Games Telling Tories? A Brief Note on Games and Narratives by Jesper Juul

Summary

Juul takes on an ongoing debate that over 10 years later doesn’t seem to be over between ludology and narratology, a question I’ll be discussing in the next paper.  Juul sets his article up with a simple question, “Do games tell stories?” The answer in short: Sometimes. Sort of.

Juul first looks at standard arguments made for games being narratives, focusing on the idea that narratives help us make sense in our lives and everything is narrative ergo games are narratives. He seems to lean closer to the idea that “Games share some traits with narratives.” In fact, he even says, “This does mean that the strong position of claiming games and narratives to be completely unrelated (my own text, Juul 1999 is a good example) is untenable.” Juul seems much more interested in a nuanced approach, believing some games have narrative features, but not all of them. And those that have narrative aren’t necessarily like narratives in books or movies.

To exemplify this, he discusses the translation of narratives between mediums. He mentions how a Pride and Prejudice movie would seem at least very familiar to someone who had also read the book. However, a move to a game doesn’t translate as well. He use Star Wars (Atari 1983) as an example. He describes the limited scope of the movie that the video game captures and says, “if we imagine the title removed from the game, the connection would not be at all obvious.”

Last, Juul discusses temporal differences in narratives in movies/books versus games. He says that in movies/books, we’re seeing a story that has already happened and we understand that. Most games, everything is in the present.

Wait? Why is this debate even happening? 

It’s interesting that this article comes from the first issue of Game Studies that I discussed in Paper 1. The issue I discussed by editor Espen Aarseth called for the creation of a new discipline, free from the colonization of other disciplines. Hm…games as narratives? I’m feeling English all over this. And this is likely one of the results of the colonizing disciplines like Aarseth discusses (interestingly enough, he has a background in comparative lit). However, the overall larger debate between narratology and ludology is likely one that is also about whether Game Studies should be it’s own discipline or not.

Many of our in class readings discussed similar situations for other sub disciplines of English–deciding whether to leave the department or not is never an easy question. And like some sub disciplines of English, like Linguistics, it seems as though Game Studies has split off into it’s own thing in certain ways, such as the creation of Video Games Studies programs as well as Game Labs, like the one at MIT, while many games scholars are still housed in other disciplines, including English.

Getting Back to that Star Wars Thing

atari star wars screenshot
Screenshot from Star Wars (1983) for Atari.

It’s hard for me to agree with Juul’s conclusion about the Atari Star Wars game that “if we imagine the title removed from the game, the connection would not be at all obvious.” Here’s a screenshot from the game, which by the way, is quite dated (almost 20 years), even when Juul was writing in 2001. I think that even without the name Star Wars in the title of the box there are some very specific ways in which a player might make connections between the game and Star Wars (if they’d seen the movie) just based on this screenshot. Take for instance the death start in the background. Also, in particular, the TIE fighters. I’d say similar things about other Star Wars games that are necessarily story driven that came later, like Nintendo 64’s Stars Wars Podracing. 

Questions

I was left with a couple of questions when I finished Juul’s piece. First, he’s writing in 2001. He focuses primarily on Atari and arcade games to make specific points. In some ways, it’s useful to do so. For instance, his example using Tetris shows that games don’t have to have a narrative at all in order to be appealing to audiences. However, in his discussion about movie/game translations and narrative “flashbacks”, he’s writing when games are being released such as Final Fantasy X (lots of flashbacks, cut scenes), Grand Theft Auto 3, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (yes, it was a video game too!) and James Bond in Agent Under Fire were all coming out. Even if we wanted to be generous and look prior to 2001, James Bond Goldeneye was already out for N64. So why not use these as examples? Instead, to illustrate his points, he was using games that almost, if not, 20 years old.

The last question I was left wondering was one that I’m not sure I have an answer to. Were there really people who believed that all games were narratives no matter what? Were there really people that firmly believed all games were entirely unrelated to narrative? If so, WHY?! I guess to me it doesn’t make much sense. It’s more likely that there’s a more nuanced perspective that needs to be taken. Hopefully looking more closely at this discipline question will help me make sense of it.

References:

Aarseth, Espen. “Computer Game Studies, Year One” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research 1.1 (2001): n. pag. Web. 09 Sept. 2015.

Juul, Jesper.  “Games Telling Stories? A Brief Note on Games and Narratives” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research 1.1 (2001): n. pag. Web. 17 Sept. 2015.

Star Wars. Atari. 1983. Video game.

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