Media Cultures Assignment 3: Illustrated Essay

This is another essay I did during my first year at RMIT this time for the subject “Media Cultures” I was responding to the italicised section below this introduction for the piece.

NARRATIVE: How do video games both ‘inhabit’ pre-existing cultural narratives, and ‘enact’ them? When video game spaces and levels have a linear form, how are they expressive of ideas and experiences? Using the Henry Jenkins article (and others), discuss both the narratives inherent in the level design of a game, and the narratives that the game ‘inhabits’ and ‘enacts’. To illustrate your points, make two small diagrams – showing how the levels tell their stories, or how the game is similar to other media, or both.

The use of pre-existing cultural narratives is vital for adding narrative depth to the world video games are constructing and the way that these worlds are sculpted creates an outlet through which players can learn “actively” which leads to greater investment in the game. Henry Jenkins discusses the idea that game designers don’t just tell stories but instead design worlds and sculpt stories, in his article, Games Design As Narrative Architecture (2004). Jenkins talks about the way in which spatial stories help give the world depth and provide pre-conditions for further immersion into the narrative experience. “What Happened Here?” Environmental Storytelling, by Matthias Worch and Harvey Smith, discusses environmental storytelling; the use of visual signs in the game world and how that helps tell the story about the world and its inhabitants by letting players learn and draw their own conclusions. I will be looking at The Legend Of Zelda Ocarina Of Time and how these ideas help inform the way narrative depth was added to the game world the designers constructed.

The world in Ocarina Of Time is filled with narratives and Jenkins’ article gives us a framework through which we can see how they present themselves to the player. I will be focusing on the way spatial stories inhabit the world of Ocarina Of Time concentrating on the Shadow Temple area of the game. Jenkins discussion of spatial stories concludes with this idea:

“Environmental storytelling creates the preconditions for an immersive narrative experience in at least one of four ways: spatial stories can evoke pre-existing narrative associations; they can provide a staging ground where narrative events are enacted; they may embed narrative information within their mise-en-scene; or they provide resources for emergent narratives.” (Jenkins 2004)

This is important when we look at the way the Shadow Temple was constructed. The Shadow Temple was one of the final areas of the game. It dealt with the darker side of death within the Zelda universe and used a lot of pre-existing cultural narratives to give its space meaning and character. One of the main elements was when you board a large wooden ship with a skeletal figurehead and travel down a strange river deeper into the temple, bringing to mind the myths of many cultures such as the Greeks and the Egyptians where departed souls would pay the ferryman to board a boat and travel to the underworld. This space also acts as the staging ground for an emergent narrative event as, after the boat launches from its dock, you are attacked by skeletons trying to prevent you from reaching the deeper parts of the temple. Other parts of the story were conveyed through the space itself using gravestones and reaper figures to reinforce the idea that the player has entered a world of the dead. The use of large empty spaces on either side of the players navigable space making the entire world feel as though you are one misstep away from dying. This is again visible on the boat in figure 1, as there are no walls to prevent you from falling off the boat while you battle the skeletons and you must struggle against the enemies whilst keeping an eye on the edge of the stage. This stage acts as an arena, though it is missing the traditional walls players are equally restricted by the long fall if the player misjudges the space they have, this battle requires skilful control of Link in order to overcome the skeletal foes and the duel that ensues is in itself a story that has emerged from the provided environments (Nitsche 2008).

Diagram1

Figure 1. The boat’s deck acts as an arena, it provides a stage for an emergent narrative to form as you battle the skeletons that appear and travel deeper into the temple

Don Carson, who was also mentioned in the spatial story section of Jenkins piece, wrote about how video games can make use of the way Disney Imagineers construct their worlds for the rides at Disneyland. He discusses the idea that every single element, from sounds to textures, should reinforce the idea of your world and anything that contradicts that idea could break the immersion for the player (Carson 2000). This is especially true of the Shadow Temple as, from the moment you enter the graveyard where the temple is located, every element highlights the idea of death, from the textures that look like earth, to skulls on posts as shown in figure 2.

Diagram2

Figure 2. A collection of images from the Shadow Temple demonstrating the imagery used to enact players pre-existing cultural narratives in order to build narrative depth

The players access the different layers of information at different times as they “bend” the game with the way they traverse the game world. Bending is the addition of optional or extra areas that add to the players experience lengthening the game and helping the player get closure for different added story lines rather than just completing the core story line (Cardoso and Carvalhais 2013). The symbolic choices involved in conveying an effective spatial story are vital for designers because they want players to recognise the meaning behind elements in the world in order to enact the story within the space.

Environmental story-telling requires the player to piece together groups of different elements into a meaningful whole. This means that not every player will come to the same conclusions based on their lives and experiences, so, the game designer’s job is to put in enough of these elements so that players still have a coherent story after they put part of themselves into the canvas. Worch and Smith talk about the way that story-telling, through the use of the environment, can help telegraph different elements, such as the presence of enemies and hazards that are approaching and what that means to the player in terms of learning and discovery. Worch and Smith mention Swiss psychiatrist, Jean Piaget, who discusses the idea of “active” learning where the player discovers and pulls information from the world on their own, rather than having it shoved in their faces, and how this “active” style of learning helps create a deeper and more complete investment in the game as becoming immersed in the environment adds to their experiences (Worch and Smith 2010). The Shadow Temple does this; it adds subtle hints about why the temple was created and why there are all these graves within it, protected by dangerous trials such as its first interaction with you: as you enter the temple, a text box appears, stating “The Shadow will yield only to one with the eye of truth, handed down in Kakariko Village” giving the following adventure an air of mystery as you try and defeat this mysterious shadow. Learning about this shadow, and the use of the eye of truth, which is found in a separate mini-dungeon, with similar aesthetics, is never completely given to the player by the game. The player must draw their own conclusions based on the information provided and explore every inch of the dungeon in order to progress. The environment in a game is a fantastic tool for adding narrative depth for the player and gives the designer a way to create a more complete world for the player to explore.

The use of pre-existing narratives, familiar symbols, and allowing the player to “actively” discover more about the world through their own exploration gives a much deeper narrative experience. The ideas discussed by Jenkins, Carson, and Worch and Smith, give us a deeper understanding of what this achieves, and how designers can achieve this, in order to further improve their games. The Shadow Temple in Ocarina Of Time demonstrates how these concepts come into play and becomes a much more narratively rich experience for players with the options provided to explore the world and discover extra detail when they look for them. The traversal of the temple’s environment being left up to the player, bends the game, and allows for either short run throughs only involving the core story, or longer runs with added narrative information for those players willing to seek it out.

Bibliography:

Cardoso, Pedro and Carvalhais, Miguel. 2013. “Breaking the Game: The Traversal Of The Emergent Narrative In Video Games” in Journal Of Science And Technology Of The Arts, 5(1), 25-31. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.7559/citarj.v5i1.87

Carson, Don. 2000. “Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry” Gamasutra, March 1. Accessed October 25th 2014 http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3186/environmental_storytelling_.php

Jenkins, Henry. 2004. “Game Design As Narrative Architecture” in First Person: New Media As Story, Performance, And Game, 118-130. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Nintendo EAD. 1998. The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time. Nintendo 64. Japan: Nintendo.

Nitsche, Michael. 2008. Video Game Spaces Image Play and Structure in 3D Worlds. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Worch, Matthias and Smith, Harvey. 2010. “ ‘What Happened Here?’ Environmental Storytelling.” Worch, March 11th 2011. Accessed October 26th 2014. http://www.worch.com/2010/03/11/gdc-2010/

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