Narrative Organization Through Video Game Space

While narrative space is employed in all forms of media, it really takes on a unique characteristic in video game space. Where else can you fully explore a landscape in three-dimensional space at your own leisure, except in real life? Games today are moving more and more toward free roaming, exploratory forms of storytelling. In Ivan Mosca’s paper, Boards, Outer-space, and Freedom in Video Games (2009), he explores the ontological research of games; spatiality as it relates to place, space, maps, and territory within games; and he creates a classification system of different board types, tabletop and computer generated, specifically regarding outer space. The paper’s information is derived from over 50 cited games, mostly western, as well as the previously mentioned ontological research. He states that while literal vision of the game space is necessary, it is not the only component needed to explore it. Movement throughout a space is perhaps even more important. He talks further about how games that take place in outer space should be considered the peak of an experience of place, due to its free nature. The instantiation of movement throughout outer space allows the player to experience an illusion of total freedom, which they conclude is the main focus of western games today.

However, some games are not free roaming. There are many that limit player movement, or take a different spin on the idea altogether. The architecture of the game space is nevertheless still imperative, as seen in Henry Jenkin’s article Game design as narrative architecture (2004). At the time this article was published, there was a bit of a feud between ludologists, simply because some wanted to focus on narrative, while others wanted to focus on mechanics. Some believed that there was no way to link the two, but in this article, Jenkins sets out to make amends and bridge the gap. Using literature review and content analysis of several examples (i.e. theme parks, Civilization, The Sims, etc.), he concludes that the architecture of video games and their stories are inexorably linked. The game spaces serve as narrative functions, and can enhance immersion or provide a new perspective.

Narrative space can also be used in video games as a way to organize the story. In his article, Epic Spatialities: The Production of Space in Final Fantasy Games (2009), William Huber seeks to analyze not the narrative aspects of Final Fantasy games, but the space that they employ. Using content analysis of the games themselves as examples, the aim of his paper is to rethink space and game narrative using geographers’ theories of spatialities (i.e. absolute, relative, relational, material, operational, etc.). He talks not only about the space in which the characters move, but also the menus, maps, and battles in which the player moves. He concludes that while most Japanese role-playing games are criticized for being linear, he believes that this criticism does not take into account the spatial and temporal organizational structures that make the game compelling and exploratory. 

Considering how important geography and landscape is within video game space, there is not much literature from the geographer’s perspective. Shaw and Warf lament this lack of geographer’s stance on the spatiality of games in their article, Worlds of affect: virtual geographies of video games (2009). In the article, they begin their conceptual analysis with a discussion of representational issues involving gender, culture, violence, etc. within video game space. Due to the lack of geographic literature, they use this opportunity to explore video game spaces through these representational qualities and intrinsic meaning. While they discuss a great deal on what video game spaces depict, they also state that this sort of research will grow stale without investigating the naturally associative function of affect. The authors conclude with a question to the reader, asking if the dramatic effect that violent and influential video game spaces have upon its players will result in negative consequences.

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My posts so far have been basic literature reviews defining narrative space; space itself; audience immersion of that space; alternative uses and technology for video game environments; and finally, in this post, narrative organization through the use of game space.

Providing these resources has been my main goal so far, as I have obviously not posted any form of critical analysis. In posts to come, I hope to discuss some of these elements more deeply through the analysis of specific video games–old and new. Thanks for reading!

Narrative and Alternatives for Video Game Space

In previous posts, I’ve covered the definition of narrative space, space itself, as well as audience immersion of that space. Now I’d like to talk about alternative uses to the typical game space, such as virtual and augmented reality, as well as educational purposes.

Like many other types of media, video games are not simply limited to genres. Alternative technology can play a major role in the immersive efforts of narrative space. In The emerging geographies of virtual worlds (1997), Jonathan Taylor provides a content analysis that discusses virtual worlds concerning four main themes: art, military, museums, and finance. He postulates that researchers must continue to study virtual reality (VR) in more than the four terms provided, such as medicine, training, architecture, and landscaping. When discussing these themes, he offers the differences between them, but also how they connect. He believes that VR is so vast, however, that there cannot be a simple, overarching theme. This shows that video games involving VR do not have to tell a story in a traditional sense, but may use the virtual space to convey different themes and meanings. His conclusion is that the use of VR deserves much more attention, rather than the negligible and dismissive attitude it has known thus far. Why are people so harsh on virtual reality?

The answer may be seen through the Placeholder project that took place in 1994 (Laurel et al, 1994). The article describing it is a bit unique in that it wanted to conserve each author’s voice, so they wrote their sections separately. The purpose of the paper is simply to describe the elements in the Placeholder research project, which was designed to explore potentials for storytelling through simulated landscapes. The methods behind the project include a qualitative analysis of subjects involved in the making of narratives in virtual environments. They discuss virtual reality for entertainment purposes; capturing a sense of place using VR; creating and interacting with a narrative through space and time; and how VR technology affects the senses. The intent of this project was to bring awareness to the participants about their virtual bodies, and what it is like to be an embodied entity. Their conclusion, however, remains incomplete. The technology at the time was simply too primitive, disallowing proper study. The fact that virtual reality was so poor in its technology and immersion gave it a bad stigma. Today, however, companies like OculusVR are trying to re-imagine the possibilities of virtual space and gaming, with much more support from the community (www.oculusvr.com).

Even so, people are still shy about virtual reality. The technology is still a little too… silly… for some. There are many people, even in younger generations, who refuse to wear anything on their heads in order to game. They immediately dismiss technologies like Google Glass, simply because of the way it looks. Who knew that fashion would affect our efforts to virtually explore another world?

I have to agree on some accounts, however. The Oculus Rift and Google Glass definitely have a long way to go before they’re entirely comfortable. Latency issues are being fixed, but still prevalent. Spatial awareness is definitely skewed, but not always in a good way. Sometimes it’s skewed into total motion sickness.

But I don’t doubt these companies know just how limited their current technology is. If I were to wager a guess, it would be that they’re figuring out this software now so that it can be easily transferred to something like this. Contacts that can augment your very reality. This is technically different from VR, but as the technology advances further, perhaps we’ll learn to use them for more than Twitter and Facebook. Maybe we can morph an empty room into a wonderland?

Augmented reality (AR) has a lot of gaming potential itself. We do not have to create entirely virtual environments. Instead, we could slightly alter the world we see every day. But how would you construct an existing space to tell a story?  Where’s the line between VR and AR? Gunnar Liestøl might be able to tell us in his article, Situated simulations between virtual reality and mobile augmented reality: designing a narrative space (2011), with the issue that augmented reality (AR) has not been clearly defined. He and others have worked on “situated simulations” for mobile devices, which has been challenged as a form of AR. The purpose of his paper is to define, through a literature review, the parameters of AR, describe how/if their situated simulations meet that criteria through deductive reasoning, and then combine the ideas to create narrative space. They conclude that the situated simulations are not considered AR in the strictest of definitions, but in using your mobile device for these programs, Liestøl states that you are in fact, augmenting reality. He further concludes that the use of situated simulations to form narrative space relies solely on the reconstruction of the present, but that it has possibilities to extend reconstructing the past, and even “preconstructing” the future.

Preconstructing the future. Combine all the ideas I’ve presented so far. Where does your imagination take you? Imagine putting on your contacts for the day and literally scuba diving into a virtual Atlantis. Or perhaps you’d like to turn your backyard into a battlefield for paintball. Maybe you’d just like an open, 3D canvas to paint and sculpt whatever you’d like, with your very hands? (Yes please!) You don’t have to simply explore, though. You can also create and enjoy stories within the landscape.

In his textual analysis, Simulation versus narrative (2003), Gonzalo Frasca’s goal is to emphasize the distinction between simulations (video games) and narrative. Traditional research states that video games are simply another form of narrative, like film and theatre, but Frasca argues that while games may express a story, the mechanics are entirely different. Traditional methods of storytelling are extremely representational and are deeply hard-wired cognitive structures. It is hard to accept an alternative method, but the act of simulation, although not entirely representative, is an effective mode of storytelling. Frasca postulates that simulations can express messages that other media cannot. He does not say that simulations are a replacement, but rather an alternative. The biggest difference, he concludes, is that a simulation offers us an unstable future—what might happen. Representational media, however, reflects on what is happening, or what has already happened.

Watch a movie and you’ll see the same story unfold every time. Play Mass Effect, and sometimes it’s hard to even recreate the exact game you just played. Games really do represent an unlimited plethora of possibilities for narrative space. Anything you’ve ever wished to explore will soon be at your fingertips. Perhaps user-generated landscapes will be second nature for our grandchildren. Maybe future generations will enjoy their childhood stories through worlds that they create themselves. If you had this growing up, can you imagine seeing Gohan take out Cell as if they were right in front of you? Talk about jaw-droppingly awesome.

But all of this technology doesn’t have to be just for fun. There are many ways we could educate children and adults alike by combining this technology and the theories behind games themselves.

Through a conceptual analysis, Michele Dickey discusses narratives and problem solving through video games, specifically the adventure game genre. In her paper, Game design narrative for learning: Appropriating adventure game design narrative devices and techniques for the design of interactive learning environments (2006), she explores how important narrative is for motivation, interactivity, and problem solving. She argues that the narrative structure of having players perform quests is intrinsic to motivation in adventure games, and applies mostly to the Hero’s Journey. She continues by laying the framework of adventure game integration in a learning environment, step-by-step. Dickey then concludes, not by stating that adventure quests are the only way to make a didactic game, but that the elements of that design may provide guidance and a pathway for problem-based and project-based learning environments.

Michele Dickey is committed to the idea that we can evolve our learning environments through the influence of video games. She wrote another paper, Game design and learning: A conjectural analysis of how massively multiple online role-playing games (MMORPGs) foster intrinsic motivation (2007), in which she critically analyzes the framework of (MMORPGs), applying them toward the design of interactive and didactic games, and especially learning environments. She gives several examples of how an MMORPG fosters intrinsic motivation, through character development, role-playing, compelling narrative, and freedom of choice. Dickey believes that the multimodal environment of MMORPGs reflects the typical multimodal learning environment, especially since neither has an ultimate end, nor a single way to perform. She also states that having a series of small quests in MMORPGs can be emulated in any learning environment by providing scaffolding for problem-solving. She concludes by stating that while the MMORPG may not have a perfect structure for education, its elements may be used as a flexible means to engage students in their education.

What does all of this mean? How can we connect the dots of my posts so far? There are many conclusions we can come to, but I’m not finished researching. Perhaps I never will be, and that’s okay with me. But before we come to any conclusions so far, I’d like to talk more about my research on video game environments. Join me in my next post, and as always, thank you for reading!

Spatial Awareness, Immersion, Virtual Identities, and the Language of Navigation

In my previous posts, I’ve defined narrative space as seen through Stephen Heath, Mark Cooper, and other notable authors. When referring to narrative space, I like to look at it like an equation. Consisting of space, time, and narrative, these variables are typically ever-changing. Through the quantitative studies of Magliano, Miller, and Zwaan, we were able to conclude that this definition of narrative space can not only be applied to novels and film, but also video games. When I say “video games,” I am purposefully being indirect. Video games can include not only typical console and PC games, but also virtual, augmented, and alternate reality games. In later posts, I will talk further about these alternative gaming methods and how they employ narrative space, but for now, let’s talk about the title of this post.

Spatial awareness is imperative to our everyday life. Even when you close your eyes, you still have a sense of place about you. Those with difficulty may find themselves frequently getting lost, needing directions multiple times, or misplacing their everyday items. Some, however, are born with a heightened sense of space. Personally, I always know what cardinal direction I’m facing at all times. When I dream of places I know, they can appear entirely different because north and south have switched in my mind. Two identical hotel rooms can look entirely different to me depending on what direction they are facing. You get the picture–some people are extremely visual. But no matter your level of spatial awareness, you’re always capable of feeling immersed in an environment, be it virtual or real. Let’s start with real life. How does exploring our environment affect us?

David Crouch explores how people interact with the spatial world in Spatialities and the feeling of doing (2001), and interprets how these interactions help humankind to make sense of space. Through a qualitative, twelve-week, ethnographic investigation of recreational caravanning in the UK, three researchers explored the space in which caravanning happens. They discovered that these people felt free. Their bodies were expressing themselves emotionally and imaginatively through self-discovery and fellowship, all the while escaping the “humdrum” of city life. It is concluded that spaces, and their contexts, are embodied through subjective human engagement; creating spatialities through self-identification and negotiation; and constant reconfiguration and relearning of a surrounding space. What does this mean to us? It means that your surrounding environment can determine your quality of life and how you approach it. When exploring a new, safe space, your mind is as free to wander farther inward as you are outward. Being confined to the same space every day may not only depress you, but it could hobble your creativity, potential identity, and cognitive efforts. Exploring a new space keeps your mind fresh and ready (maybe even excited) for the unexpected.

Let’s be realistic, though. There aren’t many safe, cheap, accessible places left to explore in the real world. Most of us are forced to stay in one place. Traveling isn’t always an option. You may not be able to physically run away from your everyday life, but people explore new environments in video games everyday. Perhaps we can apply these freeing and engaging ideas to virtual environments? But we have to stay honest with ourselves. Video games are obviously not nearly as immersive as real-life space. But that doesn’t mean they’re ineffective. Let’s take a look at what James Ash has to say about screens and virtual environments.

In his article, Emerging spatialities of the screen: video games and the reconfiguration of spatial awareness (2009), he argues the different spatialities of screens using established research on the technologies. While the space can be studied by what the projected images represent, Ash takes an alternative approach by studying the function of the images themselves. Using video games as the main example (Call of Duty 4, specifically), the article identifies the relationship between the screen, the player, and the immersion that follows. It is argued that video games are a great illustration for his argument, because examples like paintings, maps, film, etc. offer a representation of reality. Video games, however, offer their very own form of reality. Ash talks about how the screen presents an extension of our spatial universe without having to actually move within the real world. This produces a different mode of sensing our environment by reconfiguring the relationship between seeing and touching. He concludes by noting that screened images reform the body’s senses to allow new realities, which skew spatial awareness. So, essentially, video games kinda fake our brain into believing we’re somewhere else. We can trick our own spatial awareness through virtual means. Have you ever gotten vertigo from jumping off a cliff in a video game? Does your mom get motion sick when she plays Mario Kart? It’s all a part of how screens, controllers, and virtual environments affect our understanding of our current environment.

So how can these virtual spaces affect the viewer’s immersion? Some video games are clearly more immersive than others. What about their narrative space is unique or engaging? Perhaps it has something to do with the characters we role play? Marco Caracciolo addresses this in his essay, The Reader’s Virtual Body: Narrative Space and Its Reconstruction (2011). He aims to emphasize a player or reader’s projection of themselves into a virtual body, and the function that projection has within narrative space. Using quantitative case studies, he argues that there are varying degrees of fictionalization of this virtual body, each of which has its own role in the manipulation of narrative space. He concludes that the more fictionalized the reader becomes, and the more connected he is with the virtual body, the less cognitive effort is needed for the reader to absorb himself into the setting and story (or narrative space), facilitating the reader’s construction of mental images. These mental images, he argues, are not the final role of the virtual body, but in fact a means to an end. Simply put, they are used to understand and interpret a given fictional text through immersion, allowing the reader to construct more meaning and significance. A good comparison is the difference between the Final Fantasy and Elder Scrolls franchises. In the former, characters are created for you. You play someone else. While in Skyrim, however, you create the character entirely from scratch. Which is more immersive? Which is more fictionalized? It’s really difficult to say. They simply use narrative space in different ways, and either can be argued as being more engaging. I’ll expand on this more in later posts.

Virtual bodies are not the only way to immerse a player or a reader, though. Tolkien’s work has immersed many fans before video games of his worlds were even created. Much like Caracciolo describes, in-depth fictionalization causes immersion, and Tolkien provides plenty of that through the environment of Middle Earth alone. In the article Tolkien’s imaginary nature: An analysis of the structure of Middle Earth (2005), Michael Brisbois breaks down the natural world of Tolkien’s environments. He emphasizes the importance of landscape and ecology within Middle Earth, while also discussing how these are related to culture. Within the books, Samwise Gamgee states (while talking about the Elves), “they seem to belong here, more even than Hobbits do in the Shire. Whether they’ve made the land, or the land’s made them, it’s hard to say” (p. 197). This is to imply that much like how time, space, and narrative are always connected, nature and culture cannot be separated either. Brisbois goes on to separate fictionalized nature into two categories: passive and active. He then breaks these categories down even further, concluding that the use of these groupings will help scholars “perceive a greater meaning in fantasy literature, beyond a mere melodrama of good versus evil” (p. 214-215). We’ll save that for another time, however. Let’s go back to virtual worlds, and the identities we create within them.

Like David Crouch stated earlier, exploring a new environment in real life can cause us to re-think and re-evaluate our own identities. The environments we encounter mold and shape us into who we are today. If we stay in one place, we’ll likely stay the same type of person. Our fictionalized, virtual bodies that Caracciolo identifies are directly similar to this. Our real identity is to our real world as our virtual identity is to the virtual world. Seems obvious, right? I could do an entire other blog on how we choose and shape our virtual identities, but the theory is essentially the same. Our environments, real and virtual, affect our behavior and what we think of our own selves.

There is one more element to immersion which I would like to address in this post. Movement. Most of what I’ve described can be applied to media other than video games. People can become lost in books. Movies can take you to another realm. But in each of these, your movement throughout the narrative is fixed. You cannot decide where to go next, you’re simply there for the ride. In virtual environments, and even real life narratives (have you ever experienced a unique museum exhibit?), you can be in total control of where you go. In fact, many genres are defined by just how you move through the game itself. Platformer? FPS? Whatever the heck Flower is?

Bernadette Flynn calls this a language. In Languages of navigation within computer games (2003), she points out that while many ludologists analyze narrative and mechanics within games, the actual movement and navigation throughout the game’s space is rarely discussed. It is the purpose of Flynn’s paper to argue, through literature survey and content analysis, that navigation throughout a video game embodies its own language. Drawing from Harvey’s spatial models and from examples such as Myst, Final Fantasy, and Balder’s Gate, Flynn claims that narrative is not even necessary to explore a world. While each story is a travel-story through space, not every space needs to have a story. In the video game examples provided, narrative may be an important piece, but the movement throughout the represented space acts as the organization for the experience that takes place. Players may drop their usual motives that take them through the game, and replace them with a curiosity to explore the attractions and terrain before them. It is concluded that the language of navigation acts through the player’s agency, allowing different kinds of consciousness and perception of the game space.

I love this. This is so true, and so often overlooked. For me, this is the most immersive element of any story, and that is why video games are my favorite medium. When I played Skyrim for the first time, I got to level 16 before I even started an actual quest. I spent those first levels exploring. To be entirely honest, I somehow ended up in Blackreach and refused to leave until I had explored it all… but I did not feel like I was missing out.

To summarize, narrative space is an essential element of any medium, particularly video games. Whether it is experienced through technology or real life, the environments around us affect our mood, behaviors, and identities. Our own awareness can be skewed into believing that the virtual is real, and the effects grow even stronger. So if travel isn’t an option for you, try picking up a good sandbox or open-world game. Or if you’re feeling particularly adventurous… try out alternative technologies such as virtual and augmented reality. These will be discussed in my next post. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

Space Explored

When you think of space, what comes to mind? Vast nothingness? Galaxies and solar systems? The tiny amount of it you have in your apartment? When you imagine space, you probably think of it as a “place” for things–for yourself. But it is also a place for events. A place for narrative. A place for time.

Sheila Jones’s paper, Literary geography: setting and narrative space (2011), wishes to combine narrative theory and literary geography in an analytical discussion using case studies of The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Last American (1889), and The Great Gatsby (1925). Space, as discussed in narrative theory, is typically viewed as a container of sorts, and is used to separate the setting from the story. Heath and Cooper (mentioned in my previous post) use this definition of space, and it is often referred to as the “Renaissance perspective.” Jones, however, wishes to expand the idea of narrative space as something more than descriptive rhetoric. Using her case studies, she concludes that narrative theory and spatial theory together create something subjective and apt to change. Setting cannot be separated from the narrative, because the environment within the story heavily influences (and is influenced by) the story itself.

This seems obvious, right? All stories have a setting. They all “take place.” When speaking of narrative space, it is more than obvious that there must be an environment. But Jones’ idea that space cannot be separated from story can be directly related to Simon Kemp’s idea that space also cannot be separated from time. In his paper, The inescapable metaphor: how time and meaning become space when we think about narrative (2012), Kemp studies and explores the pervasiveness of a metaphor between time and space within narrative theory. His aim is to conclude that time is always linked to space, despite theorists’ efforts to exclude them. He uses cognitive research studies and an interesting diagram to correlate time and space within narratives, stating that the metaphor is necessary because humans have a tendency to convert time into space within their minds. He believes that the “narrative line is composed of both chronology and signification,” concluding that narrative theory is not black and white, but “nebulous and intangible,” or ever-changing.

To put it simply: space, time, and narrative are equal variables in the equation of narrative space. When one is changed, the others must mold to fit. In later posts, I’ll get into how video games can manipulate the equation, by purposefully making some variables constants. But first, I must relate the traditional and modern definitions of narrative space to video game space.

So… how does an audience perceive narrative space? Is it different between film and video games? Between novels and museums? Within Indexing space and time in film understanding (2001), Magliano, Miller, and Zwaan perform an a priori analysis of the provided films to study how viewers monitor shifts of time and space within the films. The authors brought together a theoretical analysis of the films, as well as qualitative input from participants. This paper seeks to understand and index the relationship between time and movement in films. What they find and conclude is that a viewer’s understanding of events in film is no different than their temporal understanding of events within simple text, allowing for the deduction that event understanding takes place independently of the medium provided, or the method of experience. This means that readers interpret narrative space in the same way, whether they are reading a novel, watching a film, or even playing a video game. Thus, the theories of narrative space, narrative theory, and spatial theory can be applied to the video game world in ways that still need to be talked about amongst ludologists today.

So far, I’ve helped us define narrative space through a bit of literature review. It is not simply environments and setting, but also time and story. It is rarely static. It can be understood through any sort of medium. It involves visualized as well as inferred space. In my next post, I will begin to address the relevance of narrative space in the gaming world through spatial awareness and immersion. Thank you for reading!

Narrative Space?

The environment and setting of a novel, movie, or game directly affect the story and characters that are rooted within. Imagine how differently Lord of the Rings would have played out if Gondor was farther north (away from Mordor), and the Shire farther west? How do video games use narrative space to immerse the player? What factors are involved when we talk about “narrative space?” Through this blog, I hope to look into this topic further through literature analysis, gameplay, and personal anecdotes. In order to delve deeper, however, I must fully define what I mean when I say “narrative space.”

Narrative space is a broad and abstract term. First defined by Stephen Heath in 1976, the term has come to include not only novels and film, but also video games and real-life environments. In Heath’s paper, so aptly named “Narrative Space,” he talks extensively about spectatorship in film and the rules of Renaissance perspective. Narrative space in film is defined as the control of movement throughout the story, from the reader/viewer’s perspective. In other words, narrative space is how the reader interprets events within their respective landscapes. Heath argues that the creation of movement and pattern within the film creates a space for the action to take place. His main conclusion is that events not only take “place,” but also provide an environment for someone to observe and move within. It is the passive spectator who follows and moves throughout the narrative space provided by the film itself.

Mark Cooper has stated that Heath’s work is incomplete, however. In Cooper’s article, Narrative Spaces (2002), he critically analyzes Heath’s paper. While Heath talks mostly of spectatorship in film and the rules of Renaissance perspective, Cooper uses textual criticism and aggregates several theories of narrative perspectives, including Carroll, Bodwell, Silverman, Crary, Lefebvre, and so on. In doing so, Cooper is trying to argue that Heath’s perspective on narrative space is incomplete, because Heath solely talks about camera placement relative to the characters, and avoids answering how these “character looks” establish and organize cinematic space. Cooper seeks to answer this through content analysis of how true love is represented in film, not through diegetic space and a single-character perspective, but through a collectively shared space that the lovers inhabit. He concludes that the space and journey that kept the lovers apart until their final reunion is just as important in the visual narrative represented by the spectator’s point of view when seeing the lovers together.

This indicates that narrative space also includes the unseen. It includes the spaces that are talked about and alluded to, not just what’s shown on screen, or described in text. But the idea of space itself has been discussed and changed throughout the years. Join me in my next post when I talk about the different interpretations of space, and how it can be related to the immersive narrative of video games.