Summer Selections: The Development of Interactive Narrative in Adventure Games
by Joshua Williams
The first known adventure game was created by William Crowther in 1976, with his interactive fiction text-based adventure game Colossal Cave Adventure.[i] Four years before that, Pong had already established video games as an entertaining distraction, with its chief attraction being the joy of gameplay.[ii] However, when Colossal Cave Adventure was released, it was clearly a different kind of game to other releases in 1976. It contained the rudimentary beginnings of interaction with a fictional world, something that would become a staple of the adventure genre and is one of its only surviving traits to date. Games in each subsequent era have placed different emphasis on which game mechanics create this interaction, but they all include interaction with the game world. In the following chapters, I will argue that the changing nature of narrative has been seminal to the evolution of adventure game interactivity; I will demonstrate this by close examination of four highly successful adventure games spanning three key eras.
Analysing the evolution of interaction becomes difficult when viewing games through a traditional narratological lens. This is because while narratologists claim that video games are simply narratives, ludologists believe that they are more than just a narrative, and narrative is simply an aspect of games.[iii] Ludologists approach games by ‘emphasizing the importance of the player’s gaming experience’.[iv] Gaming experience in this instance can be defined as the interaction between the player and narrative. A ludological stance on interaction establishes that ‘games are uniquely agency-rich experiences, and while games can include narrative, the explicit in-game narrative [also known as the plot line of a game] can at best only play a superficial role’.[v] In contrast, narratologists acknowledge that interaction takes place in the story; one of their focuses is on consequences of interaction rather than the interaction itself.[vi] The theorists’ narratological construction is based on interaction not being a part of narrative, it is a choice of which narrative path to follow.
Game narrative can be seen to comprise what Ryan describes as ‘the combination of story and discourse’, so to understand narrative in video games it is important to analyse the mechanics of game discourse. [vii] A ludological approach is helpful here, as ludologists believe in a focus on ‘the mechanics of game play.’[viii] Unlike a book, there is more to the creation of narrative in games than simply the writing. Narrative game mechanics are ‘tools used to tell story in games’ and create or convey aspects of the digital world.[ix] These mechanics are an important narrative aspect to analyse because they show how the player engages with the programme. An example of a narrative mechanic would be pre-rendered video, a non-interactive game mechanic used for ‘pausing the game and locking user input’ to relay the storyline.[x] Pre-rendered video can be compared to plain text (‘storytelling through the displaying of pure narrative text’) because both are used to tell a story, but the mechanics are very different.[xi] A story told through plain text requires a player to interact with the game narrative and fill in visual blanks for themselves, while a pre-rendered video simply provides a narrative. An example of this would be an interactive fiction game telling the player that they are in a forest being attacked by a bandit through the on-screen text. While the text can be minimal in its description, a player is able to mentally add in all his or her own details, helping to create the narrative. A pre-rendered video, on the other hand, will show a player this forest, showing them their surroundings and the bandit attacking them. The two mechanics would create entirely different experiences for the player, one in which they are engaged with the world, and another where they are given a window into it. Mechanics are frameworks that allow for the creation of an overarching narrative. For a narratologist, all analysis would take place about the narrative, without considering player interaction, although player choices may or may not affect the narrative arc. Analysis of this nature denies the actual interaction with the game and its narrative, giving the player’s agency no place in the discussion about narrative and focusing entirely on the consequences of their choices.
By contrast, a ludological perspective would read game narrative as comprising story, discourse, and player interaction, which together produce what Sebastian Domsch has termed the storyworld. Domsch defines his idea as 'the fictional world in which the structure of the game and its rules, as well as the actions of the player within it, are given meaning'.[xii] If the narrative is ‘the textual actualization of story’ through narrative mechanics, then storyworld is the universe created by the narrative, inhabited by a player.[xiii] In Dragon Age: Origins’ game world of Thedas a player makes several decisions about, for example, who to save or which faction to side with.[xiv] The personalised game world created through their interactions is a player’s own storyworld, a world created by their narrative. Domsch’s game narrative makes storyworld central by defining it as ‘anything that is conducive to the user’s mental linking of (at least) two events and the creation of a storyworld'.[xv] The first part of Domsch’s definition is equivalent to Ryan’s idea of narrative as a combination of story and discourse, both regarding narrative as a collaborative mental construct of story events created by the player. Domsch speaks only of the user experience and not of the programme’s mechanics, viewing only the story and not the discourse. However, it is possible to extrapolate the second part of Domsch’s definition and add it to Ryan’s. From these foundations I might construct a definition of narrative as the combination of story and discourse in the creation of a storyworld. This addition to the definition of narrative illustrates how the concept of a storyworld enables a more effective ludological analysis, as it gives the ability to talk about the world in which interaction takes place between a player and the game. It is Domsch’s ludological approach in particular that includes the storyworld, which is useful as it allows for an in-depth look at player interactivity in creating a narrative.
This dissertation will focus on interaction within Domsch’s storyworld, and examine how the nature of this interaction has evolved over time. The concept of storyworld is important, because it is the environment in which interaction takes place where analysis of the storyworld can reveal if interaction is meaningful or not. Jan Simons demonstrates the need for the storyworld when she concludes that ‘[t]he narratologist’s take on a story is [...] retrospective’, and it cannot be used to analyse the meaning of interactions because it exists outside of player agency and not within time.[xvi] Unlike books, where narrative remains fixed and can be looked at retrospectively as a whole, the acts of players change video game narrative. Narrative is the plot a player has created in the storyworld, but it only looks at interaction in its past tense. When a player interacts with the narrative, they are creating his or her own storyworld that consists of ‘everything one can know about the existents and events that are the diegesis’ at any moment of time. [xvii] While narrative spans the entirety of the game, the storyworld concept can be used to focus on any specific narrative moment when a fictional world has weight and significance for a player through immersion. An example of this would be when a player makes a choice out of emotion rather than logic, as they value their connection to the game world above their own rational thought, i.e. choosing to save their favourite character rather than to stop a biological weapon in Mass Effect 3.[xviii] This example shows that choices are made through more than logical reason, and for emotion to override reason there must be an attachment to the world or character through the creation of an immersive storyworld, as ‘emotional involvement appears to be a key factor in immersion’.[xix]
A discussion of the relationship between interaction and immersion can help demonstrate how meaning comes about. If a game is attempting to create meaningful interaction, there will be evidence in the ‘relationship between people and videogames’.[xx] Because meaning is the mental value that the player puts in the world, it can only be created through a relationship between the player and that world. Anna Cox argues that a fiction game becomes meaningful when the player experiences ‘a loss of awareness of the real world [with] involvement and a sense of being in the task environment’ as they believe they are part of the world, and as a result, that their actions are influencing it.[xxi] Cox argues for three levels of immersion: engagement, engrossment and total immersion. The most important of these in creating meaningful interaction will be the third category, in which Cox argues there was ‘a sense of presence, being cut off from reality to such an extent that the game was all that mattered’.[xxii] As immersion in games is an entirely subjective feeling, I will draw from player reviews as well as from academic sources to argue that contemporary players and critics have experienced it. If this sense of immersion can be demonstrated, then it demonstrates that a game’s interactions are meaningful to a player, as they are no longer interacting with a program, but shaping a world. Immersive interactions are meaningful according to Cox and Domsch, as Cox’s sense of existing within a real world and Domsch’s storyworlds being places where a player’s interactions are altering narrative allow a player to experience meaningful interaction by believing that their actions have a tangible impact.
To illustrate the changes to interaction in the adventure genre I have selected four games that represent different stages of interactions within storyworlds across three eras, all of which were all commercial successes and highly critically rated. Zork remains the bestselling symbol of text-based adventure games from the first era of adventure gaming.[xxiii] This is an important starting point as it allows for comprehension of the core ideas at the heart of the adventure genre. Interactive fiction was followed by the point-and-click dominated era with The Secret of Monkey Island and Myst.[xxiv] These games show the evolution of core adventure values with more modern narrative mechanics being used to create the storyworlds. The final era of adventure gaming represents an evolution through consequence, demonstrated by the The Walking Dead.[xxv] The chronology of the games is important to note, as this is a study of evolution in the genre. While these games are the focus, it is important to keep the timeline of the evolution in place. This dissertation will place each game into one of three different eras and discuss their contexts within the wider genre of adventure games, looking at their individual storyworlds using a ludological perspective in order to analyse their use of interactivity in collaborating and influencing the narrative.
The adventure genre has gone through numerous changes since Colossal Cave Adventure, but an interaction with narrative is a cornerstone that has survived three decades of innovation. Zork saw players creating their own adventures and exploring vast lands, but ultimately restricted what they could do in this world, having to interact with certain objects in specific ways in order for the narrative to progress in any meaningful way, a modernist philosophy in a game that many herald as a postmodern hypertext. Despite this, the immersive world means that the game’s interaction was still meaningful, as players still considered themselves to be creating a unique story. Monkey Island saw the introduction of modernist mechanics with a more linear plot and streamlined interactivity but still included a postmodernist twist in its self-awareness. Myst went in a different direction by separating narrative and player interactivity, while hinting at postmodernist aspects with multiple endings. Still, Myst was more restrictive than either Zork or Monkey Island, allowing players to only interact in very specific ways. Like Monkey Island, Myst disallowed, for the most part, meaningful interaction. The most recent evolution of interaction emerged through the addition of consequence in The Walking Dead’s playable story. Consequence allowed for a more personalised narrative than in any of the previous games as a player's interactions had weight behind them due to the abundance of nodes creating a much more postmodernist version of constructivism.
A common theme of the genre is a focus on how a player engages with the world. Because the evolution of interaction has not been a straightforward path and has included unpredictable innovation to interaction. It seems impossible to predict is how interaction will evolve next. However, the recent decline in sales for games like The Walking Dead suggest that the next evolution is coming soon or the genre will once again fade into the background. One possible future for the genre involves a re-focusing on linear narrative and storytelling, as seen in newer releases such as Firewatch and That Dragon, Cancer, adventure games that rely almost entirely on an engaging storyline over interactive gameplay.[xxvi] The genre could continue The Walking Dead’s consequence driven narrative and offer wildly different storylines for each player depending on the choices they make, inflating the consequences of each action from simply influencing new lines of dialogue to opening up entirely different playable environments. Due to the ever-changing nature of the video game medium, it is difficult to predict what the future holds for the adventure game genre, however, no matter what happens, the next evolution of interactivity will be a compelling development to witness.
[i] William Crowther, Colossal Cave Adventure (Massachusetts: William Crowther, 1976).
[ii] Atari, Pong (California: Atari, 1972).
[iii] Sebastian Domsch, Storyplaying: Agency and Narrative in Video Games, Narrating Futures, 4 (Boston: De Gruyter, 2013), p. 13.
[iv] Jan Simons, ‘Narrative, Games, and Theory’, Game Studies, 7.1 (2007) <http://gamestudies.org/07010701/articles/simons> [accessed 15 February 2017].
[v] Mateas Michael and Stern Andrew, ‘Build It to Understand It: Ludology Meets Narratology in Game Design Space’, 2005, iii <http://www.digra.org/digital-library/publications/build-it-to-understand-it-ludology-meets-narratology-in-game-design-space/> [accessed 15 February 2017].
[vii] Marie-Laure Ryan, Avatars of Story, Electronic Mediations, v. 17 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), p. 7.
[viii] Wilhelm Österberg, ‘Storytelling in Single Player Action Computer Games: The Tools of the Trade’ (unpublished Masters Thesis, Royal Institute of Technology, 2007) <https://www.nada.kth.se/utbildning/grukth/exjobb/rapportlistor/2007/rapporter07/osterberg_wilhelm_07001.pdf>., p. 1-2.
[ix] Österberg, p. 36.
[x] Österberg, p. 37.
[xi] Österberg, p. 38.
[xii]Domsch p. 27-28.
[xiii] Ryan, Avatars of Story, p. 7.
[xiv] Bioware, Dragon Age: Origins (California: Electronic Arts, 2009).
[xv] Domsch, p. 2.
[xvii] Domsch, p. 29.
[xviii] Bioware, Mass Effect 3 (California: Electronic Arts, 2012).
[xix] Charlene Jennett et al, ‘Measuring and Defining the Experience of Immersion in Games’, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 66.9 (2008), 641–61 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2008.04.004>, p. 657.
[xx] Jennett and others, p. 642.
[xxi] Jennett and others, p. 657.
[xxii] Jennett and others, p. 642.
[xxiii] Infocom, Zork I: The Great Underground Empire (Massachusetts: Personal Software, 1980).
[xxiv] Lucasfilm Games, The Secret of Monkey Island (California: Lucasfilm Games, 1990); Cyan, Myst (California: Brøderbund, 1993).
[xxv] Telltale Games, The Walking Dead (California: Telltale Games, 2012); thatgamecompany, Journey (California: Sony Computer Entertainment, 2012).
[xxvi] Campo Santo, Firewatch (California: Campo Santo, 2016); Numinous Games, That Dragon, Cancer (Colorado: Numinous Games, 2016).
Summer Selections is a FalWriting series bringing you a variety of writing produced this academic year by Falmouth students. It's a vibrant and diverse selection of work covering text forms from experimental poetry to forensic literary analysis, from gothic short stories to critical dissertations. This year the selection is guest edited by third year student Jess Hawes.