Using Digital Humanities Methodologies in Analyzing Critical Game Retellings

Digdem Sezen, Tonguc Ibrahim Sezen

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


Videogames as multi-faceted drillable texts with an intrinsic multiplicity, provide fertile ground for diverse forms of paratextual retellings interpreting and investigating them. As narrative texts they report not only game stories but also how players interact with the narrative design in action. Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith, and Tosca (2020) position forms of retellings amongst other creative activities inspired by games such as modding, which they call forms of “productive play”. According to Newman (2016), retellings collectively provide the most detailed and comprehensive records on the diverse gameplay opportunities brought to life through ongoing interactions between players and games as unstable objects. The use of retellings in game studies has been discussed by multiple researchers since mid-2010s. According to Fernandez-Vara (2014), the extension of paratextuality into the study of videogames opens new ways of analyzing their complexity by providing multiple layers of interpretation and reconstruction. Mukherje (2016) argues that paratextual retellings play a significant role in understanding how videogame narratives work and can be instrumental in critiquing interactive narrative systems. Recent studies on retellings have been fruitful in revealing aspects of the relationship between player experiences and narrative design in videogames. Kreminski et. al (2019) revealed how retelling authors tend to complete game stories through interpretation and evocation. Toh’s (2019) multimodal analysis of retellings revealed that various types of ludonarrative relationships are shaped by individual players’ performance, perception, and interpretation. Roth, van Nuenen, and Koenitz (2018) treated retellings as unedited think-aloud protocols for conversation analysis and argued that players synchronically reflected on possibilities of narrative game mechanics and interpreted the narrative product they have instantiated through hermeneutic processes. While these studies use different methodologies ranging from recordings of playthroughs and production of retellings under controlled conditions to post-play interviews, Eladhari (2018) proposes the use of data mining methodologies in analyzing retellings. In this regard, in this paper we will discuss the potential use of digital humanities tools in investigating retellings, focusing on critical longform video essays on video games.
Sych (2020) suggests the concept of “critical retellings” which he describes a subset of retellings that do not directly track the success of a narrative system but instead take a deliberately critical stand towards it. Like Kerttula (2016) who argues that retellings should be analyzed as stories about playing videogames, Sych positions the players at the center of his approach and sees critical retellings not only as a product of narrative systems but also as deliberate commentaries. Elaborate, personal, and creative, longform video essays retell game experiences with a deliberately critical stand towards videogame systems. While not complete narrative products instantiated in one uninterrupted play through, they do fall under the general definitions of paratextual retellings and can be seen as a variation of critical retellings. Longform video essays hold the potential to provide an in-depth record of players’ meaning-making processes.
Digital humanities tools may prove useful in analyzing critical longform video essays. The open-source, web-based text analytics and visualization tool Voyant (Sinclair and Rockwell, 2016), which provides word frequency and collocate data may prove useful in the analyzing transcriptions. Similarly, text and social networks analyzer Netlytic (Gruzd, 2020) can be used to analyze the commentary networks to see how themes and perspectives raised by vloggers resonate with larger player communities. In this regard, in this paper we will present Voyant and Netlytic analyses of longform video essays to investigate the potential of digital humanities tools in utilizing critical retellings in game narrative research. We used both tools on the critical retellings of the 2020 video game The Last of Us Part II, created by the critically acclaimed game vlogger Noah Caldwell-Gervais and popular YouTube personality Jose Antonio Vargas. We have selected these cases due to the complex themes The Last of Us Part II covers, and the controversies its narrative has caused. While the narrative design of the game is mostly linear in a technical sense, it also lets players to discover two sides of the same story from the opponents’ perspectives and invites them to re-evaluate the story critically.
Our analysis provided a detailed look on how retellings are constructed by their authors and discussed by communities. In both texts, by following the frequencies of how the vloggers talk about characters, and by identifying the collocates they use we can get a glimpse of how ludonarrative relationships emerge in player’ minds. Vargas’ popular retelling of The Last of Us Part II reflects ludonarrative dissonance through questions, exclamations, and profanity. But besides what he tells, what he does not tell is also important. Vargas’s discussion disregards main characters’ motivations and connections and sees companions merely as game objects. His scarce attention is devoted mainly to the characters who also appeared in the previous title of the series, The Last of Us (2013). Caldwell-Gervais on the other hand re-evaluates the story as the game progresses and his critical retelling explores and discusses each game character, their motivations, and what role they play in the overall story in detail. His retelling can be seen as an example of a player constructs ludonarrative resonance. The network analysis has also shown how the audiences of both vloggers discuss the game’s narrative. Despite being focused on characters, Vargas’s audience is largely individualistic. Caldwell-Gervais’ audience on the other hand formed complex discussion networks on different aspects of the game. All in all, the differences between the two retellings suggests that ludonarrative relationships observed in retellings may be situated depending on how, why, and by whom the retelling is produced. Based on these findings, we will discuss the opportunities and challenges of using digital humanities tools in analyzing retelling for game narrative research, including suggestions on developing custom categories based on frequency, collocates, and networks related to gameplay and narrative design which may provide deeper insights on how videogame narratives are perceived and discussed among players.
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Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2021
EventIII. Zip-Scene Conference on Immersive Storytelling: INDCOR COST ACTION SPECIAL TRACK - Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design Budapest, Budapest, Hungary
Duration: 30 Sept 20212 Oct 2021


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