Narration, Cinema, and Video Games

Narration, Cinema, and Video Games

So, I’m watching a video showing a conference, in french, about narrative design, talking, among other things, about an opposition between video games and cinema. And suddenly, « oooh it makes me wonder… ».

And while there are many things i would have to say about what was being said in the conference, the first main question to me is how narration in video games is analysed by people, especially academics who seem more familiar with other medias (not talking about you Karim! Keep up the good stuff you’re doing!).

Given the few people I’ve heard talking about this subject (not necessarily in this conference, but also in the Festival des Scénaristes, in Valence, France), I think this perspective (looking at narration in video games as you would do in the field of the cinema or TV) not the best way to analyse things: thinking or analysing narration in video games with a set of parameters coming from other medias prevents us to understand narration in video games. And as they quickly mention at the end of the conference, to me, analysing video games with only a narrative perspective is not a good way to study video games.

The first dichotomy

If you were in a wild west saloon playing cards with your cow-boy friends, while a story is taking place just beside you, let’s say, people starting to argue and shooting guns, you would have a choice;

  • Either you’re looking at what’s happening, and you stop playing
  • Or you keep playing and you don’t care about what’s happening around you
  • Or, you try to play while following what’s happening, and you’ll probably be very bad at what you play, and do not understand very well what’s happening.

Of course, some people can do both, better than others. And, of course, doing one of these doesn’t mean you can’t do the other just seconds later.

And that’s video games. You can have narration, you can have gameplay. You can have both in the same game, but having both at the same time is at best, risky. Which means you’ll have most of the time a dichotomy between gameplay moments and things like cutscenes where you don’t play, or just push a button once in a while, which will contain most if not all of the narration of the game (it can be dialogs, cutscenes, the moment of a nuclear explosion in the background, etc.).

Therefore, most of the time, narration will be some sort of short films inside more or less large gameplay phases.

Narration in gameplay phases

Still in the conference I mention at the beginning of the article, they talk about « auto-generative » narration, especially for gameplay moments, like by exploring the hills of Skyrim outside any quest, you build your own story, maybe the story of your character, which can be shared as a story in youtube videos or forums. Same for games without narration, like Football Manager: what you do in the game as a player can be told to your friends (example mentioned in the conference, link at the top of this article).

While I would not call that: « narration » (but that’s a detail, since, to a certain extent, I hate focusing on semantic when trying to analyse something, because I think semantics is often a result of the analysis not a tool to produce items that will lead the analysis), my point is I both agree and don’t agree with all this.

First, because this narration, these « auto-generative » stories that are mentioned here, are not, to me, part of the game. They are another work, another piece of art maybe, other stories. They are linked to the original game only because of the environment and laws/rules in it. And if this is enough to consider the stories are all part of the game, then all stories ever writted which take place in the real world, or for example « a » real world should be considered as part of the same piece of art, e.g. the first story ever written in this environment. But this is not the case.

So, to me, auto-generative narration by players is not part of the game. It’s their own, different, stories.

What about the game’s own narration in gameplay phases? Well the story often « pauses » while you’re exploring/killing stuff, even while you’re just moving your mouse around on the screen to search for interactable objects. Of course I can’t think of all existing games, maybe some of them can tell the story while you’re actually playing. And no I’m not talking about Quick Time Events games.

Even when you’re walking around in Skyrim and you see NPCs walking around and talking to each other, even saying « hi » to you, this is not the narration moving forward, this is a loop where the world/story is « paused » until you do something special to push it forward.

And even when the story is moving forward while you’re moving your character, we’re still in the same situation than the card game in the saloon. Playing or watching.


So, playing requires and monopolizes touching and seeing, what’s left? Smelling? Not in video games (yet?), tasting (not in video games yet too) and… hearing.

So, ideally you could hear the story moving forward while playing. Therefore the video games narrative aspect will be a little separated to the cinema which it is often considered to be closed to. And it would mean that the narration « heard » would have to be heavily linked to what the player is doing, otherwise we have the same dichotomy than before: the audio will be another piece of art, and another story, than the game itself.

What narration then?

I don’t know.

I think narration in video games is essentially separated from the game aspect. Let’s say it this way: there is the video, and there is the game. And video games would be a juxtaposition of the two.

Can I just imagine something? What if the mechanics of the game were so heavy, so complex, that what is coded in the game is not a story, but rules, and by playing the rules, you alter the behaviours of NPCs, alter the way the kingdom is ruled, etc. and provoke the end of the world? Or the death of someone beloved who would have remained alive if you had played differently?

Of course all of the dialog lines etc. would be coded (or maybe generated with some cognitive linguistics AI?), but I mean, no storyline would pre-exist, but a real complex storyline would come out of the players’ actions, only by programming the rules of the world, either physics, personalities, politics, etc. And depending on the player, the story in the end could be great or pointless. Just as a movie or a book. And would be different each time.

What…? This is The Sims, and other management games? Huh, okay then.

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