Talk by Hartmut Koenitz at the Scottish Storytelling Festival (via Riders Research Network) http://www.riders-project.net/research/videos/hartmut-koenitz-scottish-storytelling-festival.html
Save the Date is a real gem from the perspective of interactive digital narrative. This game puts the affordances of digital media to great use by demonstrating how procedurality and interactivity can extend narrative. At the same time, this work challenges long-standing conventions in both games and narrative.
So what does this game do? Save the Date reflects the player’s growing knowledge in consecutive replays though an evolving narrative. In addition, this work extends the notion of metanarrative in an important way and challenges the player to consider abandoning the game to reach a successful ending.
At the start of the game, the player invites a romantic interest – Felicia – to a dinner date. For this purpose, the player can chose from a variety of restaurant options. However, regardless of the particular choice, the date will invariably die. Hence, the goal of the game is to literally “save the date,” which turns out to be rather difficult. For example, taking Felicia to a Thai restaurant will have her die from a food allergy to peanuts.
In subsequent attempts the player will now find an additional option to warn the date about the peanuts and thus avoid death at this level in the game. In this way, the game reflects earlier experiences, which means the narrative changes accordingly. And it keeps changing to include more warnings and ways to avoid earlier disasters. Yet, as the player quickly learns, using this knowledge directly is also risky, as Felicia will find the unexpected intimate knowledge rather creepy and as a reason to break up contact.
Eventually, the player will encounter a set of choices that reveal her as a player of a video game to the date character. In this moment, the game narrative becomes meta-narrative. In more traditional media forms, the meta narrative involves a character addressing the reader as such. In Save the Date the roles are reversed – the player addresses the in-game character and makes the date aware of her role as a character in a game. The subsequent conversation has Felicia reflect on her role and speculate with the player on how to proceed and on the nature of narrative.
An abstract representation of Save the Date shows subsequent sessions as substantially different from earlier ones:
Cross-session memory is rarely used as a narrative strategy, yet holds much promise in expressing complex and interdependent consequences. Save the date successfully demonstrates how cross-session memory can be used to enrich the narrativ experience by reflecting the player’s growing knowledge. The procedural aspect of digital media puts the ability to retain and reuse memory states at creators’ disposal, as yet another tool for narrative expression.
At the same time, the work explores a meta-narrative dimension that is unusual by being initiated from the player’s side. The game has the player abandon the in-game role to engage in a discussion of the nature of game play and narrative. The discussion centers on the question for a the winning state/successful ending. The only way to win, the Felicia character poses, is to stop before the official ending and use imagination the create a better ending. This proposal is not an easy one to follow as it violates yet another deeply entrained convention narrative and games share – to continue to the end.
Save the Date is not only a great example of interactive narrative, but the work also constitutes a challenge for analytical perspectives that assume fixed structures on replay and stable endings.
Try it :
The Games & Narrativ group invites participants to a workshop on the future of Interactive Digital Narrative at ICIDS 2014 in Singapore.
After more than 25 years of fruitful research, starting with Brenda Laure’s 1986 PhD thesis, and productive practice in interactive digital narrative, it is a good time to consider future directions amid a maturing research field and a growing market for narrative-based interactive media. The Games & Narrative group invites participants to discuss ongoing issues as well successful methods and projects with us. On this foundation the workshop will enter into a phase of “futuring” – productive speculation – how will IDN look like in 5, 10, 25 or even 50 years? In addition to this, we will also take this opportunity to debate concrete initiatives, like joint research proposals, exploratory projects, forums for interdisciplinary dialogue, a central repository for projects or an academic/professional organization. The results of the workshop will be made available on the Games & Narrative website.
We invite a broad variety of participants to this workshop, including researchers, professionals, artists, publishers and critics. Our aim is to assemble a wide range of perspectives, in order to imagine future scenarios for our field that take into account the highest number of points of view.
Contact and registration:
futureworkshop2014 at gamesandnarrative.net
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.
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
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.)
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.
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).
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.
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.
“There needs to be a word – writes British journalist Jonathan Jones – for 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.
- J. Jones, “Sorry MoMA, video games are not art”, The Guardian
- “The Art of Video Games”, Smithsonian Museum
- R. Ebert, “Video games can never be art”, Chicago Sun Times
- “Roger Ebert vs. Clive Barker: the eternal games as art question”, Ars Technica
- R. Ebert, “Questions & Answers”
- U. Eco, “The Open Work, Harvard University Press
- R. Ascott, “Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision”
- I. Bogost, “The Art of Video Games”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.