This essay was inspired by this piece by Ian Bogost in The Atlantic, the title of which reads: “Video Games are Better Without Story.” I encourage everybody to read that piece first before continuing. As always, I will be leavening the serious stuff with funny pictures. I apologize in advance.
In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud discusses (among many other topics) the aforementioned gutter. It is here, between the images, that sequential art separates itself from other media. The white space holds the imagination of the reader. It makes that person complicit in the narrative. The creator(s) has done the heavy-lifting but the burden of filling in the blanks is on the part of the person holding the book.
Those are the kinds of stories that inspire me: the kinds of work that sit with me long after I’m done with them. They weren’t just a statement made at me, but with me. When something makes me uncomfortable, it’s because it is forcing me to ask questions I’d rather not answer. When something makes society uncomfortable, it is because it is forcing society to discuss something that it would rather not answer.
That’s why I like video games so much. It’s not the pretty colors, or the explosions, or the fantasy of male adolescent power…
It is because video games, by their very nature, force me to take part in the action. They withhold information from me, forcing me to make choices that speak to my desires that I may not like to reflect upon once I know the entire truth. They compel me forward and make me a participant in someone else’s story, finding humanity and decency by putting the real story on the ultimate canvas of the imagination. They unweave time, over and over again in ways that force the audience to take part in ways that just aren’t possible in other art forms.
Video games tell these stories best because, at their core, a game must be a story, even at its most basic. Whether you’re building lines block by block or participating in the foundation of civilization, the player builds the story with the creator, step-by-step:
- Agent – The player, with an avatar (even an imagined one) crafted by the designer
- Desire – What the player wants (dominance, a mystery, the need to rescue princesses from a large dinosaur)
- Obstacle – The challenges that the designer sets forth
- Choice – The action the player takes of their own free will in order to overcome said obstacle.
- Reward – Some bit that the designer creates in order to validate the player and push them to continue, be it in the form of a trophy, more story, leveling up, a sword, or whatever.
This partnership is the fundamental difference between passive and interactive media. In passive media, the creator creates, and audience observes. In interactive media, the creators creates and the audience creates with them.
This isn’t to take anything away from film, television, or literature. I grew up with books. I was a slave to TV. I intoxicated myself with the power of cinema, to the point of watching certain films over and over and over again in order to understand just how they could enchant me.
But those are passive stories. There is imagination, and partnership between creator and audience, and all that good jazz they teach in Storytelling 101. But they don’t need me. They need an audience, or else the opening weekend box office will cause studio heads to jump off of water towers, but they don’t need Steele. Or Herbert. Or whoever you are. A gaming experience is unique because you help craft the stories. We have to be there, involved. We can all do the dishes and listen to a podcast. We have to give a game our full attention if we’re going to get anything out of it.
A good game does that without requiring much effort on the part of the gamer. Shigeru Miyamoto called this “finding the fun,” not because everything is always fun but that every game should have some fundamental bit of essence that makes the player ravenous to come back for more. Some gamers want to be scared, for instance, but a game is horrifying for different reasons than why a movie might be, because whereas a film is a roller coaster ride, a game requires input. It thrills gamers to take part even when it is scaring them. That is something that a passive form of art can’t give because it simply isn’t within its capabilities. Players aren’t just sitting back and having fun thrown at them; they are playing in the world (and a world it must be), sometimes staying up for thirty-six hours straight in order to reach the thrilling conclusion.
That’s because there is a narrative that is being woven, even in story-limited games. The narrative is the emergent narrative of the crafting of story itself. It is something outside of our own life yet, because we are making the choices, we are embracing that world. It makes it more real because a bit of us is in that game. We aren’t watching Spider-Man; we are Spider-Man. Indeed, to repurpose a bit of prose, “the player should be able to exert agency upon the dramatic arc of the plot.”
Look to the bad reviews of video games, even the ones that receive “near universal praise” on Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes or whatever aggregator we’re using this week. “Repetitive.” “Empty.” “Clunky.” And, most dreaded of all, “overly linear.” There is some technological aspect that is getting in the way of engaging with the “fun” of the game, at least for some people. They want something that speaks to their need for participation. People want to take part because they want to see how they stack up: against themselves, against others, against the world.
Some games do this bigger than others, but all interactive fiction relies on this basic premise. Players’ choices matter. Players have agency. The framework is there but players take it to the next level. Without their participation, the story literally cannot be told.
That is job of every video game creator: to craft an experience so seamless that gamers get lost in the process. Every programmer starts out with a vision that must be built from the ground up. Some are built on the engines of the past, but all must translate 1’s and 0’s into something more. There are capitulations along the way; the budget is too low, or a mechanic is stifling creativity rather than allowing it, or the producer just won’t let go of having a dinosaur sidekick.
Technology has put limitations on the kind of story that game creators could tell since the beginning, but it is not unique in that aspect. Look to the development of motion pictures to see how early filmmakers learned to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their form in order to tell better stories. The best worked with what made the formats great.
The pioneers of the gaming artform had to deal with their own, as games existed long before empty 3D canvases. Unlike singers or poets or dancers or other artists whose craft is so intrinsic to human civilization that it is unquestionably art, video games are still learning the ropes. They emerged less than sixty years ago and continuously re-invent themselves every few years. A stumbling process is not only natural but required as creators learned their craft as they invented it.
It is important to separate the tools from the medium, the “English” from the human ability to create language. Vestiges of those early elements stick with us. Goals had to be simple so that audiences could understand them. “Extra lives” stuck around as a remnant of the arcade machine’s goal of separating people from their quarters slowly but surely. Just as the Great Train Robbery invented something upon which Hollywood has yet to find a substitution, video game creators developed their own shorthand in order to detail large amounts of information in as rapid a fashion as possible. Sometimes, this works out well. Other times, not so much.
The danger is when a medium becomes too insular, begins to speak too much to its own audience, and begins to lose the spectrum of audiences—from casual to patron to hardcore enthusiast. Opera has suffered this problem. The comic book industry, arguably, is going through it, too. Video games should not be immune from that kind of criticism in order to maintain a healthy artform.
But are video games in danger of that, as well? In part. It’s no secret that the arms race of console gaming has begun to result in diminishing returns. And, sure, if you want to find bad video games, there are no shortage of titles that miss the mark. Hell, I wrote one. It’s just that few people would ever say that films are lacking as a medium because we seem to be stuck on superheros, remakes, and films that aspire but never quite reach advertised levels of “fast” and “furious” action.
If we’re going to argue about the merits of individual pieces within an artform, as well, we can spend all day slinging stones. For me, story isn’t about the high and mighty-ness of a particular way to tell a narrative. Art is a way to reach out across the void and express myself, to understand that which cannot be understood. It is the basis of humanity: our free will, our desire to change, our need to be understood. We weave stories just as we did around a campfire, engaging our listeners and tailoring the story on the fly so that they are engaged, because when they are engaged, the artist has fulfilled something. They are not just a consumer of life, but a user of it.
Video games harken back to that ancient form in an instinctual fashion. I can reject a film’s basic thesis because I didn’t take part in it. I can put a book down because I don’t buy what it’s selling. I can turn off a television show because it takes a hard-left turn. I can turn off a video game, too, but I can’t undo the choices I made in them once I’ve made them. Maybe that is why some people don’t like them, because the choices that we are being given reveal the hard truths of humanity. We can be ugly. We can thirst for blood. We can seek out self-gratification rather than true understanding (you can google “Adult Games” on your own time, away from work).
That is the power and potential of every video game. I want to “work” for my stories, even if it’s “so much easier to watch television, or to read.” These are story worlds, with their own languages, their own rules, their own participants. They aren’t a holodeck (yet) but the ability of the player to “exert agency upon the dramatic arc of the plot” is as thrilling now as it was thirty years ago.
Although he too found something lacking in video games, Roger Ebert once wrote, “Movies made for “everybody” are actually made for nobody in particular. Movies about specific characters in a detailed world are spellbinding because they make no attempt to cater to us; they are defiantly, triumphantly, themselves.” His favorite movies are stories that are utterly unique.
Video games are magical because we create these kinds of stories together.