With a background filled by both literature and video games, Christopher Yap has found a way to combine the two by pursuing a PhD in Narrative Video Game Studies at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Nara, Japan. Through his studies he’s attended major gaming events including the Tokyo Game Show, met luminaries such as Megaman creator Keiji Inafune, and lead an extremely well received panel at this year’s PAX East: The Mythology In and Of Games – Why The Legend of Zelda is just as important as the Legend of Beowulf.
In addition to his studies, Yap is the co-founder and scenario writer for independent game development group Plain Box Interactive, an avid modeler for Second Life, and has created the Games, Seriously podcast as place for serious discussion on video games, their effect in storytelling, and their impact on gamers.
Recently, Yap took time out of his schedule to speak to us about taking an academic approach to video games, the strengths and weaknesses of games as a narrative form, and the founding of an accepted gaming mythology.
PM: What first drew you to video games as more than a source of entertainment and escape but as a topic for academic research?
Christopher Yap: Without a doubt, the game that brought that to my attention was Metal Gear Solid. I played MGS in college. As a game, I was using it as a de-stressing and mental decompression activity, but as I progressed through the game, I began to realize that this game seemed to possess those same qualities and depths of meaning that were also present in more established media like the literary works we were pouring over in class. After that, I knew there was something to this, more than just having fun. Later on in 2006, the game Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War really reinforced this idea with both cinematic and narrative finesse.
PM: What elements make a game worthy of intense academic study?
CY: In my work on narrative in games, it is most certainly helpful to choose a game that is evidently narrative-centric in some way. While that usually means games that have an overt focus on some kind of story, like RPGs or visual novels, it doesn’t mean that game narrative can be limited to only those games with lots of text or cinematic cutscenes. I often cite Shadow of the Colossus as a very narrative game, essentially, though to me that game is a bit of a holy grail as I know there is something inherently magical occurring during the gameplay of Shadow of the Colossus, but I have yet to select an appropriate analytical lens to tease out an intelligent observation of that narrative phenomenon.
PM: In your opinion then, which makes for the more interesting subject: games with a more overt story like Metal Gear Solid and Ace Combat or those with implicit stories like Shadow of the Colossus?
CY: In my opinion, both games with overt narratives like MGS and implicit narratives like Journey are equally interesting. I think it is more important to understand and hopefully appreciate how a game tells a story. With the case of MGS, overtly cinematic storytelling isn’t necessarily better or worse, but rather just the way that the director chose to tell the story.
What is much more important, I think, is to ask the question, “Was the way the narrative was told in this game effective?” or “What kind of relationship did the storytelling and the gameplay have in this game? Did they help each other? Did they hinder each other?” And in attempting to answer those sorts of questions, we can understand how stories function in the interactive medium of games. Did this style of storytelling get in the way of the game play or vice-versa? If so, how could this have been done better? If not, did the storytelling and gameplay enhance each other? I have a feeling that developers at large are always searching for innovative ways of doing just that—having a game that tells a story in a way that makes the game play better and vice-versa.
PM: What can video games in general do to become seen as a more serious art or narrative form?
CY: Games are interesting—video games in particular —in that I think unlike the print and cinematic media which preceded it, the video game industry is for many reasons much more commercial in nature, so the philosophy “games as a product” has a lot of influence on both the development of mainstream commercial games and the perception of games as either culturally-significant or not.
I also believe that there appears to be some stigma around the term “game” that evokes opposition to considerations of a serious nature. Though, there are enough people out there like myself who are observing the same great things in games and attempting to have meaningful discussions about those things that eventually, I believe that in the next decade at least, we’ll begin to see games being thought of in the cultural consciousness as a more and more substantive medium.
PM: What role do gamers themselves have in changing their position?
CY: If you like games not just because they are fun but because they show you something or make you ponder things that really make you think, if a game has ever expanded your worldview, make some kind of noise about it—participate, discuss, make podcasts, publications, YouTube videos, whatever. Keep on talking, keep on rocking.
PM: From a literary standpoint we all know of the “Western canon” of literature: Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, 1984, etc., what would you consider the “canon” of video game narratives?
CY: Informally, I definitely feel – and I emphasize that word “feel” – that canon might include Metal Gear Solid, Ace Combat 5, Ace Combat Zero, The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past, Journey, King’s Quest, and Shadow of the Colossus, just to name several off the top of my head/heart. Canon is a hard thing. It’s highly political and in literature has taken years upon years to establish. Furthermore, canon is a contentious thing that should change in relation to cultures and time periods, and could even be shaped or informed by the zeitgeist of an era, so I think to create a canon of anything is a phenomenally-difficult undertaking.
That said, I will mention now that I have founded a Game List Special Interest Group (GLSIG) with a few other researchers to discuss this very topic, so I definitely think having a canon would be helpful in some capacity for Game Studies at large, but I am frustratingly daunted by the idea.
PM: How’s that group going? Any progress on establishing a canon?
CY: The group currently consists of other Games Researchers whom I have had the pleasure and honor of meeting at various conferences where we have all presented. We’re all respectively entrenched in our degree track programs or research projects, so meetings recently have been every other month.
The last big discussion that happened was regarding The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, as we had all felt that the game was significant in a variety of ways. Starting from that point, we tried to discuss how we define “significant,” which then led to some invoking the term “classic.” Then in discussing “classic,” we had to consider that classics are fairly dependent on the passage of time. Legend of Zelda may certainly be considered by the populace at large to be a classic, but many in recent years have been zealous about declaring “instant classics” such as Mass Effect or Bioshock Infinite. So simply discussing and trying to decide on the criteria or parameters for what counts as a potential candidate for a canon of games is understandably slow going.
As an addendum, I should note that our discussion on A Link to the Past never formally concluded–we have, for the time being, resolved to say that A Link to the Past is an effective game because of some synergistic effect emerging from all of its parts working in concert with each other. For the time being we have resolved to begin a literature survey to see which games have the most academic material written about them.
PM: Aside from merit of study and other academic pursuits, what are some of your plain ol’ favorite video game stories?
CY: Aside from MGS, Ace Combat Zero, and Shadow of the Colossus, I would say that the first God of War had an interesting story. When I played it, I had actually just finished reading the absolutely phenomenal novel Olympos by Dan Simmons, which is, I find, a somewhat fringe science fiction novel, but that is a damn shame because it is a novel that will blow your damned mind. Seriously.
But anyway, I just finished that novel, and so when I played GoW and saw that the story was mostly the same, I was a bit put off, but that disappointment was offset by how entertaining and cathartic the experience of playing GoW was. And that justified it as a fun story game to me because GoW was entertaining in a way that Olympos couldn’t be. Alternately, Olympos works in vastly more ways than GoW ever would. Both are awesome. I will eat two desserts, why not?
Of course, I don’t only play games with stories. Personally I am huge fan of simulator games and strategy games. I love the Civilization franchise, especially Civ 2 and Civ 4. In Civ 2 in particular, I enjoyed being obscure or under-represented races like Samoans or Ainu because it was neat to see status updates like, “The golden age of Philosophy has begun in Samoa!” and subsequently try to imagine what that would look like.
I also really enjoyed this super-obscure game for the PS1 called Carnage Heart. It was a game where you had to use a library of logic chips to create programs for fighting robots and manufacture them to win you control of the planet. I know why it’s obscure, I definitely won’t argue with the fact that it had a steep learning curve, but for those who stuck it out, Carnage Heart was a damn treasure.
PM: In the past you’ve spoken about different approaches in video games narrative, particularly in regards to Final Fantasy XIII being loved in Japan for its linear storytelling yet criticized in the West for having a lack of choice. As video games advance do you think there will remain a place for linear narratives in video games or will all games need to have that interactivity?
CY: It’s like human physiology—it needs all these factors in various balances, and the balance varies between individual organisms. Games are like that in terms of interactivity and embedded narratives. Interactivity or the ability to participate and influence the system tends to be fundamental to “game-ness,” and in my studies I have sort of found that stories will always be there in some sense, even if it is perceived on the player end of things, so I tend not to worry if there is no intended story to start with. That said, it’s actually more concerning to both developers and academics at large to consider issues of Ludo-Narrative Dissonance, where game mechanics and narrative come into contention with each other in some way. This problem is inherent to games, as player freedom stands in automatic contention with written stories, but like all good problems in the world, the journey to understand and/or remedy this problem is often more important than any potential silver-bullet-answer.
PM: Since so much of narrative importance is found in the end of stories, works like Romeo and Juliet or Blade Runner wouldn’t have anywhere near their significance if not for their conclusions, do you think an interactive storytelling model can have the kind of impact a fixed narrative can?
CY: Yes. But I don’t believe one can really rate impact according to effectiveness of a set ending between static and dynamic media. In my mind, that’s more of an issue of form and function of the medium in question. Works of literature which have effective endings only work because that ending is considered in relation to that entire body of work, and some aspect of the contrast evokes a “wow moment” for the reader.
Games achieve a similar moment for gamers but by using different tools, and that’s elementary because games are not books or film. Games involve the player. They require non-trivial effort in order to both traverse the “text” and you can even argue that the narrative of a given game cannot be considered complete without the input of the player. By those virtues alone, games generally can’t rely on awesome endings like those literary or cinematic examples. But the cool thing is that games can still use them as a building block and enhance their efficacy in different ways.
PM: That’s the exact argument I make in defense of the Mass Effect 3 ending. The ending doesn’t consist only of the last in-game scene, but in the entirety of the game and all the choices that have built up over the course of the narrative.
The whole Mass Effect 3 thing was a fascinating yet somehow off-putting basket of offal. On the one hand, here was a franchise that is highly-beloved by many but ultimately not under any one fan’s control. It is still a work that sprang from official authors, so there has to be an ending of some sort. That ending was considered extremely weak when viewed in relation to the game mechanics of character customization and such. Because of that deep degree of involvement, the fans felt that they had invested a significant portion of who they were into this game and felt very betrayed.
The fact that this reached the point of litigation is stupid in my opinion. By contrast – and this is a bit of generalization – Harry Potter fans I think would be less likely to sue Rowling over an unsatisfactory ending to that franchise. But that’s the charm and evil of games.
PM: Some would argue that having a definite ending goes against the strength of games as an interactive media and not a static one.
CY; People are certainly entitled to that opinion, but there’s no reason why we can’t have a world with games that have set endings and games that have malleable, multiple endings. Set endings most certainly does not equal “worse” just as much as multiple endings does not equal “better.” It’s the quality of the game as a whole that is important. Multiple endings won’t help any game that’s horrible. Interactivity does not necessarily require or demand a changeable multi-form ending.
PM: After presenting at various game conferences for the last year such as PAX East and Meaningful Play 2014, you’re starting the Games, Seriously podcast. What can listeners look forward to with this podcast?
CY: We’ll be focusing on one theme or topical question per episode, and it will be structured as a safe place for intelligent and meaningful discussion on the medium of games from a variety of perspectives, with the fundamental intent of showing how games are or can be a significantly helpful medium for humanity. At the end of each episode we will invite comments and discussion via social media which we can use for discussion in future episodes or on our forthcoming website. We have also lined up a tentative list of special guests to join the party from time to time.
PM: What are some of the themes or discussions you have planned?
CY: Initially with the Games, Seriously podcast we want to start with several discussions which deal with why games exceed their inherent functions of entertainment. We want to discuss how games encourage players to consider greater topics and how they challenge pre-conceived notions about life. For example, what are those factors in games which are indicators to more substantive meaning? What games are good examples of this, and so on and so forth. Eventually, we are excited about getting into some specific game deep dives with games like Metal Gear Solid 2 or Journey.
PM: Any start date scheduled yet?
CY: First episode was released on Dec. 14, so it’s available right now.