Stefan Schubert: Narrative and Play in American Studies: Ludic Textuality in the Video Game Alan Wake and the TV Series Westworld
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The study of US popular culture has long focused—mostly implicitly—on a particular symbolic form, that of narrative. Popular crime-fiction or science-fiction novels, movie blockbusters, big-budget television shows, comic books or graphic novels, and many other types of texts and media that make up popular culture, while diverse in their specific aesthetic and medial properties, share a fundamental focus on telling a story. In contrast, other symbolic forms, understood as ways of meaning-making and making sense of experience, have often been sidelined in popular-culture studies, and in American Studies as well. I contend, however, that the study of US-American popular culture should more strongly recognize and be opened up to another symbolic form in particular: play. Methodologically, this focus on symbolic forms shifts attention away from the medium of (diverse) texts. Consequently, a video game may be understood, in terms of its symbolic forms, as predominantly play yet including many narrative elements as well. Likewise, there are texts and media traditionally understood as (only) narrative that also exhibit ludic aspects. Such a fusion of narrative and play, in fact, is most visible in contemporary US popular culture (roughly from the late 1990s onward), as I will show.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Aligning myself with the call to recognize and make use of the general affinity between the methods of American Studies and the subject of video games that Sascha Pöhlmann has outlined in the introduction of this volume, I want to take a conceptual step back to suggest that there is an even larger link connecting these two areas of inquiry, the one between narrative and play. More specifically, I suggest that applying the methods of American Studies to video games also allows for an investigation of the interplay of narrative and play. In turn, I argue that such an investigation makes visible a particularly prominent trend in contemporary US popular culture to engage in what one could call ‘ludic textuality,’ a fusion of play and narrative that has achieved particular popularity and cultural salience in recent years. While this is a fusion of forms most readily visible in video games, it is actually a trend that works across media and extends to texts one would not usually consider a ‘game,’ such as a film like Inception (2010), a TV show like Westworld (2016-), or a novel like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000).
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In the following, I will thus first outline a few theoretical and methodological considerations on the intermingling of narrative and play, understood as symbolic forms. Subsequently, I will specify these links by examining how contemporary popular culture interweaves these elements, arguing to understand both the video game Alan Wake (2010) and the TV series Westworld as ‘narratively liminal’ texts that exhibit ludic textuality. I will conclude with some implications for how American Studies could conceptualize and think about play and narrative given this contemporary dominant in popular culture.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 I suggest to understand narrative and play as symbolic forms that cannot necessarily be neatly separated from each other. Lev Manovich prominently uses the term ‘symbolic form’ in his call to consider database as a different form than narrative, as a “new way to structure our experience of ourselves and of the world” (81). Manovich traces this use to Erwin Panofsky’s discussion of perspective as a symbolic form, which in turn builds on Ernst Cassirer’s theories, as Panofsky advocates that perspective “may even be characterized as (to extend Ernst Cassirer’s felicitous term to the history of art) one of those ‘symbolic forms’ in which ‘spiritual meaning is attached to a concrete, material sign and intrinsically given to this sign’” (40-41). Slightly moving away from Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and instead embracing Manovich’s rather loose use of the term (at times used interchangeably with ‘cultural form’), I understand symbolic forms as distinct ways of meaning-making, of “structuring” and making sense of “our experience” (Manovich 81). These different forms, consequently, also entail different pleasures, aesthetics, affordances, and user experiences, which can be studied as elements that characterize a symbolic form.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Manovich initially replicates the humanities’ predominant focus on the symbolic form of narrative when he claims that “narrative [is] the key form of cultural expression of the modern age” and that narrative has “traditionally dominated human culture” (80), but then he moves on to say that database has now emerged as a new, ubiquitous form. In order to ‘see’ and recognize this, one first needs to be aware of narrative as another such form, not just as the (universal or standard) form of meaning-making. Somewhat similarly, early ‘ludological’ scholarship in the field of game studies constructed narrative as an antagonist from which video-game scholarship needed to separate and emancipate itself, where a theoretical interest in studying narratives in video games was suspected of finding narratives even where there are none (cf., e.g., Eskelinen). Partly, this over-emphasis on narrative even on the part of those who seek to distance themselves from it is a result of the ‘narrative turn’ in much of the humanities and beyond (cf. Punday 1-20), prompting disciplines like history, political science, or psychology to productively consider questions of narrativization and the narrative constructedness of experiences (Czarniawska 2-3). Yet a flip-side of that innovative focus, and of the at times “imperialist tendencies” of literary studies (Pöhlmann xx), has indeed been an often implicit tendency threatening to identify all kinds of texts or other phenomena as (only) narrative. While I want to sideline this larger ‘ideological’ discussion in this article, I deem it crucial to recognize the fact that other symbolic forms, other ways of ordering meaning and experience beyond narrative, do exist, among them play, data, ritual, the lyrical, performance, spectacle, and a host of others.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Focusing particularly on play and narrative as connected yet distinguishable symbolic forms necessitates an exploration of how they process meanings and structure experiences in different ways. Such an endeavor naturally entails certain generalizations, yet particularly for the study of narrative, it seems productive to consider narrative not as a ‘given,’ as a (culturally) ‘unmarked’ category but as ‘marked’ as well—as not necessarily a ‘neutral’ way of processing information but as one that comes with certain biases or preconceptions. Similar to other marked/unmarked pairs, this status of narrative becomes (more) visible in comparison and in contrast to other symbolic forms. Accordingly, and in no way claiming exhaustiveness, I would name as characteristics of narrative, in particular, a certain coherence, order, and causality of the depicted events (cf. Nünning and Nünning 66), a focus on ‘linearity’ in representing these events, and a drive toward closure and finality. This, however, would be a kind of ‘prototypical’ narrative, when in actuality many narratives violate some of these principles, for instance by foregoing closure or complicating an ordered or coherent retelling of the events. The fact that narrative is so amenable to variation and modification speaks to its pull as a symbolic form, and texts that test the limits of narrative do not refute these more general characteristics but are evidence that they exist in the first place. Accordingly, within the methodological framework I outline here, whenever a specific text strays from these narrative principles, it can be considered to abandon the foothold of narrative as a symbolic form and to become narratively liminal.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 In contrast, I see play—in an equally generalized manner—as characterized by interactivity, agency, nonlinearity, and iteration (among others): games have to be actively (and often physically) interacted with in order to ‘work’ (cf. Aarseth 1-2), an interactivity that also implies familiarity with the rules of a game, a central focus of many ludological takes on video games (cf. Aarseth; Juul; Frasca). Play provides options and decisions to players between which they can choose, fueling the agency players might feel they have (cf. Murray 126-53). These choices, in turn, can lead to different experiences and outcomes, and this constitutes the nonlinearity of games. Finally, because of this, many games encourage repeated playthroughs or repetitions of individual sequences, establishing the iterative nature of play. These elements also combine to create (narrative) openness rather than closure. As with narrative, not all instances of play are characterized by all of these aspects equally, which speaks to an understanding of play (and other forms) as gradual rather than absolute. Particular acts of playing, be they a game of chess, playing hide and seek, or the video game Grand Theft Auto V (2013), might offer different amounts of agency and choice to their players, they might entail very different ways of interacting with them, or they might encourage repeated engagements in pronounced ways or not at all. Consequently, these differences would make them more or less ludic in this fluid understanding.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Significantly, unlike Manovich’s oft-quoted dictum that “database and narrative are natural ‘enemies’” (85) or some ludologists’ insistence that play and narrative are fundamentally different, I do not understand narrative and play as strictly separated. Instead, they differ in their characteristics as symbolic forms, but more importantly, they frequently intermingle, since they share a rather symbiotic relationship, as Henry Jenkins seminally proposed in “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” Actual pop-culture texts will frequently exhibit characteristics of multiple symbolic forms, overall constituting their liminality with regard to any of them. While I understand video games as predominantly a combination of play and narrative (whereas other scholars might emphasize other forms), individual games or even larger genres of games can differ significantly in the emphasis they lay on these particular elements. While a game like Pong (1972) or Tetris (1984) consists almost exclusively of ludic elements and virtually no narrative ones, a so-called ‘walking simulator’ like Dear Esther (2012), while a video game in terms of medium, exhibits a very low number of ludic aspects and relies almost entirely on narrative for how it structures meaning and experience. Most video games, however, are located somewhere in the middle of this spectrum from narrative to play, and popular games like the Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, or Call of Duty series want to both be played/interacted with and tell some kind of story.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In these games, then, narrative and ludic elements coexist: individual ludic elements, like the player having to make a choice, are frequently connected to narrative aspects (and vice versa), for instance by narratively motivating that choice (cf. also Manovich 83). Additionally, many of the seemingly contradictory elements of the two forms can be effectively combined in order to create a pleasurable text: narrative’s drive towards closure, for example, will tend to compel players of a choice-heavy game like Heavy Rain or Detroit: Become Human (2018) to bring the story to a close, in turn increasing their investment in the choices they can make to affect that ending, as these games offer multiple possible outcomes as part of their nonlinearity, which does not by itself entail closure.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Next to historical examples demonstrating the fusion of narrative and play in US culture, I contend that ludic textuality plays an especially prominent role in contemporary popular culture, where it works to engender mainstream popularity through particular textual pleasures. This understanding relates to and accentuates other scholarly takes on recent popular culture, which characterize the contemporary period, for instance, as a time of convergence culture (cf. Jenkins, Convergence), of widespread remediation and transmediality (cf. Bolter and Grusin; Thon), or of (narrative) complexity (cf. Mittell; Kiss and Willemsen). While these paradigms frequently work together, they rarely acknowledge one aspect that simultaneously drives the movements towards convergence, transmediality, and complexity: the fusion of narrative and play, which brings together different media in narratively more ‘complex’ ways. Overall, while these different studies tend to approach such connections along media lines, I instead propose to understand them as a productive synthesis of symbolic forms.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 However, recognizing such media differences, the development towards ludic textuality is evident in two larger areas: video games, as fundamentally ludic media, remediate elements of novels, films, and TV series for how they engage in narration. In turn, these other, traditionally more narrative media are increasingly influenced by video-game aesthetics, inserting ludic elements into the way they tell their stories. Thinking strictly on the level of symbolic forms, play becomes more narrative, and narrative becomes more playful. Such ludic textuality in contemporary US popular culture has achieved considerable mainstream popularity—forming part of what some have called a ‘ludification’ (cf. Frissen et al.)—which can be partly explained by the pleasures that the combination of narrative and ludic elements affords. For instance, the decisions and choices one can make in a video game are a significant source of pleasure in themselves, yet they become more meaningful if they are narrativized, and the feeling of agency they can create largely depends on the success of convincing players that their choices have a narrative impact as well. Likewise, a movie that places particular importance on an unforeseen narrative event—such as a twist film—can increase its ludic appeal if it encourages and narratively rewards rewatching specific scenes closely with additional hints toward a twist ending, aesthetically mirroring the iterative experience of play. I will further elucidate the contemporary salience of ludic textuality through two brief exemplary readings, of the video game Alan Wake and the TV series Westworld.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Released in 2010, Alan Wake casts players in the role of the eponymous Alan, a best-selling crime and horror writer who has recently been suffering from writer’s block and, as a potential remedy, goes on vacation to a town called Bright Falls. The game’s basic narrative premise finds Alan trapped inside his own story, a story he cannot remember writing but from which he constantly finds manuscript pages detailing events that are still about to happen. He also repeatedly witnesses somebody on TV screens that looks exactly like him and is talking to himself, and he is frequently addressed by another writer called Thomas Zane, somehow communicating with Alan without a physical form and suggesting how he can manipulate the world by ‘writing’ himself and a variety of objects into scenes.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Alan Wake is an action/adventure game in which players control Alan throughout Bright Falls and shoot supernatural enemies conjured by the Dark Presence haunting the small town. In terms of its medium, Alan Wake is clearly a video game (released for Xbox 360 and in 2012 for PCs), and its most fundamental elements all take a ludic form: players have to navigate the digital space, choose where to go and what to interact with, pick up useful items along the way, use a flashlight and various weapons to defend Alan against the Dark Presence, solve a few environmental puzzles to advance to the next area, and so on. Many of these choices, however, are explicitly narrativized: trying to find the optional manuscript pages from Alan’s novel, for instance, does not help players to defeat the game’s enemies or to advance through the levels. Instead, it offers a narrative reward, as Alan reads out the individual pages, which flesh out the game’s narrative background or offer hints towards solving its narrative mysteries.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Overall, on the spectrum of ludic textuality, I would classify Alan Wake as more narrative than play, an emphasis that, curiously, manifests itself through an awareness of media (and not symbolic forms) in the game itself. While the game generally displays a high degree of textual self-awareness toward its own storytelling capabilities, it renders this through references to other media, specifically traditionally narrative ones. Its more intricate narrative setup does not just feature such particular elements but also a concern with narrative (and text) itself. The manuscript pages, for instance, point to the game players are experiencing as a fictional artifact as well, while some specific pages display the metatextual link between the game and the pages of this novel, foreshadowing events that are still about to happen or that are happening right in the moment of reading the page. This self-awareness of the game trying to tell a story is thus processed through the narrative medium of the novel. In comparison, at least on a surface level, there are almost no explicit references to Alan Wake being a game. Instead, there are myriad examples of characters referring to what they experience as a story, to Alan talking about how this mirrors a novel, to parallels between the events players witness and a TV show that Alan had been writing years earlier, etc. For all of the game’s overall self-awareness, however, there are no overt references to Alan being trapped inside a video game. Instead, within Alan Wake’s storyworld, an awareness of the game’s own narrativity and textuality appears through explicit references to other media. The game itself thus is torn between the symbolic forms of narrative and play, a dialectic that it negotiates through media differences within its own storyworld.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 For instance, in regard to television, these aspects come together especially well in scenes when the Alan players control sees the other Alan, who is writing in the cabin, through a television set. These TV sets are spread throughout the game, but in each occurrence they present a distinct metaleptic narrative structure. In the first such scene, as players approach a TV inside a gas station, it switches on and shows Alan sitting in a cabin, talking to himself about the need to continue writing the story of the Alan controlled by players. The TV switches off again, and Alan’s voice-over says: “I don’t believe this. It’d been me on the TV, talking crazy. Was I losing my mind?” Cabin Alan, writing the novel that Player Alan is featured in, is on a higher level of narration, yet through the TV, players are able to see and witness that higher level from Player Alan’s hypodiegetic level—usually a narrative impossibility, which thus pinpoints the game’s pervasive use of metalepses and highlights its own narrativity Moreover, the scene points to the general difficulty of positioning Alan’s voice-over narration. Usually, it is suggested that the voice-over is a representation of Alan’s current thoughts (part of his internal focalization), but the setup in this scene also hints at the possibility of the voice-over actually being part of the narrator’s passages in the novel Alan is writing in the cabin. This blurring is evident in the tense shift in the quote, which begins with what could be considered Alan’s current thoughts in present tense (“I don’t believe this”) but then goes over to the past tense typical of narration (“Was I losing my mind?”).
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Importantly, the television set that links these two narrative levels also references the game’s general awareness of other media and its own medialization and narrativity. The narrative ‘conflict’ between the different Alans is thus presented as a struggle between what is considered ‘old’ and ‘new’ media. The game itself is also narratively structured with storytelling devices from a TV show, as it is separated into six individual chapters (similar to TV episodes), each of which ends with a cliffhanger and an outro song and begins with a “Previously, on Alan Wake” segment, a storytelling device that—in a video game that, for the most part, was not released episodically—mirrors an aesthetic of seriality nowadays known especially from Netflix’s practice to release all episodes of a TV show’s season at once.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Alan Wake, then, does not only feature relatively typical elements of trying to inject narrative into play, such as narratively motivated choices, settings, and characters, but it also is an example of a video game, a form of play, that displays an explicit and metatextual interest in storytelling. Rather than develop this interest along the narrative peculiarities of video games, it instead renders them through references to other media. In turn, however, this also explains why Alan Wake is relatively linear and thus, on many accounts, more aligned with narrative than play: the game mimics a (traditionally linear) television show, it is reluctant to recognize its own status as a game, and, perhaps most importantly, it suggests that what players experience is part of a novel Alan has written—an Alan whom players, however, do not control, severely reducing their agency over the unfolding narrative. Specifically, the few choices in optional exploration that the game does include have no effect on the overall narrative outcome. Hence, Alan Wake’s resemblance to the two traditionally linear narrative media of the novel and television holds back the game’s ludic aspects, offering relatively little agency and nonlinearity and ultimately suggesting pleasure rather through the disentangling of a complex and mysterious story than via its (relatively basic and repetitive) gameplay. This penchant ultimately speaks to the game’s own unease as a ludic text, metatextually transferring Alan’s ontological and epistemological anxieties (cf. Fuchs) to the game itself.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 I propose to use a similar approach for studying ludic textuality in media that are not obviously ‘games’—or play—as well, and to that extent, the TV show Westworld may serve as an example. The science-fiction series is set in an undisclosed futuristic time, in which a theme park called Westworld offers a kind of alternate reality in a Western setting, replete with android ‘hosts’ catering to human visitors. In terms of medium, Westworld is obviously a TV show (inspired by the 1973 film of the same name), featuring a serialized narrative over two seasons (at the time of this writing) with ten episodes each. However, the form in which it makes sense of experience, and overall the cultural work it does, can be better grasped as an instance of ludic textuality, a story whose telling is characterized by a number of ‘playful’ elements.
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 On the one hand, the show makes a number of references directly to video games as a medium (rather than to play as a symbolic form), particularly in reference to the depiction of the Westworld theme park. For instance, numerous characters, and particularly the Man in Black, repeatedly describe visiting and experiencing the park and the search for the maze as a “game” whose “deeper level” needs to be found (e.g. S1E1, S1E2, S1E4, S1E8, S1E9). This experience is also similar to that of controlling an avatar in a video game, an aspect highlighted when William is shown to be able to choose his wardrobe before entering Westworld (S1E2), mirroring character-creation screens in many role-playing video games. Other such smaller elements include references to difficulty settings and “level[s]” by Logan (S1E1, S1E5), (side) quests as found in many games (S1E2), references to an “Easter egg,” a gimmick hidden in video games (S1E4), or loot found off the corpses of bandits (S1E4). Larger gaming and playing principles are also implied, such as multiple evocations of rules that structure the Westworld park (S1E5, S1E9, S1E10) and the central competitiveness of many video games, which the Man in Black evokes in his philosophy that “winning doesn’t mean anything unless someone else loses” as part of his zero-sum attitude to experiencing Westworld (S1E1).
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 On the other hand, I suggest that beyond these mere references to video games, there are aspects of the show’s narration that mirror forms of play, which is most notable in its iterative narrative structure. This is generally evident in a number of references to loops and reboots throughout the series (cf. Kanzler 58-64), for example in the multiple times that the daily routine of Dolores, one of the park’s androids, is shown: waking up, leaving the house, and riding to the nearby town of Sweetwater. The first season depicts the image of Dolores dropping a can of milk on the streets of Sweetwater multiple times, establishing that depending on who picks up the can (Dolores, another host called Teddy, or a human guest), the rest of Dolores’s routine will differ. Accordingly, the repetitive nature of her daily cycle includes potentials for agency, for diverging paths, that establish a nonlinearity typical of play. While this nonlinearity exists only within the storyworld (i.e. for the characters), it thus leads to an iterative narrative structure for the viewers. Another example of a ludic kind of narration invokes the video-game mechanic of ‘quickloading’ and ‘quicksaving’: Dolores’s ability to remember her memories very clearly and to tap into their ‘reality’ is discursively presented according to a similar logic as the ability to save in a video game, attempt a difficult passage, fail, and reload in order to try again. When Dolores is shot by a person yelling at her to “[g]et back here,” the camera shows her holding her hands over the bleeding wound (S1E3). Then, the same person is heard yelling again, and Dolores’s wound is suddenly gone. This time, with the knowledge of what is about to happen, she can react quickly and runs away. The scene thus is presented as if Dolores pushed the ‘quickload’ button in order to replay the same sequence and act in a different way. Overall, these more subtle similarities to play add to the more overt references to video games and thus characterize Westworld as an example of how contemporary popular culture is increasingly ‘ludified.’
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 In addition to this focus on iteration and agency, Westworld also frequently evokes the trope of the maze as an enigma that both Dolores and the Man in Black pursue (cf. Kanzler 64-68). Using the maze as a way of metaphorizing what it is that both some hosts and most guests in the park seek accentuates elements of play involved in interpretation, an interaction and ‘playing’ with meanings in the form of a narrative puzzle that has to (and can be) ‘solved.’ On a metatextual level, the show thus suggests to take pleasure in its narrative by understanding it, partly, as a form of play, at least in the sense of a narrative ‘puzzle’ or ‘maze’ to be solved. In turn, the show’s reception demonstrates that this suggested pleasure in the fusion of narrative and play seems to have resonated, since Westworld’s openly insinuated mysteries were prominently discussed week by week in online articles, blog entries, forums, and on social media. Viewers predicted some of the narrative revelations by looking closely at specific scenes, rewatching episodes, and contextualizing later episodes with previous ones, all of which mirrors practices that aesthetically resemble the interactive and iterative nature of playing. Part of the metatextual parallels Westworld draws between the visitors of the park, its hosts, and viewers of the show thus also entails engaging the narrative that it tells as a form of play or a kind of game, self-consciously positioning itself between the aesthetics of traditional stories and newer media like video games. Whereas Alan Wake’s narrative, though sophisticated in its telling, becomes atypically linear for a video game because of its draw to media like the novel and television, Westworld infuses its storytelling with ludic elements. It does not, of course, offer the same kind of interactive potential that a video game might, but in its narrative, it affords pleasures for how to actively engage with the text that aesthetically mirror activities inherent in acts of play.
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Taken together, these brief glimpses of analysis point to how two ostensibly very different texts—in terms of medium, genre, themes, etc.—share elements of both narrative and play to different degrees. A video game like Alan Wake, which in terms of its medium might be assumed to thoroughly embrace play, demonstrates how narrative can structure and curtail the ‘ludic-ness’ of the medium. Westworld, in turn, evidences that more traditional narratives can be innovated and experimented with through ludic aesthetic principles, fostering agency and ‘interactivity’ on the audience’s side by encouraging interpretative communities and highlighting narrative and interpretive openness (instead of closure) by mimicking games’ nonlinearity, advocating multiple possible outcomes, and embracing ambivalence. Despite all their material and ontological differences, the way these texts want to be engaged with—the uses and experiences that they afford—and the pleasures that they offer share certain similarities. Accordingly, how audiences engage with many video games and certain contemporary pop-cultural texts can also similarly be described as understanding them partly as narrative, partly as ludic. Hence, while Alan Wake and Westworld make different use of ludic textuality, they both demonstrate how moments of fusion seem to foster particular pop-cultural pleasures. Additionally, both use their references to other symbolic forms as part of larger self-reflexive discussions of textuality and narrativity, displaying a metatextual awareness of the borderlands between narrative and play that they occupy.
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Throughout this brief argument, I have attempted to demonstrate the methodological value in considering narrative and play as distinct yet related symbolic forms. In particular, I have argued how a fusion of narrative and play—which I call ludic textuality—is particularly characteristic of contemporary US popular culture, visible both in video games like Alan Wake exhibiting especially strong narrative ambitions and in traditionally narrative media like the TV show Westworld with its ludically infused narrative discourse. Taking a step back, these propositions have a number of implications for the study of video games in American Studies: first, the focus on ludic textuality helps contextualize other paradigms of studying contemporary US culture, such as convergence culture or narrative complexity. Second, it also sharpens our understanding of popular culture and popular pleasures in the contemporary US, where the fusion of narrative and play emerges as a driver of innovation and popularity (and commercial viability). Similar trends have existed in US culture before, but the prominence of ludic textuality in contemporary popular culture points to an embrace both of the narrative turn and of an ongoing ‘ludification’ of culture. Additionally, this focus illuminates some of the pleasures that video games and play in general afford, for instance a dialectic between narrative closure and nonlinearity or openness and an active engagement with the formal aspects of a text. In turn, some of these pleasures complicate monolithic understandings of popular culture, since they would traditionally only be associated with ‘high’ culture, such as the enjoyment of texts’ operational aesthetics or of their pronounced metatextual dimension. Third, American Studies’ interest in texts’ cultural work and in their textual ‘politics’ lends itself to deliberations of play as well, in turn helping to transcend more formalist engagements in some approaches from game studies.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Finally, fully embracing video games and, more generally, the symbolic form of play could entail potentially productive transformations for American Studies as well. The field is already interested in diverse kinds of media (and other types of texts), and studying video games transmedially accentuates their medial peculiarities. Something similar would be true for an embrace of play and narrative as symbolic forms, comparatively sharpening the contours of both. While the fusion of the two forms might be most visible in video games, from there, American Studies might recognize similar instances of narrative liminality in other media as well. This would both broaden the field’s horizon beyond an implicit focus on narrative and facilitate a better understanding of narrative itself—in contrast to other symbolic forms—as well. In fact, a certain kind of indeterminacy implied in (narrative) liminality, and particularly the unstable looseness between play and narrative, connects with a healthy “skepticism towards its own object of research” inherent in the field of American Studies (Pöhlmann xx). Revisiting and extending our understanding of contemporary US (popular) culture by more thoroughly taking play into consideration thus promises to productively complicate and renegotiate understandings that have been implicit in the field’s strong interest in narrative, an undertaking best started by analyzing video games but one that should also be applied beyond medial boundaries.
¶ 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Elsaesser, Thomas. “The Mind-Game Film.” Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, edited by Warren Buckland, John Wiley and Sons, 2009, pp. 13-41.
¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Frasca, Gonzalo. “Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology.” The Video Game Theory Reader, edited by Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron, Routledge, 2003, pp. 221-35.
¶ 42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Fuchs, Michael. “‘A Horror Story That Came True’: Metalepsis and the Horrors of Ontological Uncertainty in Alan Wake.” Monsters and the Monstrous, vol. 3, no. 1, 2013, pp. 95-107. Academia, www.academia.edu/5036312/_A_Horror_Story_That_Came_True_Metalepsis_and_the_Horrors_of_Ontological_Uncertainty_in_Alan_Wake.
¶ 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Kanzler, Katja. “‘This Game Is Not Meant For You’: Westworld an der Schnittstelle von Narrativ und Spiel.” Mensch, Maschine, Maschinenmenschen: Multidisziplinäre Perspektiven auf die Serie Westworld, edited by Brigitte Georgi-Findlay and Katja Kanzler, Springer, 2018, pp. 53-70.
¶ 53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 Nünning, Ansgar, and Vera Nünning. “Conceptualizing ‘Broken Narratives’ from a Narratological Perspective: Domains, Concepts, Features, Functions, and Suggestions for Research.” Narrative im Bruch: Theoretische Positionen und Anwendungen, edited by Anna Babka et al., Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2016, pp. 37-86.
¶ 54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 OthoHasTheHandbook. “[THEORY] Dolores’ Conversations Are with ARNOLD, Not Bernard.” Reddit, www.reddit.com/r/westworld/comments/59bwvd/theory_dolores_conversations_are_with_arnold_not/. Accessed 5 Sept. 2018.
¶ 57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 Schubert, Stefan. “‘Lose Yourself’: Narrative Instability and Unstable Identities in Black Swan.” Current Objectives of Postgraduate American Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, May 2013, copas.uni-regensburg.de/article/view/164.
¶ 61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 This conception follows research conducted as part of my dissertation on ‘narrative instability,’ in which I understand the infusion of play into narrative as one of the ways in which the narrations of contemporary US popular-culture texts become destabilized (cf. Schubert).
¶ 62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 Many of the following ideas and theoretical considerations have been formed during discussions and collaborations as part of the research network “Narrative Liminality and/in the Formation of American Modernities” (www.narrative-liminality.de), funded by the German Research Foundation.
¶ 63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 In terms of the ludology-narratology debate, Ian Bogost offers a particularly compelling analysis of the underlying formalist questions that characterize both approaches. In contrast, my interest does not concern the question of what video games are (play or narrative?) but, rather, the more functionalist question of what this means, of how exactly video games might work as fusions of play and narrative, and what that can tell us about US culture.
¶ 64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 This is not, of course, an exhaustive list, but many of these forms have been studied as part of the work in the aforementioned research network on “Narrative Liminality.” In previous scholarship, these have rarely been considered or called ‘symbolic forms’ but have still been examined along similar lines, for instance in Diane Taylor’s discussion of ritual.
¶ 65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 However, with ‘linearity,’ I do not mean to refer to chronological narration. Narratives can, of course, be told achronologically, with analepses and prolepses. Instead, narrative can be understood as linear in the sense that nonlinearity denotes that there “is not simply one fixed sequence of letters, words, and sentences but [that] the words or sequence of words may differ from reading to reading because of the shape, conventions, or mechanisms of the text” (Aarseth 41). Nonlinearity thus entails the “ability to vary, to produce different courses” (Aarseth 41-42), which is more typical of play than it is of narrative. For example, in the video game Heavy Rain (2010), the choices the players make for the four protagonists can lead to vastly different narrative outcomes, including the aspect whether each of them survives or dies. When players finish the game, they will have witnessed one particular “sequence” or “course” of the narrative events, in Aarseth’s terms, yet if they play again and make different choices, their gaming experience can “produce different courses.” In a ‘traditional,’ linear novel, nonlinearity in this sense usually does not exist—there are, however, ways to imitate this ludic nonlinearity and to engage in a similar aesthetic, which I will discuss below.
¶ 67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 Additionally, next to an engagement with the game, interactivity also entails a social component, most notably in cooperative or online games that depend on other players, which in turn raises competitiveness as an element of many instances of play.
¶ 68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 This perspective also helps specify my understanding of interactivity, which complicates Aarseth’s notion of ergodic texts mentioned above. On the one hand, interactivity is not a binary category for me, and instead, certain texts, activities, or artifacts can be more or less interactive—arguably, for instance, Tetris (1984) is less interactive than Minecraft (2011) because of both the quantity of potentials to interact with the game and the quality, the impact that such interactions have on it. On the other hand, such interactivity does not only extend to the physical realm—a choice one can make in a game might be difficult on a physical level, because of the gameplay (e.g. by necessitating a complicated sequence of buttons), but it also usually includes a mental effort, to different degrees. Choosing between dialogue options in Heavy Rain or footnotes in House of Leaves is not very interactive on a physical level, but it can be a challenging and demanding decision narratively, taking into account the effects this choice may have on the experience of the text. The more potentially impactful this effect is, the more nonlinear the text can be, and the more agency can be given to players/readers, highlighting how closely interactivity, nonlinearity, and agency are connected to each other.
¶ 69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 Additionally, players looking at their avatar through a TV or a computer screen adds yet another metatextual level to these scenes, alluding to a breaking of the fourth wall (cf. Gonzales).
¶ 71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 On a different, purely thematic level, how Dolores thinks about agency also mirrors the way choices—as part of interactivity, nonlinearity, and agency—are often depicted in video games. Initially, Dolores believes that “[t]here’s a path for everyone” (S1E1), a particular phrasing repeated multiple times, yet later she wonders “if in every moment, there aren’t many paths. Choices, hanging in the air like ghosts” (S1E5). This idea of multiple choices for specific decisions is referenced via the video-game logic of branching paths, whereas the existence of only one ‘path’ implies linearity and little potential for agency.
¶ 72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 As just one such example, a thread on the website Reddit correctly speculates on a number of larger narrative revelations in the show (OthoHasTheHandbook). It was posted on October 25, 2016, after only the first four episodes of the show had been broadcast. Simultaneously, there were also, of course, other ideas and fan ‘theories’ that later turned out to be incorrect, so the existence of these more accurate predictions does not imply that everybody already knew about Westworld’s later twists by the fourth episode. Yet more importantly than whether these speculations turned out to be accurate or not, they point to the pleasure that actively ‘investigating’ and working with the text’s formal aspects can entail, similar to an enjoyment of the “operational aesthetics” in the role of “amateur narratologists” that Jason Mittell describes for complex television (51-52). As the Reddit user remarks at the beginning of their post: “It’s just fun to speculate, even if I’m completely off the mark” (OthoHasTheHandbook). Overall, by inviting such a form of reception and encouraging active interpretation through narrative openness, Westworld offers similar pleasures and tries to mirror the iterative and (interpretively) interactive nature of play.
¶ 73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 This fusion of narrative and play seems to have been less successful in the second season of the show, where multiple timelines blend seamlessly into each other. This also mirrors the nonlinearity of play—or, for instance, skipping back and forth between multiple pages in a novel because of footnotes leading one there—but, judging from the less enthusiastic reception of the season, does not seem to have offered enough coherence in the end, nor enough of a narrative payoff.
¶ 74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 0 Both are aspects that are highly relevant for Alan Wake and Westworld too, even though I could only vaguely allude to them in this paper. Specifically, it seems particularly interesting how these texts’ politics are affected by their formal properties—their fusion of narrative and play—as well, be that in their metatextual deliberations or in the discourses surrounding gender, whiteness/blackness, and (narrative) power with which both the game and the TV series engage.