Video Games Don’t Have a Choice But to Tell Stories
As the medium of a generation, there’s no other option.
Image courtesy of Sony
If you follow anyone in the gaming community on Twitter today, chances are they were tweeting (or subtweeting) about a provocative article in The Atlantic by academic Ian Bogost called "Video Games Are Better Without Stories." In the piece, Bogost argues that gaming's obsession with narrative is misguided, undercutting what the medium does best.
Bogost's critique is blunt in a way that's rubbed a lot of people, especially folks who've spent their lives working on games with stories, the wrong way, but I found myself nodding along to many of his points. The problem is that it doesn't matter: games have no choice but to tell stories.
Let's start with an excerpt from Bogost, prompted by this week's What Remains of Edith Finch, an adventure game (or "walking simulator") in the vein of Gone Home:
The whole way through, I found myself wondering why I couldn't experience Edith Finch as a traditional time-based narrative. Real-time rendering tools are as good as pre-rendered computer graphics these days, and little would have been compromised visually had the game been an animated film. Or even a live-action film. After all, most films are shot with green screens, the details added in postproduction. The story is entirely linear, and interacting with the environment only gets in the way, such as when a particularly dark hallway makes it unclear that the next scene is right around the corner.
It should be said that Bogost similarly riled folks up in 2015, with a piece arguing that video games are better without characters. It's riffing on the same ideas, and in both instances, one of the central reasons people take sharp issue with assertions is because of tone, as though he read a manual on What Are Video Games, came down from the mountain top, and decided to finally share it with us.
Bogost isn't saying games aren't capable of producing stories period, but that gaming is particularly flawed at telling certain kinds of stories. The story of my latest run in Spelunky, for example, is authored by the rules, physics, and other elements that make up playing Spelunky. Though it has an ending—you can reach the "true boss" and see the "true ending" if you fight through a secret world—that's merely a carrot to keep the player moving forward, to find their own story.
Again, I'm inclined to agree with him. But the "problem" is video games have become the de facto medium for an entire generation. Bogost argues that games are irrationally looking for cultural and artistic relevance by chasing after Hollywood, and while that might be a fair takedown of how many games approach storytelling, the medium has become the entertainment of choice for many, and there's little evidence that's going to change in the years ahead. In the absence of children deciding en masse that games aren't a storytelling medium, games are faced with the task of integrating storytelling themselves and finding their own way.
Without doing the Google work, something tells me there was a lot of hand wringing at the advent of cinema along the same lines, arguments that film lacked the clear advantages of the written word. And yet, movies went forward anyway, flaws and all, because they were compelling and exciting. (We still hear variations on this argument all the time when it comes to the countless adaptations churned out in TV and film. Look, I'm scared about that Dark Tower movie, y'all.)
It doesn't help that games barely have a few decades of experimentation under their belt (or that the most interesting forms of narrative storytelling aren't happening in the biggest games), but even if we eventually found that games remain a flawed or inelegant medium for narrative storytelling, that shouldn't disqualify them for trying. Designer and professor Charles Pratt, one of many who spent today mulling Bogost's piece and the backlash it generated, put it nicely.
"Is anyone disagreeing with his main point: we solved the problem of stories in games by giving up on making them truly interactive?" said Pratt. "The best stories in games are basically radio plays right now, and that's fine. Music is also an inefficient way of delivering narrative, but I still like opera."
In other words, even if What Remains of Edith Finch might have worked—or been better—as a film or novel, the medium its creators work in are video games, and it only exists because games like Gone Home proved people are hungry for more like it. As Waypoint's own social editor Danika Harrod so succinctly said on Twitter earlier: "as for me? i love my ass a good story, bitch!"
Thank you, Danika. I'd also recommend Danielle Riendeau's lengthy and thoughtful and ever-so-slightly angry response to Bogost's piece.
And here lies the underlying point: people love video games, people love stories, and people love video games telling stories. Now what? The question isn't whether games should reject storytelling; the question is what they should do with the responsibility to tell meaningful stories for the millions who want to hear them.