J. Yellowlees Douglas responds

J. Yellowlees Douglas responds

2004-05-22

J. Yellowlees Douglas adds more titles to Eskelinen’s catalog of limnal games.

Eskelinen makes some compelling points in “Towards Computer Game Studies” that traverse ground that has remained virtually untrammeled, surprisingly so, given the recent, explosive growth of PC and videogames – in 2001, Americans began to lay out more cash for interactive games than for evenings at the cinema. And Markku’s uses of both Genette and Aarseth help make games like Tetris and Civilization III intelligible in theoretical terms. In the end, treating all computer games as if they fell tidily into a single genre is a heroic gesture, intended to lay the foundation for a sound critical understanding of what transpires when a user picks up the phone and hears a threatening message from Majestic on the other end of the line, as well as for what’s going on during the forty hours you’ve just spent with Grim Fandango.

But while The Sims and Black and White are closer to, say, a game of chess than to an episode of ER, a growing number of games use narratives as affective hooks to draw readers in and hold their interest, and to appeal to a wider audience (see the Douglas and Hargadon chapter for online surveys calling strongly for more backstory), an audience not necessarily interested in the gratifications offered by shoot-`em-up skill-based games or by strategy-based simulations. X-Files: The Game, for example, like The Last Express derives its entire intelligibility and appeal from blending the trappings and satisfactions of traditional narratives to the exploratory and agency-based pleasures of interactivity. In both X-Files and Last Express, as well as Sega’s Shenmue, virtually none of the action represents a test of any kind of skill, dexterity, or problem-solving. In fact, unlike all other games, your ability to remain within the other-world of the interactive depends mostly on your continued willing suspension of disbelief and not on your ability to out-maneuver, out-serve, out-gun, or out-run your opponents.

Ultimately, looking to either narratology or to games for our understanding of interactives will offer only a highly limited return, since we’re looking at, essentially, a still-developing range of genres in a new medium. Just as film is more than the sum of image, mise-en-scene, sound, and narrative, interactives can be both more than the sum of game or narrative. In Shenmue, for example, players can track Ryo’s search for his father’s killer, but they can also elect to live in Ryo’s world and simply interact with its constituents – 332 characters (including several animals) – hang out at the local arcade, visit the family shrine, work, browse the contents of your fridge, and care for your ailing kitten. Is this a game? A narrative? Or something else altogether?

Richard Schechner responds

Markku Eskelinen responds