OK, I apparently have a lot to say on narratives in gaming. I didn’t really intend to write quite so many posts on this, but I keep remembering a point I wanted to make. This is the last one. Probably. Unless I find the time to write my post on end-game content. But I’ll probably get to that later.

First, I’d just like to consider this definition of narrative that I’ve begun to apply to games. As far as I can tell, the definition I’m using is one of conflict. If there’s a conflict, there’s a narrative. I’d like to step back for a minute, in order to refine that definition. And to that, I’ll be stepping away from digital games, to consider more conventional games, namely board games.

Are board games narrative? Sometimes. Some are very narrative. In Clue, someone killed Mr. Body, and everyone’s trying to solve that crime. That’s both a very obvious narrative and very obvious conflict. But does something like Othello? There’s definitely a conflict between black and white, but I don’t think that’s enough to qualify it as a narrative. What about chess? I think you could construct a narrative for a game of chess. Now, I don’t mean that a game of chess represents the stand-off between two players. In that sense of a narrative, then you could construct a narrative for Othello. What I’m talking about is limited strictly to the game board. In chess, there are sixteen pieces, organized in a hierarchy, with pawns at the bottom and the king at the top. Crude though it may be, I think it’s easy to argue that this can be seen as simplified representation of a society. And there are two opposing sides. Fighting. It may sound obvious to say it, but chess is a representation of war. And war is, invariably, a narrative.

I think the key here is abstraction. The further abstracted a game becomes, the less narrative it becomes. Chess is very abstracted from actual war, but the pieces are still identifiable as representations of roles in a war. You could tell a story with a chess board. And I suppose you could impose a narrative on Othello, but it’s a stretch. Eventually you just get to something like tic-tac-toe, which, outside of the narrative of the competition between the players, there really isn’t anything there to tell a story with.

Back when I was brainstorming my post on non-narrative games, I also got to thinking about Pac-Man, but forgot about it by the time that I got to posting my blog entry. So, without further ado, be prepared to think of the narrative of Pac-Man way more than you ever thought possible.

OK, does Pac-Man have a narrative? As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think it does. Or maybe something like the hint of a narrative, an ur-narrative perhaps. We have Pac-Man. We have lots of dots. And fruit. And then there are the ghosts. And it’s the ghosts that I think provide the narrative to the game. The ghosts have names (Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde). They even have personalities (Shadow, Speedy, Bashful, and Pokey) that apparently affect their behavior and movement. The player has no idea what the maze is, or why Pac-Man is collecting dots, or why the ghosts hate him. But on that map, there are five named characters and a distinctive conflict, inscrutable though it may be. That’s a narrative. Heck, there are even cut-scenes, showing slap-stick interactions between Blinky and Pac-Man.

The sequel, Ms. Pac-Man takes it up a notch. First of all, the cut-scenes are even more involved, depicting the relationship between Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, culminating in their having a child. Now we not only have characters, but we have definable relationships between characters, with consequences (babies!). And you if want to take it even further, you could even extrapolate a lot about Ms. Pac-Man just from her name and her appearance. Ms. Pac-Man is an interesting set of contradictions. On the one hand, she took her husband’s name in marriage. On the other, she uses the title of Ms. She does the same job as her husband, but she isn’t afraid to be sexy either, wearing a bow and lipstick, and having a beauty mark. Ms. Pac-Man is, I submit, a third-wave feminist.

Although I played a large number of games this semester, the two games I played the most were Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Neither games are particularly narrative heavy, but both certainly present interesting approaches to integrate more developed narratives into essentially action-oriented games.

Considering how obsessed the game industry has become on delivering complex and involved narratives, Super Mario Galaxy presents about as bare-bones a narrative as is possible these days. Essentially, the plot is the same as every other Mario game: Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach, and Mario must rescue her. The difference is not that of story, but of setting. For reasons that remain unexplained, Bowser has access to high tech spacefaring technology, and abducts the Princess off to the center of the universe. Mario must go from galaxy to galaxy, picking up stars to power a machine in order to get himself to where Peach is being kept. That’s it. That’s the whole narrative. Every so often, once you’ve obtained a certain number of stars, there is a brief cutscene, but all it ultimately tells you is that a new sector to get stars is now available.

What is pretty interesting is that when you beat the game as Mario, you can then play through again as Luigi. The thing is, during the first play through, you rescue Luigi during one level, and then he helps you find a couple stars. When you’re playing as Luigi, who do you rescue? Luigi! The game even asks the question about whether there’s been weird cloning going on. It’s a strange decision, but also quite interesting.

On the other hand, Twilight Princess offers much closer to the conventional involved narrative. What I do find interesting, however, is how sporadic the narrative passages are. Which, now that I think about it, is how most games work. Few games are continually narrative. Instead, a narrative passage will set the stage for the character moving on to the next area of the game, which, when it is completed, will be followed by another narrative sequence, leading into the next action-focused passage. The game introduces Link, then gives me some fetch quests to learn the mechanics. Then my friends get kidnapped, and after a fairly lengthy narrative sequence, I learn how to progress. Once I’m done with that, I head off to the first dungeon, which represents an hour or two of uninterrupted gameplay. Once the boss is defeated, another narrative passage will tell me where to go. This, it seems to me, is the standard model of game narrative, a back-and-forth between narrative cut scenes and action oriented passages.

Earlier this semester, I was playing Super Paper Mario, and was struck by a very interesting moment early in the game. A character was explaining to Mario a new ability he had just learned, and was explaining how to perform it. When he explained to press the A button to activate it, the character added something along the lines of “Oh, you don’t know what that means? Well, perhaps someone is some parallel dimension is watching all this and knows what to do.” This was certainly a playful little jab at the standard game dialogue where a character explains to your game avatar which buttons to press. However, Link doesn’t need to press A to swing his sword, and it honestly doesn’t make any sense to tell him to do it. These times when characters momentarily break the fourth wall to explain game mechanics to the player are generally accepted as a necessary conceit, although clearly the makers of Super Paper Mario decided to have some fun with it.

Another similar instance is the boss Psycho Mantis from the original Metal Gear Solid. The character, a psychic, reads the contents of the player’s memory card and makes comments on the files there. Then, during the fight, he responds to the player’s actions. However, if you use the second player controller during the fight, Psycho Mantis becomes unable to “read” the player’s mind, and the fight becomes much easier.

Probably the most meta-textually rich game I know of is Eternal Darkness. In the game, aside from the standard health bar, characters also have a sanity meter. As they encounter Cthulu-esque monsters throughout the game, they lose sanity, and various sanity effects occur. Some of them are simple, like seeing enemies that aren’t there or hearing ominous noises. However, others are them bridge the fourth wall, presenting what seem like error messages, like the controller ceasing to work, or the system seemingly restarting.

Certainly these sorts of things present interesting examples, but they are also very rare. It would be interesting to see if there are any games that contain exclusively direct address to the player. The only example I can think of is the adventure genre, which are usually depicted from an exclusively first person perspective with no narrative information on the player character: the player is effectively the character. Other first person genres, particularly first person shooters, rarely go this route. Even though the perspective is first person, the character is definitely a character. The player is not Master Chief or Gordon Freeman, and the game makes no pretext that they are.

There was a time, not too long ago, when a game through you into the action right away with no explanation. Without any fancy-shmancy cut-scenes, you were suddenly controllling a plumber as he hopped on walking toadstools, or a tiny space ship as it destoryed hostile aliens, or a guy in gi beating up another guy in a gi. Personally, these are my favorite kinds of games; although I do enjoy more narratively intense games from time to time, at the end of the day, I love me some pure action, and long, drawn-out cut scenes get in the way of me being a bad enough dude to save the president.

Now, even though these games don’t present much or any narrative information within the games themselves, they certainly do have narratives. And not just in the way that by presenting a conflict, a narrative is automatically inferred. No, there’s a narrative, and people tend to know it. Mario is trying to save Princess Peach from Bowser and Ryu is trying to defeat M. Bison.

These narratives exists in separate texts, the instruction manual. When you play the game, it doesn’t come up, but if you want, you can read the instructions and find out why Mario or Sonic is doing what he’s doing. Another similar text, one closely related to the cut scene, is the pre-game introduction sequence. If you don’t press start, you can watch a little scene that explains that the mayor’s daughter’s been kidnapped, and that’s why you’re beating up street punks, but who honestly watches those?

Super Mario Bros. is a very interesting example in this vein, as it does in fact contain narrative information within the game. Every time you beat a world, you get a Toad telling you, “Thank you, but our princess is in another castle.” There’s no real reason for this, there’s nothing that says they couldn’t just not frame every boss fight as the potential end of the game, but for some reason, the narrative chooses you to string you along in this tongue-in-cheek way.

So, in thinking about narratives in games, I started by considering very simple and very early games. It occurred to me that something like Pong or Tetris are essentially narrativeless. This didn’t seem particularly noteworthy, until I started trying to find more narrativeless games, and realized they were actually exceedingly rare.

It seems to me that games like Pong don’t have narratives because they are pretty much straight-up representation of real-world games. Other examples are things like Solitaire. These very simple games based on very simple games don’t have narratives, and seem like a very distinct branch of gaming. Playing Solitaire on a computer and playing it with cards are virtually the same experience; the only real advantage of computer Solitaire is convenience.

But certainly not all simple games are narrativeless. Something that would get grouped together with Solitaire is Minesweeper, the other mainstay of free computer games. However, I would argue that Minesweeper does represent a narrative, albeit an extremely small-scale one. The little smiley face is sad if you blow up a mine, and happy if you clear the field safely. Certainly not a particularly compelling narrative, but I would argue that the game is a narrative because it is a further level of abstraction from the real-world. Although I could go play Solitaire with some cards and have the same experience as the game, actual minesweeping bears little resemblance to the game.

Now, there’s also Tetris. There is no real narrative there, no real justification for the falling blocks, and why they have to be arranged, and why they disappear when you fill a line. And certainly, a narrative isn’t required. But yet, when I thought about it, I realized that even in the puzzle genre, many of which very closely follow the Tetris model, very few of them are actually narrativeless. Many games, like Puyo Puyo or Super Puzzle Fighter are structured as a duel, with the player character and a computer player playing competing games. What the puzzle game has to do with the battle between the two characters is never explained, but it is still a very common narrative frame for puzzle games. Then there’s something like Puzzle Bobble (aka Bust-a-Move) where the little dragons hurl marbles at the ceiling, in some inexplicable attempt to prevent the ceiling from crushing them. As Tetris shows, there is not reason that a narrative is necessary for an engaging puzzle game to succeed, and yet it does seem to be the dominate model.

For whatever reason, narratives seem natural to games, as though you have to go out of your way to not have one. I think the central issue is that outside of very simple games like Tetris or Solitaire, it is almost impossible to make a game without a narrative. Can you imagine a game where a character jumps around, hopping on enemies and progressing through levels? Even that is a narrative. It seems like once a conflict enters the equation, once the player is pitted against computer controlled entities, a narrative forms.

So, in class, we were talking about The Colbys, particularly the finale, where suddenly the producers bring aliens into the mix. However, The Colbys was spun off from Dynasty, and the character that was abducted by aliens later comes back to Dynasty, and is given a different back story, stating that her problems are the result of more mundane mental problems. Another show that faced these sorts of consequences was Dallas, where an entire season was retconned out of existence to bring back Patrick Duffy’s character, who had died earlier. However, the spin-off, Knots Landing, continued on as though his character was dead.

The mother of all consequences is the finale of St. Elsewhere’s, which reveals that the entirety of the show had been the fantasty of an autistic child, Tommy Westphall. What the producers probably did not take into account when they made this decision was that, through cross-overs and references, this would affect many, many episodes. In fact, fans have constructed an elaborate theory, mapping out the full extent of what constitutes the so-called Tommy Westphall Universe. Virtually every show you can imagine can ultimately be tied back to St. Elsewhere’s.

This link leads to a fairly detailed rundown of the Tommy Westphall Universe. The site contains a map of shows connected to St. Elsewhere’s, and there is a download for a PDF of a key to exactly how everything is tied together.

Some of the connections are fairly reasonable. As can be seen in the map, the other major show in this theory is Homicide: Life on the Street. At some point, a character from St. Elsewhere’s was investigated by detectives from Homicide. Homicide spawned the character John Munch, who has gone on to appear in a very large number of series. Munch went on to be a regular on Law and Order: SVU, which puts the entirety of the Law and Order franchise in the Universe. Munch has gone on to make cameos in The Wire, Arrested Development, and the X-Files. The X-Files crossed over with the Simpsons, which crossed-over with King of the Hill; the character of Hank Hill first appeared in Beavis and Butthead, which had a spin-off in the form of Daria. It’s all in the Universe.

Obviously, it gets pretty silly when you take it too far. It’s not too hard to imagine Homicide, The Wire, and the Law and Order franchise all existing in the same universe, but it gets to be a stretch once you try to accept that the X-Files fits in as well, and is particularly difficult once you try to bring in cartoons.

It gets particularly difficult once you get into fantasy and sci-fi shows. It starts out reasonably enough. Characters from St. Elsewhere’s once visited the bar from Cheers. Cheers led to the spin-off Frasier. A character from The John Larroquette Show once called in to Frasier’s radio show. here’s where stuff gets silly: The John Larroquette Show features references to Yoyodyne, the company from the movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 9th Dimension! Much of the equipment in later Star Trek series are made by Yoyodyne. In Angel, the evil law firm Wolfram and Hart represents Yoyodyne, which brings both Angel and Buffy into the Universe. Wolfram and Hart also represents Weyland Yutani, the company from the Alien movie series, which also brings in the Predator films. Weyland Yutani also makes equipment in Firefly. A Firefly-class ship is seen in the background of the miniseries pilot of Battlestar Galactica. And in an episode of Red Dwarf, the characters visit a ship graveyard featuring a ship made by Weyland Yutani, as well as the Tardis from Doctor Who.

As you can see, this whole theory quickly falls apart once you take every little in-joke and easter egg as significant. Just making a joke about Yoyodyne doesn’t make something all a dream. The only things that really have a significant connection to St. Elsewhere’s are the shows that directly crossed-over with it, and even then, the makes of Cheers or Homicide had no idea that doing a cross-over would plunge their shows into fantasy. Some shows are making very direct connections. Homicide, The Wire, Law and Order, they’re all pretty directly tied. Friends and Mad About You made it very explicit that they were set in the same fictional New York. Ties between shows are very common, and little in-jokes run rampant. But seeing a Firefly-class ship in the background of a scene in Battlestar Galactica does not put them in the same universe, let alone in the mind of a small child.

The Tommy Westphall Universe is a kind of novel idea, and it appeals in the same sort of way that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon does. In the end of the day, though, it really does come down to a lot of people with too much time on their hand.

So, after discussing Twin Peaks in class yesterday, I began thinking about it in relation to Mulholland Drive, and I feel like you can see Mulholland Drive as Lynch’s response to the audience’s reaction to Twin Peaks.

When Lynch was making Twin Peaks, he had no interest in solving the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer. As he saw it, the “mystery” was just a plot contrivance, a MacGuffin to motivate the series in its analysis of the towns people. However, the audience came to the show wanting to see the mystery solved. Eventually, network pressures led to Lynch being forced to solve the mystery. As most people who saw the show can attest, the conclusion to the Laura Palmer mystery was more or less unsatisfactory. Regardless of whether the solution was a good one or not, the show’s quality took a major nosedive once the mystery was solved and plot motivations flew out the window.

Now, I’m making a lot of assumptions about Lynch’s motivations when I really have nothing to back it up, but as I see it, Lynch later created Mulholland Drive as something of a response to Twin Peaks. Knowing that the audience would be focused primarily on the solution, he created the intricate puzzle of Mulholland Drive. Again, I’m making assumptions here, but I also think that Lynch made the show/film as something of a joke on the audience, creating a puzzle that the audience would be fixated on solving when, in fact, the solution is not the important part of the film.

So, I can very distinctly remember my first time watching Mulholland Drive. I enjoyed it all the way through, and then the shift happened. My mind was racing, trying to figure out what I had seen, getting really psyched about the possibilities. Soon afterward, I started searching around online, and started reading interpretations, and found out what had happened. Diane had been dreaming, and everything with Betty and Rita was said dream. I was, to say the least, disappointed. It was so simple. Too simple. It was an entirely unsatisfying explanation, and I grew to hate the movie.

When I was doing this research on the film, for whatever reason, I did not happen to stumble on to anything about other possible interpretations. The only things I read said outright: it was all a dream. I felt stupid for failing to notice something that seemed so simple, and I just was not happy with the answer. But without any alternatives, I didn’t think that I was unhappy with the interpretation, but with the movie itself.

This time, watching it, I was much more aware that Mulholland Drive was not so simple, and that there were many competing theories. After watching it this time, I spent several hours pouring over http://mulholland-drive.net/home.htm, looking through all the various theories, weighing them, trying to figure out if any of them were persuasive enough to seem to offer the answer as to what happened.

Here’s the thing: the dream theory seems to me the best solution. I think it poses the least problems, and offers a rather simple account of everything that happened. The problem is: it’s just too simple. Mulholland Drive is an immensely complicated film, one which I don’t think Lynch meant to be easily understood. The solution to a film this complex shouldn’t be “it was a dream.” It just feels like cheating.

And some of the other theories offer some interesting possibilities. My friend Stefan believes that the film shows alternate realities colliding. One theory suggests that the whole dream is actually that of Aunt Ruth’s, reliving the various phases of her life (starting as optimistic Betty, becoming the successful Carmilla, hitting rock bottom as Diane, becoming successful again as the casting agent, ending life as a relative unknown Ruth). Another posits that the whole dream is a metaphor for an abortion or miscarriage that Diane suffered. Another theorizes that after Diane committed suicide, the Cowboy gave her a new life as Betty. Many seemed to read much into the relationship between Diane and her neighbor, suggesting that the two were former lovers.

I mulled over these theories extensively. Most of them were quite imaginative, some were even fairly persuasive. But the more I thought about it, I began to question the very idea of parsing out something like Mulholland Drive. While discussing the movie with Stefan, I found myself struggling on how best to talk about the previous Betty section, and jokingly referred to it as “that other movie.” Although I didn’t mean it when I said it, I now feel like that’s just as valid an interpretation as any, that Betty and Diane are in different movies.

There’s really nothing in the text of Mulholland Drive that absolutely states that there’s any connection between the two stories. The audience is merely going to make that assumption, based on the fact that the two stories share the same actors, and some of the same names and themes. It’s natural to make those assumptions, and in fact, it’s pretty difficult to abandon the idea of understanding the relationship between the stories, but I think it might be the only way to not get stuck in an endless series of fan theories, none of which will ever perfectly fit the movie to the exclusion of all other theories. Lynch clearly went out of his way to make a film that is not only extremely ambiguous in its meaning, but one that is open to literally endless interpretation and speculation.

Mulholland Drive may stand as the perfect embodiment of the puzzle film. It presents a complex, ambiguous text that encourages audience participation in trying to solve the mysteries. However, how it diverges from other puzzle films is, for lack of a better term, its amount of replay value. Most puzzle films require a little legwork to sort out the syuzhet and figure out what the true fabula is. Mulholland Drive, somehow, manages to present a syuzhet from which one could draw virtually any fabula. No fabula is the correct one, but there really aren’t any wrong guesses either. Instead of the riddle of the standard puzzle film, Mulholland Drive is instead a lateral thinking problem.

In this class, we have examined, in detail, how narration works in film. We have also studied narrative functions in television series, and we will be discussing video game narrative soon. Through the Cambridge Companion to Narrative, we’ve even gone fairly in depth into literary narrative. One popular medium we will neglect (and perhaps the only one, aside from radio) is comic books. As a very big fan of comic books, and someone desperate for more opportunities to study them, I propose to make up for this omission by using my final paper to research theories of how comic book narratives function.

Unfortunately, comic book studies is, at best, a nascent field, and critical literature on comic books are few and far between. However, two authors, Will Eisner and Scott McCloud, stand out as the obvious luminaries of the field, and their works will serve as the foundation of my research. Hopefully, I will be able to find additional sources, but I expect to draw on Eisner and McCloud extensively.

In order to put their critical framework to use, I would like to select a comic book and its associated film adaptation. For this, I will be using Frank Miller’s Sin City, for several reasons. First and foremost, Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation is probably the most faithful comics adaptation yet put to film. Most other successful comic book movies (most super hero movies, even something like American Splendor) are principally pastiches of a much larger whole. When watching Sin City, you can pinpoint exactly where in Miller’s original the scene comes from. Although there are comic book movies I feel are better movies, and there are comic books movies that may be equally as faithful (300, another Miller adaptation, is fairly faithful to the source text; I just happen to loathe the film), Sin City strikes me as a good balance of quality and faithfulness.

In fact, Sin City being so faithful to the original may create some interesting narrative quirks. Generally speaking, Rodriguez copied Miller’s original wholesale. This may, however, result in scenes which follow comic book narrative logic but seem problematic from a film narrative perspective.

Standing in contrast to Eisner and McCloud’s theories of comic book narrative, I will also be taking film narrative into account, seeing how the two mesh well and where the two take different approaches. Most of what we have been reading would work for this, but I will probably be focusing principally on Bordwell’s book as the representative of filmic narrative theory.

Works Cited:
Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art. Tamarac, Florida: Poorhouse Press, 1985.

Eisner, Will. Graphic Storytelling and Sequential Art. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

McCloud, Scott.  Making Comics. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Miller, Frank. Frank Miller’s Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye. Milwaukie, Oregon: Dark Horse Books, 2005.

Miller, Frank. Frank Miller’s Sin City Volume 3: The Big Fat Kill. Milwaukie, Oregon: Dark Horse Books, 2005.

Miller, Frank. Frank Miller’s Sin City Volume 4: That Yellow Bastard. Milwaukie, Oregon: Dark Horse Books, 2005.

Miller, Frank. “The Costumer is Always Right.” Frank Miller’s Sin City Volume 6: Booze, Broads, & Bullets. Milwaukie, Oregon: Dark Horse Books, 2005. Pp. 29-31.


Sin City Unrated Two Disc Special Edition. Dir: Miller, Frank; Robert Rodriguez; and Quentin Tarantino. DVD. Dimension Films, 2005.

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