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Video Game Narratives: Ricoeur and Cyberpunk 2077

It is undeniable that video games are one of the most powerful narrative devices of the times we live in. Not all video games tell a story, but all of them have narratives. Sometimes, these narratives are explicit when they are entwined with the plot of a game. An example is Max Payne 1’s narrative of revenge after he comes home and finds his family murdered at the hands of some drug addicts. Other times video game narratives are implicit and hidden in less prominent elements of the games. The overgrown remnants of society in Horizon Zero Dawn draws players into a narrative of life after humans. In another example, the baptismal scene at the start of Bioshock Infinite engages players with the narrative of organised religion and manipulation.

Each video game is a narrative kaleidoscope, reflecting both the narrative identity of the game (text) and our own narrative identities as we play the game. In this article I discuss why narratives in video games are crucial and lasting elements of the gaming experience based on Paul Ricoeur’s theory of mimesis. I will use some gameplay elements from the highly anticipated Cyberpunk 2077 to give context to the discussion. 

Cyberpunk 2077 as narrative extravaganza

video game narrative cyberpunk 2077
This picture is drenched in narrative [Image: CD Projekt Red]

It is no secret that Cyberpunk 2077 is an absolutely massive video game with complex narrative layers as a key part of its world building. On the surface, Cyberpunk 2077 is an impressive RPG combining the immersive nature of the Witcher games with the dystopian ideas found in the Deus Ex games. For many players this is enough and spending a few hundred hours having fun in Night City suffices to give the game a thumbs-up on Steam and move on to the other exciting AAA releases for late 2020.

It would however be a disservice to the Cyberpunk 2077 experience if we don’t stop to think about some reasons the experience was memorable, apart from the obvious one of having fun.

Cyberpunk 2077 is a narrative extravaganza. Night City and the world CD Projekt Red has built is staggering in its depth and populated with an enormous amount of side quests and other non-explicit narrative elements for players to explore. All of this is wrapped in a package exploring relevant themes such as the interplay between biology and technology and our transcendence of the corporeal reality. 

Rewind 57 years back to 2020 where we are bombarded with messianic notions of AI, adaptive technology and even ideas of a post-mortal society. Thanks to global organisations like the World Economic Forum and influential individuals such as Yuval Harari, the idea of a 4th Industrial Revolution is propagated in everything from corporate boardrooms to preschool classrooms where children are introduced to robotics and coding.

While Cyberpunk 2077 delivers a superb RPG experience as many critics have noted these last few days, one cannot but wonder if much of what we will remember of Cyberpunk 2077 is because of our narrative identities being enhanced by those found in the game itself. 

Understanding narrative: a perspective from Paul Ricoeur’s theory of mimesis

Having made the bold claim that much of our memory of Cyberpunk 2077 will be because of our narrative experiences, I refer to Paul Ricoeur’s theory of mimesis to substantiate my point.

I am well aware that we shouldn’t read philosophy in isolation. This article is about narratives in video games and why they matter to us. Therefore, I acknowledge the roots of Ricoeur’s thought in the work of Aristotle and Augustine. I also acknowledge the immense influence René Girard had in developing mimetic thought during parts of the 20th and 21st centuries. 

With that said, we won’t explore these roots in this article. We only focus on the parts that help us view video game narratives in a different, perhaps even new light. 

Overview of the theory

Ricoeur understands that there is a complex mediation between narrative and life. This does not reduce our lives to mere stories, but emphasises the fact that life is not lived oblivious to the different narratives we encounter on a daily basis. 

For gamers, we find many of these narratives in video games. If these narratives are to have any value to our lives, we need to rethink the way we sometimes see games as only existing in fictional digital spaces. Therefore, for the rest of this article I treat digital and corporeal space as equals based on the potential of the narratives we encounter in each space.

With that said, the cyclical process of mediation between our lives and the narratives we encounter can be understood to have components of pre-figuration, configuration and re-figuration with the potential to enact change within the reader, or in our case, the player.

Mimesis 1 – pre-figuration

For our own lives and narratives to imitate and represent something of what we experience in the games we play, we need to have a pre-understanding of human acting. Luckily, we do. We can understand human acting and the basis of a story because we are familiar with the signs, rules and norms that govern these narratives.

As an example, if we take the now famous braindance gameplay clip from the Cyberpunk 2077 preview, we can illustrate this point. In the brief clip, two people rob a convenience store while recording the experience so they can sell it to adrenaline seekers that want to relive the experience. Without a pre-understanding of human acting, the sequence of events that unfolds would have been lost on us. But because we have that pre-understanding we can organise the sequence into a narrative which we can understand and relate to. 

Mimesis 2 – configuration

The second part of Ricoeur’s theory is central to understanding how narratives affect us as players. The phase of configuration helps us move from the sequences of human action in pre-figuration to be re-figured by these sequences as a coherent narrative in phase three, therefore mediating between these two phases. 

We are taking the individual elements of a narrative experience and configuring them into a plot. Therefore, we can understand the braindance sequence in Cyberpunk 2077 as a robbery. In mimesis 1 we have:

  • Two people are busy talking. A set of instructions is given from the one to the other;
  • The one person hands a firearm to the other;
  • The person with the gun moves toward an entrance while readying the weapon;
  • The person enters a building and forces the other people inside to the floor using threats and violence;
  • The person with the gun demands money from another person behind a counter in the building;
  • The person behind the counter acts defensively and hands over some money;
  • The person with the gun takes the money and leaves the building.

These events would have meant very little if we could not configure them into a plot. But because of our understanding of human acting, we can interpret the events as being a robbery. Therefore, we have configured the narrative based on the events we experienced in the section of gameplay.

Ricoeur understands the emplotment of the narrative sequences as “it is this followability of a story that constitutes the poetic solution to the paradox of distention and intention. The fact that the story can be followed converts the paradox into a living dialectic.”[1]

Mimesis 3 – re-figuration

The process of pre-figuration and configuration would be of little relevance to us if the stories and narratives we find in the games we play can never influence our own stories. In Mass Effect 3, you have the choice to kill Mordin (one of your allies) to stop him from freeing an entire race from oppression if you took the Renegade approach to the game. That moment was truly one of the most difficult choices I have had to make in all my years of gaming. It was a moment where the narrative of the game intersected my own narrative and for days and even years after playing the game I still think about it.

In what is perhaps one of Ricoeur’s more poetic moments he states that “I shall say that mimesis 3 [re-figuration] marks the intersection of the world of the text (the game in our case) and the world of the reader (player); the intersection, therefore, of the world configured by the poem (game in our case) and the world wherein real action occurs and unfolds its specific temporality.”

Narrative in video games – more important than we think

By using Ricoeur’s theory of mimesis, we can understand why video game narratives are important and how they influence our own lives. Therefore, and whether or not you like it, narratives in video games have an influence on our own narrative identities. 

Luckily, this doesn’t mean that we are dominated by these video game narratives. Supporting the dubious cultural narrative that video games turn otherwise rational people into murderers, criminals and other negative iterations of humanity is simply put, unfounded.

video game narrative cyberpunk 2077
Am I going to start smoking now? Probably not. [Image: CD Projekt Red]

As a conclusion to this article, Ricoeur’s interpreted work offers us an important potential effect video game narratives can have on players:

Video game narratives can be revelations in as far as they call the attention of the player to everyday experiences that they did not notice before. Essentially inviting us to see the world differently. Video games, just like books and films, can help us discover fresh perspectives on many aspects of life. 

Therefore, these experiences are valuable and memorable and most certainly worth our time. I am looking forward to the narratives I will discover as I journey through Cyberpunk 2077. Narratives that explore many relevant topics to 21st century humanity and perhaps even a foray into what a post-mortal society can feel like. 

References

  1. Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative, Volume 1, University of Chicago Press, 1984.