January 10, 2005

Aarseth’s Anti-Quest

by Nick Montfort · , 2:07 pm

After this latest salvo, will the sjuzet need a health pack?

Espen Aarseth declares on the first page of “Quest Games as Post-Narrative Discourse,” his article in Narrative across Media: “The thought that these complex media [MMORPGs] can be understood by any existing media theory, such as narratology, which was developed for a totally different genre, grows more unlikely with every stage of the ongoing computer evolution.” I found this statement both potentially misleading and slightly amusing…


Misleading, because I think it is quite hard to find any narratologists – certainly Marie-Laure Ryan, the editor of that volume, would not be among them – who believe that narratology is the single, total approach that will provide a complete understanding of MMORPGs or other forms of digital media. Amusing, because the text of Aarseth’s article up to that point mentions how the GNP of EverQuest compares with those of the world’s nations and is otherwise replete with references to economics, a discipline that certainly pre-dates MMORPGs and was developed for a totally different genre. Indeed, a few pages later Aarseth even mentions that the progressive, episodic, and segmented nature of games like Half-Life is due in part to memory constraints (something that is true of the breakup of Zork I-III, also), and thus “what may seem like a narrative structure is also an economic one.”

Clearly, we will need several approaches to understand digital media, but it seems likely that we will be able to find some useful ideas in disciplines that were formed before the modern video game, including not only narratology, economics, and semiotics, but, dare I say, even antique disciplines such as computer science.

Aarseth believes that “the prevalent view among academic commentators of computer games seems to be that the games are (“interactive”) stories, a new kind of storytelling that can nonetheless be analyzed and even constructed using traditional narratology.” For those who do believe that – maybe these guys, based on that domain name that they have – his article will indeed be valuable reading. It points out how those narratological approaches that are insensitive to the nature of computer games (their performative nature; the players’ ability to make choices, to configure, to operate literal machines) are, at best, of very limited use. While the concept of quest that is introduced in the article is certainly not developed enough at this point to challenge narrative as an explanatory structural or cognitive system, it seems like it could be the basis for further understanding of MMORPGs as well as progressive FPSs, quest-based MUDs and MOOs, adventure games, interactive fiction, and other sorts of digital media.

[*] Perhaps there is a bit more to say about the monotonously “anti-imperialist” bent of Aarseth’s First Person article, in which he denounces textual and intertextual approaches to games, even though that article repeats many of the same points. While I certainly don’t mean to say anything along the lines of “I, for one, welcome our new film studies overlords,” it seems pretty reasonable to consider that the games in the House of the Dead series and those in the Resident Evil series might have some relationship not only to other computer games and to game forms such as the shooting gallery but also, you know, to zombie movies. There are cinematic-style subtitles, numerous genre markings and conventions from exploitation horror films, and even, in some cases, the imitation of an old, scratchy print on faded film stock, meant to evoke the past. Without simply pretending that these games are pure cinema, and while acknowledging that not only bad games but also bad movies can result from too much confusion in this area, there seems to be plenty of room for an intelligent perspective on them that accounts for both the way they function and how they signify and relate to other media. Jesper Juul’s dissertation takes some important steps in this direction.

The thing is, despite the way that Aarseth clearly targets narratology in this article in Narrative across Media, I’m not sure how the discussion there refutes or in any way contributes to the sophisticated narratology-inspired work that is being done in digital media. This certainly includes Marie-Laure Ryan’s work, including her own article on digital media in that volume; it should also include Jesper Juul’s discussion of “game time,” which Juul only grudgingly confesses is an approach analogous to some of those taken in narratology; and I would hope it might include my own narratologically inspired consideration of interactive fiction. Aarseth, bringing up an overgeneralization in another recent article, his piece in First Person, goes on to admit that “most proper narratologists, who actually have to think about and define narratives in a scholarly, responsible, and accurate way, are not guilty of this overgeneralization.” I have to wonder, then: Why is most of Aarseth’s Narrative across Media article devoted to picking off straw-man pseudo-narratological arguments rather than advancing his potentially interesting quest model or addressing how to improve the valuable scholarship that has been done on the relationship between narrative and games? Why, for that matter, did Aarseth’s First Person essay seem to cover much of the same ground, discussing how adventure games are crummy (that guy who did Myst decided to start making animated movies instead of computer games, after all), how games are not primarily textual or intertextual, how naive narratological approaches aren’t effective? [*] Why is Aarseth staying in one area as if waiting for enemies or useful objects to appear, rather than actively seeking them out?

I’m afraid there’s only one explanation.

C’mon, Espen, enough of that. There’s a flag to capture, you know…