plot for at least some portion of the game, if these early concepts stay in place. Before the conflict arrives, we see his life at its most intimate moments. We're drawn to things that are immediately evocative -- his loving wife, a birthday, an upper-middle class (aka mythic/untouchable) suburban lifestyle."

The Contrasting Narrative Structures Of Bastion And Limbo

James said: "Each facet of Bastion's gripping literary narrative can be matched with Limbo's lack of overt narrative -- characters, sounds, settings, visuals -- as it if was created to be the anti-Limbo. And each game can singularly make a case for being wild and forward-thinking; for sliding a sharp knife through the status quo of other, larger games with which they compete."

Batman: Arkham City - Too Many Bat-Narratives?

I said: "... a city of threats is beckoning Batman. For this player, the trouble is deciding which threat to investigate, to follow-up on, and to neutralize. Should he track down Deadshot? Should he look for "Identity Thief?" (I know who it is!) How much time should he waste on Zzasz's phone calls? Why bother helping Bane? Who was the dude who can catch Batarangs?"

"Batman Arkham City is one of the easiest games I've ever played. No, I'm not here to show off. aia'm being honest. The boss fights are a joke... the riddles are laughable... the side missions are repetitive (each side mission never takes a surprising turn) and the story isn't as epic as Arkham Asylum"

Five Underrated Narratives Of 2011 That You Can't Miss

James said: "Recently, we've been able to rely on independent developers and international creations to push video games forward as a narrative medium. This year is no different, except that it is more laden with diverse stories than in years past, and we're able to experience strange, dark, beautiful tales of all sorts"

Doug S. 6 days ago
"Everyone looking for a good game story should also check out "Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective" for the DS. Like the best mystery stories, it's both full of surprising twists and completely fair. And then there's Missile, the best video game doggie ever.."

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