«Felix Schröter The Game of Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Its Video Game Adaptations Abstract Video games have ...»
[Table of Contents]
The Game of Game of Thrones.
George R.R. Martin’s
A Song of Ice and Fire and Its Video
Video games have not only become an integral part of most transmedial en-
tertainment franchises but also influenced the narrative and aesthetic conven-
tions of other media, especially film. One consequence of this is the growing
prominence of ›game-like‹ narratives (and storyworlds) that subordinate
characters and storytelling to more
principles of narrative organiza- tion. In this article, it is argued that this ›game logic‹ leads to some trans- medial storyworlds being especially well-suited for an adaptation as a video game, and that the novel-based transmedial world of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is such a world. Drawing on transmedial narratology, film studies, and game studies, the relationship between transmedial worlds and games will be discussed with reference to three different Game of Thrones video games: the action role-playing game Game of Thrones (2012), the browser game Game of Thrones Ascent (2013), and the real-time strategy game A Game of Thrones. Genesis (2011). As will be shown, all three games follow very different strategies in identifying and implementing the core ele- ments of the respective storyworld, mainly informed by generic conventions and (assumed) player preferences. Thus, the comparison also casts a light on medium-specific strengths and weaknesses regarding video games’ contribu- tion to a broader transmedia storytelling context.
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1. Introduction Although not a particularly new phenomenon, the growing cultural, econom- ic, and academic relevance of transmedial entertainment franchises like J.R.R.
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has also led to a paradigm shift within media studies and narratology, away from the sole examination of ›narrative‹ in different media toward the discus- sion of ›transmedial worlds‹ and the way they relate to their medium-specific instantiations. Most prominently, this shift is reflected in the growing popu- larity of concepts like ›world building‹ (cf. JENKINS 2006: 114), ›storyworlds‹ (cf.
HERMAN 2009; RYAN/THON 2014), and ›imaginary worlds‹ (cf. WOLF 2012), which all »extend beyond the stories that occur in them, inviting speculation and exploration« (WOLF 2012: 17).
But however broad the scope of this new paradigm, ›narrativity‹ as a transmedial concept is still regarded as the common center around which different media converge (cf. RYAN/THON 2014); storyworlds are about stories,
after all. Without trying to dispute this pivotal role of narrative for the representation of transmedial (story)worlds, this article proposes another perspective on the question of how transmedial worlds are organized and represented within individual media. As Wolf notes:
A similar shift has occurred in adaptation studies. In the preface to the 2013 second edition of A Theory of Adaptation, Linda Hutcheon admits that adaptation studies’ emphasis on narrative might not have been appropriately capturing the nature of all processes of adaptation within transmedial franchises.
Especially with regard to video games adaptations, she argues that it is less the story itself than the storyworld that is being adapted: »Thematic and narrative persistence is not the name of the new adaptation game; world building is« (HUTCHEON 2013: xxiv).
With narrative (or, at least, ›narrative persistence‹) seemingly becoming less important, it has to be asked what other organizing principles might govern the design of transmedial storyworlds and how these influence the storyworld’s instantiations in different media. In this article, I propose that one especially salient organizing feature of contemporary storyworlds is, indeed, what Wolf calls a world’s ›logic‹, i.e., the general idea of how a world operates and how it is structured (cf. WOLF 2012: 246). And while this logic can certainly take many forms, my focus will be on a particular sub-group of storyworlds, namely those which feature a distinctive ›game logic‹—a property that, unsurprisingly, becomes especially relevant for the adaptation of the respective storyworld as a (video) game.
IMAGE | Issue 22 | Special Issue Media Convergence and Transmedial Worlds (Part 3) | 07/2015 66 Felix Schröter: The Game of Game of Thrones In the following, I will elaborate on this claim by discussing the relationship between games, stories, and storyworlds, illustrating my arguments by examining the transmedial world of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and its video game adaptations. Building on the premise that storyworlds adhering to a game logic lend themselves particularly well to an adaptation as a video game, I will compare three different video games: the action role-playing game Game of Thrones (2012), the browser game Game of Thrones Ascent (2013), and the real-time strategy game A Game of Thrones.
Genesis (2011). As will be shown, all three games follow very different strategies to identify and implement the core elements of the world of Westeros, but only one actually stays true to what can be identified as the game logic of the novels and the TV series.
2. Narrative and Games
Narrativity has become a key concept in the humanities, with narrative being considered a core pattern for cognition and comprehension (cf. GRODAL 1997;
HERMAN 2002), as well as for the construction of identity and (autobiographical) history (cf. RUBIN 1995). However, this predominance of narrative as an explanatory concept is no longer uncontested: in the late 1980s and early 1990s, hypertext theoreticians shifted the focus from prototypical narrative to interactive, computer-based ›database narratives‹ (cf. SIMONS 2007). In his seminal 2001 book The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich describes the
database as narrative’s modern age correlate:
While Manovich’s strict juxtaposition of narrative and database may well have overstated the case, it still appropriately captures the fact that digital media allow for an organization of narrative sequences that relies to a lesser extent on traditional concepts of narrative continuity than on ›fragmented‹, ›nonlinear‹, and (most often) ›interactive‹ representations of events. Incidentally, it is this same line of reasoning which has significantly contributed to the emergence of (video) game studies as an interdisciplinary field of research, with the so-called ›ludology vs. narratology‹ debate remaining its influential founding myth (cf. THON 2015). While this debate is by and large settled today,1 in its early days it has brought forward very fruitful examinations 1 In the late 1990s, a number of scholars advocated for an approach to video game studies that recognized their primary identity as games. Using methodologies from anthropology, philosophy, or game design, they rejected treating video games solely as narrative media that ›happen to be interactive‹ (cf. AARSETH 2004; ESKELINEN 2004). Instead, they stressed ontological questions (What are the essential features and properties of video games as games?) and experiential aspects of video game play (How are games experienced as playful and rule-based activities?). By now, IMAGE | Issue 22 | Special Issue Media Convergence and Transmedial Worlds (Part 3) | 07/2015 67 Felix Schröter: The Game of Game of Thrones of the ontological properties of games as well as a discussion of ›games‹ (or game-like features) as transmedially valid concepts. In what follows, both aspects will be briefly discussed, as they significantly contribute to the understanding of the relationship between games, narrative, and storyworlds.
In order to distinguish narrative and games from each other, at least a tentative definition of the latter seems to be necessary. For a start, most scholars agree on differentiating between play and game, with play being conceived as a free-form activity, and game as its more structured, rule-based counterpart (cf. JUUL 2005: 28). In his 2005 book Half-Real, Jesper Juul takes up this distinction and examines seminal game definitions by scholars like Johan Huizinga (cf. HUIZINGA 1938), Roger Caillois (cf. CAILLOIS 1958), Chris Crawford (cf. CRAWFORD 1997), or Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (cf.
SALEN/ZIMMERMAN 2004) to come up with what he calls the ›classic game model‹ (cf. JUUL 2005: 36–43):
Juul’s definition certainly makes for a good »compromise between the extremes of generality and specificity« (MÄYRÄ 2008: 35), although his conflation of ontological features (like rules and outcomes) with cultural aspects of games (like player attachment and negotiable consequences) might raise a few structuralist eyebrows. However, it is still general enough to support the idea of games as a transmedial phenomenon: explicitly drawing a parallel to
narratology, Juul claims that »games actually move between different media:
card games are played on computers, sports continue to be a popular video game genre, and video games occasionally become board games« (JUUL 2005: 48).
Yet, this transmedial nature of games is not what I am concerned with in this article, for there certainly is a world of difference between claiming that a novel, film, or TV series uses game-like principles to organize characters, spaces, and events, and claiming that these media actually reproduce the entirety of the game (including, for example, rules, outcomes, and player efforts).2 Therefore, my focus will be on the question how specific elements of the classic game model (like rules, outcomes, goals, and conflicts) can be identified as contributing to the structure of certain narratives and their storyworlds.
however, the debate is more or less settled, with most scholars agreeing that (some) video games may be narrative (in some way), but that narrative representation in video games is still subject to a wide range of medium-specific idiosyncrasies (cf. THON 2015).
2 One will, for example, have a hard time realizing a game of Tic Tac Toe as a film due to the latter’s obvious lack of responsivity to the audience’s action. However, there exist some hybrids like the (in)famous sub-genre of ›VCR board games‹, which utilize film sequences to give instructions to players or serve as a game clock. Examples include the Atmosfear series (1991–2006), Star Wars. The Interactive Video Board Game (1996), or—more recently—the 24 DVD Board Game (2006).
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In order to further clarify the notion of ›game-like‹ narratives or storyworlds, it is worthwhile to turn back to Lev Manovich’s discussion of algorithms and narrative in The Language of New Media. He states that, while most narratives—unlike games—do not require algorithm-like behavior from their readers, narratives and games are similar in that the reader/player, while proceeding through them, must uncover their underlying logic or algorithm: »Just like a game player, a reader of a novel gradually reconstructs the algorithm […] that the writer used to create the settings, the characters, and the events« (MANOVICH 2001: 225). It is this algorithm of creating (and reconstructing) the building blocks of narrative, which Juul’s classic game model can be related to: a narrative can be said to ›be game-like‹ or ›follow a game logic‹, if the algorithm organizing its settings, characters, and events can better be described in terms of rules, outcomes, goals, and conflicts than in terms of, say, narrative continuity, realism, or character psychology.
This line of reasoning has also left a mark on film studies. Marsha
Kinder, for example, identifies a game logic in what she calls ›database narratives‹ like Pulp Fiction (1993) or Run, Lola, Run (1998):
According to Kinder, database narratives differ from other types of narratives in that they (1) rely less on montage than on incongruous objects or hot spots as a means of navigating from one scene to another, (2) use puppet-like avatars who are not restricted by traditional notions of consistency or narrative logic, and (3) create narrative fields that emphasize story possibilities, randomness, repetition, and interruptions instead of narrative continuity. Thus, they »reveal the arbitrariness of the particular choices made, and the possibility of making other combinations which would create alternative stories« (KINDER 2002: 6).
Similarly, German media scholar Jochen Venus describes certain plots and genres as game-like: according to Venus, heist movies like Ocean’s Eleven (2001) often follow a game logic in that their ensemble cast acts like a group of players participating in a game—in the case of Ocean’s Eleven, the game of simultaneously robbing three casinos (cf. VENUS 2007). Each single character is assigned a specific role and the viewers’ enjoyment results from watching them perform more or less successfully (cf. VENUS 2007: 315). Moreover, acting as a single ›group character‹ (Gruppenfigur) rather than a ›group of characters‹ (Figurengruppe), these films’ protagonists are not created bottom-up from individual character features, but top-down as required by overarching goals, the different settings or ›playgrounds‹ of the film, and the possible integration of further game elements (cf. VENUS 2007: 314). While Venus’ IMAGE | Issue 22 | Special Issue Media Convergence and Transmedial Worlds (Part 3) | 07/2015 69 Felix Schröter: The Game of Game of Thrones analysis has a strong focus on heist movies, it is also compatible with Kinder’s characters-as-avatars and Manovich’s algorithmic creation of settings, characters, and events and can be applied to many contemporary films and TV shows with large character casts such as Lost (2004–2010), Heroes (2006–2010), or—as will be discussed in more detail below—Game of Thrones (2011– ).