Video Games: Postmodernist Texts?

thelastofus (1)

A common feature of postmodern narratives is transforming our position from passive readers/viewers unquestioningly receiving the narrative to more active participants with a degree of control over the text. For instance, postmodern narratives often have ambiguous conclusions or present us with multiple endings thereby granting us the power to choose how the story ends. In Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods we are presented with variations of the same incident and it is up to the reader to decide which one actually occurred in the narrative while R. L. Stine’s Give Yourself Goosebumps series literally offers readers the choice to turn to particular pages for different outcomes.

A similar trend occurs in postmodernist cinema. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, for example, prompts us to interpret the film by offering the viewer a series of incongruous scenes we are meant to piece together while films with ambiguous endings like Ghost World are actually ordering the viewer to decide what happens in it. In this sense then, we can see video games as postmodernist texts. They take this idea of audience participation further in that the player literally controls the narrative. Video games involve a combination of both narrative and gameplay as the player alternates between viewing cutscenes/reading text and controlling the character’s actions/solving puzzles. This is apparent in games such as The Last of Us in particular. This game appears to deliberately blur the boundaries between literature and gaming. Indeed, the experience of playing it feels very similar to watching a film. For example, after a prologue, the game opens with credits similar to those of a film. Also, the quality of graphics in the gameplay is identical to that of the cutscenes so there is a seamless transition between watching what is happening on your television screen and controlling it.

Moreover, some games oblige the player to make moral choices and the decisions you make during the game will have a direct impact on the narrative and its outcome. In Bioshock for example, the player can decide whether to kill or save certain characters in the game and the ending will differ depending on which you choose.

Because of the level of participation in narrative involved in video games, they can therefore be seen as postmodernist texts.

 

Here is the opening scene/minutes of gameplay of The Last of Us. As we can see, it looks more like a film than a game. It is often difficult to distinguish between when the player is controlling the characters or watching cutscenes:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ur9OJmA8GBE

Once this scene ends, the opening credits roll, furthering the game’s resemblance to film:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnp4-RoRxSo

Here is an article about moral choices in games and identification with game protagonists:

http://www.polygon.com/2013/7/25/4555956/opinion-making-the-wrong-choices-the-right-way-in-the-last-of-us

For further information on postmodernism, metafiction and audience participation, see here:

http://flavorwire.com/420231/why-was-90s-horror-so-scary

 

Bioshock. Ken Levine and Alyssa Finley. 2k Games, 2007. Game.

Ghost World. Terry Zwigoff. United Artists, 2001. Film.

O’Brien, Tim. In the Lake of the Woods. London: Flamingo, 1995. Print.

Stine, R. L. Give Yourself Goosebumps. New York: Scholastic, 1995. Print.

The Last of Us. Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann. Naughty Dog, 2013. Game.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Dir. David Lynch. New Line Cinema, 1992. Film.

Van Der Ster, Jelle. ‘Lost in the Funhouse: Postmodern meta-reflections in videogames.’ Uni>ersia, 24 Sept. 2009. 10 Mar. 2015. Web.

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6 thoughts on “Video Games: Postmodernist Texts?

  1. Ciarán Kavanagh

    Mark of the Ninja is another really good example of this. Tropes of the genre are inverted at the conclusion and you have to make a choice as to whether you ‘believe’ the game that you have just played through. Choice goes beyond what is possible in a novel however, as you are actually asked to make a decision based on this choice which fundamentally alters the ending. It’s a interesting game, pretty short too, if you haven’t played it 🙂 Bastion asks you to make a similar decision.

    Also, I could never make myself drain the Little Sisters, as creepy as they were. Infinite is probably the best example of the post-modern capabilities of that series because of the really confusing time-travel, multiple-reality/narrative ending.

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    1. seanjetravers Post author

      Apparently, only ten percent of gamers chose follow the ‘evil’ path in games – very few gamers choose to harvest the Little Sisters, for instance. When discussing this, Ken Levine, one of the BioShock Infinite creators, remarked that what he was interested in was watching the reaction people have at moments of choice in the game and the weight it carries for them even though it is not real. He says:
      ‘It’s interesting that people put value in things that actually have no real world meaning…But that’s the wonderful thing about fiction; people sort of hook value to things in their head that don’t actually exist. Attaching emotional value to things that don’t exist is the joy of art’.
      In Mark of the Ninja, the choice at the end as to whether you ‘believe’ the game you have played can actually be viewed as reflective of this wider idea of people believing, to an extent, in fictional worlds, e.g. when people feel sympathy for characters in novels when they undergo tragedy or guilt when killing them in games.

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  2. Ciarán Kavanagh

    I think because quite often in these type of games you make the decisions alone, and aren’t necessarily made aware of other peoples choices, it feels personal to you. When preparing my world for Dragon Age:Inquisition there were so many past decisions which I couldn’t at all recall making, and others that I knew instantly – usually based on how strong my relationship had been with certain characters. I know there is a game company that came out with all the statistics that their gamers took, the results of which were really interesting – can’t remember who it was though!

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  3. vanania

    Another good example is Final Fantasy 7: from the answers to dialogue you give as Cloud the story can take a completely different turn. Also, this made me think of the granddad of video game: the gamebook! Being born around the 40s it fits extremely well in this discourse.

    It’s interesting also how only 10% of gamers chose the evil path in BioShock, but as the same time games like GTA are based on the exact opposite concept than the one expressed by Levine…

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    1. seanjetravers Post author

      The gamebook is a good example of this postmodernist idea of reader participation in fiction. It combines the act of interpretation involved in reading postmodern novels and that of making choices in video games.
      Actually, gamebooks can further be seen as postmodern in the sense that they constantly draw attention to their materiality. The reader is literally told to turn to specific pages whereas a Victorian novel, by contrast, would not make reference to its own pages. It would not say something along the lines of ‘on page 27, she went to the park’. Also, in gamebooks, the reader must turn the pages more frequently than they would when reading a conventional novel. As they constantly flip the pages backwards and forwards, the reader becomes more aware of the gamebook as a physical object in their hands. The gamebook actually does two things at once: by giving the reader choice, it makes the narrative more ‘real’ for the reader but by referencing its own artifice it simultaneously breaks the fourth wall and reminds the reader that it is fictional.

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