DeconstructionCraft: Contingency and Necessity in Narrative

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In this issue of DeconstructionCraft, we will be discussing contingency and necessity. In philosophy, a contingent element is anything that could have been a different way, whereas a necessary element is something that could not be any other way than it was.  In this universe, my existence is contingent, and this is because the universe would continue to exist without me though it would be different sans my existence. Conversely, gravity is considered to be necessary, in that, if it were any weaker or stronger our universe may never have formed. For our reality, then, my existence is contingent while gravity is necessary, but this distinction creates interesting discussion in literary analysis. In literature, one can think of a contingent element as the color of a room in which an event takes place, but color can also be necessary as well as is the color of the wall paper in The Yellow Wallpaper. Contingency and necessity, then, are not genres or classes of things, but rather, descriptions, adjectives, or explanations of a things relationship to the world around it relative to its own narrative. The contemporary video game acutely exemplifies the differences between contingency and necessity, but with the evolution of video games, there has been a renaissance surrounding the role narrative plays in the progression of a video game. Narrative is a multifaceted concept to which many approaches can be taken, but the video game renaissance has reintroduced and kindled the importance of discussion about contingency and necessity.

To encapsulate this distinction, we can look to some modern video games. For instance, in the Mass Effect series, it is a story of conflict, and in a story of conflict, there must be opposing forces of some sort. There must be a protagonist who overcomes the wiles and ill will of the antagonist to achieve catharsis for the reader and a reasonable conclusion in the story. To begin the series, it is necessary to create your Shepard by choosing amongst optional characteristics including male or female, facial features, class, special abilities, and history, but these traits have more impact on the way the player interacts with the game than their Shepard interacts with the story. Saren Arterius, the Collectors, the Reapers, and other lesser characters/factions interact with your Shepard antagonistically, and through this interaction, the narrative and overall story can progress, but how important are the natures of the characters compared to how important the conflict is? Stories of conflict require protagonists and antagonists, but how important are their natures from story to story? In one story, the appearance of the main protagonist may be necessary to telling the story, but in modern games that include the customization of sex, facial features, and race, it is impossible to say that the appearance could be necessary to a story. For instance, could the Reapers have been replaced by some other form of equally-powered antagonist without changing the Mass Effect world, and could Shepard have been written as an entirely different entity while still maintaining the story over the trilogy? These are all important questions considering the brevity of games and the desire for a good video game experience for the people playing them. Shepard and the Reapers, arguably, could be replaced with something else, and if one were to argue they cannot be replaced without ruining or having to recreate or rewrite the story, their natures can be changed while maintaining the story. The Mass Effect story does possess a necessary element though to compare and contrast with its contingent elements.

Throughout the Mass Effect trilogy, the Normandy is sine qua non to the progression of the story. Even without including EDI, the Normandy itself cannot be replaced by another ship without making the storyline impossible to move forward. If the Normandy were replaced with another ship that did not possess a stealth drive, then the Geth or Sovereign could easily have destroyed the ship during the very first mission of Mass Effect. Even if the ship or the crew were to survive Eden Prime, there would be no second or third installment because no ship besides the Normandy could survive the assault on Ilos. The name of the Normandy is contingent, but its nature and presence in the games is absolutely necessary. To exemplify this further, we can look to the RPG classic of Final Fantasy 7. In Final Fantasy 7, you have Cloud and Sephiroth acting as main protagonist and antagonist respectively, but beyond the epic conflict between these two, there is also the persistent presence and importance of Lifestream or Mako. The conflict between Cloud and Sephiroth is necessary for the story to progress, but their identities are generally contingent whereas Lifestream is necessary for the story to be told as it is. Without Lifestream, the story of Final Fantasy 7 must be almost entirely replaced or reworked. There would be no Soldiers, and without Materia, a product of Lifestream, Sephiroth could never summon Meteor. The natures, personalities, and characteristics of Cloud and Sephiroth, as exemplary as they were of their roles in the Final Fantasy 7, are contingent, but without Lifestream, the story of Final Fantasy 7 must become something entirely different.

There are video games in which one character is essentially, and paradoxically, both necessary and contingent to the progression of the story simultaneously. In games like Skyrim or Fallout, the nature of your character is contingent as it is in the Mass Effect series in terms of appearance, but the class is more important as it guides which guild or faction the player joins first though this is not yet as necessary as the Normandy is. If you combine this with the necessity of the interaction of the player with their avatar and the avatar with the story, a paradoxically contingent and necessary entity coalesces. Contrastingly, there are games in which your avatar is purely contingent rather than necessary with contingent aspects. In Battlefield 4 and other similar multiplayer games, your soldier is unique in the sense that you control its loadout and actions on the battlefield, but with death and respawns, the character as an entity is not unique. Also, because there is no story in multiplayer, beyond winning or achieving goals, there is no need for a protagonist of sorts. A protagonist has a certain role within a story as it is the character around which literary elements combine and occur. It is the protagonist who undergoes struggles, evolution, growth, and the development of their character and relationships, and it is the protagonist around whom the plot progresses, the story revolves, the conflict hinges, and it is through the protagonist the whole story is conveyed to the person that is experiencing the medium. Of course, there is conflict in the multiplayer of a shooter game, but it is a sort of conflict that does not require a literary protagonist/antagonist relationship to progress the storyline. Traditionally, multiplayer shooter matches are comprised of two teams of random members, and the only storyline, being generous with the term, is that there is a goal to be achieved such as reaching a certain kill count, dominating certain objectives, or capturing items. This storyline, however, is difficult to call a storyline because it does not possess any necessary elements in terms of main characters, and though from one player’s perspective they may be necessary to carry the team, from the overarching perspective, no single player is necessary for the game to happen. This is exactly why multiplayer shooter games are difficult to claim to have a storyline because the narrative of this genre of video game is replicable, repetitive, shallow(as a narrative), and ultimately, contingent.

Contingency and necessity are important in philosophy, and the distinction has been used to discuss topics as important as the metaphysics of our reality, the possibility of other universes, and for the existence of God such as is found in the Argument from Necessity by St. Thomas Aquinas. In literature, especially narrative, the distinction between contingency and necessity opens up useful discussion in analyzing a text. Since video games are comprised of many of the same elements as pieces of literature are as well as facets of modern interaction, the importance of the distinction between contingency and necessity becomes exponentially more important as the distinction is applied to more facets of any game. As a person begins to notice the contingency and necessity of various elements in the games they are playing, they can gain a deeper appreciation for the things that matter within a story as well as in elements of gameplay such as interaction with an avatar or the soundtrack accompanying a story. This goes beyond the player and their interaction with the game they are playing because it can also be applied pragmatically in a person’s life in that the education and practice a person gets with contingency and necessity through a video game has real world applications. Video games demonstrate an important philosophical concept, and because of this, perhaps video games are less contingent in our socio-cultural evolution than previously considered.

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