After the pretense of a silly, sci-fi subplot – consciousness projecting, distant ancestors, evil corporations – you’re let loose in the world. If you’ve done your research ahead of time, you’ll recognize the world around you. A Haudenosaunee village, the forests of upstate New York. If not, the cultural markers you’ve been exposed to since birth fill in enough of the gaps. An Indian town, back when there still were Indian towns. You’re a young boy speaking a language you only understand through the subtitles at the bottom of the screen. If you’ve played games like this before, the third-person action controls are intuitive to you, though there is no action in this part of the game. Not yet. You’re free to explore, sort of, wander around the digital village, overhear scraps of conversation, but soon you’re locked in a cut-scene – more movie than game – convinced by the other boys in the village to play a game of hide and seek. The familiar name in this strange world – at once high tech and evoking the distant past – snaps you out of your already-iffy immersion. You wonder if the choice to have the boys say “hide and seek” was intentional, deliberately anachronistic as commentary on the game’s silly time-travel narrative. Or maybe it’s just bad writing.
This is the first “game” of the game. A quest marker on the top of your screen reminds you of your objective – to “win” hide and seek. And you do. You explore the world as it’s laid out in front of you. Large and open, at least in appearances, but this is merely the introduction section after all, so there are limits to how far you can go. The games in this series block off sections of levels they don’t want you to explore not by fences or rock walls, as is the norm for other action games, but with a graphic effect showing you “disconnect” from history, deviating too far from the script. It’s oddly meta for a big-budget, masses-pleasing action game, but you don’t think about that now. You’re engaged in the gameplay, despite its simplicity chasing virtual Native boys around a virtual forest. Until the game decides you’re done and traps you again in a cut-scene.
The gameplay earlier might have been superficial, an excuse to show off level design chops and attention to indigenous culture, but at least you could move freely. When the British men ambush your character, you have no agency at all. The dialogue is already written, the outcome already decided. They beat you, spit on you, call you names, and you’re barely able to run away. The game only gives you back control after the scene is over, late enough that all you can do is run back to your village, already burning. The level design – rows of houses crumbling on either side of you – subconsciously funnels you in a direction that you don’t even register as familiar until the subtitles inform you that this is your character’s house. That is his mother, trapped under the beam. And while it’s within your control to steer your character towards her, tap the X button over and over to try and lift the burning wood off her body, you don’t have the ability to save her. That wasn’t how it was written.
The video game scholar Jesper Juul, borrowing the language of film critic Torben Grodal, writes that the experiences of immersion and failure are inherently connected. That while engaging in any sort of art – literature, film, games – two parallel brain systems are operating, “a ‘global’ system that understands what we are seeing as fictional and a ‘local’ system that has more immediate emotional reactions to what is on-screen” (Juul 41). He writes that’s why when we’re engaged in a piece of art, video games included, there’s more than happening than mere information exchange, inputs and outputs. We approach the narrative with something approaching empathy. And despite the many flaws in how games like Assassin’s Creed III’s approach storytelling, this opening sequence is a perfect example of how video game storytelling, even in its simplest movie-like form, take advantage of the medium to open new storytelling frontiers by embracing immersion and interactivity.
Tangential to, but separate from, the discourse around video game narratives in media studies, Native studies scholars have also been asking similar questions about the nature of storytelling. For years, academic argument had preoccupied with defining literary tradition – the written word, Western style – versus the oral tradition, with an emphasis on categorization, articulating the differences. In his article, “Indigenous American Polygraphy and the Dialogic Model of Media,” however, scholar Galen Brokaw pushes back against the binary model of literature vs oral storytelling, writing that while the two traditions may represent different models of cognitive thought, a dialogic model of media is more apt to capture the nuances of how form always influences the function of media, even beyond traditional ideas about writing. He borrows the word “polygraphy” from the 16th century Mexican priest Diego Valdez as a way to recategorize media – in this case, in a non-literary, indigenous context. By focusing on media outside of the literary/orality binary, such as beadwork and architecture, that still contain coded cultural meaning, Brokaw redefines “polygraphy” to be a catch-all term for how all artifacts have narratives embedded within them.
This project – a paper restructured into a digital webpage whose form, hyperlinks and non-linear presentation, aims to mirror its argument – builds on Brokaw’s definition of polygraphy in an indigenous context by introducing the language of video game scholarship. While not interested in simple questions of representation or who is “allowed” to tell what stories, this project aims to use examples of Native experience in the gaming world to complicate the idea that “literacy” and “orality” are opposite ideas whose discourse exists primarily in the past. Using Brokaw’s article as a theoretical framework, I aim analyze games like Never Alone/(Kisima Ingitchuna) or work by Elizabeth LePensee as examples of contemporary Native storytelling that, when experienced, fit neatly into neither the categorization of literature nor the oral tradition. Rather, they’ve embraced the new media of video gaming – with all of its genre tropes, cliches, and conventions – to tell stories that come with a unique gameplay experience, partially “told” to the player and partially “read.” I argue that gaming, especially when the content is connected to the Native storytelling experience, is a perfect example of Brokaw’s ideas about polygraphy – cultural markers creating narrative meaning that exists outside of traditional ideas about literature. In separate sections/webpages analyzing different gaming projects and their narratives, project hopes to bridge a gap between two seemingly-different mediums and provide indigenous-forefronting insight into what the true capacity of storytelling can be.