This paper discusses three games that are characterized by what I call “epistolary architecture,” showing how the games use their spatial distribution of communicative acts to subvert the common videogame trope of the unseen woman. In his essay “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” Henry Jenkins outlines how some games distribute narrative progression across space rather than time, so that arrival at a particular location will trigger an event in the game’s story. Gone Home (2013) and Dear Esther (2012) use similar techniques, but to markedly different effect, by distributing subjective accounts of the past (external to the timeframe of the gameplay) around the game space by way of letters, recordings, and other messages. Bientôt L’été (2013) inverts this scenario. In it, a player walks along a seashore, receiving linguistic fragments brought in by the waves, then later rearticulates these into fractured conversations with another player in a remote location. Each of these games, in its own way, problematizes the trope of the unseen woman, which I argue has been a structuring principle in videogames for decades. In general, the unseen woman has been a destination, the endpoint of a quest and thus fundamentally outside the world of the gameplay. The epistolary architecture of Gone Home, Dear Esther, and Beintôt L’été is fundamental to the games’ ability to subvert this principle. Conversely, each game uses the figure of the unseen woman to complicate the player’s relationship to its story and its setting.

Notes

1.

Henry Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” in First Person, ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 122. The relationship between gameplay and storytelling troubled early video game theory, leading to debate over which (if either) was the defining characteristic of the medium. In this influential essay, Jenkins suggests narrative architecture as a way to reconcile gameplay with storytelling, and as a way to rethink the roles that fictional spaces play in narrative, no matter the medium.

2.

More information about the games and their developers is available on their respective websites. Gone Home: www.gonehomegame.com; Dear Esther: //dear-esther.com; Bientôt L’été: //tale-of-tales.com/bientotlete.

3.

Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” 126.

4.

This is not to say that female characters never have important or vocal roles in mainstream video games, for they do, especially in the last decade or so. Samus Aran, the protagonist of the Metroid series (1986–), is a relatively early example, though the revelation that she is female is unfortunately sexualized. The more efficiently a player finishes the first game, the more armor Samus removes at the end. The “best” ending has her in a bikini. More recent, and less problematic, examples include the photojournalist Jade in Beyond Good and Evil (Ubisoft, 2002), the rebellious test subject Chell from the Portal series (Valve, 2007–), and the budding survivalist Ellie from The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013). Each of these characters is active in determining her fate and reshaping her situation, and each game refuses to simplify the roles that gender relations can play in such a struggle. For an extensive discussion of the marginalized roles that women have historically occupied in video games, cf. the ongoing video essay series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games (Anita Sarkeesian, 2013-).

5.

Joe Bray, The Epistolary Novel: Representations of Consciousness (London: Routledge, 2003), 16.

6.

Roberta Rubenstein, Home Matters: Longing and Belonging, Nostalgia and Mourning in Women's Fiction (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 1.

7.

Lora Romero, Home Fronts: Domesticity and Its Critics in the Antebellum United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 78.

8.

Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” 126.

9.

Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 16.

10.

Note that such a tone predates this Duras homage for the gamemakers. Bientôt L’été was created by a Belgian game developer called Tale of Tales. Their best-known previous work is The Graveyard (2008), a minimalist game in which the player controls an elderly woman as she slowly walks across a graveyard.

11.

Cf. Warren Buckland, Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), and Jason Mittell “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” The Velvet Light Trap 58, no. 1 (2006): 29–40. In each case, complexity not only enriches the text but also turns viewers’ minds to the act of the text's creation. The epistolary novel and the video game achieve something similar without the narrational convolutions of complex visual storytelling.

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