digital arts & culture 1998
short paper    

Aki Järvinen:

Stories Powered by Cogwheels and Computers

The article "Stories Powered by Cogwheels and Computers – towards a theory of computer game narratives" focuses on an important and extremely popular part of digital culture: computer games. When computer usage is taking more and more of our leisure time away from such activities as watching television, going to movies and reading literature, it has become increasingly evident that computers can offer us entertaining narratives as well. Computer and video games constitute a considerable, let alone most popular, portion of narrative digital texts.

In the paper in question, steps are taken towards formulating a theory of computer game narrativity with methods from the study of media texts and narratology. Also, the paper discusses the processes of signification regarding computer-mediated semiotic material. With digital texts, traditional concepts of reading and watching are replaced by navigating. This concept includes the perception of spatial relationships of texts, and laboring with the dynamics of the game-text or the manifold hypertext documents of the World Wide Web, just to name a couple of wide-spread examples.

When the ways of making sense of symbolic material transform in such a way, the ways of narrating a story must change as well. Therefore, new concepts and fresh ideas about stories, plots and characters must be formulated, in order for us to understand the ways in which these texts work. However, it is necessary that we compare these new modes of storytelling with those already studied to an large extent and familiar to most of us, such as literature and film.

This study aims to find out not just the basic elements of computer game narratives, but also their relations with 'traditional' structures and theories of narrative and text. With the help of Espen Aarseth's useful and perceptive concept of cybertext, computer games can be viewed as a category of cybertexts with their own distinctive features. Bringing these features into light is the aim of the theory presented in this paper. Thus, computer games are discussed as spatial stories and regarding the elusive and playable plots of games, the concept of wheel-plot is introduced.

The theoretical section which takes up the first half of the paper is followed by a more detailed study of a certain game-text, Blade Runner. This game, a digital spin-off of the famous sci-fi novel and film, combines narrative devices from traditional media and arts, and, in addition, uses some new narrative devices characteristic to digital texts only. The examples from Blade Runner serve to illustrate the arguments presented earlier in the paper, and although I have included some screen shots of the game, the strength of these examples would, without doubt, be more illustrative if presented (read: played) 'live' in front of an audience. Anyway, examples picked out from other games with similar narrative solutions show that the theory captures features common to games in general, instead of being strictly bound to the Blade Runner game-text.

Besides the analysis of games' textual structure, some themes central to computer gaming culture are touched upon briefly as well. These questions include the genres of games and their counterparts in other media, such as detective novels or fantasy comics etc. All in all, the role of game-playing as an activity belonging to the practices and subcultural formations of popular culture is emphasized. Computer and video games can serve the ends of subject formation and constructing a distinct identity as a member of computer and/or gaming culture. These themes are evident of the larger transformations taking place in the era of late modernity we are living, and it is this era during which the popularity of computer games has emerged.

Aki Järvinen –,

Post-graduate student at the
Department of Literature and the Arts
University of Tampere, Finland






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Last update: 26th of October 1998.