Chungking Espresso

Narrative Grammars & Level Design as Narrative

Posted in Papers, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on September 8, 2009

Red Sun

Short Essay: Analyze and compare the narrative grammar of Propp, Greimas, and Aarseth.

From earlier studies in film history and comparative literature, I’ve been familiar with Vladimir Propp’s narrative grammar for quite some time. Propp broke down a selection of Russian folk tales into 31 functions and 7 generic characters, elaborating possible combinations and causal sequences. That Propp was able to create his typology was no surprise to me, because I had already learned about oral mnemonic techniques used in commedia dell’arte and the codification of Platonic dialogue and Homeric epic. Once you understand that oral storytellers memorize a set amount of objects, characters, and events along with a structure for connecting them and then improvising, the revelation that folk stories carried down from an oral tradition follow such a grammar is almost trivial. My major problem with this grammar is that it ignores everything that’s wonderful about folklore—the flourishes and improvisations. In the face of Mark Turner’s ability to create compelling prose building upon otherwise stale research in cognition and early childhood development, Propp’s grammar strikes a dull chord. I am reminded of Janet Murray’s ability to find personal meaning in the rote act of manipulating the falling bricks of Tetris. Perhaps Propp too felt this lacking, reflected in his later decision to study literature instead of linguistics (Wikipedia).

Greimas attempts to bridge the gap between deep linguistic structure and surface narrative structure, explaining “the fact that a narrative enonce is represented at the linguistic level by a whole paragraph” (797). Much of his work goes into breaking down subjects, object, and verbs (which he renames “functions”) into the form of signs. Greimas expands narrative grammar into story grammar when he dichotomizes narrative and non-narrative enonces. A non-narrative enonce builds from a stative verb, or one that addresses being and qualification (800). Toward the end, Greimas conceives of how to represent the literary device of asyndeton (he merely labels it “ellipsis”) as symbolic logic in the form of a series of conditional statements—or a narrative syntagm (804). Greimas understands that a compelling narrative grammar must explain the structural affordances that allow for story grammars and literary devices.

Propp was a Russian formalist, meaning he identified with the goal of separating the artist from the text and then showing how formal elements such as syntax and structure were inherent in how a text means. Greimas, on the other hand, was closely associated with structuralists such as Levi-Strauss. Structuralism attempts to break down a text into signs and the structures by which they’re related. These structures are held as “real,” whereas the signs they order merely refer to the signified objects and events that exist outside the literary artifact. From the introduction to his Cybertext, Espen Aarseth appears to adhere to a variation on post-structuralism—a movement that critiqued such assumptions as the importance of the author’s intent and the inherent “deep meaning” of a text. Poststructuralism originated primarily in France, but I’d argue that Quine’s indeterminacy of translation principle made the first step toward establishing the cultural relativity of the connection between signifier and signified. Poststructualists (according to Wikipedia) break down the distinction between signifier and signified to hold the combination as “real,” but I’d add to this that they recognize that there exists a culturally-specific (and personally-specific) version of each of these constructs.

Aarseth’s model of an ergodic textual machine—placing the “text” inside the vertices “operator,” “verbal sign,” and “medium” (21)—seems to uphold the idea that there is no single meaning to a cybertext; rather, this meaning is generated through the conflict of the vertices. These textual machines constitute localized microcosms of the general poststructuralist mission of critiquing social structures through playful deconstruction. Although Aarseth specifically establishes the textual machine in order to explain cybertexts and not textuality-in-general, I think it also applies back all the way to oral storytelling in a way that Propp was unable to capture. In “Double-Scope Stories,” Mark Turner imagines a dialogue between mother and child to accompany the reading of a bedtime story—it is this dialectic (trialectic?) that Aarseth ends up capturing with the ergodic machine.


Assignment: Write a design sketch for a narrative engine to be coded next week.

For my narrative generation project, I’d like to create flash fiction that describe the varying experiences of moving through discrete zones in a level from a generic FPS game. The initial idea for this comes from an earlier essay I wrote for Michael Nitsche last semester, about reading Left 4 Dead as a team-based rhythm game. In that essay I elaborated on what I saw as a somewhat vague but valid set of ideas from Henry Jenkins and Celia Pearce about “evocative space” and “game design as narrative architecture.” I delineated a few basic binary options for any zone in a level, such as whether it is wide or narrow, linear or multi-linear, light or dark, defense or offense, enclosed or open. Although I didn’t fully flesh the idea out, I grappled with explaining the psychological effects that various combinations of these attributes—and the act of moving between different zones—would have on the player.

Around six months later, I came across this short article by Justin Keverne. In it, he breaks Resistance: Fall of Man down into seven distinct models of gameplay and attempts to show how various combinations of these can elicit aesthetic responses such as “pushing through to teammates” and “camaraderie followed by loneliness.” His explication of this design method lacks the binary structure of mine, but he takes the critical step toward integrating it into the MDA model of starting from an aesthetic goal and working backward to determine the dynamics and mechanics required to elicit it. In the MDA model, level design seems to be a bounded box surrounding and structuring dynamics—it is a conduit through which dynamics can be fed directly into an aesthetic grammar.

Thus, for this project I will attempt to create a narrative generator that asks for desired aesthetic responses (in sequence) as input. The engine will generate an introductory zone based on the binary attributes I delineate, then it will attempt to create a sequence of zones to match the emotional flow described by the user’s input. Another desired feature will be the user’s ability to constrain the choice of binary attributes (such as ordering the machine to only use enclosed and linear spaces). The output of the generator will be in the form of a short story. This is a decidedly structuralist approach to the assignment, but I don’t mean for the output to be the final product of the endeavor; rather, I see the project as being a tool for brainstorming and design-sketching for level designers. I have no idea if my coding abilities will be adequate for this project, but I hope to be able to at least mock up a convincing prototype using PHP and mySQL. Even if I can’t hack the back-end sufficiently, I at least hope to develop the vague notion of level-design-as-narrative into a comprehensive grammar.

Images from Wikipedia, Creative Commons, etc.


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