The Core of Video Games

It is strange that Espen Aarseth seems to disregard these trappings of the game in favor of analyzing the abstract models of games, stating that it means nothing to change the skin of a game.  He uses the example of chess, where the removal of the “royal theme” is “irrelevant to our understanding of chess.”  But I would submit that this only goes so far.  Chess is a simulation of war, illustrating the idea that if the ruler falls, the nation will crumble.  This idea is not necessary to knowing how to play chess, but it is necessary to understanding the deeper meaning of chess.  Contrast this with go, which is a game about taking territory.  The pieces in go are faceless, mere circular stones, illustrating that no one is more powerful than another, that it is the whole which matters.  To play go with the sort of pieces one uses in chess, which each have their own personality, would undermine the experience, the narrative created by the core gameplay.  Thus, while gameplay may be separate from what Koster might call the “staging” of the game, I would agree with Koster in saying that the two can not be completely separated in the eyes of the public.  However, while the difference may not be seen by the uninitiated player, it is important as scholars to analyze the effects these different trappings have on the game experience.

In contrast, Markuu Eskelinen analyzes video games with a matrix similar to what we have seen from Caillois, a more fluid and dynamic rubric the study of this field.    Rather than separate games based on their abstract models of play, Eskelinen goes deeper and analyzes the core aspects of a game, their spacial, causal, and temporal aspects.  By analyzing games at this level, it is possible to discuss games for which abstract models of play have not yet been developed.  Thus, whole genres of games which have yet to be developed can be discussed, and perhaps even created.  At the same time, it would be possible to determine which types of games should never even be designed, as their combination of the aforementioned factors would be so incongruous as to create a displeasing experience.  This is not to say that all great works of art have to be enjoyable, but there is certainly nothing to be gained from a poorly worded essay, or a unintentionally sloppy painting.

I suppose the big difference I see between these two points of view is, what is the core of video games? I personally agree with Eskelinen.  The trappings of a game which Aarseth discards as getting in the way of the game experience, enriches the experience of many games.  Still, it is only one aspect to be considered, a sub-element of the player’s interaction of the game, and thus should be given appropriate weight.

Though I find it interesting in light of their differing approaches that both Eskelinen and Aarseth come to the conclusion that narrative is separate from games, an unnecessary hindrance at best and a detriment to video games as a whole at worst.

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2 Responses to The Core of Video Games

  1. Mufasa says:

    I find it interesting that both Eskeline and Aarseth conclude that narrative is separate from games. While I certainly believe that an overbearing narrative can hurt a game I don’t think that narrative is necessarily a hindrance or detriment.

    In 2005 a group of students at DigiPen worked on a game they called Narbacular Drop. In it players had to use a portal system to complete the puzzles. Valve saw the great gameplay that Narbacular Drop had, and hired the entire development team. They went on to create Portal. Portal and Narbacular Drop have the same core gameplay. I’m making a note here, Portal was a huge success, Narbacular Drop was not.

    Portal built upon the foundation of Narbacular Drop. The gameplay was tweaked, and some new features, such as jumping, were added. Portal had a large amount of narrative added to it. If Eskeline or Aarseth were correct that narrative detracts from games, then we would be discussing the huge hit Narbacular Drop was and lamenting the failure of Portal. I opine that Portal was more successful because of the beautiful narrative that Valve crafted. Portal has a delicious narrative. The dialogue is full of humor, and the designers put in hundreds of little touches. I won’t go too far into detail because I don’t want to spoil Portal for those classmates who have not, but those who want to see some of the humor can click here to see .

    Narrative is not necessary for all games. Some games, such as Tetris are even deteriorated by the imposition of narrative. Video games are a sum of their parts, sometimes narrative is desired, and sometimes it is not. It is a mistake, however, to declare that narrative and games are incompatible.

  2. Sonia says:

    I disagree with Eskeline and Aarseth on their statement that narrative in a game is at best an unnecessary hindrance. While I agree that too much is annoying, narrative can in some situations improve a game. In World of Warcraft, you are given quests. Sure someone can tell me to go kill 5 deer and I’ll do it. But I will be more motivated to do it knowing that I am killing the deer so I can feed my pet. Or going on a quest with the knowledge that I am helping the Alliance/Horde. Narrative can move along a game and give the operator motivation to do a task. Although, I suppose it is a personal choice. Some say that they skip through all the cut scenes and whatnot, but I personally always enjoyed them.

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