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Film discourse in videogames – new media modalities of visual presentation


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Barišić, Ilija. (2017). Film discourse in videogames – new media modalities of visual presentation. PhD Thesis. Filozofski fakultet u Zagrebu, Department of Comparative Literature.
(Poslijediplomski doktorski studij književnosti, izvedbenih umjetnosti, filma i kulture) [mentor Peović Vuković, Katarina and Gilić, Nikica].

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This study examines the ways in which videogames communicate with players through film depiction strategies and how the filmic ways of communication function in cybertextual media context, especially on the syntagmatic, discursive level. Analysis shows how formative and aesthetic principles of film function when transferred to the new, interactive medium, and how they correspond with specific experiences that emerge from playing the game itself. The thesis that filmic and ludic modes of expression in videogames are typically and normatively coherent in delivering certain experiences to the players elucidates in an array of taxonomically arranged examples. They prove that videogames heavily rely on communicational models that were developed in film. Therefore, the aim of this dissertation is to explore the synergetic communicational impact of filmic and ludic modes of expression in videogames. Despite media’s differences, film and videogames have a lot in common, and film theory can offer some basic terms and concepts for the understanding of the visual means of organizing videogame content. The majority of videogames, though not all, can be broken down into filmic sequential communicative categories, in all types of film discourse: narrative, descriptive, expository and poetic. The division into four types of film discourse in this dissertation is adapted from Turković. Having taken over his epistemologicalcommunicational film theory, the cognitive theory of film – with its focus on cognitive processes and the ways in which moving images shape experiences – became the methodological pivot of this dissertation as well. Relying on that theoretical framework, primarily from Turković’s writings, the process of proving the thesis includes identifying the ways in which various types of cinematic expression work in an interactive context. Examples from several case studies prove that film discourse typically supports and amplifies impressions and experiences transmitted to the player through the playing of the game itself. Analysis of structural convergence between videogames and film that is in the core of this dissertation does not exclude observing the differences between the two media. Interactivity is commonly considered as a staple feature of videogames, but that term needs to be delimited as interventional activity, because the concept of interactivity can be applied to traditional forms of text as well, though mostly metaphoricly. When playing a videogame, users are not active just cognitively, but also interventionaly. They are intervening in its diegetic space. Enabling interventional activity in videogames resulted in a number of diegetic peculiarities atypical for film. Point of view in videogame is mostly fixed and parameters of framing are less diverse and fluid in general. Montage is considerably less present in videogames, even though it is not completely removed from their formal grammar as certain scholars inclined. On the other hand, scenes in videogames include considerably more nondiegetic informations that direct the player’s interventional activity, mostly in the form of textual and graphical indicators. Performartive nature of videogames conditions particular time framing of diegetic events, special configuration of space and a distinct functionality of objects within them. Time is not fixed as it is in cinema; it is adjusted to the needs of the player’s performance. Facilitating performance results not only in specific time distortions in relation to the way of representation in film, there are distortions in space as well. These spatial peculiarities are evident in certain perspective variations of videogames, as those in isometric graphics, or the symbolic and unrealistic dimensioning of objects and their spatial placement. Use value and interactive functionality of ludic objects conditions a specific way of their appearing and disappearing from space, as well as the very frame parameters and the auditory accompaniment and numerous other non-diegetic indicators that serve to direct the player’s attention. Another divergent aspect of videogames is in their ways of achieving user immersion. Immersion in videogames is not merely sensory and narrative, as in some traditional media, it is also ludic. Consequently, videogames are able to hold the attention of the player very efficiently using weaker sensory and narrative mechanisms. A major part of this dissertation refers to the question of how videogames imbed the expressive procedures of film into their specific ludic discourse. Syntagmatic connections between film and videogames can, therefore, be considered as a part of wider convergent mechanisms, which include bringing together multiple media not only on the structural level, but also on the technological, production, content and social levels also. The analysis of the technological convergence of videogames and film shows that the connections between the two media are not a consequence of merely a common digital technology, they are a consequence of the general principles of animating movement as well. The complexity of the convergent content exchange between videogames and cinema is typologically categorised into several interconnected levels. The most prominent of those are adaptation, imitation, citation and machinima. In videogames themselves, the convergence of content implies taking over various filmic generic models and applying different types of animation. Representational and abstract animation are two such categories of the highest degree. Structural convergence of the media can be observed on paradigmatic and syntagmatic levels. The paradigmatic units in film that are utilised in videogames refer to parameters of framing in the broad sense, which include the point of view, but also certain other visual peculiarities of the film image, like the type of lighting, and the imitation of its specific optical characteristics. The focus in the dissertation is nonetheless on the syntagmatic, sequential procedures in structuring the audio-visual fabric of videogames. With regards to their communicational purpose and their directedness towards provoking certain emotions and types of experiences in the player, videogames take over four types of film discourse. In prior research, attention has been given exclusively to narrative discourse, and there were no attempts to tackle other types of discourse, namely descriptive, expository and poetic, even though occasionally attention was drawn to the possibilities of expository and poetic effects of videogames. Descriptive discourse demands an observational, investigative game mechanics that does not demand the player to act interventionally and react to the events on the screen. These are routine and marked by repetitiveness and a procedural nature that avoids developing a special cause-and-effect sequence of events. Expository discourse is focused on demonstrating and defining concepts. Its primary purpose in videogames is to teach the user how to play the game, which is why expository segments are inevitable in games that feature a more complex game mechanics. The common feature of all expository segments is the fact that they typically lack score keeping, major threats or any important action. They are focused on practice and as such they generally fall out of the scope of the cause-and-effect action development. They either do not deploy the story or the story within them is secondary, but they do build the player’s skills and/or knowledge, and perhaps set certain gaming parameters. Poetic discourse in videogames calls for particular observational and agency conditions. In order for the player to enter into contemplative mood in which he can freely follow visual sensations on the screen, actions in the diegetic space need not require a constant and precise engagement of the player. It is desirable for the gameplay to be dominantly paidiic, which means that the player needs to have a certain degree of freedom while playing, unbound by a goal or end result. If there happens to be some kind of a goal as a motivational and cohesive factor of the game, it should not burden the player with the need for its accomplishment. Any kind of goal in poetic videogames needs to be secondary in relation to the playful exploration of the evocative visual and auditory components on the screen. In accordance with Turković’s categorisation of various emotional states that are sought to be stimulated in the player evocatively and poetically, poetic videogames can be subdivided into various sub-generic categories. Even though such genealogy is never “pure” and even though there exists an array of in-between cases, we can generally speak of the poetic games of meditation, meditative leisure, trans and self-reflection. Considering that a storyline can be structured with widely different game mechanics, narrative expression cannot be simply limited onto a recognisable and relatively universal gaming frame. Regardless of the gameplay, the most efficient experience and impression transfers are achieved when meanings that arise from playing a game are connected with a content of its story. Important elements of the narrative structure can be shown through noninteractive segments, especially filmic cut-scenes within a game, but also through a player’s own interventional involvement in specific scenes. The thesis on the intrinsic narrativity of diegetic events of ludic games that was already highlighted by structuralists who connected the structure of a competitive agon with a typical narrative situation, is corroborated by an overview of the system of film discursive and meta-discursive methods in videogames. They not only support the narrative expression itself, but also direct a player’s interventional action, i.e. the game itself. Elements of the main expressional, discursive system of film (parameters of the frame, diegetic events and sounds, ambience, mise-en-scene and other viewing conditions) also direct the interventional activity of a player in videogames. The core of playing is watching diegetic events according to which a player adjusts his interventional activity, leaving a narrative mark within the diegetic events, which are mainly predetermined, at least on the rudimentary level of success or failure. Additional filmic expressional system, the meta-discursive one, is observed, in accordance with Turković’s categorisation, on the levels of metadiscursive signs and stylization signals. Metadiscursive signs are film punctuation, voice-over (in videogames often in form of an avatar’s internal monologues), background music and non-diegetic captions, subtitles being the only ones exclusively filmic, while game-directing paratext presents a typical videogame characteristic. All of them are integral part of interactive segments of videogames and similarly to the main film discourse system, the metadiscursive signs play a part in the ludic discourse as well. Film stylization signals are categorised according to areas in which they are used. Thus, we differentiate stylizations of scene signals, observational, discursive and diegetic sound signals. Quite like in film, stylizations accentuate certain narrative points, while in videogames they also often make playing harder. But even with their partial obstructing of smooth gameplay, they have a distinct rhetorical potential and leave a strong impression on the player, not only audio-visual, but also ludic. On the other hand, dominantly paidiic games are not intrinsically narrative because they do not have a predominant goal that would be a base of a narrative structure. They have a considerably larger degree of player freedom, as well as lower designation of possible diegetic outcomes. Therefore, videogames that are dominantly paidiic rely on non-narrative film discourses in their audio-visual structural organisation: descriptive, expository and poetic. Analysis also shows that the interplay of different expressive elements of videogames often has a hierarchical structure. This means that in certain videogames one aspect, ludic or filmic, is secondary, that is functionally subordinated to the other. Therefore, the primal function of film discourse in certain videogames is to regulate and guide playing of the game and make it more appealing, while in others ludic discourse and gameplay primarily support cinematic exposition, which is the main attraction of those kind of games. Ludic rhetoric has primacy in videogames with less developed narrative, descriptive expository or poetic structures. There, the film discourse is in the service of a better and more interesting game. Cut-scenes in those games primarily serve to show the goal of a game, to give a narrative context for playing, or to give instructions for how and why to play. Users are mostly immersed in those videogames ludicly, that is by playing the game itself. Players find pleasure in those games mostly in playing successfully, and far less in narrative advancement, a description of the diegetic world, expository learning or audio-visual evocation of certain emotional states. The game system rewardingly quantifies outcomes of user successful input of interventional actions, and that is the main allure of those games, not their narrative or flashy cinematics. Opposed to those are videogames in which playing is subservient to filmic exposition. In those games, gameplay options are considerably limited and there is no possibility of advancing the playing skills. Their gameplay primarily serves to advance a narrative, to describe a diegetic world, to teach expository or to explore poetic visual sensations. Games such as these have a dominant QTE-mechanics, simple menu choices or explorative movement through diegetic space. If a player’s interventional activity primarily influences the phases of filmicly structured audio-visual components, then gameplay primarily serves for meta-discursive regulation of its presentation. Such limited gameplay still has a purpose. Apart from partly pulling player into the diegetic action, in however limited and illusory way, it is especially useful for presenting non-linear stories with multiple outcomes. Between those two extremes, there is a whole spectrum of games in which it is not possible to precisely identify which discursive strategy is prioritised. In those videogames, filmic and ludic rhetoric are generally equally important, while one or the other may dominate certain segments. When overall it is not easy to discern which mode of presentation is more important, or which expressive system is dominant, they typically strive towards a harmonic coordination while providing certain impressions and experiences. Diversity of examples in this study goes to show that such analytical model can be used to describe communicative effects of any non-textual videogame. Namely, examples included videogames of various types and genres, various technological platforms and eras: right from the beginnings in the analogue era down to latest titles, from AAA-blockbusters to independent productions. Regardless of historical and typological diversity, all titles mentioned support the fact that videogames, to a large degree, have a filmic structure. In certain types and genres of videogames this filmic structure is more expressed and in others less. Nonetheless, certain videogames exhibit a certain contradiction between meanings and impressions generated through gameplay and those that are generated through their audiovisual presentation, especially through their narrative discourse. So far, videogame critics, and to a lesser degree theorist too, referred to this problem primarily as “ludonarrative dissonance”, as coined by game developer Clint Hocking. However, that concept should be avoided for several reasons. Namely, similar terms are not used in criticism of other hybrid media in which a complete cohesion of all expressive modalities has not been achieved or in which an individual expressive element is poorly done and does not contribute to the whole. Apart from that, deconstructing some well-known alleged cases of ludonarrative dissonance shows that in most of them there is no dissonance between a story and a game, but rather contradictions within a narrative itself, since narrative develops through gameplay also. In some other cases, critics misread the meaning of the story and suggested how it should merge with a preferred gameplay. Thereat, certain aspects of games, which are not an essential part of the entire field of videogames, such as freedom of action or non-linearity, are often idealised and prescribed. But many meanings that are mediated through gameplay actually assume a lack of freedom and distinct linearity. Forcing the player to perform specific interventional actions is a powerful tool that designers can use when trying to convey certain experiences, emotions and sensations. All of the above makes the concept of ludonarrative dissonance a reflection of the obsolete idea of an essential opposition between story and game, which peaked in the debate between ludologists and narratologists at the end of 20th and beginning of 21st century. Even though this debate has long since quieted down, its certain aspects still permeate discussions about videogames. Regardless of the fact that the lack of harmony between the ludic and film discourse is not such a widespread phenomenon as some claimed, examples where it can truly be detected require certain refinement of the main thesis. Therefore, concording ludic and filmic expressive qualities is a design principle, a normative tendency to which all videogames incline, but not something that is successfully achieved in each and every videogame. Fundamentally, videogames strive for clear and purposeful conveying of messages, for transfering ideas, impressions and experiences to a player, and that requires harmonising their diverse expressive modalities. Certain videogames do not achieve this completely, but rather than dissonant, those cases should be referred to as flawed in delivering their messages. This dissertation does not propagate a prescriptive stance, which calls for an obligatory harmonisation of ludic and filmic rhetoric in order for a videogame to be well done. It is clear that, similarly as in other media, videogames can transmit a strong message with contrapuntal connection of their diverse expressive modalities and contents. However, a divergent connection of various modes of expression should still have a clear authorial intention, and not be a result of an author’s lack of competence or a hurried publication of a product just so it appears on the market at a commercially advantageous moment. The harmony between film and ludic discourse is considered as a communicational standard. In order for a deflection from it to be an expressively potent stylisation, it needs to be systematic, deliberate and designed rather than accidental, confused and uncontrolled. Certain videogames, for example those that Galloway described as countergames, already experimented with dissonant assembling of various expressive modalities of videogame. This dissertation, therefore, also looks into one of the fundamental questions of theory of videogames – the relationship between game and story. The idea of the metacommunicational supplementing and combining the ludic and the narrative contributes to a fuller understanding of the nature of this relationship. In addition, the model suggested in the dissertation moves away from the naratocentricity that marked and to a certain degree burdened the theoretical discourse on the connections between film and videogames, and on the role of story in structuring videogames in general. The very non-existence of a narrative structure in numerous videogames became a major problem in their theoretical descriptions, so many scholars tended to go to ludological extremes when describing the operational mechanisms of videogames. This dissertation, contrary to certain ludocentric theoretical interpretations, shows that the connection between visual representation and gameplay is far from arbitrary. If in certain cases film depiction strategies are subsidiary and merely serve for metadiscursive regulation of ludic meanings, the effects of the audio-visual structuring of videogames on player’s experiences and emotions can in no way be depreciated.

Item Type: PhD Thesis
Uncontrolled Keywords: videogame design, convergence, interactivity, immersion, discourse analysis, film rhetoric, ludology, narrative, exposition, poetic discourse
Subjects: Comparative literature
Departments: Department of Comparative Literature
Supervisor: Peović Vuković, Katarina and Gilić, Nikica
Additional Information: Poslijediplomski doktorski studij književnosti, izvedbenih umjetnosti, filma i kulture
Date Deposited: 20 Sep 2017 12:15
Last Modified: 20 Sep 2017 12:15

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