Listening to gaming’s most arch supporters, particularly the critical press, you’d think that what we want most – indeed, what videogames most need to move forward – is to be a storytelling medium. At least, that’s the definition that sounds best when, for example, we’re confronted with a nonbeliever. “Aren’t those things incredibly violent?” blinks your elderly neighbour, and you say: “Some are, but the ones I’m interested in tell great stories.”
Or when you tell someone in a bar that your job is videogames, and they ask if you “just play videogames all day” in a fashion that seems derogatory. As their incredulous gaze finds you an adult-child still spending hours on Mario, you hasten to explain that you’re interested in games as the next great narrative medium. You compare games to the film industry – not just because both are valid modern entertainment, but because, as you tell your saucer-eyed acquaintance, both have their horrible, obvious, explosion-laden mainstream entries and their thoughtful, well-crafted gems. That tell great stories, of course.
Always about the stories, as if it’s that element that will convince everybody of gaming’s natural greatness. Certainly, we become excited about gameplay advances, but there’s almost an inherent cultural disdain toward the onward march of technological polish, as if triple-A fidelity automatically implies a loss of spiritual authenticity.
It’s difficult to tell whether, when we demand great stories, we’re looking ahead to some imagined glory and legitimacy for videogames, to a day when discussing our work will bring admiring nods instead of quizzical blinking. Or are we looking back, to some youthful escapism with the games that raised us, an experience that can’t possibly be recreated without the lens of nostalgia?
Either way, it doesn’t actually make a lot of sense, when we look at the shape of the gaming landscape and the kinds of products the market increasingly favours. A singleplayer campaign is generally viewed as training for the multiplayer. If the idea of an authored experience had begun to enter disfavour in the last generation, it’s an endangered species in this one.
The plot of a game is increasingly a rig on which to hang action sequences, individual experiences designed to be breathtaking, adrenaline-fuelled or scary. There are RPGs that aim to be narrative-driven, but they cling steadfastly to ancient tropes, no deeper than the traditions of high fantasy and sci-fi. And is there anyone who, entering a bookstore looking for a literary experience, heads straight for the paperbacks about dragons and spaceships? Well, maybe RPG developers do, and that’s half the problem, but that’s an issue for another time.
The triple-A market is more competitive than ever. Design must take primacy; games must be made that feel good to play so that people will take them online and keep playing them, and buy more content later. Genre is iron-girdled and rule-bound, at least among the games that earn money. Few among the major players are interested in straying from those established rulesets over something as diaphanous and unproven as ‘narrative’.
Can’t blame them, either. Great moments in game storytelling are often exactly that: moments. That time you were riding into Mexico during Red Dead Redemption. Andrew Ryan and a golf club. The time you had to accept you couldn’t take a little cube with a heart on its face with you. We evaluate games’ storytelling based on how it feels to interact in their environment, how much the moments feel like things we own, versus set-pieces that are sculpted for us. We’re pleased when a game about ethics in war evaluates us on how we deal with our enemies – even when we can’t remember the details of the war story itself.
Even more often, those great moments are accidental, player-discovered. Sometimes we know that a game is great when we want to be the ones to tell its story, excitedly sharing details with friends about how we experienced a discrete part of the game differently from one another, how we took different approaches to a puzzle and what happened to us. I’ve seen people more excited to share the trials and tribulations of a few laps of Mario Kart than to recite the entire plot of Half-Life.
The thrill of mechanical success, and the frustration of failure, can be more tangible and gripping than what we’d feel watching a movie or reading a book. It’s not easy to describe to people who have never had interactive entertainment’s unique experiences that can’t be replicated passively. The word ‘fun’, to which we default when we’re poor at describing games’ appeal, doesn’t really describe it. But it has nothing to do with ‘sophisticated narratives’, either.
Perhaps it’s time to accept that games aren’t a ‘storytelling medium’ – not in the way we mean when we get super excited that the Writers Guild of America is handing out awards to people who write videogames, pointing grandly as if ‘we’ are validated somehow by game writers getting awards from Hollywood. Or when we look at LA Noire’s appearance at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York as a sign of ‘things to come’.
What things? I dunno, things.
Illustration: Marsh Davies