More thoughts on game stories


[The following is once more a brain dump into my “public notebook.”  Consider yourself warned.]

Perhaps it’s because I recently played The Stanley Parable, or participated in the August #BoRT topic “What’s the story?” but I’ve been mulling over the value of game narratives.  In December, I’ll have been attempting to write about games for five years, and during that time I will have evaluated many games based in part on that criteria: how does a game perform where the narrative is held to a standard similar to that of other storytelling mediums?

I wanted to a consistent standard (as much as possible) when reviewing these games, but it created a sense of dissonance that was difficult for me to reconcile.  I was putting games into different buckets: games that should be judged first by their narrative quality, versus those which should be first judged by gameplay, versus games that might have a flawed narrative but do something interesting with it to compensate for it.  All the while I was trying to judge all of these games as if they were all in the same category.  Even trying to come up with a well defined set of “buckets” was a vague and arbitrary process.  I always wanted to write about what the player saw and did at a very high level, but this underlying conflict wasn’t something that I could reconcile.

The last game I tried to review using this criteria was Final Fantasy VII, which received the highest score I could award.  And it was at that point I felt like it didn’t work anymore.  Final Fantasy VII is an excellent game, but my criteria for judging games was disconnected from any consistent standard.  I’ve tweaked the scoring formula several times over now.  So now I write about what I play here, under no illusion that I’m providing criticism based on anything aside from my own opinions.

With all that in mind, I’ve also begun to see game stories as over-valued, or identified incorrectly as a key aspect to what has made some of the most notable games great.  The story of Final Fantasy VII is a tangled mess which is lousy when it stands on its own.  But from the story, you can connect all of its elements together into one idea.  It serves as a utility to the game’s success rather than the facilitator of success.  And the titles included in The Compilation of Final Fantasy VII makes that pretty clear.

Games don’t tell stories particularly well, and my feeling at this point is that trying to solve that problem will be detrimental to the medium as a whole.  There’s room for a storytelling genre for games, but I don’t think it will be representative of games are best suited to achieve.  In other storytelling mediums, the amount of stimuli being presented roughly negatively correlates with the amount of time required to complete the story.  A book only presents words and the audience can comfortably spend many hours consuming that story.  A film engages the audience through its narrative, sound, and imagery, but can only reasonably expect to maintain engagement for two or three hours at most.  I think that ideally a story-driven game would be even shorter than that in order to effectively engage the audience, or perhaps it would be broken up into discrete pieces which contain their own arc as The Walking Dead had.

Where games are best suited to succeed is in communicating messages.  This can be done through storytelling, but there are other valid methods that can accomplish the same goal in ways that are more conducive to game design.  If you were to press gamers to describe what makes their favorite games great, they may start by describing the game’s story or world, but it slowly come to focus that what’s communicated to them in particular moments by the game that makes it great.  And the rest of the game serves to frame those moments accordingly.

Take Canabalt for instance.  There is no story, there is no character, but it became popular for what it communicated so succinctly: a sense of desperation and dread of what’s to come which can be seen far off in the distance.  It’s something that we see so often in blockbuster movies, but the urgency and concentration the game demands from the audience makes it feel more real.  To try and bolt a story and character onto the game would dilute the message it communicates and rob the game of its effectiveness.  It is a moment, not a narrative.  And its those moments that make larger games great.

There are a number of games that I’d want to revisit with this revised sentiment on game narratives.  I’m not sure if I’d want to write scored reviews again though as it’s exhausting trying to keep the rules straight.  We’ll see what exactly the next five years will bring.

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