Extraludic narratives: Online communities and video games

Sky LaRell Anderson

Denison University, Granville, Ohio, United States

[0.1] AbstractThe role of online community is central to the process of understanding game narratives. Given a tension in game narrative theory, a solution to that tension is the stories that players tell of their own game-play experiences. This analysis of the rhetorical dimension of telling game-play stories as part of a communal experience seeks to illuminate the intersections of game narrative, community, and rhetoric. The rhetorical dimensions of players' personal game narratives and online community building coalesce as a phenomenon unique to how video games influence community construction through the sharing of personal game-play experiences. Using symbolic convergence theory, I examine the personal game-play experiences found on an online community for the game Dark Souls (From Software, 2011), revealing how extraludic narratives function rhetorically to solve the tension between player agency and game narrative.

[0.2] KeywordsDark Souls; Fantasy theme analysis; Narrative; Online community; Reddit; Symbolic convergence theory

Anderson, Sky LaRell. 2018. "Extraludic Narratives: Online Communities and Video Games." In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Since the inception of game studies as an interdisciplinary field, researchers have attempted to theorize the nature of narrative in video games (Koenitz et al. 2013), specifically examining how games tell stories. As Koenitz (2014) argues, legacy media narrative theories cannot explain how interactivity changes how storytelling functions in digital media. These studies speak to narrative theories born from literature and new media studies while also forging ahead by describing how games tell stories differently than, say, books, films, or television. For instance, games researchers in the mid-2000s established foundational conversations about game narrative's relationship to simulation (Frasca 2003; Aarseth 2004), how games entail both narrative and nonnarrative experiences (Juul 2005), how game stories exemplify queer narrative theory (Chess 2016), and how game narrative might need to be renamed in the face of its different methods of storytelling (Murray 2004). The field of game studies must develop its own theories to explain the phenomena, both rhetorical and otherwise, taking place in games, game play, and player interactions (Anderson 2014). Among these and other conversations regarding video game stories exists a tension between interactivity, which grants agency to players to alter in-game narratives, and the narrative as constructed by the game designers (note 1). The tension can best be summarized in the question: Can a game tell a story if players may influence/interact with it? To engage with this tension, this study explores the narratives that emerge from games yet still exist outside of them entirely, which is something more in line with the theories of transmedia storytelling or of paratexts, both media theories wherein narratives exist across several media forms (note 2).

[1.2] Without examining the tensions among narrative, interactivity, and community, game scholars ignore the rhetorics emerging from the everyday experience of game play. This study responds to the need to holistically investigate narrative and community as they exist in the actual experiences of players and by doing so exposes the necessary relationship between two often disparate concepts in game studies. Within the vast array of theories surrounding video game narrative, less attention is given to the role of players' personal stories of playing games and what functions those personal game-play experiences fulfill as players collectively retell them. The purpose of this study is to investigate the rhetorical dimension of telling game-play stories as part of a communal experience in order to illuminate the intersections of game narrative, community, and rhetoric. Players' personal game narratives and online community building coalesce as a phenomenon unique to how video games influence community construction. Specifically, players' personal game-play experiences act to solve the tension between the agency of the storyteller—the game—and the agency of the interactant—the player—by inviting players to act as both storyteller and interactant at the same time within the online community space. Using symbolic convergence theory as a method, the study targets the fantasy themes that emerge from the personal game-play experiences of the online community for the game Dark Souls (From Software, 2011).

[1.3] This study reveals how the game narratives told outside of games, what I call extraludic narratives, function rhetorically to demarcate communal experiences. In other words, the study focuses on how the fantasy themes of video game players lead to a shared external game-play narrative understanding as mediated through an online community. After briefly describing the theoretical conversations already taking place regarding online communities and how they operate, I discuss some methodological considerations before delving into a description of my findings. The article follows a report-analyze structure in the final two sections, with section 4 dedicated to reporting findings with little analysis or concern for other literature. The findings include brief descriptions of four fantasy themes discovered in the study, namely tales of defeat, tales of victory, tales of admiration, and tales of community. Section 5 then proposes extraludic narrative as a term to describe the phenomenon described in section 4, how it acts as an intervention into game narrative theory, and how it interacts with the salient literature on the subject. I explain how these fantasy themes constitute extraludic narratives, and I describe how this type of narrative solves the theoretical tension between game narrative and interactivity. As part of that discussion, I delve further into the literature outlining that tension in order to fully explicate my theoretical intervention: that extraludic narrative gives agency to players as both interactants and storytellers.

2. Online communities and Dark Souls

[2.1] Research on online communities arose from the study of computer-mediated communication as a distinct form of interpersonal and organizational communication. Hiltz and Turoff began this turn in online research with their 1978 book The Network Nation, which was subsequently reprinted in 1993. Since then, researchers have adapted a variety of methodologies and examined an increasing number of case studies in order to further understand the nature of online communities. For instance, Gurak's (1997) fundamental book Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace introduced a rhetorical approach to studying online protests and the communities those protests both created and represented. Gurak highlights how the shared values and communal spaces of physical communities translate to online contexts wherein shared values might be hidden behind anonymous users and where communal spaces are virtual instead of physical. She also showcases the speed, availability, and accessibility of online communication and how those variables trouble traditional notions of community inasmuch as they compare to other mediated communities. In a sense, online communication facilitates the creation of communities more so than any other medium: call-in radio shows or letters to the editor in newspapers cannot match the sheer numbers and speed of online communication. The internet's characteristics change how communities begin, transform, and operate, and this phenomenon suggests that a study of an online communal space, such as the Dark Souls online community, requires novel approaches to understanding community-building communication.

[2.2] Given the numbers and varied makeup of online communities, case studies have become the norm when examining the subject. Smith and Kollock's (1999) edited book on online communities tackles a wide range of cases, including Usenet discussions, online economies, online protests, and conflicts on MUDs (multiuser dungeons). Each study focuses on how the characteristics of online communication influence how communities function differently than a group that operates in a physical location. One specific direction researchers have taken to study the internet's unique influence on communities is that of fandom and audiences, as demonstrated by Baym's (2000) book Tune In, Log On. Targeting the online community for fans of soap opera television programs, Baym investigates the structures of fandom in terms of how they create communities in an environment where anonymity, speed of use, geographical accessibility, and large quantities of content combine to influence every area of fandom.

[2.3] Online communities born from games and players are not uncommon, and the nature of games invites participative cultures, given the interactive nature of game play: players may discuss topics that breach both fandom and content creation, such as game strategies and personal experiences playing games. Work on massively multiplayer online games seems to be the most natural entry point to studying the online communities for games inasmuch as the online community exists within the game itself as well as on internet forums. For instance, Taylor (2006), Pulos (2013), and Pearce and Boellstorff (2011) all study massively multiplayer online games as a means of discussing online communities. The study of off-line games through the lens of online community offers novel insights into the relationship between games and players, such as Adams's (2016) exploration of the Super Smash Bros.(Masahiro Sakurai, 1999) online community. This article explores these possible insights through a study of Dark Souls given that the game exists both online and off-line, thus exposing it to a variety of communication opportunities in an online forum.

[2.4] The primary intervention of this study, however, comes amid the theoretical tension between games as storytellers and players as interactants. Among these conversations, agency to tell a story oscillates between the storyteller—in this instance, a game—and the interactive participants—namely, the players. The more agency that interactants possess, the less agency the storyteller has to construct the narrative. It is here that online communities and the stories they tell as fans and game players combine to solve this tension. By targeting an online game community and identifying the types of stories they tell about their game play, I aim to tease out how sharing personal stories of game play functions rhetorically to create a shared game-play experience within the community.

[2.5] The Dark Souls online community exemplifies features like many other online fan communities found on internet forums—text posting, storytelling, images, jokes, news, and events—and these features make the Dark Souls community a practical site of analysis for discovering the intersections of community, communication, and narrative. But to understand the community, one must have a working knowledge of the game around which the community is built. As a Japanese-made, Western-fantasy role-playing game, Dark Souls is one of the more eclectic games to break into popular gaming culture. A spiritual successor to the only somewhat successful 2009 game Demon's Souls(From Software), Dark Souls sprang onto the market in 2011 on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game consoles with a successful word-of-mouth campaign lauding its entertaining difficulty and deeply ambiguous lore. It was later ported to the PC gaming market in 2012. For a game with supposedly only niche appeal, it sold remarkably well, with sales totaling over 2.3 million copies worldwide (Phillips 2013), and its influence on gaming culture is just as astounding as its success. The game draws heavily on Western European fantasy and lore, including knights, swords, dragons, ancient castles, and magic. The game's protagonist is a character of the player's creation who has been cursed as an undead warrior, and death often comes easily as the player explores the open world. Repeatedly dying while attempting to defeat difficult enemies is the game's defining mechanic, and the story only emerges through bits and pieces of dialogue and item descriptions.

[2.6] The story of Dark Souls is indefinite and the world's lore is similarly obfuscated in item descriptions, in-game architecture, and cryptic interactions with nonplayable characters. The motif of ambiguity continues in the game's multiplayer system. Dark Souls is a single-player game with online, multiplayer components such as cooperative play, player-versus-player fighting, and a hint system. Unlike other games wherein accessible voice or text chat systems facilitate communication between players, Dark Souls limits player-to-player communication to two methods: players may post hints to each other using prewritten phrases that appear on the ground (figure 1), and characters may gesture to each other—pointing, bowing, and so on—when playing in the same world.

An armored character carrying a sword and shield stands in front of a set of glowing, runic text on a stone floor. Another similar set of glowing runes lies on a stairway in the upper right. The menu at the bottom of the screen depicts the A button, followed by the action "Read message."

Figure 1. A character in Dark Souls stands over a glowing orange symbol with the instruction "A: Read message." Orange-and-black etchings denote a message left by another player by utilizing prewritten phrases such as "Be wary" and "Chest ahead." Screenshot, August 1, 2018.

[2.7] Given the ambiguous narrative and limited in-game communication between players—a fundamental model for the game's allure, as argued by Vella (2015)—it is no wonder that an online community arose to allow players to discuss lore, share their interpretations of the game's story, ask for help, and post their own tales of traversing the game's unforgiving landscape. Users have long turned to online forums as a place to share their personal stories (Høybye, Johansen, and Tjørnhøj-Thomsen 2005; Nimrod 2010), and this community presents an opportunity to study a game's player-to-player communication outside the game itself as constituted in an online space. Dark Souls communities exist on various places online, including,,, and other websites. But one site links the others together in a somewhat comprehensive fan forum: Reddit acts as a gateway to other internet content while including an increasing emphasis on its own communities (Singer et al. 2014). Reddit is a link aggregator website, but it also includes what are called subreddits that focus discussions and link sharing around particular topics. Community members create and maintain these forums, and the subreddit for Dark Souls is where over 141,000 community members gather to write, discuss, and share anything and everything regarding Dark Souls. Other specific subreddits exist for the game's sequels, Dark Souls II (2014) and Dark Souls III (2016), and so the community of r/darksouls maintains a strong emphasis on the original game. Even six years after its initial release, the game attracts a passionate following of players who continue to build the community. This particular site was chosen for the study given the ability to easily share text posts along with a rich comment system, which allows for conversations and storytelling. R/darksouls is where online communities, communication, and community building rhetoric combine around discussions of game-play stories.

3. Methodological considerations

[3.1] Symbolic convergence theory (SCT) guides the study's methods because of its emphasis on the creation of social realities through the sharing of stories. SCT is "a general theory of rhetoric in which groups create and share fantasies about the group […] and thereby build a shared identity" (Duffy 2003, 293). In other words, group members create a social reality through the rhetoric of storytelling, the social reality being a "shared understanding of the group and what it means to be a member" (293). Bormann (1972) crafted SCT when he discovered the tendency of group members to "dramatize their experiences through the sharing of stories" (Simmons 2014, 120–21). These stories are what Bormann calls fantasy themes, and when these narratives resonate with the group, members tend to repeat and add to them. Bormann (1981) labeled the process of expanding fantasy themes among the group as a fantasy chain forming a rhetorical vision. Put simply, the stories shared by group members that dramatize their personal experiences are fantasy themes, and rhetorical visions form out of these stories when they resonate with group members to the point of expanding and maintaining them. SCT is particularly useful for studying online groups because of how fantasy themes often exist "in a setting removed in space and time from the here-and-now transactions of the group" (Bormann 1972, 397), and several researchers have proven as much with their investigations into online communication using SCT as a method.

[3.2] In terms of applying SCT as a method of analysis, Bormann (1977) remarks that the main concern lies with finding repetition of themes inasmuch as "repetition is evidence of symbolic convergence" (6). This study concerns itself with the Dark Souls online community as found on r/darksouls, and though such themes might crop up in the form of images, memes, jokes, videos, or other forms of online content, for the sake of making this study manageable in the face of thousands upon thousands of possible data points, I limited my data collection to the text-based stories shared by group members. SCT's focus is on the rhetoric of communities and storytelling, wherein rhetoric is the meaning produced through discourse (note 3), and as such r/darksouls best fits the utility of the method. To select which posts to analyze for this study, I used a search algorithm to find and sort text posts—meaning the search function allowed the ability to search for just text posts without a need to give a keyword or phrase for which to search. I selected any post that told a story, operationalized as an instance wherein a user explained a personal game-play experience, and I then read the collected posts to find repetition of themes. As a final note, the methodological approach of this study does not necessitate attributing direct quotes from posts to their original authors, and all of the quoted material is easily discovered online through search engines.

4. Fantasy themes

[4.1] Given the number and variety of text posts on r/darksouls, it was surprising to find a high level of coherence among the themes discovered. Four specific themes emerged from the posts, and these themes structured almost every text post in one form or another. Some posts exhibited all four themes, while others, especially the shorter posts of only a sentence or two, exhibited only one. The forum posts in this section are exemplary of the posts examined. The following are descriptions of the themes, and I briefly discuss each in order to clarify how these themes act as stories about stories. Application for how these stories function as extraludic narratives follows in the final section.

[4.2] I call the first theme "tales of defeat, struggle, and learning." A central feature of Dark Souls is the frequent deaths that occur, always accompanied by large, ominous words appearing on a dark background: "YOU DIED." Progressing through a particularly challenging area or defeating a difficult enemy might take several dozen deaths in order to learn how to overcome the challenge. For instance, imposing and game-halting enemies called bosses often require players to fight them many times, die, restart at the last checkpoint, and start again in order to learn how the boss moves, which actions might precede an attack, and which strategies work better against the boss than others. With this game mechanic in place, the stories told on r/darksouls describe players' experiences of facing frequent defeat and struggling to learn how to progress in the game.

[4.3] For example, one player wrote about an attempt to pass by large archers who shoot arrows at the player's character while ascending a precarious precipice, stating "12 attempts later, loosing [sic] 35k souls and all of my soft humanity, I get by those God forsaken archers." However, before the player could reach the next checkpoint, he died by accidentally starting a fight with another character. Another poster wrote of one particular difficult boss fight: "Then the majority of my day was spent fighting them. I died so many times with either Super Smough or Super Ornstein with like 1/5 health. I've never been so pissed off at a game." In these players' personal stories of defeat, they emphasized how difficult or unforgiving the game is. One poster wrote, "Awestruck, I kept invading…and kept getting backstabbed. 2 seconds into the fight. Every time. If I survived the first one then I got backstabbed again." The same poster later wrote, "Words cannot express my disappointment." Yet another poster described an experience facing challenging enemies: "The royal sentinels then proceeded to turn my guy into shishkebab [sic]. Human-ed up again proceeded to kill the royal sentinels only to fail and be squished by a shield and stabbed. That was the time I decided to put down the game for a while and went to sleep." The stories targeted the difficulty of defeat within the context of players' own experiences, as if the defeat were personal. In their stories, players were the ones being defeated, not their characters.

[4.4] However, stories about challenging parts of the game also tended to include instances where players learned how to improve, meaning that players related their stories as moments of personal growth. After dying repeatedly in one boss fight, one player related: "But something strange happened. I was actually whittling away at their HP this time. 'It's just a fluke, I'm not actually going to kill them this run, just keep on dodging and staying at full health,' I said to myself. So I did." Another poster told of learning to defeat the final boss of the game: "I had tried a good 15 times to beat him. I have pyromancy skills and I should have won much quicker, but I kept panicking. So tonight, genuinely half cut on some red wine I was able to actually relax. I kept rolling, kept burning the bugger." The fantasy theme of defeat and learning reaffirms how players, as a part of community involvement, tell stories about their game-play stories, always within the context of their own lived experience. These stories are not stories of fictional characters: the players themselves are the ones struggling and learning.

[4.5] I title the second theme "tales of victory." Tales of victory tended to appear in stories about Dark Souls' bosses, but some reference difficult areas of the game with more common enemies as well. Every time players check in at a checkpoint, all of the common enemies reappear regardless of whether they were defeated previously or not. That means that every time the player's character dies and every time the player finds a new checkpoint, the player must fight through the same enemies over and over. However, once defeated, bosses do not reappear, and their defeat brings several rewards: the bright, golden words "VICTORY ACHIEVED" and a large amount of the game's currency, which allows players to strengthen their character. Given the large number of times players tend to fail during boss fights, it is not surprising to see stories on r/darksouls that relate their experiences with victory.

[4.6] After a long fight with a difficult boss, one player described the experience: "Then I saw an unfamiliar animation. He started glowing white! Oh shit he has that PBAoE thing that the royal guards had too?! I had my guy wear his shield and pressed L1 hoping that I'd make the block in time…'VICTORY ACHIEVED.'" A myriad of other posts include short but expressive statements that accompany their longer stories of struggle: "I finally beat dark souls." "I'm glad I was able to finally finish this game." "The big brute falls and I feel great!" "Finally, this evening, I beat the final boss." "I was able to kill Ornstein and finally I killed Super Smough." Other stories express the personal satisfaction that players feel when they overcome a particularly difficult challenge, such as one player who wrote, "The demon fell to our blade and we rejoiced to no end. It was the most satisfying moment I've had in a Souls game for a long time." As evident through these and other posts, players often used r/darksouls to not only express frustration but also to gather as a community to share personal victories. Their stories always emphasize their personal narratives and the deeply affective experience of overcoming a great challenge, albeit a virtual one.

[4.7] The third theme is "tales of admiration and appreciation." Being a fan-based community, it is expected to see participants on r/darksouls express admiration for a game that they enjoy so much that they spend time with an online community dedicated to it. While it is not required on Reddit, users may subscribe to particular subreddits in order to regularly see their content. Every subscriber to r/darksouls had to purposefully click the subscribe button, and with over 100,000 subscribers, r/darksouls has a vibrant community given the game's release five years ago. However, a subscription is not required to participate on the subreddit fully, meaning that users can post and comment on the subreddit without having to subscribe to it first. This feature implies that there are probably even more fans of the game who participate on r/darksouls than the initial subscriber number of 141,000 would suggest. Perhaps the subreddit continues to attract users because of the game's way of creating personal stories out of the game play, and further glimpses at that personal engagement with the game emerge from users' praise for the game.

[4.8] Admiration for the game includes praise for its atmosphere, level design, combat, and other game features, but users' appreciation tends to stem from their personal stories when playing the game. One user wrote, "I never knew how much I would grow to love it. It was one of the best experiences I've ever had with a video game…The game always had me wondering what the hell was going to happen next." Another user described the experience of finding the game engaging from the very start of the game-play story: "I want to say that I have now put 47 hours into this game. I knew I was hooked when I was facing the bell gargoyles and my sunbro and some amazing random helped me take them down. Couldn't get enough." Users express how their personal journey with the game has changed their outlook on gaming itself, such as when another user posted, "I am totally spoiled by Dark Souls now. I play other games and find them poorly designed or just plain to [sic] easy. Damn you dark souls." Yet another example of a user describing how Dark Souls has changed his or her perception of gaming comes in a post that states: "I loved loved loved this game. I am 34 and I remember some seriously tough games (fuck you Battletoads), but this experience reminds me why I love games so much…Thanks for everything ds [Dark Souls]!" One user even described how the experience of playing Dark Souls helped with depression:

[4.9] I've found Dark Souls to be one of the most therapeutic games that I've ever played. Yeah. The atmosphere of it is bleak and getting wrecked by a boss or an area over and over again can be really demoralizing but you keep going and you keep getting wrecked…until you figure out how not to get wrecked. The moment where you figure out how not to get wrecked and then manage to take the knowledge to emerge victorious is so amazingly uplifting.

[4.10] Throughout the majority of the posts in which users praise the game, the praise arises from users' personal stories of engaging with the game. Users tell of when they faced a challenging enemy, found a beautiful area, or discovered another piece of cryptic lore, and these experiences lead users to offer their admiration and appreciation for the game as a method of creating and maintaining the online community.

[4.11] I title the final theme "tales of community." Users described the Dark Souls community itself, whether found on r/darksouls or when playing the optional cooperative or competitive mode of the game in which other players online may interact with each other, albeit without any form of online chat. Foremost, users on r/darksouls see the online community as a vital part of their personal game-play experience, and this fact arises in their personal game-play stories.

[4.12] Though this theme is not nearly as voluminous as the other themes in terms of pure word count, it tended to appear often while users were describing their experiences as a justification for their storytelling behavior. For instance, one user briefly mentioned the felt need to communicate with the rest of the Dark Souls community: "I have really enjoyed this lurking on this sub so thought I would post my experience going through Anor Londo and the many mistakes I made (SL60)." Similarly, another user wrote "I just had to tell someone and I figured this sub would understand." Other posters would follow a similar structure, referencing the community on r/darksouls as a caveat at the end of their posts to justify sharing their personal experiences: "I just wanted to share it with this awesome community" or "Anyway, wanted to share my little story with you all." When not addressing the specific r/darksouls community, users wrote about the Dark Souls community as a whole, with phrasing such as, "It just shows how awesome a fanbase this game has." Other posts showed appreciation for the larger Dark Souls community by thanking specific players whom users encountered while playing the game online.

[4.13] For example, one user thanked an anonymous player for helping by saying, "Mo0nE, you're awesome man," and another user wrote, regarding the many other players encountered in the game online, "and that people on the internet can actually be genuinely nice, without knowing how much they improved my play through." While rarer, some users dedicated a significant space in their posts to describe their appreciation for the community as a whole:

[4.14] There are a TON of people who choose to ignore the "meta," and thank god for them. I've seen them in the Forest, at the Township, in Anor Londo (crazy stuff happening in Anor Londo), at the Kiln, in the Archives. Just the other day we had an honest to goodness fight club going, in the Forest of all places. Great fights, great people.

[4.15] These posts indicate how the members and players in the Dark Souls community form an integral part of the personal stories of r/darksouls users. Either the participation of other users and players justifies their purpose for posting by being an active audience or the other community members actively engage in users' personal game-play experiences.

5. Extraludic narratives and the tension of game storytelling agency

[5.1] The empirical evidence presented in the previous section, if summarized, is that players tell stories about their own game-play experiences, and the specific game-play stories on r/darksouls revolve around four fantasy themes: defeat, victory, admiration, and community. The specific details of the types of themes are significantly less important than the fact that the more motivating game narratives take place in players' own lived experiences. In order to connect existing literature to the phenomenon described in the previous section, I detail in this final section how extraludic narratives intervene into the nature of game narrative theory. Before such an intervention can take place, a further explanation of the term extraludic narrative is needed.

[5.2] The fantasy themes in r/darksouls point to their narrative origins, but, unlike other communities, the stories are about stories. For this reason, I propose the term extraludic narrative to theorize the nature of game narratives as they exist outside of gaming fiction. Note that extraludic narrative is not fan fiction; extraludic narrative consists of the storytelling that takes place about game-play stories, and it exists as a unique phenomenon to games inasmuch as gamers play out their own stories in a way unlike any other media form. In this study, players shared their personal stories as they emerged from their game play of Dark Souls, and these stories about game stories provided the fantasy themes that form the community of r/darksouls. Unlike transmedia storytelling, the phenomenon of telling a story across various media platforms, extraludic narrative specifically describes game narratives experienced by players in their personal lives. It is a theoretical construction to describe game narrative outside of the diegetic world of the games being played.

[5.3] Perhaps a corollary example of a similar media theory might best explain the relationship between extraludic narrative and more traditional notions of game narrative. During the time when media scholars began serious examinations of television, many used the media analysis framework established in film studies wherein the subject of investigation stemmed from theories of framing, camera, audiovisual story, plot, auteur theory, and other concepts that describe cinema. Given the similarities between television programming and films, scholars used film theory as a basis for theorizing about television. However, Williams (1974) suggested that the dual functions of time and story operate differently for television than for movies, proposing the term flow to describe how televisions are turned on and left on to operate in the background of everyday life. Television programs flowed into commercials, which flowed into other programs, and therefore by targeting the contextual nature of television—as existing as a part of a home environment—Williams directed scholarly attention toward a more salient characteristic of television divorced from the theories established by film scholars. It should be noted that film scholars accomplished something similar when establishing theory distinct from literature studies, and with the advent and popularity of any novel media form, writers must grapple with creating language that more appropriately describes the nature of that medium.

[5.4] Similarly, extraludic narrative directs the conversation about game narratives, which has hitherto operated as a means of talking about game characters, plots, and interactivity, toward the more pertinent aspect of games' stories: the personal stories by players about their game-play experiences. The term stems from the Latin word ludus, meaning play/game, and the prefix extra-, meaning outside or beyond. However, it specifically focuses on players' stories about in-game narrative experiences, such as a character's actions or encounters in the game. For example, extraludic narrative includes times when players talk about their actions controlling characters in an online multiplayer shooting game, but it does not describe the various other things players might have done during that time, like eating dinner. Extraludic narrative is extra or beyond only so much as these stories are beyond the limits of the narrative on the screen and instead exist within the lived experiences of players interacting with digital stories. While traditional notions of game narrative emphasize the stories of fictional characters in a game world, extraludic narrative showcases the lived narrative experience of players as they engage with the game world.

[5.5] It is here that my intervention in the form of extraludic narratives—as described from the evidence found on r/darksouls—connects to the most salient literature on the nature of video game narrative theory. One of the primary benefits of extraludic narrative as a theoretical construct is that it accounts for the problem of player agency, given the interactive nature of the medium. The tension between interactivity and narrative has often been debated by scholars since the recent cultural relevance of games. Koenitz (2014) best summarizes this tension as one of agency, "namely about the role of the author [of the narrative] and the fixed state of content and the structure as the audience takes on an active role and the narratives become more malleable" (91). How can narrative exist if the audience—in this case, players—can shape it? Cameron (1995) vehemently opposes the notion that narrative and interactivity are compatible, and he argues that narrative is fundamentally opposed to interactivity. He claims that narrative is situated in the past, it is linear, and it is presented from a single, implied narrator, and interactivity contradicts each of these points; interactivity takes place in the present, it can take any number of directions to several different conclusions, and it is cocreated by the reader/player/user and the program/game/book. According to this argument, there is no such thing as an interactive narrative, just a poorly executed narrative. Crawford (2003) takes a slightly more forgiving stance, calling the narrative form of interactivity—video games—juvenile at the current moment (current meaning 2003), but he suggests that games also may mature into a truly interactive storytelling medium. And even further on the spectrum, Spierling (2005) offers an unabashed defense of interactive narrative, even though she never cites Cameron's article. Spierling claims that game engines, computer AI, and other digital processes create agency, for the computer and user, and that agency may exist in an interactive, narrative world. There is a balance between linearity and the complexity required to offer an interactive narrative experience, and there are four levels of user involvement in an interactive story (note 4).

[5.6] The primary tension between interactivity and narrative is player agency: how can one experience a narrative given the freedom to do whatever one wants? The storyteller must maintain dominant agency in order to control the narrative, while the agency of interactants sabotages the storyteller's ability to construct a narrative. Some games provide a great amount of player freedom while others are nothing more than visual novellas, and the more agency granted to players, the more diminished the apparent presence of the narrative becomes. Extraludic narrative helps solve this tension by positing that the agency inherent in gaming interactivity is fundamental to players' stories. Extraludic narrative places the agency of both the storyteller and the interactant in players: players are storytellers and interactive participants. Players make choices when playing games, and a series of these choices provides a basis for players to construct and share their own stories about their personal game-play experiences. Without the agency of interactivity, players' stories would simply be a retelling of the diegetic timeline of the game. The more interactive liberty that players have when playing a game, the more involved their extraludic narratives become. Perhaps one reason why extraludic narratives appear so frequently on r/darksouls is that the game operates on a high level of player agency, and, based on the interactivity, players feel personally involved with the game. This phenomenon is not unique to r/darksouls, and I can confidently predict that they appear with a similar frequency in any game community based around a game with a certain level of interactive agency. Any game that offers players what they interpret as meaningful choices with discernable consequences invites extraludic narratives, from multiplayer shooters—perhaps the genre with the most interactive agency—to casual puzzle games on mobile devices.

[5.7] All four fantasy themes—tales of defeat, tales of victory, tales of admiration, and tales of community—exist as extraludic narratives inasmuch as they demonstrate the phenomenon of players telling stories about their game-play experiences, including how those game-play experiences interact with the gaming community at large. Extraludic narrative, as it emerged through the fantasy themes found on r/darksouls, functions rhetorically to form and maintain the community by "dramatiz[ing] their experiences through the sharing of stories" (Simmons 2014, 120–21) in order to create a "shared understanding of the group and what it means to be a member" (Duffy 2003, 293). Extraludic narrative works hand in hand with SCT when discussing how online game communities create a shared reality, and fantasy themes may exist as extraludic narratives when they describe stories told by players about their game-play experiences.

[5.8] While not the central purpose of this study, the findings suggest that SCT and fantasy theme analysis are particularly relevant for investigating online communities. In particular, game studies scholars have much to gain from SCT inasmuch as the personal/narrative elements of game play tend to leak into gaming communities, and therefore SCT is particularly suited for studying game communities. As one tool to identify fantasy themes, games researchers should look for extraludic narratives inasmuch as the act of telling of game-play experiences as stories—in the format of an online community—inherently contributes to what it means to belong to that community. The shared stories bind community members together through relevant experiences, meaning that players can see their personal experiences in the stories of other community members. When one member describes a tale of struggle followed by victory, readers may see how their extraludic narratives coalesce into the greater whole of the gaming community. And these moments of identification gather players around the same unifying activity: telling stories.

6. Notes

1. See the final section of this article for a summary of this tension between interactivity and narrative.

2. For an excellent summary and reflection on the concept of transmedia storytelling, see Scolari (2009). Genette (1997) and Gray (2010) offer the concept of paratexts as a means of describing the media artifacts that surround a text, such as book covers or movie trailers.

3. The definition of rhetoric is not a cut-and-dried issue: discussion regarding how to define the term rhetoric continues today as a central function of the field of rhetorical studies. For a discussion of the different types of definitions of rhetoric, with mine being a stipulative definition, see Campbell and Huxman (2008, 101).

4. Spierling lists (1) a feeling of presence in the scenario, (2) inputting commands that are recognized but that do not affect the end of the story, (3) user choices affecting the outcome of a scene, and (4) user choices affecting the outcome of the entire story (2005, 9).

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