Narrative in Computer Games

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MA Thesis


Narrative in Computer Games

James Merry Animation (MA)

June 2000



1. List of Illustrations 2. Introduction 3. History of Narrative in Computer Games 4. Why Computer Games Have Narrative 5. Influence of Film 6. Influence of Mythology and Folktale 7. Communication of the Narrative to the Player 8. Conclusion 9. Bibliography 10.Endnotes

page 3 page 5 page 7 page 13 page 20 page 28 page 34 page 41 page 42 page 46


1 List of Illustrations

Figure 1; Java version of Spacewar, which can still be played on the Internet at page 7

Figure 2; ZX Spectrum version of Colossal Adventure by Level 9, inspired by the original ADVENT game. page 10

Figure 3; Beneath a Steel Sky, an example of a point and click graphic adventure. page 11

Figure 4; ZX Spectrum version of Ghosts`n`Goblins - the player's character's girlfriend is kidnapped by an evil winged beast. page 14

Figure 5; Sequence of events leading up to the disaster in Half-Life page 17

Figure 6; Short sequence taken from the intro animation from Civilisation: Call to Power, which tells the story of the rise and fall and rise of a civilisation. page 21

Figure 7; What Civilisation: Call to Power looks like when its being played. page 21

Figure 8; Snakes first meeting with Meryl, in Metal Gear Solid. page 24

Figure 9; End of level guardian in R-Type page 30


Figure 11; A scene from ZX Spectrum version of Tir Na Nog, based on the Celtic mythology of Cuchulain. page 32

Figure 11; Amiga version of Guild of Thieves, text adventure with illustrations. page 34

Figure 12; The Codec screen in Metal Gear Solid. Narrative is communicated by dialogue. page 38

Figure 13; Screenshot from Bladerunner. Much of this game involves interviewing different characters with pre-recorded dialogue. page 39


1 Introduction

It is important to notice that there is a fundamental difference between the concepts of game and story. A game is generally regarded to mean a contest involving basic human survival skills. It can involve competition, co-operation or it could just be testing oneself. Amongst other things, this could mean running around a racetrack in the shortest possible time, throwing spears at a target or solving complicated logic puzzles. A game can involve any number of participants and the final outcome is not known until it has happened. A game can be used for the training of ones own skills, for the entertainment of both the participants and the spectators, and for the determining of the players standing within society. A narrative is an organisation of events that happen. They can be either fictional or accounts of real life. A storyteller tells narratives to an audience who have little or no influence over the outcome. A narrative can be used for entertainment, for lessons and for recording events. A narrative is linear and it is the storytellers job to present this in a form that can entertain and keep the attention of an audience. This difference between game and story is illustrated by Mark Barrett; Movies about sporting events are often unfulfilling because of the preparatory effects which narratives must use to generate emotional5

involvement. Because of these preparations particularly various forms of foreshadowing the dramatic outcome of any story is often known, or at least suspected, before it is revealed.1 It is this conflict between two entirely different concepts within the field of computer games that this dissertation intends to look at. Why it has happened? How does it work? Or doesnt work? And where it may lead to next?


2 History of Narrative in Computer Games

It would be useful to begin by defining three genres of computer game relevant to this essay. These are Action games, Adventure games and Strategy games. In terms of narrative in computer games, the genre of the game is important, as different types of games will have different uses and requirements for narrative.

Action Games

Figure 1; Java version of Spacewar which can still be played on the Internet at

In her book, Joystick Nation, J.C. Herz2 puts the beginning of computer games at 1962 with the completion of Spacewar on DECs PDP-1 computer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Steven


Pooles Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames3 on the other hand claims it was 1958. It was in that year when William A. Higinbotham developed an oscilloscope tennis game as an amusing exhibit for visitors to the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a U.S. government nuclear research facility. What is clear, however, is that narrative wasnt even considered by the authors of early computer games. Games were necessarily limited by the hardware available at the time. As Figure 1 illustrates, limited graphical capability meant that the state of play had to be represented by the barest means possible. Simple icons represent the players spacecraft. A big star at the centre of the screen represents the gravity force. The star field in the background helps the players to judge the speed of their spacecraft. Playing the game consists of trying to shoot your opponent whilst avoiding being sucked into the centre. If either event happens then the game ends and then begins again. Although the game itself is fun to play, the only interesting narrative that could come from this would be in the imagination of the players.

Strategy Games

Other important games that appeared in the 1960s were Lunar Lander and Hammurabi. Lunar Lander was a turn based game with a text interface that required the player to administer rocket-thruster firing8

without running out of fuel before meeting the surface.4. This game can be regarded as the ancestor of flight simulator games we have today, such as Microsofts Flight Simulator. In Hammurabi the player had to manipulate resources and build infrastructure in order to make a successful feudal kingdom. From this game one can trace a straight line to the more recent sophisticated god games such as Sim City and Civilisation.

Adventure Games

It was not until 1967 that narrative as scripted by the game author began to make an appearance in computer games. This was in the form of ADVENT, which was the combination of computer technology with Dungeons & Dragons role-playing boardgames. ADVENT was, the first of a lost genre of game that was hugely popular on personal computers right up until the late 1980s. It was the first computerised version of interactive narrative: the computer described a location and the user typed in commands north, look, kill snake, use torch to move around the virtual world, use objects and solve fiendish puzzles.5 (page 32, Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames, by Steven Poole, published by Fourth Estate).


J.C. Herz describes ADVENT as, a logical extension of the fantasy role-playing games that suffused hackerdom, spawning cultish extracurricular organisations like the Society for Creative Anachronism. J.C. Herz goes on to explain that, A high percentage of computer programmers were and are, not surprisingly, Dungeons and Dragons aficionados. Theres an affinity between computer programming and games that require reams of graph paper and twenty-sided dice. Both are artificial universes governed by quantifiable rules, probability, and obsessive mapping. Charting out subterranean passages and dead ends is pretty much analogous to mapping out a circuit or debugging a piece of code. So a combination of computers and dragon-slashing was begging to happen. ADVENT not only took care of the scorekeeping and referee

Figure 2; ZX Spectrum version of Colossal Adventure by Level 9, inspired by the original ADVENT game.

chores, but its bone-dry humour and exploratory conventions influenced a10

generation of game programmers. In Adventure and its descendants, the emphasis was on puzzle solving and getting to some mysterious end at a slow, novelistic pace.6. At this point it should be noted, within computer game terminology, the differences between a role playing game and an adventure game. Although often similar in terms of subject matter (e.g.; fantasies involving dragons, gnomes and evil sorcerers, etc.), R.P.G. games are concerned primarily with character interaction and combat statistics. Adventure games on the other hand are more interested in exploration, object manipulation and puzzles. By the 1990s the text adventure games became virtually commercially extinct, and have since been replaced by point-and-click

Figure 3; Beneath a Steel Sky, an example of a point and click graphic adventure.

graphic adventure games. These games generally worked in the same way, in that they involved the same basic exploration of locations, object


manipulation and simple character interaction. Animated graphics replaced text descriptions and a point-and-click user interface replaced the text parser system. The point-and-click adventure games have themselves, now been superseded by 3D graphic adventures


3 Why Computer Games Have Narrative

The main reason why a computer game should have a narrative is simple. It is to encourage the player to play the game in an effort to find out what happens next. Narrative can also be used to create an atmosphere for the player to play within, e.g.; scary, tense, calm, etc. Another use for narrative is to help create an emotional link between the player and the characters in a game. Within a computer game the most important thing is the gameplay itself but, used correctly, narrative can act as a powerful carro