The Absurdity Of Video Game Speech

On page 141 of Noah Wardrip-Fruin's (excellent) Expressive Processing, there's discussion of a citation of from Jesper Juul:

Unlike most literary fictions, however, the worlds of many games are, in Juul's terminology, "incoherent" (which is one of the things that limits Juul's interest in discussing games in terms of narrative, as opposed to fiction). These are worlds in which significant events take place that cannot be explained without discussing the game rules, such as the many games that feature multiple and extra lives without any element of the game fiction that points towards reincarnation.

Reading this got me thinking about whether reincarnation in games is something that makes their worlds incoherent, and whether it is even a part of their worlds at all. Considering in this vein the common criticism that characters in computer RPGs repeat themselves, I saw the beginnings of a productive distinction, or rather, the application of an existing distinction: the distinction between a story and its telling (also known as that between fabula and sjuzhet). It makes more sense to think of reincarnation and dialogue repetition as extra-diegetic events, rather than as diegetic (and therefore incoherent) events, and a few examples illustrate this.

First, imagine a postmodern poem:

A: "Would you like to buy one?"

B: "No."

A: "Would you like to buy one?"

B: "No."

A: "Would you like to buy one?"

B: "No."

A: "Would you like to buy one?"

B: "No."

A: "Would you like to buy one?"

B: "Yes."

A: "That'll be $US1.50, sir."

B: "Oh, all right."

This deals with concepts of repetition, refusal and persistence, and is a bit abstract. The repeated question and answer is meaningful in light of the eventual acceptance and ultimate reluctance on the part of the consumer.

Now a conversation on a noisy bus:

A: "What kind of books do you like to read?"

B: "What?"

A: "I said, what kind of books do you like to read?"

B: "What?"

A: "What kind of books do you like to read?"

B: "WHAT?"

A: "I said, WHAT KIND OF BOOKS DO YOU LIKE TO READ?"

B: "OH. I LIKE FANTASY."

Some of the same repetition exists here, with a bit of variation thrown in, but contextually, it is no longer significant as a part of the story. If you were to ask what happened on the bus, the answer would be: someone asked what kind of books I like to read, and I answered them. You might mention something about how it was noisy and difficult to talk, but in most re-tellings (as opposed to re-enactments), the repetition itself would be omitted.

Finally, an imagined fragment from a conversation in a game:

A: "What do you want to know about?"

B: "Tell me about the invaders."

A: "The invaders came from the west and struck hard, …"

A: "What do you want to know about?"

B: "Tell me about the battle."

A: "It was a grim affair. The defenders were …"

A: "What do you want to know about?"

B: "Tell me about the invaders."

A: "The invaders came from the west and struck hard, …"

A: "What do you want to know about?"

B: "That's all that I wanted to know."

Here again we see elements of repetition. Some would say that this is a breakdown of the simulation: that the in-game character shouldn't repeat the same phrase twice, just like a real person wouldn't. But of course players don't always pay as much attention as their characters would, so the repetition serves a purpose: to allow the player to re-explore conversational topics (which is especially relevant when looking for particular details that one didn't know to look for earlier). Of course, this purpose could be served by other means, but that's beside the point. Critically, when the player tells a story of the in-game events (say, to a friend), the repetition usually doesn't feature in it. "I talked to the guard, who told me about the invaders and the battle, and then I …" When the question is "What happened?", "The guard repeated herself," is not the answer.

We can explain the differences between these examples succinctly by divorcing the stories from their tellings. In the context of reading a poem (presumably in some publication that suggests the contemporary format of the work), we know that each word or phrase is meaningful, and that repetition is not something to be ignored. Even in a novel or movie, repetition has impact: often an exact turn of phrase is used as a powerful symbolic element of such works, and it can be a subtle clue that helps us understand the plot. In these contexts, the story itself hinges on the repetition of words, and so "what happened" cannot be divorced from it.

In contrast, the context of a spoken conversation on a noisy bus implies that the repetition is unimportant to the gist of the situation. The reasons for it are clear, and ultimately these reasons, not the repetition itself, are what is relevant to the story. Repetition becomes merely one of several ways to realise that story in a concrete telling.

Finally, in the context of text being produced by a game, the considerations of system design, player freedom, and experience design inform us that such repetition is actually the norm. The player is experiencing a story through a telling that comes with the peculiarities of an interactive medium, and so the story invoked by that telling is shaped by the medium. The repetition in a game setting is completely unimportant to the story, and in fact can effectively be considered extra-diegetic (i.e. it is outside the story). In the story, the player-character talks to the guard and learns about invaders and a battle. There is no obsessive repetition of exact phrases. In the telling-through-a-game, the repetition occurs as an incidental aspect: the dialogue is repeated not because it is repeated in the story, but because such repetition is the normal way to convey the underlying story in that medium.

Once this distinction is made, we can see that all sorts of things that seem incoherent about story worlds are actually extra-diegetic. Loading saved games is one example: it's not as if the in-game character actually died (or got into some other sticky situation) and then travelled through time and/or space back to a previous state. Instead, the player has merely explored an ultimately non-viable alternate story-line, and the "real" story is getting back on-track. The (anecdotal) fact that players' recounting of their own exploits rarely incorporates loading saved games (at least, when they are telling a story of what happened in-game as opposed to when they are telling a story of their prowess as a player) backs this up.

Of course, not all gameplay-related elements are extra-diegetic, and Juul's point should be taken seriously. For example, although loading a saved game or dying and respawning are (usually) extra-diegetic, extra-life powerups that exist as items in the game world can't be explained in this way, and in these cases, the incoherency of the game world affects the story world. But ultimately, we should keep in mind the fact that stories told through games have their own conventions for the specific composition of their tellings, and applying the conventions of some other medium, like literature or film, can make it unclear exactly which elements are actually part of the story. It has been pointed out that such extra-diegetic wrinkles of the telling are not always completely irrelevant to the story. For example, the extra-diegetic fact that the player died many times when completing a particular part of a level probably also colours that player's perceptions of that part of the story (such frequent deaths might reinforce the fact that the hero's ultimate diegetic actions (making it through that gauntlet) were extremely difficult). This influence doesn't mean that the deaths themselves are diegetic events, however. For example, a very similar thing occurs in films when a slow-motion effect is used: the effect is an extra-diegetic artefact (but a crucial part of the telling of the story) which colours that telling and communicates extra information to the viewer, but it's not as if time in the story world actually passed slower during the slowed-down moments of the film. The difference between re-telling the story of a game and telling a story about the play of a game is important here. When you're explaining the plot of a game to a friend, you're re-telling the story of the game, and it is in this setting that things like deaths and repeated dialogue are rarely referenced. When you're telling a friend about your experience of playing a game, you're instead telling a story of what happened to you while playing the game, a story in which the in-game story often features as a prominent part. But that in-game story is now hypodiegetic–an embedded story–and the re-told events of dying and respawning remain external to it.

Republished with permission.

Peter Mawhorter has a bachelors in Computer Science from Harvey Mudd College, and is now a first-year PhD student at UC Santa Cruz. He works in the Expressive Intelligence Studio, applying artificial intelligence to games and storytelling, which gives him the time and motivation to think critically about games from a variety of viewpoints.


Comments

    Wasn't the guy in the second picture a boss?

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