About a month ago at PAX West, Dan Hughes, Nathan Randall, and I gave a presentation on various ways to analyze the storytelling of video games, and how we see the type of analysis that happens on this website as distinct from other kinds of gaming discourse that happens in other corners of the internet. Today, I want to expand on that presentation by offering a methodological framework for how we theorize about video-game storytelling at With a Terrible Fate: that is, a framework for how to think about the actual procedure of moving from the initial experience of playing a video game, all the way to the end product of a thesis-driven, explanatory, illuminating theory about the game’s story.
There are many different ways to think about video games (and about storytelling more generally), and it isn’t my goal to say that this is the “right” way to think about them. However, there is an argument that I want to make about the particular utility of the methodological framework that I present here.
The argument is this: nowadays, we’re conditioned to conceive of different varieties of video-game-related discourse as totally siloed from each other. In particular, consider the following three kinds of video-game discourse:
- talking about a game with your friend as the two of you are playing it
- reading a review of that game in Kotaku
- writing an academic article about that game
Even though all three of these activities are about the same game, it’s very tempting to see them as almost entirely unrelated to one another. You can imagine someone defending the separateness of them by saying something like the following:
“Well, when I’m talking about a game with my friend, we’re just sharing our experiences with each other. It’s more about trading experiences with a shared story than it is about actually evaluating that shared story in any way.
“When I’m reading a review, though, I want an evaluation of the game. I want to know whether it’s worth playing, and I want to know whether people who know a lot about gaming like it or not. Reviews are all about opinions, and I’ll like or dislike a review based on the extent to which I agree or disagree with the reviewer’s opinion.
“And academic articles, on the other hand, are totally sanitized of opinion: they try to make arguments about games—their stories, their artistic value, their mechanics, and so on—without rendering any kind of opinionated verdict about the game as a whole. And as a result they often end up being much less about the experience of playing the game, and more about the abstract structure of the game: how its story is built, and why we ought to find that interesting.”
My contention in offering the following methodological framework is that we shouldn’t think of casual game discussion, reviews, and academic work on games as siloed from each other: rather, each is one stage in a methodological funnel that allows us to achieve deeper understanding, both about particular games and about the storytelling of video games in general.
In the following three sections, I present the three-stage method for analyzing video-game storytelling in the way that I called object holist in With a Terrible Fate’s PAX West presentation: that is, analyzing video-game storytelling with the goal of building theories that best accommodate and explain the entire set of data about a game’s fiction—its world, its characters, its plot, the role it furnishes the player with, and so on. After I’ve presented all three stages, I zoom out to discuss the utility and scope of the overall framework.
Stage 1: Unfiltered Reception
Three-stage object holist theory starts with unfiltered reception: the aggregation of all your experiences of playing a particular game. At this stage, you’re not collecting evidence for any particular argument about the game: you’re simply taking stock of everything you’ve felt about the game as you’ve engaged its story, made choices within its world, created an avatar, learned about all its possible endings, and so on.
We can represent this theoretically neutral starting-point of game analysis as a single sphere—this is all the data about your time spent playing the game, and what you know about the game. The data can be rife with contradiction; they can be nebulous; they don’t need to be explained or interpreted yet.
Back when Dan and I were both living in New Hampshire, we’d meet up for dinner regularly at a local burrito joint and riff, without rhyme or reason, about whatever games we were playing that week, whatever games we were hoping to play soon, and whatever games from years ago were on our minds.
Discussions like this happen everywhere, every day: if you’re a gamer, you’ve had talks like this in restaurants, on reddit, in GameStop, or wherever. One of the great things about the deeply experiential nature of games is that they invite gamers to discuss them as things they did: it’s as easy to talk about what you did in a game as it is to talk about anything you did in the real world on any given day.
These conversations are ubiquitous, and they’re also probably the easiest way to talk about video games. Once you start evaluating or theorizing about a game and its story from a particular argumentative standpoint, you run the risk of egos getting in the way as everyone butts heads about their preferred way of interpreting the game. But at this stage, you’re purely talking about your experience of the game: and because you’re the incontrovertible authority on your experiences, there’s no room in this stage for egos to interfere with the flow of ideas and conversation.
Stage 2: Perspective Application
Unfiltered reception can be a nice activity in and of itself—after all, chatting about video games is always fun. But once you’ve already discussed a game in the context of unfiltered reception, it’s easy to take your analysis further. In fact, you probably already take the analysis further automatically, without even realizing that you’re transitioning from one form of analysis to another.
Once you’ve laid out your experiences about a game, it’s natural—similarly to what you probably do with your other life experiences—to develop a particular perspective through which you can better understand that set of experiences. This is perspective application: the use of a particular theoretical lens, or particular evaluative criterion, to render judgments on the content of your unfiltered reception.
Continuing with our graphical illustration from Part 1 of our analytical method, we can think of perspective application as inscribing a circle on the sphere of all your unfiltered reception: you’re selecting a certain set of that data to highlight in a way that you think illustrates something insightful about the game’s story.
Most reviews of games are a sort of perspective application. Reviewers have their own categories and metrics by which they codify their judgments of a particular game. Maybe, for instance, they’ll rate the game with a number between 1 and 10 for the categories of (A) graphics, (B) plot, and (C) world, and then average those scores to give the game a total score.
And, as I mentioned, we all often slide from unfiltered reception into perspective application in ordinary conversation about games—we move quite automatically from discussing our experiences of the game to judging the game through a particular lens. It’s crucial to mark these activities as two distinct stages, though: unfiltered reception is how we get the data about the game that we then judge according to a particular perspective application. The two are functionally distinct, yet related, activities, and when we elide the difference between them, we run the risk of wrongly supposing that games are somehow inherently good or bad instances of storytelling, independent of the rubrics and standards of judgment that we apply to our experiences of them.
Stage 3: Explanatory Thesis
At With a Terrible Fate, Dan’s Now Loading… The Video Game Canon! series is an example of perspective application. But the mission statement of the series also underscores a critical aspect of theory-building: it is designed to serve as a stepping stone for the third, final phase of theory, not as the be-all, end-all of video-game criticism. This is a subtle point that many other game reviewers miss—perhaps deliberately, or perhaps not.
In the introduction to Now Loading, Dan explicitly identifies his criteria for evaluating whether games belong in the video game canon (i.e. he defines his perspective that he will be applying), but he also emphasizes that his articles do not represent the final stage of video-game analysis:
This series, as we see it, is a representation of the important intermediary step between initial reactions and deep analysis of video games that you have come to expect from With a Terrible Fate. Each and every article on this website is the result of countless hours of play, research, and writing, but they all started with a reaction to a game, and the experience that we had while playing them. Consider the installments of Now Loading as the in-between step that we go through after playing a video game and before writing the in-depth analysis of a particular aspect of that game. First we play the game and discuss it with each other; then we contextualize the game and gain an understanding of what it offers, before finally diving into a specific aspect or theme that it offers. In essence, we are constantly thinking about video games in relationship to one another and considering how a new game is affected by those that came before it; in this series, we are attempting to cement those points of reference that we use for our articles. With the creation of this canon, it is our hope that we will offer you an encyclopedic collection of references to use for your own articles and insights on video games. Consider the canon, if you will, as a SparkNotes for video game analysis. Only, you know, a little funnier at times.
What Dan emphasizes here is that perspective application, such as the kind he does every week in Now Loading, acts as an evaluative foundation on which to develop further analysis. In practice, this often (but not necessarily) functions in the following way:
- A player takes stock of all their experiences with a game through unfiltered reception.
- The player judges a game positively or negatively based on her preferred criteria through perspective application.
- The player develops an explanatory thesis to explain why the game’s story is the way that they judged it to be in their perspective application.
The explanatory thesis is the third stage of object-holist theory-building. This stage of theorizing is what occupies most of the main features on With a Terrible Fate; the guiding principle behind it is that we can use logical argumentation based on well-founded, rational premises to illuminate the stories of video games in new ways that change how we understand and appreciate these games as we play them. Rather than issuing a review of a game (i.e. a perspective application) and taking our judgments to be well founded simply based on authority or our own intuition, we see reviews as judgments that must be further scrutinized and defended on the basis of reasons.
For a graphical representation of this final phase, we can visualize the swath of data that we encompassed in our perspective application, tapering off into a single point, representing the engineering of a core thesis (or cluster of theses) explaining the judgments derived from the previous phase of theorizing.
Nate’s analysis of The Last Guardian in his series on nudgy controls nicely captures how the application of an explanatory thesis illuminates the storytelling of a game beyond mere perspective application. His explanatory thesis claims that The Last Guardian‘s mechanics for controlling the beast Trico emulate the experience of training a wild animal; this thesis, in turn, allows him to explain precisely how and why two evaluative claims about the game leveled by Game Informer are actually mutually contradictory.
Game Informer complains that “Trico’s inability to consistently follow your commands drags the experience down more than anything else,” yet they also say that “The Last Guardian forges a connection between the player and Trico unlike anything else in gaming.” Now we can understand that Trico’s inability to consistently follow commands is actually a crucial part of how that special connection gets forged. While it is tempting to view the inconsistencies in the control scheme as factors that make The Last Guardian worse, it actually is the case that the controls do work to develop the relationship between the boy and his beast.
The explanatory thesis might be most of what we’ve historically shared on With a Terrible Fate, but our categorical insistence on its value is something of a non-sequitur unless you recognize it as the last step in a logical method of analysis: start by gathering your data, then render a judgment on that data, and, finally, explain why that judgment is an appropriate judgment of that data.
The Utility and Scope of Object-Holist Theory-Building
The goal of object-holist theorizing about video-game storytelling—and the goal of this three-stage method for executing it—is to illuminate video games’ stories in such a way that the real people who play these games will see them differently and appreciate them in new, deeper ways in virtue of being familiar with these theories. But as I see it, this is also just a way of explicitly structuring and putting a name to something that gamers do all the time.
- We all discuss our experiences with games. (Stage 1: unfiltered reception.)
- We all say what we like and what we don’t like about games. (Stage 2: perspective application.)
- And, we all give reasons why we think games ought to be seen in the way that we see them—or at least, why people will gain some new insight into the game by seeing it in the way that we believe it ought to be seen. (Stage 3: explanatory thesis.)
As I said at the outset, I think the one mistake that’s often made is seeing these three stages as siloed, unrelated activities (discussing them, reviewing them, and academically analyzing them). When we instead view them as three stages in the effort to enrich our understanding of video games’ stories, we can better understand the ontology of our views about games. Which parts of our views are an artifact of the data we collected (or failed to collect)? Which parts are most influenced by our raw judgments? And which are the results of the specific premises and inferences we used when developing our explanatory theses?
By better understanding the ontology of our and others’ views, we can have better conversations and debates about how to best understand video-game storytelling. This can’t be undervalued, because, like I said earlier, egos can enter the picture and cloud our judgment once we start offering argumentatively charged views about our and others’ favorite games. The more we understand not just the views that other gamers are offering, but also the methodology by which they’ve developed those views, the better equipped we’ll be to speak positively and productively with one another, rather than butting heads and refusing to contribute to a deeper, collective understanding of games, in which we all can share.
And this kind of collaboration is centrally important to the project of analyzing games, because their are many evaluative perspectives that we can apply to any given game and its story—which means that there are correspondingly many explanatory theses that can deepen our understanding of any given game.
That’s a lot of work to do, if we’re serious about understanding our favorite games, and favorite storytelling medium, as deeply as possible.
We’re going to need all the help we can get.