Narrative, Games, and Go: An Interview with Professor Marco Caracciolo

Marco Caracciolo is Associate Professor of English and Literary Theory at Ghent University in Belgium. His work explores the phenomenology of narrative, or the structure of the experiences afforded by literary fiction and other narrative media. He is the author of five books, including most recently Narrating the Mesh: Form and Story in the Anthropocene (University of Virginia Press, 2021).

I had the honor of befriending Marco several years ago in Belgium. As I started to explore the relationship between Go, language, and narrative, I realized that his ideas would be an invaluable contribution to this journal. I have fond memories of getting decimated by Marco in games of chess, while I returned the favor by introducing him to Go over coffee. Not only is Marco incredibly thoughtful about literature, he is also an avid gamer: an ideal combination for a conversation about the relationship between Go and narrative. I hope you enjoy learning from him as much as I have over the years.

River: How would you describe narratology to a Go player?

Marco: Narratology is the study of narrative form. It emerged in France in the 1960s as a branch of literary studies, but it has since then expanded to other media: cinema, TV, theater, and video games. Narrative forms are patterns that recur across many instances of narrative, such as embedding a story within another story or “skipping” events in a flashforward. These patterns may resemble strategies or common situations in a game of Go. But while abstraction is important in narrative (and in its narratological study), narrative is—unlike Go—a representational practice through and through: it evokes characters, locations, and events that are in some significant way lifelike. Another way to put the same point is to say that the stakes of narrative depend on its representational content as well as its form; arguably, for some narrative audiences, the content (whether Jane Eyre marries Mr. Rochester or Walter White becomes a drug lord in Breaking Bad) is more important than the form. With abstract games like Go, only the formal patterns (strategies, positions, etc.) matter. Chess is an example of an abstract game that has a representational façade: in essence, chess represents a battle between two armies. But, ultimately, that representational dimension is secondary to the game: it doesn’t matter if the piece that moves diagonally is a bishop or an elephant (as in historical versions of chess); being a good chess player means understanding the abstract rules of the game. With Go, the representational element is even sparser. The game could be understood as a competition over territory, but there isn’t much more than that in terms of representation. So while games like Go foreground abstraction, narrative combines abstract patterns and representational content. Narratology is the study of those abstract patterns, but of course cannot afford to ignore the representational aspect of story.

R: What is immersion?

M: Immersion is a treacherous concept, and the fact that we have so many terms that seem interchangeable with it (absorption, engagement, flow, etc.) doesn’t help, either. But, in short, I would define immersion as a state of focused attention, in which we become intensely aware of a certain object, while losing awareness of our immediate physical surroundings. Depending on the object of attention, immersion can take multiple forms, which perhaps explains the diverse terminology.

R: How would you describe the relationship between “ludic” immersion in games and “narrative” immersion in, say, a novel? Would you even describe immersion in those terms?

M: We can be immersed in games like Go, in narrative, in music, or in many other activities. However, differences in the nature of these activities can lead to considerably different experiences of immersion. While playing Go, we become involved in the abstract patterning of moves and countermoves. There may be an emotional dimension to those patterns, but it seems to me (admittedly, without being a Go player) that the emotional gamut remains fairly limited: expectation, satisfaction, dejection, and so on. With narrative and music, we have a much broader range of emotional expression. These emotional values can give rise to immersive experiences in engaging with music and narrative: think about suspense, curiosity, or surprise (for narratologist Meir Sternberg, these are the emotional universals of narrative). Representation plays a much more significant role in narrative than it does in music, especially if we consider instrumental music, which has an emotional progression but no overt representational progression (at the level of what happens to whom). This has important implications for immersion, too, because being immersed in narrative means being transported to what we often describe as another “world.” With music, this is less often the case: the emotions register in our body, and they may well feel otherworldly, but the world being evoked is less clear-cut and particularized than the kinds of worlds opened up by narrative. With music, we’re transported to a purely emotional world, as opposed to the worlds of narrative, which have well-delineated physical characteristics and are inhabited by human-like individuals. This is in no way a ranking of immersive experiences, though! Subjective preferences are important, too. And, as I said before, these differences and nuances of immersion across various media and practices are perhaps the reason why we have so many different terms for experiences of focused attention.

R: Do we need stories to play games? Do we need games to experience stories?

M: The first question has occupied scholars in the field of game studies quite a bit, especially in the early 2010s. My preliminary answer is “no” to both questions. But it really depends on what you mean by “need.” Humans are storytelling animals—as well as animals that play. (Actually, human storytelling is far more unique in the animal world than play: many nonhuman animals play, only humans seem to have a language that is sophisticated enough for storytelling. Of course, games are not the same as play, but they have common roots. I digress, though.) We don’t need stories to play games, but because we are storytelling animals, we’re likely to reach for narrative in certain situations. Stories may well enrich our experience of games, or may make the rules of certain games more intelligible. Again, to return to chess, the representational façade (a battle between two armies) is not very important to the advanced player, but if you’re new to the game it may be useful to think about that military scenario, because it may help you grasp the differences between, say, a lowly pawn and a valuable rook. So turning the game into a narrative of sorts may have some advantages. I don’t think we need games to experience stories, but—again—games may offer a useful set of metaphors to understand, for instance, the “strategies” adopted by the author, or a particularly astute “gambit” performed by a literary writer.

R: What do you see on the horizons of narratology, particularly with respect to games?

M: I think video games are the most interesting medium from the perspective of the encounter between the abstract patterning of games and the representational dimension of story. Some video games are primarily abstract (think Tetris), others are mostly narrative, with very little interactivity. But between these extremes we find a vast landscape of games in which narrative coexists, productively, with game challenges. Narrative scholars such as Marie-Laure Ryan or, more recently, Dan Punday have already started developing a narratology of video games, but a lot remains to be done.

R: How would narratology make sense of a machine that could generate stories based on a Go game record?

M: I hate to be a killjoy here, but I doubt those would be interesting stories. You see, stories require a skilled storyteller, someone who knows the stakes of human action, can read the audience and anticipate their responses, manipulate their expectations, etc. A machine is no more likely to tell an interesting story than an intentionally funny joke. (“Intentionally” is important here, because, of course, a strange combination of events produced by a storytelling algorithm can be funny, but that humor isn’t deliberate.) By saying this I don’t want to shortchange the work of folks who are working on AI story generation, which I think is a fascinating endeavor—but I suspect its payoff is more theoretical than practical. Humans will always be the best storytellers, because story is intimately bound up with the physical, biological, and cognitive make-up of social animals like us.

R: What, exactly, is happening when we tell a story about a game? (I’m thinking about Yasunari Kawabata’s The Master of Go, or Shan Sa’s The Girl who Played Go).

M: I haven’t read those books, but I’m thinking of The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov, one of the best novels I know about chess… I would say that stories have the power to explore the social and cultural embedding of both concrete games and game-like metaphors. Nabokov’s novel probes the relationship between a professional chess player’s ludic pursuits and his emotional life—how the formal geometry of chess can help him manage anxieties that derive from a messy, socially complex, intimidating world. Unfortunately, it all goes awry. This is also a study in the potentially catastrophic ramifications of games, what happens when immersion borders on addiction. I happen to be watching The Wire at the moment, and “the game” is one of the most powerful metaphors for life in a world shaped by racial inequalities, brutal policing, and corruption. So this isn’t a show about a game, but a narrative that uses a game metaphor to convey the violent competitiveness of the illegal drug trade but also the characters’ powerlessness when it comes rewriting the rules of society.

R: From a narratological perspective, what is the most interesting game you’ve played? Is there something you think Go players can learn from it?

M: So many video games raise stimulating questions for narratology, but I want to mention Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds (2019) here. This is a time-loop game that asks the player to explore a small solar system in bursts of twenty-two minutes—before the sun explodes and the player is returned to square one. There is so much to uncover about this world and the stories of the extinct civilization that inhabited it, but unlocking these secrets requires precise timing, meticulous attention to detail, and willingness to start over countless times. I can think of no better lesson for a Go player.

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