Once upon a game...


From what I’ve seen, and played, the videogame is still in its infancy as Story. I don’t say that to be critical so much as in anticipation of the possibilities that are likely to become fascinating realities in the near future. The videogame is still very much about delivering easy excitement and escape more than it’s about good storytelling. So far. In most game stories the hero is still very much an avatar or surrogate for the player's fantasies, allowing ordinary people like you and me the chance to overcome obstacles and to succeed at monumental tasks.

As Story, then, most videogames are still at a crude “wish fulfillment” stage. They’re all about winning. Like the stories little kids sometimes tell themselves: “… and then I killed all the monsters.” Stories crafted to give a reader/player a vicarious fantasy of accomplishment that they can’t (or would never try to achieve) in real life.

One could also compare this kind of success-based videogame story to popular genres like romance, or fantasy, or the increasingly popular hybrid of teen romance fantasy. Stories about people getting what they want more than anything in this world. Success. Approval. Love. That’s where the video game is at these days, and it isn’t surprising, since that seems to be the best way to sell something. Make the product about the consumer’s deepest desires.

A colleague of mine, Ted Bishop, likens the rise of the videogame as story to the rise of the novel in the 18th century. At that time the novel was thought of as the trash genre of literature. If you were a real writer you wrote in “noble” genres, like epic poetry (which, ironically enough, was often about great warriors, except that in most cases they died at the end). The novel was looked down on as mere hack writing for the masses. And most early novels were pretty bad. But there were a few gems of course which have stood the test of time, like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Stories not about gods, kings and warriors, but about ordinary people.

There have already been efforts to do something more groundbreaking and challenging with videogame stories. Writers have already begun to plumb the depth and richness of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and others. But I’m talking more about my hope and expectation that games will simply learn how to tell better stories, and that the videogame will see a branching into all kinds of genres. Much like the way the world of cinema has room not just for action-packed Hollywood blockbusters but films of much greater depth, richness, and strangeness.

In order to develop and grow as storytelling, videogame writing will have to do a number of things much better than it does now. In another post I will talk about some of those elements of Story and how they might transform the videogame in the years to come.


Unknown said...

It's true that most videogame stories are primitive by comparison to film or novels. And while this is slowly improving, there's a long way to go before you have your Citizen Kane of computer games. But what's easy to miss, and I think what's most important about video games, is their ability to let people make up their own stories within the game's narrative frame.

While the nominal narrative of a game might be crude, the player often has freedom within that narrative to make their own decisions and in effect create their own stories. Sometimes these are simple branching structures like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, but other times they are extremely complex emergent simulations, as in a strategy title like Civilization or a simulator like Sim City/The Sims. In these cases, the player is participating directly in the creation of their own storyline rather than passively consuming, and that experience can be extremely compelling.

The component building blocks may be simple or crude aspects of videogaming-- jumping, shooting, leveling up, fighting-- but when the player brings them together to tell his own story, the whole becomes greater than the sum of parts in their imagination. My Civilization game may just be a bunch of numbers and randomly generated maps, but to me it's a gripping narrative of international intrigue and betrayal, war and diplomacy: will those wily Babylonians break the treaty and invade Rome again before my secret plan to foment rebellion against their king comes to fruition?

So, I think that looking for traditional narrative in video games is to some extent a red herring. Videogames are at their best and most compelling not when they imitate movies or books, but when they use their unique abilities to let players generate their own stories.

Thomas Wharton said...

Thank you for the insightful observations, "Unknown." I was basing my thoughts about games and stories mainly on first-person action-type games like Skyrim. I haven't played a world-building game for a long time -- I had to give them up in order to have enough time for my own creative work!

Anyhow I think you make a very good point about these types of games. In some ways I feel more "immersed" in a world-building game because it leaves a lot more up to my own imagination. I have to generate more of the atmosphere, setting, character details, etc myself.

Much to think about...