[In an attempt to put my finger on the stuff I've been thinking about since playing Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, I've been flipping through the Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism (AKA, The Dilettante's Handbook), as well as Espen Aarseth's Cybertext, and I'm going to give this another shot. I'll probably regret it.]

One of the reasons that playing video games is interesting, as opposed to simply diverting, is that they afford a richer narrative structure than media like film and books, which have physical constraints imposed upon them that encourage a linear flow, a beginning and an ending. While postmodern writers and filmmakers have had to seek out ways to subvert the constraints that their material places upon them, games start from square one with a license to take the player/reader in all kinds of different directions.

If we make a distinction between story (fabula, the events that are recorded in a text) and plot (sujet, the order and manner in which those events are presented to the reader) in a narrative work, we can say that games certainly afford a multitude of plots and potentially afford a multitude of stories. The developer and player of a game can and do engage in a sort of conversation, in which different actions and choices on the part of the player result in different responses on the part of the game. The developer’s job is to provide appropriate responses and to encourage the conversation to continue. Games are not more interactive than books because they grant agency to the player/reader; they’re more interactive because they grant agency to the text, and by extension, to the author of that text. In other words, if Barthes killed the author, games have the opportunity to bring her back to life, but as a partner to the player/reader instead of an opponent.

I think that is pretty fucking cool.

The thing I find incredibly frustrating about plot-heavy adventure games like Metal Gear Solid and RPGs in the Final Fantasy/Dragon Warrior mold is that in spite of their professed devotion to games as a new and exciting story-telling medium, most of them seem intent on making the player/reader experience as guided and linear as possible, forcing her along a set path from beginning to end, with only some side-quests and mini-games to act as diversions from the inexorable march down the path to the final FMV. Even the much-balleyhooed Grand Theft Auto III, for all its supposed open-endedness, locked the player into a single story and a linear plot that runs from a single “once upon a time” to a single “the end”. What if I want to run with the Chinese gangs instead of working for the mafia don? Tough luck. All the illusory “freedom” of the game allows me to do is drive madly around town in attempt to stave off the inevitable “progress” of the One True Plot. The supposed auteurs of these games don’t engage their player/readers, they just lay their stories out there to be consumed.

What’s worse is that in their effort to become more “film-like,” game developers seem to be marching backwards, running away from their chance to enrich the narrative experience. While films like Run Lola Run adapt the language of games to create multilinear narratives in a linear medium, developers seem intent on ignoring the advantages of their own medium and even their own history. Interactive, multicursal fiction (e.g. Zork, King’s Quest) has been around for more than twenty years, but you’d never know it from the current crop of big-budget titles that sit on game-store shelves, are played through once, and are returned to those same shelves with a “Used” sticker on them.

Am I the only one who finds it upsetting that Groundhog’s Day is, at its core, a better video game than Final Fantasy X?

This hand-wringing about the agency of text leads back to why I found Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter compelling. While the game’s story is fixed, more plot is revealed to the player/reader (in the form of extra cutscenes) as she replays the game. The extra scenes cause her to rethink her opinion of various characters, as she realizes that nearly everyone but the main character know much more than they’re letting on. Even scenes that are repeated verbatim are open to re-interpretation once the ending is known. The reconfiguration of the player/reader’s mental model of the story based on the evolving plot is a greater encouragement to keep playing than any bonus dungeon or high score provides, at least where I’m concerned. It’s nice to know that occasionally, there’s a story out there I can chew on, rather than just swallow.