Narrative Analysis: Advanced Topics
When English poet John Donne proclaimed that “No man is an island,”1 he could have just as easily been talking about artwork. Every work of art that has ever been created exists as part of a larger whole, one built from countless outside influences. Together, these influences form what’s known as context.2 Context helps observers to understand a work of art by learning about its creation, its distribution, its history, and its current role in the medium. For example, two neighboring statues in a museum may look similar, but those who analyze the context of their creation may be able to spot subtle differences. One artist may have had better training; the other may have had better tools. One statue may have been made on commission; the other may have been made as practice work. These and other details all make up the complex tapestry of context, and only through understanding context can we truly understand the value of a work of art.
Video game stories, like all stories, are works of art that benefit from contextual analysis. Understanding them means learning not only about games are made but also how they’re marketed, sold, and received by audiences. All of these factors are influenced by the creation, distribution, and reception of other video games, which come together to create context. As games journalist Tim Rogers so succinctly put it in his review of Final Fantasy VII Remake, “It turns out that no critic of video games can talk about a video game without needing to talk about other video games.”3 Indeed, every game exists in part as a response to other games, as the titles that came before each shaped the medium in their own way. In this way, past works provide context for present creations, just as the experiences of the creators—and the consumers—recontextualize the same games in different ways. By considering the different types of context in which a game exists, players can better understand why their stories are the way they are.
Types of Context
Game Discussed: Undertale (Toby Fox, 2015), Earthbound (Nintendo/Hal Labs, 1995), Final Fantasy XII (Square-Enix, 2006), Vagrant Story (Squaresoft, 2000)
One of the first types of context to consider is the context of creation: in other words, the circumstances under which something was made. In the case of video games, the developers and their motivations play a large role in creating context, as do the resources at their disposal. Two video games that look and feel similar can be very different when the context of their creation is taken into account. For example, EarthBound (Nintendo, 1995) and Undertale (Toby Fox, 2015) are both role-playing games with similar tones and graphical styles, but their origins are very different. Undertale, made a full twenty years after EarthBound, uses its story to dissect the ‘kill every enemy’ paradigm that EarthBound and other role-playing games of the 1990s presented unquestioningly. Unlike EarthBound, Undertale pushes social boundaries with LGBTQ+ characters, which shows how the perception of LGBTQ+ issues changed in the decades between the two games. The two games differ in their economic origins, as well. Undertale was made by a handful of people on a limited, crowd-sourced budget, while EarthBound was made by a larger team and financed and published through traditional channels. As a result, Undertale is much shorter and features fewer unique settings than EarthBound, despite EarthBound being the older game.
Development resources play a large part in determining the scope of a game, but the desire to make a profit can shape the context of creation in other ways. Game designers who want to make money off their creations will often look to the current market to see which games are selling well and which are struggling. In the case of Final Fantasy XII (Square-Enix, 2006), the teen protagonist, Vaan, was created in response to the poor sales of Vagrant Story (Squaresoft, 2000), which featured an adult protagonist. According to Final Fantasy XII art lead Hiroshi Minagawa, “What happened is that the previous game we worked on was Vagrant Story and had a hero that was pretty buff and in his prime that didn’t work out at all and wasn’t very popular. We decided to go for a teenager to see if it would interest the audience more.”4 Ultimately, Final Fantasy XII did well commercially and critically, though it’s impossible to say how much of its success was driven by its young protagonist. Nevertheless, the story behind Vaan’s development adds to the context of the game’s creation, allowing for a deeper analysis of its narrative.
Game Discussed: Bionic Commando (Capcom, 1987)
In the world of art, the path from creator to consumer is beset with complex hurdles. Authors look for literary agents, painters look for galleries, and movie producers look for theaters, all in the hopes of getting their work in front of an audience. Video games developers face similar hurdles when searching for players, as they often need publishers to put their games on modern consoles. Even indie games made exclusively for PCs have to go through their digital distributor’s approval process, which has its own difficulties. Knowing who published a game and where it was published is its own layer of context. Every publisher has unique standards, and developers must tailor their games to meet those standards if they wish to work together. Different regions have their own standards, as well, which can result in numerous versions of the same game. Knowing what region a game was published in is yet another layer of context, one that can reveal a great deal about its story.
One type of regional standard that plays a role in shaping game narratives is censorship. Certain regions have regulatory bodies with the ability to censor the content in games. In the United States of America, for example, the Entertainment Software Rating Board has the power to assign ratings to games, and some stores/digital distribution outlets won’t sell unrated games. As a result, games localized for sales in the U.S. are sometimes changed to meet the ESRB standards. However, the ESRB wasn’t always around, yet censorship has existed since the earliest days of video games. Six years before the ESRB was founded, the Capcom action game Bionic Commando (1987) received massive overhauls on its way to American shores. Gone was its original title, Top Secret: Hitler no Fukkatsu, along with its plotline to resurrect Adolf Hitler. Using a combination of graphical and text changes, the developers took the original story and turned it into something very different. Those who played Bionic Commando without knowing its origins were likely to be confused by the original, as the differences were so drastic and pervasive. Once again, context becomes key to understanding.
Game Discussed: Ico (Japan Studio/Team Ico, 2001), Tomb Raider (Core Design/Eidos Interactive, 1996)
Once consumers interact with a work of art, their perceptions form their own context that surrounds the work. The swarm of reviews, discussions, criticisms, and recommendations that follow a work’s launch influence the opinions of others, and those opinions continue to ripple outward as time passes. Video games are no different in this regard. Players’ perceptions of games are influenced by the thoughts of critics, fans, and dissenters, whether the players realize it or not. They’re less likely to know about a game that sold poorly, regardless of the game’s quality, as they’re less likely to have heard of it from other people who purchased it. This disconnect often appears with games that gain ‘cult classic’ status: a term for games that sold poorly or received limited exposure despite their high quality. One quintessential cult classic is Ico (Japan Studio/Team Ico, 2001), a Playstation 2 action-adventure game that struggled to find its audience despite critical praise. Without knowing the context of its reception, someone might play up Ico and wonder why it didn’t receive a sequel or launch a franchise, but the answer is apparent to anyone who knows the sales history.
Cult classics prove that player perceptions can change over time, as they demonstrate how an unpopular game can gain popularity under the right circumstances. Time can change player opinions in other ways, as well. Plots, characters, themes, and settings are all subject to popularity cycles, which means a game that players think is cool today might be uncool tomorrow. Social mores change as well: what is inoffensive today may be offensive tomorrow, and a once socially acceptable game may feel very different in the present day. In 1996, Tomb Raider (Core Design/Eidos Interactive) was famous for its protagonists’ sex appeal, but the decades that followed have reshaped both her model and players’ perceptions of her. Women make up a larger percentage of gamers than when Lara Croft first hit the scene,5 and their purchasing power has changed the industry. Knowing this additional layer of context explains why Lara Croft has changed as much as she has and why todays’ players might view her differently than the players of the past.
Contextual analysis can tell us a lot about our favorite video games. By learning about a game’s origins, distribution, and reception, we can answer questions about the creator’s influences and intentions. We can also gain a greater depth of understanding of the game’s audience, and how the audience’s perception may have changed from the release date to the present day. Knowing the context surrounding a game allows us to go beyond what’s on the screen, giving us the tools to learn not only about the work, but about culture, our perceptions, and ourselves.
Narrative Analysis: Paratext
Paratext is the material that exists to support, contextualize, and promote a creative work.
Narrative Analysis: Influences & Inspirations
Artists find inspiration in other creative works, both inside and outside their medium.
Tone is the emotional expression of a story’s theme, as well as the source of mood and atmosphere.
1 Donne, John. “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation XVII.” 1624
2 Wesley Vander Lugt. “The Context of Art.” Transpositions, 2011.
3 Action Button. “ACTION BUTTON REVIEWS The Final Fantasy VII Remake.” YouTube, 2020.
4 Rain, Sun, Flower. “No, Vaan was not a late addition to Final Fantasy XII.” WordPress, 2020. Translated from “Sortie française de Final Fantasy XII : le Compte rendu” at FFRing, 2007.
5 Yokoi, Tomoko. “Female Gamers Are On The Rise. Can The Gaming Industry Catch Up?” Forbes, 2021.
* Reference Footage (Undertale): Wolfe’s Gameplay Vault. “Undertale [Neutral Run/First Time] | Part 1 (PS5 4K60 No Commentary).” YouTube, 2022.
** Reference Footage (Bionic Commando): Nintendo Complete. “Bionic Commando (NES) Playthrough – NintendoComplete.” YouTube, 2018.