When it comes to planning for her modules, Dr. Jiaying Sim, assistant professor from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS), is always on the lookout for ways to make her lessons applicable for students beyond the classroom. Together with HSS Department Chair, Shanthina Ravindran, one way they do so is by expanding on the predetermined syllabus and including more relevant content for the students.
Last trimester, Jiaying’s module ENG 410 on Interactive Storytelling — which has since been renamed to UXG 4642 — was no exception. UXG 4642 equips students with the skills to analyze and create stories using symbolic language — drawing from a variety of theoretical models, such as Carl Jung’s dream analysis, Myers-Briggs personality profiling, Gestalt psychology, and narrative architecture.
In this module, students are required to submit a mid-term essay that assesses their ability to analyze narratives in games, films, or other approved interactive narrative texts. Having run UXG 4642 multiple times since 2019, Jiaying wanted to encourage her students to think about how their essays could be applicable outside the classroom. Since she was already aware of the Game Developers Conference (GDC) Student Narrative Analysis Competition, she seized the opportunity by reaching out to GDC for application information. “I wanted students to have a sense of ownership in their writing that was not only determined by grades or module requirements, and I realized that the GDC competition was a perfect fit,” Jiaying says.
Throughout the trimester, students explored different topical theories related to interactive storytelling. Seeing that games are a multidisciplinary medium, students were introduced to methods of close-reading literary text before moving on to film form and style, as well as other audio-visual text. “This process helps students to become sensitive to identifying how stories are told differently depending on the medium, and to have a good sense of what disciplines games make use of,” she says.
Narrative analysis is an important skill to have, as it goes beyond just what a story is about. Instead, it is about critical thinking and developing the ability to identify and explain how a story is told, the strategies and structures that make it a compelling story, and how its text encourages or discourages engagement and immersion in its world. By honing this critical eye, students are able to glean more insight from the best stories out there, understand why something works, and apply it to their own creative practices and the way they relate to the world.
By the end of the module, students had the opportunity to put theory into practice. In preparation for the GDC essays, students first submitted an outline about the game they had chosen, the interactive storytelling elements they wanted to focus on, and a detailed outline of the examples they would address in the narrative text. The essays ultimately identified and analyzed three ways in which the game text adopted interactive storytelling elements, and how well the game communicated its theme and achieved its aims.
As part of the writing process, students also had to research the game’s genre, developers, and other key personnel behind the game. All this was followed by a consultation session with Jiaying, who worked with students to refine their initial ideas as they started writing their first drafts. Students were then made to exchange their writing with a peer as they went through a guided peer-review process. This was a way for students to learn how to assess a good piece of writing and how to improve their own. After another round of feedback, students made their final changes before submitting their essays to the GDC competition.
BS in Computer Science and Game Design student Chang Zhen Loh chose to write his paper on Hollow Knight. He was drawn to the game’s theme of finding and following one’s purpose in life through the storytelling element of character identification, which clicked well with what he had learned in the module. He was especially intrigued by Hollow Knight’s unconventional narrative, whereby the main character starts off nameless and without any identity or origin. “Games often center the story and viewpoint around the playable character so that players will naturally identify with them,” Chang Zhen says. “However, Hollow Knight’s playable character is silent and passive, thus inviting the player to instead identify with various side characters and their different perspectives.”
Fellow gold winner, BA in Game Design student Abigail Sng, chose to do a deep dive on the narrative elements in visual novel Fatal Twelve. The game’s respectful handling of sensitive topics such as personal identity and familial abuse stood out to her, and she appreciated how nuanced the writing was. “Fatal Twelve follows a cast of characters who have died but must compete against each other for another chance to live again,” Abigail says. “The main idea of my essay centered around how empathy can be a stronger weapon than any sort of violence in the face of dire circumstances.” In her analysis, Abigail explored how the game’s characters assert their identities as they acknowledge and grow past their mistakes and flaws. In doing so, they maneuver difficult situations while learning kindness, empathy, and self-forgiveness — taking ownership of circumstances that were beyond their control. “Fatal Twelve boasts a narrative that contains themes I believe very few writers are brave enough to talk about, much less pull off well,” Abigail says.
Chang Zhen and Abigail found out about their wins through email. Needless to say, both students were very excited. “Getting to GDC was something I thought I would not experience until at least five years later, yet here I am with a complimentary expo pass,” Chang Zhen says. “Most importantly, I’m glad that I could apply what I learned from Dr. Sim’s classes in an award-winning analysis essay.”
In Abigail’s case, she is proud that she managed to win gold by analyzing a game that she is passionate about. “Fatal Twelve is not a game with the most complex mechanics or even a large budget,” she says. “I hope that future contestants can see my analysis and be inspired to write about these lesser-known games — sensitive themes included — without feeling ashamed about sharing their passion for them.”
All gold winners are given free GDC passes and the chance to display their analyses on posters at the conference’s Game Narrative Summit. Due to travel restrictions because of COVID-19, both Chang Zhen and Abigail attended the expo virtually instead.
In addition to the two award recipients from DigiPen (Singapore), five students from DigiPen’s Redmond campus also received gold winner honors.
DigiPen Institute of Technology Singapore Gold Winners
DigiPen Institute of Technology Gold Winners