Narrative? No Thank You.
In “The Sands of Time: Crafting a Video Game Story,” Jordan Mechner offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of video game creation. He describes the relative importance of various elements and what makes characters memorable, but his various musings about game design are perhaps not the most interesting feature of the work. What’s most appealing is that his conception of narrative and gaming is exactly in line with Azuma’s theories regarding database, narrative, and otaku culture. These striking similarities allow us to draw useful parallels between otaku culture and computer media/gaming at large.
For example, Mechner essentially describes a database structure with concentric rings, but here, the innermost layer is not that of character traits or chara-moe (as in Azuma) but that of gameplay. Gameplay is made up of the actions that players can perform, such as exploration or combat. The author, in fact, acknowledges this directly when he asserts that most importantly, the gameplay would involve acrobatic exploration, combat, and one “cool, original feature,”; only after these elements were set could the story and characters be created: “The challenge for the writer is to invent a story that will fit this gameplay, making the most of its strengths without highlighting its limitations” (112). From this insight, we begin to see that fans, for the most part, choose a game for the type of gameplay experience they will get and not necessarily because of the game’s linear narrative. Of course, all of the elements, including the story, are important, but those outside the gameplay are not the foundation.
What’s perhaps most intriguing about this similarity in database structure is that the innermost layer of database is interchangeable, and this interchangeability probably speaks greatly to why certain people are drawn to one form of media and not another. Of course, it’s difficult to posit what kinds of people would be drawn to which types of media without making large generalizations that might be unfair, harmful, or exclusive, but overall we might look for trends that could be useful in understanding where a particular media form is going or what it could do to help or hinder in areas of life (the social, for instance, or the industrial).
But to move beyond group mentalities, I think we might also see how the similarities in database structure reinforce Azuma’s animality at the higher level: the inclusive group of all media users. The gameplay database, the character database—they’re ways of making meaning that aren’t about a grand narrative but rather the smaller, random, database-driven narratives that can be personalized to the user. So, in this way, we might find in Mechner’s ideas an endorsement of Azuma, who writes: “To this extent, the functions of moe-elements in otaku culture are not so different from those of Prozac or psychotropic drugs. I believe the same observation can be made of some trends in the entertainment industry, such as Hollywood films and techno music” (94). Here, the game is the palliative for postmodern angst, the playable features providing a sense of purpose that’s rebuilt again and again, endlessly, from the random database.
Perhaps (though media seems to change with rapidity) the more things change — the more they stay the same.
Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Mechner, Jordan. “The Sands of Time: Crafting a Video Game Story.” Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, Harrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, editors, The MIT Press, 2010, pp. 111-120.