Jake Theriault (Features):
What begins as an exercise in reductionism quickly descends into a gross distortion of gaming industry as a whole. Georgia Institute of Technology professor and Play Anything author Ian Bogost really riled-up the gaming populace recently with an article titled “Video Games Are Better Without Stories.” Not only does Bogost claim that narrative storytelling in games is inherently flawed, but he claims that “the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films,” and asks “are [games] better stories than the more popular and proven ones in the cinema, on television, and in books?”
In the summation of his book Play Anything, Bogost is cited as an ‘award-winning game designer’ (for his 2010 release A Slow Year), which lends an air of credibility to his claim that video games are not an adequate storytelling medium. And maybe at this point you’re remembering that Doom creator John “Story-in-videogames-is-like-story-in-porn” Carmack once said something to the same effect, but I’d still have to disagree.
Bogost posits that ‘environmental storytelling’ is some sort of game design cop-out, a fraudulent method of story fabrication; sterile in its presentation of the story the developers have sent the player on. Its chief deception is in convincing the player that they actually matter to the tale being told. He cites BioShock’s recorded messages as one notable offender. He asks, “are the resulting interactive stories really interactive, when all the player does is assemble something from parts… and most of all, are they better stories than the more popular and proven ones in cinema, on television, and in books?”
Let’s step back for just a moment and remind ourselves that all art is inherently subjective, and what’s pleasing to me might not be pleasing to you. I get genuine enjoyment from playing No Man’s Sky from time to time. I know that’s an unpopular opinion, but I will be the last person to tell you that you’re wrong for not enjoying NMS. Similarly, Bogost doesn’t really have any ground to stand on when he says that there are better and more popular stories being told on large and small screens.
The minute we bring the word “better” into the discussion, we throw objectivity to the wind and reduce ourselves to subjective interpretation of what we ourselves perceive to be “better” or “worse.” I have a list of videogames longer than my arm that I’d say have better stories than any of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies (an unarguably popular film series, by box office standards). Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V made over $1 billion in its first five days on the market, and earlier this year passed 75 million units in sales. That’s a sort of popularity that many Hollywood executives only dream of.
Along this path, the article goes on under the assumption that the whole industry of video game design has a terrible case of Hollywood-envy. The only thing that a lowly game developer is striving for is to be like those bright shiny movies that come off the silver screen and into our imagination. Now, while some developers may indeed function within this paradigm, it is a gross generalization of the industry as a whole.
The prime falsehood presented in Bogost’s article is the idea that video games are an unsound medium for storytelling, and that it’s unreasonable to keep pushing for stories in video games because it’s being done better so many other places. But why can’t we say that for all different types of media? Should musicians not tell stories because books do it better? Or are musicians just desperate to be on the same philosophical level as authors? Did Neil Peart only write the lyrics to 2112 because he really wanted to be like Ayn Rand, and not because he wanted to make good music? Disasterpeace’s Level, though only 45 minutes long and entirely lyric-less, tells a breathtakingly captivating story through music. Should we cast it aside because another medium could’ve told the story better?
Maybe it’s gaming’s relative youthfulness that compels Bogost to see it as unworthy of its entertainment predecessors. But it’s as worthy as any other medium to bear the burden of conveying meaning to its audience. The oldest of all human traditions is storytelling. From cave paintings to sculpture, from eight-millimeter film to IMAX, human beings have a built-in desire to tell stories. And who are we to say that games shouldn’t be part of that rich tradition? Anything can, and should, be able to tell a story. The design of your phone tells a story. The construction of your home tells a story. Not only would it be wrong to look at games and say, “no, that’s not worth it,” it would be a huge waste. The potential of games to captivate and engage is second to none, and from the groans of our earliest consoles to the dazzling systems we have available to us today, so many beautiful stories have been presented to us, and I can’t wait to see what else is on the horizon.