Blog Post #11

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.

Sands_of_time_cover

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.

Change

Works Cited:

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 MediaHarrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, editors, The MIT Press, 2010, pp. 111-120.

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4 thoughts on “Blog Post #11

  1. I was very intrigued by your post. This bit in particular “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.” Games like Heavy Rain are very story driven, where the protagonist interacts with characters to uncover clues. And when video games put out commercials many of them focus on the storyline rather than gameplay in order to sell the game. RPGs like Final Fantasy make their bread and butter out of their storylines, as, especially in older games, the monster battles were not all that exciting. One continued playing in order to discover what was going to happen to the characters. I would disagree with your assertion to say that some games are marketable simply because of the gameplay (Tetris, Katamari), but others find their draw in the narrative.

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    1. Good counterpoint. I will admit to being out of my depth when it comes to video games, as my experience is pretty much limited to old Castlevania titles. I wonder how this type of argument would extend to Azuma….

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      1. Melissa,
        Just like Ashley’s reaction, my head snapped up with the line about fans choosing gameplay over story. I was also curious about what Mechner meant by starting with the gameplay. He says that, “gameplay isn’t there to serve the story; it’s the other way around.” That clarifies his point, I think; and, it ties in with the point the book’s editors made in the introduction – the difference between play and story. They might fit together, but they don’t have to. As we know, there are a lot of different kinds of games. Some are more narrative-ish than others (I think that was Ashley’s point), but there are enough kinds of games for everyone to be satisfied. The mistake is trying to apply the same approach or focus to all of them. I am not a hardcore gamer at all, but I know what kinds of games I like and the gameplay is always going to be a major selling point for me. However, all things being equal, a good story just makes it that much more fun. But, now that I think about it, I would probably rank it (in terms of what’s most important to me) – gameplay, graphics, story. As usual, you have a great post and discussion.

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  2. I love that you pulled Azuma into this. His theories of database did fit nicely. I pretty much just skimmed this article when we read, so it was nice to read your take on it. I think the different takes on database were my favorite part of the semester, so this dovetails great with my favorite aspect of our study this semester.

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