Defragging the Divide: panel at DiGRA 2013

Is Narrative an integral part of computer games, or is it just an accident?
The Games and Narrative group is happy to announce a panel at the DiGRA 2013 Conference in Atlanta, titled Defragging the Divide: narrative practices in current videogames (and how to understand them). Join un on Thursday 29 August at 11.45am for a discussion also featuring Janet Murray and Espen Aarseth.

A decade ago, the new discipline of games studies/ludology vigorously denied any connection between games and narrative (Aarseth 2001, Eskelinen 2001, Juul 2001, Frasca 2003). For example, Markku Eskelinen wrote that since a well accepted descriptive methodology for traditional games – he references The Study of Games (1971) – does not consider narrative as part of the ludic field, computer games should follow the same route. If they do not, as he implicitly suggests, it is more because of marketing strategies than of intrinsic characteristics.

Indeed, game companies are recently boasting narrative as a key selling point for their products. Steve Papoutsis of Visceral Games, best known for their “Dead Space” franchise, stated “Our goal [...] is to apply our key design principles – immersive, challenging gameplay, intense narrative and focus on quality”. Rockstar Games recently announced Grand Theft Auto 5 defining it “a bold new direction in open-world freedom, storytelling, mission-based gameplay and online multiplayer”. Dan Connors of Telltale Games, underlined the “narrative design” in The Walking Dead games as a feature that appeals equally to hardcore gamers and to more casual gamers who are fans of the franchise.

To interpret these industry perspectives solely as marketing ploys seems unconvincing. Consequently, what we are faced with is a curious disconnect between theory and practice. Whatever the academic argument regarding narrativity in videogames, the industry clearly believes they are using narrative in some capacity. While industry did not concern itself with the outcome of the ludology-narratology debate, the game studies community should, as it concerns the understanding and expressivity of games as a creative medium. We are not satisfied with the outcome of the ludology-narratology debate from last decade, as specific theories for understanding narrative elements in computer games have not yet emerged. Perhaps the best openings into this puzzling situation is provided by Gonzalo Frasca’s perspective that the debate on narrative in video games never took place (vs. the debate of whether games should be understood as yet another text and be analyzed with the toolbox of narratology) (Frasca 2003a) and Marie-Laure Ryan’s identification of a pragmatic position regarding the application of narrative in video games (Ryan 2006).

From these vantage points we want to re-open the debate on games and narrative in a panel that includes academics on both sides of the debate, as well as industry insiders. Has radical ludology been refuted, not by narratologists but by game producers themselves? Or are new technological possibilities making narrative features emerge more prominently?
We will ask participants how their positions have developed, where they see narrative in games in 2013 and in what directions they see academia and industry heading.

Award for Haunted Planet Game

We are very happy to announce that Haunted Planet Studios, the company run by Games & Narrative Group member Mads Haahr, has received two awards at the Irish Games Festival for a game based on Bram Stoker’s (author of Dracula) life and narrative world.

Bram Stoker’s Vampires won in the categories:

  • Best in Gameplay
  • Best Original Innovation in Gaming

Bram Stoker’s Vampires is available on iTunes and Google Play.

Telling Ghost Stories with Physical Space, Part 2

In my last post, I discussed the location-based augmented-reality game Bram Stoker’s Vampires. I outlined the basic game concept and discussed how locations that were relevant to Stoker’s life as a student in Trinity College Dublin were used for geo-locating characters related to his novel Dracula. One of the characteristics of the game that I didn’t get to fully discuss in the first post is its narrative structure. I will do that in this post and I will also explain the flexibility in the narrative structure that our game engine affords.

Players of our games take on the roles of paranormal investigators, i.e., detectives who solve paranormal mysteries. For this reason, our basic narrative unit is a case (as in a case solved by a detective), which corresponds roughly to a quest, mission or level in many other games. A case typically takes 45-90 minutes to solve and should offer some degree of closure at the end. While the case is our main overarching narrative unit, it consists of smaller narrative parts, or encounters that are geo-located and linked together. During play, a player investigates one encounter at a time. Completing one encounter unlocks one or more in the chain. Our engine allows the encounters to be linked in a sophisticated fashion. The resulting experiences can be non-linear and personalized, such that different players playing together will get different experiences, which also improves replay value.

We distinguish between the following types of encounter structures:

  • Sequential: One encounter is active. Completing the encounter unlocks the next.
  • Parallel Inclusive: Multiple encounters are active and can be found in any order, but all must be completed to unlock the next.
  • Parallel Exclusive: Multiple encounters are active and the player chooses a single one, which when completed eliminates the others.

The launch version of our game Bram Stoker’s Vampires contains a single case with a total of eight encounters. The first three encounters are the three vampire sisters that I introduced in the previous post, followed by four encounters with Count Dracula and one with Bram Stoker himself. We structured the encounters with the three sisters as a parallel inclusive structure, which means that the player can find them in any order. In game terms, this means that the player will see three blips on their paranormal radar and can choose which spot to investigate first. These parallel encounters are linked sequentially into the overall progression, meaning that the player must find all three sisters in order for the subsequent encounters (with Count Dracula) to be unlocked and the game to progress. As a narrative structure, this is a simple 3-way branching structure where the three paths join immediately. The figure below shows the map used for the launch version of the game that began on 26 October 2012 in collaboration with the Bram Stoker Festival.

As noted in the figure, each of the subsequent encounters are linked in a sequential structure. This means that after the encounters with the sisters, the experience is linear: Each player will encounter Count Dracula and Bram Stoker in the same order.

The third possible structure, parallel exclusive, was not used in Bram Stoker’s Vampires. If encounters are linked in a parallel exclusive fashion, the player sees multiple blips on their radar and chooses one to investigate. When the chosen encounter has been completed, the remaining encounters (and corresponding radar blips) from the parallel set are removed from the radar. The player who sees multiple blips on their radar is not given any cues that will help them determine whether the next encounter is a parallel inclusive or exclusive and hence does not know whether the decision to investigate will eliminate the other encounters. What I call parallel exclusive in this post is the typical branching structure used in many interactive narratives: The player makes a decision that removes other possible story avenues at that point in time. (The branches may of course join again later on.)

Falkland Palace Entrance

An example of the parallel exclusive structure is found in our game Falkland Ghost Hunt that was set in the gardens of Falkland Palace (see photo above) in Scotland. In this game we used an important character from the castle’s history, Mary, Queen of Scots as a quest-giver who was in opposition to a fictional figure, the Banshee. In our story, the Banshee had awoken the castle’s spirits, which the player could then encounter in a series of cases set in the castle grounds. In this fashion, the story about Mary and the Banshee worked as framing device in which a varying number of other stories could be set.

Historical Map of Falkland Palace

The map above is an artist’s depiction of the castle gardens. The red lines show the framing story and the yellow lines one of the framed stories called “The Grey Lady.” Grey ladies are of course classic ghost characters found in many old castles and mansions throughout the Western world. In this particular instance, we decided to compose our own story about a woman whose young daughter died in a fire in the castle. Historically, there was a fire in the castle during which the East Wing burned down (see photo) but we don’t know if any children died. In “The Grey Lady,” the mother roams the garden, distressed and shaken, searching for the daughter. When the player encounters the mother (marked 1 on the map), she begs for help to find the missing child. The next two encounters (marked 2a and 2b) use an exclusive branching structure. Both serve a similar function in the story in that each constitutes a trace of the missing child: one (2a) a shoe and the other (2b) a poppet (doll). After the initial encounter (with the grey lady) both of the parallel exclusive encounters appear on the radar. The player has to choose which to investigate and the decision precludes exploration of the other encounter. After either the shoe or the poppet has been found, the third encounter is the child itself, who is of course placed by the ruined East Wing of the castle (see photo).

Falkland Palace East Wing

The examples in this post have shown the three main narrative structures available in our game engine. As a theoretical point of interest, we note that it is possible to represent an N-ary parallel inclusive structure as an N-depth parallel exclusive structure where the first decision point has N choices, the second N-1 and so forth. The different structures have different effects on the experience. A chain of sequential encounters feel somewhat like a tour or a mystery: the player is led from one encounter to the next, following a trail of story segments. A parallel inclusive structure implements a collection game mechanic: the player has to complete all three encounters but can do so in any order. The parallel exclusive structure is intended to make the experience feel more dynamic through the introduction of apparent uncertainty: the player doesn’t know what happened with the radar blip that disappeared — whether the ghost moved or disappeared for other reasons.


Katsiaryna Naliuka, Tara Carrigy, Natasa Paterson and Mads Haahr, ‘A Narrative Architecture for Story-Driven Location-Based Mobile Games,’ Springer LNCS, Third Workshop on Story-Telling and Educational (Serious) Games (STEG’10) , Shanghai, China, 8-10 December 2010.

Tara Carrigy, Katsiaryna Naliuka, Natasa Paterson and Mads Haahr, ‘Design and Evaluation of Player Experience of a Location-Based Mobile Game,’ 6th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (NordiCHI 2010), Reykjavik, Iceland, October 16-20, 2010, pp 92–101.

Magnum Pleasure Hunt: (Adver)games and Narrative

Advertising is becoming more pervasive and advergames, games for promotional purposes, play an ever increasing role. This blog post will underline the narrative components of a very successful case in this field, Magnum Pleasure Hunt (MPH), and its relation with other traditional advertisements for the same brand.

Magnum Pleasure Hunt (Lowe Brindfors, 2011) was part of a worldwide online campaign launched by Unilever to promote its Magnum ice-cream products. In terms of reach, the game was considered highly successful – with more that 7.000.000 players and an average engagement of 5 minutes for each user. The campaign propagated virally on several social networking sites and its hashtag was one of the Twitter trends the day of its launch. In this sense, MPH was deemed a success and convinced Unilever to finance two sequels in the following years.

From a more ludological point of view, MPH can be critiqued for its game-design shortcomings, for example flaws in level design. However, this specific post will concentrate on the narrative and semiotic features that MPH shares with other commercials.

MPH is a Flash-based side-scrolling platform game, following most of the conventions of this genre. Its main narrative theme is “a Hunt for Pleasure across the Internet”, represented by the avatar trying to collect the highest possible number of Magnum products while literally running through several commercial websites – both fictional and depicting real-world brands. The designers of MPH transformed ordinary webpages into rudimentary game levels: while eidetic, chromatic and figurative components of webpages (abstract forms, colors and represented images) remain the same, their functions are altered – i.e. a text box is no more simply part of a page but also becomes a platform over which the avatar can jump.

While the dream of French Structuralism of developing a universal, canonical narrative schema is no longer plausible, this school of thought still provides useful tools for analyzing specific commercials. Parts of their methodology can help us understand advergames and serves as a complement to other descriptive methodologies in this field.
From a semiotic perspective, advertising relies on simple plans that isolate the core values of a brand and actualize them in a compelling narrative text exemplifying their identity, their essence.

Some well-know semiotic mechanisms govern this strategies, such as embodying core values in actors and objects and composing a basic narration – often a simplified “quest narrative”. In the past decade, Unilever associated its Magnum brand with luxury and pleasure, inventing and marketing the Magnum bliss as a euphoric, temporary state reached through chocolate-covered ice-creams. Its core values, luxury and pleasure, are complementary in recent Magnum texts: sometimes one is presented as instrumental for reaching the other, but the Magnum brand identity incorporates both. The MPH advergame also adheres to this strategy.

Pleasure, luxury and their related semantic associations are translated quite literally into MPH, in its levels and in some game-elements. As the title suggests, MPH represents the avatar’s hunt for the highest possible form of pleasure as she runs across several websites suggesting pleasurable situations. During gameplay, the avatar traverses a good number of upscale websites (and the player, metaphorically, browses them) from hi-tech gadgets to haute-couture, exotic hotels and spas. Cutscenes between levels show other luxury experiences – a shower in an expensive hotel, renting a glider on the Swiss Alps – but the protagonist sprints past all of them. During her quest for “ultimate pleasure”, the avatar encounters two varieties of Magnum icecreams: first, “Magnum bon-bons” must be collected to earn points and, later, a full-size Magnum Caramel icecream is presented as the final reward – the object embodying ultimate pleasure and luxury. From a structural semiotic point of view, the main subject is on a quest and tests several potential objects before finding the perfect one, the Magnum icecream, that emerges as the best synthesis of pleasure and luxury.

However, in conclusion, we have to remember that – even if it was considered a success as a viral campaign that propagated across social media – MPH is not a satisfying game per se for a number of reasons outside the scope of this post. In brief, what we can say here is that despite an unusually high production value, the designers of MPH reduced agency to safeguard narrative development and consistency. For example, it is impossible to lose/fail as the avatar always reaches the end of the game: in this way the quest always ends by reaching the Magnum-branded apotheosis. This is obviously atypical and disappointing from a ludic perspective.

We have described how narrative structures and narrative roles are used in advertising and advergames to express the core semantic values characterizing a brand-identity. MPH has been successful in engaging a considerable number of players and represents a good example of how commercials are currently being translated into advergames. Magnum Pleasure Hunt demonstrated, once again, to advertisers and creative directors the potential and the reach of advergames – we hope that, in the future, such products will feature ludic elements as polished as their production value.

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On Games and Art

post co-written by Gabriele and Hartmut

“There needs to be a wordwrites British journalist Jonathan Jonesfor the overly serious and reverent praise of digital games by individuals or institutions who are almost certainly too old, too intellectual and too dignified to really be playing at this stuff. Gamecrashing? Gamebollocks? Spiellustfaken?”.

The occasion for Jones’ invention of the “gamebollocks” neologism is the recent announcement that computer games will be acquired and displayed alongside more conventional works of art at the MoMa museum in New York. Similar events, including The Art of Video Games exhibition hosted by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, have already been organized in the past.

Jones’ main counterargument in the “are computer games art?” debate is that artistic qualities derive from an Author’s personal elaboration on a certain subject. But, he argues, games are interactive: their authors have delegated some of their powers to players, who peruse the system like children in a park. No real Author, no personal perspective, no art – claims the British journalist.
Jonathan Jones is not alone in this theoretical position. For instance, influential film criticist Roger Ebert recently argued against computer games being Art because they are phenomenologically unstable: the same game, repeated twice, can generate different plots. At the 2007 Hollywood and Games Summit, Clive Barker argued that  Roger Ebert’s problem is that he believes that art is impossible if there is malleability in the narrative. Ebert concludes “I consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control”.

Such claims generated a lively online discussion reminiscent of the past debate between narratological and ludological perspectives in Game Studies. While, in our opinion, the earlier discussion was based also on terminological misunderstandings, Jones’ and Ebert’s current arguments are more ideological and convey a partial definition of what is Art without debating the alternatives. Several objections are possible, many of which have already been proposed by other scholars, designers, researchers and gamers. However, we will contribute three more possibilities that have not entered this discussion yet.

First of all, if we accept that a single, identifiable Artist is needed for a work of Art, we arbitrarily exclude several influential pieces. What about the great number of paintings and sculptures from the Classical Antiquity or the Middle Ages for which we do not have a clear attribution? And what about epic poems, chansons de geste and folk tales whose modern editions derive from centuries of collecting and editing of oral versions? Jones writes that “[..] there is no artist, and therefore no work of art”: if we agree with him, we should reject the Odyssey and the Chanson de Roland because they emerged in their current forms only after incorporating contributions by countless unknown authors.

Roger Ebert claims that Art exists when an Author – known or unknown, single or collective – is fully responsible for the actualization, the mise-en-scene, of his work. Users’ choices are incompatible with a work of Art, he argues. It could be interesting to hear Reader-Response theorists replying to this claim. Also, Italian semiotician Umberto Eco formulated the notion of Open Work already in the ’60s and continued to revisit it in the following years. In 1962 he examined not only Luciano Berio’s experimental music but also the “Art Informel” movement for painting and “Kinetic Art” for sculptures and he claimed that some works of Art are “Open Works”. Their openness and dynamicity consist in being available to be not only interpreted but also integrated, completed by their intended audience. Simply put, some works of art require to be acted upon (mentally or even physically) to be fully enjoyed. What is the difference, in principle, with interactive digital environments?

Even more to the point of a malleable work of art employing modern technology, Roy Ascott’s 1964 article “Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision“ already urged artists to shift their focus away from creating finished “objects” to dynamic systems with which the audience interacts: “The artist, the artifact and the spectator are all involved in a more behavioural context. [...] A feedback loop is established so that the evolution of the artwork/experience is governed by the intimate involvement of the spectator”.
It should be noted that Ascott’s reason for this change of perspective is clearly not one of the naive artist stumbling upon the toy store of modern technology’s creative potential. Rather, he urges artists to find aesthetic responses to the massive shift caused by the technological (“cybernetic” in his words) revolution he sees happening already in the 1960s. Finally, Ascott’s vision comes with a warning, as he has no illusions that it will take time for artists to adapt to the new perspective of systems and participation and cautions that during a “transitional period” many artists will ”contrive to force the new sensibility into old moulds.”

Ascott’s warning extends to critics as well. Ebert and Jones force interactive works into the old moulds of object art and the linear medium of film. It is entirely unsurprising that these perspectives find interactive works to be inferior to the established “gold standard.” As we have argued earlier for the case of narrative in interactive media, this judgement is a result of the lens through which the critics watch interactive digital works. We might further argue that neither of these established molds fit but they are applied for reasons of convenience and because we lack a fully developed descriptive arsenal of theoretical understanding and terminology. However, many pointers and theoretical explorations do exist.

Finally, Ebert and Jones agree that interactive practices lack the authorial control that characterize their view of a work of art. Without evoking bards, folk storytellers and Commedia dell’Arte artists, it is possible to counter this argument by citing Janet Murray’s works on procedural media. Current digital technologies are “procedural” because they allow their authors to write not only a linear, stable text but also the algorithmic rules governing its behavior. In other words, authors of procedural works create the contents of their works and establish the rules and conditions governing the system’s interaction with its audience. This feature is not an inconvenient byproduct, as Ebert seems to think, but a central characteristic of this medium: digital works of art are constitutively interactive. The meaning of an interactive piece emerges from its procedural rules as well as from its static contents and this meaning has every potential for being artistic.

“Once video games have been dubbed art [..], shouldn’t we have bigger, more interesting aspirations for them?”, wrote Ian Bogost. Indeed, as theorists, designers, artists and players, we have high expectations for the future of videogames. We see great potential: a medium with unprecedented popular success, continuous technological advances and relatively easy-to-use development and publishing tools. The potential for a more developed “video-ludic” and cybernetic art form has existed for a few years, but the breakthrough is slower than expected. We need more artists exploring the original affordances of interactive digital media, we need more game designers creating new conventions for gameplay. Also, video games as an artistic endeavor need programmers and hackers willing to look past technical problems and to help improving its expressive capabilities.
And, finally, we need a new vocabulary to describe, understand, criticize, study and explain what interactive digital media has to offer as an artistic form. As a research group our contribution is on both sides, theory and practice.

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Telling Ghost Stories with Physical Space, Part 1

Location-Based Games are games in which the gameplay involves moving around an actual physical environment. The particular mechanics associated with this may differ significantly between titles, and can involve chase mechanics (such as Can You See Me Now? or Zombies Run!) or collection mechanics (such as Pac-Manhattan), territorial mechanics (such as Paranormal Activity: Sanctuary) and conventional fantasy RPG mechanics of combat, levelling and skill specialization (such as Shadow Cities). Despite the range of mechanics used, titles tend to be heavy on gameplay and light on narrative. The games we make at my game studio Haunted Planet Studios are different in their ambition in this regard, and in this and a few follow-up posts, I will discuss some of the ways in which we try and tell stories with our recent titles.

Haunted Planet: Bram Stoker's Vampires

Haunted Planet is a smartphone gaming platform designed for mystery adventure games that are location-based and use augmented reality.  (The photo above shows an action shot of our augmented reality view.) We have a pretty broad definition of augmented reality and are concerned not only with overlaying visuals on top of the real world and getting them to blend nicely with the player’s surroundings, but also with doing the same for audio, and ideally also for the underlying game world (although that is harder).  Games running on our platform cast players as paranormal investigators who do what ghosthunters do: find ghosts and gather evidence for their existence in the form of photos and audio recordings. As opposed to other ghost-themed location-based games, we don’t have a territorial or chase mechanic.  As a player, you do “hunt” the ghosts, but you don’t chase them around.  Rather, you solve mysteries that often involve malicious paranormal entities. We think of our games as a reinvention (albeit in progress) of the traditional Gothic ghost story.

Our basic narrative unit is a case (as in a case solved by a detective), and each of the games I will discuss in this blog post series constitutes one case. A case takes place in its own universe with its own characters, backstory and plot development, but several cases can of course share the same universe. The case is also an important gameplay unit and corresponds roughly to a level or a quest in other games. When a player has completed a case, they have solved a mystery and feel a sense of satisfaction. During play, our game engine stages a case, either in a specific site (such as a historical site or a theme park) where we have picked the specific location for each encounter or in a randomized fashion where the player happens to be at the time. All the cases together make up an overarching story — that the world is full of ghosts, that Earth is a haunted planet.

Silvia the White Sister in Trinity College Dublin
The photo above was taken by a player and constitutes a piece of paranormal evidence. The character is Silvia, who is a character from our Bram Stoker’s Vampires game that launched in October 2012 to coincide with the centenary of Stoker’s death. Silvia is one of the three vampire sisters that Johnathan Harker encounters in Count Dracula’s castle. The three are often referred to as “Dracula’s Brides” in popular media, but Stoker never referred to them as such. We have developed the three sisters as characters, given them names and backstories and constructed visuals and sound design that makes them easy to distinguish from each other. Like the Sisters in Bram Stoker’s novel are the first vampires (apart from the Count himself) that the reader encounters, so are they the first characters that the player encounters in our game.

Of particular interest in this photo is the building in the background — it is the Graduates Memorial Building (GMB) in Trinity College, which is home to two of the University’s oldest and most prominent student societies: the Philosophical Society (“the Phil”) and the Historical Society (“the Hist”). Bram Stoker himself was a student at Trinity College and served as President of the Phil and Auditor of the Hist, so it is of historical relevance that the player encounters one of Stoker’s characters in this particular spot. Although it is hard to see in the photo, the GMB also makes a terrific backdrop to a ghostly encounter and greatly adds to the atmosphere. Curious readers can explore the building’s exterior (by daylight) via the Virtual Tour.

Haunted Planet: Paranormal Radar

The player navigates the haunted space through the use of an in-game Google Map and through the Paranormal Radar Mode shown above. The radar works like a ship’s radar, placing the player in the center and showing the paranormal phenomena in relation to them. As the player changes their orientation, the radar rotates with them, making it easy to move towards a paranormal encounter.

Haunted Planet: Bram Stoker's Vampires

The photo above is another photo taken by a player. This was taken in Trinity College’s Rose Garden and features Violeta the Purple Sister. We don’t know if the Rose Garden was of particular significance to Stoker, but it is placed very centrally on the campus, so he is likely to have walked through it many times during his College years. We have structured the encounters with the three vampire sisters as parallel encounters, which means that the player can find them in any order. In game terms, this means that the player will see three blips on their paranormal radar and can choose which spot to investigate first. These parallel encounters are linked sequentially into the overall progression, meaning that the player must find all three characters in order for the subsequent encounters to be unlocked. As a narrative structure, this is a simple 3-way branching structure where the three paths join immediately. Future posts will explore narrative structure, audio and other aspects of storytelling with physical space in more depth.

Where are the meta-games?

The ability of reflecting on itself is a common feature of every complex semiotic system. The practice of literary criticism and the disciplines of semiotics and narratology show that it is possible to use verbal languages to examine and analyze written texts. To do so, for example, semioticians adopt a specialized meta-language to produce precise descriptions of meaning-making mechanisms and strategies.
But narratological analyses are only one example of meta-reflections. From artistic practices, for instance surreal or satirical texts making fun of existing literary conventions, to didactic texts, i.e. manuals on writing, to commercial services, such as book reviews: the meta-usage of verbal language is more widespread than it is commonly expected.

Meta-narrative texts are also possible, and the works of novelists such as Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges are frequently quoted as paradigmatic examples. As another example, more grounded in contemporary pop culture, we can consider Stephen King’s book series The Dark Tower – in which King himself and his work as a writer are situated in the narrative framework. Meta-cinema and meta-theatre are also possible – as François Truffaut’s La Nuit Américaine and Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author show.

What about meta-games? Tony Key from Ubisoft defined at least part of the plot of Assassin’s Creed as a meta-story. Indeed, the game features multiple layers of narration – each one with its own characters, avatars, plots and actions. But there may be more: as Italian semiotician Dario Compagno recently argued in his book “Dezmond“, in the Assassin’s Creed franchise we control an avatar – Desmond Miles – who uses some kind of technological machinery to re-live the experiences of his ancestors – including the iconic Ezio Auditore. Desmond not only perceives Ezio’s actions, but he controls them as if he was playing a computer game: if the player fails, the event is diegetically represented as a system failure and he’s allowed to try again. In short, the Assassin’s Creed series is composed by games in which we control another “player” and, through him, a second-order avatar.

Could it be possible to imagine more examples? I recently collaborated with G|A|M|E Journal to launch the Games on Games project, an open call for games that describe, theorize on, critique and discuss other games. In other words, in our Call for Games we wrote that the project “originates from the hypothesis that it is possible and fruitful to critique video games and their related themes by adopting their own forms, mechanics and languages”.

I am excited and curious about the submissions that the GoG project will receive, but I am also very interested in discovering other meta-gaming pieces such as Dario’s reading of Assassin’s Creed. You may point us towards other examples by commenting on this blog, and you’re invited to submit your original creations to the Games on Games project.

Limbo – Narrative Strategy in a Platform Game

Narrative in a platform game? Maybe not in the sense of a coherent and complete narrative experience.  Yet, there is something in Arnt Jensen’s Limbo - a highly stylized, evocative atmosphere, that simultaneously elevates the game well above the average in the platformer space and raises awareness for the potential of atmosphere as part of a narrative strategy in interactive and game narrative.

Presented entirely in shades between white and back, the game takes visual clues from black and white silent movies and animations but transforms this aesthetic for digital media into a representation with a limited palette of shades reminiscent of cut-outs that includes visual effects like transparent water and fire, as well as a reduced but efficient sound design.

The results are striking – dark, foreboding forest and industrial vistas in which the interactor’s avatar stands out with its bright white eyes. Limbo shares the evocative atmosphere with Amnesia – the Dark Descent, but combines it with fairly traditional gameplay and side-scrolling presentation that gives the interactor only two directions – left or right. The result is a game that does not need much explanation to play, and lets the interactor concentrate on experiencing the dark and menacing atmosphere as much (if not more) as the jumping, pushing and running gameplay itself. This “pure” experience is also achieved through another conscious reduction – not only is the space of the game limited,  there is also no text during game play.

Many of the game’s vistas contain evil creatures that are initially hidden and startle you – if not outright scare you – when the interactor’s diminutive avatar approaches them. You wait for them to appear, you are prepared to flee and devise a strategy for survival. And yet, you want to see them because the moment the giant spider starts moving is also a dramatic narrative moment, one that evokes childhood fears and fairy tales, or the grown-ups uneasiness around the 8-legged creatures. Similar experiences are scattered throughout the game for example when the interactor’s avatar encounters ghostly enemies that wait, attack and vanish.  It is in such moments that the combination of visual and interactive design becomes a strategy that shows its narrative potential.

For the practitioner working in interactive narrative the challenge is to create narrative strategies that take advantage of digital media’s affordances such as procedurality and participation and phenomenological qualities such as agency. For the researcher in interactive and game narrative the task is to identify such strategies, and categorize them.

From this perspective, Limbo represents an important step along the way. The game’s development team has realized a vision that not only goes against the trend of ever more realistic depictions in computer games, but also manages to apply these aesthetics for narrative effect. This is no small feat.

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Game Review

“Whaiwhai”, log607

Whaiwhai (log607, 2009-2011) is a series of of locative games designed by the Italian studio log607. It attracted considerable national and international media coverage, winning the Italian award “Primo Premio per l’Innovazione” (First Prize for Innovation) in 2009 and being presented at the Expo 2010 in Shanghai.
I have already worked on this subject with Giovanni Caruso, Riccardo Fassone and Mauro Salvador – and we presented a multi-dimensional tool for the analysis of locative apps. In this post, however, I will focus exclusively on Whaiwhai.

Whaiwhai – according to the designers, a Maori word that means “to search for” – is a common framework on which different place-specific episodes are built – currently, Whaiwhai experiences are available for the cities of Florence, Rome, Milan, Venice, Verona and New York. Participants engage in a hybrid activity, between a ludic, geo-localized and touristic practice.

The 2009 version of Whaiwhai was played using a special booklet and an ordinary mobile telephone, exchanging text messages with the game server and reading narrative fragments on the booklet. The current Whaiwhai version is based on an app for the Apple iPhone while keeping the same game-mechanics.

From a semiotic perspective, Whaiwhai is constituted by three interwoven components.
First of all, Whaiwhai is partly a remediation of traditional travel guides. It motivates players to explore historical areas of specific cities while assigning simple quizzes to be solved by visiting historical landmarks as well as lesser-known areas.
Secondly, Whaiwhai makes travel experiences more game-like, offering a set of rules, an objective and a set of quests to solve. The system tracks players throughout their game, offering new challenges as they progress. Also, a rudimentary score system is in place and the game evaluates the players’ progresses.
Finally, Whaiwhai blends a fictional narrative with the participants’ explorations. Quests are diegetically inserted into narrative fragments: for instance, the Whaiwhai episode set in Florence is centered on an enciphered diary and on the story of a fictional collector sending the players on a mission to decode it.

This product and its usage scenarios are much more closed than other geo-localized apps. While other exemplary cases, such as Foursquare or SCVNGR, enroll their user-base in the co-authorship of the whole experience, Whaiwhai episodes are designed from a single team that does not leave to common users the power to alter the game structure and to add new contents. While its branching structure is remarkably wide and makes it possible for subsequent games to be quite different from one another, it is still a finite experience that cannot be expanded.

Also, game-like elements are more prominent in Whaiwhai than in other canonical location-based applications like Foursquare. Sessions have definite beginnings, developments and endings, there is a rudimentary score system and the game evaluates the players’ progresses. While the system is not designed to allow users to lose a game – the story and the session will progress anyway even if the wrong answers are repeatedly given – it still signals whether players are performing in a good or bad way. Although it may certainly be possible to witness emergent behaviors during a Whaiwhai game, those are not openly invited by the system due to the closed and unidirectional (top-down) nature of its ludic and narrative components.

Both ludic and narrative features are used in Whaiwhai as “factitive devices”. In his semiotic theory on modal verbs, French narratologist A. J. Greimas defines the factitive modality of an object as the potential skill to communicate their directions of use (communicative function) generating precise actions sequences done by the users (operative function). (In Greimas, A. J. 1983. Du sens. 2. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.) Whaiwhai, then, is designed to encourage a specific type of movement in urban areas and it achieves its objective by presenting a narrative (i.e. a sci-fi mystery in the city of Florence – but the genre varies in each episode) and assigning a series of quests to the player. While the narrative itself is mostly diegetic – for example, there are no game-related props or actors actually existing in the city – some specific elements exist both in the fictional and in the real world. Fictional, diegetic characters “ask” the player to go and interact with certain real landmarks, i.e. by counting the number of windows on the north side of a certain historical building, and “listen” to his report. The factitive, persuasive, function of Whaiwhai is effective if users are actually compelled to visit a specific place to solve a riddle and to proceed in the narration.

In a sense, Whaiwhai can be seen as a ludicization of an older medium such as the guide book or, on the other hand, as a spatialization of hypertextual media such as a choose-your-own-adventures book. But, from another angle, is an example of the effectiveness of narrative contents in motivating readers to undertake real-world actions.

More reading
Caruso, G., Fassone, R., Ferri, G., Salvador, M., “Check-in Everywhere. People, Places, Narrations, Games”

The Joystick Meets the Writing Quill

This is what our logo symbolizes – a joystick merged with a writing quill, as in computer gaming meets narrative. This encounter is hardly a new one, as it can be traced back to early 1980s text-based adventure games like Zork pronouncing themselves to be “interactive fiction.” And it is hardly an uncomplicated one as the ludology vs narratology [1,2] debate has shown, stating in the late 1990s, in which ludologists effectively declared narrative and interactivity to be largely incompatible. This sometimes heated debate lost most of its initial steam and was finally put to rest by Gonzalo Frasca [3] and Janet Murray [4]. Yet even now, with games studies scholars seemingly embracing narrative as indicated by Espen Aarseth recently calling Jesper Juul, Markku Eskelinen, and Gonzalo Frasca “narratologists” (in a keynote at ICEC 2012 as reported by Michael Nietsche), the debate is far from over, as a recent discussion on Gamasutra indicates.

Not only is the debate far from over, it has hardly begun, as Frasca’s paper rightly indicates, the “debate on the issue never took place” [3]. But what is the issue? Beyond “discipline trouble” between games studies positions and perspectives more formally routed in traditional humanities, there still is the largely unanswered question of narrative in computer games and other interactive forms in digital media. I have suggested elsewhere that one point of departure from which to explore this exciting field is to take digital interactive forms as a new kind of narrative, dissimilar from traditional forms such as the novel, the movie, or the stage play, and therefore requiring a separate theoretical understanding [5]. I feel this ongoing theoretical investigation is necessary to ultimately answer Frasca’s rightful challenge for an “alternative definition of narrative” [3] and Marie-Laure Ryan’s call for the theoretical definition of an expanded range of “narrative modalities,” [6] which Frasca also references.

However, one point of departure is hardly sufficient to fully describe as big a phenomena as interactive narrative in digital media. This understanding has lead to the Games and Narrative group, which combines a range of perspectives, from semiotics to psychological aspects to media studies. We are aware of the differences in our points of view, but we do not see them as mutually exclusive, and rather as interconnected pieces that help us move along on a path towards a better description and understanding. This is what we mean when we present different perspectives as steps towards a unified theory of interactive digital narrative, in an upcoming article for the journal Transactions on Edutainment.
What also unites us is a perspective that connects theory and practice. As theorists/practitioners, as creators of interactive digital narratives (Digdem and Tonguc), CEO of a game company (Mads), designer of location-based games (Gabriele), and creator of an interactive narrative authoring system and practicing artist (yours truly) we are as keenly aware of the practical challenges of digital media as we are of the theoretical implications. Moreover, we feel that the practice and its particular challenges informs and enhances our theoretical understanding.

Finally, our logo indicates a unity of narrative and games/interactivity and thus symbolizes the departure from a perspective that takes the two elements as separate. The narrative we are talking about is inherently interactive and not narrative with interactivity tugged on. Interactivity then is not just another design parameter to think about, but rather a fundamental element. In contrast, Henry Jenkins has pointed out [7] what elements of traditional storytelling can be used as starting points for interactive digital narrative. He is certainly not alone in taking the story in more traditional media as the focal point. Our understanding re-centers the focus on narrative forms in interactive digital media and computer games. This change of perspective allows us to see not just derivative forms of narrative, but a new exciting opportunity for human expression.