Man I’ve been behind these past couple weeks. I’ve barely had a chance to stop by and say hello. I suppose I could say I need more leisure time and fewer responsibilities, really I just need to manage my time better. Anyway, the IGDA is running my Culture Clash columns according to a different schedule, to accommodate the other writers (and the fact that I haven’t exactly been great with deadlines recently). So last month’s, which ridiculed Microsoft for the Xbox One launch, didn’t come out on that site until after they’d reversed their worst blunders. Now I can’t claim that it was my writing, and mine alone, that drove this decision. This one, meanwhile, I wrote and rewrote about a thousand times. Today. The first draft was probably fine, but then I thought I’d do something new with it, then I changed that idea, then I realized my thesis didn’t make sense, then I wound up with this version, which nobody will be happy with. But there’s always next month. Enjoy!
Storyville, Population One
By Matthew Sakey
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
We need to start thinking about game narrative differently, and stop looking through the lens of other media. Other media are about author-constructed meaning. Games are about constructing personal meaning from a framework the author provides. A game is the player’s, not the developer’s, in a way that movies and such just… aren’t.
All entertainment media, games included, are built for the way audiences consume them. Recursive, predictable systems that reward doing the same thing right many times are desirable in games, but obviously this wouldn’t work elsewhere. Game structures are inherently repetitive, too. Flexibility’s okay but it requires that the player take some responsibility for the experience, as Ernest Adams describes in his doctoral thesis Resolutions to Some Problems in Interactive Storytelling.
Working narrative into game structure is challenging enough without those narratives being judged according to criteria invented long, long before the earliest idea of games along the lines we’re talking. John Walker recently remarked that even the poster-child games – Planescape Torment, The Longest Journey – don’t compare to “great literature.” Not that surprising given games’ dependence on predictable repetition that’s so unwelcome elsewhere. He knows this, though; he’s setting it up as an argument he can knock down in the follow-on article:
…[games] can be a completely new form of story, which the player tells to himself… the same means by which we piece together the narratives with which we interpret our own lives. Gaming is tapping into something truly human, that other media cannot even comprehend.
“Great literature” is humans trying to understand human-ness. Many games have done that, so they should qualify. In games, though, meaning is created by the player, for the player, so story has a different role – it’s just a bunch of hooks they can hang the experience on. That explains the aliens and space marines and stuff: big, colorful concepts that do their job and get out of the way.
Given my longstanding pro-narrative views, that might seem like quite the reversal. I’m struggling a little bit myself. Certainly story-driven games should be all they can be, challenge themselves, move past the tropes. I agree with Brandon Perdue’s suggestion that games can live without stories more readily than labor under bad ones:
If you’re putting off giving your game a story until the end of development, you should probably take the Mario approach: kidnap a princess, put her in a castle, and hope your game is actually good enough that nobody will want more.
Beyond that sage advice, it’s on the player – each individual player, not all of them – to find their own meaning. I am famous for inventing whole libraries of plot and theme and interpretation in games that have little right to it. It’s a public service I perform. Even if the developer never intended any of it, I see meaning, so it’s worthwhile to me. But I couldn’t do it without a foundation, however shoddy. Rather, I guess I could, but it’d be work, not fun.
Some of the most memorable gaming narratives come from games completely without them. Look at the fantastic realms of imagination that Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft have given us. Before the internet these narratives were private, shared at most with a few friends. They still happened, though. Traditionalists might recoil at the idea of creating such lavish internal literature, and they might deride the product that inspired it, saying it removes the author from the equation. Really it just changes the author’s function – they sacrifice direct control over the literary outcome but inspire others to complete the work as a shared effort.
And it’s naïve to suggest that absents games from the level of creation in other literature. Games are the door, their developers made the door. Players walk through and take it from there. Hopefully most game developers revel in that loss of control, view it as empowering. Hopefully they see themselves as giving players tools to construct meaning and enjoyment. Sometimes the tools are very freeform and the player has all the license, like in Minecraft. Sometimes it’s very structured and the creator wants you to just add your own flavor to things, like in The Last of Us.
And since each player is unique, the mileage also varies. Tom Chick felt The Last of Us was emotionally rich at the expense of gameplay:
After three Uncharted games, we know what Naughty Dog really wants to do is direct.
I’m not sure Naughty Dog would agree with the implication that making games is a second-choice fallback for them. Tom Bissell also remarked on the game’s mechanical issues but seemed less bothered in light of its other accomplishments:
It will surely strike the non-gamer as unlikely that any game in which you stomp off the faces of fungal zombies could be described as ‘subtle,’ but you can, and it is.
Meanwhile my friend Pete, incensed by complaints that the player wasn’t free to choose the outcome, said:
This is not Mass Effect, Dragon Age, The Witcher, The Walking Dead, or countless other games where you have huge control over the narrative. You’re not playing ‘a Joel,’ you’re playing Joel.
Some games are all about letting you make your own story. Others have a story in mind and want you to steer it a little, but none of them can manage without a player. Thus games struggle when judged by rules that assert primacy of author and irrelevance of audience.
I think games bring many new qualities worth considering as literature, even if their stories are sometimes iffy. Casablanca is great literature by the traditional interpretation, but could never be mine or yours the way a game is. It’s not engineered that way, and we don’t take gaming’s forebears to task for being insufficiently gamelike. Maybe that’s our mistake. I’ll tell you right now, if Washington Square or The Wild Blue Yonder had been games, I’d have gotten more out of them even if it meant Henry James and Werner Herzog taking a step back.
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