Sunday, September 11, 2005

Narrative Structure vs. Plot

On the subject of interpreting the computer game Rebel Dawn, I had a long conversation (via Skype) with Owen on different aspects of narratives and stories, especially the narrative structure and how it can—or cannot—be linked to the plot.

We talked about a lot of things, but at one point he asked a simple question—"What is the goal of Rebel Dawn?"—and I realized that I did not have a good answer. At first I thought it was because I had not played the game long enough to really figure that out, but afterwards I thought more about it and I understood that this probably was not the case.

When I am "inside" the virtual Rebel Dawn world, in the "story", the Online Manual provides a narrative framework: The goal of the game seems to be to choose side and take part in the tax war between the Republic and the rebels. Before the class actually started to play the game, they seemed to be quite happy with a structure that explained the "how" and "why" of Rebel Dawn. I was too. However, when we played the game, the tax war was hardly mentioned and the goal had suddenly shifted and seemed to be more about making sure that your avatar has enough money to travel and do business (in order to make more money), and all the small events or stories seemed to have little connection to the narrative structure from the Online Manual. When I logged out, this was also confirmed by the score chart, where the "richest player" can be found on top of the list. The students were confused and after playing the game some of them asked the same question as Owen did (before he had played it): What is the real goal of this game?

If it is only about making money, this game could really go on forever—and for what purpose, except making more money? The game has no clear beginning or end, and the students' expectations of how narrative structures work are turned upside down. What the Rebel Dawn experiment clearly shows is how we tend to take narrative structures for granted and how confusing it can be when these expectations are not fulfilled. Do people really need a coherent "grand narrative" to have a sense of purpose? And in that case, what happens when grand narratives are subverted by post-modern or post-colonial ideas?

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