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A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz

Are Video Games Stories?

     (25-26 Jan. 2009)

Begin like this: If photographs are images, and films are moving images, then video games are actions.1

If video games are actions, then I would ask: are stories actions?

Tzvetan Todorov, reviving the distinction made by the Russian formalists, proposes working on two major levels, themselves subdivided: story (the argument), comprising a logic of actions and a 'syntax' of characters, and discourse, comprising the tenses, aspects and modes of the narrative.2

Game actions constitute chains of propositions: if I press this button, then my character will swing her sword; if my character swings her sword, she will kill a particular radioactive mutant; if she kills a particular radioactive mutant, she will be allowed access to a building; if she is allowed access to a building, a level of play will be concluded.

But however many levels are proposed and whatever definition they are given, there can be no doubt that narrative is a hierarchy of instances.3

Instance, from the Latin instantia, "presence, earnestness, urgency," or literally, "a standing near."4

Levels in video games have definition. They are definite. But if they are proposed, then so is my desk; if they are propositions, so too is your door. Doors, like desks, are functional objects that afford and direct possibilities. When mutants are killed, doors are opened, and so a level is played. Game levels provide space for play to occur, and objects for us to stand near.

If narrative is a hierarchy of instances, then those instances are past. If stories comprise a logic of actions, those actions have already played out. Narrative stories are not actions; they are the selective documentation and ordering of actions, fictive or otherwise. History, I am told, is a fiction based on fact. 5

The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.6

     (24 Jan. 2009)

Dian Wei, personal bodyguard to the warlord Cao Cao, raced across the battlefield at Chi Bi. Cao Cao's fleet of ships had sailed to Chi Bi, and his armies were attacking the allied forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan. But his advisor Pang Tong had betrayed him: after tying his ships to one another, Pang Tong had defected to the enemy's side. Now Dian Wei had only two minutes and thirteen seconds to find Pang Tong, and stop him from setting the ships ablaze. Realizing the gravity of this moment, Dian Wei paused and saved his game.

The Battle of Red Cliffs, otherwise known as the Battle of Chi Bi, was a decisive battle at the end of the Han Dynasty, immediately prior to the period of the Three Kingdoms in China. It was fought in the winter of 208/9 between the allied forces of the southern warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan and the numerically superior forces of the northern warlord Cao Cao. Liu Bei and Sun Quan successfully frustrated Cao Cao's effort to conquer the land south of the Yangtze River and reunite the territory of the Eastern Han Dynasty. The allied victory at Red Cliffs ensured the survival of Liu Bei and Sun Quan, gave them control of the Yangtze, and provided a line of defence that was the basis for the later creation of the two southern kingdoms of Shu Han and Eastern Wu.7

Dian Wei looked at his map and, using the directional stick on his controller, cycled through the list of Allied Forces Generals. He found Pang Tong standing atop a cliff, at the eastern edge of the water. Taking a sip of his Pepsi, he rechecked the list of bonus conditions. Apparently, if he could also take the nearby Eastern Base within the next two minutes and thirteen seconds, he would be awarded three hundred extra experience points. The man-giant Dian Wei lifted both of his forty-four-pound halberds, un-paused his game, and rode off to punish the treacherous Pang Tong.

Cao Cao had moored his ships from stem to stern, possibly aiming to reduce seasickness in his navy, which comprised mostly northerners who were not used to living on ships. Observing this, divisional commander Huang Gai sent Cao Cao a letter feigning surrender and prepared a squadron of capital ships described as mengchong doujian. The ships had been converted into fire ships by filling them with bundles of kindling, dry reeds, and fatty oil. As Huang Gai's "defecting" squadron approached the midpoint of the river, the sailors applied fire to the ships before taking to small boats. The unmanned fire ships, carried by the southeastern wind, sped towards Cao Cao's fleet and set it ablaze. Within a short time smoke and flames stretched across the sky, and a large number of men and horses either burned to death or drowned.8

Pang Tong had been defeated; the fleet was safe. But Dian Wei had only ten seconds left to capture the Eastern Base. As he pounded the gate with his halberds, he knew it was too late. He had failed in his task. Forfeit were the three hundred experience points. Dian Wei is too slow, thought Dian Wei. He was faster in Dynasty Warriors 5. Frustrated, he paused and restarted the battle. Good thing he had saved his game.

     (28-29 Jan. 2009)

Any game that requires reloading as a normal part of the player's progress through the system is fundamentally flawed.9

Reload: are video games stories?

In the classical narratological framework, a narrative has two distinct kinds of time, the story time, denoting the time of the events told, in their chronological order, and the discourse time, denoting the time of the telling of events (in the order in which they are told).10

Events in games are never told, because they are events. You fire a rocket: a car explodes. Unless, of course, you fire a rocket and immediately pause the game. The rocket waits mid-flight, while you run downstairs to answer your phone.

Discourse, from dis- "apart" + currere "to run."11

A player at different points in time would be in different modes of engagement with the game. As an analogy, a soccer goalkeeper is still considered to be playing the game when the ball is at the other end of the pitch (i.e. the goalkeeper is unable to influence the state of the game).12

Gamers watch other gamers play games. They cheer, laugh, and offer advice. They read and write guidebooks about games. They play-test and debug new games. They reminisce about and replay old games. They form guilds. They speak jargon. (They pwn noobs.) They pause to rest their thumbs.

Save games are manipulations of game time. They obviously allow the player to store the game state at a moment in play time and then later continue playing from that position.13

Bookmarks do not "manipulate" narrative time, any more than pause buttons "manipulate" game time; each merely marks a place in an external, linear progression. Manipulation connotes alteration, extraction, even refinement. Manipulation, circa 1730: "a method of digging ore".14 Ore is not mined merely to be enjoyed as ore. It is part of a process. Mining is a confluence of processes. To save a game is to halt processes; assessments can be made, mistakes can be fixed. The miners can punch out and go home. But miners' hands are still dirty at the dinner table. Their backs and necks ache in the evenings.

One is a reader when one reads. Gamers are still gamers when they pause and save.

     (30 Jan. - 01 Feb. 2009)

Reload: to save a game is to halt processes; assessments can be made, mistakes can be fixed.

Knowledge gained through a previous play throws up a deep problem with the whole notion of "interactive storytelling": what the fact of videogame replayability--in that you can always try again--means to narrative. One problem is that great stories depend for their effect on irreversibility - and this is because life, too, is irreversible.15

SUMMER, 1990: Adam Liszkiewicz, age ten, fights his way through the last castle in the original Final Fantasy. Thanks to his Official Nintendo Power Guidebook, he knows which hallways to take, what waits down those hallways, and how to leave those hallways alive. Adam even knows about the hallway with the secret, waiting at the very top of the castle. After hours of battle--after weeks of anticipation--he reaches the top floor.

The map in his guidebook looks like a large, gray "X" with a rectangle at its center. Inside the rectangle waits the last battle, the end boss, the final fantasy. He ignores it. Instead, he walks to the bottom right point of the "X" and enters a small, closet-sized room. There it is: the secret. The Masmune. The most powerful weapon in the game. He smiles, picks up the weapon and, using a transportation spell, promptly leaves the castle.

Though this means he will have to replay the entire castle, he doesn't mind. Now that he has the Masmune the castle should be easy. Besides, he couldn't save his game without leaving the castle. Once the spell resolves, Adam finds himself standing in a field of long grasses. And also on a beige carpet, holding an NES controller. My hands hurt, he thinks. He pauses, saves, and shuts the game off.

Glitch (n.): a defect or malfunction in a machine or plan.16

When Adam returned from lunch, or from playing basketball, or from cleaning his closet or perhaps from sleep or a bath, Adam doesn't remember, he was ten, who remembers what they were doing when they were ten, it doesn't matter, all that matters is that the next time he turned on his Nintendo Entertainment System, his save game was gone. His save game was gone. Maybe it was dust. He removed the Final Fantasy cartridge and blew, put the cartridge back in, crossed his fingers. Pushed the power button. His save game was gone. He got a Q-Tip and some alcohol. His save game. Was gone.

If the object of one's analysis is a medium in its entirety, must only those aspects of the medium that resemble play or a game be considered?17

Adam threw his controller across the room.

Glitch (n.): 1962, American English, possibly from Yiddish glitsh, "a slip."18

     (03 Feb. 2009)

We require a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin, which reassures us about our end.19

I delete the above quote and, in its stead, quote Santayana;20 then, I tell another story, about another saved game, about another glitch.21 I delete nothing, and include the Santayana quote and second story as endnotes. I delete the endnotes. I contradict myself. I worry that I contradict myself. Perhaps you should ignore this paragraph.

A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history.22

My phone rings: it is my fiancée, driving home from a friend's house. She starts telling me about her day, about a movie she wants to see. I rocket-jump over a wall and accidentally drop my phone. Well sweetie, she says from the floor, I guess you’re playing a videogame, so I'll talk to you tomorrow. I get burned to death by a Pyro. I forget to tell her I love her.

Behind a performative and demonstrative logic: the obsession with historical fidelity, with a perfect rendering....23

I get the Pyro back, of course.




1 Alexander R. Galloway, Gaming, Essays on Algorithmic Culture, Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2006, p. 2

2 Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, Stephen Heath, trans. Fontana/Collins, 1977, p. 86-87

3 Barthes, p. 87


5 Italicized sentence stated by H. Sulzdorf in conversation with the author (Dec. 2008).

6 Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Illuminations,  New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p. 255

7 (first paragraph)

8 (eleventh paragraph)

9 Chris Crawford “Chris Crawford on Game Design” in Rollings, Andrew, and Morris, Game Architecture and Design, Scottsdale, Arizona: Coriolis, 2000. Quoted and cited in Jesper Juul's "Introduction to Game Time" ( without page number(s).

10 Jesper Juul, "Games Telling Stories?" In Games Studies, Vol. 1, Issue 1 ( Quote is from section entitled, "Time, Game, and Narrative."

11 Michael Hitchens, "Time and Computer Games, Or "No, That's Not What Happened,” in Proceedings of the Third Australian Conference on Interactive Entertainment, (IE 2006). Yusuf Pisan, 2006, p. 50

12 Michael Hitchens, "Time and Computer Games, Or "No, That's Not What Happened,” in Proceedings of the Third Australian Conference on Interactive Entertainment, (IE 2006). Yusuf Pisan, 2006, p. 50

13 Jesper Juul, "Introduction to Game Time" ( See second paragraph beneath "Save Games" heading.


15  Steven Poole, Trigger Happy, New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000, p. 99 Immediately after the phrase effect on irreversibility, Poole includes a footnote: "This argument is suggested by Alain and Frederic Le Diberder in L’Univers des Jeux Video” .

16 (first entry).

17 Galloway, Gaming, p. 21


19 Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, Sheila Faria Glaser, trans. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 1994, p. 10

20 Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness... Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. -- George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1998. p. 82

21 "22 NOV. 2007: Adam Liszkiewicz, age 28, is playing BioShock on his XBox 360. He has been tasked by a madman with killing four people, and photographing their corpses; these photographs are to be displayed on a stage, in the central room of a particular game level. After the third photograph is displayed, the madman locks Adam in the central room and sends numerous henchmen to murder him. Adam defeats these henchmen and, of course, saves his game. Unfortunately, the game does not recognize that all of the henchmen are dead, and so the doors out of the central room are not unlocked. Despite an hour or more of searching and experimentation, Adam finds no other henchmen, and no other way out. He does, however, find others like him, discussing the glitch in online forums; according to them, there are no patches available to fix this glitch, and all that can be done is to reload an earlier saved game. It is at this point Adam realizes his error: he had only one saved game."

22 Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 262

23 Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 47 (Author’s emphasis)