Video games are stupid. Throw story at them.

Taylor Clark has a storming piece up on Kotaku today. He’s right: most popular video games are dumb. And that’s fine, so long as we don’t assume that’s the only thing games can do.

To accept childish dreck without protest-or worse, to defend the dreck’s obvious dreckiness just because the other parts of a game are cool-is to allow the form to languish forever.

Yes. Preach it. Preach it also to readers who love Dan Brown’s fiction in spite of the writing, and everyone who overlooks the hour-long goodbye scenes at the end of the Lord of the Rings films.

Most popular things are dumb, not just video games

Video games are not unique in being collaborative creations in which many elements are brought together to form a whole; nor are they alone in being often poorly integrated, with areas of brilliance marred by areas of dreck (or indeed whole areas of dreck occasionally elevated by moments of brilliance). All media have these problems.

But video gaming is such a small field at present. Our examples of brilliance and of dreck come from a depressingly limited pool of options, especially when we examine big-budget titles. Truly stand-out works in any field are rare. Most media plays to the majority. In video gaming, it is the mindless that has proven to sell well – so mindless most games remain.

Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) applies not just to things being bad, but also to things being dumb, crude, silly. It’s not just video games; it’s also everything else. There shouldn’t be any shame for gamers in saying: yes, a lot of games are dumb. A lot of everything is dumb. A lot of dumb things are fun.

But Clark’s right that by saying video games can only be dumb, we’re doing the medium a great disservice. In the 18th century there was a widely held perception that novels could only be dumb, until classics began to emerge and a canon formed. Video gaming has been around for a much shorter time and has much farther to go before it reaches maturity – technology is still not stable, barriers to entry are still falling rapidly, the business model is still all over the place, and all those things impact the kinds of games that are produced and the processes by which they’re made. But video games can, and should, aspire to greatness, both mechanically and narratively – and ideally, both at once.

Narrative and gameplay should be the same thing

Matthew Burns, who’s worked on several big-budget games, says he doubts that such a thing is possible given the current climate. There’s a rather circular argument here. The kicker quote:

it is extremely difficult— maybe impossible— to come up with a story and characters that, when placed within the context of most current video games, don’t feel inherently silly

Most current video games are inherently silly, therefore it’s impossible to put anything on top of the silliness to produce something that’s less silly. Well – yes. There’s an assumption here about the place of writing, story and characterisation in games – that it’s not an inherent part of the context of games, but rather something added on top. But if you start from the premise that your game is about hyperviolent destruction of mythical monsters, you’ve made a lot of decisions about the story and the characterisation already. Even the best writers won’t be capable of making a game deep, believable, complex or realistic if the gameplay is fighting against that narrative at every turn. See also: GTA4.

Gameplay and narrative shouldn’t simply inform each other. They should be inextricable from each other. Games that aspire to being well written can’t just plaster story on top of mechanic like wallpaper. It has to be mixed into the mortar, built into the foundations. It doesn’t matter whether you’re gunning for embedded or emergent story, froth or experiential narrative or whatever – you can’t slap it on top of gameplay like an afterthought, because gameplay mediates the entire experience.

If you’re playing a different story than the one you’re being told, then the game can’t attain that coveted, if ill-defined, goal of comprehensive intelligence. It’ll always be fractured; no matter how carefully the cracks are hidden, it won’t ring true.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

7 thoughts on “Video games are stupid. Throw story at them.”

  1. Yes yes yes yes yes. Games writers keep going on about this. I can’t tell you how depressing it is to be called into a meeting about a game and told that my job is to “wrap a story around” pre-existing gameplay. The only way to do this well is to involve writers/storytellers right from the start, to give story a place at the table and to keep thinking about what you’re trying to produce until it works for *both* gamplay/level design *and* story.

    I’m going to keep saying this till the cows come home: games motivate action, stories give *meaning* to that action. There’s no intrinsic problem with meaningless action: Tetris gets on fine with no meaning. But if you want people to feel genuinely emotionally invested you need to be involving a storymaker from the moment you start *thinking* about your game. Otherwise the things you’re being asked to do and the meaning of the things you’re being asked to do will always feel at odds with each other (“so I’m supposed to be this by-the-book cop, but I don’t have any problem ramming my car into lampposts, passers-by, other cars?” *cough* LA Noire *cough*).

    Like they say on Extra Credits, we’re too used to praising *competence* in videogame stories as if it were genius.

    1. games motivate action, stories give *meaning* to that action

      Oh gosh yes, this exactly. And it doesn’t matter whether the story is embedded in the game itself, told by the game, or told about the game afterwards – the net effect is to give meaning to the events of the game. Yes. Brilliant.

      I think a lot of the time, game makers make decisions about story that look as though they’re about gameplay. Deciding that your main player character will be humanoid, will interact with the world mostly by shooting/jumping/rolling a ball around, will be able to drive a car – these are story decisions. The manner in which they do all these things, how those actions are designed – those are story decisions too. It’s not possible to divorce story from those sorts of decisions, and trying to do that tends to lead to, well, LA Noire. Or Uncharted, in which I’m Nathan Drake, loveable, charming, remorseless mass murderer…

  2. “the net effect is to give meaning to the events of the game.”

    This is really intriguing to me – and possibly slightly tangential, but given my interest in identifying the ‘events’ in a game/story/whatever (to whatever fidelity is desirable/possible), I’m wondering what it is that gives meaning to the events – and, what you mean by ‘meaning’ in this case…obviously I’m thinking of the meaning being some form of linkages to other events or other aspects – I’m sure it’s more than that, though. In the end, *if* we could identify/represent events, then what’s next – giving them meaning – so I’m interested in exploring *how* to do that (particularly in a webby way..)

    1. My view: meaning is human, and is different for each player. Meaning isn’t something that can be externally imposed – it’s something born in the interaction between each individual and a text/artwork/game/piece of music. Post-Death-of-the-Author, it’s hard to argue that there’s a canonical meaning that can be externally imposed – interpretations are multifarious and vary hugely between people. So in my opinion when it comes to story, you can only really point up potential meanings and interpretations of events, and summarise loose consensus – the exact experience will be different for everyone. Even in very shallow narratives. Telling a story in a game, or structuring a game so that stories emerge, allows people to generate meaning from it.

      Er. If that makes sense.

  3. Perfect sense, thank you 🙂

    And I totally agree – I’d definitely not want to externally (and/or *forcefully*) impose meaning. What I want is a nice webby tool that allows me to create/store those interactions between individuals & works – so that they can be pointed to, compared, shared, summarised etc – ‘cos that feels natural to the medium that I’m interested in*

    *Totally off topic now, sorry.

  4. Man. If you want to talk about “what is meaning” we’ll be here forever. But a few things that feed into it:

    – character. people you like. people who have conflicting motivations. people who ‘read’ as *real* not just a paper-thin personality plastered over a game function (“I’m the Princess! I exist as a prize to be rescued!” “I’m the shooter, I shoot things!”). Creating real-feeling characters is 90% of everything in stories, I think. And when the characters feel real then the stuff that interests them feels important. Save them, help them, rebel against them, fight them, love them, betray them, take care of them, listen to them, argue with them, get stuff for them, work alongside them: if the characters feel real then doing these things has meaning.

    – *values*. What do you believe in? What do people believe in? What are we fighting for, or against? Equality, justice, freedom, love, friendship, imagination, forgiveness, absolution, survival, the right to just enjoy high school without all these vampires getting in the way. Actually it’s better to aim for *smaller* values than large ones, because they’re more believable. “Save the universe” gets old when your players don’t really believe you’d destroy the universe (or that you’d allow them to save it). It’s also hard to care about the whole universe in the abstract. “Save this one guy who you’ve come to respect” feels real. Have something you yourself value as a storyteller, and strive to put that value into your work. That’s meaning.

    – causation. Seeing the things you do in your gameplay have an actual effect, a proper effect. Not just “some of the things you do have an effect”, but EVERY TIME YOU TAKE AN ACTION, that has an effect of some sort. No more “oh yeah, it’s fine to kill those civillians, as long as you also complete this story segment” – you need to see the causation in everything you’re doing and everything you do. This follows from that. I have to scale this wall and jump over this chasm because of those value-based things that that character I care about just told me. It makes sense for me to do that: there’s no *obviously simpler way* to deal with the same problem. And I’m doing that because of onward causation: I know what I’m hoping to achieve when I get to the far side of that chasm, and either I’m going to get to do it or some story event will prevent me from doing it and take me in an exciting new direction. I won’t suddenly stumble on a solution through luck or coincidence, I won’t find myself randomly clicking around hoping for the best. *cough* LA Noire *cough*.

    This is just the beginning of meaning, but if all games always did these things (and ESPECIALLY the first one) we’d be in better shape.

  5. I should say. Creating real-feeling characters is *really difficult* and even TV dramas and novels struggle to do it consistently and well. So many shows have a few ‘real’ characters and too many ‘stock’ ones. This is not an easy ask. But think about it this way: imagine sitting down to have a conversation with Stringer Bell, or President Barlett, or Willow Rosenberg. Imagine telling them about your life and chatting to them. You can imagine it, right?
    Now try imagining having a conversation with John Marston.

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