The List: NieR (Part 1)

NieR is one of the best experiences I have ever had. That it also holds up as an excellent, diverse, and altogether entertaining game with replay value adds greatly to the overall flavor. Cavia should be proud of this product, even after their unfortunate dissolution – it’s quite a swan song for a developer known for twisted, messed up products like Drakengard (or Drag-on Dragoon) that buck trends of video game stories, not just for shock value but to augment the desired narrative. NieR follows in this tradition. I love it.

And there are certainly reasons for this, and certainly something I never expected to like: the story. A story told in a way which video games should tell stories.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself there. How should games tell stories?

I am totally against traditional “stories” in games for the most part. It’s not necessarily the idea of a story in a game – you need some kind of reference point for the player to understand, whether it’s giant spaceships of doom invading earth or the denizens of Hell looking for a fun time – but the presentation. For whatever reasons, games have looked to movies as the be-all, end-all of artistic expression, which would seem to be exactly the wrong place to look. Movies tell stories, sure! But they have evolved to tell stories in a way that takes advantage of their strengths – visuals, a specific field of vision, the ability to tell events nonlinearly. These are elements that, while workable in a play or stage, aren’t generally suited to film. What happens when video games attempt that same project? Disaster.

In general, what could be called a “narrative” in video games usually boils down to an interactive film, a concept that reached its nihilistic zenith in Heavy Rain, both a bad game and a bad movie all at the same time. Narratives in that sense can’t be done well, can’t be done effectively, and certainly cannot motivate the player in any way to fulfill objectives in the game. L.A. Noire, though pretty good at making an interactive movie, still doesn’t hold up to snuff as something unique to the video game platform. I praised it yesterday, sure, but I praised its presentation and immersion, not its value as an actual game. It doesn’t, in many respects, take hold of the unique qualities video games bring to the table.

In fact, this issue became endemic to video game developers and players alike: both think “art” constitutes some predefined artistic definition. Ask any philosopher or critical thinker, and you’ll find the definition of “art” as art varies from field to field, and even person to person. You have to wonder why gamers get so defensive about their genre being “art”, but they’ve really missed the boat if they’re looking for a mainstream crowd pleaser of a game to settle the issue. Frankly, how many times does popular art ever reach that level? There are always exceptions, of course – The Godfather comes to mind straight away, as does Citizen Kane. But when someone wants to come up to me and say “Uncharted 2 is art” – leave now before I unleash my wrath! It can, at times, be a completely subjective examination, and that doesn’t seem useful for any conversaion.

Video games, rather than looking to some previous form, need to develop their own unique characteristics fully in order to make “art” and make a believer out of someone like Roger Ebert. The mental roadblock exists; I intend to break it, come hell or high water.

Having been something of an academic myself, I’m somewhat familiar with the field of game studies. It seeks to study games qua games, an interesting idea that has been revitalized in recent years by video games and their striking diversity. Over time, two subfields have developed that each latch onto a specific component of the video game: narratology and ludology.

Narratology, in essence, is the study of video games as a novel, or new, form of narrative. In Barry Atkins’ definition, it is “the study of how stories are told”. Narratology understand video games, a cultural vehicle, as a device for artistic expression amongst many others such as painting or film. Interactivity, though a unique element, provides a space for narrative to occur in a different form. Many video games have stories; these are used as motivation for the player to progress forward. In this sense, narrative is a defining element of many video games, which use the visual and audio elements alike to furnish a narrative, however base and banal “kill all your enemies” might be as an objective. According to Janet H. Murray, who rejects the label of narratology entirely, games can furnish experiences  “such as the feeling of immersion, the enactment of violent or sexual events, the performative dimension of game play, and even the personal experience of winning and losing.” In effect, the essential element of a game is its narrative; everything else becomes subservient to this factor.

Barry Atkins, in his work More Than a Game: The Computer Game as Fictional Form, describes a situation he encountered that encapsulates such experiences. He had, in the course of playing a World War II strategy game, been on the side of the Germans. Much like the film Inglorious Basterds, through the game’s mechanics, he had actually created a revisionist history where, at the Battle of Arnhem, Atkins’ forces completely destroyed the Allies (rather than just repelling their assault) and secured victory for the Third Reich. This disturbed Atkins in some sense, as the game ”provided a fractured version of the past uncluttered by political, economic, social and (most particularly) human context.” In fact, the story could be retold within the game’s rules any number of times, perhaps causing the defeat of the Germans at the hand of the Allies the next time. In Atkins’ words, “Here was a form of fictional freedom: I could tell the story again and again and bring the story to a variety of conclusions. Here was a form of fictional restraint: I could only tell the story in a particular way.”

Atkins argues that video games represent a qualitatively unique form of narrative expression for fictional texts, in that they require interactivity to tell their stories. Contrary to the spectatorial model proposed by Roger Ebert (i.e., the viewer always passively absorbs the artist’s work in retrospection), game narratives change based on the whims of the players operating within the rules of the game, whether more constrained (progressive) or free (emergent). Thus, video games are more than a game, in that “it can also be a form of fiction making…presents a fictional text that rewards close critical scrutiny.” Though, for Atkins, they have not yet reached the level where they can engender individual or cultural transformation, they may have that possibility in the future. The fundamental status of the video game does not have uniqueness except in form; though not entirely akin to the observation of “art” in a book, painting, or film, this is a formal difference only, not a qualitatively different object of inspection and observation. We could peg many video gamers and developers into this category; the narrative reigns supreme.

Because of this, most video game narratologists dispense with the supposed distinction between narratology and ludology (to be defined in a bit!); Murray, for her part, states “It is time to reframe the conversation. At some point in all of these debates, these two commonsensical facts are usually acknowledged: games are not a subset of stories; objects exist that have qualities of both games and stories.” Thus, narratologists define narrative as primary and the game’s rules itself as constituent parts of the fiction which the video game creates.

Ludology, however, does not become subsumed under the common categories of the narrative. Ludology, at its most basic, is the study of games as games, defined succinctly by the fact that games have rules. As Espen Aarseth states in the first volume of Game Studies (available online for those interested), “Games, however, are often simulations; they are not static labyrinths like hypertexts or literary fictions. The simulation aspect is crucial: it is a radically different alternative to narratives as a cognitive and communicative structure. Simulations are bottom up; they are complex systems based on logical rules. A game, as a text, does not work without being played, for it is both an object and a process. As well, there is an innate social element within games that are multi-player, a distinct characteristic of games that does not fall into a traditional textual model of narratology. Thus, ludology towards video games imposes a formalism upon game studies that treat games as composites of rules, and how those rules bring about any myriad number of results.

The problem with narratology, from this perspective, is that applying narrative to games “…is not neutral; it emphasizes some traits and suppresses others. Unlike this, the act of comparing furthers the understanding of differences and similarities, and may bare hidden assumptions.’ Narrative is an existing paradigm; thus, its years of cultural history imply a certain approach, a certain sense of “meaning”, and certain assumptions about what constitutes a “good” and “bad’ ‘ narrative in advance of the novelty of form. Ludology, by contrast, assume that a new methodology fitting to both the idea of rules and the essential aspect of interactivity make games a form that does not have narrative as its primary concerns. I agree with this in part, as you might notice; narratology equals a reductive approach.

Ludologist Jesper Juul gives several reasons why games do not fit a narrative mold. First, not all games require a anthropomorphic protagonist; most narratives require a connection between the reader/watcher of a book or movie, for otherwise there is no connection to the events. The person playing the game, in Juul’s words, “…inhabits a twilight zone where he/she is both an empirical subject outside the game and undertakes a role inside the game.” The game, as stated earlier, presents a goal, and the player interacts with that goal under the stipulation that he/she follow the rules of the game. Secondly, narratives are told from a “past” perspective, whereas interactivity does not exist in a particular time frame; the temporality of a game is in the here and now. Lastly, imagine the myriad movie to video game translations – many of these games do not directly translate the narrative of the movie into the game, for that would be exactly like the movie. Instead, most game developers focus on one or two exciting action sequences in that film to translate into the game’s rules and mechanics, allowing the player to experience the feeling of becoming the protagonist. Even then, without the film’s name, the game would remain inherently playable – thus, games have essential elements (what Murray, in her criticism, calls “Game Essentialism”), and they are the game’s rules.

Still, even ludology has its own problems. By reducing games to rules, we make the opposite error of ignoring their ability to tell stories and narratives. Though this movement doesn’t see as much support in most mainstream publications, there are a subset who see video games as nothing but rule sets, and that anything beyond this goes too far. Isn’t it interesting that both these sides try their best to compartmentalize the whole of a video game experience? That’s the issue, here – these people do not play video games, really. They’re just analysts on the sidelines, and as much as you might say that’s unnecessary for someone to be critical about something, it’s a bit different when the medium in question requires the interactive element to make any sense at all!

It is interactivity that makes the experience, after all. It is games as an experience that solves the problem and bridges the gap. John Dewey noted this problem before video games ever existed; he saw classicism and snobbery among the artistic elite that looked down upon the things of the past and always looked for the next big thing, unaware that true works of human and divine beauty already lay before their eyes. Hence, he wrote Art and Experience; I’d advise you to read that book. In sum, art is defined by the totality of the given work and the experience it produces. What that means to you, or to me, could mean very different things, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t art. Is this too vague? Not really. Art has a community element; why else do we look at critical scores on Metacritic, if not to see whether a game has been declared “good” by a host of experts on the subject? It’s the same with any medium – social agreement based on a common culturally determined criteria gives us art. And that art, in turn, produces an experience –  a summation of the narrative and the rules.

The idea of video games as “an experience” solves the problems of both sides. Instead of isolation, narratives and rules exist in collaboration to create a unique “experience” within a particular work, both with the artistic intent of the developers and the reception of the players. If one is emphasized over the other, inevitably problems emerge; however, if each finds use within its own particular video game context where relevant, then higher criticism and evaluation of games as “art” and discovering those “experiences” becomes a joy and a pleasure. Rather than creating artistic classism, video games as a relatively new medium can find their foothold as a novel form of expression operating under rules that create “an experience” in the players and developers.

Furthermore, we might say that the developer and the player are equal partners in the creation of this experience. A developer has a concept and a specific goal in which to present to the audience, the players. Sometimes the developer succeeds in making a great experience for the player; other times, the player must wring their entertainment out of the game by any means necessary. It’s a give-and-take; a bad game doesn’t bridge this gap, instead letting the developers indulge in their own self-importance, telling gamers what they want; in turn, this means the player doesn’t have a reason to invest themselves into the experience for any reason. It’s a collaborative effort.

In turn, the player’s ideas and the like naturally integrate into that experience. If you are, say, a Christian, your reaction to said experience will differ vastly from some who isn’t. I suppose this accounts for the current reactions to The Dark Knight Rises shootings – have you heard that violent video games could be the cause? Well, they’ve been the root cause of every major violent event in the past few decades, so why not now? If you bring only a background of “video games are violent and evil”, that’s the experience you will have. If you happen to be quite religious like myself, you may see something interesting and beautiful even amidst violence, sin, and tragedy.

And wow, have we gotten off track! So, why am I talking about this rather than NieR? Or why am I plastering NieR on top of a discussion about video games, art, and game studies? Well, because Nier makes the case for “an experience”, in a very real sense. It totally rocked my expectations of video games and narrative; In that way, I am pleasantly enamored to say I am totally, utterly, and completely wrong in every way.

Continue to Part 2

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.