Jonne Arjoranta defended his PhD thesis at the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) with Espen Aarseth as opponent/discussant. His work is titled ‘Real-time hermeneutics: meaning-making in ludonarrative digital games’ and is a study of how ludonarrative videogames, videogames that combine game elements with narrative elements, express and convey meaning. The thesis “uses philosophical tools to analyze meaning in games. The philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer is used to compare the meaning-making in games to the interpretation of works of art. The theory of the interpretive process is based on the idea of the hermeneutic circle. Wittgenstein’s concept of language-games is used in examining how games should be defined and how their relations to each other should be understood. These philosophical methods are combined with the study of procedurality, narrativity and players”.
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.
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.
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.
Unmanned (Molleindustria, 2012) is a recent piece by Molleindustria, an hybrid between a computer game and a digital narrative – similar in some ways to what designer Paolo Pedercini already attempted in Every Day the Same Dream (Molleindustra, 2011). It is a slow-paced, reflexive game – more like a piece of interactive art than an entertainment product – that tells the story of an American soldier supervising drones deployed in the Middle-East.
The rhetorics and the narrative of Unmanned are centered around games and reality: it is a piece depicting a soldier who uses a game-like interface to control a drone on the other side of the world, pushing simple buttons to cause lethal outcomes – at the same time, the player uses another simple interface to control the game.
As a semiotician, one of the first things that I noticed is the clever use of diegesis and embrayage/debrayage. To cut short a very long story, we may say that those are semiotic tools to build different levels of fictional worlds – in a similar way to what it’s shown in Christopher Nolan’s movie “Inception”. We can call embrayage and debrayage the literary techniques to describe entering and exiting different layers of narrative reality.
Indeed, Unmanned features some interesting embrayages: the protagonist’s “entering” the point of view of the drone, as well as his dream. But, to make things more interesting, the player himself “enters” the protagonist’s reality and, through him, they control the drone.
It is a clever chain of control that challenges and problematize agency and the perception of reality. Who is controlling what in this game? Who controls the drone? and what difference is there between the dream sequence and the war sequence? And, again, what’s the difference between the player and the protagonist? and between the player and a real drone pilot?
Leonardo DiCaprio’s character from Inception may find something very familiar in this game.