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Extended Fiction in Game Design: Earthbound

by Austin Anderson on 04/01/19 03:26:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This is the first in a series of blog posts I'll be making publishing sections of my University of Utah Honors Thesis on Extended Fiction in Game Design. This post introduces the series and discusses the extended fiction elements in Earthbound. Obvious spoilers.

       In any story, an element being diegetic means that it is an element of the story that the characters of the fiction can sense. The simplest example is that of music in a movie; if there is a radio playing music in the scene, that music is diegetic. If a musical soundtrack plays over the scene but is something the characters cannot hear, it is non-diegetic(DIEGETIC). The border between the diegetic and non-diegetic is most commonly referred to as “the fourth wall” (Webster), in reference to the imaginary fourth wall of a play set, where the sides and back of the room that events are taking place in are fully represented on the theater stage, but the opening through which the audience observes the events of the play is an imaginary barrier. This barrier isn’t just literally a completion of the four walls in a traditional room of a building, but also metaphorically separates the reality from the fiction, quarantining both from each other as to not interfere.

     The problem with this boundary is that it can’t fully encompass the medium of video games. Video games, at their very essence, are an interactive medium. They require some breach of the fourth wall for them to function, as the game could not proceed to tell its story without a player’s input, which is an addressing of the audience due to the necessity of their action. Indeed, in the article “A Circular Wall? Reformulating the Fourth Wall for Video Games”, Steven Conway offers this criticism of the term:

… whilst the notion of the fourth wall finds itself within a welcoming habitat amongst media such as books, television and cinema, the physical interaction demanded by computer games creates a completely different relationship between product and audience. (Conway)

     Press the ‘Action' Button, Snake! The Art of Self-Reference in Video Games speaks to this further, where the author makes a similar argument against the use of the term “breaking the fourth wall” in discussing video games;

The self-referential aspects of games like Zork, Sonic the Hedgehog, Eternal Darkness, and Metal Gear Solid are examples of what Rune Klevjer refers to as "extended fiction," the act of pushing out boundaries of make-believe to include certain aspects of the user's reality. Because games are complex artifacts that function on different levels of reality simultaneously, they are not "breaking" anything by sliding between the different levels of reality already at play. They are simply making use of the unique affordances of the video game medium and trusting the player to be able to parse the different levels of reality into a coherent whole. (Weise)

     Even as such, video games still have traditional lines in the sand of what is considered diegetic and non-diegetic. Those items that are diegetic are traditionally inside the bounds of the magic circle[1], which is “…generally limited to the fictional world generated between the game console/PC program and the player” (Conway). However, there exist a set of games that break beyond these bounds, what Conway refers to as “an extension of the magic circle”(Conway); games that take those items that were traditionally non-diegetic and thrust them into the realm of the diegetic, or other games that obscure or imply the diegetic nature of some elements of the game, such as whether or not the player is diegetic. These games use extended fiction game design elements. Elements of a game that use extended fiction re-contextualize a players relationship to the game, bringing their interactions into a new perspective and prompting new self-reflections in the player. They can provide not only enthralling gameplay experiences, but also metanarrative[2] self-critique of the medium of video games that is hard to imagine possible without these methods.

     This thesis will offer up examples and analysis of some of games that use extended fiction, provide a guide to the mechanical design and narrative patterns used to perform these techniques, and an explanation of why the medium of video games is uniquely suited to execute these critical narrative techniques. A guide on how to execute any sort of metanarrative critique would be pointless, as any worthwhile execution of extended fiction will require a somewhat unique approach; instead this thesis will recognize patterns and techniques used to create extended fictions, what effects those techniques have, and what critiques have been previously offered using those techniques.

TO YOU WHO I’VE NEVER MET

     The Mother series is an example of a collection of games that are not afraid of acknowledging the virtual nature of their existence. In Earthbound (the second game in the mother series, released as Mother 2 in Japan) for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, the player character (a child) is confronted by two adult policeman who comment “At times like this, kids like you should be playing Nintendo games” (Earthbound). Quirky, self-aware jokes like this abound in the Mother games, but Earthbound executes a much more profound extended fiction as well.

     The player has a significant amount of control in Earthbound. Earthbound is a game in the traditional JRPG[3] style, which is a style of design that usually allows the player to control a party of characters and commands where they go, what they do, who and how they fight, and so on. Not only does the player have a controlling role in accomplishing set gameplay goals, but they control multiple characters from a top-down perspective—a perspective that could be very easily described as the perspective of a god viewing and controlling mortals from above. Godlike control of a world is a regular occurrence in video games, especially JRPG games like the mother series; in fact, a “God Game” is a separate, well-defined subgenre in which the player controls an entire virtual world and its inhabitants from above. Earthbound is not a God Game, but the player’s perspective on the world certainly draws parallels to that of a god over a digital realm.

     Further in line with the perspective of a benevolent deity, Earthbound is a game that pushes the player to care for its denizens. The game clocks in at an average playtime of 28-36 hours (HLTB), so the player is spending almost a full work week interacting with the world from above and speaking to its quirky inhabitants. Through interacting with the denizens of Earthbound, the player is brought into a caring relationship with them that builds throughout the game. In particular, the player comes to care for the player-controlled characters: Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo, those characters whose interactions they specifically control. In any game, the characters that a player controls are distinctly embodied and empathized with, as Peter Bayliss states in Beings in the Game World;

Over time the player will become better aware of what the capabilities and limitations of their avatar are, and thus have a better understanding of the possibilities offered by their avatar to act within the game-world… the player comes to “think like a computer” by internalizing the logic and rules of the game through the experience of embodying their avatar, which is then reflected in their conduct during the course of play.(Bayliss)

     This process of thinking like a computer could be more aptly stated as thinking in the game world’s terms. The more time a player spends with a game, the more they come to internalize the games ruleset, making it more natural for them to understand the world of the game, and thus allowing them to better empathize with the characters and how those characters interact with the world.

     Games quite often encourage the player to empathize with and care for the characters within the game, giving the player tasks to help others and showing meaningful influence on those characters’ lives through the actions directed by the player. In describing Little King’s Story, Murphy and Zagal state:

Little King’s Story encourages the player to recognize, relate to, and ultimately care about the citizens of his kingdom… If the player takes the time to interact with the citizens, he will discover that each of these non-player characters has his own personality and story… Over the course of the game, the player becomes familiar with the citizens that he spends more time with, observing them interact with each other and with the player’s avatar. All of these things serve to encourage the player to care about the well-being of the citizenry of his kingdom…(Zagal)

     All of this storytelling effort is dedicated to bringing the player to feel a responsibility for the denizens of the digital realm. As a game about saving the world from invasion, it’s critically important to Earthbound that the player cares about saving the world of the game, or else they will be narratively disinterested and ultimately likely have an inferior experience with the game. When the player is successfully influenced to feel a sense of duty to the characters of the world, they’re more likely to truly engage with the game and its themes and be motivated towards the goals of the characters. However, this sense of responsibility is traditionally detached from the actual game in diegetic terms. The player, their responsibility, and their control are traditionally non-diegetic parts of the game narrative. A player, while they may come to care about and feel responsible for the game world, isn’t explicitly acknowledged as actually responsible for the games world, nor is their sentiment for the characters of the game addressed.  Earthbound challenged those traditions at its iconic climax. 

     At the end of Earthbound, there is a fight to save the characters world from destruction. Four children are pitted against Giygas, the “Embodiment of evil, Universal Cosmic Destroyer” (Giygas). Right before the fight begins, one of the main characters, Paula, turns towards the screen, and addresses the player by name. The player had initially entered their name at the very start of the game for no discernable reason, but at this point, one of the game’s characters directly addresses the player, pleading with them for help (Figure 1). This is a surprise to the player because Paula has previously used her prayers to call out to other characters in the game for help, but this time, calls out to the player.

 
  Figure 1, Screenshot from Earthbound

 

Figure 1, Screenshot from Earthbound

 

"I'm calling out to you who I've never met... I'm calling our friend who we've never met... (player name)! (player name)! We need your help! I am Paula and I am with another friend, Ness... We are trying to contact you..." (Earthbound)

            The player is suddenly pulled, not from the immersion of the game world, but into a diegetic role in the game world. The responsibility and level of control in guiding these children and keeping them safe is suddenly diegetically acknowledged, a move that drastically heightens the sense of duty the player feels to help these characters because they now express awareness of the players ability to help them. In a game where the player assumed, they were non-diegetic, an invisible god controlling the actions of smaller beings, their anonymity and stakes-free position outside of the game world is challenged; if they fail, the game will explicitly acknowledge that they, the player, failed, instead of attributing the failures to the game’s protagonists. Paula, who has prayed to contact all 4 main characters in the game at some point, prays to contact the character, treating them exactly like any of the other diegetic main characters of the game. In a dire moment, the game is breaking down all the barriers it can in a desperate plea for a savior. The game has challenged the player’s detached involvement and has pulled them in and given them a hefty emotional stake in the affairs of the game, its people, and its world. This moment provides an incredible breakdown of barriers between game and player. Jeremy Parish described it in Metatext: Separating the Player from the Character:

If you're not expecting it, this turn of events is quite stunning. Taken in the context of the final showdown with the mighty Giygas, set in an unsettling, surreal dreamscape, it feels almost like the game itself is breaking down. It's perhaps the most clever and powerful moment in a clever and powerful game. (Parish)

            This is the penultimate example of explicitly acknowledging the player’s role in a game where they exhibit so much control. The game’s characters acknowledge the player as a diegetic presence with control over them, and that they, as fictional, virtual beings, rely on the player to survive and save their virtual world. The surrealistic imagery of the game itself breaking down conveys that the player is not saving a fictional world, it’s saving the entire game as a virtual entity, from an attack on the inside.  It places an incredible amount of responsibility on the player’s shoulders; whether or not these characters or their world exist, the burden of protecting them has suddenly been very directly, diegetically placed on the shoulders of the player.

            This is a pronounced example of a dynamically diegetic element in a game. The execution of this design principle is simple; the player is led to assume that the game’s components fulfill traditionally diegetic roles: the music and menus in the game are non-diegetic, the characters and world are diegetic, the player is non-diegetic as well as the reality of the game being a piece of software, etc. But at a climactic moment, a non-diegetic element is folded into the game to become diegetic, as the games fiction is extended. Then, that element, be it the controls, the game console, or the player, becomes a key part of the story, and the mechanics of the game. The story is no longer just about the written plotline; the story is about the gameplay, about interactivity, about the very nature of interacting with a digital realm. The story truly embraces the unique interactive aspect of video games and suits its narrative to that aspect, critiquing this aspect in any way the author intends. The developer creates a scenario for the story to unfold in, but the actions the player takes write the story one button press at a time, a story that the player is involved in.

      What this subversion of diegetic tradition does in Earthbound is nothing short of extraordinary. In a time of desperate need, the game’s characters call on every last hope, reaching beyond the boundaries of what the player believed possible, both acknowledging their empowerment and sobering them at the same time. It heightens the drama of the situation so well and in such a surprising way, and truly, diegetically invests the player in the fate of a world not their own, making the success of victory that comes at the end all the more personal.

To read other entries in this series, check out my Gamasutra blog http://gamasutra.com/blogs/AustinAnderson/1028242/, or check out the full thesis on my website at http://austinanderson.online/thesis


References

“DIEGETIC | Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” DIEGETIC | Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary, dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/diegetic.

Conway, Steven. “A Circular Wall? Reformulating the Fourth Wall for Video Games.” Gamasutra Article, 22 July 2009, www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/132475/a_circular_wall_reformulating_the_.php

Weise, Matthew. “Press the Action' Button, Snake! The Art of Self-Reference in Video Games.” Game Career Guide Article, 25 Nov. 2008, www.gamecareerguide.com/features/652/press_the_action_button_snake_.php

“Earthbound.” Nintendo of America, 1995.

“HLTB”. How Long to Beat?, howlongtobeat.com/game.php?id=3034.

Bayliss, Peter. “Beings in the Game-World: Characters, Avatars, and Players.” She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 2007, researchbank.swinburne.edu.au/items/383db9c5-49ff-40a6-bb7d-d46888330ed1/1/.

Zagal, Jose, and John Murphy. “Videogames and the Ethics of Care.” Design, Utilization, and Analysis of Simulations and Game-Based Educational Worlds, 2011, pp. 193–205., doi:10.4018/978-1-4666-4018-4.ch012.

Parish, Jeremy. “Metatext: Separating the Player from the Character.” USgamer.net, USGamer.net, 20 July 2016, www.usgamer.net/articles/metatext-separating-the-player-from-the-character.


[1] A term coined by Dutch writer Johan Huizinga, referring to the artificial circle that is drawn around an arena of play(Huizinga)

[2] Metanarrative is a “fiction that comments upon its own artificiality” (Metanarrative). Used in video games, metanarrative is often used for self-critique of the interactions between game and player.

[3] JRPG is an acronym for Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG), a stylistic sub-genre of role-playing video games that follows a school of game design originating and traditionally followed in Japan.


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