Digital Storytelling and Gaming

rome-total-war-screenshot-3

A still from Rome: Total War.

In his 2011 book The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media, Bryan Alexander explores the connections among what we might think of as “traditional” storytelling–a sequence of content, centered on a conflict or problem, that engages its audience–and the “new media” forms of gaming and social media. He’s interested not just in critiquing these forms, but in teasing out what innovative techniques they may have to offer for others interested in digital storytelling. In Chapter 7, “Gaming: Storytelling on a Large Scale,” Alexander looks at the world of massively multiplayer online games, console games, and large-scale PC games: forms of storytelling that take advantage of technological tools to present complex narratives. He focuses on three games: Bioshock (set in an underwater alternate-history dystopia), Fallout 3 (a postnuclear adventure game set in Washington, DC), and Rome: Total War (a historical strategy game).

In terms of structure, Alexander observes that these games mostly follow a linear structure, with a few exceptions. The allow “do-overs” in ways that other stories do not: for example, players can choose to re-fight a monster or revisit a saved game, a process that allows for the possibility of new outcomes. Sometimes these games exhibit a form of “fragmented storytelling,” a more open form of the linear structure in which players have some guidance to piece together the narrative without compromising its structure. In addition, in some instances, flashbacks or conversations with other characters in-game can deliver more information about the game’s backstory.

Because of the resources available to these game designers and the complexity of the in-game worlds, this form of storytelling also usually includes a number of secondary characters. Some, as in Fallout 3, are more fleshed-out individuals who participate in the protagonist’s experience of the game and to whom the player may begin to feel emotionally attached. Others, like the vast cast of supporting characters in Rome: Total War, are likewise given deep characterizations despite the fact that there are so many of them. Alexander speculates that this may be a nod to history pedagogy, which identifies individual historical actors as a way of making large-scale processes more human and relatable and therefore more memorable (114). This method should be of interest to public historians engaging with digital storytelling.

Finally, Alexander write that though these games may appear to exist only on one platform, they in fact fulfill the “multiple proscenia” principle characteristic of much digital storytelling. Players often post “play-through” videos to YouTube, complete with voiceovers narrating their gameplay experience; other users can post comments. There is a vast amount of secondary literature on each game in the form of wikis and commentary from video game critics. Still images and videos taken from gameplay can be remixed and reused to create new stories.

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One thought on “Digital Storytelling and Gaming

  1. Nice review and discussion of the ways that games work as stories. While the role of game designers as storytellers is fascinating, I think the way that the players utilize games to tell their own stories on other platforms like YouTube and forums, as you described in the last paragraph, is just as interesting. The relationship between the two reminds me of shared authority in public history, where we aim to balance our interpretive desire as storytellers to provoke our audiences to consider new ideas or perspectives with our simultaneous support for our audiences’ own individual meaning-making. Do you think the narrative choices games give players provide a good example of how historians might share authority in an exhibit or website — or do we need a different model for effective historical storytelling?

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