Meaning Effects in Video Games, Talk

11 minute read

I gave this talk at the Games and Literary Theory -conference at Malta. It describes the contents of the paper I submitted to the conference.

This talk is about applying the three concepts of focalization, granularity, and mode of narration to video games. I try to keep features specific to games in mind when discussing these three concepts and avoid simplifying games to new forms of literature, an accusation sometimes leveled against literary studies.

I will first introduce the concepts and the way I’m using them. I’ll go through them one at a time and give you examples of applying them to games. The question that I’m trying to answer here is how these three concepts can be used to create specific meaning effects in video games.

But before we go to the three concepts themselves, I need to give you an overview of the framework being used in the analysis and help you make sense of the concept of “meaning effects”. Here, meaning effects are understood as specific cognitive responses to the game. The idea is that the designer designs games to employ the three concepts under discussion and the game then conveys more or less successfully the meaning effect to the player, producing a response that hopefully corresponds to the one the designer was after.

Let’s first look at the concept of focalization. Focalization is the point of view things are seen from. It can be the point of view of a character, several different characters or simply a point in space. Focalization is also known in Gerard Genette’s terms as perspective. Genette classifies perspective into three categories: zero focalization, external focalization and internal focalization.

Zero focalization means that the story is not focalized into any character, but is told from outside any of them. External and internal focalization are similar, with both being perspectives of a character. The difference between these two is that in external focalization you don’t have access to the characters thoughts and emotions, while in internal focalization you do.

All three forms of focalization are present in video games, with some being typical to some genres of games. It is also normal for a game to change focalization in the course of the game. A typical example of zero focalization is Command & Conquer, where the perspective is a birds-eye view of the terrain, with tiny people running around the strategic map The second example is Warhammer 40.000: Dawn of War 2. It is a similar real-time strategy game as Command & Conquer, with a similar perspective. You can zoom in to individual soldier-level, but the perspective is still zero focalization. However, when following the storyline of the game, the game is focalized to a few main characters, with the perspective changing to fit the narrative needs of the game.

External focalization is typical in games that try to keep the main character accessible to any player. The theory seems to be that if the main character doesn’t have a personality, then it could be anyone, a kind of a tabula rasa. An example of this is _Half-Life _and everyone’s favourite silent protagonist, Dr. Gordon Freeman. This is also an interesting departure from literature. In games, you can have access to a character’s physical actions, be able to control them, but still be unable to access their mental landscape – possibly because the designers have tried to achieve the tabula rasa-effect. That is, game characters are often portrayed as blank slates so that the player is more free to project themselves onto the character.

In terms of perspective this is a weird combination of focalizations, where the player has complete access to the characters body, but not to their inner, mental life. This can happen with either a character like Gordon Freeman, where there is next to no inner life to speak of, but it can also happen with characters that have strong personalities that are made manifest only when it is narratively convenient, like Lara Croft from Tomb Raider.

Next, there is mode of narration. Mode of narration follows a rough distinction between two types of narrators. We can either use Stanzel’s terminology and call them teller- and reflector-characters, or follow Genette in calling them narrators and focalizers.

Teller-characters and narrators are telling a story to somebody, for example the reader, while reflector-characters and focalizers are simply experiencing the story without knowing it is being told to somebody. We can also make a distinction between homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narrators, or narrators that inhabit the world they are narrating, and narrators that don’t.

Video games have already started toying with narrators. Two examples of this are Call of Juarez: Gunslinger and Dragon Age 2, both of which use an unreliable narrator. Both are teller-characters, since they need to know that they are telling a story in order to lie about it.

Call of Juarez has a protagonist that is also the voice over-narrator of the story. There is a story-within-a-story structure in the narration, with the protagonist describing his previous adventures to an excited crowd of listeners. However, the narration is not very consistent, with the facts changing constantly, especially whenever the facts are questioned by the listeners. At one point, the narrator starts telling about a relentless Indian attack, which suddenly turns into a bandit attack when one the listeners questions the presence of the Indians.

My second example of an unreliable narrator is from Dragon Age 2. It starts with an action packed sequence, with the main characters tearing through large groups of enemies with ease. Later, it is revealed that this is only because the narrator is known to exaggerate, casting the whole sequence in a suspicious light. This is portrayed visually and mechanically, as the narration is not vocalised but played by the player. The narrative exaggeration then becomes game mechanics, portrayed as the large amounts of damage the player characters do in combat.

It is also portrayed visually, for example in the overdone portrayal of the violence and – and I’m not kidding about this – in the huge breasts of the female characters portrayed in that sequence. This part of the game is set in the past in the timeline of the game, so the game later changes from a explicit narrator to following the main character as reflector-character.

Next, we’ll look at the concept of granularity. It is the fineness or coarseness of narrative description, and the richness of that description with respect to the elements mentioned.

We can use Ernest Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River as an example of granularity. At the beginning there is a bit which goes as follows:

Nick looked at the burned-over stretch of hillside, where he had expected to find the scattered houses of the town and then walked down the railroad track to the bridge over the river.

Here, we have a very coarse granularity: there is a hill, a railroad track, and a bridge over a river, all mentioned very generally within a sentence. In the next paragraph we have Nick looking at fish in the river, and here the granularity is much finer:

He watched them holding themselves with their noses into the current, many trout in deep, fast moving water, slightly distorted as he watched far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge.

Now there is a river and some trout, but we get a much more accurate picture of what they look like to Nick.

Before we move onto games, I’ll point out one more thing about granularity. There is a natural level of granularity that corresponds to our everyday experiences. This is the level of granularity that we expect if it is not otherwise specified. Variations from that level tend to reflect our attitudes to the surrounding world: either disinterest or keen interest in some specific aspects of it, as in the case of Nick looking at the trout.

This natural level of granularity also includes assumptions about our surroundings that need not be specified.  A narrator does not need to specify that the characters in a story are clothed, as we will assume they are, unless somehow contradicted. In fact, there has been no mention of Nick’s clothing in the Big Two-Hearted River at this point, and the first item of clothing mentioned is a woolen sock. But nobody thinks that Nick is naked, save for his socks. Instead, it is the deviations from the norm that must be specified. For example, if Nick was naked save for his socks, it would almost definitely be mentioned in the tale.

Now, if we move onto games, we can first note that because games are a multimodal media, there are different types of granularity within games. We have textual granularity, as in literature, we have visual granularity, as in cinema, but we also have simulative granularity, that is more or less unique to games. I will focus on the last one, because it is the most interesting one.

Let’s first look at three strategy games, SimCity 4 and Civilization 4 & 5. If we compare SimCity to games from the Civilization series we can note some similarities in the games, We can here focus on some specific similarities: both feature cities. These cities develop according to certain rules, and simulate certain aspects of real cities. For example, SimCity simulates things like plumbing, electricity and waste disposal, while games from the Civilization series don’t. In granularity terminology we could say that SimCity has a finer level of simulative granularity in this regard.

We can also note differences in comparing Civilization 4 and 5.  For example, the concept of pollution is present in Civilization 4, but not in Civ 5. It is simply not simulated in Civ 5, while in Civ 4, the player must take it into account when playing the game. Of course, this has consequences to what kind of a world the game is representing. One is a world where the player must have environmental concerns, one is without any regard to the environment.

Now, let’s look at another example of simulative granularity and compare Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to Fallout: New Vegas. The games are portrayed from a similar perspective. They also feature similar gameplay, with the player character adventuring through dangerous terrain, solving problems – usually with violence – and generally exploring a wild, unknown and untamed terrain.

The terrain in both games is filled with dangers that may prove to be too much any given moment, but both still reward brave explorers with treasure, experience and more quests. However, there is one critical difference in what these two games choose to simulate.

In Skyrim, you can carry around food and drink, and consume both, but only to replenish lost health and stamina. A dragon breaths flame at you, and you essentially stop time by going to a menu and eating a hundred cabbages to get full health. In contrast, Fallout: New Vegas has a hardcore-mode where you need both food and drink to survive in the wasteland. If you go into the wasteland unprepared, you might starve or die of thirst.

Because Fallout is a post-apocalyptic game, it also simulates radiation, providing yet another way of dying in the wasteland. This difference in things the two games simulate leads to a different experience of the game worlds: one is a wilderness to be conquered, with caves just awaiting exploration and looting. You may encounter monsters, but with enough cabbages and time, they can all be defeated.

The other is a place of deprivation, where dying is not only possible from bullets and bites, but by being unprepared. A cave may contain new equipment, but unless it is food, water and anti-radiation pills, you might not make it back, even if no there are no other dangers – and there always is. Because of this difference in things that are simulated about the human body, the experience of the wilderness is profoundly different in these two games.

However, in the end, both fall into the old habit of simplifying the human body to a one-dimensional meter of hit points. Both games reward hit points from eating and drinking, so whether it is a bullet, bite or a sword that caused the damage, it can be repaired with cabbages in Skyrim or decades old junk food in Fallout.

Now, in conclusion, I’ll try to wrap this up by saying something about what was not discussed, and what could be done in the future. I started off by presenting these three concepts as tools for creating meaning effects, and I hope I have shown some ways of doing that.

First, we have the hybrid focalization that was discussed in relation to Half-Life. Due to a lack of time, I have not discussed other possible ways of using focalization, for example by suddenly changing focalization between perspectives. This is often already used in games, for example in Skyrim, when the player character is dead or helpless.

Then, we had the concept mode of narration, and unreliable narrators as an example. Because of the multimodal nature of video games, there are more ways of conveying narration to players than there are, for example, in literature.

However, if we wanted to look at this in more depth, we could discuss the differences between different modalities and the possible synergies and clashes, intentional or unintentional, that can be created by playing with these. That, I think, could be a fruitful avenue of research.

And last, we had granularity, with the comparison of Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas showing how small differences in simulative granularity – what to simulate and what to leave out – can have large effects on the experience the player has of the world.

I did not discuss the different modalities of granularity here, or the possible effects of playing with those. The pixel graphics and in-depth psychological horror of Lone Survivor come to mind when looking for examples of the intersections of different modalities of granularity. The vagueness of the graphics doesn’t need to be a limitation, but a tool to be used.

More examples and discussion of these concepts can be found from my paper, available by request.