Stories in Games Aren't Problems, They're Solutions
Lots of video games have terrible stories, but that's no reason to give up telling them.
Kentucky Route Zero screenshot courtesy of Cardboard Computer
Above: Kentucky Route Zero screenshot courtesy of Cardboard Computer.
Yesterday, the world of games journalism and criticism blew up in response to an Atlantic article penned by the trickster-gadfly-academic Ian Bogost. For Bogost, games have a problem: They keep trying (and failing) to tell good stories. If games are going to ascend to their potential, he argues, they need to "abandon the dream of narrative media" and instead focus on their ability to configure and reconfigure the world around us in "surprising, ghastly new ways."
Waypoint's own Patrick Klepek broke down the piece and the many responses to it (including his own) right here, so I'm not looking to repeat a close reading of Bogost that so many other people have already done. Instead, I'm going to do a bit of my own reconfiguration: If Ian Bogost wants to know what to do about the problem of story in games, I instead want to ask, "What problems does the inclusion of a story—even a bad one—solve for a game?"
Let me put that another way: Let's imagine a world where games don't have stories, and let's even restrict "story" to mean only stuff like "plot," "characters," and "lore." What might games without those things look like, and what does their addition do for players, game developers, and publishers? What does adding the names and visual designs of queens and knights and bishops do for the basic mechanics of chess? What work has the inclusion of Master Chief and Cortana in the Halo franchise done for Microsoft, 343 Studios, and Bungie? What does the mixed race heritage of Mafia III's Lincoln Clay do for one of the game's senior writers, Charles Webb?
To start with, we should be clear that game stories do different things for different people. And that's always been the case. Back in the 1960s, early computerized wargames were designed primarily to simulate the proxy fights and potential nuclear outcomes of the Cold War. But as Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter write in Games of Empire:
[S]imulations could also be a diversion from working on mass death if they were cut loose from serious application, enjoyed for their technical "sweetness" and oddity without instrumental purpose, transformed into play. Such escapes were possible because the military allowed its immaterial workers a lot of latitude. Computer scientists and engineers were the only people who understood the new digital machines. Transgressing standard procedures, fooling around with computers, was at least tolerated because that was the way to discover new uses and options.
For the engineers of these machines, playing out fictionalized conflicts allowed for an escape from the heavy burden of running life-or-death war simulations. It's a different sort of escapism than pretending to be Hyrule's savior after a long day at the office, sure, but the fundamentals are there. Yet these games didn't only serve as a break for the players, they also served the interests of the military personnel who oversaw the operation. "Yeah," you can almost hear them saying, "Let the nerds play games on their machines—that's how they'll be ready when it's time to really work."
In the same way, the themes, characters, and stories of commercial games do different things for different people. Game publishers might not staff generals glowering down at an office of programmers, but they do have bottom lines.
Above: the X-Men arcade game's attract mode.
The sorts of micro-stories that graced arcade and pinball machines were meant to draw players away from competing machines—the vibrant, glowing shield of X-Men's Magneto was hard to ignore, as was the the existential threat of living space-station Sinistar. (To say nothing of the maniacal laugh of Black Knight 2000's titular foe, who literally demands that you give him your money.)
This sort of business-minded storytelling wasn't fully left behind in the 80s and 90s, either. While gaming has a long history of story-first games, there are plenty of examples that illustrate how AAA games fail to prioritize storytelling. And if it's your job simply to move units, it's easy to understand how you could begin to think about storytelling only as an extra arm of marketing: It's easier to sell a badass space marine to a fanbase raised on Aliens than it is to run a successful ad campaign that outlines your game's advances in enemy AI.
If I sound cynical here, I don't mean to. After all, this sort of late-project "theming" like this is just as useful for game designers as it is for marketing teams. Storytelling can paper-over strange design decisions and "hook" players who might otherwise be skeptical.
In Klei's fantastic Invisible, Inc., your characters are unable to pick up and use enemy weapons from defeated enemies. This is a fundamental, important balance decision—the whole game would be different (and worse) if a lone agent could John Wick their way through an enemy base. By setting the game in a futuristic corporate dystopia, Klei entertainment's dev team is able to handwave their decision to prevent player characters from doing this. Uhhh, the guns are chipped to only work with the guards. Forget about it, Deckard, it's cyberpunk.
In this way, storytelling in games also solves problems for players. Listen, I love Invisible, Inc., I really do. And there's a chance I'd even love a version of it that didn't feel like a whole game built around the occasional futuristic moments of Samurai Jack. But without the mystery surrounding the game's super-AI, Incognita,and the pre-mission banter between my cyborg assassin and my elite hacker, I may have bounced off the game's steep learning curve. (And for what it's worth, this is the same sort of love for a game's story that drives players to do their own creative work in the form of fanfiction, fanart, and cosplay.)
I don't want to paint the picture that game stories only serve as a way to hide design seams, though. Working inside the framework of a story can also encourage designers and artists to develop ideas in a direction that they may not have ever considered if they were simply playing Red Team vs Blue Team. The striking lock-on missile barrages of Galak-Z are meant to invoke the "Itano Circus" of mecha series Macross, not only in look but also in gameplay feel, harmoniously blending narrative theme with mechanical design. When Jake Elliott says that Kentucky Route Zero's dialog choices are meant to feel like an actor's inflections, that doesn't only reflect the influence of theater on KRZ (a process that, as Bogost would say, takes-apart-and-puts-back-together the stage play) but also as a result of the team's decision to fundamentally communicate the story they've decided to tell.
And all of this says nothing about the most important problem solved by telling a story: A story gets told. This is not a means, it is an end.
When Charles Webb says that he wants players of Mafia III to "feel a visceral sense of rejection of the language being used by racists" in that game, it isn't a thing he says in a vacuum. He says it because in his experience growing up in the south, "for a lot of white folks, the word 'nigger' was just a noun." For Webb—and for many game writers, marginalized and otherwise—able to tell their stories is in fact the whole point.
Maybe Bogost can imagine a version of Mafia III that can confront racism without dumping millions of dollars of development funds into a story team. Maybe instead of structuring its cut scenes around the filmic grammars of Cocaine Cowboys-style documentaries and Scorsese-esque crime dramas, that game would leave the player with some actionable take away about how to address oppression directly. I honestly don't know what Bogost imagines that game looks like. But I do know it wouldn't be a story told by Charles Webb.
I'm not a game developer, but I do release hours of gameplay-driven fiction into the world every week in the form of Friends at the Table. And I know that when I sit down with my friends to record our tabletop RPG sessions, we aren't motivated only by the ability to roll attack and damage dice. We're out to imagine worlds better and worse than our own, with characters heroic and fragile, and then to share their fraught stories with our listeners. And part of what drives us is that until we sat down to do this, we didn't see people who looked like us, with lives like ours, telling stories like these.
For some, this defense of story might sound like a pretty ideologically fueled argument. That's true, but it's also built on as firm reality as there is. As Patrick points out, "people love video games, people love stories, and people love video games telling stories." That's the fact of the matter, and we're better off spending time unpacking how and why people love stories (and maybe figuring out how we could do better at telling them) than wasting time trying to dismiss the enterprise altogether.
I'm not worried that the world's young game makers will read Bogost's article and forget the stories burning in their hearts en masse. There is no chance of that, though it is likely that some marginalized creators will bear the brunt of hearing a twisted and angry version of Bogost's piece shouted at them. Yet we will continue to tell stories for the same reasons that we continue to decorate walls, play power chords, and sketch out our original characters while waiting for the bus to show up: Because we cannot help it.
We make stories out of our trips to the convenience store and turn our co-workers into characters as we relay the events of the day to our partners. Driven by both profit motive and creative impulse, we contort our words (and worlds) until broken stories are whole. Sometimes we tell stories without spoken language and other times we build new languages from whole cloth just so that we can evoke a feeling we can't find in the sounds and symbols we already have. We invent new problems so that we can solve them with new stories and this rules.
This is not a manifesto about the primacy about storytelling in games. I am not trying to contribute to the latest cycle of the greatest gaming debate that never happened. I just love that we tell stories and hope that young creators are emboldened by that love. Because while I don't think that any amount of criticism from Bogost will stop people from telling stories, I do believe that we have it in our power as critics and fans to encourage more people to make games.
Tomorrow there will be more games in the world than there are today. Some of them won't have any stories at all, and that's okay. But others will tell tales about dragons, teenage drama, and cave diving. Maybe there will be a game about a girl with a missing memory, or about a struggling colony on a distant ice planet. There will definitely, absolutely be one about a space marine. Many of these stories will be very bad. Some will even be cruel. But if we give up on them altogether, we will never get the ones that stick with us, that urge us into immediate action or sway us into hushed melancholy, that blossom in ways we could never expect. These are the potentials that I care about, not whether or not games will "be the defining medium of an era."
Whatever happens next, we will tell more stories. It's not that I believe that we are essentially or biologically "storytelling creatures." It's just that, historically speaking, we cannot shut the fuck up. And, all said, we're better for it.