[Ed. note: This is the second part of a series exploring Fantasy in Video Games, originally written for the author’s university course, Fantasy in the Archive.]
The exclusion of video games from academic spaces didn’t stop people from talking about them, theorizing about them, and analyzing them. Many unofficial game news sites have established themselves on the forefront of video game journalism, such as GameSpot, Polygon, and The Verge. Websites such as Kotaku and IGN, tailored to game reviews and guides, have also become increasingly popular. This isn’t to mention the wealth of discussion that took place in areas like forums, blogs, or chat rooms. Since discourse about video games has been going on for such a long time, certain themes between discussions and analyses began popping up.
One of the largest discussed issues in the video game sphere is the debate between ludology and narratology. Ludology is the study of play, but is often considered the study of games themselves, while narratology is the study of how narrative and story are constructed and delivered. In this particular debate, ludology is defined more specifically to zero in on the developmental process of games, focusing on their mechanics and design (Dyer-Witherford). The debate is this: should games be studied from a ludic or narrative perspective? Are video games’ true purpose to entertain through mechanics and design, or from telling a story? Although this particular debate only dates back a couple decades, coinciding with the rapid development and availability of more advanced computer hardware, video games have been analyzed almost as long as they’ve been around. They were first analyzed as literary works, since older video game technology didn’t allow for the breadth of exploration of mechanics that happens today. Even then, only certain, story-centric games were analyzed this way, and when ludology was introduced, it was applied mainly to mechanic-centric games. Since then, there has been a substantial push to cement games in the ludology sphere and exclude them from the narratology. This likely comes from a more prominent movement that aims to have competitive video games considered as a legitimate sport, especially since tournaments like Overwatch League and League of Legends have become worldwide phenomena (Frasca).
But this idea of insularity and exclusion is not going to benefit video games in the long run. It will end up doing quite the opposite, for it ignores video games’ biggest strength: existing as an intersection of both narratology and ludology. Video games shouldn’t be separated into just one of the two studies. Both narrative and ludic elements are so important to the structure of video games that they should be considered inherent and inseparable elements of one product. The narrative and ludic approaches to games are often considered inherently different as well, but when broken down to their bare essentials, they are almost identical. Every game has to have a story or some sort of premise that explains why things are happening on screen the way they are. Even Pong has a story – two opposing forces fighting back and forth to protect their side from a harmful resource. And what are mechanics without a story to guide them? Even visual novels, often not even considered games because of their limited mechanics, require the player to press a button to advance, require them to acknowledge that they are willing to move forward with the story.
Gonzalo Frasca, in his essay on ludology, attempts to emphasize the parallels between ludic and narrative structure. The basic structure of a game follows its beginning, development, result, and then a triumph or defeat that depends on the outcome of the result (Frasca). This timeline is the basic structure of any game, from board games, to tabletop roleplaying games, to video games. The rules of each of these steps depends on each specific game and its limits. Frasca then gives an example of the steps a narrative storyline typically follows: a task that may be accepted, the acceptance of the task, and then the outcome of the attempted task that either results in defeat or triumph. Without complicating these models with detail-specific inclusions, they are nearly identical. Just as the ludic timeline applies to all kinds of games, so does the narrative one, leading to the philosophy of the entwinement of the two. There can be no beginning of a game without the acceptance of a task, whether that refers to the picking up of a sword or of a set of dice. There can be no end to a game without a resolution of either triumph or defeat, whether that means defeating the final boss or completing the last puzzle. The structure of a game’s narrative is the structure of its ludic process. Neither can exist without the other, and they are both created around each other.
Understanding the intersection of narratology and ludology in the creation of games is essential to understanding why games are so good at storytelling. But there’s another element that makes games so functional as storytelling media: their immersiveness. Almost all media and art affects its consumers, whether it’s in a positive, negative, or neutral way. But video games, because of the way they’re designed, have the capacity to affect their players on a physical level as well as a mental one. This is because of two things: their stakes and their realism. Video games have higher stakes than any other storytelling media because of the way they insert the player into digital worlds and require them to interact with them. A study in 2016 done by Kyle Madsen at Brigham Young University highlights how video games accomplish their unique level of effectiveness through interactivity. The study focused on the effects of agency on the effects of horror games on their players, tracing those effects by measuring the heart rates of their participants. Participants engaged with Konami’s P.T. (Playable Teaser) in two different ways – one group played the game, and the other group watched the game being played. The participants had their heart rates monitored over the course of their sessions, and then compared at the end of the tests. The study found that those who personally played through the game experienced higher heart rate spikes, experiencing more fear, than those who watched. The study concluded that it was the agency over the world that gave the players reason to be more fearful of the game. In other words, the stakes were much higher for those playing the game than for those who simply watched (Madsen).
It’s not an accident that horror games do this – they’re designed to affect their players in this way. In the book Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play, former video game developer Richard Rouse writes about the thematic and mechanical benefits of making horror games, specifically how the tenets of each are perfectly suited for each other. He cites how, in his experience making horror games, he has actively tried to implement horror tropes already established by the horror movie industry in his games. But unlike horror movies, the mechanical elements of video games, like how players inherently have a stake in the outcome of the controlled character, illicit responses that are unique to video games because no other media offers the same sense of agency (Rouse). Rouse argues that this is exactly why video games are such a perfect match for the horror genre. And based on the previously mentioned study, he’s correct. Working closely with the creation and development of video games is bound to give one an understanding of how essential well-designed agency is in making a good video game, especially one that manipulates and affects the player. But Rouse believes that horror tropes alone are not enough to make a good horror game – the mechanics matter, as well. Not only are good mechanics necessary to make a game enjoyable, but they can also reflect or explain elements of the story, such as why the playable character has supernatural abilities, or has been hearing voices throughout the game (Rouse). Mechanics can also tie into the implementation of horror tropes. Rouse cites the fear of the dark as one of the most classic and most visited horror tropes for movies and games alike. Playing upon the fear of darkness greatly benefited early horror games, as well, as dark or unclear areas didn’t need to be allotted processing power to be rendered, enabling developers to save that space and expand their game elsewhere (Rouse). This is not necessarily true for more modern games, who are not often faced with the limits of hardware as early video games once were. But modern horror tropes do exist, and ones specific to games, as well.
The internet sensation Five Nights at Freddy’s is a perfect example of this. Although FNaF incorporates several different horror tropes, including the aforementioned fear of darkness, its main standing point is its use of the player’s lack of control. In FNaF, the player is in the first person perspective of a security guard working his overnight shift at a run-down pizzeria. The player cannot physically move, and the only means of monitoring the space around them are the doors leading to hallways on either side of them and a security camera panel that allows them to view other rooms in the restaurant. The goal of the game is to use the given surveillance equipment and door controls to ensure that the player survives from the possessed animatronics that roam the halls. The main tenet of this game isn’t that the player shouldn’t move – it’s that the player can’t move. Although they are given all the means to protect themselves, if the player doesn’t use them correctly, they are utterly helpless and can only watch as they are overtaken and subsequently killed. This mechanic isn’t one that was developed out of necessity, as areas of darkness were in less advanced video games. It was born out of creativity, and gave a unique spin on already existing horror tropes. Most importantly, the key mechanics of Five Nights at Freddy’s rely on its existence as a video game. The effect of agency, or lack thereof, in FNaF could not be replicated as effectively with any other media.
So what if these techniques were employed for games other than those in the horror genre? If they were designed in order to give the player the most immersive experience possible? To some extent, they are. Although there are no established equivalents to horror tropes in other games, ones that are intended to affect the player so heavily, there are certain design elements that are always considered to make a game. Laura Schwartz wrote about the presence of Fantasy, Realism, and the Other in Recent Video Games after conducting research that involved interviewing several regular video game players. Schwartz’s paper focuses on the perceived immersiveness on video games based on their realness. Her interviews gave personal insight to what a real game feels like and what, specifically, makes a game feel real. Realness, not realism, is how fantasy environments within video games can still feel real, despite not being realistic to our world. The realness of video games contributes to how immersive they can be and, by testimony of the interviewed, good game developers know how to make their games seem real, whether it’s good sound and ambient design, an interesting environment to explore, or a wealth of lore for players to pick apart (Schwartz). One element Schwartz mentions, that is shared by horror and fantasy games alike, is the inclusion of real-world elements in order to ground the digital world, and the supernatural elements it may include. The idea is to give the players something recognizable in order to feel like they can still tell that this is a real world. If a player can recognize parts of a world that make it feel tangible, they will feel more comfortable interacting with it and inserting themselves into the fictional world (Schwartz). This again proves as evidence that agency and player immersion are essential to making a good video game.