Nina’s Digital Past: A look at narrative interactivity

Collaborators: Adam Schwartz (40028339), Hussain Almahr (27825684), Nikita Nonnenman (40034507), Micheal Perrotta (40030038)

Lost Memories Dot Net (2017) is a narrative game set in 2004, the era of the personal blog and online chatting. The player assumes the role of Nina, an 8th grader who loves anime and video games, as she navigates three days of her her early teen relationships. The “game” aspect comes in two forms: the players interaction with the games stripped down version of a blog, which constitutes adding pictures and some slight formatting options, and through chatting with people through the in-game chat client. Although the player is presented with dialogue choices, they are merely illusions of choice. Players have limited impact on the actual narrative of the game, they are funneled into similar endings, leaving the player with limited agency to actively construct the narrative. We will interpret the different ways the game presents interactivity.

Adam

The gameplay in Lost Memories For Net allows the player to become immersed in the narrative through the in-game interactions. The games narrative is experienced from the perspective of Nina, through which they can interact with the game’s events. Nina acts as the player’s protagonist or hero in the narrative who’s backstory is told both within the dialogue of the game as well as through the game’s landscape. She acts as both the story guide and as a vessel for the player to embody and connect the game’s world. Jesper Juul states “since we use narratives to make sense of our lives, to process information, and since we can tell stories about a game we have played, no genre or form can be outside the narrative” (Juul). This game has a very obvious story in the traditional sense, Juul’s first argument of discussion can be applied to the game’s interactive landscape. This form of narrative is reflected in the player’s ability to customize Nina’s blog space by using various images and decorations acquired through the gameplay. The player can access these images through chat conversations with other characters. The narrative, as described, is represented in the images themselves. Some images include pictures of Nina, pictures of her friends, pictures of her interests like anime characters, and even less specific designs and decals. All these images add to the overall landscape of the narrative and allow the player to gleam small morsels of information about Nina’s personality, preferences and character through interactions. This way, the game can cleverly present narrative aspects to the player through implicit elements hidden in seemingly abstract systems.

However, the game does not simply present this aspect separate from the core narrative gameplay. To access new images, players can download them from links sent top them through chatting with other characters. In some cases, these links also give an insight into the personalities of the senders. We get an idea of what Kayla and Amy are like by the types of images they like, or the type of images they think Nina would like. In this way, the implicit narrative is intertwined with the explicit narrative, allowing for a more immersive experience as the players progress through game due its subtextual and optional nature, a feature uniquely available through videos games as an interactive medium. At the same time, the linearity of the games storytelling keeps the player on track through “sequence of events,” a term which Juul uses to describe “selected events as events or simulations” (Juul). The event are locked into a chronological sequence in the game’s design. The player never experiences cut-scenes or flashbacks so the whole of the story has to be told in the present tense. Although this can be limiting, it speaks for the power of the implicit story telling method. Past details of the characters can be explored through their blogs while the story is still taking place in the present, and since the player can only access new image files as they are presented, the chronological story still has power over how and when it reveals information to the player.

Richard

Lost Memories Dot Net (Nina Freeman 2017) presents a very unique combination of mechanics and narrative. (Jull 2001) Because of the setting of the game being the internet life of a high school girl in 2004 the mechanics of the game which revolve around a series of chat rooms that you the player playing as Nina must survive the internet. The narrative delves into Nina’s personal life and the ensuing drama and frustration that ensues from the hell that is three days in highschool. (Nina Freeman 2017) The mechanics of the game are simple it fits a standard visual novel style but this ties into the Narrative hand in hand because of how the choices in dialogue are presented only through a series of chat room conversations. This gives the player a very interesting view on the main characters life because instead of playing her every moment of her day the player only experiences and has agency over Nina’s online interactions as if the player is Nina’s online persona. With the player only viewing Nina’s life from the online perspective it helps engage the player as the drama of the day slowly gets revealed to the player through conversations with different people form Nina’s personal life and internet friends. The mechanics revolving around the conversations are very simple a selection of two (or sometimes even just one option) dialogue options which sometimes are pretty much two different ways of saying the same option but that can be seen as an extension of the narrative because Nina would feel some restraint in what she is able to tell her friends because of social pressure and expectations, With conversations with her online friends being more liberating and varied because of the release form social pressure.  While the base mechanics stay the same from one person to another they change the feeling conveyed. (Jull 2001)

With the player being actively engaged with the decision process going through the game the player experiences a mix of ludology and naratology (Murray 2005) because the two end up working hand in hand.  Which relative to games can be rather rare at times, and while the pace of Lost Memories Dot Net (Nina Freeman 2017) is rather slow at times it is very easy to get invested in the inane high school gossip.  Mostly because of the simulation of choice the game gives you with the very slightly different dialogue options. Because you are given a choice as a player and the narrative is so heavily tied to the game mechanics (Jull 2001) it draws the player into the drama more effectively than a regular plain visual novel would. In fact the limitation of the player to only Nina’s online interactions creates an allure of mystery for the player because you are not privy to her regular every day experiences which piques the drama of the situations Nina is in.

Micheal

Lost Memories Dot Net describes a very specific setting through the graphics, music and design, it aims to emulate the mood and atmosphere this setting. By doing so, it suggests a certain scope of realism, providing players with the option to customize their blog and chat with other characters in the game. However, due to the nature of the game, it turns out to be more of a limited simulation. The player is “allowed” to perform specific tasks, even if the order in which the performer them is loose, they are are still limited to specific actions and are ultimately lead to the same conclusion. For example, one of the main gameplay focuses involves the player chatting with other characters using an online message system. In real life, you would be able to respond by typing out full sentences and guide the conversation, however in this game, you are restricted to no more than 2 pre-written responses at a time. Here, the promise of simulation is in conflict with the reality of the limitations of the interactive media. While the game is dressed up like a message board, its true goal is to guide the player through a story by prompting the player for inputs. The story itself is rather mundane, focusing on a high school love triangle and reading like it was written by a 14 year old, which is absolutely intentional. If this story were presented as a book, it would be mind numbing, but dressing it up in a game’s clothing provide the user with a connection to the story, a sort of involvement that interactive media encourages. Instead of reading the story of Nina, you are Nina. You want to ebest for Nina. You want Nina to make it with Jared. As Manovich puts it, “[…]  in what can be read as an updated version of French philosopher Louis Althusser’s concept of “interpellation,” we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own (Garite, 4).”

This is a double-edged sword. The player is given a small amount of freedom to make them want to play, and another mind to embody. Now the player wants to “win” somehow. They want to get the ideal ending. But the narrative is designed linearly. The player has no real agency in how the story progresses. Player choices ultimately lead to the same conclusion and so the game’s agenda is in conflict with the player’s desire. As Garite describes, it is “the key contradictions of interactive gaming: at one and the same time, video games grant players an unprecedented degree of freedom and control, while simultaneously bombarding them with a relentless series of limits and demands (Garite, 7).“ If the game was intended to be won, there would be more options. If the game was intended to be a story, the writing would be better. Instead it seems teh the game was meant to be experienced, and exploration of a mood and setting. It does not act as a traditional game with a goal or a challenge. The other major aspect of the game is the ability to customize your blog between conversations. You are provided with a sizable collection of backgrounds, photos that you can use to modify your blog. This element of the game has absolutely no effect on the dialogue portion, yet its is presented as a main feature.

MichealBlog
Micheal’s blog

Garite’s exploration of interactivity suggests that the elements of an interactive game are in conflict, but does not get a chance explore the abstract nature of games more akin to exploration of simulation. While all games are a simulation of sorts, only some are designed to be appreciated as a simulation rather than cover it under the illusion of gameplay and narrative. Lost Memories Dot Net is unique in that it does both. It is a simulation of a setting and aesthetic, but it covers it in traditional interactive elements to immerse the player in the mood. The setting of the game makes this easier, as it aims to simulate tabs on an internet browser. Having this game being played in a browser window, the player can customize their blog between conversations, as intended, or open up a real browser tab and browse videos on Youtube while they waited for Jared to respond. This is one of the most successful elements of the game, where the medium it is symlationg is represented by the medium used to interact with it. They are similar, that the distinction is sometimes lost, thus imersing the player further. In this way, the self-reflexive design and interface are probably the games strongest attributes in regard to achieving its goal of a contemplative experience.

Hussain

While analyzing the textual elements of video games and other forms of media are important, however, it’s equally as important to look at the form. As Marshall McLuhan, a important figure in media theory, says in his book Understanding Media: An Extension of Man (1964), “The Medium is the Message.” McLuhan argues that media and technology are extensions of culture and society, an extension and expansion of already existing ideas. Every piece of media carries a certain amount of meaning purely conveyed through the form itself, including video games. Games are an interactive medium, a medium that requires the consumer to actively participate directly in direct ways, and this assumption of player interactivity creates its own meaning, beyond the textual intentions of the author. Lost Memories Dot Net communicates a lot in the medium it chose to tell the story.

The game follows Nina, a girl trying navigating internet fandom and the difficulties of teenage relationships, thus the game focuses more on narrative than gameplay. Players have two methods of interaction: Players can customize Nina’s blog—which has little bearing on the story itself, besides giving the player some context between the three days of the game—and players have binary dialogue choices during chat sessions with her friends and other characters. Prescribed dialogue choices is both a limitation and a modern design philosophy. Older text-based adventure games, like Zork (1980), gave the player a set of verbs that control the characters action, which is done by entering specific sentences, only a specific set of sentences worked, similar to coding languages. Despite the fact that game like Zork seem limited now, however, the choices where not prescribed explicitly by the author, the player could experiment to see what was actually possible in the game. Games embed meaning not only through design choices, but even through the game’s code.

Claudia Lo, in her article How RimWorld’s Code Defines Strict Gender Roles (2016), analyzes how RimWorld ’s gender roles are placed within the game’s code. According to Lo, to simulate relationships, the games creators made all the female characters bisxual or gay, while men are either straight or gay. Lo writes: “ Any game system that tries to represent or model complicated real-world scenarios necessarily has to make abstractions and sacrifices, and human relationships might be one of the most complicated things you could possibly portray.” (2016), no matter how complex the systems are and how much time a developer spends, games are coded in binary terms, which limits the way people are represented.

In real life, Nina has a plethora of ways to communicate to people online, however, due to the restrictions of the video games medium itself, our options as players are limited to two dialogue choices. Despite the way that players feel at certain moments of the game, they have to pick between two options—that might not even necessarily represent their own approach to the situation. In line with McLuhan’s theory, games presenting players with limited or explicitly binary choices are an extension with people’s desire to understand nature and humanity in binary terms; nature and culture, female and male, good and bad are ideas that permeate our understanding of the world. Lost Memories follows the current gaming trend of having dialogue choices, however, the game also carries the history of the many games that came before it—games that created standards which other games are judged by. This isn’t a necessarily a positive or negative aspect of the game, however, it’s important to shed insight into the kind of interactivity the game allows, which gives us a better understanding of the kind of story the game can tell.

Nikita

Nostalgia is a powerful driving point in Lost memories Dot Net, but it is used as a passive tool . Nostalgia can be defined as “a sentimental longing for the past, especially in reference to how things used to be better.” (Madigan) which is emphasized through the games portrayal of the internet in the 2004’s, aesthetic, dialog choices and musical accompaniment. It is one huge nostalgia driven game.

As such, the game itself is simplistic, having a barebone structure in the UI and simple dialog choices while chatting. I believe this is done intentionally, so the player can impose their own experience with nostalgia while playing. I experienced this personally, as I played the game early on a Saturday morning, which reminded me of me more carefree days in high school. An aspect of the game that reinforces this imprinting aspect is the blog customization. As the player is lead through Ninas relatively mundane day to day life, they are given the option to decorate her blog. I see this as an opportunity given for self expression and reflection. Personally I put an equal amount of time into reading the dialog and building up Ninas blog. This building experience allows for the player to either relive previous experiences or experience it anew.

OCDONOTSTEAL
Nikita’s blog

While the setting is important to establish memories, there is also the aspect of social connections that can trigger nostalgia. Chatting to characters through the chat client reminded me of some of my own past relationships. This got me “Thinking about the loss of social connection (as nostalgia often makes us do) primes us to think about repairing those connections, establishing replacements, or maintaining current ones” (Madigan), something Lost Memories Dot Net does quite well. Through your chats with friends you are shown the fickle nature of making friends in ones youth, and how quickly one can make new ones. We are shown a brief chat with a friendly stranger only once, but the fact that Nina and this character share similar interests already hints at a budding friendship. Nearing the end of the game, after Nina loses her crush to her best friend, she is comphorted by an earnest internet friend who she hadn’t even met in person. I’ve experienced this personally as well, making long lasting relationships with people who live all over the world. The game speaks to the generation of connectivity.

Although the narrative choices in Lost Memories Dot Net seemed limited, in truth it was an intentional game mechanic. One that didn’t allow the player to think too hard about the outcome of their responce. By limiting the resources a player is given, they can focus more attention on the details of the game. They are given a chance to explore every nook and cranny, to fully immerse themselves in this simmulation of the 2004’s.

In conclusion, Lost Memories Dot Net is a carefully crafted game that utilizes traditional game mechanics to tell a story, and non traditional mechanics to allow the player a level of interactivity. Although we are not in direct control of Ninas actions, we live vicariously through her writings and express ourselves through her blog.

 

Bibliography:

Works cited

Hussain

Lo, Claudia. “How RimWorld’s Code Defines Strict Gender Roles.” Rock Paper Shotgun , 2

Nov. 2016, http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2016/11/02/rimworld-code-analysis/. McLuhan, Marshall. “CHAPTER 1: The Medium Is the Message.” Understanding Media:

the Extensions of Man , Signet, 1964, pp. 1–18.

Adam

Juul, Jesper. “Games Telling Stories?-A Brief Note on Games and Narratives.”Game 

Studio .vol1, no. 1, 2001, http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/juul-gts/. Accessed 30Jan.

2018.   

Micheal

Garite, Matt. “The Ideology of Interactivity (or Video Games and Taylorization of Leisure).” Level Up Conference Proceedings, Utrecht: University of Utrecht, November, 2003.

Nikita

Madigan, Jamie. “The Psychology of Video Game Nostalgia.” The Psychology of Video Games, 20 Oct. 2015, www.psychologyofgames.com/2013/11/the-psychology-of-video-game-nostalgia/.

Richard

Jull, Jesper. “Games Telling Stories? A Brief Note on Games and Narratives.” Game Studies, 2001.

Murray, Janet. “The Last Word on Ludology v Narratology in Game Studies.” Conference Proceedings, DiGRA, 2005.

Nina Freeman, Aaron Freeman. “Lost Memories Dot Net.” 2017.

 

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