Should videogame narratives be considered art? Over the past decade some scholars of literature, game studies, and philosophy have grappled with this question. I didn’t mean to do it too, but my avatar Yvois unwittingly got herself in a jam that prompted the question. I felt compelled to investigate it. After her narrative, I point out aspects of several articles that shed light on ways in which game narratives are art in their own special ways.
Teldrassil is an enormous tree that rises out of the Veiled Sea. A lush island sits atop its branches, the homeland of the night elves. I was born in its capital, Darnassus, but recently left the city to train as a mage among the mighty trees of Teldrassil’s forests.
As a night elf, my primary mission is to help maintain the balance of nature. As a novice mage, I’m a student of arcane magic, which draws on the forces of nature, like fire and frost. Arcane is morally neutral but also seductive, wielded too often to satisfy an elf’s own appetites and lust for power, or so it was in the past. Eons ago the night elves outlawed arcane because of its corrupting and destructive influence on the Highbornes. Now, however, young elf mages can train to help the community of life flourish; even so, elves who hold the past close are highly suspicious of mages.
A large part of my training involves gathering water from moonwells scattered around Teldrassil, water that comes from the Well of Eternity, the ancient source of arcane magic. As I fill each phial, I learn a little more about the moonwells and night elf history. One mentor recently told me, “Pay heed to the lessons of the moonwells, lest we find ourselves furthering our shortcomings.” And my mage trainer warned, “your path will not be an easy one.” Sure enough, I soon stumbled.
It was a lovely afternoon. Walking through the magnificent forest along a cobblestoned path, I felt quite pleased with myself. I had just completed the first moonwell ritual and was conveying the crystal phial to Corithras Moonrage in Dolanaar. Not far from that village, I saw a tall, rather scary-looking fellow off to the path’s side. He was horned, cloven footed, and covered in reddish hair. But his voice was soothing as he whispered for me to come over. He introduced himself as Zenn Foulhoof and asked if I’d gather some reagents for him. He said that if I did so, he would make me “very happy” by giving me things I’d “never dreamed of” – and he added that I should keep it a secret.
The secret part was rather curious, even a little unsettling, but I had so very little to call my own and so little experience using my new mage skills that I couldn’t resist complying. I gathered tiger fangs, spiderweb silk, and owl feathers; the tigers and spiders were especially vicious and wounded me numerous times. My three spells – frostfire bolt, frost nova, and fire blast – were still quite weak. But I managed to kill the creatures, got the stuff, and, limping back, delivered them to Foulhoof, only to be insulted: “Three cheers to the naïve and gullible!” he shouted. Then he gave me a crummy claw spell, which doesn’t do squat, and a tiny tote bag – not even a few pieces of silver.
I felt terrible. But that wasn’t the worst of it. As soon as I arrived in Dolanaar, Syral Bladeleaf took me aside to tell me that the Council of the Forest knew I’d helped an enemy of the forest, a satyr. And even if I didn’t know what he was, I should have known better than “to defile the forest by killing Nature’s creatures” without just cause. I had to redeem myself, she said, by teaching Foulhoof a lesson.
“Anything!” I replied. “Just tell me what I can do.” I was to return to the forest to gather corrupted seeds called fel cones and offer them to Foulhoof as a tasty snack. I did just that. He seemed genuinely pleased, saying, “Ah, what a sweet night elf! I knew you would come in handy!” Then he gobbled up the fel cones and – poof! – turned into a frog. Ribbit, ribbit – ha! Gotcha! The delight I took in seeing Foulhoof, now Foulfrog, hop around almost made my humiliation worth while. But, alas, I couldn’t bring the creatures I’d stalked and killed back to life.
DISCUSSION OF ASPECTS OF GAME AESTHETICS
Although I was initially interested in this starting zone’s environmental theme, the Foulhoof episode took over Yvois’ narrative. Foulhoof’s duping deeply disturbed her and put her standing with the night elves in jeopardy. She had to redeem herself, did so, and reveled in his comeuppance. Nonetheless, Foulhoof’s exploitation of her innocence left a scar that will no doubt wince a warning whenever she encounters smooth-talking devils.
The theme of exploited innocence is a fairytale staple. The Foulhoof series, for instance, parallels the Brothers Grimm version of “Little Red Riding Hood”: One fine morning Little Red’s mother asks her to take cake and wine to her sick granny. Walking along the forest path, Red encounters a wolf, who acts quite genial. She tells him where she’s going and, at his suggestion, goes off into the forest to pick flowers for granny – ignoring her mother’s warning to stay on the path. Meanwhile, the wolf scampers off to granny’s, eats her, and eats Red too shortly after she arrives. A passing hunter figures out what happened, cuts open the wolf’s belly, and out pops granny and Red. The wolf gets his due when Red and the hunter fill his belly with stones. The wolf revives, tries to run, and falls over dead. And Red vows never again to disobey her mother by wandering off the path.
Videogames as Aesthetic Experience. The parallels between Yvois’ and Red’s stories led me down the path of philosophy of literature, which eventually led to articles on game aesthetics, that is, games as works of art, including literary art. I grew increasingly interested in what scholars were saying about game narratives as art and wondered: What criteria can we use to evaluate a game narrative as artful or not? Have game narratives risen to the level of art often found in other narrative media like theater, novels, and films – or is this even a fair question to ask, given that interactivity is primary in games but not in most other narrative forms? Do some players approach the game aesthetically; if so, what counts as aesthetic play?
To attempt to answer the questions above, I refer to Phillip D. Deen’s article in the online journal Game Studies, “Interactivity, Inhabitation and Pragmatist Aesthetics” (Vol. 11.1, 2011). Taking to heart American philosopher John Dewey’s perspective in Art as Experience (1934), Deen argues that videogames are “legitimate candidates for artistic standing.” Such art, he says, resides in a game’s “structured interactions,” in the game experience it offers players. Its “aesthetic merit” differs from that of most other narrative arts: “Is the game immersive? Does it create a world? Does it allow the player to interact visually, somatically and imaginatively with that world? Does the experience of playing the game allow the player to attain a sense of organic fulfillment, harmonizing its many moments into a whole possessing its own emotional quality?”
Of course, not every player who opts for the Foulhoof quests will approach them in the same way. But the opportunity to enjoy – or at least appreciate – them visually, imaginatively, and emotionally is, in my experience, there. I as Yvois was indeed immersed in the experience, even fretted about being duped (even more so later when I learned that I could have refused to do Foulhoof’s bidding without breaking the main quest chains). For me, it was an aesthetic experience that deepened my connection to Yvois and my interest in the night elf starting zone.
Deen also addresses the issue of comparing game narratives to accepted art forms like literature, theater, and film. Taking cues from John Dewey and Henry Jenkins (specific references can be found in Deen’s article), Deen distinguishes “between ‘great’ art, which appeals to the intellect and calculates the artwork’s effect over the long term and ‘lively’ art which values immediate or spontaneous affect.” Videogames are a lively art. He goes on to say that “popular art evokes an emotional reaction and displays the vitality of American culture. It is delightful and forward-thinking, experimental yet accessible. Therefore, video games may not represent high culture, but they have an aesthetic value of their own.”
Videogames as Immersive Narrative. A good game narrative is one element of digital immersion, i.e., the “perception of being physically present in a non-physical world” and, in the case of narrative, becoming “invested in a story…similar to what is experienced while reading a book or watching a movie” (Wikipedia). “Similar to,” yes, but not at all the same. Celia Pearce in “Towards a Game Theory of Game” (electronic book review, 2004) points out that everything in games “revolves around play and the player experience”; whereas in literature and film, story is central. As such, we need “to look at narrative in a play-centric context, rather than a ‘storytelling’ context.” Moreover, she believes that “narrative games have gained such popularity… because they borrow what is engaging and interesting about other forms of narrative and use it to enhance the play experience.”
As Yvois, I interact with preprogrammed characters (NPCs) and their narratives in a mythic setting and, in the process, develop my own character within the larger story. Other players may or may not acknowledge my character’s individuality, but NPCs do; some call me “Yvois,” others “night elf” or “mage” – and occasionally “hero”). I’m praised, trained, queried, given tasks, chastised, threatened, cursed, challenged, and so on – and I sometimes take it personally, as I did on being duped. In other words, my player character is immersed in the story because she’s a part of it, an actor in it, an agent who furthers the story by living it. She and the story evolve together. Without the player character no story unfolds; without the story, there’s no role for the character to play.
And there’s a lot more to narrative immersion than that. Pearce explains and illustrates six narrative “operators” found in MMORPGs: experiential, performative, augumentary (including backstory), descriptive (retelling the story, as Yvois did), metastory (predesigned story world), and story system (rule-based, generic elements by which players create their own narratives, e.g. choice of race, class, professions, quests, dungeons, guilds, chat boxes, and so on).
Other game studies scholars might add intertextuality to Pearce’s list or include it in the augumentary category. Tanya Krzywinska, for example, in “World Creation and Lore” (Chpt. 6 in Digital Culture, Interactivity, and Play: A World of Warcraft Reader,” 2008, online here), borrows the term “geek aesthetics” to describe a game fan like me who is “enthusiastic about the lore and intertextual resonances and narrative intricacies” of a game (124). She focuses on the relationship between WoW’s mythic structures and the game-play experience. WoW draws on the myths, history, and symbols of a variety of cultures. It’s filled with allusions to movie, fairytale, mythic, literary, as well as other videogame characters and content. WoW’s rich intertextuality delights players who catch onto these allusions and who may find parallels to folkloric structures like that of “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Should videogame narratives be considered art? In short, I believe that some should – if they have the ability to immerse players in the storied world.
For those of you interested in the role of narrative and its immersive qualities in MMORPGs, I recommend checking out these and other online articles in the Game Studies journal, the electronic book review, and Digital Culture, Interactivity, and Play.