A Clash between Game and Narrative

A Clash between Game and Narrative – A thesis on computer games and interactive fiction

by Jesper Juul

It is a disturbing quality of computer games, that they always dare you to yet another attempt at scoring more points, at reaching the next level. You oblige, but from a literary point of view, it is not at all obvious why you would want to. Computer games seem senseless pastimes, devoid of any point or reason. It then follows that they can hardly be described as art in any common sense of the word, since a meaningful phenomenon is assumed to contain something that can be read from the work. Computer games seem not to provide any feeling of having decoded the meaning of the game.

As a reaction to these meaningless games, interactive fiction is claimed to create games with meaning, games that tell a good story. The obvious example of the 1990’s is the game Myst (Cyan 1993).

And it does sound like an obvious enterprise: To combine the two giant human activities of stories and games. Add to this that the computer games of today are largely catalogues of popular culture: fast cars, aliens, herds of monsters from hell. But this is possibly because the computer game for all practicality can not tell stories – the computer game is simply not a narrative medium. In actuality we are facing a conflict between game and narrative: They are two separate phenomena that in many cases rule each other out.

The main claim of this thesis is that the computer game and the narrative share some traits – both are temporal, for example – but apart from that are radically different: It may be reasonable to claim that the weight of the narrative comes from a sequence of past events, that have to follow, and that the end of every story gets is power from, if not destiny, then at least some causal logic and inevitability. Interactivity and games, on the other hand, are defined by that the reader/player can influence the events now. Additionally, the lack of a narrator in the computer game makes it impossible to use the novel’s interesting devices in the tension between narrator and the narrated. Computer games are interesting for different reasons.

The idea of an interactive narrative has its problems. As the starting quote suggests, I am not the first person to draw this conclusion. I can not claim any originality in this; the value of this thesis is rather that I undertake a detailed examination of the relationship between game and narrative, an examination of how and why they are hard to combine. This also entails an examination of the computer game as a phenomenon on its own.

This thesis is in five parts:

* The history of the computer game is a brief history of the computer game and the rhetoric of interactive fiction.
* Theoretical introduction introduces previous research on non-linear texts.
* A theory of the computer game is the central piece of this thesis, and examines the computer game from two angles: The structure of the game describes the structural properties of the computer game with a special emphasis on time. The player and the game is an examination of the relationship between game and player; a more reader-oriented angle. This leads to a theory of the computer game as phenomenon and a list of parameters for the examination of computer games.
* Readings uses the theory developed to examine five different games to shed light on the construction of the games and how they construct their game worlds.
* Conclusions is a summation of the results of the thesis, as well as some historical and theoretical perspectives.

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