from the Application of Narratology to Halo: Combat Evolved
Tom Eastman (Eastbeast314)
Among game theorists, there is little agreement about what framework should be used to analyze video games. Two camps each propose to frame games in different ways. The narratologists would take the ideas and notions from narratives, such as books and film, and apply them to games (Juul 1). This seems logical to many. Just as film seems to have evolved from the novel, so have games developed from films. Games have stories, just as novels and movies do. A “repurposing” of an established medium’s theories and ideas seems to be an excellent way to begin understanding a new medium. (Pearce 1) The other side, however, sees games as descendants of board games and other manifestations of the human desire to play. To these ludologists, story and character are only secondary to a game’s gameplay.
With these two factions in mind, I will present a look at whether narratology and other aspects of storytelling can help explain why the best-selling video game Halo (made by Bungie for the Xbox) was such a success. If narratology can prove useful in this manner, then perhaps the discussion can continue in a more directed approach to finding the key elements of real games. Because the industry is young, especially compared to novels, looking at successful games is more likely to be fruitful in the long run, because the top games are more likely to point the way toward future games. Although as a designer, I believe gameplay to be more important than story, a game’s plot and characters are vital to its lasting appeal. Therefore, I will use these pages to attempt to show that there is more to games than gameplay. Clearly, games will eventually give birth to their own framework that combines many theoretical elements from other media. Here I will show that narratology can contribute some nails to this framework.
Games, at first glance, seem to be an obvious medium to have their stories and characters placed under the microscope. Many games are associated with a character, not the gameplay. For instance, Mario Tennis is marketed as tennis with Mario, who gave no indication of being able to swing a racket in Super Mario 64. Nevertheless, it would be a very different game without all the Nintendo characters. Furthermore, every game has a story (Murray 2). A game may have thirty seconds of intensely fun gameplay, but if that fun has no context and is simply repeated over and over, players will grow bored. Furthermore, many games, particularly Role-Playing Games (RPGs), are based around a quest system, which is basically a narrative structure that clearly enhances gameplay and fun. It would seem that elements of an analysis of a book or film are just as important to understanding a game.
That said, there are some compelling reasons to dismiss a game’s story as superfluous to the core experience of playing the game. One of the best examples of that is Tetris. It has absolutely no background story or context that would explain why the player must orient colored blocks into rows (Juul 9). Tetris, along with other puzzle games such as Snood or Hexic HD, “do not lend themselves well to narrative exposition” (Jenkins 119). Furthermore, “the experience of playing games can never be simply reduced to the experience of a story” (Jenkins 120). No matter how hard one may try, a game is very different from a movie or book. Interactivity is not just another feature. Instead, it is a defining element. “[T]he player’s participation poses a potential threat to the narrative construction” (Jenkins 125). In other words, the concept of a story may not hold together when the player can choose not to take part.
The above points, however, would compose a forceful refutation of my position if I were positing that games are nothing but narratives. My argument is a more practical one. The current academic debate has grown stagnant and cannot rightfully explain any real design issues. The solution is to look at whether or not a specific framework, such as ludology or narratology, can explain success. If it can, then we have begun the construction of a provable set of ideals that can be used to analyze games in the future. Although only narratology and story are discussed here, other analytical structures should also be tested to refine a framework for games. With a structure built from the bottom up, from practical analysis, we can better create a true method for studying games. The fact that the experience of a game cannot be reduced to the experience of a story simply means that narrative is not a game’s most important facet, not that story is irrelevant to their study.
In addition, the idea that a “player’s participation poses a potential threat to the narrative construction” is foolish at best (Jenkins 125). Stories have existed for millions of years in human minds, passed down orally from one generation to the next. Many myths and legends survived for millennia only through word of mouth. With fewer tales and the necessity of hearing them many times in order to carry them on, one might think that listeners would grow bored (Adams 3). Nevertheless, these stories survived not because they were so interesting on the hundredth hearing, but because the telling itself is different and more important than the tale itself (Adams 4). In the same manner, a game’s story is able to be molded by the player (the storyteller) up to the point where they are still playing the same plot (or story).
With the fact that narrative is at least somewhat important to games established, I will now look at how Halo can be judged. In particular, I will look at two of the most game-related traits that have been discussed in the past and see if Halo’s success could have been predicted using these ideals. First I will look at Halo’s implementation of immersion and then examine the concept of agency in Halo.
“Immersion is the feeling of being present in another place and engaged in the action therein” (Mateas 21). This sense is similar to the concept of the “willing suspension of disbelief”, which is used in novels and films alike (Mateas 21). In novels especially, immersion has been examined extensively. In addition, novels can provide a close parallel to Halo in particular because the first-person point of view is used in both (Noyle 2). A first person narrative is nearly impossible in film, yet is prevalent in both games and novels. The terminology from novels can be usefully applied to game analysis. I will look at the concepts of show-don’t-tell, reaction, and grounding.
The writing method of show-don’t-tell works from the premise “that the reader’s experience is far more vivid when he or she is given credit for their intelligence and is allowed to infer information rather than be told it outright” (Noyle 3). Halo implements this in a variety of ways. At the very beginning of the game, the player’s character, the Master Chief, is brought out of cryo-sleep. Immediately, the player is taught how the interface and movement controls work. The key difference between Halo and most games is that this is done in-game and in-narrative. The technicians waking the player run diagnostics and start up your character’s suit, teaching the various functions as they go (Griesemer 2). This immersive step removes the need for a narrator, leaving the player’s point of view and story intact. In addition, Halo leaves the choice of weaponry up to the player throughout the game. All the weapons have strengths and weaknesses, but those are never explained to the player. Instead, each player must learn on his or her own what is most effective. When learning the value of a pistol headshot or the plasma rifle’s stun, the player becomes invested personally in the game. That interaction is much deeper and more meaningful than simply carrying out a predetermined set of actions, as is the case in many less successful games. Another example of the use of show-don’t-tell in Halo is the way in which the player is introduced to the complexity of the artificial intelligence (AI) system. The AI uses a sight-based algorithm to determine targets, which means that, unlike in many games, sneaking up on an enemy is a viable and extremely useful tactic. However, because most gamers don’t expect that level of detail in games, the designers had to encourage the player to make tactical decisions. Instead of simply telling the player that the AI system is based on vision, the designers built in a few corridors in the first level that encourage the player to sneak behind enemy fortifications (Griesemer 1). By letting the player discover the game on his or her own, the player is immersed even deeper.
The notion of reaction “in written fiction is the primary vehicle by which writers evoke empathy” (Noyle 5). In written works, reaction is crucial because the impact of events on the characters is at least as important as the events themselves. This concept, however, does not directly parallel a feature of games because the player is the one who must react. However, Halo implements measures that enhance the gamer’s reaction to game events. One of the more common examples is the red flash on the screen that indicates that the player is under fire from a certain direction (Noyle 5). Similarly, Halo uses the controller’s rumble feature to great effect in the same situation, enhancing the player’s reaction to the game’s events. In addition, the temporary vision washouts that accompany power-up pick-ups not only relay information to the player but also enhance the sense of immersion.
The final technique from written fiction that contributed to Halo’s success is that of grounding. Grounding “refers to the frequent resetting of the reader’s imagination into the time and place the author wishes them to experience” (Noyle 5). Obviously, grounding in games is easier than in novels because of the constant visual presentation, but some games do a far better job of it than others (Noyle 5). Although Halo takes place in a relatively Earth-like setting, the action is nevertheless taking place on an alien ringworld in another star system. To keep the player from becoming confused about the setting, Halo has constant reminders in the sky. The huge presence of the gas-giant Threshold and its moon Basis in the sky above the player immediately removes any possible confusion that the game is taking place on Earth. Even more effective is the huge arch that stretches across the sky. The fact that the other side of the ringworld can be seen grounds the player and augments the sense of wonder and exploration of an alien world.
Another concept that is very important to interactive storytelling (next to immersion) is agency. Often explained as goal of cyberdrama, agency is experienced when “the participant’s actions have an appropriate and understandable impact on the world the computer presents to them” (Wardrip 1). Although not necessarily tied to previous narrative media, the concept of agency is not connected to ludology. For instance, in Halo, the player primarily interacts with the game world using his or her gun. The fact that the gun can hit enemies and kill them is important to the gameplay (and therefore ludologists), but the bullet holes in the walls are irrelevant to the gameplay. Those holes, however, tell the story of the battle and allow the player to experience agency. Similarly, the player’s intention to kill aliens is satisfied because the game allows that interaction to occur in a manner that does not confuse the player (Mateas 21).
Mateas’ model of agency can be used to analyze to what degree Halo provides an opportunity for the player to experience agency. Mateas tells us that “a player will experience agency when there is a balance between the material and formal [affordances]” (Mateas 25). Formal affordances are the plot and story framework that make certain player actions desirable or interesting to the player. For instance, the formal constraints of Halo might state that the player cannot talk to alien lifeforms. The material affordance of being able to shoot and exchange weapons, however, is allowed (and encouraged) by the formal affordances (Mateas 26). This model illuminates the problem of options in an interactive framework. A game cannot offer every possible conceivable action to the player, either because of complication, time, or controls, and so the game must provide formal constraints that limit what the player will want to do within the story and also material affordances that allow the player to carry out actions. This balance is evident in Halo and therefore is ripe for analysis therein. One area where Halo breaks from the usual mold in terms of formal affordances (if only a little) is that it allows the player to kill key characters. Although the player cannot continue the game after killing Captain Keyes in the first level (because Marines will enter the bridge and kill the player), they are nevertheless able to kill the captain. One of the more famous affordances in Halo is provided by the physics system. Although the player is hurt (or killed) by long falls, they can be survived by landing on slanted surfaces or on a certain power-up. The formal constraints for each level often have an obvious way to do them, but the material constraints allow for creativity without breaking the formal constraints. This has helped Halo remain widely played despite its age. On the other hand, Halo does not always provide material affordances that would seem available from the formal constraints. For instance, the Covenant Wraith (the alien tank) cannot be driven by the player, despite the fact that he or she can drive most other vehicles in the game. Interestingly, this oversight does not imply that affordances cannot help explain Halo’s success because the feature was begged for and added in Halo 2.
Another issue very important to agency is that of cut-scenes. Cut-scenes switch the player’s point of view and display a non-interactive sequence. “The loss of agency is clear because we have taken away the very mechanism by which the player expresses that agency: the fact that the joystick controls what the character sees and does” (Noyle 2). This is a very serious issue, especially in first-person games. Halo has many cut-scenes, yet it also has a few traits that mitigate this violation of agency. The most destructive cut-scenes to a player’s sense of agency are those which show the player’s character acting in a manner that the player wouldn’t want to do if they were still in control. For instance, surrendering to the enemy or giving up a powerful weapon are situations that most players would not do if given the choice. These sorts of cut-scenes are very rare in Halo because of a few design decisions. First, the player’s avatar, the Master Chief, is a military subordinate (at least to the characters who tell him what to do), which means that most players will agree with (or understand) the goals that are set by Cortana or Captain Keyes. Indeed, the decisions are usually either only suggestions or are logical to the player (given that the player is interested in saving the human race). Similarly, the knowledge of the player is kept the same as the knowledge of his or her character (the Flood outbreak or the discovery of the halo’s power for instance), which means that the player has a higher chance of making the same decision as the plot requires him or her to make. In addition, Halo cut-scenes usually involve very little dialogue from Master Chief and are almost always concise, smart, and cool, traits that gamers wish they had themselves. Finally, Master Chief is different from most video game heroes in that his face has never been revealed. In combination with previous two points, this fact means that players more easily identify with their character, reducing the chance of cut-scene violations of agency.
In this paper, I have shown that a narratology-based analysis of a popular game can produce worthwhile insights that would otherwise have been ignored if we had focused purely on ludology. Immersion and agency, although founded in written fiction and cyberdrama, can nevertheless help us to focus the debate about how to scrutinize video games. Also, story and other non-gameplay facets of games clearly are important to both the success and analysis of a game. Hopefully this paper has shed light on one aspect of the discussion and will help games give birth to a framework all their own. Until the industry matures further, theoretical framing should be restrained and more practical analysis of popular games taken up. The design-test-refine process of game development should be used for developing a viable framework of game study, not the top-down repurposing advocated by some theorists.
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