Monday, May 15, 2017

Actually, Video Games Are Just Fine With Story

A couple weeks ago, I came across this: Video Games Are Better Without Stories. The Atlantic's usual click-baity title did its job and drew me into an article ripe with pretension and a narrow, poorly researched opinion of the very subject matter it attempted to critique. There were a number of problems with this article, key among them the author's assertion that video games have been desperately trying and failing to be the "medium of the 21st century." If we're judging that coveted title by say, revenue, then the video game industry has outdone Hollywood, as an example, for the last several years, including 2016 (film brought in $38.6 billion in revenue globally last year, where video games brought in $91 billion). But with the rules for being "the medium of the 21st century" so poorly defined, it's hard to argue that point.

But I'm going to try putting all this reactionary angst aside. I don't want to just sit here and shit all over this article, despite my first reaction being very much that. 

I've heard Mr. Bogost's argument before, that games are better without stories, or similarly, that there is little point to a game telling a story, especially when one subjectively claims movies and books and TV do it better. I've heard these arguments between the lines of uproarious claims that video games aren't art, I've heard them from fellow writers when asked why I'd even bother pining to write for video games, and I'm seeing more popularity in these arguments now, in an era where one of my favorite developers has forsaken a history of epic stories in favor of trend-chasing that has left their recent titles sprawling, soulless, and frankly, not very fun (looking at you, Andromeda).

Video games are a big deal for me. They're my favorite hobby, a huge source of creative inspiration, and have told some of my favorite stories of all time. I think it's important to defend video games as a medium for spinning tales. Games aren't necessarily better with story (there are amazing games with little to no story out there) but games can tell incredible, impactful stories just as valid as other mediums.

The first question Mr. Bogost asks of his readers is: 

Are the resulting interactive stories really interactive, when all the player does is assemble something from parts?

According to him, the game industry has apparently - throughout it's history - been aspiring to create the Star Trek holodeck, a virtual world in which a user would have god-like influence (which would be a tall order even with procedural storytelling). So his idea of interactive isn't so much interactive as it is "perfectly-mirrored-to-life-simulation", and to claim video game stories aren't interactive because of this feels a little shallow, if not just a tad over-demanding.

The bottom line is this: if we're taking the definition of interactive to mean what it actually means, which is, unsurprisingly, not "the Holodeck from star Trek" but is instead:


--then yes, games are interactive, and they're the only medium to tell stories in an interactive way. Games do have varying levels of interactivity, that is true. Depending on the game in question, players could either be following a linear story-line, optionally seeking out more information, or they could be making constant choices that mold and shape the plot around them. Either way, given the definition, games are irrefutably interactive.

Moving on to the second part of Mr. Bogost's question: 

"Are the resulting interactive stories really interactive, when all the player does is assemble something from parts?"

My counter question is this: what's wrong with assembling something from parts? Why is that a knock against a well told story?

To fully understand what he means by his question, one must first understand the storytelling technique that he is attempting to critique: environmental storytelling. At the time of this writing, the article's link to environmental storytelling links back to the article itself (which I don't recommend as a source). I went ahead and googled the phrase, and the first result is an archived presentation by game developers Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch for the 2010 Game Developer's Conference.

The presentation defines environmental storytelling as such:

"Environmental Storytelling is the act of staging player space with environmental properties that can be interpreted as a meaningful whole, furthering the narrative of the game."
.”
And provides this as an example of environmental storytelling in action:


What's described is a critically common storytelling technique. If you don't recognize it, know that it often comes sold as "show, don't tell." 

It isn't enough - it isn't interesting - to simply tell the audience either through writing or through voice overs that the man tying his shoe isn't angry at his shoe at all, that he's instead upset that his boss gave the promotion to a dickhead rival instead of him, or that his wife has wrongfully cast him out of the house. This would be dull, if not just bad writing. It wouldn't pull the reader or watcher or player in, or make them curious. 

Assembling a greater meaning from parts, making things ambiguous and turning the story into a winding road of inference and deduction is what good writers do. It's why plot twists exit, it's why J.K. Rowling didn't say right off the bat: Snape is actually an alright guy, here's his detailed backstory in book 1.

We've already established that games are interactive through virtue of them being, you know, interactive, so why does assembling pieces make them less interactive? If anything, this assembly makes them more so.

The difference between video games and other storytelling mediums is that instead of reading or watching the puzzle unfold, you're tasked with putting the puzzle together yourself. Even in linear stories with little room for divergence like Bioshock, the player must actively seek out recordings to flesh out the sparse details given in cutscenes.

There's nothing wrong (there's actually a lot right) with assembling a greater meaning from parts, and doing so in the way Mr. Bogost critiques is - while not holodeck-esque - still definitely, certainly, unquestionably interactive.

So now that we've got that settled, I want to move on to his second question, one that I find to be much more thought-provoking than the first:

Why does this story need to be told as a video game?

This is a great question. Why are games a good medium for stories? Why would a writer agree to mold their story into a game instead of writing a book or a screenplay?

A key thing one learns when writing a story - something I had to learn myself - is that keeping readers invested is key. Your world-building may get you off at night, your characters may make you weep with joy, but if a reader doesn't agree, if a reader doesn't feel invested, then it doesn't matter. They won't read it. Or watch it.

Storytellers try to build empathy in their audience by creating characters who can be identified with, characters whose plights can be related to. Getting a reader invested is one of the hardest challenges in writing a good story. Why would the reader want to stick around? What's in it for them?  

One of the most common critiques a writer can receive is that characters are unrelatable. If characters aren't relatable, if they can't be empathized or sympathized with, no one will care if that character is hurt, or if they don't reach their goals, or if they do reach their goals. And if the reader doesn't care, the story loses impact.

Video games are great at building investment, because you are the character. You control the character. Sometimes you literally have the ability to create a character - make it look like you, make them make choices you would make. 

Even in linear stories where you're simply steering the character through a pre-made, immovable plot, you're driving the character forward. You're steering them through the world and assembling that environmental puzzle into the greater whole. Sometimes games even break the fourth wall, and touch on our world by literally making you the player character. Controlling these avatars puts you in the driver's seat, invites comparison, pulls you in, and creates investment. And when you're invested, when you're immersed, stories can have impact.

It's similar to that feeling when reading a book or watching a movie, that ability to vicariously live through another and escape into a different world. The difference with games is that instead of staring and watching, I'm doing.

Of course, this is coming from a place of bias. For me, games are fun. It's a valid medium to tell stories, yes, but more importantly, I derive satisfaction from stories told in this way. It's my opinion, much like the opinion of those who don't like to read, or don't watch TV. People enjoy getting their stories from certain mediums, and not others. 

So Mr. Bogost (and anyone else who's never been drawn in by game stories), maybe video games just aren't your cup of tea. There's not going to be a lot I can say to change that, but I can recommend some better titles for you to play. If you want to play some games that wouldn't matter if not for their story, consider giving these a try:

The Last of Us


This game is a prime example of environmental storytelling. The player is told a linear story, but has the opportunity to find notes and other items that expand it. Even the world itself contributes heavily to the tale. Environmental storytelling it may be, it is still one of the best told game stories of all time. Sure, you're on rails, but the game opens with a gripping sequence of events that pulls you in as sure as any great book, and the complex relationships between its characters are a master class in character development and rising tension.

SOMA


Despite containing a few key player choices, SOMA is another mostly linear story. But unlike the Last of Us, SOMA is a cerebral tale with little action. It insists on the player questions about humanity, consciousness, and whether immortality is worth it without our fleshy forms. Played in first person and told in an environment dripping with Lovecraftian, sci-fi horror, you're made to feel as if you're the character, and must confront your own ideas about what makes someone truly alive.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR)


Have you ever wanted to be a Jedi? How about a Sith? KOTOR is rightfully one of the most coveted RPGs to date, in large part because of its roleplaying and story choices. You start by crafting your character from scratch, everything from what they look like, to their background, to how strong or intelligent they are. And once you're in the game, your avatar is thrown right into a Star Wars tale comparable to the original trilogy. You can choose whether to follow the way of the light side or dark side, whether you're kind to your companions or not, whether your character is out to make a profit or save lives, and so much more.

Dragon Age: Origins


This is my favorite game on this list, and has been in my top five favorite games since first beating it several months after its release in 2009. Made by the same company who created KOTOR, Dragon Age's story - and the ability for the player to influence that story - is enormous. You can start with one of six origin stories, playing through a good hour of plot entirely unique to your character. That origin story comes back time and time again, whether in characters berating you for being an elf, or fearing you for being a mage, or perhaps honoring you for being a noble. The variations in plot outcomes in this game are staggering. You can end your tale as anything from a corpse to a freaking Queen. Every plot point has multiple paths and lasting consequences, some that reach out even into the game's sequels. I have beaten this at least five times, and every time, I've seen something different.

(Note: if you prefer Sci-fi to fantasy, give Mass Effect a try. The original, not Andromeda. Dragon Age beat out Mass Effect for me, but ME still has a lot of what makes Dragon Age awesome, but is a space opera instead.)

Undertale


Undertale is an indie game developed by one badass dude over the course of five years, and it has one of the best stories ever told in the medium. Literally every choice - who you visit, where you go, how you defeat your enemies - has an impact on the plot. It's possible to kill main characters, it's possible to kill ALL the main characters, and the occasional fourth wall breaks drive home the point that you ARE the character in this tale. Add to that the enchanting soundtrack, the touching theme, and the amazingly well developed characters, and this game is a prime example of why story should exist in games.

The above are just a small smattering of games made better by story. Sure, there are those who won't ever appreciate games, or the stories within them, but that opinion doesn't detract from the fact that games are a valid storytelling medium, and that their developers should just keep on keeping on with all that story goodness they're doing.

Readers, what games did I miss? What are your top five game stories?

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