Espen Aarseth: Narrativism and Genre Trouble

[Readings] (08.29.08, 4:42 pm)


Aarseth presents another critique of narrative theory as applied to games. He is challenging the idea that narrativism can be used to analyze anything, or more specifically, is challenging the interpretation of anything as a text. Aarseth defines a game as consisting of three elements: Rules, a semiotic system (the game world), and the resulting gameplay. The semiotic system is incidental, and may be exchanged. Knowledge of the semioitic space of the game world, or of the skin that has been applied to it is unnecessary for skill at the game itself. However, it may be necessary to better *appreciate* the game.

Aarseth’s claim about the relevance of semiotic systems to games is tricky, though. It may be possible to interchange skins on existing games, but there are further connections that are made between the world of the game and its rules and resulting gameplay. It wouldn’t make sense to place a skin on a game of chess that randomized the types of pieces. We have certain associations with the order of chess and the order of the skins that we apply to it. What we do when skinning something is drawing a metaphor. The mechanics are necessarily unchanged, but the associative meanings are different.

Aarseth is also looking to demonstrate the disconnection between games and stories. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to equate games as being narratives, especially when exploring abstract games. However, an inescapable fact is that many contemporary (especially successful commercial) games are grounded in stories. This is what Jesper Juul might call the “fiction” of the game. Aarseth proceeds to wonder what the relationship is between games and stories, whether it is a dichotomy, or a continuum or rivalry? He notes that games may be translated among game forms (Rogue and Diablo, for instance), much like narratives may be translated between narrative forms. These are structural equivalences, though: Game adaptations preserve rules, narrative adaptations preserve key events and relationships. Realistically, though, many successful narrative adaptations use much more creative approaches.

The key problem with adapting games to narratives and vice versa can be found in genre theory (John Cawleti): Underlying form cannot be translated, but style and convention may be adapted with relative ease. Aarseth gives the specific example of the Star Wars films and the various games associated with them. A genre that does try to mix the two is the adventure game, which Aarseth derails as being uninteresting, unsatisfying from gameplay perspectives, and limiting in terms of freedom.

Another domain, the simulation game, also employs story to a strong degree, but is flexible where the adventure game is not. Aarseth makes the significant claim that simulation is the core essence of games, and that games are the art of simulation. Aarseth further extends that by saying how simulation is much more satisfying and allows games to handle unusual situations that are not permitted in narratives. Adventure games have a conflict between player volition and the mechanics of the game. Aarseth claims that within simulation games, the player is afforded opportunities to counter authorial intention, that the authors of simulations are essentially removed from the work, and that players will have the last word.

Aarseth’s stance here is ludicrous. Simulation authors are capable of imposing very severe restrictions on players, and the simulation itself may be biased in its very model that defines it. Civilization used (and still uses) a very expansionist, colonialist model of history, and it is not possible for the player to thwart that ideology in any way. The only road to success is to ascribe to the ideology and act in accordance with it. The most recent release of Civilization opens up the model, so that advanced users can write new ideologies into the rules, or rip out the existing ones, but these users are not the average player. It also bears noting that in the discussion of simulation, Aarseth does not mention the Sims (though he had mentioned it earlier). Not sure what to make of that, though…

The important thing to note about comparing games and narratives, though, is to follow Aarseth’s initial focus, of looking at translatability. If we explore how narratives have been translated, adapted, and (especially) extended, it might be possible to make a not-too-revolutionary claim that many successful adaptations break many of the rules of narrative structure. A good example is Jane Austen adaptations, or extending Aarseth’s examples, one could look at Star Wars novels, and the extended universe developed around the world defined by the films. The resulting products might be narratives, but relationships might be changed, settings might be changed, characters might be changed. What has been translated might not be the narrative at all, but rather the world, or the underlying value system of the story. In this sense, we can make the claim that narratives themselves are artifacts of systems. We may not be able to adapt the narrative directly, but the elements of the system may be procedural in nature.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorAarseth, Espen
TitleNarrativisim and Genre Trouble
Tagsdms, ludology, simulation, games
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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