Guerric Haché (Analysis/Reviews):

Headlines are notorious for being alarmist, attention-grabbing, and vastly oversimplified. People love to hate headlines, and Ian Bogost recently delivered quite well over at The Atlantic, with a piece entitled “Video Games Are Better Without Stories.” The article appears to be a reaction to Bogost playing What Remains of Edith Finch, with many words spent criticizing the concept of environmental storytelling as seen in that game and others, such as Gone Home. The article has of course provoked a great deal of reaction already, much of it centered around presenting examples of well-written or personally expressive games, and calling out Bogost’s dismissive comments about YA literature.

But there’s another angle here that’s interesting to me – the question of whether interactive narrative is and could be qualitatively different from linear narrative. Can games do anything with narrative that other media can’t do better? Bogost dismisses the idea that interactivity has anything novel to offer in the narrative realm, and I can’t help but disagree strongly with him on this. I’d like to explore one possible angle of response, but first, his conclusion in his own words:

What are games good for, then? Players and creators have been mistaken in merely hoping that they might someday share the stage with books, films, and television, let alone to unseat them. To use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose, but it’s also an unambitious one. Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories.

I may disagree, but it’s not prima facie absurd to think the interactivity of video games could be inherently at odds with traditional ideas of story. Add too many systems or give the player too many options, and a plot’s linearity and pacing and high-level structure could collapse. Enforce the plot’s linearity and pacing and structure, and the player’s agency could be suffocated. This is not at all a new hypothesis, but it seemed to be the one Bogost was advancing with his inflammatory headline. Unfortunately, it turns out the future of video games he’s stumping for is actually even bleaker. Continuing the same paragraph:

Instead, games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects. Of ordinary life. Take a ball and a field: you get soccer. Take property-based wealth and the Depression: you get Monopoly. Take patterns of four contiguous squares and gravity: you get Tetris. Take ray tracing and reverse it to track projectiles: you get Doom. Games show players the unseen uses of ordinary materials.

From someone who just claimed storytelling was unambitious, this is a depressingly uninspiring set of examples. Bogost isn’t just saying that linear stories aren’t the most interesting thing games can do. He appears to be saying the building blocks of stories – characters and psychology, worlds and environmental phenomena, cultures and values – are themselves not the elements games should be structured around. Interactivity with everyday objects and ordinary materials should rule the day; physics and mathematics, in short.

He gestures vaguely at the (very real) difficulties games have had in the past with creating interactive characters, but then latches on to the technique of environmental storytelling as though it were the final word on why games are an ineffective storytelling medium. He even brings up Façade, though he sees in it not an embryonic example of what games could be but a lesson in how interactivity undermines the idea of an authored plot. And he frames the oft-cited idea of the Holodeck as an overwrought desire for linear narrative, which to me seems to deeply misunderstand why people dream about a Holodeck in the first place.

The Holodeck metaphor itself comes with some baggage, of course. Star Trek depicted the Holodeck as presenting holo-novels written by authors – there’s an embedded assumption of linearity and authorship in the language used, but I think “the Holodeck” as a rhetorical object in gaming discussions has come to mean something else, something game designer Chris Crawford has been talking about for years. Occasionally acerbic and not especially high-profile, Crawford is still somewhat (in)famous for his 1992 “Dragon Speech,” where he laid out his desire to pursue the creation of narrative-focused video games driven by systemic rules, player agency, and psychologically complex non-player characters.

I think what Bogost misses about the narrative appeal of the Holodeck, or of Crawford’s dragon, is the very idea of an engrossing narrative experience without a guiding plot, but otherwise filled with the fundamentally human building blocks that make narrative so much more interesting to us as a species than ball games and square puzzles. It’s the ability to enter a seamless world populated with thinking characters and dynamic objects, and to participate in or instigate events that are unscripted, relying instead on the intersection of player and NPC agency with the systemic rules of the space. Bogost, in clinging to linear plots as his core understanding of narrative, doesn’t seem interested in what new narrative experiences games might create with the same building blocks other media use to create plots.

While Bogost points to soccer and Tetris and Doom as illustrations of games’ unique strengths, I would respond by pointing to games such as Façade, Dwarf Fortress, The Sims, Morrowind or EVE Online – all examples of games that provide narrative experiences other media clearly cannot. Certainly, this open-ended design isn’t particularly common – most games with a narrative focus either implement linear plots or branching storylines à la Bioware and Telltale (a whole other type of interactive narrative Bogost ignores). This kind of potential is far from fully realized, but there are incremental steps happening all around us, from the Nemesis system in Shadow of Mordor to the chatbot AI of Event[0]. These are all incipient examples of a much broader field that could develop if more game designers work in this direction.

After the fact, players do tell stories about these games that are structured around a plot, but the experiences as they occur are not informed by a plot. Instead, they are defined by the rules-based interaction of narrative building blocks that speak to our core human interest in stories, and transcend any individual media: characters, settings, objects, themes. These games clearly provide a kind of narrative experience, even if it isn’t a plot in the traditional sense – perhaps there isn’t a even a suitable word yet. It’s more akin to LARPing, or make-believe, or improv, or even daydreaming.

So what can games do with narrative that other media cannot? Bogost thinks there aren’t any convincing answers to this question, but I think there are many. One such answer could be that they can provide us with the fundamental building blocks of story and let us figure out how we want to stack them up. They can give light and sound and tangibility to our make-believe. It’s somehow fitting that in moving away from linear scripts, one approach to game design might ultimately provide an opportunity for narrative itself to go off-script, wandering off the beaten path of plot and story structure into a world where settings and characters and laws of nature grow wild and mingle, untamed by the structure of a plot.