Games as Electronic Literature: Storytelling in Video Games Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable

The relationship between stories and games is a central concern for ludologists, as made evident in the collection of essays entitled First Person: New Media as Story Performance and Game. Contention exists regarding the function and relevance of narrative in games, as several scholars claim games are under-theorized (Eskelinen 36). While digital games do not need to tell stories to be deemed worthy of analysis, many games are comprised of narrative aspects, thus blurring boundaries between forms, and can be studied as electronic literature (Jenkins 119). The technology of the digital game allows for innovative and interactive ways of utilizing narration, incorporating elements that are unavailable in other media such as novels or films. Further, as Mary Flanagan states, games are rule-based, and thus spaces ripe with possibility of subversion (11). Analyzing unconventional digital games that incorporate narrative elements demonstrates how the technology allows for the creation of electronic literature worthy of the same degree of analysis and close reading as textual literature. In examining two unconventional first person digital games, Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable, I examine the various ways storytelling is incorporated and argue they are apt to be analyzed as electronic literature.

Game play does not provide the same experience as reading a story, but the major role storytelling plays in many digital games should not be discounted. As Eric Zimmerman writes, “We need to ask not just how games can be narrative systems, but we need to ask how games can be narrative systems in ways that other media cannot” (162). Digital games are important to consider since they incorporate distinct methods of storytelling. As digital games are interactive, agency is integral to examine when analyzing their narrative elements. Jane Murray coined the term cyberdrama—the enactment of a story in the fictional space of the computer—and there is general agreement that cyberdrama must give participants a degree of agency (Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 1). In her essay “From Game-Story to Cyberdrama,” Murray argues that games are always stories and the digital medium offers the most “building blocks of storytelling,” such as text, audio and images (2). While I disagree that all games are necessarily stories, the multitude of building blocks that provide new experiences for the participant cannot be disregarded. In his essay “Can There be a Form between a Game and Story,” Ken Perlin differentiates how agency functions in digital games and films or novels. Perlin states that the novel, or variants of the form, asks us to set aside our agency to focus on the protagonist’s struggle (14). By contrast, games do not ask us to give up our agency, but rather the game depends on it (14). Thus, games that take up elements of storytelling can play with the participant’s agency in ways that traditional literature does not often do. As Perlin notes, the immediacy and responsiveness of games are what make them appealing, while the player is in fact experiencing their own agency through their decisions and actions (14-15).

The agency of game participants is further seen upon examining the altered role of the author in digital games compared to other types of traditional storytelling. Several authors agree game designers do not act as storytellers, but can be viewed as narrative architects (Jenkins 121). As Henry Jenkins notes, examining games as spaces ripe with narrative possibility is more fruitful than analyzing games as stories (119).

As the digital medium shifts towards participation from consumption, players define their own story arc within the established space comprised of possibilities and constraints (Wright 13). While stories are often deemed as inherently linear, games are contrastingly non-linear as they depend on the player’s actions. Since stories are also often non-linear, a more significant difference between the two forms is that various participants of digital games do not necessarily undergo the same experience due to their agency. By contrast, the reader of a printed text knows it exists in a single form. While readers of the same text may have different reactions, they experience the words on the page in the same order. In digital games, however, the designer does not authoritatively narrate stories, but allows players to engage through their decisions, and thus “play” their own stories, assuming the role of the author (Wright 13). When a player assumes the role of a first-person character, they are not only watching a story unfold, but are fully immersed in it; the player’s decisions are what make the story (Mateas 20).

Just as certain forms of literature are understood as more experimental than others, digital games employ elements of storytelling in diverse ways, demonstrating the blurred boundary between forms. Since games exist as rule systems, digital games are particularly conditioned for subversive practices (Flanagan 11). As Espen Aarseth outlines, the computer is not a medium, but a technology that accommodates a range of different media without offering a set of fixed capabilities (46). Computers thus allow for innovative ways of telling stories. Murray outlines the affordances of computers, as she writes, “The computer is procedural, participatory, encyclopaedic and spatial. This means it can embody rules and execute them; it allows us to manipulate its objects; it can contain more information in more forms than any previous medium; and it can create a world we can navigate and even inhabit as well as observe” (8). Since these characteristics are beneficial to both games and stories, digital games present spaces ripe with opportunities for storytelling (Murray 8). Analyzing how specific computer games take up these various affordances and integrate elements of narration demonstrates the range of ways storytelling functions in games and how they can be understood as electronic literature.

Dear Esther is an example of a first person digital game that is highly invested in storytelling to the degree where some question its category as a game. At the start of the game, the player chooses which chapter to begin with, signifying its connection to narration early on. Each chapter is set in a distinct setting on an island, which the player is free to explore. In contrast to other video games, the player is not presented with detailed rules and never interacts with other characters, while the main objective is to explore. As the player navigates each chapter, letters addressed to a woman named Esther appear in text and play in a voice-over. While telling a story, the letters also reveal information on the setting and give insight into where the player might hear further fragments of the letters and thus continue the story. While this game is strongly focused on narration, it is still nonlinear as the order in which the letters appear depend on where the player chooses to walk. Since the participant can explore the chapters freely, each player’s experience with the game is different. Though seemingly more like a story than a game, this distinct style of narration would not be possible through merely textual storytelling, thus Dear Esther blurs the barriers between the forms.

One reason why Dear Esther’s classification as a game is disputed is the player’s questionable sense of agency. While the player explores freely on their own and autonomously decides where to travel, they are limited in how they can fully experience the game. For instance, if the player wanders off in certain areas or has difficulty knowing where they are expected to go next, they miss out on certain letters and thus important elements to the story. The player does not have much influence on how the game transpires, as in the last chapter, they must travel uphill to reach the planned conclusion. Once at the very top near a radio mast, the player loses their agency as, while still in first person, they observe the character climb to the top then plunge down, as the voice-over continues playing. The player’s actions do not affect whether or not the game ends this way, and additionally, if the player did not know they had to reach this destination, they would not experience the intended ending. Nonetheless, the game is worth examining as electronic literature since it plays with the form’s conventions and engages in storytelling in a way only possible through a digital platform.

While Dear Esther challenges conventional gameplay, it can still be categorized as a game according to Zimmerman’s primary defining elements (160). The elements he lists are voluntary, interactive, behaviour-constraining rules, artificiality, conflict and quantifiable outcome. For instance, the participant voluntarily plays Dear Esther, which is in an interactive mode. While players do not have as many choices as in other games, they are still fully immersed in the game space through the first person perspective, rather than only observing events. Dear Esther does not entail many player-constraining rules, yet the player is still restricted to viewing their surroundings and expected to follow the letters’ hints to continue exploring all possible elements of the game world. In terms of the element of artificiality, Dear Esther takes place in the visually appealing setting that immerses the player, taking them out of reality while in game. Further, the conflict in Dear Esther is not dependent on the player’s interactions with obstacles, but is based in the narration, between the anonymous voice who is writing the letters, other characters he mentions, and Esther, who is presumed to be his late wife. The quantifiable outcome, or end result, of Dear Esther breaks from convention since the player does not necessarily win or lose, but rather comes to the planned conclusion of the game. Dear Esther is a game that primarily focuses on storytelling, blurring the line between the two forms and demonstrating the ways game designers can create electronic literature.

Another example of an unconventional game that challenges the traditional role of the narrator is The Stanley Parable. This game contrasts Dear Esther in that the player’s decisions are what generate the story, rather than the player needing to adhere to the pre-conceived narrative. Like Dear Esther, there is a narrator, but contrastingly, the player can react against him and change the course of the game. The Stanley Parable is an important game to consider since it deals with the notions of choice and agency, which are significant in the analysis of games. Using the interactive functions available to digital games, The Stanley Parable urges the player to question their agency. Stanley, as described by the narrator in the game’s introduction, is an office employee who pushes buttons into a computer all day and loves receiving orders. One morning, he finds himself in complete isolation at the office with no one to give him instructions on what to do. After the narrator states that Stanley got up and stepped out of his office, the player then becomes in control of Stanley’s actions and thus able to play the story. The narrator then dictates what Stanley did, prompting the player to follow the described actions. When the player does not follow the narrator’s instructions, however, he urges the player to listen to him. The more the player defies the narrator, the more frustrated and sarcastic he becomes, mocking Stanley, or the player, for not being able to follow directions, then restarts the game. The Stanley Parable is thus structured to be replayed numerous times, where each experience differs according to the player’s decisions, as made evident in the text that appears when the game is loading, “The end is never.” Like Dear Esther, players do not all undergo the same venture, but “play” their own stories, thus redefining the role of the author.

Commenting on the nature of gameplay, The Stanley Parable explores the theme of agency and portrays choice as an illusion. The many possible endings of the game can be analyzed through close reading, as scholars would examine literature. The game seems to be commenting on choice in games, and questioning whether a player’s sense of freedom is ever real due to the existing game structure. In this way, the distinction between stories and games is blurred. For instance, when the player follows the narrator’s directions, they end up gaining freedom by escaping the office, but paradoxically remain under the control of the narrator. The Stanley Parable also subverts the authority of the author, as the player is listening to a story, yet can rewrite it according to how they choose to play. Further, the dynamics between the narrator and the player demonstrate that the narrator needs the player for the game to function. When the player just stands still during the game, for instance, the narrator sarcastically remarks on Stanley’s lack of action. More than just entertainment, the game employs storytelling conventions while urging the player to consider the nature of digital games.

As several authors of the collection of essays First Person state, digital games have yet to be written about extensively. In responding to the divisive question regarding the relationship between stories and games, the contributors raise many thought-provoking claims. In the first-person games Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable, storytelling functions in ways only possible through the technology of the digital game. Their blending of narration and interactivity blur the boundary between the forms. Due to its range of functions in incorporating narrative elements, digital games are important to consider as forms of literature, requiring a high level of close reading and analysis.

Works Cited

Flanagan, Mary. “Introduction to Critical Play.” Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press, 2009. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 14 March 2016.

Harrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, eds. First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2004. Print.

Aarseth, Espin. “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation.” Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 45-55.

Eskelinen, Markku. “Towards Computer Games Studies.” Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 36-44.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architectue.” Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 118-130.

Mateas, Michael. “A Preliminary Poetics for Interactive Drama and Games.” Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 19-33.

Murray, Jane. “From Game-Story to Cyberdrama.” Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 2-11.

Perlin, Ken. “Can There Be a Form Between a Game and a Story?” Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 12-18.

Wright, Will. Response. Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 12-14.

Zimmerman, Eric. “Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four Naughty Concepts in Need of Discipline.” Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 154-164.

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