Visualizing Narrative Variance in Games

For my course project this semester, I’d like to continue and expand an ongoing project I have with visualizing playthroughs of video games using ImagePlot, developed by Lev Manovich and the Software Studies Initiative at CUNY and UCSD. Basically, ImagePlot is able to capture frames from videos as image files, and then plot those files according to different attributes (such as color, saturation, shapes, etc.). My project uses ImagePlot to plot the playthroughs of games captured in players’ Let’s Play videos on YouTube and Twitch. Each playthrough and its corresponding ImagePlot represents a player’s entire experience of playing a game, and allows us to quickly see where and how players’ experiences are different from one another.

Narrative theorists and game studies scholars have long noted that narratives are interactive and changeable in games, but we rarely (or never) dig deeper into the evidence for those basic insights. Yes, narratives vary in games, but to what extent? The overall goal of the project is to discover new measures and insights on narrative variance, and to get a clearer picture of how it functions in the play spaces of games: what parts of the narrative change in different players’ playthroughs? How do they change, and how much? Answering these questions helps us tease out the limits of play in narrative, and provides a framework for assessing players’ engagement with games that goes beyond simply acknowledging that different players have different narratives and experiences. The results of this project will be of interest to narrative theorists, game studies and new media scholars, literary scholars interested in reader response, and digital humanities scholars interested in visualization and user experience. I’m hoping to move the current complete draft of early project results toward a publishable state for the upcoming PMLA Digital Humanities issue.

In the future, I’d like to expand this project into a digital collection of playthrough ImagePlots––an archive of player experiences. Such an archive could be used to study many aspects of game narrative and player experience, such as genre conventions, different groups of players, games made by the same developers or using similar mechanics, etc. I’d also like to link the project up with my work for the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, and perhaps visualize playthroughs of games with LGBTQ content. How are players engaging with queer games and queer experiences? Does anything change noticeably between a queer game and a similar game with no apparent queer content or forms? In any case, I think we’re only just beginning to see the possibilities of this sort of analysis.

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