Just a story: Video gaming and Metafiction

Last week I participated in the Close Playing Roundtable at MLA 2012. It was a great experience, successfully flipping the orientation of most panels to generate a sustained and productive discussion on the state of video game studies. Below is the short provocation I presented.

Though we might intuitively assume we gain access to the virtual world of Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia: Sands of Time through the playable character of the Prince, close playing reveals that the game’s narrative structure denies players that role.

When Farah dies, the Prince uses his magic dagger to reverse time to before their adventure begins — erasing all the events that transpire during gameplay. He then rushes to Farah’s room to tell her the story of the erased events so that he might stop the evil Vizier’s plot before it begins. The opening lines of his story, delivered as the camera pans back to a view of Farah’s window, recall the game’s starting sequence, indicating that our play-through — punctuated and contextualized by voiceovers and cutscenes – is an iteration of the Prince’s tale. But if our playable character was telling a story the whole time, what were we doing? When we press buttons to interact, do we affect a fight with sand monsters or a detailed description of such a fight?


Our presumed role as the Prince becomes irrecoverable when his voiceovers respond to non-diegetic events. If we initiate the quit-game sequence, for example, the narrator Prince implores: “Do you wish me to leave before finishing my story?” Within the context of the narrative, however, the prince’s story is urgent; he certainly would not propose to leave. We were the ones who moved to cut the story short, literally initiating an interrupt by pressing the pause button. The Prince’s response – As you wish — thus places us as his audience – Farah.

But we cannot take Farah’s role either. The game’s plot revolves around the interpersonal drama of two enemies who must trust one another, which manifests in gameplay as platform puzzles that arise from the need to accommodate the limitations of both characters so that they may progress together. It is thus essential that the AI-controlled Farah be other and outside the playable role.


So, if we are not the Prince and we are not Farah, how are we positioned to interact with this virtual world?

For the majority of videogame study’s short history, the response to the internal contradictions like these has been to subsume narrative — and with it literary approaches— to material elements such as rules, code, and hardware. As Jesper Juul explains in Half-Real, gaming’s “incoherent worlds” eventual return us to more “real” levels.

But what if the issue is not — to quote Juul — the “flickering, provisional, and optional way” games present narrative? What if the problem is the model of narrative typically applied to gaming? After all why should we expect a work of contemporary fiction to offer its audience stable access to the story? Multiple, nested, layers, internal incoherence, self-reference, and second person address are frequent features of the last one hundred years of literary fiction at least. I would in fact go so far as to suggest that the audience position offered to players of narrative-based games would be incomprehensible if not for decades of such metafictional techniques. What, then, would it mean to think about videogames as contemporary literary practice?


In response to objections that post-WW2 metafiction did not abandons representational coherence, Linda Hutcheon argued for reworking mimetic traditions. Rather than a self-contained product, she claims metafiction stages a process, offering readers a new role as participants in unfolding, contingent narratives. Sound a bit like gaming? For Hutcheon, however, this role implies a contradiction. Metafiction is forthright about its status as artifice, yet requires non-trivial effort that prompts significant “intellectual and affective responses.” The idea that something known to be “artificial” could be the source of actual life experience seems paradoxical.

But that was before we all had Internet on our mobile phones.

In today’s wired culture, Hutcheon‘s paradox is a way life. Telepresent interactions in cyberspaces, material effects of virtual objects, media-dependent applications and environments — all support significant and, just as importantly, banal “processes of life.” To paraphrase Edward Castronova, our culture has moved beyond the point where distinguishing between synthetic and real experiences is helpful.


I submit that a videogame studies informed by metafiction would look to reveal the ways in which the artifice of gaming prompts and participates in the “life processes” of wired culture. Players engage the virtualities of game fictions — not primarily as vicarious visitors to alternate realities — but as media users, for whom many everyday practices involve “artificial” environments. The concept of metafiction can help cut across arbitrary ontological boundaries separating on-screen and off-screen contexts.

And this will become a core challenge for the future of videogame studies. As we leave behind what Ian Bogost calls “short-sighted essentialism” to address the mangle of play, we’ll need ways to talk about how interactions with fictional virtualities elicit — as Hutcheon puts it — “intellectual and affective responses comparable in scope and intensity to those of life experience” and in fact become “part of life experience.”


Prince of Persia ends with Farah asking the Prince “Why did you invent such a fantastic story?” After a failed and rewound attempt at romance, the Prince accepts that their adventure is now merely a fiction. But both Prince and player know something took place, even if all that remains is the telling. The next generation of videogame studies, I believe, will be devoted to unraveling such paradoxes and I look forward to joining in those discussions.