Buffalo Game Space

Buffalo Game Space

Why Bother Telling Stories in Games?

  • Dale Stoyer
  • Dalehalla ( like Valhalla without all the dead Vikings)

Ian Bogost’s article in The Atlantic puts forth the suggestion that games as a means of interactive storytelling is somehow a waste of time and also selling the medium short. A few quotes from the article to summarize his point:

On the whole, there is nothing to fault in What Remains of Edith Finch. It’s a lovely little title with ambitions scaled to match their execution. Few will leave it unsatisfied.
And yet, the game is pregnant with an unanswered question: Why does this story need to be told as a video game?

Then Later:

The true accomplishment of What Remains of Edith Finch is that it invites players to abandon the dream of interactive storytelling at last. Yes, sure, you can tell a story in a game. But what a lot of work that is, when it’s so much easier to watch television, or to read. A greater ambition, which the game accomplishes more effectively anyway: to show the delightful curiosity that can be made when stories, games, comics, game engines, virtual environments—and anything else, for that matter—can be taken apart and put back together again unexpectedly.

Obviously not all games need to be story driven. Does that necessarily mean that NO games should be narrative driven as John Walker asserts in his RPS post back on June 11, 2013? He takes a strong position on this early on by asking:

Who of the Modern Warfare generation is buying games for their groundbreaking ability to tell stories?

Back to the beginning of time storytelling has been an effective form of communication, useful for teaching as well as entertainment. Children’s bedtime stories were often designed to help shape morality in young minds and teach them the ways of the worlds. They were designed to change the lives of their audience. That isn’t enough for Walker as he demonstrates soon enough:

But of these, which do I hold up as great examples of literature? Honestly? None. That’s not to demean the best of them – stories from games have genuinely changed my life, moved me enormously, altered my thinking in significant ways. But if gaming’s ultimate goal, from both technology and development, is this spurious notion of “storytelling”, then it’s doing a pretty poor job.

It seems that is just isn’t good enough to change his life and alter his thinking, it just isn’t great literature. You know like books and stuff. He does allow that direct comparisons are always “poorly conceived arguments on unbalanced ground.”

To be fair, he is making those claims in the ancient history of 2013, before the phrase ‘walking simulator’ was invented to throw shade at games like Gone Home, Firewatch, and the aforementioned What Remains of Edith Finch. The problem is that he comes to the premature conclusion that games can never tell stories:

When is gaming, I would ask, going to find its great stories? I believe I was wrong to ask.
Gaming isn’t going to. It’s had plenty of time to prove that. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a failure of developers at all. Maybe games just aren’t the right place for it? That’s practical: authors can take years to write their novels – something that wouldn’t be possible in game development cycles. And it’s perhaps pragmatic: the nature of interaction simply prevents great storytelling, and we should all accept this.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t demand better. It is still right and proper to lament the dreadful writing that appears in so many games, the cavalcades of clichés that plague us, the generic grunting tedium that most creators seem to think will do. But perhaps we should be setting our sights lower, reducing our expectations, and letting games get on with being a medium that simply isn’t going to provide us with wonderful story.

Before I go any further, I should confess that I have chosen the most provocative parts of his post, most of which he directly refutes in his RPS post on June 12th 2013 – the day after the post I quote so heavily here, but I mention the arguments for the same reason he does – they are alluded to all too frequently when people talk about games as art.

The thing about games is that as an interactive medium, they have the opportunity to tell stories in ways that other media cannot get away with. The worst LucasArts point and click adventure is better than the best Choose Your Own Adventure book from the 80’s, and far easier to navigate. No chance of accidentally reading the wrong thing next and getting lost, either. Branching narratives are a compelling reason for telling stories with games, but far from the only one.

Emergent narratives like those common in action RPGs are another, but often have a different problem. Due to the disjointed nature by which the narrative is disseminated, players often find it difficult to remember the story at all. That fact is enough for some developers like Supergiant Games to find an innovative way to drive the impact of their story home. As the player makes his way through their action RPG Bastion they learn of the ‘Calamity’ that broke their world to pieces. You get bits of background about the weapon that caused the ‘Calamity’ and how everything went wrong. At the end of the game they have a choice, between evacuating survivors to start over or going back to try to prevent the ‘Calamity.’

This is an extremely important decision and becomes the entire point of the narrative after the player makes their choice, because that is where the game ends. A single image representing the choice they have spent the whole game working up to. That is not a story moment you can create in a book or movie.

Or take Spec Ops: The Line. You play as Captain Martin Walker who, along with his team, fights his way across sand strewn Dubai, hunting the villainous Colonel John Konrad. At one point, heavily outnumbered by Konrad’s forces they deploy white phosphorus to obliterate the superior forces and advance into the city. It quickly becomes apparent that they also killed several dozen civilians that were trying to flee all of the fighting. Walker confronts Konrad on a radio he salvages from the aftermath. This tragedy (and other events) angers and hardens Walker against his former commander and he makes his way to the Burj Khalifa tower to confront Konrad in the penthouse. There it is revealed that Konrad is dead and in fact decaying after committing suicide long ago.

It hits hard. It is like eating a big bowl of tasty Soylent Green and then finding out the recipe. There are several possible endings; all based on what the player does after learning Konrad is dead. This is a story that can only be told in an interactive medium. Reading about what choices someone else made just can’t match the impact of knowing you made those decisions right along with them.

There’s your answer. Why bother telling stories in video games? Because some stories can only be told that way. Is there a wealth of games that rise to the level of interactive literature? Perhaps not, but books have a several hundred year head start, and most books are not considered great literature. It’s a young industry. Give it time.