Questing with the Witcher: A New Model for the Critical Analysis of Narrative Games


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date22 Nov 2021


This dissertation proposes a new model for the critical interpretation of narrative games. The question of the relationship between narrative and games has been a hot topic in the field of game studies since its inception (Aarseth 1997; Murray 1997) and the so-called ludology vs. narratology debate (Eskelinen 2001; Juul 2001; Aarseth 2004). This has pushed the study of narrative games to occupy an awkward middle-ground. On the one hand, while there has been much said about the design of narrative games (Jenkins 2004; Fernández-Vara 2011; Isbister 2016), the issue of critical interpretation has been left to languish, to the extent that even those scholars who are interested in interpreting the narratives of narrative games (Patterson 2015; Lucat 2017) rely on theories and models that ignore or dismiss narrative, notably Bogost’s (2008) procedural rhetoric. But how precisely do we go about analyzing the narrative of narrative games? There is a need for a more enduring and systematic approach to the criticism and interpretation of narrative games that allows us to gain a deeper understanding of them and the effects that they are having on how we live our lives.

Off of the back of an extended hermeneutic and ontological review of narrative games, this dissertation will propose the concept of the quest as a methodological tool for critical analysis. It will argue that the quest is a major meaning-making unit (Bogost 2006) in narrative games because it acts as the glue that binds non-narrative gameplay and narrative cinematics into contiguous and discrete sections (Howard 2008). Furthermore, as a discrete and identifiable unit, the quest serves as a practical approach to breaking otherwise enormous games into manageable chunks for analysis. Based on these theoretical and practical perspectives, this dissertation will develop the Questing Model for Narrative Game Analysis and Criticism, which will be utilized to perform an analysis of CDPR’s Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (Tomaszkiewicz et al 2015). We will conclude with some reflections on the applicability of the model in game studies and beyond.

The structure of the dissertation is as follows: chapter 1 will introduce and contextualize the thesis. Chapter 2 will then note that before criticism we need hermeneutics, the study of interpretation, in order to understand and ground our own critical standards. With the goal of generating the hermeneutical principles that will guide the rest of the study, we will conduct a review of the criticism and analysis of games in both popular and academic literature. Starting from the ludology vs. narratology debate, it will look at various models (Fernández-Vara 2009; Mukherjee 2015; Thabet 2015) for analyzing narrative games; game hermeneutics (Möring 2013; Arjoranta 2015) will be especially useful for us. At the end of the chapter we will have three hermeneutical principles with which to move forward.

Having defined our hermeneutical principles, the next stage of our critical project is to turn to the object of study itself. Therefore, the goal of chapter 3 will be: what is a narrative game? Combining literary studies (Metz 1974; Chatman 1978; Genette 1983) and game studies (Ryan 2006; Aarseth 2012), we shall offer a definition that identifies the quest as a defining feature of the narrative game. This will lead us to a deeper examination of the quest, in chapter 4, where we will compare the ludic quest (Tronstad 2001; Tosca 2003; Aarseth 2005) to its literary forebears (Campbell 1949; Frye 1957) to produce a definition and typology of the former.

Following this definitional groundwork, in chapter 5 we shall to deliver the Questing model. We operationalize the theories and definitions of previous chapters to derive several constituent “signpost” elements: events space, accessibility, time, characters, and limits. We discuss how these signpost elements point the way towards potential meaning, and examine in detail the different pathways for study and potential outcomes of each element. This will take us to chapter 6, where we put the model into action with an analysis of the Witcher 3. Using the Questing model, we will hypothesize that the Witcher 3 is a game that presents a complex picture of family, especially as regards to what constitutes good caregiving. We will systematically analyze different quests from the main storyline to demonstrate the validity of this point, drawing evidence from the game through our signpost elements to build our claims.

Finally, in chapter 7 we will conclude the dissertation by reviewing what we have written, reflecting on the implications of our research, and ruminating on implications for the future of narrative game analysis and game studies more broadly.