TEDx Talk, “Storyscreens: Tomorrow’s Narrative Classroom”   Recently updated !

Almost a year ago, I had the good fortune of teaching a JanTerm course at The Westminster Schools with Kate Morgens, who directs the school’s theatre and performance programs. Several of Kate’s industrious students spearheaded a project to organize a TEDx event at Westminster, and I was excited to be asked to speak at the event. Immediately, I knew that my talk would deal with the ways in which I have been able to use video games in the classroom to help my students think more deeply about interactivity and narrative design.

Through bringing video games into the classroom, I’ve discovered that students often need to develop a vocabulary and a framework for understanding how interactive narrative is distinctive from traditional print literature. While there are some terms and concepts from print literature that can be mapped onto video game narratives, more often than not, providing a stronger slate of terms for them to draw can help students develop a more sophisticated understanding of how game narratives function.

“That Dragon, Cancer” Review

TDC3This week sees the release of That Dragon, Cancer, a new game from Ryan and Amy Green. The game has already received a good deal of press coverage from outlets like The Verge and Kotaku. My own review is now up at Gamechurch. The game tells the story of Joel Green, who was diagnosed with cancer at age one; he subsequently passed away when he was five years old. The Greens invoke their faith throughout the game, and my review examines how their beliefs are integral to the story.

Read the review here.

Class Warfare: Videogame Classes, Narrative, and Choice 1

I Heart Class Warfare - Occupy Wall Street Protest - 8 Oct 2011 - Zuccotti Park - NYC - USA - BlackBerry Photo

Class Warfare in action

Inspired by the recent call for papers of the North American Victorian Studies Association, which asks for research examining “classes and classification,” I’ve been thinking about the ways in which the notion of classes is enacted in videogame narratives. Recently, a friend of mine who has not played videogames in several years decided to try Skyrim, and while the idea is familiar to longtime fans of the Elder Scrolls series, he was impressed by the fact that the game does not force you to choose a class at the very beginning. Unlike many other RPGs and MMOs, in which a player’s class significantly influences (and often restricts) his or her choices throughout the game, Skyrim’s model allows the player’s actions to determine their strengths and weaknesses.

Class Selection and Narrative Limitation

In many ways, classes have become one of the most common staples of videogames, not only because they were prominent in pen-and-paper RPGs, but also because they offer a convenient way to structure narrative. Take, for example, Star Wars The Old Republic, an MMO that sold itself as a game that would reintroduce narrative as a central component to online gaming. While my experiences playing TOR were satisfactory, there were always those red, translucent barriers blocking doorways in certain buildings. Beyond those barriers were portions of the game limited to players of other classes; and while it makes sense that the game would create these kinds of sectioned areas to funnel players of the correct class into the correct areas, it was suggestive of a limitation.

Mary Barton

What if this had been an early attempt at choose your own adventure?

It was as if Elizabeth Gaskell required her readers to decide, before beginning to read Mary Barton, whether they wanted to enjoy a novel critiquing the crippling inequity in industrial Britain, a murder mystery, or a love triangle between a girl and two young men (a la The Notebook: one wealthy, another her childhood (but poorer) friend (yes, I know, I just compared Elizabeth Gaskell to Nicholas Sparks)). What if, depending on the reader’s choice, certain portions of the novel would then be sealed, unless you agreed to go back to the beginning and start again, this time with a different choice?

Lisa Dusenberry, a friend and colleague who is a Marion L. Brittain Fellow at Georgia Tech, has developed the concept of a “reader-player” to describe participants in and consumers of children’s literature that isn’t “restricted to a single medium, single source text, and/or a single method of reader interaction” [1]. Her term is useful because it aptly suggests that players experience the narratives of videogames across a variety of media. At the same time, the close connection between reading and playing only exacerbates the disconnect that a videogame creates when particular avenues of narrative exploration are deliberately closed to the player. Of course, many (if not all) videogames are designed around the notion that the player might not experience all of the content on their first playthrough. As early as Super Mario Bros., secret tricks and areas offered new exploratory and (minimally) narrative possibilities. But the best games offer these alternatives in a way that doesn’t impress upon the player that their experience is somehow incomplete.

Choose your class...there's no going back

Choose your class…there’s no going back

The Possibility of (Illusory) Narrative Freedom

Yet with the class selection systems of many games, the game makes it only too clear that your choices will place you into a particular category from which you are rarely allowed to deviate. This argument has been raised recently with the changes between the skill trees in Diablo II and Diablo III; where Diablo II locked players into their choices, Diablo III has allowed more freedom and customization. Opinions on this change vary, but even Diablo III’s options exist under the aegis of a class choice; you may be able to change your character’s abilities, but that character is still limited to being a barbarian, monk, or wizard. The necessity of this choice suggests a longtime difficult with videogames: are they primarily a narrative medium or something more fundamental. As in chess, it seems silly to expect that all the pieces (or characters) could have the same movement (or class) options. So how should videogames negotiate their narrative and gaming aspects in the context of class choice?

The word “class” is itself fraught with all kinds of social, cultural, and political baggage. And while it may seem that the term is somehow shed of these undertones in the context of videogames, I would suggest that in many ways character classes create systems of inequity that have ramifications for how a videogame’s world is presented to players. I was an early purchaser of the first Guild Wars in 2005, and the game appealed to me initially because it had a strong narrative component. Indeed, the entire game world was dramatically altered between the introductory quests and the bulk of the game. But what was fascinating about the way that the class system in that game impacted my experience as a player focused on the Guild War’s heavy reliance on an instanced mission system. In these missions, up to six players could team up to tackle a particular part of the game’s narrative campaign, but in many of the cities, which served as hubs where players could meet up with and join other groups, a resounding refrain continually graced the community chat window. “GLF Monk!!!” In Guild Wars, monks were the healer class, and for whatever reason the game’s player economy, in those early days, was largely bereft of a sufficient number of monks. Especially in more difficult missions, where a healer was essential, an inability to find a monk could dash a group’s hopes of completing the narrative.

Between Star Wars The Old Republic and Guild Wars, it becomes clear how much power character classes can wield over a players experience of a narrative. Obvious restrictions on content based on an initial (and somewhat contextless) class decision fostered a conflictedness within the player. Ignorance may be bliss, but obligatory ignorance often grates, particularly in a narrative medium that often revels in possibility. “Class warfare” suggests the inner-turmoil that players experience as they realize how a game’s narrative is restricted, but it also can point to how particular classes become more or less valued within the game’s social economy. So how might games arrive at a possibility of creating different kinds of experiences for players without relying on classes as a restrictive narrative method?

A game that navigates these difficulties quite well in the single-player realm is The Cave. While players are required to choose only three of the eight initial characters available, the narrative seamlessly weaves the stories of your chosen characters together. Additionally, The Cave, while labeling the characters in a way reminiscent of a class structure, invests their characters with a sense of being that extends beyond their labels. Returning to my friend’s first impressions of Skyrim, I was impressed by his exuberant realization that the game in no way forced him to choose a certain class of character. And perhaps games that eschew classes and classification actually proffer a greater sense of narrative immersion and possibility to their players. On the other hand, in games where class selection are an essential part of the game design, perhaps developers can look to The Cave as a prototype of the kind of game that effectively masks the narrative limitations that class selection necessitates. [2]

[1] Dusenberry, Lisa. “Reader-Players: The 39 Clues, Cathy’s Book, and the Nintendo DS.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 35.4 (2010): 443-49.

[2] Reader’s might note that this article seems to posit a conflict between online and single-player videogames. While I agree that my examples do fall along those lines, I would suggest that there is nothing inherent in online games that requires them to adopt a class structure. While it was a commercial failure, Cyan’s short-lived Uru experimented with an online world in which players were not assigned any kind of class limitation.

Anne Frank and Trauma as Interactive Experience 1

AnneFrank_dHontThis week there were some reports about a prototype video game from a German game developer that puts players into the life of Anne Frank’s family while they are in hiding from the Nazis. The concept is striking particularly because the designer is reported as saying that the game isn’t “really about having fun.” While I’m not opposed to having fun in video games, the notion of a game whose purpose is decidedly not about having fun is intriguing.

What’s particularly fascinating about the game as it’s described, is that it doesn’t conclude with a prurient endgame in which the player sees the family hauled off to concentration camps. Instead, it offers players the opportunity to live through a single day in the life of a family in hiding. As such, the future, well-known and inevitable, hovers at the margins of the experience. The possibility of such a game raises questions about trauma and how it can or should be represented as part of an interactive medium like video games. In this particular example, the physical trauma of being arrested and taken away is sublimated into the quotidian decisions that might occur during a single day. But what about more overt representations of trauma?

Games like Grand Theft Auto V and Tomb Raider have been noted for their representations of traumatic incidents. But ostensibly those games, unlike the Anne Frank game, are about having fun. How do games navigate the division between wanting to offer players an enjoyable experience while also trying to represent traumatic events? I would suggest that such an effort is either doomed to failure, or that the pursuit of fun in the game will undermine the traumatic moments. Conan O’Brien’s popular non-review of Tomb Raider offers a perfect example of this; during the game players must navigate a raging river full of perilous branches and downed trees, one wrong turn and Lara Croft ends up impaled through the head by a sharp stake. The death scene is awful and shocking, but ultimately players will have to get past the traumatic death animation and successfully navigate the river. As such, the trauma of the imagery starts to diminish as players’ focus is drawn to surpassing the obstacles. (This particular moment occurs around the 5:43 mark in the video.)

One game that succeeds in offering a gripping portrayal of trauma for players does so by moving the trauma into a fantastic scenario: TellTale’s The Walking Dead. An essential but subtle way that TellTale helped players to experience the game’s zombie scenario as traumatic was with its distribution method. Unlike most games, which are released all at once, TellTale employs a method of releasing games in chapters over a period of months. This style of release, which recalls the days of serialized novel publication in the nineteenth century, prolongs the game’s experience over an extended period of time. The way that this impacts a player’s decision-making is that The Walking Dead was designed to take all of a player’s decisions into account throughout the game, effectively offering each player a unique experience tailored to their choices. The difficulty, though, when playing as each chapter is released, is that remembering precisely what decisions one made six weeks ago can prove challenging.

As such, a player’s individual memory starts to play a role in how the adventure unfolds, and this checkered recollection is precisely indicative of the way that people in traumatic situations recall events. Unlike what we might expect, memory of traumatic events is typically spotty and uncertain. This is why, unfortunately, a rape victim’s recollections of her assault might be unstable in the face of cross-examination. The critical theorist and philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it this way:

“If the victim were able to report her painful and humiliating experience in a clear manner, with all the data arranged in a consistent order, this very quality would make us suspicious of the truth. The problem here is part of the solution: the very factual deficiencies of the traumatised subject’s report on her experience bear witness to the truthfulness of her report, since they signal that the reported content ‘contaminated’ the manner of reporting it” (Violence [2008], 4).

In this way, The Walking Dead, in its original distribution method, makes perfect recollection of the details of its traumatic events unlikely. And while now that the game is entirely released, and playing from beginning to end in one fell swoop is possible, players will more likely experience the uncertainty of a traumatic scenario more faithfully under the conditions that were present in the game’s original release schedule. [Note: The Walking Dead does undermine this somewhat by giving players a display of their decisions at the end of each chapter, but because subsequent chapters don’t offer clear reminders of each decision, particular recollections can still be foggy.]

The Anne Frank game deals with trauma by keeping at the margins of experience, and The Walking Dead represents it by incorporating the degradation of memory into its distribution design. In both cases the reality and recollection of the trauma is occluded by the way the game builds trauma into its structure. Any beneficial representation of trauma in video games has to contend with these necessities: trauma isn’t fun and it creates broken and fragmented memories. The fact that these games offer a faithful method of interactive trauma suggests that as a medium, video games can connect us to trauma in a way that uniquely recreates aspects of the experience.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a First-Person Shooter 3

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)Recently I’ve been writing about a wonderful (and relatively unknown) 1824 novel by the Scottish writer James Hogg, and it has the greatest title: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Although my work concerns the novel’s religious and legal aspects, I’ve come to think that bears many qualities of certain first-person shooters. Such a claim will probably have students of Scottish literature up in arms (pun somewhat intended) and fans of FPSes scratching their heads: the former, because the comparison probably seems like a degradation of Hogg’s extraordinary work; the latter, because 19th century literature isn’t known for its susceptibility to video game adaptation.

Indeed, unlike the movie business, the best video games are only rarely based on prior source material–developers have had much better luck in creating their own stories and franchises. There must be some scholarship out there on this phenomenon, but I imagine that the reason has got something to do with choice. In many novels (and movies, whose video game tie-ins are notoriously awful), the reader doesn’t get to define or change the nature of the narrative in any appreciable way. Typically, if a video game has any connection to literature, it is only because the book was first adapted into a movie, which was then adapted into a video game, putting the game two removes from the original material. Of course, even video games have struggled with how to incorporate player choice and variability into their structures; Mass Effect 3, suffered a lot of criticism for its ending, which some felt only gestured at incorporating player choice.

Would you like the red, blue, or green ending?

Would you like the red, blue, or green ending?

But I think that The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner has several unique features that make its adaptability more possible. The story is that of Robert Wringhim, who harbors an intense hatred for his older brother, George Colwan, out of a sense of religious superiority. Over the course of the novel, Wringhim is befriended by Gil-Martin, an obvious (to the reader) demonic figure who convinces Robert that the only way to establish God’s kingdom on Earth is by murdering all those who are not elected by God. Therein lies the FPS component–Robert commits at least two murders (that he remembers) and is probably responsible for several others. But for such a game to work it would have to incorporate the other part of the novel, in which an Editor attempts to purge Robert’s memoir of all its supernatural content. As such, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner offers its readers an interpretive choice that is not resolved within the text: which version to believe? Has Robert really experienced temptation at the hands of Satan, or has he simply manufactured a preposterous story out of his own neuroses? Or, has the Editor taken a legitimate historical text and white-washed it to meet his own sense of reality? The idea of a game that offers players a similar conundrum between the supernatural and the scientific offers intriguing possibilities.

The genre of first-person shooters has seen increased scrutiny in the wake of so many high-profile mass shootings. While I remain dubious about the extent to which video games should be held directly responsible for such acts, it is true that FPS games have remained largely unchanged for two decades. Games like Portal have sought to tinker with the formula, but I wonder if literature could offer inspiration for more radical innovations. The video game community has long sought to establish itself as a legitimate form of cultural expression worthy of serious consideration and study, and while there are many who eagerly accept this premise, the general public seems to remain unconvinced. Like anything, in the wrong hands, Hogg’s novel could be made into a hodgepodge of pseudo-demonic imagery (a la the Diablo franchise). I know the odds of a developer attempting such an adaptation are infinitesimally low, but perhaps even the suggestion could offer an impetus for further discussion, if not actual development.