Video Games and the Future of Narrative


Video Games and the Future of Narrative

Clara Fernández-Vara’s conference at the NYC Media Lab was centered on the present and future possibilities and uses of interactive narratives. Fernández-Vara, an faculty member of NYU’s game center, mentioned having to manage being an academic and commercial developer of games having worked in research and design. The workshop was mostly a lecture but also comprised of a questions and answers session right at the end. A key question is how do you bring together interactivity and narrative? As a designer, she conceptualizes spaces where the player is an actor without a script and gives them cues of what they can do and how they can do it. She’s constantly exploring new technologies and how they fit into everyday life. The conference was in part focused on dispelling preconceived notions and stereotypes about video games and their consumption.

These are:

  1. Even when people have an open mind about video games, they have an idea of how games work without taking the time to analyze the mechanics of the matter. For video games to be on the same level as films or narrative fiction like novels, we should get rid of the notion that there’s active and passive media. When we are watching a movie or reading a novel, we’re actively making sense. She mentioned film examples like David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive”, films that are surreal and less preoccupied about following traditional linear narratives structures and are open to different interpretations by their creator, Lynch, who doesn’t provide an explanation of its meaning, allows his audience prescribe their assumptions of meaning. Non-native English speakers are constantly making sense of what messages are being conveyed through literature and film, oftentimes to identify with a character or understand his or her motivations. Erkki Huhtamo says “the spectator may be carried into the fiction through psychological identification with the characters’ point of view, but ultimately s/he is always returned to her/his position as a voyeur, a libidinous outsider.” Fernández-Vara said “games are more than just interactive cinema”. She used the example of “The Walking Dead” as a game that wants you to identify with a protagonist like we do in film.

Walking Dead Walkthrough Demo

  1. Fernández-Vara explained that what distinguishes interactive media is that we have agency. We can explore the story and affect a world. Every spectator is involved in the media we’re experiencing. This ties together with Huhtamo’s proposal that video games give players the sense of being an agent in addition to merely being a bystander. “The games challenge him/her, promising mastery as a reward for surmounting increasingly complex obstacles”.
  1. Branching- With this process, there’s a point where control is lost. For example in field of procedurally generated content games like “Skyrim” provide a different experience or journey each time you play them. This can make video games seem overwhelming and infinite. Branching, she said, “is not a productive nor effective way of using computers”.

She proposed building worlds as an alternative. This way, people can interact and explore a particular universe. Narrative emerges from going into these worlds, and trying things. She invites players to become toddlers by going around, starting to ask people what’s going on, picking up objects and figuring out what to do with them. Instead of thinking of it as visual narrative, video games can be considered virtual simulations as they allow us to enter different worlds.


Minecraft Demo

“Minecraft” for example, is a game only about world building but it’s very blocky- it’s not about graphics or polygons but having interesting interactions, discovery, exploration and building. Transmedia incorporates one universe or group of characters across different media.“Star Wars” is a classic example of transmedia storytelling before this phrase even existed. There have been novels, video games, toys, comics and crossovers with other media universes like Lego. Transmedia storytelling can also provide a point of access for people that are usually not interested in a specific medium like “The Avengers” films caused some viewers to seek comics featuring these characters. It proposes thinking about worlds instead of thinking about one story.

Theater, she proposes, is a better model to think about narrative interactions instead of film. It’s also more accessible. It’s more interactive, public theater invites audiences and kids to tell actors where to go and what to do. We’re ingrained since childhood with the notion of the school play, making kids play make believe. There’s a human tendency to want to be other people, become somebody else, moving away from identifying with someone and instead becoming them. Performing the role is more productive than mere identification. We have to go beyond the computer screen. This is what constitutes immersion; sometimes when audiences are interrupted on immersive media and reminded of the real world it can be traumatic. Games are absorbing but we’re also someplace else. Looking at surveys of video game players, almost half of players are women, over 30% of them between 35 and 50 years of age. This doesn’t necessarily fit our idea of what a video game player is but part of the proliferation of games are the accessibility of the technology. There’s also a sense of compartmentalization of video games as we can incorporate them into our daily routines, like playing one on the subway, and easily shutting it off and coming back to our daily routine.


Recent years have brought a renaissance of virtual reality. Fernández-Vara ended the lecture by saying there’s still a way to go for immersive technology to function seamlessly in the domestic setting. She mentioned the oculus rift being hard to set up, even for her as a tech person. They can also be quite messy as a player’s surrounded by cables destroying part of the immersive potential. She mentioned the potential of social space to tell stories. Audiences can go to specially equipped spaces, this way when people realize that can be way of building an audience perhaps it’ll pass the gimmick phase.

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Clara Fernández-Vara’s lecture at 2015 NYC Media Lab

Huhtamo, Erkki. Seeking Deeper Contact: Interactive Art as Metacommentary. pages 1 and 4

posted by Luis López Salgado

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