Thomas paradigms of existing work in the concepts

 

Thomas Was Alone

 

Charalampos Apartoglou

Student No: 1700340

Formal Properties of Games

January 2018

 

 

Abstract

This paper discusses
the appliance of narrative and story-elements in an abstract digital game and investigates
how this prosthesis can transform a minimalist, game into a full-fledged story
which contains unique and distinct characters. In order to make this claim, how
a gaming activity can be supplemented with the use of narrative elements, the
author uses paradigms of existing work in the concepts of narrative and
fiction, within the academic field of game studies. The paper uses “Thomas Was
Alone” as a case study and argues that the abstraction in its design process
can present the characters as props, able to stimulate the player’s
imagination, while the game’s use of narration and embedded narratives, can
strengthen the game’s playing experience.

 

Author Keywords: Narrative, Embedded
Narrative, Fiction, Abstraction, Minimalism.

 

1. Case Study: “Thomas Was Alone”

1.1. Overview

    “Thomas Was Alone” is a 2D, indie
puzzle-platformer game, designed and developed by Mike Bithell, that was
originally released as a Flash-based browser game in October 2010. In 2012 the
game was revised, expanded and released for Microsoft Windows and OS X systems,
while later it was also included in other various platforms and consoles,
including Playstation 3, Xbox One, Wii U, Android and iOS. The setting of the
game is supposed to take place inside a computer mainframe, whereas our
characters are rogue Artificial Intelligence programs, that develop awareness
and want to escape their imprisonment. The player controls these various different
and distinct rectangles and tries to guide them through each level, avoiding
obstacles, activating buttons and escaping traps, all in order to reach the
portal at the end of the room and advance to the next. Every rectangle has a
name, a colour, an assigned personality and a unique ability and it is the use
and combinations of these different abilities, that presents the player with challenge.
The game’s story is conveyed to the player through a narrator at certain points
in each level and through this narration we learn about the characters’
personalities, dispositions and mentalities, in an attempt to justify their
motifs and better understand their abilities. The game’s design is abstract,
the environments are dark with little or, in some cases, no additional
surroundings and the characters themselves are just some rectangles, of
different shapes and colours and nothing else.

1.2. Minimalism & Abstraction

    Bithell Games, the company of “Thomas Was
Alone” creator and developer Mike Bithell, presented in 2012 an announcement
trailer that was cast, among other media, in YouTube and showcased the newly
expanded game. In this first presentation there was a footnote under the game’s
title that tried to capture the essence of the gameplay, as Bithell envisioned
it. It described the game in a short concluding sentence: “A minimalist game
about friendship and jumping”. I will develop my analysis of the game using
this particular phrase as an axis, around which, my argument will revolve.

    But first I feel a need to expand a little
on the definitions that I will use, so as to not confuse the reader and make my
points more precise in their explanations. So, I will use the term Minimalism
as defined in Collins English Dictionary: “Design or style in which the
simplest and fewest elements are used to create the maximum effect”.
Furthermore, minimalism as an art movement, has been attributed to many
different art forms and practices. In architecture, minimalism can be described
using Franco Bertoni’s words: “The concept of minimalist architecture is to
strip everything down to its essential quality and achieve simplicity”
(Bertoni, 2002). So, taking these similar definitions into account, we can
agree that “Thomas Was Alone” can be described accordingly in terms of its
design and Bithell’s description as a minimalist game, can be accepted.

    Next in my assignment of definitions, comes
a term that I have already used above and that is Abstract and/or Abstraction
in design. This term can invite a lot of different interpretations and Abstract
art has also many ways in which it is used and experienced. I will explain this
term by means of Piet Mondrian’s art, a 20th century Dutch painter
and theoretician. His artistic direction evolved from figurative paintings to a
more abstract style, reaching a point where his artistic vocabulary was reduced
to simple geometrical elements (Gardner, Kleiner, Mamiya, 2006). The purpose of
this geometrical abstraction was to induce a sense of non-objectivity to a
composition; a non-representational depiction of thoughts, ideas and themes.
Still, this definition of abstraction seems to rather fit “Thomas Was Alone” by
means of its design approach, not only by the geometrical depiction of its
characters, but also of its non-representational quality.

1.3. Jumping & Friendship

    “A minimalist game about jumping and
friendship”. Let’s get back to that. I will try to make a figurative claim, but
it will be relevant only for the purpose of my argument: I will interpret this
game’s creator’s phrase as a dualism of its design process and its gameplay
experience. Jumping could relate to
the ludological elements of the game: Jumping, bouncing, floating, activating
traps, collaborating to gain access to new areas, all these terms can describe
the game’s mechanical operations – the affordances presented to the player, to
manipulate the state of the game system. I am using the term ludological to describe all these
elements that consist the game’s rules, affordances, mechanical operations and
in general everything that makes “Thomas Was Alone” a game.

    On the other hand, we have Friendship. Friendship can be understood
as the narratological elements of the game, the story-elements that introduce
us through narration, the different characters with their distinct
personalities and purposes. This term is also applied, to point out all the
properties that have to do with the addition of story and some form of meaning
to the experience. The narrator, the popping text, the arching story and the
characters’ names, personalities and aspirations, all contribute to this
addition to the experience.

    These above terms, are derived and used,
based on their parent terms Ludology
and Narratology. Ludology was coined
and first used by Gonzalo Frasca (1999) and it describes “the discipline
that studies game and play activities”, while Narratology was created in a
necessity “to unify the works that scholars from different disciplines were
doing about narrative” (Frasca, 1999). Thus, taking all this into account, I
will focus mainly in the narratological elements of the game – the friendship aspect that Bithell has added
to supplement his design and how this particular design process can point out
to these narrative aspects, respectively.

2. Design of Thomas Was Alone

2.1. Abstraction in design

    “To play a
game is to learn and to examine that game’s level of abstraction” (Juul, 2007).
Juul’s comment on the process of learning, between a player and a gaming
activity, can be useful to our research. In that sense, a player needs to
identify patterns in the game’s design, that will familiarize herself with the
process of playing it. The way this activity is designed, limited and
actualized by the designer, will start to initiate certain responses, certain
memories of similar activities. Some objects will have similar functions, some
movements will be controllable by a certain way, some objectives will be pre-understood.
In an attempt to paraphrase Juul, I will add: the deeper the level this
abstraction is penetrated, the same it is sketched out in the mind of the
player. I could go a step further and add that the bigger the abstraction, the
more the unknown qualities of the object. To put it simply, a higher level of
abstraction would require more imagination from the player, whereas the less
abstract an object is, the lesser the imaginative output. This may be a strong
claim, but I will try to support it.

    Juul, in his analysis of the video game
“The Marriage” by Rod Humble, points out that in a game like this, where the
characters are represented as squares and the exogenic factors which affect the
relationship, as circles, the player has difficulty perceiving just that and
needs explanation by other means to understand it (Juul, 2007). In her work
“Hamlet on the Holodeck”, Janet H. Murray entertains a though: what it would be
like to add a story, an imaginative explanation on the gameplay of “Tetris”.
She came up with a rather convincing addition, that “Tetris” represents the
over-tasked lives of Americans in the 1990’s (Murray, 1997). It was due to the
abstraction of “Tetris” that this thought experiment could be permitted.
Accordingly, as Henry Jenkins suggested, “Game designers don’t simply tell
stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces” (Jenkins, 2004). This spatial
ability, in a design process, to tell stories, can be followed back to the
level of abstraction this particular space, creates.

2.2. Blocks as props

    Moving forward from my previous claim and
in an attempt to connect the abstraction in “Thomas Was Alone”, with the amount
of imagination it incites to the player, I will be borrowing from the work of
Kendal Walton, “Mimesis As Makebelieve”. In his book, Walton makes a
distinction about different objects of imagining and at its core lies a
divergence between props and prompters as he describes them. A
prompter for Walton, is an object which inherently has characteristics that
themselves resemble, or could provoke semblances, with other beings, objects,
or ideas. He gives an example with a stump in a forest: the stump, functioning
as a prompter, can become a bear in a game of make-believe, because its vague
characteristics can look, or be made to look alike, as a brown bear. A prop, on
the other hand, is an object that does not have explicitly a resemblance with
the being, object, idea it’s trying to convey, rather it requires a certain
convention, a stipulation to be made between two or more players. It is after
this agreement, this understanding, that a prop can be assigned to another
being, etc. That agreement Walton calls “The principle of generation” (Walton, 1990).

    David Hills argues towards the same notion
as he discusses about inanimate props: “artifacts whose raison d’être is to help generate fictional content in make believe
games of various familiar recurrent kinds” (Hills, 2017). Thus, I could try to
simplify these views to make a restatement: props can function as objects whose
abstraction is extensive enough, in order for them to be able to function as
such; as objects of imagining. If we could accept that as understandable, then
we could assume also that prompters on the other hand, are objects with less
vagueness in their semblances as something other, their design consists of less
abstraction, therefore their use could be more explicit, probably hindering the
imaginative output of a player, or guiding it more strictly.

    In the case of “Thomas Was Alone”,
considering all the above, this seems to be the situation: the abstraction in
its design and the depiction of characters as different, distinct rectangles –
or to put it more simply – blocks, can enable them to operate as props, as
objects whose raison d’être is to generate new content, to provide a fostering
of the imagination to the player. Minimalism in that case, is the instrument
that strips down the characters to their simplest quality, in order to maximize
their effect; in other words, Bithell uses minimalism and geometrical
abstraction to better present his characters – his blocks, as props, so as to
maximize their imaginative prospects.

2.3. From blocks to personalities

    What
is therefore, the aim of Bithell’s design? Why do these blocks need a
character, for what reason does he utilizes props to enact imagination to the
player? How can Jumping be connected
with Friendship? The answer – if
there can be one – can prove some kind of connection between these two
different elements, between ludological and narratological aspects of the game.
For Bithell there seems to exist some purpose for this prosthesis of
story-elements. Otherwise, these blocks could just be satisfied only with their
jumping abilities. Why, they have a goal, they have some different ways of
reaching it, why do they need a motif? The extensive use of narrative elements
in this game, needs to be examined.

    But before we commence providing a
convincing explanation, first we need to look at the importance of these
characters, existing prior to narrative. Espen Aarseth, in his article “A
Narrative Theory of Games”, argues about the importance of characters for the
story-elements of a digital game. He presents his findings on a table, the
“four-dimensional model” and he claims that the most effective way – for a
designer – of generating ludo-narrative content, is to invest in creating rich,
deep and interesting characters (Aarseth, 2012). While this can partly explain
Bithell’s choice in dressing his blocks with personalities, Jan Simmons further
explains a need for character-making in game design, taking a different, reverse
route in his reasoning. He argues that a character in a digital game, doesn’t
act in a particular way due to his distinct behavior and mental
disposition-rather his mentality and unique aspirations as a character are
already applied, in order for the player to better understand his affordances
and make his actions believable, justifiable (Simmons, 2007).

    Thus, before we enter a narrative analysis,
a character as a prop can become a believable and affordable object, that can
maximize the player’s ludological experience.

 

3. Narrative in Thomas Was Alone

    Before my analysis about the different
kinds and types of narrative that can be found in “Thomas Was Alone”, let me
first define within what framework I will make use of the above term. This
paper will use the same narratological framework that Jesper Juul defined in
his article “Games Telling stories?”; a classical narratological approach, in
which narrative can be explained as a duality that describes its function: the story time, where the actual events of a
story happen in a straightforward chronological manner and the discourse time, where the retelling of
the story events takes place, in a particular space-time order, the order that
each discourse dictates appropriately (Juul, 2001). Gerard Genette, claims also
that a third time can be considered; the time of the viewing, or reading of the
discourse text, whatever that may be (Genette, 1980).

    To expand on that, when we, as receptors of
a narrative, hear – let’s say – an oral narration, in fact we take some story
bits and try to reassemble them in an order that makes sense to us, as close to
the canonical order of the actual timeline of the story that’s been narrated.
Through this process of reassembling, the actual construct may well differ from
the original story. As Eric Zimmerman points out while he paraphrases J. Hillis
Miller: “A narrative is not merely a series of events, but a personification of
events through a medium, such as language” (Zimmerman, 2004). This personification
may prove a significant altering factor, in the process of mediating a story.

3.1. Omniscient Narrator

    The discourse time of “Thomas Was Alone” is
mediated to us through the oral narration of an external and omniscient, narrator. It could fit Celia
Pearce’s definition of a descriptive
operator, a narrative function that focuses on retelling and recounting of
game-story events to the players (Pearce, 2004). A voice, whereas, that doesn’t
and couldn’t exist within the boundaries of the game world, and/or the story
world. But this voice seems to know everything, as it could be described – as
Zimmerman argued – as the personification of the events of that story time,
communicating to us through the medium of language. Genette would describe this
kind of narrator as heterodiegetic,
as this narrator doesn’t inhabit the story-world he narrates (Genette, 1980). This
type of story-explanatory character, is what Jonne Arjoranta defines in his
article, as a teller character: “The
teller character is a narrator, somebody who conveys or reports the story, and
communicates with the reader in this manner. They are more or less conscious of
the fact that they are conveying a story to somebody and may comment,
anticipate, or otherwise make sure that the reader can follow what is being
told” (Arjoranta, 2017).

    Thus, it can be assumed that the narrator
in “Thomas Was Alone” knows too much: he knows the story, he knows the
characters and their purposes, he knows the ending state of each level and of
the game and he also recognizes that a player/reader/viewer is participating to
accomplish all that. So, there is a purpose for him being there, right? What is
his purpose and what he adds to the gameplay, needs to be further analyzed.

3.2 Embedded Narratives

    Narrative in “Thomas Was Alone”, can’t be
broken down only as a narration of the game, the same way that a narration of a
story works. The narrator doesn’t just recount the events and retells them;
rather he chooses a specific way to do so and it is timed in various segmented
sequences. We could say that he waits for the player to reach a specific point
of each level, a place where he will resume retelling the narration, a place
where the next part of narrative will emerge. I am borrowing here the same
definition that Henry Jenkins uses, that of embedded
narratives: “one can imagine the game designer as developing two kinds of
narratives – one relatively unstructured and controlled by the player as they
explore the game space and unlock its secrets; the other pre-structured but embedded within the mise-en-scene
awaiting discovery” (Jenkins, 2004). It doesn’t actually matter how the player
is performing in the game, or if he takes attention of the narrative, as long
as he reaches this set point. Greg Costikyan, writes that “a story is a
controlled experience; the author consciously crafts it choosing certain events
precisely, in a certain order, to create a story with maximum impact.” (Costikyan,
2000).

    That seems to be the case here, but
Costikyan makes this claim about stories, independent of games. For games, he
claims, that this linearity doesn’t work, in fact it is against their essence;
games for that reason are opposites of stories (Costikyan, 2000). But how can
this observation work in our case? “Thomas Was Alone” is linear in its
gameplay, it’s a puzzle game confined within certain unchangeable boundaries,
with one solution to the puzzles, one way out. And so is its narration. It activates
embedded narratives in certain places, but they are arranged linearly, you
couldn’t skip them, or see them in different orders. There seems to be a game
here, that defies this opposition that Costikyan mentioned, that can align
story-elements with game elements, even though in a restricted and controlled
way. Is it possible for a minimalist game, with blocks that turn into
characters through fiction and narration, to contain a meaningful story?

3.3. Narrative as a prosthesis

    Is therefore, this prosthesis of narrative
– or friendship – in “Thomas Was Alone”, able to generate a story that binds
all the ludological elements together, or it is just an independent addition to
an abstract gaming experience, that has nothing to do with the actual play of
the game?

    Games can have narrative aspirations; they
want to incite emotional responses from other narrative experiences, and/or
they aim in provoking our familiar assertions in distinguishing goals and
roles, to better orient us to the gameplay (Jenkins, 2004). Janet Murray
suggests that, if a game has protagonists, characters and a quest line, that
can be parallel to a story line, then we could see promising similarities
between narratives and games (Murray, 1997). For Marku Eskelinen it seems that
just a story and a set of characters, aren’t enough to justify a narrative;
there is a need of a recounting of events, that does so (Eskelinen, 2004).

    So, we can at least agree that in our case,
the narrative elements of “Thomas Was Alone” can have at least some uses: they
can offer some kind of enhancement in a player’s understanding of his quest or
his goal. They can provide a clarification about the different affordances,
each of the characters, presents. Also, they can guide the player’s imaginative
effort from something vague, into something more structured; narrative can play
the role of a principle of generation that
can transform a block that jumps, into a character that you can befriend. Yes,
this point somehow contradicts the design choices I presupposed, of making the
characters more abstract, so that they can work as props for our imagination
and then introduce a narrator that specifically define what those minimalist
blocks are. In reality it seems like a paradoxical concept; to create something
that frees the imagination and at the same time tries to guide it, through
narration and linear story-telling.

    But it is the combination, not the
extremities of these two key concepts, that binds together this game
experience. Imagination and story-telling aren’t necessary opposites; rather it
requires an initiation of imagination to be able to reconstruct a narrative
discourse and recreate a story. And by employing the blocks as props and
narration as the principle of fiction generation, this initiation of
imagination can take place and the player can believe in a story, he can
believe in those characters and he can feel a need to continue the play
session, in order to witness and reconstruct, piece by piece, their stories. Marie-Laurie
Ryan puts it more crudely: “…the use of narrative elements in computer games
such as individuated characters, concrete setting and naturalizable goals and
actions is not an end in itself, but a means toward the goal of luring the
player into the game-world” (Ryan, 2001).

    Lastly, we shouldn’t exclude other types of
narratives, that don’t emerge explicitly and are more difficult to identify. It’s
not this paper’s scope, nor purpose to make a catalogue of all the different
kinds of narratives that can be situated in a game, but I need to include this
last one, because it has relevance with my hypothesis. Pearce has defined this
category as experiential. By this
term she refers to the emergent narrative,
a new story that is generated by the practice of engaging with the game, as
experienced by the players themselves (Pearce, 2004). Jenkins, among others,
also argues about this: “Emergent narratives are not prestructured or
preprogrammed, taking shape through the game play” (Jenkins, 2004).

    So, what these emergent narratives have to
do with “Thomas Was Alone” and the prescripted narration that it contains?
Gordon Calleja uses the term Alterbiography
to describe “interactions with the game environment that generate story through
the players’ interpretation of events occurring within the game environment…”.
He argues, that most of game experiences can exist without a scripted
narrative, whereas alterbiography can never be truly absent (Calleja, 2009).
Taking this point into consideration, we can rethink of the abstraction in the
design of “Thomas Was Alone”, as a contributing factor for generating
alterbiography for the players. Their interaction with the minimalistic props
in the game, can generate events, fiction and stories, that can be different
for each player and could augment and enhance the narrated story. The fact that
such new stories can be created, doesn’t necessarily oppose the prescripted
one, rather they can be an extension to the game-narrative experience.

Conclusion

    K