Edward Wesp

Edward Wesp is Associate Professor at Western New England University where he teaches and researches American literature and culture. His research interests include the art and culture of nineteenth-century America and the comparative analysis of digital games and other media.
Contact information:
ewesp at wne.edu

A Too-Coherent World: Game Studies and the Myth of “Narrative” Media

by Edward Wesp


This essay contends that the search for video games’ unique qualities has contributed to a misleading conception of “narrative” media against which video games have been defined. Using Jesper Juul’s oft-cited argument about video games’ “incoherent” fictional worlds as an example, this essay illustrates the ways that the presumption of video games’ radical difference from other media can limit the interpretation of fiction and narrative within games. Using examples from film and television, and key concepts from film and television studies, this essay revisits Juul’s assessment of fiction in Donkey Kong -- his exemplar of fictional incoherence. Where Juul finds a breakdown of fictional and narrative potential intrinsic to the videogame form, this essay takes a comparative approach that attends to the meaning of that classic arcade game’s serial narrative structure. In so doing, the essay argues for the value of a more open relationship between the study of videogames and other media, inspired largely by a better understanding of the ways that, like videogames, other media have complex relationships with the narratives and fictions they convey.

Keywords: narrative, fiction, comparative media, Donkey Kong, television, film, serial form

Though it retreated fairly quickly from its initial, polemical critique of studying videogames’ fictional and narrative content, game studies continues to have a vexed relationship with older media and their attendant fields of academic study.1 Indeed, narratology is alive and well in game studies, with a number of significant recent articles and book chapters devoted to the subjects of narrative, fiction and/or representation.2 This includes Understanding Video Games (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Heide-Smith, and Pajares-Tosca, 2012) the first well-established game studies course textbook, which surveys the field to find a gradual, if somewhat qualified acceptance of narrative as the discipline’s current state. The authors seem a bit more comfortable with games’ “capacity to evoke fictions” than their “narrative qualities,” but the book’s chapter on narrative nonetheless ends with the authors returning “to the question we posed at the beginning of the chapter: are video games stories?” and answering “Yes” (223-224). If not all scholars in the field would answer quite so emphatically, there has surely been, as the Understanding Video Games authors and others have noted, an increased interest in the inclusion of narrative, fiction or representation (as these overlapping subjects are variously conceived) alongside analyses of game-specific elements.3

This embrace of narrative holds the promise of a more general movement within game studies. After all, the question of narrative and representation in videogames was from the outset a proxy for larger questions of disciplinary formation. What was seen as a resistance to narrative can perhaps more accurately be seen as a resistance to the expansive practices of textual analysis that had already grown to accommodate newer media such as film and television alongside literary texts. In the inaugural issue of Game Studies, this point is made repeatedly as several authors reinforce the issue’s dominant theme, as articulated by the lead editorial written by Espen Aarseth: “Games are not a kind of cinema, or literature, but colonizing attempts from both these fields have already happened, and no doubt will happen again. And again, until computer game studies emerges as a clearly self-sustained academic field” (Aarseth, 2001). Should this colonization succeed, Aarseth argues at the end of the essay, game studies would be “reduced” to media, film or literary studies, creating a scenario in which a literary scholar could decide that videogames can be treated like a “kind of literature” at which point he or she would apply a set of pre-existing critical techniques that work well on literature but would give a distorted or woefully incomplete view of videogames.

The resistance to narrative in game studies has often been justified as a way to avoid the dire circumstance in which videogames are treated as if they were novels or films through the misapplication of principles taken from literary or film theory. As a result, these two notions became intertwined despite the fact that reading a videogame in any serious way “as a novel” would be not only unadvisable but impossible, in the same way that it would be impossible to seriously read a novel as if it were a film. That is, one could no more study the meaning of soundtrack or shot composition in a novel’s development of its characters than one could study patterns of imagistic language in a film’s mise-en-scene. And while it is certainly possible to study the narrative and fictional content of both a film and a novel, doing so would in no way exhaust the significance of either. In fact, it might be said that the academic fields of literary and film studies are defined precisely by their endeavors to interpret the medium-specific means by which such content is conveyed. In the case of more materially similar media, such as film and television, there will be a greater overlap of formal elements, such that a critic might consider visual techniques of framing and shots in each. The application of such ideas emerging out of film studies, however, would not mean treating a television program “like a film” in any pejorative sense. After all, television episodes are like films in many respects. Failing to take account of episode structure, the interruption of advertisements or other such television-specific elements would, of course, be a failure to address medium specificity, but would not mean reading the program as a film.

The fear of colonization by other disciplines is in many cases more properly understood not as the prospect of treating a videogame as if it were an instance of some other medium, but rather of treating videogames as if they were not operating as a medium at all, and instead treating them as instances of unmediated content. This is one pitfall of cross-medium analysis, and is a reasonable concern so far as it goes, but it is as relevant to film, television and fiction as it is to videogames.4 There are settings where treatments of film and/or fiction that focus exclusively on plot or setting can be interesting or useful, but focused interpretive analysis requires attention to the ways in which such elements are expressed, with reference to examples of such specificity that the medium is necessarily accounted for.

Driven by its suspicion of other media studies, the central question of game studies has, to this point, been: “How are videogames different?” That they are different from other forms is without question -- but, again, neither is there any doubt that novels are different from films. Amidst understandable concern for the things that made videogames unique, game studies tends to lump other media together as “representational” or, more often, “narrative” media such that the prospect of studying narrative in games has seemed to threaten the loss of medium specificity as well. As, game studies is clearly confident that it can deal with narrative without losing its distinction, the course could be set for a more comparative understanding of games as a cultural medium. Framed in this way, videogames’ unique elements are not proof of games’ sui generis distinction, but operate as features of a medium that -- like others -- is defined by unique expressive capacities. Even more broadly, this opens the door to study that asks how videogames are like other media, a reversal of a longstanding tendency to pursue games’ difference above all else. In part, this is seen in work that unapologetically addresses the ways in which games’ unique capacities convey and modulate cultural meaning.5

But while games have seemingly joined other media in their fundamental capacity to present narrative, there remains an apparent reluctance to admit the potential application of other media studies. While the narratology vs ludology debate may be a red herring (as seems to be the consensus nowadays), the suspicion of literary and film studies within game studies is not. Thus, even as narratology flourishes, relatively little work acknowledges the ways in which games’ narrative capacities draw them into connection with other media, with two major implications. First, formal similarities in the means by which videogames and other media present narrative are denigrated in favor of a view that contrasts videogames’ hybrid ludo-narrative complexity against the operation of more inherently “narrative” media.6 Second, the goal of most other contemporary media studies, namely the understanding of “texts” (broadly conceived) as reflecting and contesting cultural ideals, is relatively diminished in game studies amidst a concentration on general theories, taxonomic definitions, and social science.7 The admission of these elements need not mark the colonization of game studies, as the field seems well prepared to reassess its original attitudes toward other disciplines.8

Incoherence and Incompletion

A particularly revealing example of how game studies’ early premises persist is the influential idea of the “incoherent” fictional world introduced in Jesper Juul’s 2005 book Half-Real, still a regularly cited concept regarding fiction in videogames.9 Half-Real occupies an important place in the arc of Juul’s work in game studies, an individual transformation of critical perspective that in many ways marks the progress of game studies toward a reconciliation with both cultural studies and cross-medium issues of fiction and narrative. As Juul (2005) describes it, Half-Real comes at a point when game studies has moved beyond an initial stage in which fiction and narrative were simply rejected, which means that he has come to accept (by his own explicit acknowledgment) positions that contradict even his own work from years earlier. But if Half-Real reflects a significant, conscious reconsideration of these concepts, it also reveals the limits of that reconsideration: a persistent reluctance to acknowledge significant overlap between the interpretation of games and that of other, older media. While Juul seems earnest in his acceptance of fiction and narrative as important elements of videogames, he is far less willing to pursue those concepts as areas that connect videogames to other media. In this, Juul’s work is representative of the dilemma faced by the discipline overall: having developed in self-imposed isolation from the academic study of other media, game studies hesitates to integrate itself with the broader field of textual and cultural studies, even as such connections seem more and more inevitable.

Juul begins his section on fiction by introducing, via Thomas Pavel’s Fictional Worlds (1986), the generally understood premise that fictional worlds are by necessity “incomplete” in the sense that they do not articulate every element of the world that they open up to their audience’s imagination. This is something Juul presents as an element of fiction that spans media, offering Shakespeare’s Hamlet alongside Valve Software’s Half-Life (1998) as examples of this basic fictional principle at work. This opening seems to realize Juul’s years-earlier speculation that “[u]sing other media as starting points, we may learn many things about the construction of fictive worlds” (Juul 2001) by identifying continuities between Pavel’s theorization of fiction in literature as applicable to videogames’ fictive worlds. After this brief opening, however, Juul’s discussion of fiction in games abandons a more general or comparative perspective, returning to a narrow frame in which videogames are presented in isolation, without any context for their relation to other media. As Juul introduces his concept of “incoherent” fictional worlds, he moves even further away from the cross-medium opening of the chapter, as he examines fiction and narrative in videogames in search of elements that define them as unique. In a section titled “Why Does Mario Have Three Lives?” Juul transitions from the broad principle of incompleteness in fictional worlds to the game-specific category of “incoherent” worlds,” a type which he describes as emerging from the special circumstance of games: “In addition to incomplete worlds, some games, and many videogames, present game worlds that are incoherent worlds, where the game contradicts itself or prevents the player from imagining a complete fictional world” (Juul, 2005: 123).

From the outset, though, Juul’s definition of incoherence as a condition in which a player is kept from imagining “a complete fictional world” does not clearly distinguish the special case of the “incoherent world” from the general condition of fictional incompleteness. Completeness, we have already accepted, is a state which no fiction can achieve. The special case of incoherent worlds, as Juul describes it in a restatement of their definition, is that “While in an incomplete fictional world there are blanks that the player must fill in, an incoherent world prevents the player from filling in the blanks” (132). Juul uses the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong to illustrate both the special fictional case of the incoherent world and the claim that such worlds are closely linked to videogame form. Juul’s account of incoherence in Donkey Kong is as follows:

The fictional world of Donkey Kong is only very superficially described, but it is possible to imagine a world in which Mario’s girlfriend is kidnapped by an evil gorilla and has to be rescued. . . . It is harder to understand why Mario has three lives: Being hit by a barrel, by a fireball, or by an anvil should reasonably be fatal. Furthermore, the player is rewarded with an extra Mario at 10,000 points. This is not a question of Donkey Kong being incomplete, but a question of the fictional world being incoherent or unimaginable. While, technically, any world can be imagined, and we could explain Mario’s reappearance by appealing to magic or reincarnation, the point here is that nothing in Donkey Kong suggests a world where people magically come back to life after dying. (Juul, 2005: 123-124)

Though it is true that Mario’s reappearance is not explicitly explained or narratively “motivated,” Juul’s description of Donkey Kong’s incoherence fits awkwardly with his own definitions and examples of fictional incompleteness. As a point of comparison, earlier in the chapter Juul has offered the following example as an illustration of incompleteness: “For example, it is not possible to determine the number of children that Lady Macbeth has -- this is an undecidable question” (122).10 By Juul’s definition, as an example of incompleteness -- and not incoherence -- the unknowable number of Lady Macbeth’s children would presumably exemplify the “blanks that the player [or reader/theatergoer] must fill in,” for only an “incoherent world prevents the player [or reader/ theatergoer] from filling in the blanks” (132). But this is simply not true, as Juul himself would surely acknowledge. It is not the case that the reader or audience member of Macbeth “must fill in” the number of Lady Macbeth’s children. Moreover it would be impossible to do so because the absence of that information in the play’s text prevents anyone from doing so with any authority, which edges closer to Juul’s definition of incoherence.11 The relationship between “coherence” and “completeness” is further confused by Jul’s definition of “coherent world games”: “Some games contain coherent worlds, where nothing prevents us from imagining them in any detail” (132). Somehow, the ability to imagine a world “in any detail” has to be squared with the concession that fictional incompleteness will always fail to articulate some details, and indeed some whole registers of detail. The standards of coherence seem too high, and examples of incoherence are hard to distinguish from incompletion.

So while Donkey Kong does prevent the player from gathering a specific, diegetic understanding of Mario’s ability to resume his rescue attempt after his apparent demise, it is not clear why that gap creates a uniquely “incoherent” situation relative to the incompletions that Juul himself sees as part and parcel of fiction overall. This does not mean, of course, that all incompletions are created equal: within the concept of fictional incompleteness, it might be said that the mystery of Lady Macbeth’s children represents an incompleteness of facts within a fictional world, whereas the mystery of Mario’s three lives is an example of incompleteness as relates to the general principles by which the fictional world of Donkey Kong varies from our own. This might be a distinction worth making, but not one that implies the qualitative difference presented in Half-Real, wherein structural incompleteness of the sort exemplified by Donkey Kong creates an impenetrable fictional incoherence that can only be fathomed by referring to the logic of the game’s rules.

The key issue here -- for both Juul himself and those who have cited his theorization -- is that Juul closely connects the idea of incoherent fictional worlds to the specificity of videogame form. He does mention, in a footnote, that incoherent fictional worlds are “also found in some avant-garde novels, such as Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie (1957) which contain contradictory statements” (207), though the designation of such work as “avant-garde” and its relegation to a footnote suggest that such literary instances are meant to be taken as exceptions that prove the rule. The justification for Juul’s connection between incoherent worlds and game form emerges from the central premise of Half-Real, a conception of videogames in which the game fiction is always subject to game rules. As Juul describes it rules and fiction “are complementary but not symmetrical . . . it is not possible to deal with fiction in games without discussing rules. . . . Though rules can operate independent of fiction, fiction depends on rules” (121). This is the underlying logic of Juul’s account of incoherent world games when he proposes that “when we find it too hard to imagine a video game fiction, we can resort to explaining the events in the game by appealing to the rules” (130). In such cases, Juul posits, a game’s rules have dominated the interest of the designers and trumped the demands of narrative cohesion. While the popularity of Donkey Kong suggests that the incoherent world was generally tolerable to players, Juul concentrates on demonstrating that rules are the cause of this incoherence by soliciting the input of “an informal survey of Donkey Kong players” all of whom “explained the three lives by appealing to the rules of the game. With only one life, the game would be too hard” (130).

There are two problematic effects of Juul’s approach, both of which limit the impact of fiction and narrative as a site of interpretation. First, the pronouncement of a fiction as “incoherent" short-circuits the possibility of its meaning, seeking only to explain why the fiction fails. Second, by finding difference rather than connection in the ways videogames create fiction, this approach prevents useful considerations of the ways in which they operate like other media, discouraging potentially illuminating perspectives from outside game studies. Is there no comparison to be made, for instance, between the way some action games minimize fiction in the name of kinesthetically thrilling competition and the oversized action spectacles of contemporary superhero films like The Avengers (2012) or Man of Steel (2013)? By devoting long sequences to explosive, spectacular action sequences, and by positioning those sequences as the moments of resolution within the film’s narrative, it seems fair to say that such films have chosen to minimize the scope of their fiction -- and certainly their narrative -- in deference to the creation of kinesthetic spectacle. Musicals, whether on stage or screen, provide other instances in which the audience would -- like players of many videogames -- be excused for shifting their attention away from the fictional narrative in deference to the melodic and rhythmic pleasures of song and dance. Given the range of ready examples from film, it is not surprising that film studies has addressed these issues at length, including Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (Mulvey 1975), probably the single best known work of film theory, which centrally addresses the ways in which spectacle -- both in general and in the specific context of film’s representation of women -- operates in tension with the diegesis of film. But as Juul turns his attention inward, none of these points of reference are available to help explain the operation of parallel elements in videogames.

If the logical gaps Juul calls “incoherent” are not in fact qualitatively different from the necessary incompletions that structure all fiction, it is worth reconsidering Juul’s accompanying claim that the uniquely game-like elements of videogame form are the basis for fictional incoherence, only to be found otherwise in willfully subversive, avant garde instances of other media. It is a reasonable assertion that Mario’s unexplained, multiple lives in a play-through of Donkey Kong are motivated by the logic of gameplay rather than fictional considerations, but Juul’s premise that this is the special domain of games turns out not to bear much scrutiny. One need not turn to the exceptional case of experimental literature to find examples of fictional worlds in other media where fictional “incoherence” arises entirely without the influence of game rules.

Take for instance the 1949 short animated film Fast and Furry-ous -- the first to feature the characters Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner. It also features a fictional world that leaves unanswered many questions about its fundamental structure. Beyond the unnarrated explanation for the animals’ ability to buy and use outlandish Acme products, a number of elements evince precisely the kind of fictional incompletion that Juul designates as “incoherent” in videogames. For example, in one scene the coyote paints a fake tunnel on the side of a cliff, but The Road Runner is able to use it as if were real. Moments later, the coyote attempts to follow, but for him the painted tunnel is just that, and he slams into the cliff wall. What could explain this inconsistency? Even more closely parallel to the dilemma posed by Donkey Kong’s Mario and his many lives is the Coyote’s fantastic durability. After rocketing into a cliff, being crushed by a boulder, plummeting from great heights and being struck by a bus, the coyote always reappears after a short fade to black, ready to chase the Road Runner once more. The film is silent on the question of how this revival is possible.

Alternately, consider the frequency with which television shows fail to explain the premise of their divergence from standard reality. 12 Mystery and crime shows, for example, often fail to explain the alarming trail of murder and mayhem that follows their central characters. Without narratively motivated explanation, for instance, the CBS series Murder, She Wrote, depicted the otherwise quaint town of Cabot Cove, Maine as beset by a catastrophic murder rate of which no one takes apparent notice.13 Moreover, no one within the fictional world of Murder, She Wrote seems concerned by -- or even aware of -- the fatal consistency with which death follows in Fletcher’s wake as the mystery writer somehow happens to attend more than two hundred murders over the show’s twelve-year run.14 The logic by which these episodes relate to each other is, in other words, beyond any rational explanation.

As these examples illustrate, it is entirely possible to find decidedly mainstream examples of fictional construction outside of videogames that present the kind of fundamental logical incompletion that Juul calls incoherent and which he proposes as a marker of videogames’ difference from other media. As such, a dramatically different image of “incoherent fictional worlds” emerges: rather than a radical disruption of fictional meaning brought about by the uneasy melding of rules and fiction within the videogame, the incoherent fictional world turns out to be a cross-medium, cross-genre fictional structure in which prominent questions related to realism and internal logic are not addressed even as the fiction otherwise operates successfully. This re-conception of fictional incoherence opens two avenues of critical analysis foreclosed by Juul’s account. First, by bringing a videogame like Donkey Kong back into the realm of operable fiction we can seek to understand the way its incompletions -- however fundamental they may be -- create rather than disrupt meaning, allowing for a reading of the game that acknowledges its unique qualities while attending to the ways in which it conveys coherent meaning. Secondly, if “incoherence” does not mark a moment at which videogames are cut off from other media, it is possible to borrow insights from the study of other media and from the study of fiction and narrative in general to complement the specifically ludic creation of meaning within games.

Interpreting Incompletion

If Donkey Kong is not incoherent in the sense that its fiction is somehow broken, what meaning does it make? How does its incompleteness and the role of game rules inform that meaning? Given the representational limitations of an early arcade game, one place to begin is with the game’s title, suggestive as it is of the fictional structures the game adapts from other, older media. While designer Shigeru Miyamoto has explained that the word “Kong” was meant to refer generically to a big ape, American players can be excused for seeing some more specific connections to the title character of the film King Kong. (Lawyers for Universal Studios certainly did.15) At the beginning, however, it was not King Kong, but rather the characters of Popeye cartoons that provided the fictional skeleton of the game that eventually became Donkey Kong.16 When a bid to license Popeye characters fell through, a game that might have involved Popeye rushing to save Olive Oyl from Bluto became Mario’s quest to save Pauline from Donkey Kong.17

If the fictional worlds of Popeye and King Kong are linked by their coincidental relationship to Donkey Kong, it is surely not coincidental that all three texts share a familiar fictional and narrative premise in which a large, brutish male antagonist threatens a passive female character whose rescue is the objective of the male protagonist. In this sense, Donkey Kong is entirely coherent, and it manages to convey its fictional situation despite its simplistic graphics and sounds by referencing a structure so familiar as to be essentially the default for popular entertainment. While the Popeye license would have offered the resonance of a (somewhat) richer fictional world -- in a relationship to other texts Henry Jenkins calls “evoked” narrative -- the fiction of Donkey Kong is legible in cultural terms.18

With the setting limited to an empty structure and actions limited primarily to movement undertaken by a single character, Donkey Kong’s fiction is developed mostly through its three characters, who are defined almost exclusively by their gender. What do we know of Pauline, other than the fact that she is female? The two male characters are -- as usual -- defined somewhat more complexly, distinguished from each other by virtue of being large and small, non-human and human, designations that define their masculinity such that Kong is the hyper-masculine brute and Mario is the appropriately masculine hero. While Juul is right that the game’s treatment of death and reappearance defies reality in unexplained ways, Donkey Kong’s treatment of gender -- which is after all one of the only dimensions along which characters are distinguished -- is a clearly recognizable recirculation of traditional conceptions. 19 To be sure, the game is not a particularly interesting or important instantiation of this cultural idea, but recognizing the coherent operation of this idea is an illustrative example of how readily broader cultural logics rush in to to fill even the smallest of fictional openings. To be fair, all of this is fictional content that operates outside of the game’s ludic structures and would seem to be the kind of fictional content that would be threatened by the intrusion of the disruptive game-influenced element Juul points out -- Mario’s conspicuous, unexplained recovery from death. This is, therefore, precisely the kind of situation that the interpretation of fiction and narrative in videogames must come to terms with, searching for meaning where game rules and fictions intersect.

Grounding any such discussion is the reclamation of Juul’s incoherence -- and more broadly the ways in which ludic structures interrupt narrative expectations -- back into the realm of fictional incompleteness, understood as a universal element of fiction. From this perspective we can look at the game’s incompleteness as a constituent part of its expressive effect and not as a point of logical collapse. A return to Thomas Pavel’s Fictional Worlds, Juul’s source for the basic assertion of fictional incompleteness, offers some encouragement for the idea that interpretation can accept and seek meaning at sites of apparent incoherence. As Pavel notes just after some of the passages cited by Juul in Half-Real, the degree and visibility of a text’s incompleteness is a matter of authorial and cultural decision, with even “radical gap[s]” created by “enacted” incompletion serving to convey, rather than prohibit or disrupt, meaning (108). The issue, then, is to ask how incompleteness in a given text operates as a component of its overall meaning.

In the case of Donkey Kong, as elsewhere, it can be argued that such incompletions identify elements of the text as “indifferent,” to use Ruth Ronen’s term (122-23). That is to say, the answer to the question of Mario’s three lives is not forthcoming, but it is also -- the game seems to suggest -- not worth worrying about. Juul reasons that Mario’s three lives are attributable to gameplay balance, but in the film and television examples the exigencies of game rules are obviously not the cause of the logical inconsistencies of their fictional worlds. Even so, it is not hard to see the way their unintegrated repetitions reflect analogous extra-fictional forces. The unexplained repetition of Wile E. Coyote’s death is essentially a signal to the audience that Road Runner cartoons are intended as vehicles for spectacular slapstick comedy and so a reborn Coyote simply makes possible more calamitous action. In the case of Murder, She Wrote, this same principle is at work as the show strips away everything but what it wants to emphasize: the reassuring hermeneutic pleasure of the murder mystery.20 In each of these cases, fictional completion is sacrificed to give the audience what it wants, and to signal the text’s priority: more chances to guide Mario past Kong’s obstacles, to see comic catastrophe, and to have the murder solved. Donkey Kong and other ostensibly incoherent fictions both in videogames and elsewhere do not answer the questions a more complete fiction would be at pains to address (or to hide), but they do not fail to answer them either. Rather, they do not pose them.

So instead of asking “Why Does Mario Have Three Lives?” we can ask what the significance of these lives is, acknowledging that the fiction is indifferent to the question of why Mario returns. An important first step in that direction is to acknowledge that the issue is not only a question of fiction but of narrative as well. While Juul is generally wise to distinguish between those terms in Half-Real, untangling two concepts that were frequently conflated in early game studies scholarship, his treatment of incoherent worlds is a place where they have been kept too separate. If the source of Donkey’s Kong’s incoherence is its lack of explanation when Mario dies and then reappears, the problem is not within each segment of gameplay (or “life”), but in the relation of each one to the other. If Donkey Kong only gave its player one life per quarter, the problem of incoherence goes away, assuming players would regard each play session as a different “telling” or experience of the fictional world.

The dilemma Juul describes stems from the fact that the multiple iterations of Mario’s story are all contained within a single play session, a demarcation that he reasonably treats as marking out a single “text” (my term) within which Mario’s multiple lives occur as sequential events whose narrative relation to each other is hard to reconcile in the usual way. The film and television examples that I have used as non-game examples of what Juul calls incoherence hinge on similar problems of sequence. Each individual episode of Murder, She Wrote is plausible (relatively speaking) -- it gets into trouble at the level of the series when it asks the viewer to accept the tenuous relationship of the episodes to each other. The world of the Road Runner could similarly avoid creating some of its fictional aporias if it consisted of a single fatal pursuit. These kinds of texts do indeed diverge from the classic structure of narrative; they are concatenations of related events rather than the rise and fall of dramatic action. Their interpretation therefore requires something other than resort to the classic narrative model of self-contained climax and resolution, a flexibility toward the meaning or nature of narrative that game studies has often seemed to eschew in place of more rigid judgments of whether things are or are not narratives.

One useful model of linked narrative sequences comes from television studies, which has regarded structures of narrative sequence as a central issue and provides a critical frame for developing an understanding of narrative iteration in videogames (and other media besides). As scholars have long pointed out, the form of television is in many respects more fragmentary than the media that preceded it, including the similarly audio-visual screen medium of film. Raymond Williams’ well-known concept of “flow” describes the integration of discrete and disjointed elements (including commercials, title sequences, network promotions, etc.) that make up the experience of watching television (Williams 1974). At a larger scale, John Ellis (1992) has provided an influential account of how sequences of episodes fit together to comprise the entirety of a television program. He identifies two principal logics for this process: the series and the serial, distinguished principally by their orientation toward narrative: “The serial implies a certain narrative progression, the series does not: whether documentary, drama or everlasting soap opera it has no end in view” (123). Reflecting on the examples of Juul’s incoherence across different media, one might describe their narrative mode as particularly intense examples of series form. This is most obviously and literally the case of Murder, She Wrote -- its fictional oddity emerges from the show’s resolute refusal to acknowledge its own entirety as murder follows murder in endless sequence. In the Road Runner cartoon, a television-influenced approach clarifies the way in which an audience might accept -- cued by elements such as the soundtrack and the fades that punctuate each of Wile E. Coyote’s failures -- that an ostensibly complete film (e.g., Fast and Furry-ous, 1949) is in fact made up of a series of relatively discrete segments with no promise of accumulating narrative relation. Much the same can be said of the segmented construction of a Donkey Kong session, which provides similar visual and aural cues to demarcate the elements of the series that comprise a gameplay session. The series is not, however, just a formal category, as Ellis (1992) asserts its capacity to frame cultural meaning despite its lack of narrative resolution. The series, he writes, “relies on repeating a basic problematic which is worked through on each occasion without a final resolution” (Ellis, 1992: 125). That core problematic “is not resolved; narrative resolution takes place at a less fundamental level, at the level of particular incidents…. Fundamentally, the series implies the form of the dilemma rather than that of resolution and closure. This perhaps is the cultural contribution that broadcast TV has made to the long history of narrative forms and narrativised perception of the world” (154). Murder, She Wrote like most crime series, offers its viewers a comforting image of reliable justice that reassuringly contains the endless greed, jealousy and other dark elements of human nature that produce the show’s equally reliable pattern of murder. Road Runner cartoons, one might say, capture an intractable dilemma familiar to American culture: while we admire the Coyote’s persistence and Edison-like ingenuity, a deep-seated American suspicion is confirmed when those admirable, ruggedly individual traits are no match for the inherently gifted but indolent Road Runner. Adding this premise to the previous analysis of fiction and narrative in Donkey Kong it seems possible to construct about as complete a reading of the game as one might reasonably hope. Having started with Juul’s account of an incoherent fiction undone by the requirements of game rules, it is possible to offer in its place a reading that addresses the fictional and narrative gaps that originally drew Juul’s attention, but in a way that accounts for those elements as part of the game’s meaning. Typical of series form, each life in each game is made up of a sequence of comparatively minor variations and structural repetitions, from the smallest level of particular movements and jumps, up to the larger scale in which Mario clears levels, and the still larger scale when Mario knocks Kong to the ground, only to have the whole routine begin again. The game is made up of gradually larger successes (in greater numbers for better players) but all sessions will end with Mario’s final death, leaving the rescue that motivates the fiction always unresolved. Interestingly, it is the nature of the series that small-scale successes or failures do not substantively alter the basic “problematic” of the text. Jessica Fletcher solves every murder, but another murder follows the next week. Wile E. Coyote never gets the Road Runner, but he will always try again. For players with the skill to get past enough levels, Mario does save Pauline, but Kong always takes her back. If, as Ellis (1992) suggests, the series is about the suspension of a dilemma, Donkey Kong’s unresolved dilemma is centered on the gender by which the game differentiates and aligns its characters. Like Jessica Fletcher, Mario will -- if played competently -- succeed, only to repeat the process in an endlessly Sisyphean rhythm. Like Wile E. Coyote, Mario is ultimately destined to fail, even though his effort and skill gain our sympathy within the fiction, a sympathy powerfully reinforced by the player’s alignment with Mario as their in-game avatar. All three of these texts -- the TV show, the cartoon and the videogame -- depict a contest in which conscious effort contends against what is depicted as an inherent or natural force -- a cultural problematic that seems well suited to the series form. In Murder, She Wrote the basic opposition is between rational deduction and an inherently evil or fallible human nature. Meanwhile, the Road Runner cartoons map the effort/inherency opposition onto an egalitarian work ethic that fails to dislodge inborn talent, and Donkey Kong maps it onto a mode of masculinity defined by determination and skill that will, in the end fail to overcome the ape’s brutish power. These are not stories of transformation driven by romantic individuals, but are accounts of intractable opposition and limitation. In each case it is precisely their repetitive nature that emphasizes the significance of their particular content. In each case, the lack of what one might call novelistic or more complete world-building reinforces the central experience of series as does its deviation from the standard structure of narrative closure.

Medium as Limitation and Affordance

This analysis is not meant as an answer to the question “Are videogames stories?” but rather to suggest that such a question confuses the basic relationship between narrative and any medium. However important one might judge narrative to be in a particular videogame or in the form overall, it is never the case that a videogame is a story any more than a novel or film would ever be a story. Even in texts where narrative is predominant, narrative is only ever delivered through the means of its medium, and never fills the imaginative or representational space created by a text. Videogames are not stories, but neither are novels.

The example of series structure from television studies is just one particularly visible instance of the ways that so-called “narrative media” operate in ways that actually resist or diverge from the most limited or straightforward definitions of narrative. Taken as a whole, a TV series is not a coherent story in a traditional sense, inasmuch as its plot does not create a beginning, middle and satisfying end, but instead strings along an indefinite sequence of often repetitive episodes that leave major elements of the fiction in a kind of stasis. Moreover, it is often the case that such series not only suspend narrative progress but also limit the definition of their fictional worlds in ways that divert them from the level of fictional totality, or coherence as Juul would have it, found in other narrative texts. And yet television scholars have addressed such characteristics not as failures but as elements of communicative expression. Seeing more connection between how videogames and other media tell stories is not just a discussion of how videogames work -- it is at least as important for comparative work in game studies to recognize the complex and uneven operation of narrative in other media.

A greater openness to the ways in which videogames are actually like other media can inspire the pursuit of meaning in quintessentially game-like structures that initially seem to disrupt narrative, including many that deal with the kind of repetition Juul points out as emerging from the arcade game convention of multiple lives. Save and reload cycles, the restarting of failed missions or levels and the replaying of entire games are ubiquitous game-based structures that create experiences of narrative time and fictional persistence, even if their narrative/fictional impact was not the primary intention of design decisions. It is true that these palimpsestic recursions of narrative time are far more conventionally accepted in videogames than in other media, but there is no more reason to regard them as narrative dead-ends than would be the case in a film like Run Lola Run (1998) where longer-standing critical and popular expectations of film are more likely to encourage an effort at narrative and culturally-oriented interpretation.21 The exploration of games’ unusually subjunctive narrative mode is an example of how further study of videogame narrative could deal more thoroughly with the operation of videogames as a medium without realizing any of the old fears that considering game narrative in contact with other media means the reduction of games to another mode of cinema or literature.

In a chapter of Half-Real devoted to videogame rules, Juul offers the following counterpoint to the view that rules exclusively limit player behavior: “The limitation view of the rules only paints half the picture… The rules of the game also set up potential actions, actions that are meaningful inside the game but meaningless outside” (2005: 58). “Rules,” Juul argues, “specify limitations and affordances. They prohibit players from performing actions… but they also add meaning to the allowed actions and this affords players meaningful actions that were not otherwise available; rules give games structure” (58). Perhaps the same spirit could guide interpretation of the ways in which the particularities of videogames -- like all other media -- both limit and afford meaning to the stories they tell.


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Aarseth, Espen. (2012).“A Narrative Theory of Games.” Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (FDG '12). New York: ACM, 2012. 129-133.

Arsenault, Dominic and Audrey Larochelle. (2014). “Game Studies: From Colonization to Columbian Exchange.” First Person Scholar. June, 2014. Retrieved: 15 December 2014.

Crawford, David. (2012). "From Midsomer to Cabot Cove - TV's Murder Capitals."RadioTimes. Aug. 2012. Retrieved: 15 Apr. 2014.

Donkey Kong. (1981). Designed by Shigeru Miyamoto. Nintendo.

East, Tom. (2014). "Donkey Kong Was Originally A Popeye Game." The Official Nintendo Magazine. 25 Nov. 2009. Retrieved: 15 Apr. 2014.

Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon, Jonas Heide. Smith, and Susana Pajares Tosca. (2012). Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Ellis, John (1992). Visible fictions: Cinema, Television, Video. Rev. ed. London: Routledge.

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Eskelinen, Markku. (2012). Cybertext Poetics: The Critical Landscape of New Media Literary Theory. London: Continuum Books.

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Gibbons, William. (2011). ”Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams: Popular Music, Narrative, and Dystopia in Bioshock.” Game Studies 11(3). http://gamestudies.org/1103/articles/gibbons.

Gray, Paul. (1989). "Telling It Like Thackeray." Time 134.10: 66. Academic Search Premier. Retrieved: 1 July 2013.

Iversen, Sara Mosberg. (2012). “In the Double Grip of the Game: Challenge and Fallout 3.Game Studies 12(2). Retrieved: 15 Apr. 2014.

Jenkins, Henry. (2004). "Game Design as Narrative Architecture." First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

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Lerner, Neil. (2014). “Mario’s Dynamic Leaps: Musical Innovations and the Specter of Early Cinema in Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros.” Music in Video Games: Studying Play. Ed. K. J. Donnelly, William Gibbons, and Neil Lerner. New York: Routledge, 1-29.

Lindley, Craig A. (2005). “The Semiotics of Time Structure in Ludic Space As a Foundation for Analysis and Design.” Game Studies 5(1). Retrieved: 15 Apr. 2014.

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Donkey Kong. (1981). Nintendo.

Galaga. (1981). Namco.

Half-Life. (1998). Valve.

Q*Bert. (1982). Gottlieb.

Radio-, TV- and Filmography

“Bad Blood.” The X-Files. (February 22, 1998). Television Series. Fox.

Dexter. (2006-2013). Television Series. Showtime.

Fast and Furry-ous. (1949). DVD. Dir. Charles M. Jones. Warner Brothers.

Friends. (1994-2004). Television Series. Crane, David, Kauffman, Marta, Bright, Kevin S. Warner Bros.

Groundhog Day. (1993). DVD. Dir. Harold Ramis. Columbia Pictures.

King Kong. (1933). DVD. Dir. Merian Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. RKO Radio Pictures.

Law and Order. (1990-2010). Television Series. NBC.

Homicide: Life on the Street. (1993-1999). Television Series. NBC.

Midsomer Murders. (1997- present). Television Series. ITV.

More or Less. (2001- present). Radio Show. BBC 4.

Murder, She Wrote. (1984-1996). Television Series. CBS.

Perils of Pauline. (1914). Dir. Louis J. Gasnier and Donald MacKenzie. General Film Company.

Poirot. (1989-2013). Television Series. ITV.

Rashomon. (1950). DVD. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. Daiei Film Co.

Run Lola Run [Lola rennt]. (1998). Dir. Tom Tykwer. DVD. Sony Pictures Classics, 1999.

Sherlock. (2010 - present). Television Series. BBC.

Source Code. (2011). DVD. Dir. Duncan Jones. Summit Entertainment.

Vantage Point. (2008). DVD. Dir. Pete Travis. Columbia Pictures.


1 The critical texts that make up this opening salvo are well known at this point. A convenient, representative selection can be found in the first issue of Game Studies (2001). See (2012), Eskelinen, and Juul therein.

2 Recent work on narrative in games includes sweeping theoretical models from Espen Aarseth in “A Narrative Theory of Games” (2012) and Markku Eskelinen in Cybertext Poetics: The Critical Landscape of New Media Literary Theory. See also Nitsche, Tavinor (2009), and Wardrip-Fruin (2009).

3 A review of this shift can be found in the opening to Iversen, (see Iversen, 2012).

4 For an example of this concern vis-à-vis literature, see Warner and Siskin (2008).

5 The approaches taken by Aarseth (2012) and Eskelinen (2012) mentioned above in n1 broadly reconceptualize narrative theory in light of videogames’ novel presentations of story.

6 Some formal connections have been made, of course. Grant Tavinor (2009) strikes a comparative tone as the basis for his chapter on narrative in The Art of Videogames, though in some of his work in that chapter -- particularly his assessment of death in videogames -- he seems to fall back into assumptions of difference. See also work by Craig A. Lindley (2005), Samuel Zakowski (2014), and Greg M. Smith (2002). William Gibbons’ essay on music in Bioshock (Gibbons 2011) is a good example of work that confidently borrows from other media studies (here, the role of music as understood by film studies) without losing the specificity of game form.

7 Two recent examples of game studies articles that pursue cultural analysis of videogames by way of careful attention to intersecting ludic and fictional content can be found in Game Studies Issue 1, 2014: Lizardi (2014) and Voorhees (2014).

8 For a recent snapshot of disciplinary limits and possibilities in the field, see the First Person Scholar article “Game Studies: From Colonization to Columbian Exchange” by Arsenault and Larochelle (2014), including the response by Zagal. Their notion of “bidirectional sharing” is very much in the spirit of this essay.

9 See for example the following references in Understanding Video Games (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Heide-Smith & Pajares Tosca 2012): Lerner (2014), McDonough & Robert Olendorf et al (2014), Suellentrop (2006), Thon (2009), Tocci (2008), and Wardrip-Fruin (2009). These references, in general, repeat Juul’s term in the context of establishing games’ distinction from other media.

10 As Juul notes, this example is drawn from Marie-Laure Ryan’s Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory (1991). The example appears within Ryan’s book in a passage that she quotes from Paul Gray’s Time magazine review of A Natural Curiosity by Margaret Drabble (Gray 1989).

11 Of course nothing would prevent someone from enjoying such speculation, which is, in fact, the point Paul Gray (1989) is making in his evocation of Lady Macbeth’s ambiguously numerous brood. One might note that the impulse to sketch in the undetermined elements of a fictional world is made particularly visible in the tradition of fan fiction -- a mode of fictional that relies on the incompleteness of the fictional worlds by which it is inspired.

12 Though it is a more subtle form of unexplained fictional logic, the unexplained gap between television characters’ professions and their standard of living is perhaps the most pervasive form of this fictional lacuna on television (with Friends 1994-2004, as a particularly well-noted example).

13 As has been noted, the quaint Oxfordshire town that is the setting of the British ITV television show Midsomer Murders (1997- present) faces a similarly unremarked fate. Responding to a listener’s query, the staff of the BBC radio show More or Less (2001- present) calculated the murder rates for the quaint Oxfordshire town that is the setting of the television show Midsomer Murders. As reported by RadioTimes, the murder rate of sleepy Midsomer was shockingly high, but nothing approaching the catastrophic murder rates of the fictional town Cabot Cove, Maine, USA that was the fictional home town of Murder, She Wrote’s main character Jessica Fletcher. By their count, Cabot Cove, Maine had a higher murder rate than any nation on earth -- to say nothing of the murders that occurred with unfailing regularity as Jessica Fletcher left the murderous confines of Cabot Cove.

14 Murder, She Wrote differs from similar shows based on either professional detectives (like Poirot or Sherlock) or police officers (Law and Order, Homicide, etc.). The viewer is asked to accept that Murder, She Wrote’s Fletcher stumbles into each murder by accident, whereas other crime shows builds in a narratively motivated explanation for the endless stream of murders by organizing their narratives around the activities of investigators whose job it is to investigate such crimes. Even in such shows, though, viewers are sometimes asked to accept situations that strain logic: the residents of Dexter’s Miami, for instance, must wonder about the seamless parade of outré serial killers whose dramatic reigns of terror line up so neatly one after the other.

15 After a contentious legal battle, Nintendo was judged not to have violated copyright pertaining to King Kong. The key judgment is found in the case Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd. United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. 29 July 1985.

16 See East, Tom. “Donkey Kong Was Originally A Popeye Game.” The Official Nintendo Magazine. http://www.officialnintendomagazine.co.uk/13484/donkey-kong-was-originally-a-popeye-game/ and Fahs, Travis. “The Secret History of Donkey Kong” Gamasutra. http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/134790/the_secret_history_of_donkey_kong.php?page=2 .

17 The adoption of “Pauline” as the name of the damsel in distress echoes the similarly distressed title character from the early Perils of Pauline serials -- another text from which the game draws some guidance for its basic premise.

18 On evoked narrative, see Jenkins (2004: 118-30). On the broader point of Donkey Kong’s cultural legibility, consider by contrast the far more abstract characterization and fictions of Q*Bert (1982) or Marble Madness (1984) about which almost nothing could be meaningfully deduced in terms of representational cultural content.

19 The widely circulated story of Mike Mika’s Donkey Kong hack, which allowed his daughter to play as Pauline saving Mario, anecdotally reflects the degree to which gender registers via the game’s limited fiction. Mika’s commentary on this appeared in Wired.

20 The inconceivable frequency of its murders was amplified by another extra-fictional force: television production practices which prolong popular series for as long as a show is profitable (i.e., had Murder, She Wrote been a one-season flop, Mrs. Fletcher’s proximity to 22 murders would provoke less puzzlement than the show’s eventual 200-plus body count).

21 That relatively few films employ non-chronological repetitions in ambiguous relation to each other is true, but in such cases that structure has struck critics and popular audiences alike as central to their meaning. The more common use of repetition in film and television offers some guidance for audiences to understand the relationship of those sequences. In films like Groundhog Day or Source Code fantastic and science-fiction justifications respectively create a standard chronological frame around the repetition cycles, while films or television shows in the Rashomon vein (like the more recent film Vantage Point or the X-Files episode “Bad Blood”) are clearly marked out as presenting multiple overlapping perspectives of a shared chronology.

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