Events Versus Stories

I’d love to see a day when video games aren’t compared with movies and books.  At least not compared on the basis of being cinematic or having a good narrative.  Those are both qualities that a game could exhibit, but will never do as well as a book or a movie could.  Now, that’s not to say that games can’t have artistic merit, or that they are inferior to books and movies as a medium.  But no one is going to be able to make the case that games can be art by hijacking the lexicons of other mediums.  The point that’s always counted in the favor of games is interactivity.  You can actually do something in a game as opposed to just having to pay attention.  But hey, Microsoft Word is interactive, and interactivity just cedes control from the person telling the story (the designer, or writer) to the player.  Why should anyone bother with games when the same story could be told by a book or a movie, which requires no work from the audience to reach the conclusion?  After all, I shouldn’t have to help the writer to tell a story well.

Narrative and cinematic quality aren’t what video games should be striving for.  And they aren’t what we identify as being the strong point of games.  Take for instance: Aeris’ death in Final Fantasy VII.  (God damn it, I won’t call her Aerith.)  What if Aeris weren’t a playable character, and instead was just a NPC tagging along with your party?  Would her death have meant the same thing to you?  Speaking for myself, I don’t think I would have cared much at all about her death if that had been the case.  The difference between Aeris being a playable, versus a non-playable character, doesn’t affect the game’s narrative or cinematic cut-scene at all, but it changes the impact of the game pretty dramatically.  Final Fantasy VII’s story isn’t all that awesome on its own.  Consider this though: many people die every day, the loss of those people is incredibly affective.  Those aren’t, in the context of art, very good stories.  They are affective though because of the investment that people have in one another.  They spend a great deal of time together, help each other, and share their joys or burdens.  It is life though, and it is very intense, whether or not someone decides to write a story, or write a book about it.

This is what a game can capture in a way that’s different from a book or a movie.  A game can be a microcosm of our experiences in life.  They allow the audience to invest more than their attention into something, be it an idea, a cause, or a person.  Aeris’ death meant something to the player because they had been able to spend a great deal of time helping her gain strength and skill while trying to accomplish goals we as player’s were generally sympathetic to.  Her sacrifice was meaningful because we invested in her through the game, and she decided that losing her life, and sacrificing our efforts was the best thing that she could do.  For those who were sympathetic to her goals, her decision and loss were very affective.    Not everyone will be that interested in investing the time though, or willing to help her “cause” but it’s the same with literature and film as well.  Not everyone is going to identify with a character or genre enough to offer their attention in the way the writer wishes.

It is something that can sound pretty stupid.  Why should anyone actually invest time and effort into helping a fictional character accomplish a fictional task?  They may just simply enjoy the tasks they are given.  And certainly, investing time and energy even into a fictional task isn’t a waste of time as long as it is not confused with the people and tasks of reality.  The player may be interested in experiencing something that they otherwise are unable to given their circumstances.  Perhaps to imagine they are traveling the world, acting as a father, participating in a dangerous sport.  Paul Bloom can explain it far more eloquently than I can though. (Edit: article was found via Roger Ebert’s twitter feed, and was mistakenly attributed to him.)

We don’t need to focus on a game’s story, or it’s cinematic value so much.  We probably don’t even need to focus on the artistic quality of video games as much as we do.  Instead, focus on the events that unfold relative to the player and the impact on them, which may have more to do with psychology than it does art at this point in time.

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