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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Are you sure that games still have that far to go, or is the problem that the gaming critic establishment has developed a massive inferiority complex thanks of the tireless efforts of film critics to disparage their medium, and tries to kowtow to people that will never, ever accept them no matter how many times they bow down and talk about how far games have to go and how we all have to learn from their great example?
How many games have to be hailed as “Citizen Kanes” (which is how you described Shadow of the Colossus in your review, all the way back in 2005) before we can stop sounding like abuse victims trying to justify and excuse every criticism the likes of Roger Ebert have lobbed at us? I’m going to go ahead and draw my line in the sand. Games have been art since at least 1994, when FFVI and System Shock 1 came out (I dare you to downplay the importance of FFVI’s opera scene. I double dog dare you.). If you’re too “respectable” to be ok with 1994, then you can go forward to 1998 when Thief, goddamn masterpiece from beginning to end, came out. By the way, Citizen Kane doesn’t hold up very well today, which is certainly not something you can say for Thief.
I know I’m coming across pretty harsh here, but I think someone should speak out for all the gamers who are getting increasingly angry and frustrated with the critical establishment’s unwillingness to defend the medium. I don’t agree with Yahtzee’s assertion that games are superior to film, but goddammit, you gotta admire him for having the balls to fight back. Focusing on commercialism is not a legitimate criticism. Lots of crappy games are made for a quick buck? Stop the presses! Have you guys seen what Hollywood makes? You think Nolan or Scorsese never made compromises in their films, their very best films, for the sake of appealing to a wider audience? Ignoring Sturgeon’s Law is not a valid criticism. You’re just repeating the rhetoric of people who have never heard of, much less played, games like Thief, Max Payne 2, Morrowind, or Analogue, and who see nothing but ads for the likes of Call of Duty.
Part of the film establishments distaste for games (other than that they’re new and thus evil) is that it’s hard to fit them into auteur theory, as if the more collaborative nature of game development is a bad thing. Which touches on the whole point of your article. Well, news flash, auteur theory is kinda bullshit even applied to film. With few and much heralded exceptions, directors are middlemen between writers and actors. Great films are much more collaborative and collective efforts than critics are willing to admit *COUGH*OrsonWellesdidn’tactuallywriteCitizenKanehejuststoleallthecreditforit*COUGH*.
Player control is not any more destructive of authoral intent than the isolation of the subject’s mind from the filming camera is destructive of psychological complexity (Movies can’t be art, remember? A camera can’t describe a scene the way an author with words can, and a camera can’t get inside a character’s head!). They just require an entirely different toolset for exploiting player control to full effect, a toolset whose development has been retarded by this inferiority complex. Instead of developing along our own lines we’re trying to be just like Hollywood and making games that aren’t actually games, so Ken Levine can pretend he’s Stanley Kubrick. This is the world you helped create! Congratulations.
Games might be elicit far stronger feelings simply by forcing the player to be a player instead of a passive viewer, might be far more effective at provoking thought over moral issues by forcing the player do the killing themselves if they select the violent option, might have greater depth that film simply because they combine the length and pacing of novels with the visual nature of film, but why talk about that when we can talk about how much they suck, or how faaaaaaar they have to go? No. NO. Playing Return to the Cathedral tells me something very different.
Dark Souls takes an approach that I’d like to see more of. There’s a story there of course, but it’s not so much a story as a framework. Not only that, but it’s easy enough to ignore for the most part. Actually “ignore” is not even the right word. Unless you’re really diligent and are paying attention, you won’t even be aware of much of the story. So not only can you miss much of the story, you have to work to even find it.
That’s why I say that Dark Souls has ruined the RPG for me. It makes the typical binary RPG “choices”, the same RPGs in which anyone and everyone is clamoring for you to fetch his lost frobozz, or kill all the whatsits in the sewerbasementdungeon, seem downright banal.
I’ve always looked for story in my games, and I’d like to see more of the Souls variety.
I hear you, Arouet, and I agree. In fact, if you read the column as saying “games have a long way to go” before they can be considered literature, then I did a poor job writing it and apologize, because that wasn’t what I intended to say at all.
Games should qualify as literature, provided we accept the role of the audience as different than that in other literary media. Roger Ebert’s argument against games as art is based on the assumption that authorial control is required and interpretation must be fixed. That’s not the case in games and needn’t be in art. Unintended meaning that you or I interpret in a game isn’t invalid the way it would be in media where authorial intent is more important.
I’ve argued that STALKER is about man’s relationship with God; that Half Life 2 is an allegory for the Iraq war; that Mass Effect is a polemic about tolerance. No clue if the authors would agree. In a game, my interpretation is more relevant, and maybe truer than theirs. Maybe they didn’t realize Half Life 2 was about Iraq until I told them.
As a film school graduate I’m a fan of auteur theory in film. The director, the editor, and the cinematographer have near-total control over a film’s impact. Auteurism has less role in game development, because the vision is usually much more collaborative. Even if the game’s lead is dictatorial, there’s only so much he or she can ensure, because the other people involved have far greater influence than your average lighting tech on a movie set.
At the same time, the author’s influence and vision is important in game development. Botch brings up Dark Souls, a great example of this. Hidetaka Miyazaki’s vision created that world, whether or not he wrote every word.
Take the best game, pull its story out, and compare it to the best novel. I agree with John Walker, it doesn’t hold a candle. And doesn’t need to. First, the role of story is different in games. Though a storytelling medium, the game structure is key, story supports it. Second, it’s unfair to assess media in pieces. You can’t judge a film based only on its soundtrack either, nor can you judge one when the soundtrack has been removed.
I came up with this article because I’ve found myself thinking the meaning I manufacture is more important to me than any meaning intended by developers. That doesn’t invalidate games as literature, just makes them unique, with no further to go. As you say, there are great examples out there – from Shadow of the Colossus to Thief and beyond. The “Citizen Kane” argument has become cliche – I really should edit that Shadow review – but we have absolutely had games of fantastic impact, and get more every year.
BUT, if I created the impression that I think less of games because their stories are different, that’s on me, and I’m glad you called it out!
Rereading your article I realize it was much more positive than it initially appeared to be; I was honestly responding more to Walker’s comments and Culture Clash articles you had previously written months or years past than this article itself.
The main message I’m seeing is that developers and publishers need to step up their game, which is a great if obvious message and one that’s had a generally positive influence in the past few years, particularly in the area of inclusiveness (though I am routinely stunned by the stupidity of executives who look at studies showing that almost half of all gamers are women and don’t think to themselves “Hey, maybe we should actually take advantage of that and make shitloads of money?” Even if frat boys are easier to sell crap to.).
But critics routinely go past that to downplaying or even implicitly disparaging everything that’s already been accomplished. I’ll be honest here: I think John Walker (and you) are completely wrong about Planescape: Torment and TLJ. Not even Guillermo del Toro would tell a story remotely as crazy as Torment. Could you imagine Avellone trying to pitch that thing to a film studio, no matter how open minded? Try to imagine the idea and not start giggling. And I’m sorry, but I can’t think of a better female protagonist in any film better than April Ryan. Against print this is obviously a tougher case, but games hold many of the same advantages over movies that books hold over movies – greater length and scope, allowing for a more natural and lifelike rhythm and much greater intellectual and psychological depth, and holy shit did Torment and TLJ exploit this to fullest effect.
What you’re implying here is that the gamers who hold certain games dearer to their hearts than any novel just have a natural emotional affinity to games, which compensates for the fact that the stories are inferior in and of themselves. Even if I believed that were true (which I don’t), is that due to the a) the inherit weakness of the medium, b) the smaller size and relative youth of the medium (so there just aren’t as many brilliant authors, using less developed skills) or c) institutional failings of the industry that discourage serious storytelling? Be sure you’re focusing on b and c and not a. I think you and other critics repeatedly cross that line into a. You and Walker make good points and I definitely want to see game developers and critics look at novels more. I just don’t like this “inferior until proven otherwise” mentality.
On another point, what I do consider flat out dumb is to say the common refrain that “most of the gaming industry has no interest pushing the medium”, and actually expect us to see this as noteworthy, much less a call to arms. Is that a sign we’re unworthy or a sign that we’ve made it? Art is and always will be a minority at best and a niche at worst in every medium, be it games, television, film, or the printed word. I’m sure film critics would like Hollywood to make blockbusters that are actually worth their analysis and commentary, so they could get more ordinary filmgoers to take interest in what they’re talking about, but you and they live with trying to polish and shine the diamonds they discover in the desert. It just seems a little silly to complain about all that sand, that’s all.
To make a larger point, I don’t think that games are really as different from other media than they appear to be. Don’t take my word for it – here’s a quote from Ursula K. le Guin (who happens to be my favorite authoress):
“As you read a book word by word and page by page, you participate in its creation, just as a cellist playing a Bach suite participates, note by note, in the creation, the coming-to-be, the existence, of the music. And, as you read and re-read, the book of course participates in the creation of you, your thoughts and feelings, the size and temper of your soul.”
This is different from gaming how?
I wonder if this clash between authorial intent and reader/player interpretation as if they’re some Zoroastrian good/evil duality fated to clash till the end of time has its origins in film, which happens to be the least interactive of all storytelling media (either that or the obsession with “intent” really took off with the French New Wave, and I support any theory which blames François Truffaut for the world’s problems). I can’t see any film director saying anything like that. That might explain why it’s the film intelligentsia that’s so pathologically set against us (combined with the natural reaction of no longer being the newest kid on the block anymore). Might also explain why game critics are so willing to accept their dogma, because so many of them were taught film criticism before moving over to games.
The point is that maybe games aren’t some freak from another planet but just the extreme end of a continuous distribution, so maybe we should stop seeing ourselves as freaks, like we have to prove ourselves before we can become a real boy. It’s starting to come across as some existential denial of our own freedom.
I can’t really find any fault with your defense of the medium, but I have to dispute at least one point – I never said anything remotely like “inferior until proven otherwise” (did I? I don’t think I did. I might have done so in other columns, I am prone to fits of pique). I don’t think games are inferior at all. They’re young as a medium, and there are growing pains, but every year we see ever more subtle, clever, nuanced work, and every year that work has more and more mainstream apppeal. Games are different, story in them has a different, arguably less important, role.
That’s not to say their stories are bad, or pointless, or anything inferior. I mean they shouldn’t be judged against the criteria used to judge narrative in novels or movies, where narrative plays a different role. For clarity let me give a different example:
You can’t watch The Godfather and say it’s not literature because it has no arias, or because the music drops off too often in favor of spoken dialogue. Not because movies are inferior, but because it’s unfair to judge movies using the criteria by which operas are judged.
Avellone has said that one of the struggles game narratives face is that games are structurally repetitive. That word has a negative connotation, but in game design it’s not a bad thing under most circumstances: you want recursive reward structures are fundamental in game design. In shooters you shoot things; you try to do maximum damage with minimum ammo by perfecting headshots and such. You fight many of the same enemy. Again and again and again. The more you do it, and the more creatively the game challenges you to do it, the more you probably enjoy the game. Repetitive, in a good way, a way other media rarely are.
My god, if they just tried to lift Torment out of itself an turn it into a movie? The amount of time running around Sigil, revisiting places you’ve already been? How many cranium rats you fight down in the sewers? That’s not what you’re advocating, that’s what some wrongheaded critics say games should do: “be movies.” But they’re not movies. A game structured exactly like a movie would be a horrible, confusing game, not because of passivity but because it would be constantly introducing new things and never returning to things it had just done.
I like that Ursula Le Guin quote – that’s beautiful. I wish more artists would say things like that, that we’re creating something together.
You’re right when you say I stray into the harshness sometimes. Maybe not here, but I’ve done it more than once elsewhere. On one hand, beating something that’s always fighting to improve is cruel and unnecessary, and shouldn’t come from gaming’s own critical establishment. On the other, I’d say some of that, from me, Walker, and others, is meant as a way to ensure no one ever gets satisfied. Meanspirited encouragement, maybe, along the lines of “it’s not good enough until it’s perfect and it’ll never be perfect,” but meant not to disparage so much as relentlessly push.
I don’t think games are freaks. I think they’re a legitimate literary art form, and I regret that Roger Ebert died not knowing what he was missing. But I also think that games are new – like comics and movies were once new – and any new medium brings differences to the table. You have to take those differences into account when interpreting the rules of “what’s literature.” Different is not necessarily freakish and certainly not bad. It just means it’s time for new rules.
I’ve always generally agreed with the sentiment Le Guin puts forth – even before I heard the quote some time ago – because to me it’s always seemed that literary criticism boils down to the question of what the novel (or whatever) means to the reader. Throughout my English major experience there were, of course, authorial intent dogmatists, who seemed much more concerned about what the author meant than anything, and that was, of course, sometimes an impossible position to really do much with if the author didn’t leave any notes or make any statements about what he or she meant. It’s all guesswork.
Better, though, were those discussions about how a text worked for us as readers – some of which certainly crossed into trying to decipher what the author was going for, sure – but the productive discussions were really about how everyone in the class understood the text personally, what things we took to be the same and what things read differently for different people. I agree that this is not dissimilar from the position games hold, though the nuts and bolts are different.
I think, as with many media before this, there’s a resistance from the dominant media to being associated with the upstarts, a sense that the new stuff is doing something “wrong,” such as letting the player muck about in the “author’s” stuff. Comics went through this. Film went through this. I suspect the novel went through this in some fashion, a few hundred years ago. They certainly went through some growing pains.
I think one of our problems is that we are stuck in seeing narrative through a fixed paradigm because of film and literature, one that is author-driven, when games (electronic and otherwise) tend to operate in a different paradigm. Years ago I went to the trouble of defining this other paradigm somewhat and have intended for ages to do a little piece about it here, so maybe I will sooner than later. Would be good to roll it out for some discussion.
Games are awesome! They don’t need to play second fiddle to other entertainment media, or justify their existence to them! I think I’ll go play one now!
A lot of what an artist does is repetition, working something over and over until they get it right. Painting, writing, music, sculpture, architecture, games, films. But the game player is maybe more directly partaking of that part of the creative experience instead of just witnessing it at a remove. Participation is crucial as Le Guin rightly points out, but repetition is a powerful thing too. A very different kind of engagement with art. Religion has used repetition since forever in its rituals as a way to en-trance. It always puzzled me that Ebert never picked up on that.
A lit blog columnist over at fictionwriterreview musing on the next Citizen Kane really, really, being a game.
It’s a muse, not a manifesto. Still reinforces my opinion that games maybe are closer kin to novels than to movies.