Narrative Structure and Games – Backstory?
I’ve started writing up my literature review. And that has sent me back to the literature itself, to try and make head or tale of the cryptic comments I made to myself when I read it the fist time. Take for example Barry Ip’s two part article in Games and Culture, Narrative Structures in Computer and Video Games. Ip offers, in part one, his own pretty complete literature review of story in games. Indeed I could quote him extensively and move on, except there are some things he said that obviously prickled me. And now I’ve had to re-read him to find our why.
Overall, its the useful summary of game narrative I thought it was. It saves me having to play games for months, with a stopwatch to hand. And looking at it again, I’m reminded of a particular reference to a now out of print and distribution book I was going to check for in the library, but never did*. It needs a bit of updating, mostly by references to Tynan Sylvester’s work, and Terence Lee’s piece on emergent narrative.
But the thing that gets my goat is his use of the term “back story”. I was obviously annoyed this quote:
Backstories are usually presented just before a game begins or seen written on the back of game packaging or in its instruction manual to capture a player’s attention as well as set the scene for the entire game.
Now to my mind, what he is describing is the “blurb”, or at best a prologue that states “what has gone before” and, maybe sets the scene. Whereas I think of backstory as the background created for a fictional character, which isn’t explained at the start of the narrative (where it really becomes part of the narrative) but may be referred to as the narrative progresses. It is complete (if anywhere) only in the author’s head, but the reader (or player) can construct their own understanding of it from the clues peppered throughout the narrative. This was one aspect of Red Dead Redemption that I liked, the player’s avatar had a backstory (and not a very pleasant one) that the player could only piece together during the game. In contrast the player’s avatar in Skyrim has no-backstory – other than he is a captive at the start of the game.
So this time, rather than tap out a barely understandable note to myself, i went to the dictionary to be proved right. The online Oxford dictionary says:”A history or background created for a fictional character in a film or television programme” Aha! I was right! But then it goes on to give an example: “‘a brief prologue detailing our hero’s backstory'” Curses! That’s more like Ip’s definition … And Merriam-Webster agrees with Ip. On the other hand, Wikipedia backs up my understanding (today at least).
Oh! I don’t know, maybe I should just live with it. It seems I’ve spent more time niggling at the word than actually writing – which may of course have been the point.
*Kernels and Satellites from Cohen and Shire’s 1988 Telling stories: A theoretical analysis of narrative fiction