Indiegogo Campaign Hopes to Help Make Study of Narrative in Video Games a Possibility
Anyone who knows me knows just how much I love my story driven games. I will talk about it any chance I get and if it doesn’t come up organically in conversation I will spend the remainder of it trying to think of ways to bring it up instead of actually listening to whatever everyone else is talking about.
There are, thankfully, many people more than willing to engage in conversation on the topic whether it’s in a group of friends or panels at a convention. But you would be hard pressed to find an academic program focusing on the subject.
So imagine my surprise and delight when I chanced upon an Indiegogo campaign to help fund a research project into the very nature of narrative in video games and their effect on our culture. Naturally, I wasted no time in getting in touch with Chris Yap, a PhD student at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, to find out more.
GEEKPR0N: What prompted you to want to research the role of narrative in video games?
Chris Yap: I’m originally an English Literature major. That was my undergraduate focus. At the time we were heavily involved in two things: reading/analyzing fiction, and trying our best to produce it ourselves. I was eating and breathing stories and how to read and interpret them. So when I would come home after a long day of doing just that, and then play Metal Gear Solid, for example, of course I’m playing the game for amusement, but then I’m also unwittingly analyzing its narrative and teasing out deeper meanings hidden in the subtext.
It was then that I began to realize that all of these things about narrative that make film and literature so important were also present to varying and meaningful degrees in some of the games of today. After I realized that, I began to ask the various faculty at my university (at the time, University of Hawaii at Manoa) the following question: “What field does the analysis of game narrative fall under?” No one had an answer.
It was one of those moments where you realize that there’s a big quest here, a call to action, a call to jump into a new and unknown field and try to be a pioneer. It’s equal parts scary and thrilling. But you know, when that happens, you have to undertake the quest. Well, I do, anyhow. That was all back in 2002. It wasn’t until 2011, after I had done 6 years in Japan as an English teacher, and a few years here and there as a tour bus driver that I decided to pitch the research proposal to the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT). And thankfully, someone there saw the potential in that, so here I am now at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology (NAIST) in Japan, researching interactive and emergent narrative in games with full funding from the Japanese government.
GP: That is fascinating! What do you hope to accomplish in this research?
CY: I have a lot of visions for this research. The first and most general goal I have is to keep on advocating for Game Studies so that in the (hopefully near) future, it can become more widely-recognized as an actual field of study. To that end, I try very hard to conduct my graduate studies in a manner that is very publication-oriented–I try to submit papers to various Game Studies conferences such as the Meaningful Play conference at Michigan State Univ. or to the Replaying Japan conference in Canada. And that’s been very helpful to make that sort of academic noise, but it’s not good enough to affect a change or gain notice in the game industry.
I also try to do a little bit of the industry and fan convention events. I’ve spoken at PAX East 2014 on a panel called, “The Mythology in and of Games: Why the Legend of Zelda is just as important as the legend of Beowulf” (http://youtu.be/WtjAzMj-bIg?t=33m43s), and I’m applying for the advocacy track at next year’s Game Developers Conference 2015. The big goal is to simply make the field of Game Studies more and more visible, pertinent, and helpful for both academia and industry.
I envision a near future where college students can begin to attend courses where certain substantive games can be studied meaningfully as both texts to be understood in a variety of ways and depths, and also for the insights they can render in terms of how we design games and how we as humans communicate values through interactive entertainment. This is already happening at a few great places like the IT University of Copenhagen, Concordia, Univ. of Alberta in Edmonton, and Ritsumeikan Univ. in Japan, just to name a few. But it could be much, much bigger!
GP: Do you feel that story is now playing a much more dominant role in video games?
CY: That’s a great question. Yes and no. Personally, I would love to emphatically say “YES–narrative and story in games is the awesomest thing that could possibly be in there,” but I think what I have observed is that there can be great games that do not necessarily require a story in the general sense, and there are other kinds of games where a story is very integral to the efficacy of whatever that game is designed to evoke in terms of emotion, feelings of player agency, or some other contextual aspect. It’s hard to say.
But regardless of whether they are becoming more dominant or fading away, I definitely feel that the players of games have a tendency to contextualize their gameplay experiences as kinds of story experiences, or that, in the absence of explicit narrative context, they are given the blank space to fill with their own interpretation of what is happening in the game. In other words, players want some kind of story, I think.
It reminds me of Shadow of the Colossus, Journey, or Papers, Please–these are all games that have a characteristic absence of straightforward or specific story explication, like the kind you might get from Mass Effect or Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but that is their story-strength–to infer story with the player, and leverage on the fact that humans want story, they need it (I think). Humans inherently want to know what’s going on with all this ambiguous stuff. What is this place? Who was that guy? Why did she do that? And if the game or story doesn’t tell you exactly, it can be frustrating. But that’s where I think good contemporary games like Journey and Shadow of the Colossus are a narrative success because they encourage and allow the player to have their own contexts, their own emotions, their own narrative experiences.
GP: Compared to mediums such as books, theatre and film, video games are still a very young art form. Developers seem to be making huge advancements in story telling in the last few years. What do you think video games can offer in terms of storytelling that no other art form can?
CY: Games, being inherently interactive, offer a degree of authority to the player to manipulate the events and flow of the story in a game, and that is of course not present in conventional static media. It’s a very powerful thing to give the player, and that’s definitely one of the large appeals of games over cinema and print media which are both fundamentally passive (but awesome) media in their own right.
But this power is a double-edged sword. The problem is that authors of video game narratives must be able to craft a story in such a way that the player can’t “break the story” because of their interactive freedoms and powers. This conundrum in narrative game design is referred to as Ludo-Narrative Dissonance. Think Final Fantasy 7 when Aeris dies and cannot be revived with a Phoenix Down. Based on the game mechanics, a Phoenix Down item ought to revive a dead character in no time at all. But for the directors of Final Fantasy 7 to be able to tell the story they needed to tell, Aeris had to die and stay dead.
And that’s Ludo-Narrative Dissonance–mechanics getting in the way of story and vice-versa. Game designers are experimenting actively and positively with various ways to maintain the integrity of any tale (or multitudes of tales) they wish to tell in a single game while simultaneously preserving the agency of the player, but it’s a fundamental problem. But it’s definitely a good problem to have, because in any event, we are either increasing the interactivity or the narrative quality, and perhaps someday we’ll find ways of maximizing the benefits of both.
GP: Have you always been a gamer? What are some of your favourite story driven games?
CY: I was born in 1980, and my dad was a manager at a Radio Shack, so we always had games in the house when I was growing up. My first system was the Atari 2600, and the first big story game I ever played was the first King’s Quest from Sierra for the Tandy PC (big old floppy disks). My mom and I tag-teamed that game together–she would type the commands and I would remember the kingdom map (and mostly be a bad, little-kid-backseat-driver).
Another big narrative title I grew up with was Shadowgate for the NES. Probably the most influential narrative game I played growing up was the Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the SNES. When I finally beat that game I put the controller down and felt overwhelmed with emotion–that game really did make me feel like I saved the world, and it was an exhilarating feeling. It is certainly not a feeling that a 12-year-old kid would ever have under normal circumstances. Now, that’s all fine and dandy for escapism and all, but I have to say that beating A Link to the Past also taught me, through the story and quest of Link, that I had what it took to get over my troubles at school at the time. I really owe a lot to that game. Oh, and Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 when I was in college. That’s the ultimate story-driven game that all narrative-centric video games are trying to aspire to from a technological stance.
GP: What do you personally think the future of storytelling in video games is going to be?
CY: Personally, I believe that games will always ever be a medium that aspires to tell a story. But as far as how that will change, grow, or develop, I think that the interactive power of the game medium for storytelling is both a wonderful catalyst for creativity and a call to be held to a higher degree of responsibility with our content and the ways we decide to make that content interactive.
I’m not saying, for example, that we should abolish games with violence in them. I mean, sheesh, we force high school students all over America to read Hamlet, and that’s a pretty bloody text (though, of course, not without its literary significance). Rather, the medium of the video game is growing up and maturing. Academics are waking up to the potential of games as a substantial bastion of human creativity, and the industry is generating new ideas and producing titles at exponentially prodigious rates.
What I’m saying is that we need to be careful about making sure that this medium isn’t just produced solely for light, surface-level entertainment. There are ways we can harness the interactive potential of games in such a way that we can teach and inspire. Games are the safest place to test out new ideas and experiences without incurring any of the actual consequences involved with those experiments. It’s all a fun simulation where we just might learn something useful about ourselves. My wish for games is that they continue to grow and mature in ways that reflect our own maturity and responsibility as a society, to use this technology to help each other. This doesn’t have to be done by beating people over the head with a social message in every single video game story. But at the same time I don’t want every game out there to become a Flappy Bird or a Call of Duty. Having said as much, I believe that the medium will maintain a fluctuating balance, and I believe through it all, story will always be there.
GP: Thanks very much for your time!
At the time I am writing this, the campaign only has a few hours left to go. So if you’re passionate about the study of video games and happen to have a few extra dollars lying around, I would highly recommend funding this awesome campaign!