Understanding Video Games text-book
Form and aesthetics

Date posted: May 14, 2006
Updated: May 16, 2006

How should one describe an interactive medium? In the case of traditional media one could, even though one had to take reservations, speak of a producer who created a work which would then be presented to a recipient. But in computer games the recipient participates actively in determining the process and ‘plot’.

Humanistic scholarship - and often inspired by comparative literature - has dealt with these questions and with describing how actual games could be analyzed. At times these theories have approached the sociological but are often more theory-heavy and far-reaching.

One important discussion has concerned the relationship between interactivity and fiction (or: narrative). The adventure genre has enjoyed special attention from both industry and academia. In an apparent attempt to distance oneself from arcade games and cultivate new markets adventure game designers have put much energy to establishing a close relationship between the genre and established art forms like literature and film. This may be seen as an echo of 1960’s film critics attempting to envelop cinema in a literary aura by describing the highly collective form of expression as the result of the vision of one artist. This artist (the director) was described as an “auteur”, that is as a writer. In this vein adventure games of the 1980’s were often presented as personal achievements, which gave birth to titles such as Roberta William’s King’s Quest (Sierra, 1984) and Al Lowe’s Leisure Suit Larry (Sierra, 1987).
Myst (Broderbund, 1994)

With the understanding of adventure games as particularly literary/artistic the genre has enjoyed much academic attention under the heading of ‘interactive fiction’. Particularly Myst (Broderbund, 1994) fit right into established categories and even made a theme of the conflict between interactive and linear narrative (that is, it was highly reflexive).

The noticeable focus on a genre which borrows heavily from linear media seem to feed into the idea that interactivity and fiction represent two ends of a continuum, two opposits that are only joined with the greatest of difficulty. Attacking the concept of interactivity literary theorist Espen Aarseth asks:

“What can ‘interactive fiction’ mean, and what does it imply for the meaning and theory of fiction? Since it is used repeatedly without clarification, there can be two possibilities: either is means nothing in particular or its meaning is perceived to be so trivial that it is self-explanatory.” (Aarseth, 1997: 50).

A similar judgment can be heard from many scholars (such as Jesper Juul). A wide range of typical arguments against the possibility for truly interactive fiction are concisely presented in Jurgen Fauth’s article Poles in Your Face: The Promises and Pitfalls of Hyperfiction.

What is obvious is that traditional narrative structures, determined before the appearance of the user/player are hard to combine with great (narratively meaningful) freedom for the interactor. What is however less obvious is whether this is an important discovery.

The question has two typical answers that, basically go:

1) Yes, is is important as it tells us something about a genre which has it’s own merits and raison d’Ítre and should be developed further (e.g. Jesper Juul).

2) No, it is not very significant. It just tells us that adventure games belong to an immature (pseudo-)genre that continuously borrow from older media in an effort to be accepted as art and without ambition to seek out new possibilities offered by computers (e.g. Smith, 2000; Adams, 1999).

The answer influences one’s perception of the large online games such as Ultima Online (Origin, 1997) and Asheron’s Call (Microsoft, 1999). Those who answer 1 often describe the phenomenon as a new and partly different genre while answering 2 will often lead one to describing these online games as a natural development of the adventure genre - a development that transcends several problems of the genre.

The discussions of the media characteristics of computer games are, as implied above, still somewhat diffuse. The terminology is liquid and any demarcation appears controversial. That the focus in such attempts has often been on radically different genre hasn’t helped to clarify the issue. Psychological research has typically - without acknowledging this delimitation - concentrated on action games. And literary scholars - also without commenting upon this important choice - have tried to shed light on the adventure game. The results are not contradictory - they are simply not comparable.

A reasonable description of the computer game as medium - a description convincing enough to establish agreement on its terminology and which is neither polemic or theory chauvinistic at its core - is among the most important challenges for future computer game research.

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