Julian Kücklich: beyond narratology or taking games seriously
On the 16th of November in the year of the Fire Dog, a German bloke named Julian Raul Kücklich visited an ugly building in Amsterdam called the P.C. Hoofthuis. This man, designated as one of the few worthy game theorists by Geert Lovink, spoke introductory words to us regarding the studying of games.
Mr. Kücklich started off restating the validity of game research, emphasizing their economical impact and how increasingly common it has become to regard them as media forms and cultural objects. What followed was a brief journey through game practices, genres, theoretical clashes and future approaches to game studies, all from the eyes of Kücklich’s home school, literary studies.
Kücklich takes an insightful step by reassessing what the term computer games includes. He shows that there are PC games, console games, webgames, mobile games and even “invisible games” like minesweeper and solitaire, which many people barely recognize as games at all.
These are all gaming forms with different cultural practices or even audiences; historically, the console platform generally boasted ‘twitch games‘ which appealed mainly to children whereas early PC games like Myst drew mainly older players. Needless to say, this distinction has been blurred by now.
The next subject Kücklich talks about is game genres. He mentions four of them:
* Action games (Reflex-based, fast action games that require swift decisionmaking and virtual motor skills.)
* Simulation games (emphasis on simulating things from Real Life)
* Role Playing Games (Games that involve a main character defined by a numerical system which can ‘level up’ during the course of the game)
* Adventure games (point-and-click puzzle games, which according to Kücklich are the most complex and interesting from a narrative point of view)
Regrettably, adventure games are Kücklich’s favourite genre, such as games like Myst and the excellent Grim Fandango. (The genre has died out mostly, by the way. Maybe I’ll write a post on possible causes for this later on.) Kücklich also distinguishes between various social settings during gameplay – for instance, you can play single-player, or go to a LAN party and play with loads of people or you can play in teams in MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. He didn’t mention a 2-4 player console game setting like Mario Kart or Tekken, though.
Kücklich then moves into the realm of game theory. He starts out noting that the ye olde gametheorists like Huizinga and Caillois were concerned with analogue games like boardgames and cardgames, which had mostly nothing to do with narratives, whereas computer games generate narratives through the act of playing (and of course stories are sometimes also provided by the games themselves). As such game theorists are encouraged to move on and cease invoking Huizinga. Kücklich turns to narratology and games again by pointing out the first study of narratology and games, namely “Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame ‘Adventure’ by Mary Ann Buckles in 1985. Curiously enough the game itself evolved out of a spelunking simulator from the early 1960s. Roleplaying games and adventure games are very dialogue/text-heavy, and therefore interesting to those who like to perform textual analysis. Espen Aarseth, one of the most important contemporary new media theorists, used the game Deadline in his study of hypertexts and ergodic literature; ergodic meaning that active non-trivial effort is required to consume the media object, as opposed to kicking back and passively enjoy something (like a film). Kücklich points out that the feedback loop between user and machine is what make games so special as opposed to previous media.
Another theorist mentioned is Janet Murray, who wrote “Hamlet on the Holodeck.” In this book she foresees a glorious future for games as immersive narratives that cause a transformation of Self. I was greatly amused when Kücklich quoted a comment from Marie-Laure Ryan who commented on this idea of immersive virtual reality with something like “We already have this technology and it’s called literature.”
The next subject is the infamous debate between narratologists and ludologists. The first school proposes to approach games as a text or vehicle for narratives, whereas the second school insists on treating games exclusively as games. The narratologists were seen as committing theoretical imperialism whereas the ludologists were regarded as conservative protectionists. In the end, the debate seemed rather fruitless and both sides claimed it never even took place. Kücklich concludes that the best approach to games likely lies somewhere in the middle.
Regardless, approaching games from a narratological perspective had gone out of fashion, to the dismay of the speaker. He proposes there’s still a wealth of narrative avenues to be explored; for instance, spatialized narrative or even travel narratives in games like Grand Theft Auto III.
An interesting use of narrative appeared in Half-Life in 1998. The game uses what is now known as procedural narration; where narrative is brought during the game while the player can still move around and look at the environment (but can’t interact too much with the environment). This technique gets rid of special cut scenes which disrupt the gaming experience.
Another curious development is the emergence of micro-narratives or worldbuilding narratives – snippets of information and glimpses of story that are irrelevant to the main narrative but contribute to the sense of playing in a believable world. For instance, after you’ve killed an opponent you may find his diary describing his daily life, family and so on. Examples of games employing these kind of narratives are Deus Ex (2000), Baldur’s Gate (1998) and Morrowind (2002).
Finally Kücklich names Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time as a refreshing way of storytelling – where the Prince is both player character and narrator. This allows for very self-conscious narration and the narrator himself denying that when a player makes a fatal mistake it ever happened.
The last part of the presentation was a bit rushed due to time constraints. Kücklich hurriedly attempts to suggest a future course for game studies. He argues to go beyond narratology, and see games as fiction, as games creating fictional universes, where they are on a quest of representational realism and that they have connections to the real world. He argues that hermeneutic interaction is embedded in the process of playing.
He advocates future research of games from a number of literary perspectives: the theory of fiction, poetics, hermeneutics and aesthetics. Unfortunately he didn’t have time to expand on all of these though. It’d be really cool if Mr. Kücklich would be inclined to comment here, maybe clarify some of the points made in the presentation and pointing out any errors that I may have made!