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Ab(Sense) of An Ending: Telos and Time in Digital Game Narratives

Souvik Mukherjee

 

The potential of digital games as a storytelling medium has started to be recognized over the last two decades. However, their status as a narrative medium is still the subject of much controversy. Unlike the apparently linear plots of earlier narrative media, the story-space in digital games is seemingly endless or multi-telic. For some commentators, this poses major problems in conceiving of them as narratives. A number of studies on ‘reading’ (or wreading) computer games refer to their multiple endings as a unique feature but none attempt in-depth analysis. Yet, as it is the peculiar nature of the endings that compounds the problem with ‘reading’ digital game-texts as a narrative medium, a discussion of this is now long overdue. This paper will examine the telic possibilities of game-texts, and explore the link between these and other forms of texts; in the process, it will show how game-endings provide a significant point of departure in the understanding of textual possibilities in narrative media.

Endings have always been a major element of interest in the world of stories. Scheherazade famously preserves her life by postponing the end of her story and weaving within it a mesh of further stories, each leading to another. Shakespeare’s endings have baffled generations of scholars. Sometimes, later Shakespearean productions have even changed the endings: for example, Nahum Tate’s nineteenth-century King Lear has a happy ending where Cordelia marries Edgar. More recently, especially in works like Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novels, the literary narrative contains many endings and repetitions, because of which conceptions of temporality and telos are altered and confused. The problem of endings in these works points clearly to the fact that narrative endings have always contained the potential for multiplicity, whether on the level of text, continuation of story or interpretation.

Literary criticism has become increasingly responsive to these issues and there have been various attempts by eminent scholars to address them. In his classic study, The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode extensively analyses the works of Robbe-Grillet, concentrating on their telic element. Gérard Genette also refers to the same texts in terms of the events that repeat themselves. As Kermode comments:

Les Gommes is writing with an eraser. The story ends where it began, within the immediate perceptual field of the narrator. It is always not doing things which we reasonably assume novels ought to do: connect, diversify, explain, make concords, facilitate extrapolations. Certainly there is no temporality, no successiveness.1

He states that in Robbe-Grillet there is ‘an attempt at a more or less Copernican change in the relation between the paradigm and text’.2 However, he cannot help observing a similar principle in operation in earlier novels like Camus’ The Plague and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. He observes that Camus’ novel is ‘susceptible to multiple readings … it even contains the opening of a rival novel’.3 In an even earlier example, he mentions how in both St John and St Paul there is the tendency to conceive of the End as happening every moment. When he maintains that the same immanent endings are also characteristic of narratives, Kermode comes very close to describing a narrative medium that illustrates this to a far greater degree than Robbe-Grillet’s novels: the digital game.

The multiplicity of endings in game-texts is not a unique media-specific feature and is already present in earlier narrative media. Though narratives in game-texts may employ different technologies, they are essentially not new. A major claim that the advocates of this so-called ‘newness’ make is that of replayability. For some game studies commentators like Jesper Juul or Craig Lindley, the repetition characteristic of computer games is largely incompatible with narrative. Juul states that ‘Literary qualities … actually [make] computer games less repeatable’4 while Lindley claims that the repetitive structure of computer games ‘[undermines] any strong sense of narrative development’.5 However, these claims are based on older conceptions of narrative progression such as the linear structure of Aristotelian drama; they cannot be justified under more current conceptions of narrativity, as examples throughout this analysis will illustrate.

Repetitive structures already exist in older narrative media without in any way undermining narrative development. As Kermode describes it, ‘in Robbe-Grillet’s novel the same character is murdered four times over’.6 Genette also reminds us that ‘certain modern texts are dependent on their capacity for repetition’. Like Kermode, he points to Robbe-Grillet and others as obvious examples of repetition:

We may remember , for instance, a recurrent episode like the death of the centipede in La Jalousie. On the other hand, the same event can be told several times not only with stylistic variations, as is generally the case in Robbe-Grillet, but also with variations in ‘point-of-view’, as in Rashomon or The Sound and the Fury. The epistolary novel of the eighteenth century was already familiar with contrasts of this type….7

Genette’s and Kermode’s comments clearly indicate that repetition and multiplicity have always coexisted within the very notion of narrativity. The narrative in the game-text, characterized by variance occurring within a process of repetition, is therefore not a new phenomenon. What is different, however, is the manner in which the variance and repetition can occur and the degree to which immanence can be experienced. Compared to the earlier narrative media cited by Kermode and Genette, digital games have a more complex telic structure, characterised by multiplicity and repetition. To plot this, one would have to include all the events, running back and forth and laterally along the timeline - an almost impossible task.

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1. Frank Kermode, The Sense of An Ending (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 21.

2. Kermode, Sense of An Ending, p. 23.

3. Kermode, Sense of An Ending, p. 22.

4. Jesper Juul, ‘A Clash between Game and Narrative’, Master’s thesis, v. 0.99 (2001), http://www.jesperjuul.net/thesis/ [accessed 22 March 2008].

5. Craig Lindley, ‘The Gameplay Gestalt, Narrative and Interactive Storytelling’, www.tii.se/zerogame/pdfs/CGDClindley.pdf [accessed: 22 March 2008].

6. Kermode, Sense of An Ending, p. 25.

7. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: A Study in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), p. 115.