Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Interactivity and Narrative in Video Games

Throughout this class we have learned about various technologies through the use of narrative. We have also learned about narrative through technology. But in my opinion, the most interesting aspect of the course was what we learned about the interactivity and narrative in games. Now, I don’t mean board games, I mean computer and video games. These games range in a variety of categories but in particularly first person shooters (FPS), action/adventure, and PC games. What I would like to talk about are the issues of interactivity and narrative during game play and even online gaming. During this study I chose three games to use as my trials of interactivity and narrative. The first game we are all familiar with from class, Zork. The second game I chose was Assassin’s Creed. And the final game chosen to examine was from the hit trilogy of Halo games, Halo 3.
Now before I begin discussing what research was done and the results of my research, let us take a look at what the terms narrative and interactive mean. Narrative means “a representation of an event or series of events; a recreation, re-enactment, etc” (Adam Johns Lecture). Interactive means, “1: mutually or reciprocally active 2: involving the actions or input of a user ; especially : of, relating to, or being a two-way electronic communication system (as a telephone, cable television, or a computer) that involves a user's orders (as for information or merchandise) or responses (as to a poll)” (Merriam-Webster Online). I would like us to focus on the second meaning of interactive when we discuss interactivity later. Now you might be asking yourself what either of those words has to with video games. Allow me to explain it you using verbal and visible examples, as well as using my research findings.
In order to explain what these terms have to do with video games, we will begin first while looking at a game not mentioned earlier. We will look at the game Pong. It was developed by Atari in 1972 as an arcade game then it was released on the first Atari home system in 1975. This is a very interactive game as the object of the game was to move the block/paddle where ever the ball was going and you had to get it to go past your opponents paddle in order to get a point (Pong Wikipedia). If you cannot recall what Pong looks like, here is a photo:

Now seeing as how Pong paved the way for interactivity in video games, let’s take a glimpse at our first game, Zork. This is the main photo for Zork found on numerous websites:
Now it isn’t very self-explanatory but let’s examine the photo for a moment. It’s very plain, just a bunch of text and gives you a feeling of wonder and perhaps confusion with the phrase at the top. But let’s not look too into it; I just wanted to show you the main photo so you knew what game I was referencing. A photo that we need to examine is the following photo of how the game actually looks. This photo is from the first version of Zork as soon as we begin the game.

Now does this look like your typical video game? I do not know of any video games that look anything like this. Then again this game is only available on computers. But examine this photo closely and you will see that this is not a game at all but an interactive narrative. Interactive narrative? Yes an interactive narrative. This is a narrative that gives us complete interactivity but it does have restrictions. There are preset commands and answers to things. There are preset occurrences during the game that happen at predetermined times. Everything is set-up in a way that we have to choose which way to go and what to do. But we don’t exactly have complete control do we? And can we even see where or what we are doing? No we do not.
Now I’m not saying that it isn’t possible to have complete control, but we will discuss that more in depth later. Let’s continue on with our lack of interactivity through visibility in Zork. All we see is text, we have no visible evidence of where we are going or what we are doing except a narrative in front of us. This didn’t go over to well with me being a pretty devoted gamer. I can’t explain how annoyed I was by this game and the lack of interactivity I felt due to the lack of being able to see what I was doing. Just reading text of what was happening was not working. I could not paint a mental picture of this being real. But I was not the only one who had trouble.
In order to be unbiased, I incorporated the help of a close friend for my project. His job was to play each game for a one hour period then write down what he thought about three specific categories: interactivity, narrative and game play. I made him suffer through Zork first, since I had to play it for this class, I figured I would be nice and let him have fun after. Now while he was doing this I watched him from another room and he was literally red in the face and ready to break my computer. After playing the game for the hour he wrote down a few things on the interactivity of the game that stood out to me.
First he wrote about the game itself then the narrative of the game. He felt that the game lacked entertainment and excitement. He called it boring. He was not too thrilled about being able to only do certain things as well. He felt that the commands were not realistic enough and by that he meant he was getting angry with the game not recognizing words that it had previously included in a prompt. His feelings on this subject are not too far from his feelings on interactivity. He felt very confused by the narrative and by what it was he was doing and what he read. He also felt that there was no story involved. He said that while he was typing in the commands he felt that game went no where even though he moved through 4 rooms by simply going the same direction. He just did not feel the narrative and interactivity were linked and that really hurts the game as a whole. When writing about the game play he felt that there wasn’t any. So let’s move forward to our next game, Assassin’s Creed.
Assassin’s Creed was published by Ubisoft and released on all gaming platforms. “The setting is 1191 AD. The Third Crusade is tearing the Holy Land apart. You, as Altair, intend to stop the hostilities by suppressing both sides of the conflict. You are an Assassin, a warrior shrouded in secrecy and feared for your ruthlessness. Your actions can throw your immediate environment into chaos, and your existence will shape events during this pivotal moment in history.”(IGN.com)
Now, this game is your standard action/adventure game where you have control of the character and you see the character throughout the game. The object is to go around and prevent 10 men from gaining access to a special relic that would let them control the world. To put it frankly you go around and basically kill these men. Each city has different tasks you must complete in order for you to gain access to the assassination. You do not have to these in any specific order.
I watched my friend play this game and he decided not to follow any mission plans. This is what I love about this game. You have total interactivity with the game. You don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to. You can just walk around and kill the guards or even the pedestrians which is what my friend did. Now if you want to beat the game you have to assassinate each main boss. But all the objectives that are listed are optional. You do not have to go around and save every citizen, or pick pocket every bad guy or even interrogate a priest by beating him up. What I want to show you first is the official trailer to the game itself so you have an idea of what is going on.
Now, when going through this games interactivity my friend wrote down that he believed the game was open to the control of the player. He also wrote that the results of what he experienced were based on the actions he was performing. As stated earlier, he decided against the missions, which led him to go run around the city and eliminate the royal guards of the boss. He also continued on by assassinating civilians because they were in his way. When I asked him what he thought of the narrative aspect of the game he told me that he felt the story was compelling and that it gripped his attention. He said that it had a smooth flow to the story and actions. He felt the same way about the game play of Assassin’s Creed. He believes that since you have the choice of what to do in the game as you see fit, he felt the game was like an open world or perhaps a choose your own adventure.
Here are a few screen caps of game play from Assassin’s Creed. The first is a jumping kill on a royal soldier, who happens to be a boss in the game. The second screen cap is what they call the “Leap of Faith” in the game. You climb up the tallest building wherever an eagle soars and you look around to survey the area and unlock items on your map. Then you press a combination of buttons and Altair steps up and leaps off the edge doing a flip in midair and landing in a haystack. Highly unrealistic from such a high distance that he would survive but it makes the game fun, as I have repeatedly done this over and over while playing.

Now this seems like an interesting point in my research. This game begins to take on a “choose your own adventure” guideline as the game goes on. Perhaps this interaction is what makes this game seem so much more realistic then Zork. Or maybe it makes the game just like Zork. It may not have the appearance or flow of Zork, but it runs the same course. We choose our own destiny in these games and perhaps this is an evolution of Zork. We have now seen a modern day look at interactivity and perhaps a link between modern video games and Zork. So let’s see what effect Halo 3 has on the topic
Halo 3 was developed by Bungie specifically for the X-Box 360. As I stated earlier this is the third and final installment of the Halo trilogy. It’s a first person shooter game where our view point is from that of our character, Master Chief. But that is not the only view we have in this game. The views will change depending on the situation you are in. For example this is our basic view for the game:
As we can see here, the view gives the player a feeling that he is Master Chief and he is holding that gun. This makes the game feel more personal and more interactive. This also allows the players to see closer and more detailed aspects of the area and people/aliens involved in the battle. Now throughout this game there are various missions that must be completed in order to beat the game and end the war. Each stage/mission has its own set of objectives that need to be done in order to move on. The following slides are all the various views of the game during play except the last one will be from a video clip.
Now as we see above, we are holding a different gun that requires the game to switch views and we are now able to see our character instead of actually seeing through his eyes. In the next photo, we see the view from a part of the game in which Master Chief is driving the Warthog around. This view allows us to see the road from a higher angle and we can see more of the area from this view. And the last one is a frozen video clip that shows Master Chief and the Arbiter moving into the next chamber of the building. We see many videos during game play.
While having been an avid Halo fan since the first Halo game was released in 2003, naturally I was going to continue playing the series all the way till the end. My friend never really got the hang of the game when it first came out. He was not very good at first person shooters. But this time, he seemed much calmer when playing and he had some good things to say about it. For instance, he felt that the game was one-directional but it was fun and interactive. You get to look around from Chief’s perspective and see all of the area surrounding you. That’s interactivity right there! If you can’t see what’s going on around you, then there isn’t much to be interactive with.
When referring to the narrative of the game he believed that the game could be better if there were some extra missions available. In order to get to your next mission, you have to successfully complete the prior. He felt that the story flowed smoothly and there were no problems in understanding what was going on. He agrees with critics that the game is fun and worth replaying over and over again. But one aspect that the Halo franchise excelled in was its online gaming. Now my friend didn’t experience it but I have and let me tell you something, it’s phenomenal.
Halo 3 has two methods of online playing. The first option is Online versus multiplayer (up to 16 people). This feature allows 16 people from all over the world to interact and play against each other in either an every man for themselves battle royal or as a team in a variety of games. The next option is Online Co-Op Multiplayer (up to 4 people). In this option, the players insert themselves into the actual story mode of the game and play together as a team trying to beat the game. Now I have taken part in both of these and I can’t tell you how much interactivity there is amongst the players. With the standard headset, included with the X-Box 360, you can hear and talk to the people you are playing with and against depending on which mode you choose. But having that ability, to communicate with people across the world, really suggests the amount of interactivity is above and beyond what the creators of Zork or Pong could have ever imagined.
In conclusion this allows us to look into the future of gaming and interactivity to where we can almost maybe create a system in which we see ourselves in a game and can communicate with everyone else that’s playing. Online gaming is just the beginning of a technological revolution that will allow us to be completely interactive. Maybe this is some type of virtual reality or perhaps total-interactive-technology, but this really hasn’t been created yet. Who knows who, what, where and when this is going to actually happen. For all we know it could be in the works even as we speak.


• Goldstein, Hilary. "Assassin's Creed." IGN.com. 20 November 2008 .
• Goldstein, Hilary. "Halo 3." IGN.com. 20 November 2008 .
• "Interactive." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. Merriam-Webster Online. 20 November 2008
• Johns, Adam. "Narrative." Class. University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning Room 318, Pittsburgh. 26 Aug. 2008.
• "Pong." Wikipedia.com. 2 Dec. 2008 .
• Ubisoft. Assassin's Creed Trailer [The Trailer for the Video Game]. Digital image. Gametrailers.com. 20 Nov. 2008 .
• "Zork." Wikipedia.com. 20 November 2008 .
*Images found through Google Image search*

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

Most of this is fundamentally the same as previous versions. You made revisions, and you added things on to the end, but most of my old comments still apply. You don't have a clear focus or argument at the beginning, nor do you really have one at the end. That's the fundamental issue here, which endures through revisions.

It's interesting to see your attempts to take Zork more seriously - you are engaging at least briefly with history here (how could Zork look like games as you know them when it was, in fact, the ancestor of games as you know them). Still, you get in trouble with this material:

"This game begins to take on a “choose your own adventure” guideline as the game goes on. Perhaps this interaction is what makes this game seem so much more realistic then Zork. Or maybe it makes the game just like Zork. It may not have the appearance or flow of Zork, but it runs the same course. We choose our own destiny in these games and perhaps this is an evolution of Zork. We have now seen a modern day look at interactivity and perhaps a link between modern video games and Zork."

It's strange that you say that other games remind you of a CYOA, when earlier you had briefly argued that Zork is not a game but an "interactive narrative" (which sounds almost like a CYOA to me...). Obviously you're dealing with the fact that your games are descended from Zork in some sense -but you tend to contradict yourself while dealing with that history.

I think that your general lack of historical awareness, and your lack of rigor, are the source of your weak argument. What do I mean by lack of rigor? You don't define and analyze things consistently. For instance, you and your friend clearly don't like Zork - but neither do you understand it very well (you say several things about it that aren't true - preset events at preset times, for instance?), and you never really sit down and separate the question of what Zork *is* from whether you *like* it. Another example of the lack of rigor - you define interactivity at several point basically as graphics: "As we can see here, the view gives the player a feeling that he is Master Chief and he is holding that gun. This makes the game feel more personal and more interactive." Yet your definition of interactivity had nothing to do with graphics, with "seeing" in the first place.

Don't get me wrong - there are good ideas here. For instance, the moment where you're trying to define interactivity in the terms of your ability to deviate from given missions, rather than following them, is nice. Of course, it's worth noting that you can do that in Zork, too - although it's not likely to be very fun. But you *can* do it.

Where this has problems is with basics: clearly defining an ambitious argument from the beginning, using your terms consistently, focusing on gathering evidence...