Week 5 of “Understanding Video Games”, a University of Alberta Course offered by Leah Hackman and Sean Gouglas through Coursera, focuses on “stories and games” with 7 videos.
- Role-playing Games (14:16) — This is an overview of RPGs in general, including D&D, Ultima, Quest for Glory, Final Fantasy, etc. to illustrate sweeping storylines with common structural building blocks (character, plot, genre). For me, I’m more interested in the story elements of the game (narratology) over the game mechanics (ludology).
- Character (7:16) — This video explain the analytical framework from standard literary concepts (protagonist hero, antagonist villain, tritagonist third person narrator/expositor or sidekick). Pretty basic.
- Plot (19:21) — This video elaborates the framework to go from chronicle (facts) to plot where events are linked and show causation, but not necessarily linearly (more so on average than other forms of entertainment). It also argues that you can use the classic 3-part (beginning, middle, end) or 5-part dramatic arc (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement). However, there is a really cool interview with a Mass Effect writer and how they handled multiple branching storylines (it’s an illusion using two people who are always the drivers of a conversation, and the third wheel can be any other character who may or may not join the conversation, but allows the illusion of total differentiation based on which characters survive to that scene vs. the reality that it is still tightly controlled narrative/dialogue).
- Genre (4:15) — It’s a very short video, mostly to introduce the idea of viewers/players bringing certain expectations to certain genres, and the ability to suspend disbelief. Pretty basic.
- The Hero’s Journey (29:22) — The big video is an overview of Joseph Campbell’s male-dominated monomyth, which serves as a for growth. The monomyth has three main components…the departure (call to adventure, refusal of the call and punishment like woman-in-the-refrigerator, supernatural aid, crossing the threshold / overcome guardian, and belly of the whale), the initiation (road of trials with everything familiar gone to allow capacity development, meeting with the powerful goddess and getting a gift and/or experiencing love, the temptress to give it up, atonement with the father, apotheosis/acceptance of terrible truth with sacrifice, ultimate boon to achieve inner peace), and the return (refusal of the return, magic flight, rescue from without, crossing the return threshold to show independence, master of two worlds, and accept reward/freedom to live). While I see the truth of the criticisms of the model (default male-orientation, the open-endedness as it includes everything, and its misuse as prescriptive storytelling), it’s a pretty powerful story arc for the true “hero’s journey”.
- Games Aren’t Books (17:37) — The video raises the question of how interactivity can violate literary theory, such as Campbell’s monomyth while noting that all media is interactive in some form.
- Branching Narrative (8:39) — This video gives an overview of hypertext fiction/interactive fiction/ text-based adventures linked to the development of branching narratives.
Overall, the two big pieces I liked this week was Campbell’s breakdown, partly as a huge majority of games follow the hero’s journey arc, and the interview with the software designer and how they faked some aspects of differentiation and customization/interactivity.