“Can There be a Form betwee a Game and a Story” – Ken Perlin

In the article “Can there be a Form between a Game and a Story?” published in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, Ken Perlin argues that while filmmakers have the ability to make him empathize with characters in the film in such a way that his feelings are transferred so that he perceives or associates with the character as if he were the character, games are less capable of this emotional transference. As the film continues Perlin’s sense of self, ethics, morals, etc. are, he states, continually tested against those of the character in the film. The strength of a narrative Perlin claims is in its ability to force the viewer/reader up against choices he or she wouldn’t typically make, but to go along for the ride anyway and in such a way that forces understanding and reflection. The power of the narrative is in our giving up control. He goes on to state that these narratives work exactly because they aren’t literal. Because it exist outside ourselves and our very real experiences we are able to “set aside our right to make choices” and be “swept up in observation…as though we were some invisible spirit or angel perched upon [the protagonists] shoulder, watching but not interfering” (13-14). I’m inclined to disagree with Perlin’s assessment, or at least argues that his argument is too topical and overly generalized. While there is no need to discredit the power of a film or novel’s narrative to allow viewers and readers to relinquish control and experience feeling, thoughts, etc that they otherwise wouldn’t, I don’t agree that games lack this quality either. At least, I’m not sure that the reason they fail to do so is because of the player’s inherent agency and participation in the experience. Given Perlin’s argument here, however, it’s easy to see why Perlin questions the power of narrative in games. He states he doesn’t associate with the game avatar in the same way because the effectiveness and progression of the story depends on the player in such a way that he can never suspend agency or control. He goes on to state that every choice the character makes is similarly a choice made by the player. This is, of course, an oversimplification as we know that many cut-scenes remove control from the player complete and force the narrative to places without player consent. Despite this oversimplification, the broad point for Perlin remains that as someone reads or views a movie he does so to experience someone else’s agency; an experience denied to players in games. Having established this as a problem, Perlin asks whether there is a way to “create a form in which the wall between ‘my agency’ and ‘the agency of an entity that seems psychologically present to me’ can be removed or blurred” (16). To create such a game experience, Perlin argues that the narrative mediums need three elements: writing, direction, and acting. Without any of these elements, “intermediate agency” is impossible because the player will not be able to suspend his disbelief (17). Of these three, Perlin claims that acting is most lacking. He argues that this issue cannot be wholly solved until there is a way to create characters that act well enough to embody an interactive narrative. While I won’t dispute the poor quality of acting (whether the poor quality exists in animation, voice, programming or a combination), I’m not certain the acting is the quality most lacking. I’d counter-argue that the narrative quality is still lacking in such a way that allows for better acting. The issue is perhaps more about learning how narrative in games is inherently different than it is in film and books. If “intermediate agency” fails, perhaps it does so because the narrative wasn’t structured in a way that allows for it.

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