“Quest Games as Post-Narrative Discourse” – Espen Aarseth

In “Quest Games as Post-Narrative Discourse,” Espen Aarseth argues against the idea that games are interactive stories which can be analyzed and constructed using traditional narratology methods based on 6 key observations: the essential and discursive differences between computer games and stories; narrative theory is used not because it fits, but because there is currently nothing better with which to analyze games; when games are analyzed as stories the differences and intrinsic qualities unique to games become impossible to understand; because the approach subjects games to story aesthetics and then, based on those aesthetics, deem games as a lesser form to narrative; computer games need a native form of theory; only a new theory will allow for analyses which clearly understand about games themselves.


Aarseth then goes on to show how analyses of games break down when they are treated as narrative-centric mediums. To conduct this analysis, Aarseth first identifies games in which mastery of the environment or the rules of the simulation is not the primary purpose but instead in which the ways of winning are “highly idiosyncratic” and in which “the environment has been reduced to a scenic path of difficult but conquerable obstacles” as these are the games which are generally considered to be narrative (365). The games that Aarseth focuses his analysis on are, therefore, adventure games.


Importantly, Aarseth observes that just games are not a lesser form of “narrative” or should not be considered a tertiary experience whereby narrative experience are secondary and real life is a primary experience. Instead, he argues, games, unlike stories, contain real and personal experiences. In a game, the player’s experiences are more palpable (366). The reason games are more personal, Aarseth asserts, boils down to choice. Choice is an essential component in games. Aarseth states:

“In a game, everything revolves around the layer’s ability to make choices. If the choice presented to the player are so limited that they clearly seem to lead the action in one unavoidable direction, they become quasi-choices, and the game becomes a quasi-game” (366).

Such a definition of games leads Aarseth to the assertion that many games which impose a narrative are not games at all, but instead quasi-games or stories disguised as games. Such games are “not about choice but about rediscovering the one acceptable path” (366). Aarseth refers to this “one acceptable path” as a “string of pearls” in which, within each pearl there may be a great deal of choice, but on the level of the strong, no choice exists at all. The story remains fixed and finite despite choices made within each story pearl (367).


Not all games, however, must be prisoner to the narrative experience they offer. Aarseth proproses that when a game focuses on presenting the player with a quest, the quest – and not the story – become the dominant structure of the game (368). Quests require analysis both in media res as well as in retrospect, and thus reinstitute the purpose of choice into the simulation, and accomplish that which stories cannot (369).


The criteria for exclusion Aarseth articulates are useful in the defense of games analysis as a unique area of study as well as in the defense of the creation of new game specific topologies through which to analyze and create games. Additionally, the distinction between games and quasi-games is useful, and now 10 years after it’s publication, I can’t help but wonder if Aarseth would consider games with morality systems or games such as The Walking Dead as true games at all. Ultimately, however, Aarseth’s focus on the necessity of choice in games is most useful toward my own research, and highlights the importance of agency in any game which attempts to provide interactivity within a narrative frame

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