Friday, December 7, 2007

The Hurtin's on me (Yeah), And I'll never be free (No no no)

This is my trimmed rough draft, it's sort've an essay but not in the same linear sort of format. I decided to just use one example for this post on the blog, leaving the others mentioned for the final draft.

Throughout Narrative and Technology, we as a class have been exploring different expressions of narratives. A narrative is defined as "a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious. " The class has revolved primarily around the narratives in books, despite Dr. Johns' additions of a movie or two and the occasional text-based/old school computer game. Because I lack the creative prowess that allows me to create a neo-modern narrative or perform a dance, symphony, or the like to one of the pieces of work that we've read, I decided that since I play so many video games (and thus have a fairly intimate knowledge of them) that I would compare and contrast the effectiveness of narratives between a major console (PlayStationPortable) game, an MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online RolePlaying Game), two text-based MUDs/MUSHs (Multi-User Dungeon/ Multi-User Shared Hallucination), and several Forum RPGs. Instead of one platform being good and the other bad, each modern media expression has its strengths and weaknesses. The goal of this essay is to explain, after weeks of first-hand experience and research, what those strengths and weaknesses are and then give a (hopefully) accurate ranking of which expression delivers a narrative closest to the novel narrative. To divide and rank these narratives easily, I've created four categories that touch upon the strongest points Dr. Johns has made throughout the course as to what is a narrative. These categories include: Narrator & Supporting Cast Characterization, Story Point of View & Strength of Character Voice, Story Depth, and Player Immersability in the Story.

First, an explanation ofthe reasoning behind each category and how a game ranks within it:

  • Narrator & Supporting Cast Characterization: What do we know about the main character? Does this character possess easily recognizeable character traits while still maintaining a complex persona that gives the player a good idea, but not utmost certainty, on how they would react in a given situation? Does the same go for the supporting cast? Does the game contain an identifiable supporting cast that stays with the character throughout the story? To what depth are resources on each character's history avaiable to the player?

  • Story Point of View & Strength of Character Voice: It is important to note whether the story is 1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person omniscent or 3rd person limited because each method requires different approaches to give us a clearly defined, strongly voiced character. This is not a repeat of the previous category because, while the player can be notified about the history and personality of their character, it is quite another thing for the player to be able to make their character display their traits and history through action or dialogue. Also, the amount of choices involved with how a character can display the strength of their presence is also a factor here.

  • Story Depth: Obviously this had to be included in what makes a successful narrative, especially in relation to how a game closes the gap between a modern expression of a narrative and the tried-and-true expression of a narrative through written word on paper. How much does the player know about the plot? Is the entirety of the plot revealed at the beginning of the game or is it slowly revealed as the player progresses through it? Is the plot as complex and interesting as the gameplay or does it take a back-seat to stats, levels, and graphics?

  • Player Immersability in the Story: A narrative must be immersive enough for the reader or player if it is to be successful. In simple terms of reading, this immersability can be carried out by having the reader go back and make different choices in the novel (ala Choose Your Own Adventure), make a reader interact with the novel itself (i.e. House of Leaves) or be so complex yet interesting enough to hold the reader's interest that the reader may choose to go back and re-read portions of the narrative or do research on/psychoanalyze what is written. This rule applies the same to video game narratives-- does the reader have resources available to them about the story and then, is the story complex enough that the reader applies their cognitive resources to better understand said story? Is there room for metaphor and other forms of figurative language in the game?

First, it would be easiest to pick a form of media expression that most people would be familiar with-- that of the video game on a major video game platform. To be fair, I chose a game that has the most narrative elemnts in it; a tactical Roleplaying game called "Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions." The story revolves around the main character, Ramza (though players are given the option of picking whatever name they want-- I usually go with "Lance") and the part he plays in a war that takes place between two huge factions within the land of Ivalice (Ee-vuh-leez). Ramza is accompanied by a varied cast of customizable characters, whose jobs can range from Squire, Chemist, Black & White Mage, to Holy Knight, Time Mage, Onion Knight, Monk, and Summoner. These characters do not play a major role in the outcome of the game, merely showing up as the pixelated avatars on the in-game battle sequences. The main players in the game (characters that the player cannot change) are Delita (Ramza's childhood friend), Count Orlando (leader of The Southern Sky Corps), Dycedarg (Ramza's brother and leader of The Northern Sky Corps), Ophelia & Agrias (Adopted Princess and her trustworthy bodyguard), and Mustadio (an engineer in the new Underground Goug City technology). The story is rife with betrayal, love, battle, and politics-- it is just as extensive and requires just as much attention to understand as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

Narrator & Supporting Cast Characterization: FFT: War of the Lions is strong in this aspect regarding the PRIMARY cast of characters. None of the characters that the player spends so much time lovingly leveling up from the beginning of the game have any sort of backgrounds or personality. They are flat and more or less are just ways for you to see all the cool different sorts of jobs you can get within the game and help you beat the crap out of your enemies. Ramza has the most amount of characterization, but I believe that his personality is oversimplified as a benefit for other characters to act as foils. Additionally, while supporting cast characters (such as Delita, Ophelia, and Agrias) will, at many points in the game, have others make references to their past or such-- it is often too vague for me to really get a feel for the character as a whole.

I have to make further comments about History in FFT: WotL specifically because there is a section (under "Chronicles") that allows for a more in-depth look at the history of the main characters in the story. The backgrounds are well-written and give me a good understanding of the character. However, I would have liked to have seen these resources utilized more fully in the gameinstead of being buried beneath a bunch of ambiguously titled sub-menus in order for me to find these histories. If these histories were missing (an indeed, the player could go through the entire game without even knowing about the availability of these resources) a lot of the in-game references would prove extremely confusing-- especially to the player who cares about knowing the characters and their personalities to their utmost extent.

Story Point of View & Strength of Character Voice: This game gets a little confusing regarding point of view. The game is 3rd person limited, yet sometimes expands to 3rd person omniscient before diminishing back to its diminished form. I suppose the reason why the game runs this way is because things are not actually happening in "real time," this is a story that is being conveyed by the offspring of Olan Durai (a somewhat minor character), a man by the name of Alazlam J.D. This is actually interesting because it explains why Ramza does not have much of a voice in the game-- if the game is trying to be accurate as an intimate telling of history opposed to history in the making, it is most likely that the player would not see all the thoughts and feelings of Ramza.

That being said, though, the story still does lack a strong presence for Ramza. Often-times I will feel that he is overshadowed by Delita (a non-playable character that is extremely important to the story), Dycedarg, Zalbag, or even Agrias which is a shame because this game focuses squarely on Ramza and the choices he makes in the War. When Ramza is paired with a weaker-willed character (there aren't many until late in the game) that is when he really shines but I feel that the inconsistency here between the beginning of the game and nearly abrupt change toward the end is too much of a mistake in the narrative to overlook.

Story Depth: This is what makes FFT: WotL such a fun game-- there is so much depth to this plot it's easy to become lost in the politics and love traingles, the implicit statements of relationships and actions and the like. Because the game is not Ramza-centric, many layers of the game are obscured from the player to a large degree with the information slowly revealing itself as the game goes on. The story of the War of the Lions and the different complex politics involved (especially between military powers and religious ones) makes this seem like the TRUE focus of the game, even though I feel the gameplay itself is fantastic. If someone were to write a form of meta-fiction following the entirety of this game, they could easily exceed the length of House of Leaves.

Player Immersability in the Story: This game is the epitome of platform RPGs. The player is given a character who will act a certain way throughout the story (with a small degree of choice on the player's part) with the only game-effecting editable attributes being that of name, date of birth, job selection, and gear. That's it. I don't feel like I could possibly be Ramza in this game; sad considering that most first person shooters and 2nd person novels pull this off better. Even when I change Ramza's name to "Lance," just having other characters say the name in cutscenes does not make me feel like a blonde, purple-armor wearing fighter for peace.

That being said, the story and characters make the game complex enough that I do want to (and have) played the game over and over just to see if I've missed something in the story or some small characterization of the cast. I see plenty of room for allegorical connections, as well as time that could be spent analyzing other parts of FFT history or literary novels that may connect with the game.

I would post more but I fear that I may have posted too much already though I feel this is sufficient enough for Adam to see where I am going with my essay.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

After having read this, the word that pops into my head first is not "essay" but "review." You are including some personal, nuanced evaluation of the potential of a particular narrative, FFT. Since I play this kind of game when I can find the time to do so, your evaluations are of great interest to me. However...

... The central characteristic of an essay is having a coherent argument. So, what is your argument? Here's the obvious candidate: "The goal of this essay is to explain, after weeks of first-hand experience and research, what those strengths and weaknesses are and then give a (hopefully) accurate ranking of which expression delivers a narrative closest to the novel narrative."

This strikes me as putting the cart before the horse. Why are we presupposing the novel as the yardstick for all narrative forms? Why not the short story, or the hour-long television drama? And why, then, do you become involved in a list of characteristics of narrative in general? Why these characteristics? What makes them special or distinctive? (Incidentally, some of these categories might be better addressed in terms of representation, which has been one of my touchstones through the semester). I'm not saying that they're bad ways of talking about narrative - but what is motivating this particular analysis?

My feeling is that there is some more particular and bolder argument underlying what's going on here. E.g.: "the cultural and narrative role of the novel is being taken over and modified by rpgs/forum rpgs/etc." Or perhaps "rpgs/forum rpgs do something (some aspect of narrative, some form of cultural work) better than novels do...

The territory is interesting, but you need to narrow it down until you're saying something _really_ interesting.