The Many Worlds of Games: “Dishonored,” “Europa Universalis,” “The Stanley Parable,” and Quantum Physics

This spring, I had the occasion to work with colleagues James Hillenbrand and Louisa McIntyre on an examination of the intersection between video game storytelling and quantum mechanics.  The idea was as follows:  a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics explains the way the universe works as a process whereby reality literally branches into different worlds each time a “measurement” occurs, so that everything that is possible within the universe happens in at least one of the many resulting worlds.  It seemed that the many possibilities created by video games could perhaps represent and expound upon this view of the world.  You can read our results below.

On the Aesthetical Potential of Many-Worlds in the Case of Video Games[1]

Modern video games have representational dynamics that allow them to make aesthetic choices that are unavailable to other narrative media. In particular, video games integrate the concept of possibility in a unique way: in spite of often describing a narrative that has a clearly articulated beginning, middle, and end, video games also give the player a large degree of choice with regard to how she wishes to proceed through that narrative – and, more generally, through the world of the game. From this element of choice emerges the fact that video games represent different possible paths through a single narrative, and that it is up to the player to choose which path is made actual vis-à-vis the experience of playing the game.

This leads to the following observation: given that video games have the potential to represent different evolutions of a single universe, it seems that the potential may exist for video games to aesthetically represent a many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.[2] Roughly sketched, many-worlds quantum mechanics proceeds as followed: when quantum mechanical states are analyzed, in order to make sense of particle behavior, we have to posit states known as ‘superpositions’, in which particles exist in multiple, mutually-exclusive states at the same time. Given this, an explanation needs to be given to explain how we perceive definite outcomes to experiments on the macroscopic scale. The explanation of many-worlds is to say that, rather than superpositions ‘collapsing’ into definite outcomes when particles are measured, moments of measurements actually cause reality to branch into discrete worlds, one world in which each of the two different experimental outcomes was perceived. So many-worlds in this sense propagates superposition across the entire universe by causing reality to branch over time into many worlds in which every possible outcome is actually realized.[3]

I, along with James Hillenbrand and Louisa McIntyre, set out with the goal of determining what type of video game, if any, is best equipped to represent many-worlds theory. What I myself had in mind by “representing many-worlds” were two particular criteria: firstly, a faithful representation of the precise dynamics described by many-worlds; secondly, a capacity to experiment with what it would be like to live in a world in which one knows that a many-worlds theory is true.

With regard to types of video game, my colleagues and I pursued a threefold distinction that, though certainly far from an exhaustive taxonomy, draws out distinctions that are particularly useful to the inquiry at hand. The first type of video game, called ‘1st-person games’, refer to games in which the character whom the player controls (hereafter ‘avatar’) is epistemically embedded, by conceit of the game, within the world of that game’s narrative (this was the game type which I personally analyzed). In contrast, the second type of video game, called ‘3rd-person games’, give the player a “god’s-eye view” into the world of a game by placing their point of entry into the game outside of the world of the game’s narrative (this was the work of James Hillenbrand). Lastly are video games which we termed ‘anti-games’: theoretically speaking, these games could be either 1st-person or 3rd-person; the crucial difference is that these games do not have a rigid conception of narrative as it is typically conceived – therefore, there is no sense of “privileged outcomes” in the game’s world (this was the work of Louisa McIntyre). Each group member took a single game as a case study in one of the three game types, and presented the points for and against the game “counting” as a many-worlds representation.

Dishonored Title Art

“Dishonored” (Bethesda, 2012) was taken as the model for 1st-person games. Crucial to the game’s import with respect to many-worlds is the fact that the evolution of the narrative is grounded in a choice system called the “Chaos System”: the player’s avatar, Corvo, can achieve the objectives of the game through blunt, chaotic, lethal means (called “high chaos); or, he can achieve them through more discrete, non-lethal, surgical means. The choices made by the player regarding how to proceed in the game’s world directly alter that same world: more high-chaos choices lead to a world in chaos, verging on anarchy, with a plague threatening to consume all of society; more low-chaos choices lead to a more stable city, with order pervading, and a more hopeful future in sight. The impact of this choice engine is both local and global: different choices alter the disposition and actions of other characters in the world, but they also will ultimately lead to entirely distinct outcomes to the game’s story: either a high- or low-chaos ending.

The game’s major usefulness in modeling many-worlds is that, as a 1st-person game, it helps us to make sense of what it is like for an agent to be epistemically embedded within a many-worlds universe. It also allows us to imagine what it would be like for an agent to experience more than one “path” through the many-worlds universe, because the game also allows the player, after completing it, to begin again and make entirely different choices, yielding different outcomes within the context of the same overarching universe. An interesting epistemic consequence is that, while the player is ignorant of the universe overall branching structure during their first time through the game – as we are supposed to be as agents within a many-worlds context – the player is able to better understand and in fact determine which paths Corvo takes through the universe on subsequent playthroughs of the game.

There are two major shortcomings to the 1st-person model in relation to many-worlds. Firstly, the universe of the game seems to have privileged outcomes: there are ultimately only two conclusions to the evolution of the narrative, and beyond that, the game places a premium on the player putting in the additional effort required to achieve a low-chaos ending. Further, as stated above, the player on subsequent playthroughs is able to directly manipulate the course taken by Corvo through the game, which seems to countervail our understanding of stochastic experimental outcomes (I believe this shortcoming can be overcome, but will return to this later).

Europa Universalis IV

“Europa Universalis IV” (Paradox Interactive, 2013) was used as a model for 3rd-person games. The general conceit of the game is that the entire world is divided into a very large number of provinces, which interact and evolve over the course of a few hundred years. This can be used to model historical events from the perspective of a single nation; but, more to the point for the purposes of our study, it can be used to configure totally different initial conditions and stochastic values for different events, which the player can then watch evolve.

Useful in relation to many-worlds is that this model projects an “objective” view on the universe, without the complications that arise from observing the universe while bounded by it. There is also a strong sense of stochasticity interacting with the world’s initial conditions, which preserves the notion of probability while also representing all possible outcomes of the world when the game is taken as a whole, irrespective of a single run. Drawbacks include the fact that this objective vantage point seems to ultimately be unavailable to us with respect to our actual universe, and that the game, by virtue of being a program, only uses pseudo-random processes.

The Stnaley Parable

“The Stanley Parable” (Davey Wreden, 2011) was the model of a 1st-person anti-game. The conceit of the game is that the player’s avatar, Stanley, enters work one day to find no one there; a narrator says what Stanley is going to do next, and the player can either acquiesce or do something different. There is no real conception of overarching plot, no traditional objects, and no privileged outcomes; rather, the focus is merely on the player making choices and seeing what happens.

The model fits many-worlds, essentially, by virtue of the same advantages that 1st-person games generally have. The additional advantage is that these games have no sense of privileged outcome, which supports the idea of the universe lacking a directive of intentionality or teleology. Further, in this particular case, the narrator’s speech is analogous to “measurements” on the universe, at which point the player must choose how to proceed. With respect to shortcomings, the game is susceptible to the same epistemic complications as “Dishonored.”

Discussion of this project with colleagues brought out two particularly salient points. Firstly, the question was raised about game series, such as “The Elder Scrolls” (Bethesda) in which player choice determines outcomes, but games are also sequential. This dynamic seems to provide games the aesthetic opportunity to play with the act of extending previously closed universes: for example, a game may have its ending determined by the player, but its sequel might in some way “collapse” the impact of that choice so that the sequel can coherently attach to any possible ending of the first game.

Secondly, the discussion led to consideration of perspectival indexing with perspective to probability in the many-worlds structure. This is what led me to ultimately believe that the seeming 1st-person weakness of player being able to determine outcomes is not actually a viable objection: if we take the perspective of an implied narrator around whom the game is focalized, as opposed to the perspective of the player herself, then it is reasonable to suppose that the player’s intentionality is inaccessible to that narrator. The player will take, say, a high- or low-chaos path – and, based on the player and particular decision point, she will probably be disposed to different degrees to take either of the paths – and the narrator will not know which branch the particular player has followed in the overarching universe until after the fact. This, in my mind, is the start of a robust articulation of probability within a consciousness framework of many-worlds – and we needn’t even worry about cases where the player’s consciousness is engaging with mere zombies, because we know in these games that other characters are mere automata. This is ultimately what led me to believe that 1st-person games have the most potential to experiment aesthetically with many-worlds; with respect to whether anti-games or traditional games are better fitted to the task, I am inclined to side with anti-games by virtue of their eschewal of privileged outcomes.

[1] I am indebted to the fellow students of Ned Hall’s Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics course, as well as Kate Vredenburgh, for the discussion referenced in the last portion of this paper.

[2] Typically, when I reference “many-worlds,” it will refer to the general foundational tenets agreed upon by most many-worlds camps; I will explicate when I have a more specific subset of many-worlds – say, a consciousness interpretation – in mind.

[3] For a more granular account of many-worlds, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the topic, by Lev Vaidman, ed. Edward N. Zalta (2015).

“Carve my farewell song on my grave…” Silence, Death, and Optimism in Majora’s Mask

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

I’ve grown up with Zelda Games. I first played Ocarina of Time when I was three years old, and my brother and I bought Majora’s Mask on the day it came out. But, embarrassingly, I never actually played it. Back in those days, when I was but six, I could play the first hour and a half of the game before I became unnerved and afraid by the ominous world and the daunting moon and inevitably completely freaked out and stopped playing. So it makes sense that as the wave of pessimistic, existential interpretations of Majora started coming out, I thought they were right on the money. The GameTheorists on Youtube really seemed to have a point in mentioning that Termina is a massive metaphor for grief. The darkness of the game seemed to open it up to in-depth analysis.

But since the re-release this last February, I’ve finally had the opportunity to play it. And what I’ve discovered is not a game shrouded in pessimism and hopelessness, but rather a game with constant messages of hopefulness and beauty in the face of despair and moments where Link must literally watch a character die in front of him. The Game Theorists’ theory that the world of Majora’s Mask is a metaphor for grief, simply doesn’t explain the strange positivity, and lack of grief involved in actually witnessing the deaths in the game. In the macrocosm they have a strong argument, but by looking more closely at the game in terms of discrete moments and mechanics, the game does not appear to be analyzing grief. The game expresses the amazing ability for the living to carry on the memory of the dead, and also for the dying to pass on something of true value to the living—it’s a celebration of reaching adulthood and picking up where the previous generation left off.

That’s a lot to swallow right there, so let’s back up a little bit. The moment we’re going to examine here is the death of Mikau at Great Bay. He is found floating in the water, near death. So you push him back to shore, and then he bids you to listen to his story. He tells you that as he is, he can’t die in peace, and asks you to heal his soul. You do this (that’s another topic in and of itself), and he vanishes. This leaves behind a mask, carrying his soul. And you find out that you can put on this mask, and embody the spirit of Mikau. Then he asks you to build him a grave and accomplish his finals goals, which he was unable to achieve. “Carve my farewell song on my grave…” he bids you. So you build him a grave.

The concept of the grave is key here. Link does build Mikau a literal grave—that is a physical monument to the deceased—but the magic of the game comes from the player’s ability to create a living memorial for the dead—a sovereign entity capable of living on for the dead inside the world of the game.


So, why does this happen? That’s the right question to ask. In order to answer this question, we must take a moment to examine the concept of silence, both because Link himself is silent in a non-silent world, and because silence is essential in the creation of action and experience.

Video games are a new medium that provides fascinating rhetorical and narratological possibilities, because you, the player, can, through your avatar, have an effect on the universe and the story that you inhabit in the game. This sovereign capability that one has in a game is, I’d argue, the single most important power that video games have added to the human race’s ability to tell stories. Making the avatar in a game silent only purifies this connection. As With a Terrible Fate mentioned in a previous article, Link is “much less a character than he is a conduit.” That is to say he is simply a point of entrance for the player into the game, and not really a character and of himself. But there’s complexity here. In the words of video game scholar, Robin Jansson, “by silencing the protagonist, you can allow the player to decide for themselves who the character really is.” Not only then is Link a point of entrance, but he is a character defined by the player. The player can define an existence within the world of the game.

But the ability I just described is empty if there is no reason to create a particular existence. And to me, this is largely the measure of what differentiates a bad game from a good one. The difference is your (the player’s) ability to make a meaningful change in the game world. To do this, two things are necessary—motivation, and capacity. So in order to explain why Mikau’s death is so powerful in Majora’s Mask, we must explain both what your motivation is to act, and how you can do so.

Silence can explain the motivation to action in this case. Since Link doesn’t speak, this forces the player to truly consider and reflect upon the death that occurs before them. As is explained by another author, Peter Ehrenhaus, especially poignant silent encounters “provide the opportunity for ‘taking hold’ and gaining insight” and even gaining greater self-awareness.   Link doesn’t do your grieving for you. He doesn’t tell you what to do. He doesn’t tell you what to think. You’re provided with a situation and must figure out how to act. This is your motivation—make sense of the emptiness and pointlessness of the death that you have just encountered.

So what do we do? What can we do? Though the death that has been encountered is virtual, it still begs for action. But what capacity do we have? The player is left with two options in this case:

  1. Do nothing. Stop playing, and never settle the issue.
  2. Continue playing, and by doing something in the game, honor the deceased and live for them.

This second option allows for one of the single most masterfully executed games in history to really shine. Each time that a character dies in Majora’s Mask, they ask you to accomplish what they could not—to heal their spirit and let them know that though they are gone, they accomplished their goals and left behind a better world. And then they leave behind a mask.

Link can put on a mask and take on the form of the spirit contained within the mask. This is the player’s capacity. This is what s/he can do to change the world in which s/he exists.

But there’s even one further level here. When Link puts on a mask, he is basically doing the same thing the player is doing—he is becoming the avatar of the game. In this way, by choosing to put on the mask, the player has redefined Link.

The player has made Link into a living monument for the deceased. They have created an undeniable capacity for the dead not to have died in vain.

In this picture here, there is there a literal grave memorializing the dead. But, more importantly, Link, the player him or herself, is a living monument for the dead. This is optimism in the face of despair.

MikausGrave Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate.  Check out his bio to learn more.

Only through Corvo’s Eyes: Why video games can only be told through one perspective.

I promised you brand new content on “Dishonored,” and will not disappoint.  This is the first of TWO new features drawing on the game, as well as on its DLC.  I want to show you that a simple question that you can ask in novels and films — “what if we saw these events from someone else’s perspective?” — very deeply does not make sense in the case of video games.  Come along, friends — “Dishonored” has met With a Terrible Fate.

Corvo on Samuel's Boat


A trivial observation when first experiencing the medium of video games is that the player, by virtue of the game system’s controller, is actually able to exert a measure of control within the game. Less trivial is actually pinning down an analysis of this control, and determining precisely how, if at all, this control impacts the narrative dynamics of the game. In previous papers, I have argued that such a measure of control – what I typically term ‘player agency’ – allows video games to tell unique narratives by stipulating an agent external to the game’s universe (i.e., the aesthete). However, a precise analysis of what this agency is has yet to be put forward.

In this paper, I present an analysis of the causal relationship between player and avatar, which I use to argue that video games tell stories that cannot be logically re-focalized on different characters in the way that the narratives of other media can. I begin by rearticulating my model of narrative three-space as a formalization of first-person role-playing games (hereafter merely “video games”). Then, using this model, I derive an analysis of characters in the game that the player does not control, commonly referred to as ‘non-player characters’ (hereafter ‘NPCs’). With this analysis at hand, I show that the narrative of a video game cannot, by the conceit of the medium, relocate player agency to an NPC and tell a narrative identical on the level of mere events (what Mieke Bal, on whose narratology I shall lean, refers to as the level of ‘fabula’).[1] I show this first by means of a logical argument, then by an example of the video game “Dishonored” (Bethesda, 2012). Lastly, I point to areas of inquiry left offstage in this paper, which may serve as fruitful next steps in research and analysis.

Refining the Formalization of Narrative Three-Space

My familiar approach to video game narratology is to describe game stories in a three-space where the z-axis maps the main plot and the (x, y) plane maps the exploratory domain. However, for reasons that will become apparent when I begin to contrast avatars from NPCs, the model requires a few points of refinement at this juncture.

Semantically, the element that has previously been most conspicuously absent from the formalism is a localization of the avatar (and, by extension, the player) within the game’s narrative. This localization can be defined as a point with coordinates (x, y, z) within the three-space. I will term this point ‘lambda’.

Given lambda, we can more precisely make sense of both vectors and video game fabula. Vectors are three-place transformations of lambda, which always have a positive z value. ‘Playing the game’ amounts to the player selecting and applying, from the collection of such vectors available at the current location of lambda in the three-space, a single vector by which to move lambda.[2] This allows us to differentiate the fabula of a given playthrough of a video game from the game’s total narrative three-space in the following way: call an event some combination of actors and actions, which exist within the context of space and time.[3] Particular three-place coordinates represent all such events in the three-space; thus, if a single event can be reached at multiple points in the narrative, then it follows that it obtains at more than one point in the three-space. After the initial conditions of the story at the three-space’s origin, Event Alpha obtains in the fabula just in case some vector which the player applies to lambda relocates lambda from a point at which Alpha does not obtain, to a point at which it does.

The preceding can be graphically represented has depicted below, in which a single arbitrary fabula is described within a narrative three-space.

Refined Narrative Three-Space

Note that the definition of events presented above is important because it allows us to differentiate between all possible events extant within the narrative three-space and those particular events which constitute the realize fabula of a given playthrough, represented by the path which lambda follows from the origin to zmax­.

Functional analysis of NPCs

Given this new iteration of the narrative formalization, the immediate strategy is to demonstrate that the causal relationship between player and avatar cannot be coherently transferred to a different character – i.e., an NPC – in the same way that the story in a film or novel can.   I see the easiest way forward in this regard as a functional analysis of what an NPC precisely is; from there, I will show that it falls out of the analysis that the agency of the player cannot be displaced while retaining a narrative three-space that in any way resembles the original game.

In Bal’s Narratology (University of Toronto Press, 2009), she stresses that “a character is a complex semantic unit,” which “has no real psyche, personality, or competence to act, but [which] does possess characteristics that make the reader assume it does” (113). In principle, my analysis will agree with Bal that characters are complex semantic units – in a formal, structural analysis, which Bal actually wants in large part to sidestep, this stipulation is trivial.[4] However, I think that we have license in the domain of video games to more explicitly articulate what Bal refers to as “competence to act”: in particular, this describes the mode of narrative agency which I have been attributing to the player, and this is where the distinction between avatar and NPC is most tractable.

I have said that an NPC is a member of the set of actors within a fabula, and that actors are constitutive of events. Events, I have said, obtain in the fabula of a given playthrough just in case some vector that the player applies to lambda relocates lambda from a point at which the event does not obtain, to a point where it does. This analysis implies that whether or not NPCs obtain in the fabula ought also to be answerable by a functional analysis in terms of lambda – and indeed, I think such an analysis is intuitively available to us.

The first matter to deal with is representing a single NPC across multiple events – for although characters are constitutive of events, it seems that the same character can play a role in constituting different events within the narrative three-space. Without pursuing a very rigorous definition of the NPC-event relation, I will define ‘NPC Omega’ as the summation of every instance of an adequately similar character within the narrative three-space.[5] This merely maps a rudimentary model of identification onto the narrative formalism: just as our conception of other people is constructed from all of our encounters with them (direct or indirect), so is the case with NPCs. The difference, falling out of Bal’s stipulation (which I affirm), is the ‘that’s-all’ clause:  NPCs, unlike other people as ordinarily conceived, are only constituted by our encounters with them.

Given that characters are actors and that actors act, a functional analysis of NPCs requires an account of their actions. Since a single NPC can exist and act differently across multiple events, it seems right to conclude that a single NPC has different actions available to itself. Call the set of such actions – i.e., all the actions taken by NPC Omega throughout the narrative three-space – ‘Set S’. Now we need to determine how NPCs can select a member of S by which to act; for if we consider NPC actions in comparison with the actions of the avatar, we see that only the avatar has the player available as a mechanism for selecting which action to undertake at a given Point Lambda in the narrative.

Recall the claim that Event Alpha obtains in the fabula just in case some vector which the player applies to lambda relocates lambda from a point at which Alpha does not obtain, to a point where it does. This claim, I said, does the work of defining what it means for an event to be constitutive of a game’s fabula, as opposed to existing merely as a potential fabula element. I propose that we can best make sense of NPCs’ actions by making an analogous claim: the action taken by an NPC is strictly determined by the actions of the player upon the avatar within the narrative three-space. Put more precisely: the action picked out of S for NPC Omega is the result of some two-place function F(x, y), where ‘x’ is the current position of lambda and ‘y’ is a vector applied to lambda by the player. This is merely a reformulation of the principle that events obtain in the fabula as a result of the avatar’s path through the narrative three-space, applied to the concept of NPCs as acting, complex semantic units.

Perspectival Fixedness in Video Game Narrative

The preceding analysis provides sufficient theoretical machinery to defend a claim for what I call PERSPECTIVAL FIXEDNESS (hereafter, ‘PF’) obtaining in the medium of video games. This concept denotes that the perspective from which a narrative is presented is essential to the nature of the narrative’s fabula.

It seems clear enough that PF does not obtain in the case of films and novels. If, for example, one considers the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, there doesn’t appear to be anything preventing us from imagining what the stories would be like if told from the perspective of Holmes, as opposed to the perspective of Watson. In fact, it seems extremely counterintuitive to suppose that a particular series of events somehow depends upon one particular perspective in order for it to be coherent. However, I will attempt to show that this is exactly what falls out of our analysis of video games. I will first do so using the formal system rearticulated; then, I will ground the argument in the example of “Dishonored.”

The full logical argument runs as follows.

  1. ‘Phi’ is an NPC if and only if phi is a summation of adequately similar complex semantic units that serve as actors in the events of a narrative three-space. [Definition of NPC]
  2. The actions of a given NPC Omega which obtain within a fabula are picked out of a set S of such actions by some two-place function F(x, y), where ‘x’ is the current position of lambda and ‘y’ is a vector applied to lambda by the player. [Functional analysis of NPC; procedural analysis of events with fabula]
  3. ‘Phi’ is an avatar only if phi, when its narrative position is represented by lambda in narrative three-space, picks out the events that obtain in a playthrough’s fabula by virtue of what path lambda takes through the three-space. [Procedural analysis of events within fabula]
  4. The actions of an avatar are picked out of a set V by the player, where the members of V are determined by the location of lambda in the narrative three-space. [Functional analysis of avatar]
  5. If phi is an NPC, then the actions of phi are constitutive of a playthrough’s fabula and are determined by the actions of the avatar. [1, 2]
  6. If phi is an avatar, then the actions of phi determine a playthrough’s fabula and are determined by the player. [3,4]
  7. The actions of avatars are determined prior to determination of the actions of NPCs. [5, 6]
  8. Holding a given fabula fixed, phi cannot be redefined from the state of being an NPC to the state of being an avatar. [2, 4, 7]

The strategy, in short, shows through the narrative formalization that the deterministic chain of player-on-avatar-on-NPC is rigid within a single fabula, and so that fabula cannot be reconstructed using an NPC as a different avatar. The example of “Dishonored” will further articulate what I mean.

A rudimentary reconstruction of “Dishonored” suffices for current purposes. The narrative of the game follow an avatar named Corvo Attano, who, after being framed for the murder of an Empress, must embark on a quest to set things right by neutralizing the true usurpers of the throne. The game is designed around choice and consequence – so, for example, each time Corvo encounters a target whom he must neutralize, he can either assassinate them or dispatch them by some non-lethal means (and this is true from the case of menial guards all the way up to primary targets in the main plot).[6] So, when Corvo encounters the Empress’s assassin, Daud, he has a buffet of options available as to how he can deal with him. Assuming that the player decides to confront and defeat Daud, she will hear him issue a statement of regret, and a request for his life to be spared. The player can then either let Daud leave, or execute him, at her discretion. This instance, note, is consistent with the global choice dynamics of the game.

We encounter problems with consistency, however, when we turn our attention to the downloadable content (hereafter ‘DLC’) that accompanies “Dishonored”: “The Knife of Dunwall” and “The Brigmore Witches.”[7] In these supplemental storylines, the player encounters Daud of her avatar, instead of as an NPC. The DLC begins in the moment following Daud’s assassination of the Empress, and concludes at the moment where Corvo chooses whether or not to kill Daud – in other words, its story is intended to co-refer with the story of the main game to a single fabula. The storyline following Daud in these episodes – in which he uncovers and must dismantle a witch coven – works well for the most part because it tells a complete story that never directly intersects or causally relates to the fabula of the main game’s narrative; the most explicit references to the main game’s plot are mere wanted poster’s for Corvo in the scenery of the city, which factor out of any sort of causal analysis relating the main game and DLC. So the preceding issues of converting an NPC to an avatar do not yet come into play because the DLC and main game describe different sets of events within a fabula that is larger than either narrative three-space taken individually.

The very last scene of the DLC is what changes its story from totally tractable to incoherent by violation of PF. The DLC ends at the moment when, in the main game, the player chooses whether or not Corvo will spare Daud’s life. But of course, in the DLC, the player is Daud, and therefore has no authority over Corvo; yet Corvo must somehow make a choice in order to resolve the event. So the DLC handles the issue by deploying the same choice-consequence system as the main game does: if the player has been violent and chaotic as Daud, then Corvo kills Daud; if the player has been discrete and merciful as Daud, then Corvo spares Daud.

We can see immediately that this spells trouble for the DLC’s consistency with the main game; and in light of the formalism, we see that the crux of this trouble is the attempt to relocate player agency from one character (Corvo) to another (Daud) and recount an identical fabula. The problem is that the main game and DLC attempt to co-refer to an event, but the order of the determination chain between the player, Corvo, and Daud is asymmetric when comparing the cases. So although the main game and DLC suggest two modes of presentation for a single fabula, the violation of PF shows us that this cannot logically be the case.

Future Areas of Inquiry

The primary aim of this paper has been to refine the formal three-space model of game narrative to the point at which it is equipped to derive and explain PERSPECTIVAL FIXEDNESS. In so doing, I have taken single-player, linear RPGs as the atomic structure of story-based video games. However, it is apparent that not all games conform to so simplistic a structure. In closing, I wish to offer three modes of inquiry that I think will prove particularly useful in further refining the model presented in this paper.

  1. Single-player RPGs with a party system. In this work, I have assumed a stark formal contrast between NPC and avatar. This is not always the case. Many RPGs utilize a system in which the player guides a group of characters; typically, this leads to the player being able to choose which character to control at any given time, while the others are controlled by the game as NPCs. This immediately complicates the line between avatar and NPC; spelling out the formal ramifications would further clarify the dynamics in the three-space more generally.
  2. Multiplayer games. What is the formal difference between an NPC, and a character controlled by a different player? Given that my work thus far has limited its reach to single-player games, it is not clear how much traction the formalism as such could find here; nevertheless, it seems a necessary step in understanding how video games operate fundamentally as a representational vehicle.
  3. Games with multiple avatars. One might rightly imagine the definitions and relations between such things as “avatars” get more complex when the game offers a choice of avatar – say, for example, different classes in a game like “Dark Souls” (From Software, 2011). It may, perhaps, fall out of the formalism that we are committed in a strong sense to saying that playthroughs of such a game are very deeply different based on mere choice of avatar. To explore, justify, or reject such implications would also be a fruitful goal of research.

[1] The relevant Bal that I cite in this paper is Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, 3rd ed., University of Toronto Press (2009).

[2] This latter fact falls out of the stipulation that the main plots of games are irreversible within a single playthrough. In principle, this may not always be the case, but it seems to be the rule at present. Moreover, the possibility of negative z values in lambda-vectors will not significantly alter the analysis that follows.

[3] In keeping with Bal, I am treating actors merely as subjects that perform actions. The set of actors includes all characters in a story, but may also include other members, such as forces of nature.

[4] Bal seems to think that formalist description is at odds with a narratological approach that “[restricts the reader’s] investigation to only those facts that are presented to [the reader] in the actual words of the text” and which “produces rewarding surprises, unheard-of possibilities, and innovative social attitudes to emulate” (114). I find the distinction misguided, and fear it ultimately makes a straw man out of formal structural analysis proper. I will not pursue a critique of the distinction any further in the present paper.

[5] I put to the side the a procedural analysis of “determining adequate similarity”; for present purposes, mere intuition will suffice to, for instance, identify the Happy Mask Salesman at the beginning of “Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask” (Nintendo, 2000) and the Happy Mask Salesman at the end of “Majora’s Mask” as two instances of a single NPC.

[6] By virtue of Corvo being the avatar, this is equivalent to saying that the choice of how to execute each task in the game is up to the player.

[7] For the uninitiated: DLC is additional content related to a game, usually released by the publisher and available for digital purpose after the release of the main game. DLC typically either provides additional features for the main game (costumes, weapons, environments, etc.) or is itself a smaller storyline that is in some way related to the narrative of the main game.