Pride and Prejudice Game

[General,Research] (01.22.09, 12:50 am)


In order to adapt a fictional world, it is necessary to adapt the world’s model. Discerning and constructing a model is a complex and delicate act, and it requires creativity and agency. This process, as a subset of adaptation, falls within the broad category of translation. Modern theories of translation are varied, but to guide my approach to adaptation, I will borrow from the position popularized by Itamar Even-Zohar and Gideon Toury that a text should be understood as having a relationship and life within a culture, and that to translate a work is to continue that text through time. Adaptation specifically not only continues the text through time, but also through media. Adaptations subject texts to the affordances and constraints of different media, letting the source text not only live in a new era, but also be seen in a new light, from many perspectives. Throughout these translations and adaptations, there is something, some essence of the original text that is preserved. That essence is the model that underlies the world in which the text takes place. Model is a term that I am borrowing from mathematics, indicating a formal and causal structure which illustrates the values and possibilities of the world, of which the course of the text is but one outcome.

The particular perspective that I am espousing for this particular work, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is that of a videogame. This is, a seemingly unusual direction to take Austen’s work, but there are many reasons why such a project is a viable, and even ideal. I will start with the political reasons, as these are my driving motivations on this project.

Political Motivations

Genre is a significant problem with popular games. Many if not most games developers feel limited to a few narrow genres that seem to dominate the medium, especially in consumer publications. Games that are not sports, first person shooters, massively multiplayer, simulation, real time strategy, rhythm games, Japanese style roleplaying, fantasy adventures, or platformers, tend to be cast as oddities. This brief list includes genres that are defined both by mechanics, interaction, as well as themes, which is fine because this is largely how games tend to be marketed. The domains of political and casual games are important and growing, but are still popularly considered outliers. This casting does not prevent new genres for forming or becoming popular. Both Guitar Hero and Grand Theft Auto 3 were medium defining products. However, there is still a prevalent sense within the game industry that genre boundaries cannot be blurred. This restraint is severely limiting to developers and presents a new subset of problems.

In the case of adaptation, many games are adapted from fiction and film, a tradition that goes back all the way to the Atari 2600 days. This practice remains strong today, and one of the chief expenses of the mainstream game industry is purchasing the rights to intellectual property. However, among these games, the genres are even more narrow. Almost all games that are adapted tend to be action style games, adapted from action or adventure films, with elements of shooters or platformers. In terms of the scope of possible adaptations, this field is extremely narrow. While Joseph Campbell’s monomyth is broad, it is far from universality or majority in culture. Many films and narratives are made which exist outside of this tiny scope. These remain inaccessible until new methods for adaptation are formed.

Not all games aspire towards artistic expression, and not all game developers or designers see art practice as the essence of their work. I think that they would consider games a medium though, and while expression may not be a central goal of creating an artifact in a medium, it is a consequence. A vocal subset of game designers have realized that this expression something over which they can exert authorial and artistic intent, and have encouraged games acceptance to this end. Some of these practitioners have created works with wild success, and while popular recognition of these artistic elements is growing, the community which is receptive to these artistic intentions is eclectic. Avant garde is a form of artistic practice which could never be popular due to its nature, but games must find some stage between popularity, entertainment, and artistic legitimacy in order to move forward.

The most searing indictment against mainstream games, at least in terms of legitimacy, is gender. Even beyond products marketed explicitly towards the “hardcore gamer” demographic, much of gaming community is composed of adolescent males, and this culture has created a perpetuating, misogynistic environment that is actively hostile to women. A medium cannot attain legitimacy if it excludes half of the population, and the juvenile culture and reputation only harms the chances of games being taken seriously as a medium. This indictment applies to the mainstream game industry, as notable exceptions occur with products such as The Sims and the category of casual games.

Adaptation of sources that lie outside of the narrow genres of action and adventure, specifically those in traditionally female dominated narratives is the answer to unlocking the puzzle of genre and legitimacy.

But: Why Jane Austen?

Jane Austen is an unlikely but surprisingly ideal candidate for adaptation. One of the reasons for this is because her books have a strong history of adaptation. In fact, there seems to be an entire culture built around recreating the works of Jane Austen. Despite her reputed stuffiness, her works and the adaptations thereof are unexpectedly mainstream. We feel this influence most strongly in film, especially in explicit adaptations which are set historically. There are also a number of works which are adaptations, but cast Austen’s values in contemporary settings, where they remain surprisingly coherent. Examples of these contemporary adaptations are the 1995 film Clueless, and Helen Fielding’s book Bridget Jones’s diary. These adaptations are important because they do not cast Austen’s world in terms of its representational elements, but rather, in terms of its values and mechanics.

The other remarkable quality of Austen’s world is that it has had a propensity for extension. Austen was succeeded by a number of other authors (although admittedly much less talented), who saw fit to write sequels to her novels. This practice may be thought of as a sort of contemporaneous fan fiction. This sort of extension is not unique to Austen, especially as there are other authors, especially in pulp fiction who collaborated and built upon each others’ worlds. A good example of this practice comes from H.P. Lovecraft, whose contemporaries extended his world as well as his particular style and formula for writing. Austen’s culture of adaptation can be thought of as extending her world and values.

A final reason why Pride and Prejudice (and Austen in general) is an ideal candidate for adaptation comes from the structure of the book itself. The plot of the story revolves around Elizabeth Bennett, the second of five daughters. The problem with this situation is that the family property has been entailed, meaning that it must pass to a male heir. Thus, whenever Mr. Bennett dies, then the entire family will be without property and cast into poverty. This premise sets up a perfect stage for a game. The player, as Elizabeth Bennet, must navigate a social landscape, make careful choices, and attempt to become successful in the world’s three currencies: money, status, and love.

Despite the textual nature of Austen’s writing, her world continues to be popular and engaging. The culture of adaptation surrounding Austen suggests that her world continues beyond the form of the novel in which it was first revealed to us. If we are to adapt Austen, we must adapt her world, and to do that, we must adapt the world’s model. In this process of adaptation, we aim to transfer the essence, the living matter that makes Austen’s world so vibrant, from one medium into another. This new medium has its own affordances and structures, so the transference must be extremely careful, in order to find ways that the source can be well connected to the new medium. The model of Pride and Prejudice is well suited to adaptation into game mechanics. But in order to see precisely why this is the case, it is necessary to examine the model of the world in detail.

The Model and Mechanics of Pride and Prejudice

If we believe that Austen’s world has a model in the first place, then it must be expressible in some sort of formal and relational structure. I use the term model in the sense borrowed from mathematics. I will not examine a comprehensive definition of models in this paper, but I will rather use a loose one. A model is a formal structure (meaning that it can be written down mathematically or programatically) which describes the states and possible behaviors of a system. The notion of system as used here is very broad, denoting the entire story world, including all of its characters, places, and events. In this section, I want to focus on the mechanics, specifically. This is the aspect of the model that informs how states change and what sorts of things happen.

To think about mechanics in a literary world is to think about the sorts of things that happen in that world. There are two issues at stake with this: One is to look at climactic or dramatic events, and the other is to look at the mundane, everyday events. A accurate portrayal of mechanics must involve both. In many projects to explore dramatic domains, the focus has been to examine dramatic events only. Narrative tends to exert a sort of dramatic compression, where a lot of information, the boring content that is unnecessary or distracting from the dramatic elements is excised. Story generation programs struggle with this, because computationally there is a fine line between dramatic compression and incoherence. However, within texts, there are backgrounds, and it is these backgrounds that help fill in and flesh out the world, making it engaging and believable. In a world that is simulated, the relationship between dramatic and mundane events resembles the relationship in film rather than the stage. Backgrounds are fleshed out with participating individuals, but only a few take up focus.

some sort of negotiation and compromise between dramatic and mundane elements to the world must be employed. If all mundane elements are removed, then the story will devolve into a plot, which would be dry, formulaic, and removed from the elements of the living world. If there were no compression at all, the matter of relevance and significance of events would be muddled among a blur noise and tangential events. Thus, both dramatic events and non-dramatic events must be at play in the model. Non dramatic events tend to fill in the background, to create a sense of environment, in which the dramatic events are situated. In his essay “Where the Action Is” Erving Goffman gives a typology of actions: Actions are either consequential or inconsequential, and they can be either problematic or unproblematic. Dramatic actions are consequential and usually problematic. Mundane actions are unproblematic.

Characters also adhere to an elaborate social code. Social interaction has a scripted and ritual structure. These rituals range from the small and simple, such as a conversation, a meal, or a card game, to the moderate, a social visit, or an extended visit, a ball, to the very broad, of which the best and primary example is courtship. These rituals have an explicit structure, and are understood as symbolic elements of the literary world, but they are also flexible. What is important in a simple ritual is partly the significance of the ritual itself, but also (and primarily) the conduct of the characters involved. Additionally, some rituals may include choices, and there are methods and formulas for making those choices that are consistent with the ritual structure. Rituals may be violated, and while it is rare in short rituals, moderate and extended ones experience all manner of violations, which is the cause of a great deal of social distress and embarrassment. I mentioned earlier that the three forms of currency in Pride and Prejudice are money, love, and status. Status is harmed by erring in or violating these rituals.

Ritual can be well understood using the language of performance, especially as explored by Goffman and Schechner. Given other performance oriented theories relating to computation, digital media, and roleplaying games, this seems like an appropriate tool to use. Goffman’s theory of performance also lays out mechanics for the functions of deference, demeanor, and embarrassment. These theories place great emphasis on conduct and enactment, which seems to be in key with the way that characters must act in Austen’s literary world.

To model the mechanics of a fictional world, we must understand what things can happen within the world. In this section, we have outlined an approach to looking at how things happen, using the method of performance.

Being There

In the overall goal of adaptation of a story world into a game, the reader must be transformed into a player. It is possible to give the player the seat of a spectator, where the world unfolds and takes place, giving the player control over certain influences, or direct control over all of the characters, much like in The Sims, but that does not seem consistent with the way in which Austen’s world is adapted in practice. The practice of adaptation aims to recreate an experience of the world. Thus, the player must exist and dwell within the world, taking control over a character, and have a stake in what happens to that character within the course of the game. Pride and Prejudice fortunately gives us a character, Elizabeth Bennett, who happens to not only be the protagonist, but also have very unclear motivation throughout the story. Elizabeth Bennett is the clever daughter who has principles, but no explicit goals, in contrast to the rest of the cast, all of whom have very well defined goals.

The experience of being a character situates the player within the world, within a structured environment. By virtue of being a character, the player must have a great deal of freedom, but is also limited significantly by what is possible within the story world. For example, there are a great many ways for a character to conduct herself that are consistent with the structure and expectations of the story world. It should be possible for the player to do almost anything that the other characters do in the book. However, certain things that a game player could think to do might be well outside the scope of the story world. Players as a demographic tend to passionately explore all the possibilities and the extremities of game worlds, testing them to see how far they go. As a design goals, it should be possible for players to do anything that makes sense, but to disallow or provide consequences for anything that is too outlandish. Pride and Prejudice is a good example of a world that contains some of this sort of feedback within the world mechanics. There are strong social codes, and violating those codes will ruin a character’s status and reputation.

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