The Interactivity of Narrative

By María C. Mon

It was a surprisingly quiet Skyrim moment. No music was playing as I (“I”) crouched down against the corner of some dilapidated shack in the middle of a forest—all I heard was the heavy breathing and stomping steps of the dragon outside. The only thing separating that beast from my character was a thin wooden wall. I could imagine my character’s heart hammering, and how her lungs strained to hold her breath, because she did not dare to make a single noise.

Most narratives are interactive. There is nothing that has been written or filmed that wasn’t influenced by a pre-existing narrative. When we read or watch something, we come in with expectations of what we like to see in a narrative, and (hopefully) come out with something to think about, or at least a good experience. Games are no different in this aspect, so why are they considered ‘interactive’ more than other medium, and how does this affect their narrative potential? While not all games are narrative, the medium can create a unique sense of presence for the player, thus creating a narrative on their own terms.

Henry Jenkins, in his article titled “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” mentioned this quote: “Interactivity is almost the opposite of narrative; narrative flows under the direction of the author, while interactivity depends on the player for motive power. (Adams 1999)”. And certainly, we could not talk about games without taking game mechanics into consideration. Game mechanics take precedence over the narrative during production– if the mechanics do not work, the game does not succeed as a game, whereas if the game’s story does not work, it is still a game. This is the inverse of movies, books, and other mediums where everything else has to work towards the narrative.

But one could not experience that moment with the dragon during a movie, because it was a developing situation, one in which the player decides the outcome. Viewers can be immersed in a movie, but the sounds they hear and what they see does not influence what they will do next because it is not in the viewer’s hands at all. Meanwhile I used the visual and audio feedback to figure out my character’s chances of survival.

If we think of narrative as something that we use to contextualize our experiences, then attributing narrative solely to an author seems disingenuous. Consumers can be passive, but they can also form equally valuable narratives without an author’s complete control over the experience.

In her article “The Poetry of Created Space”, Lana Polansky argues that games offer “a formal realization of a very old idea—something that we’ve tried to recreate through paint, or sculpture, or cinematography, or text. The power of a sense of place.” She quotes Jenkins: “Game designers don’t simply tell stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces.”

Experiencing a game with a developed world-space means that one chose to buy a game because of where they wanted to be, rather that what they wanted to see. To be in a place implies the desire to create a personal narrative, and the video game medium afford us a way to do this.

It is not about whether games succeed over any other medium in creating this sense of space. It is about the exploration of medium itself to achieve both narrative and different ways of interactivity.

Sources

Polansky, Lana. “The Poetry of Created Space.” Bit Creature. 5 October 2012.
http://www.bitcreature.com/criticism/the-poetry-of-created-space/

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” Electronic Book Review. 10 July 2004.
http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/lazzi-fair

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